Kayfabe is dead. No dispute there.
Back in wrestling’s heyday, which we would characterize as between the late 1970s and early 2000s, you really believed wrestlers hated each other and were so unhinged they believed they could solve all their differences with a 20-minute match of punches, kicks, suplexes, and chair shots to the head.
But around the time of the Monday Night War, WWE President and CEO Vince McMahon decided the time had come to unveil the truth. Wrestling wasn’t exactly “fake,” but it was “entertainment” meant to tell a story just as your weekly scripted adventure fare. McMahon’s use of language was diplomatic and respectful of the performers, but it finally brought to light what had been whispered in shadows for decades. A professional wrestling match was not a sports event, but rather “sports entertainment.”
So yeah … fake.
But what if that admission had never happened? What if wrestling had gone on selling itself as the real deal? What would the world and the industry look like today? We at TheSportster examined that question and came up with 15 Things That Would Have Happened If Wrestling Never Broke Kayfabe. Here’s what we found.
15 WWE Network, Tell-all Books, and the Cottage Podcast Industry Wouldn't Exist In Their Current Form
The business of talking about wrestling is more popular than the product itself these days. While hardcore fans are aware of how the sausage is made, there are still many who don’t understand how it works. For both camps, it’s fascinating to hear familiar names from yesteryear discuss their experiences and shed light on the stories behind the stories. Steve Austin, Kevin Sullivan, Ric Flair, and Chris Jericho are but a few of the names to cross over from the squared circle to iTunes. Mick Foley and others have written national bestsellers. The WWE Network is crammed with such programming. Now imagine if wrestling were still in kayfabe. You might still have the Network, the books, and the podcasts, but they would take a fascinating form as wrestlers stayed in their old-time characters and created fictions or half-truths based on what really happened, all in the name of protecting the business.
14 WWE Would Have More Intense Competition
What WWE does extremely well is branding and it accomplishes this by being an omni-channel content provider. There are 30-minute reality shows, hour-to-feature length documentaries, the mostly godawful WWE Films, the weekly programming, house shows, monthly special events, offshoots like NXT and the CWC. Many of these programs exist because WWE is able to spread its wings from the restraints of traditional kayfabe to tell interesting stories both inside and outside the ring. If that freedom didn’t exist, WWE would have to make it on its in-ring product alone, and that would open the door to the TNAs, ROHs, New Japans, and Lucha Libres to compete on the merits of what is happening between their ring posts. Suddenly, WWE is in for the fight of its life.
13 Wrestling Would be a Shell of What it is Now
Love the reality era or hate it, it has expanded interest in wrestling personalities and fan engagement. While you could look to the struggling ratings of WWE Monday Night Raw as evidence that the fanbase is already shrinking to unprecedented lows, that doesn’t really account for how many viewers are streaming through Hulu, how many are paying their $9.99 per month in lieu of Raw and SmackDown, and how rabid of a following the company has on social media. Bottom line: wrestling is doing just fine in a post-kayfabe age because it changed its business model to fit the times. Had it not, it would have been increasingly difficult to create new fans and the in-ring product could have come across as irredeemably cheesy.
12 Heel/Face Turns Would Harder to Pull Off
Think about what a heel has to do to generate heat or what a face must do to win the audience’s undying affection. You have to be either incredibly heartfelt or incredibly offensive, and in the Social Justice Warrior-driven world of today, everyone is offended about everything at some point in the news cycle. Translation: a still-kayfabe wrestling universe would exist in an increasingly PC environment that doesn’t easily forgive transgressions. It would be far more difficult to flip the switch moving from one character archetype to the next as a result. Worse, this reality could drive many wrestlers more toward a gray area where you’re basically looking at the same characters night after night, match after match. With the post-kayfabe world well established, it’s now easy to have Bray Wyatt call himself a god and “eater of worlds” and frighten small children, then send him to a cancer ward for Make-A-Wish. You couldn’t do that with Dr. D David Schultz.
11 More Wrestling, Fewer Spot Monkeys
Spot monkeys risk their bodies for the sake of the audience. Well, all wrestlers do that actually, but the SMs do it for one big pop. That means riskier moves that can end a career in one night instead of accumulated damage that does it slowly, over time. Jeff Hardy has always been a guy that comes to mind whenever we hear the term and that’s not to disparage. He’s one of the most entertaining in-ring performers of all time, but there are only so many times you can go through a table or swanton off a Titantron before you’re perceived as a health risk. We get why it happens. Wrestling has more to compete with these days since most people are aware its choreographed. Had the awareness never taken shape, wrestlers may not have felt as compelled to risk everything on a cheap pop. Perhaps that would have pushed focus more towards characterization and storytelling. We’ll never know.
10 Wrestlers Would be Much Scarcer Online and in Public
This entry serves as a bit of an extension to No. 1, but with how “out there” on social media and podcasts the performers are these days, it deserves its own mention. With kayfabe still in place, there would be a greater need to protect the business and that would be increasingly difficult in an overexposed society. As a result wrestling companies would need to more carefully police and patrol the outside appearances their talents made. One way of doing this: draw a big enough distinction between a performer’s real persona and their in-ring presentation that they could actually go out in public. It might mean more Doink the Clowns and less Dean Ambroses, but that would be the price of “keeping it real.”
9 Wrestler Sizes Would Have Shrunk
One interesting motivation Vince McMahon had when he killed kayfabe through the now-infamous “respect your intelligence” video, is that he was doing it less as a creative decision and more as a way to keep organizations like USADA and various state sports commissions out of the WWE’s business. By selling wrestling as entertainment instead of a sporting exhibition, WWE, and wrestling in general, was no longer beholden to drug testing regulatory laws unlike boxing and mixed martial arts. If kayfabe were still in place, that scrutiny would still apply and McMahon’s stable of wrestlers would have to either get legit or quit. While the WWE Wellness Policy has established some pseudo accountability — as long as you’re not bringing up the words “Brock” and “Lesnar” — it gives WWE more control over who gets popped and who doesn’t. Without that control, it’s likely there would have been many more suspensions and ruined PPV cards.
8 Less of Your Favorite Wrestlers Would be Dead
Think of the long list of wrestling greats who have died over the years that had some link to drug use or dependency issues that arose from years of addiction. Test, Luna Vachon, Eddie Guerrero, Brian Pillman, Curt Hennig — it’s really too depressing to continue. Keeping kayfabe in place likely wouldn’t have saved many on that short list, especially since their problems often began in the days of it. But it may have done some good considering drug testing knowledge and standards improved over time, and had wrestling been under the oversight of watchdog commissions as those advancements were made, it could have trained talent to take better care of themselves. Of the ones that couldn’t be saved, the funerals would have been awesome because instead of getting heartfelt remembrances through the sober lens of reality, you would have gotten more kayfabe eulogies, which would have been interesting to say the least.
7 More Power in the Hands of the Talent
Vince McMahon’s decision to pull back the curtain on kayfabe tipped the scales of power heavily in his favor, allowing him to openly protect trademarks and dictate terms of expenses, paying his performers as independent contractors while dictating how and when they could work outside of a WWE event. If McMahon hadn’t done that and instead protected the legacy of kayfabe, his ability to take credit for the success stories and force guys like Cody Rhodes to work under other names would have been difficult, if not impossible. Wrestlers would look and feel more self-made, and that would enhance their marketability outside the WWE or whichever wrestling organization where they achieved success. At least on the surface, a talents subsequent success or failure would be more on their own shoulders than the people helping them out behind the scenes.
6 Less Scripted Promos
When McMahon broke kayfabe once and for all, he expanded his pool of creative talent to include writers from the Hollywood system rather than the old school bookers, who worked out match results ahead of time and afforded the talent more freedom in how to work it and arrive at the predetermined conclusion. If kayfabe were still in place, it would have likely been more headache than it was worth to bring in Guild scribes and explain how the business had worked for the last century. Instead you would have seen creative direction driven more by the Kevin Sullivans, Paul Heymans, and Jim Cornettes of the world, all of whom have a tendency to let the talent talk and play to their own sets of strengths.
5 Managers and Valets Would Still be Employed
Perhaps the saddest thing to arise from the death of kayfabe was the downfall of the wrestling valet/manager — Jim Cornette, Bobby Heenan, Mr. Fuji, etc. These often infuriating personalities were legitimate threats to our heroes back in the day whether that meant jumping up on the apron to draw away the ref’s attention, smacking our heroes in the back with a tennis racket, or spouting off insulting remarks about the host city into a microphone. Of course, their real purpose was to build heat for a wrestling performer, who struggled on the mic. If kayfabe were still around, managers and valets would be as well. Instead we get 20 writers over-writing two-minute promos for talents, who aren’t prepared to do anything with the material because it doesn’t come from them and doesn’t seem authentic to their characters.
4 Most People Would Still Think it was Fake
Yes, we are well aware that when kayfabe was in place, most people still thought wrestling was fake. You could only see so many missed spots or cartoonish characters before realizing these guys were BS artists and if the punishment they were simulating was real, there would be a lot more Mortal Kombat-style fatalities in lieu of three-counts. That said, it was sort of like finding out there’s no Santa Claus. You didn’t sweat it. You still played the “what’s Santa bringing for Christmas this year” game depending on how well the performers helped you to suspend your disbelief. You did it because you respected what these guys were doing, the stories they were telling, and the risks they were taking to get you there. Not only were they putting their bodies at risk, but they were also selling as real something you knew to be fake without any inhibitions of live performance in a setting where there are no second takes.
3 Fans Wouldn’t Suck So Much
When wrestling gave up kayfabe, it unleashed a generation of fans, who are daily doing their part to help kill the product. As long as professional wrestling was being sold as authentic, promoters and performers could maintain some semblance of control over fan reactions. Bad guys could draw boos, good guys could draw cheers. The silly perform-for-us mentality displayed in 50/50 cheering, “This is awesome!” chants, and the true pro wrestling-hating marks wouldn’t be allowed to hijack a whole match or PPV card the way it so often does today. Few modern performers — and this goes for even the good ones, save for Kevin Owens — are capable of working a crowd. Owens is the only one who can consistently dictate exactly how an audience reacts to him. He makes sure, if you cheer him, it’s because he’s allowing it to happen. If he wants you to boo him, he’ll make sure you do. That’s a lost art and it’s entirely because wrestling let its guard down and placed too much control in the audience’s hands.
2 Fewer Movies with The Rock
Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson earned $64.5 million last year, making him the highest-paid actor in Hollywood. As big as Hulk Hogan was back in the day, his first starring role in No Holds Barred was an overhyped disaster with modest box office returns. Forget the fact Hogan is a terrible actor and NHB really is a terrible movie. The real reason for failure is he was trying to cross over in the days of kayfabe when general audiences were still unsure what to make of professional wrestling. Most believed it to be fake, but whether they did or not, all looked down their noses at it as something born out of carnival sideshows. Even if Hogan was a skilled actor deserving of leading man status, he could only attract cheap, incompetent projects like NHB and 3 Ninjas because of wrestling’s ambiguous nature. Once McMahon pulled back the curtain, his talent could relate to the public as athletic entertainers/actors. It opened a lot of doors for them creatively and allowed guys like The Rock to break through. Wouldn’t have ever happened if we were still in kayfabe, and if you ever did get movies starring professional wrestlers, they would more closely resemble 12 Rounds, Leprechaun: Origins, and other WWE Films dreck.
1 The Internet Would Have Killed it Anyway
By now, you’re seeing the mixed-bag nature of keeping things completely kayfabe. If you’re looking at this reality, weighing the pros and cons, and seeing kayfabe as much more of a “pro” than a “con,” we’ve got bad news for you. Whether wrestling would have stayed kayfabe or not, it would have eventually been revealed for the work that it is because of the Internet. We live in a world of 24/7 news, social media, technology addiction, and an irreversible need for the truth (or at least the truth as we see it). The harder pro wrestling would have tried to keep its dirty little secret, the harder journalists and other smartphone-happy fans would have worked to expose it. It would have taken only one snapshot of Kane and The Undertaker riding to the next venue together to screw things up for everyone.
So what do you think, Sportsters? Are we better off in the reality era? And what outcomes would you add to this hypothetical kayfabe world of today? Sound off on Facebook!