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One of my dirty secrets is that I’m a fan of pro wrestling. Whenever I tell people this the first thing I inevitably hear is, “you know it’s fake right?”
This idea that people think professional wrestling is real comes from the concept that wrestling insiders call kayfabe.
Learn about the history of kayfabe and how this concept from professional wrestling can be used to navigate the modern world on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
The origins of modern professional wrestling began back in the early 20th century when carnivals would put on catch wrestling exhibitions. This was real wrestling. The competitors were actually wrestling with each other and there would be prize money awarded to the winner.
The wrestlers would often compete against locals who could win a prize if they could defeat carnival’s strongman, so they really did have to know how to wrestle and fight.
Unfortunately, many of the competitive matches were really boring. The bouts were often nothing more than wrestling holds which could last for over an hour. Watching two grown men grab each other for that long really wasn’t very entertaining.
The whole point of carnival wrestling wasn’t to wrestle, it was to make money. Eventually, the promoters figured out they could sell more tickets if they made the matches more interesting, and this is how kayfabe started.
The word kayfabe itself comes from carny talk, which is a sort of pig latin type of language which was spoken by carnival workers. Kayfabe just means “fake”.
As the carnivals began predetermining the winners of the fights, it was a short step to adopting the tropes which were used in all good dramas. Good vs Evil. Heroic comebacks. Treachery and betrayal. All of these became part of professional wrestling in order to put on a better show and to sell tickets.
However, at no point did they ever say that the performance was predetermined. People had to think they were watching a legitimate competition, so a bad guy and a good guy couldn’t be seen together before or after a show. They had to commit to their characters all the time.
This is the primary difference that separates kayfabe from acting. Actors perform a role, and everyone knows they are watching a performance. In kayfabe, the performer is living the role, even when they are not performing, and they are trying to convince the audience that it is real.
For decades, keeping kayfabe was the single biggest rule in wrestling. It was the wrestling equivalent of a magician not divulging their secrets.
The primary kayfabe mechanism was having babyfaces, which were the good guys, and heels, which were the bad guys.
The bad guys had to be bad guys all the time. If they were asked for autographs by fans at an airport, they would often refuse to sign and insult the fans, just to keep kayfabe.
When wrestlers traveled between cities, heels and faces would have to travel in separate cars and stay in different rooms, just to keep kayfabe.
They would even have different locker rooms backstage.
Occasionally, they would screw up and wrestlers would get in big trouble if they broke kayfabe. In 1987, the Iron Sheik, who was a heel, was traveling with Hacksaw Jim Duggan, who was a face. They were both pulled over and arrested for possession of marijuana and cocaine.
When the arrest made the news, it caused controversy because these two guys were supposed to be enemies, yet were traveling with each other.
On rare occasions, a wrestler may go off script and try to really injure another performer. Any sort of predetermined match or story line is called a work in wrestling circles, and something which is real or off script is called a shoot.
In 2004, the WWE was running a reality show where contestants compete to become professional wrestlers. One of the contestants was Daniel Puder, who was a real life MMA fighter. On an episode of Monday Night Raw, wrestler Kurt Angle issued a challenge for one of the contestants to come out and fight him.
According to the script, Puder was supposed to come out and quickly lose to him. However, he decided to actually fight for real, on live TV, when Angle wasn’t expecting it. Puder tried to put Angle in a submission hold instead of losing. However, Kurt Angle is a real life Olympic Gold Medalist in amateur wrestling and would have none of it.
Technically, kayfabe died in 1989 when Vince McMahon, the owner of the then WWF, testified publicly before the New Jersey state legislature that wrestling was scripted and the matches predetermined. This was done in order to avoid being taxed and regulated like a real sport.
Today, in wrestling kayfabe is pretty much dead. The WWE hosts their own documentaries where wrestlers talk out of character, and they will often break kayfabe within their own shows.
However, as kayfabe has died in professional wrestling, it seemingly has taken off in other parts of the culture.
One of the best historical examples would be Muhammed Ali. Yes, that Muhammed Ali. To be sure, all of his boxing matches were real and he was one of the greatest boxers in history. However, the persona he created of the arrogant, loud, rhyming fighter was total kayfabe.
He recalled in a 1969 Associated Press interview about a chance encounter with professional wrestler Gorgeous George in 1961 in Las Vegas. He said:
“[I got it] from seeing Gorgeous George wrestle in Las Vegas. I saw his aides spraying deodorant in the opponents’ corner to contain the smell. I also saw 13,000 full seats. I talked with Gorgeous for five minutes after the match and started being a big-mouth and a bragger. He told me people would come to see me get beat. Others would come to see me win. I’d get ’em coming and going.”
Ali began creating poems about how pretty he was and how ugly his opponents were. His interviews with sports casters like Howard Cosell were legendary.
Gorgeous George’s prediction was absolutely true. Love him or hate him, you couldn’t ignore Muhammed Ali.
Kayfabe is still alive in fighting today. Recently, MMA star Connor McGregor and boxer Floyd Mayweather held a boxing match. They flew around the country promoting the match where they would talk trash and insult each other.
Secretly, however, the two were flying on the same jet between venues and had become good friends.
Both fighters were paid handsomely from their promotion. Mayweather earned $275 million and McGregor got approximately $85 million. It was the largest single purse for either fighter.
With the rise of the internet, kayfabe has gone well beyond combat sports.
Reality TV has nothing to do with reality. While it isn’t scripted, everything is designed to tell a predetermined story, without letting the audience know that it is fake.
In the course of my travels I’ve been able to meet several people who have appeared on reality TV shows, and they all tell a similar story. The producers edit the program to make people appear in a certain light. If someone is chosen to be the villain, then everything will be edited around making that person look that way.
Survival shows with Bear Grylls are kayfabe. There are countless reports from people who live near the filming areas which report that he stays in hotels at night, not out in the woods.
Storage Wars will often seed valuable items in the storage lockers to make the show more interesting. More kayfabe.
Author Jo Piazza in her book Celebrity Inc. noted that many celebrities who are constantly in gossip media are there on purpose. Many of the feuds, fights, and controversies which follow them are all manufactured so they can stay in the public eye.
This has bled over into online influencers. They will take photos to make it appear that they live a glamorous life, when in reality, the photos may take an hour to set up, and their real life is anything but.
I was on a trip in Sri Lanka once and was hiking in the mountains. One woman in our group was an influencer. While the rest of us were in hiking gear, she had on an evening gown and heels to climb a mountain.
Even politics has adopted kayfabe. Many politicians will support positions publicly which they don’t believe in private, just to create a public persona that people will vote for.
On the old CNN show Crossfire, the format was that someone from the left and someone from the right would argue about some issue every night. Of course, politics don’t easily and cleanly split into two sides on every issue, so the hosts of the show admitted after it went off the air that they would often argue for or against issues they personally didn’t support, just so the show was entertaining.
The best example is probably former professional wrestler and Governor of Minnesota Jesse Ventura, who said that politics was a lot like professional wrestling. Politicians “pretend to hate each other in public, then go out to dinner together.”
Finally, I’d like to end with the thoughts of mathematician and venture capitalist Eric Weinstein. When he was asked what was the single scientific concept with the greatest potential to enhance human understanding, he answered:
The sophisticated “scientific concept” with the greatest potential to enhance human understanding may be argued to come not from the halls of academe, but rather from the unlikely research environment of professional wrestling.
If we are to take selection more seriously within humans, we may fairly ask what rigorous system would be capable of tying together an altered reality of layered falsehoods in which absolutely nothing can be assumed to be as it appears. Such a system, in continuous development for more than a century, is known to exist and now supports an intricate multi-billion dollar business empire of pure hokum. It is known to wrestling’s insiders as “Kayfabe”.