May 8, 2007
I wrote the following for my “Storm Front” article for “Fighting Spirit” Magazine, back in September, and it is being reproduced with permission from Uncooked Media Ltd.
I’ve been asked many times if I thought the business is better, now that we are open about the nature of our business (it being Sports Entertainment and a “work”) or whether it was better back in the day, during the “kayfabe” era (when we still insisted the business was real). I’ve never really given the question much thought before, figuring, there was no point; it’s not like we can go back in the closet. The cat, as they say, is out of the bag. I’ve been giving this question a bit more thought recently however, and while I still feel there is no way of going back, I can’t help but think that some of the magic is gone from the business today, and that at least on some level the business was a little better, back when people believed.
When I broke into the business, in the summer of 1990, kayfabe was still in full force. Most people suspected the business was “fake” (for lack of a better term), but everyone with in the industry still steadfastly denied it. People in the business protected the true nature of the business as best they could and heels and baby faces were pretty much forbidden from being seen in public together.
I had thought this was absurd, when I first broke in, because I was never a “mark” (one who believed the business was real), but in camp Keith Hart explained to me that, most of the people who think wrestling is “fake” have some degree of doubt and as long as we can preserve that doubt we are preserve the magic of our industry. This made sense to me and I protected the business whole-heartedly from that day on. Apart from my wife and students that I trained, I never admitted the true nature of the business to anyone.
That all changed for me in the fall of 1997 with the Bret Hart, Montreal screw job. Kayfabe had been slowly chipping away at that point anyway but Montreal really blew the doors off and Survivor Series was the never going back point for the industry and kayfabe. After the Montreal screw job both Bret Hart and Vince McMahon did major media interviews defending their positions from Montreal and talked openly about what the “finish” was supposed to be, and why Bret should or shouldn’t have done the “job” to Shawn Michaels at Survivor Series.
At this point I figured there was no point in protecting the business any longer. Everyone had just seen the World Champion and the owner of the biggest wrestling organization in the world admitting the business was “fake” on national television. Wrestling was “officially” out of the closet at that point and there was no going back. Oddly enough, the popularity of wrestling went through the roof after Montreal and despite not having preserved any of the “magic” of our business; wrestling was more popular than ever.
Not only did people not care if it was real or fake, they seemed more readily willing to embrace the business now that we were completely open and honest about what wrestling really was. I think fans liked the fact that we were no longer trying to con them into believing our product was real, and were more willing to accept wrestling for what it was. This was the kick off of the Austin era and the hottest period in the history of this business. The Monday Night Wars were going strong and more people were watching wrestling than at any point during the “kayfabe” years and the Hulkamania boom. From a business standpoint coming out of the closet was definitely the right thing to do. The business is far more popular today and makes way more money than in the old kayfabe days.
That being said, I recently watched the “Legends of World Class: The History of World Class Championship Wrestling” DVD and it made me long for the kayfabe era. World Class Championship Wrestling only existed during the kayfabe days and watching the match clips from that era reminded me of the magic of this business, or perhaps more accurately, the magic it used to have. The whole DVD was fantastic, but what struck me and reminded me of the magic, was the clips of old angles and how much heat they generated.
There was this one angle with the Fabulous Freebirds when they first started in World Class and they attacked one of the Von Erich boys (I don’t recall if it was David or Kevin) stomping on his hand trying to break it. The Von Erichs used the Claw hold for a finish and breaking his hand would neutralize this finish maneuver. The crowd was absolutely rabid when the Freebirds attacked and the building seemed close to rioting before the baby faces made the save. The crowd didn’t just like and admire the Von Erichs, they genuinely loved them, so when the Freebirds attacked, it was like they were attacking the fans own family. The crowd reacted like you would if someone broke into your own home and attacked your family. To the fans the Freebirds weren’t performers carrying out a great storyline, they were genuinely evil men trying to destroy their hero.
You never get heat like that anymore, not real white-hot heat. It is nearly impossible to be a great heel and generate real heat anymore. If you are great at being a heel, fans know you are just being a good heel and generally appreciate you for it. When heels attack baby faces today the crowd more often than not just looks up the ramp waiting for a baby face to make the save. Crowds cheer and boo the performance but they don’t adore and despise the performers like they used to. Fans will pay to see stars have great matches but it’s never to see a wrong avenged, or a hero prevail in the end, like it was back in the day.
It was that gut primal emotion that was the magic of this business, and when we came out of the closet and admitted it was “fake” that magic was lost. When fans believed it was real they were more invested emotionally and it was a different atmosphere that doesn’t exist today. I got to experience a little of that emotion during my career but watching that old footage from World Class, I wish I’d been around for just a little bit more of it. By the time I was a major player in this industry the cat was out of the bag, and the magic was slipping away.
My run in Hanover, Germany for CWA-Catch in 1995 was probably the most magical time of my career; kayfabe was in full effect, and I was getting a strong push working programs with Danny Collins and Fit Finlay. Our match quality was as high as any point in my career and the emotional level was off the charts too; it was the perfect combination and because of that one of the favourite times from my career.
There is no going back, and the business on the whole is far better off post kayfabe, but part of me wishes there was a way we could have our cake and eat it too. The popularity and wide spread acceptance of today with some of the magic from yesteryear.