A tribute to kayfabe wrestlers and modern-era performers
By Alex Diamond
It’s a widely acknowledged fact that pro wrestling is scripted. The charming concept of Kayfabe, the belief that professional wrestling was real, died in 1996, nine years before I was born, with the curtain call. Even if I hadn’t seen Razor Ramone hug Diesel at Madison Square Garden, my belief in the legitimacy of the “sport” would have been crushed when the Undertaker — a supposedly undead mortician who specialized in casket matches — wrestled the gold glitter-covered drag queen Goldust three days later for the WWF Intercontinental Championship. This was 59 years after Marcus Griffin exposed pro wrestling with his Fall Guys expose. Kayfabe managed to survive in pockets between 1937 and 1996, but the introduction of the larger-than-life gimmicks Vince McMahon was so fond of essentially finished the job Griffin had started.
Kayfabe, the presentation of pro wrestling as a real competition, was the concept that made pro wrestling so special. Kayfabe turned matches into spectacles, made the actions of heels more despicable, and vaulted the triumphs of their baby-face rivals into something even more inspiring. The best example of the power of kayfabe in my mind is the Junkyard Dog’s feud with the Fabulous Freebird in Mid-South Wrestling.
The plot of the story was simple: in 1980 the beloved hero of the people, Sylvester Ritter, known to the audience as the Junkyard Dog (commonly referred to as JYD) was blinded by Michael Hayes, a member of the Fabulous Freebirds after Hayes covered the eyes of JYD with the hair removal cream he was supposed to use on the head of JYD’s friend Buck Robley after a match where the loser was to lose their hair. When JYD fell to the ground pretending to be in agonizing pain, the audience thought it was real. Children cried, thinking the man who stood for all things good was never going to wrestle again. Mid-South Wrestling twisted the knife further, with commentators discussing how JYD would never step in the ring again. The true masterstroke, though, was a TV promo involving JYD released shortly after the blinding incident.
In a recorded segment, the Junkyard Dog proudly discussed the birth of his daughter and ended his bragging by pointing to where he thought his precious baby was, only to be redirected to where his baby actually was by his real-life wife. Suddenly the viewers of Mid-South Wrestling thought the Freebirds had robbed a man of the ability to ever see his child. The reaction was dangerous. The wrestlers who made up the Fabulous Freebirds faction were now wanted men in Louisiana. Wanted men might be an understatement. At one point, a man with a gun was arrested backstage during a Mid-South event. The bullets in his chamber were engraved with the word “Freebirds.”
It’s rare to find another artistic medium that can evoke such a reaction. No person has ever reacted to viewing the Mona Lisa with the same passionate cheers the viewers of Mid-South wrestling bellowed when the Junkyard Dog revealed his vision had returned to him before getting his revenge on the Freebirds.
Yet, Vincent McMahon Jr. never cared for the emotional value of his company’s performances. He has only ever cared for profit. Despite all the tears it had invoked, Kayfabe wasn’t worth the hassle of upholding it. Dressing up a six-foot-ten Texan man in a long cloak and a hat was far easier and sold the same amount of tickets.
The introduction of characters like the Undertaker and incidents like the curtain call at Madison Square Garden brought an end to Kayfabe. Since the death of Kayfabe, the emotion that made wrestling so special has become less and less prevalent. I feel jealous of those naive viewers who felt their blood boil that night in 1980. No experience in modern wrestling could ever come close to witnessing that story live, especially now that any wrestler capable of displaying a convincingly real character in their performances is quickly whisked away to Hollywood after a producer recognizes their talent.
Yet, pro wrestling is alive, despite the death of Kayfabe and the vulture-esque Hollywood producers who circle the wrestling industry. Not glistening with the same sweat-soaked splendor as the glory years of the attitude era, but alive nonetheless. Like so many other forms of art, wrestling simply couldn’t continue to use the same techniques as before. The industry was forced to evolve – adapt their companies into more storytelling-focused products with stories and characters who took more inspiration from theatre and movies than the likes of Bruno Sammartino and Freddie Blassie.
Richard “Richie Fingaz” Thompson is one of the few forgotten gems left in the wrestling industry. I could tell from the moment he began to speak. The motions he made with his whole body during each sentence and the dramatic pauses that followed the end of comments turned me from a journalist conducting an interview to a fan witnessing a promo for about 20 seconds at a time. Mr. Thompson is far more than a relic of a past era. As the co-owner of the D.C.-based Capital Combat Championship Wrestling, or C3W for short, he’s a part of the new-age wrestling scene.
Yet, even in the eyes of Mr. Thompson, wrestlers are still performers. Despite his experience growing up in a pre-Kayfabe era, he cannot help bring back the beautiful lie he once believed in. Mr. Thompson did not define wrestling as a competition but as, “a mix of sport and theatre.” This does not mean wrestlers are actors in the eyes of Mr. Thompson, they’re performers. But what kind of distinction that actually makes was beyond me.
According to Doctor Kate Duffly, assistant professor of theatre at Reed College, there’s a difference between performing and acting. “We can look at it through the lens of your everyday life,” Dr. Duffly explained to me, “You in the role of journalist are very different than you in the role of a friend, you have a costume for this role of journalist.” Not only did this explanation cause me to question the legitimacy of my work as a journalist, it with the same almost precise vagueness of a master of karate in a great martial arts film, helped me understand what this genius many levels above me in both degrees and intelligence meant.
Performing is an everyday part of life. It’s behaving a certain way for the sake of some social norm or expectation we seek to fulfill. Acting, then, is merely performing in a certain physical setting, such as a movie set or a theatre hall.
Wrestling has many of the qualities of theatre production. The wrestlers wear costumes and participate in performances from the stage of the wrestling ring and the heavily recorded backstage areas. However, what wrestling producers are looking for in their performers differs from the traditional qualities of a great actor. Someone searching for an actor to play the role of Macbeth seeks something wildly different than a man willing to Swanton bomb off of a ladder into the table that sat next to the ring. Wrestling promoters look for wrestlers with two qualities, Mr. Thompson explained, “It’s that it-factor y’know, it’s being extremely charismatic and extremely creative that ability to y’know own that moment, and from there, it’s all about appearance.” In contrast, Dr. Duffly believes that “it’s presence and listening. Listening being that full body awareness and then presence being that full body responsiveness.”
The wrestlers who’ve combined the skills of both theatre and physical performance are the only ones who can genuinely grasp the hearts of the audience as the Junkyard Dog had – leaving the viewer crazed, waiting for any clue of what might come next.
The likes of John Cena, Dave Batista, and The Rock come to mind – near-perfect performers from every perspective. Each has the presence and listening a professor with a Ph.D. in performance studies from UC Berkley looks for in performers while having the “it factor” and the look a wrestling promoter dreams of seeing in wrestlers.
It’s no coincidence that those three wrestlers have been the most successful performers both inside and outside of the world of pro wrestling. Possibly thanks to the unique qualities only a wrestler has, each using their look and “it factor” to much fanfare throughout their acting careers.
This success has not gone unnoticed by the wrestling world. Its largest company, the WWE, has attempted to replicate the success of wrestle-acting by completely changing the way its product was presented and spoken about. Gone are the days of pro wrestlers in the WWE, it’s now the era of the “sports entertainer.”
Sports entertainment was a concept popularized by Vince McMahon in the late 1980s. It’s the idea that the increased use of theatrical elements and extravagant presentation will lead to a more entertained audience. Despite originating in the 1980s, Sports Entertainment only became the foundation of the WWE’s content in the early 2000s when the end of the hugely successful “attitude era” necessitated a change in presentation thus leading to the beginning of more scripted content and more theatrical qualities being present throughout the WWE’s shows.
The era of sports entertainment has brought the WWE record profits, leaping from 0.41 billion dollars in 2002 at the end of the attitude era to 1.29 billion in the most recent year. The company’s flagship TV shows are completely controlled down to the smallest detail to ensure the profit margin continues to grow. Yet, this period of scientifically precise content has brought about a wave of criticism by fans and members of the wrestling media.
The criticism is largely focused on the stories being told by the WWE in the sports entertainment era. Long gone are the days of the son of a plumber Dusty Rhodes fighting the pretentious and glamorous Ric Flair for the honor of the working people of America, spending three minutes ranting from the heart about what it meant to be working class. Instead, nearly every story is completely sanitized, with each wrestler’s promo being scripted word for word, leading to largely unengaging stories based on the nonsensical motivations of unrelatable characters.
In a way, wrestling has become far too much like other forms of entertainment. The death of Kayfabe and the reliance on sports entertainment techniques have turned wrestling into something that isn’t entirely unique. Including even that once special question of what is real and what isn’t, as Dr. Duffly pointed out, “Various contemporary performances use techniques to call an audience’s attention to that question of realness on stage, or question of liveness on stage.”
Without the sense of realness, Kayfabe brings to wrestling, the medium becomes not much more than poorly written immersive theatre. What was once used to tell the story of a man finding pride in his working-class heritage so he could finally overcome the wealthy man who had tortured him for so long, instead becomes a man in tight underwear inexplicably driven to pile drive another in front of an indoor fireworks display meant to entertain children on Monday nights.
There is one exception to this decline in the quality of wrestling. Maxwell Jacob Friedman, better known as MJF. “He’s got that it factor, more than an it factor,” explained Mr. Thompson, excited to boast of the rare performing talent that their world has been graced by. MJF has spent his entire career maintaining personal Kayfabe. Even when interacting with wrestling fans at autograph signings, MJF acts in the same manner as he does when on the mic entertaining the viewer. No evidence of MJF being a character exists, he is completely real and no evidence says otherwise.
This dedication to maintaining Kayfabe means that MJF can put on performances and tell stories that no other wrestler can. This is because any action MJF takes is real. The audience is interacting with what, to them, is a real person, not some cartoonish depiction of an undead mortician. He has the qualities of both a performer and wrestler, just as the likes of Cena or Batista do. The thing that separates MJF from Cena or Batista though is that personal Kayfabe.
MJF’s ability to maintain personal Kayfabe, combined with his performance and wrestling capabilities bring a completely different quality to the shows lucky enough to broadcast his words. At a time when nearly every other story being told on wrestling shows can be proven as fake with a quick Google search, MJF went on television to tell the story of being abandoned by his wrestling hero CM Punk after relying on him to get through constant anti-semetic harassment as a child. His voice became shaky as he spoke of having pennies thrown at him at school, the story brought audience members to tears and silenced the commentators.
For a brief few minutes, that crowd in Bridgeport Connecticut was under the same spell as the more than twenty-six thousand spectators in the New Orleans Superdome were 42 years earlier. The crowds teetered over the edge of every pause in every sentence they heard, one crowd stunned to silence, the other to joyous mania.
But was it real? We don’t know. MJF’s control of his online presence and his dedication to making his character entirely real means that we have no choice but to trust that even a man as despicable as MJF wouldn’t lie about something like this. Especially after seeing him quickly escape the ring after finishing his promo, the viewer saw MJF vulnerable for the first time and saw him reacting in a totally believable manner.
It was also the first time a wrestler had managed to put me under their spell. Before that promo, I had no true connection to wrestling — I knew what everyone else did: wrestling was fake fighting, a form of entertainment beneath me. Yet for less than ten minutes, MJF had taken control of my emotions. I was with him when he began to choke up while reflecting on having pennies thrown at him, cared about how he handled his hero, CM Punk, leaving the wrestling world. Suddenly I had opinions, and strong ones, and once CM Punk came out to apologize to MJF the next week on TV, only to be attacked by MJF, who revealed the story to be untrue, my blood boiled at the thought of this sick game MJF was playing. Hell, if I were at Daily’s Palace that night, I would’ve jumped the fence to protect the old tattooed man I had only learned of a month prior. I finally understood the true power of wrestling.
That promo, that story of a young man lashing out at the man who he sees as the reason why he’s become the despicable person he is, could be told in any show on Broadway or in Shakespeare’s Globe. But could Thomas Bradshaw get that same reaction from a crowd using more conventional theatre techniques?
Maybe, but Thomas Bradshaw’s version of the story wouldn’t end in a bloody wrestling match where the two men, connected by their shared legacy, are bound together by dog collars attached to one another via a stainless steel chain. The story wouldn’t finish with a bloody man in tights pinning the back of another equally bloody man in even tighter tights to the floor for three seconds, and without that ending, would the story really be the same? For as much as wrestling wants to be theatre, not even Starcade 95’ won a Tony Award, I hope it stays that way. Wrestling is at its best an entirely unique medium, a kind of performance art unlike any other, capable of telling a story unlike any other.