Kayfabe is a time-honored tradition in the business of professional wrestling. Yes, at a wrestling show, the outcomes are predetermined, the animosities are not real, and each of the maneuvers and holds are delivered as safely as possible in the effort to ensure that no one really gets hurt. But the fans aren’t supposed to know that.
While WWE conceded that wrestling was more athletic exhibition than sport years ago, and particularly since the advent of the Internet, you’re unlikely to find a serious fan who doesn’t understand the fix is in. It’s still the wrestler’s code to act as though professional wrestling is completely real, at least while the show is happening, and not to clue in outsiders that anything about the business is predetermined or scripted.
Some wrestlers take kayfabe to the next level. These are the men and women who carry their characters into their interactions with fans, or who go so far as to live out parts of their characters’ gimmicks far beyond the reach of any TV cameras. This column reflects on a wide variety of incidents from as distant as forty years past, to as recent just a few months ago of wrestlers who refused to break kayfabe, but rather stuck to their characters and storylines, and behaved accordingly in their interactions outside the confines of a wrestling show—sometimes playing the villain or the tough guy, sometimes straight up acting crazy, but always with an eye toward preserving the illusion that pro wrestling is as real as it gets.
15. The Big Boss Man No Sells The Trunk Of A Car
While WWE fans remember him best as The Big Boss Man, before and after that most iconic gimmick, Ray Traylor played Big Bubba Rogers, a suit-wearing villain. In multiple shoot interviews, Jim Cornette has told the tale of the two of them loading up a car after a show, early in Traylor’s career, in plain view of the crowd. Through a series of unfortunate circumstances, the trunk lid got slammed shut on Traylor’s fingers.
Young Traylor had been well-schooled on protecting kayfabe, and reasoned that his on-air character was all but impervious to pain. Thus, while the average human being would have screamed in agony, Traylor very purposefully remained stoic until he got in the car, never letting the fans see that he was hurt, in an incident Cornette laughs about to this day.
14. Sandman Plays Blind
In an on-air stunt for ECW, The Sandman got a lit cigarette knocked into his eye and was blinded. According to Paul Heyman on WWE’s The Rise and Fall of ECW documentary, The Sandman sold the storyline full-tilt, not only playing blind on TV, but also staying home and wearing bandages over his eyes those times when he did go out in public.
Thus, for wrestling’s most hardcore promotions, fans wondered if something had gone horribly wrong and began to buy into the story. After all, could The Sandman really be crazy enough to act blind in everyday life if he were really fine? It turned out the answer was yes, because when he returned, ostensibly to retire, he wound up tearing off the bandages and beating rival Tommy Dreamer senseless.
13. Ric Flair Lives The High Life
Ric Flair’s character was famously fancy. In interviews, he portrayed himself as jet flying and limousine riding, and indeed he could regularly be seen living life to excess, wearing expensive clothes, riding around town in nice cars, and hosting expansive parties in hotel suites after shows.
Flair has spoken multiple times in interviews about living his gimmick. While he had to have been well compensated as one of the NWA’s most celebrated traveling champions, and as a main eventer in WCW and WWE, he nonetheless lived beyond his means to the point that, in his later years, he ran into a variety of well-documented money troubles, including an issue in which he borrowed money from wrestling merchandise vendor Highspots and put up an NWA Championship belt as collateral.
12. The Undertaker Stays In Character
The Undertaker is one of wrestling’s most iconic characters. Some of that has to do with the undeniable talent and longevity of the man behind the gimmick. Some of that has to do with how serious the man was about protecting his character.
While the lines between reality and what happens on screen in wrestling have blurred, and it’s increasingly common for wrestlers to openly acknowledge that the business is a work, The Undertaker has by and large held fast. When Ric Flair said his farewells and retired on RAW, and a cavalcade of stars past and present greeted him, The Undertaker waited until the TV show was over and came to the ring in full character to pay tribute. Moreover, even when wrestlers consciously tried to get him to crack up or otherwise break character in the ring (as Steve Austin, Shawn Michaels, and Triple H discussed doing on an Undertaker tribute panel discussion for the WWE Network) he held steady, staying focused, staying serious, and staying within the bounds of his kayfabe persona.
11. Mr. Wrestling Lies About His Identity After A Plane Crash
Mr. Wrestling was the lone face on an airplane full of NWA Mid-Atlantic heels when the plane went down in 1975. According to Ric Flair in his book, To Be The Man, the masked man saved the territory by thinking about his character first and only giving partial information to police and medical technicians, not acknowledging his in-ring persona, but rather claiming he was a wrestling promoter, not a wrestler himself. As such, his identity as a wrestling hero flew under the radar.
That he would think business first in this life-and-death situation is a testament to both Mr. Wrestling and the mentality of the era he worked in, when men and women protected the image that wrestling was real and good guys and bad guys really did hate each other at any cost.
10. Vader Creates An International Incident In Kuwait
On a Kuwait talk show, Vader was asked if wrestling was fake. Whether he was legitimately angry, protecting the business, or, as Vader himself has suggested in more than interview, he was acting on orders from producers, the big man reacted violently.
Regardless of the exact reasons, for any fans watching who doubted the legitimacy of professional wrestling, they may have found themselves doubting themselves in the aftermath, as Vader overturned a table and took the talk show host by his tie, clearly rattling the poor civilian. Vader was, in real life, fined for the incident and while no one has formally spoken about it, you have to wonder if the incident was a part of Vader continuing to slip down the card for his last year with WWE.
9. Nikita Koloff Speaking Nothing But Russian
Fans of Jim Crockett Promotions from the 1980s may recall Nikita Koloff as a foreign menace—a monstrous Russian heel who was largely unstoppable. He alienated fans to the max by never speaking English for his first year in the limelight.
Little did fans of the day know that the man behind the character was actually a U.S. citizen, born and raised in Minnesota. According to his own website, Koloff went 13 months speaking nothing but Russian in public to further sell anyone around him on the idea that he was a Russian mercenary and he wanted nothing to do with the United States or the English language—a pitch perfect contrast to All-American heroes he was pitted against like Dusty Rhodes and Magnum TA. Koloff has said that transitioning back to normal was really tough.
8. Matt Hardy Stays Broken On Talk Is Jericho
In 2016, pro wrestling mainstay Matt Hardy underwent a bizarre change in persona espousing the gimmick of “Broken Matt Hardy,” under which he bleached a streak of his hair, spoke with a faux-British accent, and started talking about not just defeating but “deleting” his opponents. The character change led to off-beat angles and matches, several of which occurred at the Hardy Compound, complete with a custom battlefield and appearances from Hardy’s family members and servant Senor Benjamin.
Many Hardy fans were eager to hear what he had to say about the eccentric gimmick and downloaded the episode of the Talk is Jericho podcast featuring Hardy to get some perspective. While the podcast had almost exclusively featured shoot interviews up to that point, Hardy did not break character, explaining a few of his oddities, like referring to others by their middle names, but remaining firmly ensconced in kayfabe, even in this shoot environment.
7. Arn Anderson No Sells Documentary Makers
In the mid-2000s, WWE began investing heavily in the documentary business, releasing a wide range of straight-to-DVD docs chronicling the lives and careers of top stars, charting major angles, and generally celebrating the wrestling history from the shoot perspective of a variety of voices that lived it all first hand.
In the overwhelming majority of cases, wrestlers played along, and it was refreshing for long-time fans to get an unfiltered, nonfictional perspective from men and women who had stayed tight-lipped about their professions for so long. One oddity, however, was Arn Anderson, who persistently remained in character, talking about how tough men were, still selling rivalries as if they were, in reality, heated, even when his contemporaries were shooting all around him. Anderson was particularly careful when it came to discussing the NWA’s Mid-Atlantic territories in the 1980s and 1990s, and particularly so in the Ric Flair & The Four Horsemen doc.
6. Kevin Owens Puts Down A Kid In The Crowd
As reported by Sports Illustrated among other media outlets, in late 2016, Kevin Owens exchanged words with a seven-year-old fan at a live event. The kid made the mistake of trying to high five heel Owens, only for Owens to respond by blasting him for wearing a Roman Reigns t-shirt and for trying to touch him.
The incident went public when the child’s mom posted about it on Facebook. Owens stayed in character not only in that moment in the arena, but on Twitter afterward, not only abstaining from an apology, but accusing the mother of only complaining so she might get free stuff from WWE. In today’s PC world, it would have been very easy for Owens to backtrack and apologize, but instead Owens has probably given that kid every reason to boo him incessantly, which is what a heel is supposed to do.
6. David Schultz Slaps A Reporter
As reported by media outlets including The New York Times in 1984, top WWE heel “Dr. D” lost his cool and battered reporter John Stossel on camera, after Stossel had the temerity to ask him if wrestling was fake. Schultz’s hits to each of Stossel’s ears were quite real.
Schultz purportedly claimed in the aftermath that he’d been instructed to hit Stossel if the question came up, but whether he and the people who directed him were protecting him, or someone was setting up Schultz, he ended up losing his job over the incident. More than having to leave the promotion, he missed out on the payday of a lifetime as WWE was just beginning to explode on the national level. The first WrestleMania was on the horizon and Schultz was expected to headline the event.
5. Jerry Lawler Keeps His Lips Sealed About Andy Kaufman
In the early 1980s, comedian Andy Kaufman began a shtick of calling himself the intergender wrestling champion, after repeatedly wrestling and pinning down female challengers. Jerry Lawler took exception to Kaufman’s antics and the issue came to a head with Kaufman wrestling Lawler in Memphis—a pairing that wound up with Kaufman taking a piledriver and then catching an ambulance ride to the hospital. The two followed up on this incident with a heated exchange on late night TV, hosted by David Letterman, that included Kaufman throwing coffee at Lawler, and Lawler slapping Kaufman across the face.
While doubts surrounded the veracity of the Lawler-Kaufman match, like most pro wrestling exhibitions, folks were ready to believe the talk show incident was real until decades later when Lawler went public about he and Kaufman planning the whole thing—discussed openly in Lawler’s book, It’s Good To Be The King… Sometimes and in a variety of interviews. He stayed mum about the whole thing for decades and until long after Kaufman had passed away.
4. Sasha Banks Picks On A Kid
For regular fans of WWE’s developmental brand, NXT, Izzy became a part of the show—a young fan who appeared at NXT event after NXT event and got caught on camera marking out time after time for her favorite, Bayley.
When Bayley reached her apex on NXT—not only winning the Women’s Championship, but then defending it in the first women’s main event of an NXT Takeover special—Izzy was shown on camera, cheering on the champ as always. Bayley’s arch-rival, heel Sasha Banks took advantage of the girl’s notoriety, by stealing her headband when Bayley was down to taunt the champ and make her biggest fan openly cry.
On the Breaking Ground WWE Network series about NXT, it was revealed that Izzy was not in on the act, and actually was crying out of sorrow and desperation while Banks played her heel character full tilt, not hesitating for a moment on camera. It wasn’t until after the show that Banks says she went to Izzy to apologize and make amends with the young fan.
2. The Ultimate Warrior Stays Crazy On The Arsenio Hall Show
The Ultimate Warrior built his character on the premise that he was insane, including delivering wildly incoherent promos on a consistent basis. In the build to WrestleMania VI, he broke through the barriers of the pro wrestling world, though, representing the WWE on a visit to The Arsenio Hall Show.
While wrestlers have traditionally proven themselves more articulate than you’d expect on mainstream talk shows, Warrior either had no such instructions or ignored them, storming the set and delivering a surreal performance, running though the live studio audience for his entrance, lifting a couch and chasing Arsenio from seat to seat early in his appearance, and coming across every bit as simultaneously animalistic and rambling as his pro wrestling persona had ever been once the interview got underway.
1. Brian Pillman’s Character Spills Over The Script
In the mid-1990s, Brian Pillman espoused a “Loose Cannon” gimmick that saw him behave erratically on air and off. In his book Controversy Creates Cash, Eric Bischoff references working with Pillman on cultivating the cutting edge character through a series of stunts that would include leaving WCW and coming back to it.
In the relatively early stages of the angle, Pillman grabbed color commentator Bobby Heenan. Heenan was not only caught off guard, but fearful about the condition of his surgically repaired neck. He cursed at Pillman—dropping the f-bomb on life TV–and walked away from the broadcast table, buying that Pillman was unstable, and unwilling to take his chances by sticking around. Pillman had, in that instant, exceeded the script, staying in character to the point of actually terrorizing a coworker.