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.