Breaking Kayfabe

July 5th, 2010

I wrote the following for my “Storm Front” article for “Fighting Spirit” Magazine, back in April, and it is being reproduced with permission from Uncooked Media Ltd.

I recently did a TV interview for The Fight Network here in Canada. Fight Network is a combat sports channel based in Toronto and they were in Calgary shooting a documentary about Bret Hart’s return to the WWE. While they were in town they stopped by my Storm Wrestling Academy to do a short piece on the school and get my thoughts on Bret’s return for the documentary.

When we were talking about Bret’s return they asked me why I thought “Montreal” was such a big moment in our business; why do we still remember and care about it today. My answer was that for me it was the glass breaking moment in the business that killed kayfabe. In my opinion that was the moment that the wrestling business came out of the closet and opening admitted what it truly was to the world. There had been many cracks in the glass before that point but I believe that that was the day the kayfabe glass was permanently shattered for so many people. After Montreal both Bret Hart and Vince McMahon (arguably the 2 biggest names in the Industry at that time) went on national television opening discussed how that was not the “planned finish” going into the match, and openly discussed the true nature of our sport. It was the day Kayfabe died, and a moment I will remember for ever. I had protected the business diligently until then, but decided that if Bret Hart and Vince McMahon where going to openly admit wrestling was a work, there was no point in me trying to convince anyone otherwise.

I could likely write an entire article just talking about that, but it was the follow up question that really got me thinking and ultimately inspired this article. The follow up question was: “Was coming out of the closet good or bad for the business?” It’s a question that has been asked many times, “Is the business better off now or better of back in the Kayfabe days?” There are people who sit very passionately on both sides of this question, so before I give you my answer lets take a look at both sides of the argument, because both sides produce very convincing arguments.

The business is better off post kayfabe argument is an easy one. If you use Montreal as the water shed moment when kayfabe died you need only look at the business boom that followed. The Attitude era in the WWF and the Monday Night Wars can be directly attributed to the breaking of kayfabe. The business came clean and admitted to its fan base what it really was. There was no more shame in admitting you were a wrestling fan, because wrestling openly admitted it was entertainment so fans no longer had to worry about others looking down on them for being wrestling fans. I honestly believe coming clean was the key to our industry gaining main stream acceptance. No one felt like anyone was trying to pull the wool over their eyes so they were willing to accept and even embrace the Sports Entertainment industry for what it was, great entertainment. TV ratings went through the roof, PPV buy rates were huge, live event were selling out, pro-wrestling became a legitimate form of main stream entertainment, and wrestlers were making more money than anyone in the history of this business ever had. How could anyone think the death of Kayfabe could be anything but a good thing?

Like any good argument, there is always another side to the story. You need only read Jim Cornette’s Midnight Express 25th Anniversary Scrapbook, or listen to a Jim Cornette interview to hear a very compelling argument for the wrestling business being better off back in the kayfabe days. One could argue that the post Montreal “Wrestling Boom” is over and business has been deteriorating ever since. Fans don’t care about the product like they used to. During the territory days (you know back during the kayfabe era) there were far more wrestling fans following the sport on TV and attending live events. When fans truly believed in their wrestling angles/storylines, programs legitimately drew money. Hot angles drew sellout crowds week after week, month after month, in the same towns all over North America. Stampede Wrestling would run Western Canadian arenas; World Class Championship Wrestling had Texas, the AWA ran Minnesota, Deep South Wrestling ran Louisiana, and so on all over North America. There were literally millions of wrestling fans across North America who cared enough about their pro-wrestling to go out and pay to see wrestling events on a monthly and sometimes even weekly basis.

Today WWE runs major cities like Chicago, LA, and New York maybe 3 to 4 times a year, with others cities getting hit only once. Fans don’t care enough to attend more than that and when you compare crowd reaction between then and now the comparison gets even worse. Watch some old WCCW matches from the Sportatorium in Dallas and feel the crowd heat that was generated on a regular basis in a kayfabe enriched environment. There is nothing like that today, and without kayfabe most would argue there never will be. There were more fans, they were more passionate, they attended more shows, and spent more money, therefore the business was healthier during kayfabe.

Both arguments can’t be true, can they? Well they both are and they both aren’t. I firmly believe coming clean was a good thing, it provided an acceptance that took wrestling to another level yet I also believe fans don’t care like they used to and because of that they aren’t attached to the product enough to draw the kind of money at the gate the industry once did.

The problem lies in the misplacement of blame and the assumption that fan’s lack of caring is solely due to the death of Kayfabe. I think the problem is not that fans know wrestling is a work; it’s that those in charge of booking/writing wrestling have gotten lazy and started treating it like it is a work. The attitude became, we aren’t trying to fool anyone, and they know its just entertainment so we don’t need to make sure it all makes sense. You would not believe that amount of times I was given the excuse, “It’s just wrestling, it’s fake, don’t worry about it” when questioning details of angles I was involved in and to me that is the real problem. Just because fans know it isn’t real, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t still treat it like its real.

When wrestling is done right fans still care: Kurt Angle vs. Samoa Joe with the serious build tripled the usually TNA buy rate. HHH vs. Dave Batista at WrestleMania 21 was huge. Fans still want to get caught up in their wrestling; bookers/writers just have to let them. We don’t need to kayfabe fans to get them emotionally attached to their wrestling, we just need those who write/book wrestling to hold themselves to the standards those who booked in the kayfabe era did. If we can do that we might just get the best of both worlds.