In professional wrestling, kayfabe /ˈkeɪfeɪb/ is the portrayal of staged events within the industry as "real" or "true," specifically the portrayal of competition, rivalries, and relationships between participants as being genuine and not of a staged or pre-determined nature of any kind. Kayfabe has also evolved to become a code word of sorts for maintaining this "reality" within the direct or indirect presence of the general public. Though the staged nature of professional wrestling had been a frequent topic of conversation among the media and public since at least the latter years of the early 20th century, the professional wrestling industry did not formally acknowledge this until changes in the business during the 1980s professional wrestling boom prompted attitudes within the business to change. In 1989, World Wrestling Federation owner Vince McMahon testified before the New Jersey state senate that wrestling was staged. Long sanctioned by New Jersey and other states as an athletic exhibition for regulation and taxation purposes, McMahon sought to eliminate oversight, and hence taxation, on the WWF's house shows and pay-per-view events held within the state.
Kayfabe is often seen as the suspension of disbelief that is used to create the non-wrestling aspects of promotions, such as feuds, angles, and gimmicks, in a manner similar to other forms of fictional entertainment. In relative terms, a wrestler breaking kayfabe during a show would be likened to breaking character by an actor on-camera. Also, since wrestling is performed in front of a live audience, whose interaction with the show is crucial to its success, kayfabe can be compared to the fourth wall in acting, since there is hardly any conventional fourth wall to begin with.
In years past, one tool that promoters and wrestlers had in preserving kayfabe was in their ability to attract a loyal paying audience in spite of limited or nearly nonexistent exposure. Professional wrestling had long been shunned by mainstream media due to lingering doubts over its legitimacy, and its presentation on television was largely limited to self-produced programming, not unlike infomercials of the present day. Scrutiny was largely limited to certain U.S. states with activist athletic commissioners, whose influence finally waned by the late 20th century, with mixed martial arts events taking the attention boxing and wrestling once held throughout the United States. It was commonplace for wrestlers to adhere to kayfabe in public, even when outside the ring and off-camera, in order to preserve the illusion that the competition in pro wrestling was not staged. This was due in no small part to feuds between wrestlers sometimes lasting for years, and which could be utterly destroyed in seconds if they were shown associating as friends in public, and thus potentially affect ticket revenue.
With the advent of the Internet wrestling community, as well as the sports entertainment movement, the pro wrestling industry has become less concerned with protecting so-called backstage secrets and typically maintains kayfabe only during performances. However, kayfabe is occasionally broken, including during performances, in order to achieve a number of goals, among them advancing the storylines, explaining prolonged absences (often due to legitimate injury), paying tribute to other wrestlers and sometimes for comedic effect or that of driving insider humor.
The characters assumed by wrestlers can be distinguished into two alignments: faces and heels.
Faces, short for babyfaces, are hero-type characters whose personalities are crafted to elicit the support of the audience through traits such as humility, a hard working nature, determination and reciprocal love of the crowd. Faces usually win their matches on the basis of their technical skills and are sometimes portrayed as underdogs to enhance the story.
Heels are villainous or antagonistic characters, whose personalities are crafted to elicit a negative response from the audience. They often embrace traditionally negative traits such as narcissism, egomania, unprompted rage, sadism and general bitterness. Though not as prevalent today, xenophobic ethnic and racial stereotypes, in particular those inspired by the Axis powers of World War II, were commonly utilized in North American wrestling as heel-defining traits. Heels typically inspire boos from the audience and often employ underhanded tactics, such as cheating and exploiting technicalities, in their fighting strategies, or use overly aggressive styles to cause excess pain or injury to their opponents.
A wrestler may change from face to heel (or vice versa) in an event known as a turn, or gradually transition from one to the other over the course of a long storyline.
Matches are usually organized between a heel and a face, but the distinction between the two types may be blurred as a given character's storyline reaches a peak or becomes more complicated. Indeed, in recent years, several wrestlers became characters that were neither faces nor heels, but somewhere in between—or alternating between both—earning them the term "'tweener."
Many storylines make use of kayfabe romantic relationships between two performers. Very often, both participants have other real-life relationships, and the "relationship" between the two is simply a storyline. However, more than once, kayfabe romantic relationships have resulted either from a real-life relationship, such as between Matt Hardy and Lita, or ultimately developed into a real-life marriage (e.g., Triple H and Stephanie McMahon, who married in 2003, more than a year after their kayfabe marriage ended). During the early 21st century, this "kayfabe" practice has given way to reality in the WWE, largely due to the creation of the reality television program Total Divas where four "legit" (legally binding) weddings have occurred: Natalya and Tyson Kidd, Brie Bella and Daniel Bryan, Naomi and Jimmy Uso, and Eva Marie and her fiancé Jonathan.
Tag teams of wrestlers, who may or may not look alike, are often presented as relatives, though they are not actually related. Examples include The Brothers of Destruction (The Undertaker and Kane), The Holly Cousins (Hardcore Holly, Crash Holly, and Molly Holly) and The Dudley Brothers. "Brother" tag teams were commonly utilized in years past as a means to develop young talent, by pairing them with a veteran wrestler and giving the younger wrestler a "rub" by virtue of the association.
Sometimes wrestlers will "sell" a kayfabe injury by not appearing at the following show, in order to demonstrate the severity of what happened to them the week before. In the years when information on the happenings of the business was limited, this was a common tactic for promoters when a wrestler was scheduled to tour Japan, or in more limited circumstances was dealing with a family emergency.
In other instances, if a wrestler (typically a babyface) needs surgery, a storyline will sometimes develop in which a heel will commit a kayfabe, on-screen act to the face wrestler to "injure" the wrestler, in order to give the impression that it was the heel's action that caused the face to need surgery. In these instances, the heel will continually flaunt the notion of taking their opponent out of action, in order to keep the storyline fresh in fans' minds until the face is able to return and "settle the score".
Other times, a real injury is sometimes used later on as a storyline. One way is for the injured to come back and blame someone else for injuring them, even when the feud was not initially planned out at all, to give a sort of closure to the injury time out.
Lastly, when a major injury sidelines a wrestler in such a way that none of the above can be done, the company will plan a sort of return angle that can be used to celebrate a wrestler's return to action. This has been made especially popular in the WWE with the use of their "Desire" video vignettes of wrestlers who returned from a major injury, in order to show that the wrestler was able to overcome a major injury that could have ended their career indefinitely (which, in many cases, could truly, non-kayfabe, be career-threatening or worse). These returns are often given a particular date in order to increase viewership and ticket sales, as the public are promised a star they have wanted to return. Occasionally, though, a wrestler's return will not even be advertised; it will just suddenly happen in order to get a pop out of the crowd.
Through kayfabe, wrestlers often quit, get fired, or lose challenges with their job at stake (e.g., a "loser leaves town match") only to return at a future time. These types of matches are also used when a wrestler's contract is up or to give them some time off to recover from a legitimate injury (before expanding to national television, wrestlers often did leave town as they were booked on the next city or territory on the circuit, similar to the carnival days).
There have been several examples of breaking kayfabe throughout wrestling history, although exactly what constitutes "breaking" is not clearly defined. It is rare for kayfabe to be dispensed with totally and the events acknowledged as scripted. Often the "break" may be implied or through an allusion (for example calling a wrestler by his/her real name) and standards tend to vary as to what is a break. In the WWF during and after the Attitude Era, the line between kayfabe and reality was often blurred.
With the growth of the industry and its exposure on the Internet and DVD and videos, kayfabe may be broken more regularly. Whereas in the past it was extremely rare for a wrestler or other involved person to recognize the scripted nature of events even in outside press or media, WWE DVDs and WWE.com routinely give news and acknowledge real life. In the case of the former, it has ostensible adversaries and allies talking about each other, and the angles and storylines they worked and their opinions on them. On WWE.com, real life news is often given which may contradict storylines.
Prior to the Attitude Era and the advent of the Internet, publications such as WWF Magazine, and television programs broke kayfabe only to acknowledge major real-life events involving current or retired wrestlers, such as a death (for instance, the death of Ernie Roth, who was billed as "The Grand Wizard of Wrestling"), divorce (e.g., Randy "Macho Man" Savage and Miss Elizabeth) or life-threatening accident (such as the 1990 parasailing accident that seriously injured Brutus "The Barber" Beefcake), especially if said event received mass mainstream coverage. In addition, when WWF top officials and employees were facing allegations of anabolic steroid abuse and sexual harassment during the early 1990s, Vince McMahon responded via a series of videotaped comments defending his company and employees, and several full-page advertisements rebutting the allegations appeared in WWF Magazine.
Kayfabe has been broken many times, though it may not always be apparent to fans as seen below. The following is a list of some of the more notable examples.
In the 1996 MSG Incident, real-life friends Shawn Michaels (Michael Shawn Hickenbottom), Hunter Hearst Helmsley (Paul Levesque), Diesel (Kevin Nash), and Razor Ramon (Scott Hall) broke kayfabe by embracing in the ring at the end of a match between Michaels and Nash. Nash and Hall were on their way to rival promotion World Championship Wrestling, and the embrace was a farewell gesture from Michaels and Triple H. Because of Nash and Hall's departure, and the fact that Michaels was champion at the time, Triple H was the only one reprimanded for the incident. He was relegated to working lower card matches and was booked to lose to Jake "The Snake" Roberts in the King of the Ring 1996 tournament, having previously been booked to win it. The event had a profound impact on the company overall in later years, as Stone Cold Steve Austin was booked in Triple H's place to win the tournament overall, thus setting the stage for Austin's rise to prominence in the late 1990s. Triple H was not punished for very long, as his push was only delayed a year and Triple H proceeded to win the next year's King of the Ring. By 2016, all but Triple H are in the WWE Hall of Fame.
The most widely discussed example is the Montreal Screwjob, centered around a match in which then-WWF World Heavyweight Champion Bret Hart wrestled challenger Shawn Michaels for the championship at the Survivor Series in Montreal on November 9, 1997. Hart had previously signed a contract with rival World Championship Wrestling and still had three weeks after this match before his first appearance on WCW Monday Nitro. The agreed-upon finish was to have Hart retain the title that night and appear on Raw the following night to give up the championship. WWF head Vince McMahon had, months before, informed Hart that he could not financially guarantee the terms of his contract with Hart, encouraging him to make another deal if he was able to. As events transpired leading up to Survivor Series with Hart still champion and booked to remain champion following the event, McMahon feared that his championship would appear on his rival's television program.
During the match, Michaels put Hart in the sharpshooter, Hart's finisher. Referee Earl Hebner signaled that Hart submitted, even though he had not. At the same time, McMahon came to the ringside area and directed the ring crew to ring the bell and announce that Michaels had won the match. Hart, very upset, spat on McMahon and began trashing equipment around the ring, later punching McMahon in the dressing room. The incident was recreated over the years in various angles and storylines. Examples include a "screwing" of Mankind at the following year's Survivor Series and on the March 18, 2006 edition of Saturday Night's Main Event, where McMahon "screwed" Michaels in a match where Michaels faced his son Shane.
The accident that killed Owen Hart occurred on May 23, 1999 during the Over the Edge pay per view broadcast, but was not shown on screen (a pre-recorded video featuring Hart in character as the "Blue Blazer" was playing at the time of the accident) and, after Jim Ross indicated that something was amiss in the ring, the broadcast immediately cut to a pre-recorded interview with Hart. Afterward, Ross acknowledged to viewers that an accident had occurred and that Hart was being attended to, at one point assuring viewers "this was not a wrestling angle".
In specials and tribute shows, kayfabe is often broken. In the tribute shows for Brian Pillman, Owen Hart, Eddie Guerrero, and Chris Benoit, many wrestlers and officials, including those who had kayfabe feuds with them, spoke in their honor. In Owen's case, the show has garnered a reputation as one of the most memorable Raw episodes in history, and has even been labeled "Raw is Owen" by several wrestling fans.
Kayfabe and real life came into serious conflict on June 25, 2007, when the actual death of Chris Benoit necessitated an appearance by WWE chairman Vince McMahon on his Raw program which aired that same day, even though the character of Mr. McMahon had been "killed" in an automobile explosion on a previous episode. The death angle was scrapped, as was the regularly scheduled Raw program. Instead, a tribute to Benoit was broadcast. However, the circumstances surrounding the deaths of Benoit and his family - not known at the time the June 25 Raw tribute was broadcast - led McMahon to also appear in person on the ECW broadcast the following night as well, acknowledging the change in Benoit's "status" and making the last mention of Benoit's name on WWE television. In his remarks on Raw, McMahon directly refers to "Mr. McMahon" as "my character" and refers in both Raw and ECW to the WWE wrestlers as "performers".
On the September 10, 2012, edition of Raw, after competing in a tag team match with Randy Orton against CM Punk and Dolph Ziggler, Jerry Lawler collapsed (legitimately) at the announce table while Kane and Daniel Bryan competed against The Prime Time Players. Updates were provided during the live broadcast by commentator Michael Cole, who broke kayfabe to make clear to viewers that Lawler's collapse and hospitalization was not a planned part of the show. As of the end of the broadcast at 23:15 EDT, it was announced that he had received CPR, but was breathing independently and reacting to stimulus. It was later confirmed on Dutch Mantell's Facebook page that Lawler had suffered a heart attack.
Some efforts to promote kayfabe have resulted in real-life consequences.
While working as a booker for WCW, Kevin Sullivan conceived an angle where Woman (Nancy Daus Sullivan, Sullivan's wife both on-screen and off), would leave his character for Chris Benoit's. Sullivan insisted that the two should travel together to preserve kayfabe for the general public. This resulted in Sullivan's wife legitimately leaving him for Benoit when the two developed a real-life romantic relationship during their time together. Nancy ultimately married Benoit in 2000.
Brian Pillman developed the "Loose Cannon" persona for himself while in WCW in 1996, conspiring with Vice President Eric Bischoff and booker Kevin Sullivan. Pillman's gimmick was based entirely on straddling the fine line of kayfabe. He would engage in on-camera actions that seemed to be unscripted, even to the other performers, and even breached kayfabe protocol when he addressed Sullivan on air as "bookerman". In the ultimate act of turning fiction into fact, Pillman convinced Sullivan and Bischoff that their storyline "firing" of him would seem more legitimate with the physical evidence of a release form. They faxed an actual WCW contract termination notice to him, complete with his name and the proper signatures, in order to preserve kayfabe. This allowed Pillman to leave WCW for the ECW and WWF.
When Triple H and Stephanie McMahon entered into a kayfabe marriage in late 1999, Triple H and McMahon started dating in real life, and continued to do so after their kayfabe marriage ended in 2002; the two would eventually marry in real life in 2003. The Catholic priest at the wedding, not aware of the workings of the wrestling business, initially refused to marry the two when he found out about the kayfabe wedding from a choir boy who was also a wrestling fan. Linda McMahon later had to explain to the priest the difference between WWE programming and real life, allowing the marriage to go through. Afterwards, the real-life marriage became an open secret on television before being acknowledged by Triple H in 2009.