During my career as an urban sports performer I learned early on that your hardest trick is not necessarily your most entertaining one.
Aside from aesthetics, an audience believes your hardest, most dangerous move is the one you sell to them as such. If I tell you I’ve never done this trick before and it could go horribly wrong, you believe it. You either want to see me carted off in a stretcher or you want to see me succeed.
It doesn’t really matter if I say that in every show, to every crowd. It’s the narrative around it, it’s the pageantry and showmanship.
Some may deem this to be dishonest, like you’re hoodwinking the fans in order to make your life easier but I’m here to tell you, a lot of the time, the audience knows and wants to buy into the story regardless. That’s kayfabe, baby.
Pro wrestling was built on kayfabe. It means you play your character and the events in the ring as reality, whether they’re choreographed, set up or not.
It’s something that has been controversial with non-fans for the exact reason above; it was seen as fraudulent, performers making money by deceiving fans. If you believe that, you’re missing the point.
You’ll often hear people lament and celebrate in equal measure, “kayfabe is dead”, because we know wrestling to be a show, yet the most captivating storylines are when the lines are blurred once more.
With Shawn Michaels and Bret Hart, I never believed they would just start brawling and derail the predetermined match they had set up but knowing that they disliked each other, knowing that they both wanted to go out and outshine the other, maybe lay in some snug shots in the process, makes their matches more compelling to this day.
Even when I watch Rock vs Triple H, I know they’re not really a sledgehammer-wielding maniac or hitman who would hire his cousin to run over a colleague, but the retrospective reveal that they had a professional rivalry backstage makes their lingering staredowns and scathing promos even more delightful.
Kayfabe is something us wrestling fans understand but it isn’t limited to the squared circle. I would say it’s essential to our enjoyment of modern media.
In 2017 we were asked to believe that MMA champion, Conor McGregor, in his first professional boxing match, could potentially knock out undefeated multi-weight champion and arguably one of the greatest defensive boxers of all time, Floyd Mayweather.
The narrative was initially fantasy. I even found myself wondering how easily I could get knocked out by a world champion for millions of dollars but as the international press tour rolled out, with it came McGregor’s suit, pinstriped with the words “f*ck you”, entertaining catchphrases and boastful promos of his inevitable victory.
After a while, the media and the fans started to believe he had a chance. They started booking his next fights against top level boxers and meditated on the idea that he’d never return to the UFC. He lost, in a one-sided fight you would expect from someone 0-0 fighting someone 40-0 but we happily bought into the narrative that the media constructed. Kayfabe, baby.
Perhaps the father of sporting showmanship, Muhammad Ali is known for his creative smack-talking and psychological warfare. Sonny Liston once pondered whether Ali was genuinely crazy when he parked his car on Liston’s lawn in the early hours of the morning to unleash a verbal tirade while his opponent was in bed.
Ali understood that fights needed to be sold with more than statistics and “may the best man win”. His flamboyant character work, coupled with his talent and later his civil rights campaigning, made him the greatest personality in sports.
Ferdie Pacheco, Ali’s doctor, once described him as having the “blood of a con man” so perhaps it was unsurprising that, 40 years before the story of a boxer vs an MMA fighter was told, Ali wanted to sell us boxer vs pro wrestler – the latter being the legendary Antonio Inoki.
Inoki was a superstar in Japan and although he had a background in legitimate martial arts, he was first and foremost a pro wrestler involved in predetermined outcomes.
The match ended up being a bit of a flop, perhaps due to the fact that none of the parties involved could clearly define whether it was a work or a shoot. It was, however, the start of a legacy that would shape entertainment in MMA and legitimate fighters partaking in scripted pro wrestling match ups.
It’s the genesis of Brock Lesnar splitting Randy Orton’s head open. It’s why we wonder if Brock went into business for himself to end the streak. It’s why we get angry when Ronda says she hates the fans and calls it “play fighting”. Kayfabe, baby.
The late 90s and early 00s hip hop scene was defined by “beefs”. Two rappers or entire labels would go to war with each other on the track, like the Wolfpac & NWO Hollywood (but better).
Of course, it was born from the “battling” culture of early cyphers and break dancing, where two crews would attack each other with their moves or words but at the end, this was put aside and the conflict was left on the stage.
Unfortunately, the most high profile beef, East vs West, ended with two of the greatest artists in hip hop, 2pac & Notorious BIG, dead within a year of each other.
Fast forward to the early 2000s and even to this day, rap “beefs” are fabricated and used as marketing vehicles to push artists into the stratosphere.
Of course, some of these start as real, petty squabbles but why spend time writing a new album when you can make more money with creative “your mum” jokes.
In 2019, the Godfather of Grime, Wiley engaged in a back and forth rap beef with new kid on the block, Stormzy, that caught fire instantly. It was like Hogan vs Rock. You clearly had a heel against a babyface but who played which role was entirely up to your perspective.
Some were suspicious when both artists managed to record detailed responses and accompanying videos every 24 hours or so. These guys were known to be friends and moved in very similar circles, so although there had been some mud slinging throughout the years, it seemed strange that they would publicly attack each other so spontaneously and so close to their album launches.
Was it real beef? Does it even matter if it wasn’t a real beef? Kayfabe, baby.
We live in a world where honesty and authenticity is key. Right?
Conor McGregor is not the best boxer in MMA but who cares about a real athletic contest if no one buys a ticket to watch? Would Prince, Michael Jackson or Ozzy Osborne have been nearly as iconic, if they didn’t come with ambiguous and theatrical back stories? Would KISS have been megastars without the make-up?
I don’t know about you but when I was at school, there was a very specific rumour about Prince going around and I can’t lie, it was likely my original motivation for listening to his music.
We even elect politicians who produce entertaining catchphrases, weave compelling narratives and produce false claims, as long as they align with our ideas of heroes and villains. Donald Trump is in the WWE Hall of Fame.
The popularity of conspiracy theories is due to our desire for the fantastic. Like a magic trick, often the reality is far less compelling than our imagination.
I’m not saying we want to be lied to but I do question what truth really is to us. Is there a difference between “the Nature Boy” and the real life Richard Fliehr? Almost certainly but when you look at the man today, which one of those do you think he “truly” is?
Sometimes, reality isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. Kayfabe isn’t dead because we’ll never kill it. It will always have a place, in wrestling, entertainment and life.
These days, you just have to work harder for it.