Ladies and gentleman, friends and dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to both mourn the passing and celebrate the everlasting spirit of kayfabe. For decades, the wrestling industry’s determination to maintain its mystique as unscripted competition created an unparalleled camaraderie among those who dedicated their lives and bodies to the business. Their highly orchestrated physicality was no matter of deceit. It was, rather, a spectacular effort at preserving gladiatorial showmanship, a kind of nightly Colosseum reenactment scaled down for the masses, punched up with modern melodrama that heightened timeless tensions between hero and villain. And lo, even after Shawn Michaels and his comrades in The Kliq broke character and boundaries with their notorious 1996 “curtain call” – let alone WWE Chairman Vince McMahon’s subsequent headlong gamble on transparency – “sports entertainment,” as many would now and forever acknowledge it, engendered even fiercer loyalty and respect from its flock.
Over the ensuing two decades, kayfabe itself became an unofficial, initial-entry password into a club of millions who obsessed over where transactional reality ended and phenomenal feats commenced. It was a give-and-take that afforded viewers a feeling – however illusory – of ownership, and permitted talent like legendry straight shooter Steve Austin to shine brighter as their nearly true self than they ever could fully compartmentalizing who they were in and out of the ring. The very nature of pro wrestling – whether staged in packed WWE arenas and aired on primetime cable or held at glorified gymnasiums and broadcast on public access – was transformed into something heightened and participative. It was where winking authenticity and suspension of disbelief met halfway and helped shape and redefine a tradition that may otherwise have become no less obsolete than the big-top circuses it has improbably outlived.
How else to explain that one can tune in to Lana speaking unaccented English and palling around with storyline foes on Total Divas but still create enough dissonance to regard her as the affected and ravishingly Russian foil on SmackDown Live? Or the way we can feel validated when Ring of Honor stalwart Frankie Kazarian admonishes a crowd of “smart marks” for thinking they know it all, when all that really reinforces is how willingly we eat out of their hands? Never mind mainstream media’s suddenly instrumental role in relaying news and profiles straight from the source that are genuine until they aren’t, stoking speculation just enough but stopping short of imperceptibly blurring the line distinguishing sports entertainers from their humanity.
Alas, as was the case in 1996, it’s the men and women whose livelihoods depend on this delicate dance who – over the past several days – have chosen to test how nimble we really are. Where Shawn Michaels was the WWE’s locker room leader 21 years ago, that weight now falls on John Cena, whom on the August 27th, 2017 edition proved – if nothing else – that he refuses to leave the culture and company he helped keep afloat through some fallow years unchanged. On that evening, the Face That Runs the Place detonated the Mother of All Pipe Bombs on his carefully groomed successor, Roman Reigns. He didn’t merely break through that fourth wall, but flouted it by recognizing its very existence. In goading his flustered foe to finish his train of thought and offering slack congratulations for the fact that it “took five years to cut a halfway decent promo,” Cena took a lighter to what was left of kayfabe, leveling the playing field and making it possible for Reigns to build something new.
— WWE (@WWE) August 29, 2017
Although a la Vince’s aforementioned 1997 PSA, Cena’s seemingly spontaneous tangent may have been a swift and decisive call to arms in the wake of an unexpected existential crisis. A couple of days earlier, at Mexican promotion AAA’s annual Triplemania card, masked women’s competitor Sexy Star appeared to knowingly injure one of her opponents, GFW’s Rosemary, while executing an armbar submission maneuver. Rosemary herself publicly condemned the act, Tweeting about the etiquette of not taking “liberties with someone’s body when they are giving it to you and trusting you to keep them safe.”
Her statement – along with clear-eyed supportive testimony from peers including Cody Rhodes, Ricochet, Paige, Joey Ryan and WWE’s own SmackDown heel Mike Kanellis and producer Brian “Road Dogg” James – was damning and direct, if irrevocably altering to our willful disconnect about pro wrestling’s paradoxical purpose and principles. When Ricochet remarks that, “Obviously intentionally hurting someone who is putting full trust in you to NOT hurt them is stupid,” or Paige protests in earnest that there’s “no room for bullies in this business,” it’s a wake-up call for smarks everywhere that their tenuous, unwritten symbiosis with this business is on the ropes. But when John Cena comes on TV hours later talking about heel turns and learning curves, it would appear, all ye gathered that kayfabe is dead.
Long live sports entertainment.