The changing face of kayfabe
Written for VUE Weekly
June 9, 2016
Let’s talk about that match. The one that’s either the greatest thing to happen to pro wrestling, or a travesty that’s single-handedly destroyed the industry, depending on who you ask.
The web’s pro wrestling realms have spent the last two weeks analyzing and debating the game-changing bout between Ricochet and Will Ospreay. The polarizing match happened at New Japan Pro Wrestling’s Best of the Super Juniors—an annual round-robin tournament that showcases the world’s biggest non-WWE wrestling promotion’s Junior Heavyweight division. Both talents are the indie scene’s Next Big Thing and could very well headline Wrestlemania five years from now. Ospreay is a smarmy Brit famed for his high-flying antics; Ricochet has been tearing up NJPW while pulling double duty as former Lucha Underground champion Prince Puma. So why is the wrestling world being torn asunder by a qualifying-round showdown between a pair of cruiserweights?
To fully understand the vitriol being lobbed by industry veterans like Jim Cornette and Vader, alongside the praises of Stone Cold Steve Austin and Vince Russo, it’s important to understand the fundamental blueprint that makes pro wrestling what it is: kayfabe. For the uninitiated, kayfabe is the reality that performers portray and audiences accept during a match. It’s the underlying principle that separates professional wrestling from “the real stuff,” coding it more performance art than competitive sport. When someone muses, “Wrestling? You know that’s fake, right?”—a most salient observation certainly never made before—they’re talking about kayfabe. Since its inception, kayfabe has represented the unspoken contract between pro wrestling’s performers and audiences, a dramatic covenant that presupposes the viewer will suspend disbelief for the duration of the performance, so long as it makes for an entertaining show.
For decades, wrestling existed in a state of willful naiveté, fully contained within the walls of kayfabe. It’s why rural families would drive for hours to watch the hometown champion defend his title against foreign villains, and why little old ladies would attack the bad guys by honest-to-god jabbing them with hatpins as they walked to the ring. Really, up until the age of the Internet, wrestling fans quietly accepted that what they were watching was “real,” even if they knew it wasn’t (and contrary to popular belief, most fans through the years have known). Now that we’re in an era where wrestling storylines are spoiled in online dirt sheets before they even happen, and main-eventers compete in MMA fightswhile still on WWE contracts, those lines have become more blurry. Wrestling promoters have all but embraced the transparency of their fourth wall, and have increasingly toyed with the ambiguous reality of their stars and stories.
It’s a narrative strategy that’s borrowed from, and subsequently influenced other forms of reality-bending media, so much so that today’s biggest celebrities have come to rely on their own brands of kayfabe to make headlines and keep tabloids guessing. It’s a tactic that’s transcended the mainstream so thoroughly that even The New York Times has spilled ink musing on the subject, and on whether Donald Trump’s presidential campaign is just one big wrestling promo.
But beyond the character work that separates the babyfaces from the heels in wrestling narratives, the storytelling that happens in the ring can be even more important. Feuds play out not just in the way wrestlers speak to one another, but how they fight one another. Even if we know the punches are pulled, hearing the sharp crack of a slap against a superstar’s chest elicits a visceral reaction that draws us in. Most fans have no idea how much a Figure Four leglock actually hurts, but if it looks like it hurts, the performers are doing their jobs.
And here’s where the philosophical debate surrounding how wrestling should look comes crashing headfirst into Ricochet and Ospreay. During the 16-minute match, the duo spends more time synchronizing acrobatic flips than trading blows, seemingly more focused on wowing the crowd than actually hurting each other. Make no mistake, the crowd is certainly wowed. But for industry purists, it’s a moot point if the performers aren’t advancing their feud.
It’s far from the first time we’ve seen such antics in the squared circle, and it certainly won’t be the last. In fact, it’s an increasingly common style being embodied by performers who are breaking away from the age-old conventions established by WWE to offer audiences something new and novel. This nihilistic approach to wrestling is perhaps best embodied by indie darlings, the Young Bucks, the tag team of Nick and Matt Jackson whose entire in-ring persona relies on breaking the fourth wall and lampshading the physical ridiculousness of wrestling. In a world where finishing moves no longer always finish a match, where steel-chair shots are shrugged off seconds later, and where guys like John Cena are constantly criticized for forgetting to sell their damage, why pretend like any of this actually hurts? If The Rock can shrug off a beating in G.I. Joe, why not do it in the wrestling ring too?
While Ricochet and Ospreay may have ruffled feathers among wrestling’s traditionalists with claims to what wrestling should be, but they’ve revolutionized the public’s perception of what wrestling can be. Today’s wrestling shouldn’t exist solely within the pizzazz exhibited at the Super Juniors, but the most memorable stars rely more on exhibition than competition. When our expectations of the truth are manipulated by headlines on a daily basis, pushing the boundaries of performance reminds us that it’s just that—performance. Whether we’re following wrestlers, politicians or Twitter personalities, everyone’s putting on their best face behind the veil of kayfabe. If the presentation is strong enough, the truth can be as fluid as it wants to be.