A week after the dust has settled on the Undertaker retiring at Wrestlemania 33, I suddenly realised this was a milestone for myself. Despite watching wrestling my whole life, The first Wrestlemania I experienced as a live fan was the first the Undertaker affected me in, Wrestlemania 8. He had a small match against his former ally Jake the Snake Roberts, notable for his ‘no sell’ on a DDT and Jake’s amazing sell on a tombstone piledriver outside the ring. I genuinely thought his neck was broken. It was a nice, memorable well worked match, now forever immortalised as number 2 of the streak. Looking back at how I viewed this match as a child with full belief in kayfabe and how I view it now set me off into a train of thought on the whole thing. I believe kayfabe is not only alive and well but is manipulating the adult WWE universe just like I was manipulated as a child because it has changed form.
To begin, the word Kayfabe is horrible. I hate using it, I hate it when it is used by any wrestling fan and I hate what it says about me writing a long piece on it. It has been used as an excuse for bad storytelling and poor execution since the attitude era ended. Only recently are we coming into a new age of Kayfabe, I call the ‘Imperfect World’ which I will try and break down.
If you are reading this you probably know about theworkofwrestling.com. Tim Kail, via podcasts and long writing pieces, breaks down, wrestling as a work of art. I too share this belief as an adult and despite disagreements from time to time I feel we both want the same thing. We want to experience the ‘POP’ of the crowd. The feeling you get when wrestling has done its job and played you like a fiddle before rewarding you with a moment that feels like it was made for you. I submitted a question to Kim arguing that the use of social media was the biggest enemy of Kayfabe in the modern age. Tim disagreed, pointing out much more pressing concerns with the current product and it was left at that. I just couldn’t accept that wrestlers that I grew up idolising would tweet at each other, or allow themselves to be pictured with each other or worse still play video games with Xavier Woods, it hurt my soul every time someone who had built a credible persona would ruin it all by tweeting some congratulations on a great match even in defeat. I mean could you imagine Bret Hart, taking to twitter after the Montreal Screw Job and saying, ‘I didn’t want it to end like this WWE universe but thanks for the memories’ only to have it liked by Shawn Michaels and Vince. No, it wouldn’t happen. Yet reading Bret’s book, getting an inside view of how the fan reaction is the goal, opened me up to this theory of the modern kayfabe. If the end goal is any kind of a reaction from the crowd, does it matter how they get there?
‘The Imperfect World’
This can best be described as it was in the film The Matrix. Agent Smith, was talking about the fabricated world humanity was made to live in and how the first efforts were a utopia for the inhabitants. Of course, they didn’t believe what was happening and the mind rejected it as a dream. They were forced to put them into an essentially miserable world punctuated by only brief moments of happiness. Sound Familiar…
It is my belief and argument, that the current creative forces in the WWE are employing the same principle in their own cleverly constructed answer to kayfabe. You see the original concept of kayfabe was that the crowd believed as gospel everything they saw in the ring. You only need to look back at the Road Warriors spiking Dusty Rhodes eye, the nights when the crowd threatened to riot to get at the four horsemen and the belief in the hatred between the Rock and Roll Express and The Midnight Express. The crowd were pulled along and whipped into a frenzy of bloodlust that kept them coming back night after night in the hope the result would go their way. Every once in a while it did and the pop was real. Of course, this all changed with the internet, social media and even gambling websites, which accurately reveal some pay per view results, such as Randy Orton winning the Royal Rumble in 2017. For a business whose end goal hasn’t changed, the loss of their main tool is catastrophic. This is why they have created the ‘imperfect world’ kayfabe we have to tolerate today. You see the creative can’t give you what you want because we as logical fans who know they exist will reject it.
The Perfect Event
Think of your favourite and most memorable WWE PPV. Chances are every match on the card didn’t go the way you wanted, yet there was enough of a balance to make you remember the event as a good one. If creative designed a ‘perfect’ event our wrestling loving brains would simply reject it and look for some motive or real reason behind the joy we have just witnessed. My immediate thought on this is the triumph of the ‘yes’ movement at Wrestlemania 30. If we take the Daniel Bryan storyline leading up to that event in complete isolation it is the poster child of giving the fans what they want. It culminated in a whole arena being pleased with the end result of a match and the effect was transcendent. It will live with me to my deathbed despite not being his biggest fan. Now imagine every match on that card had the same detail in build, execution and legacy. You can’t do it because it is impossible, it just doesn’t happen. You would reject it and by turn reject wrestling altogether. I know this because the same happened me.
Triple H was my favourite character leading up to his original quad injury. His heel run and Game persona spoke to me in a way no one had since early Bret Hart. When he got injured I was deprived of my favourite character for a year. There were teases of his return and a whole event with sledgehammers as stage props. Yet still, they held him back. When he did return, the pop and my own reaction’s were pure emotion, it hit the peak of my wrestling fandom and I thought it could only get better. I was wrong and despite winning the Rumble and the undisputed title at Wrestlemania, Triple H wasn’t the same. If you like he had reached the plateau. I lost interest in his character and even left wrestling for a while. Now try to tell me that Daniel Bryan, even with no injuries would have hit the heights of that amazing night again. That is the perfect example of being given what you want as a fan. Once you get it, it’s over. WWE never want their product to end, never want us to say their creative is perfect and never want us to give up feeling that it is ok to leave the product.
They Know You Know
Because ‘they know you know’ the only way to generate the interest and keep the cash rolling is to come up with their own kayfabe. Are we seriously meant to believe that the WWE creative team are so bad that they come up with some of the endings we saw at Wrestlemania 33? Money is no object for the company so they have recruited some of the best scriptwriters going. For things to be so poor at times the only logical answer is that they are being illogical on purpose. Take what happened between Bray Wyatt and Randy Orton at Wrestlemania. This was a poor match from every conceivable angle.
The build up was good, Randy won the Rumble then Bray finally won his deserved first title setting up a perceived organic conflict between the two allies. We had time to think this may happen, the first denial of it by Randy and then the turn and two weeks of build up. All this led the educated wrestling fans to believe that Bray would retain his belt with or without the help of the never-seen Sister Abigail character. What we got was a horrible in ring effect portraying Bray Wyatt’s special powers and an RKO win out of nowhere which would have been in keeping with Randy Orton from a few years ago. It was an ending that didn’t satisfy on any level. Orton retains this mythical finisher, which supposedly can take down any wrestler and the whole build of the Bray character has been destroyed in one moment. What did this match cause among the wrestling community? Was the heat generated in the perceived unfairness and downright lack of quality equal to the outrage felt when people thought the Road Warriors had blinded Dusty Rhodes? The answer can only be yes, but instead of storming the ring baying for blood, we take to our computers, our podcasts and our social media accounts to vent our fury and disbelief at such a poor match. The end result is pretty much the same. The WWE get the publicity, hits and attention that matches used to get by being shocking in the ring.
The number of times interference or dirty tactics helped a good heel like Ric Flair retain a belt, now translates to a poor booking decision. Every eye rake is now a pen stroke on a script and yet the machine keeps rolling on. Roman Reigns is the most polarising character in WWE history, even more so than John Cena. This is a character who keeps getting ‘booked’ as a babyface or hero character despite fan reaction clearly saying he should be a heel. Everytime Reigns is booked opposite to the demands of the international wrestling community it is another log on the burning fire that keeps the business going. You could not ask for a better reaction than he got at the RAW after Wrestlemania. After retiring the last beloved superstar from the era of legends, he marched into the ring and was met by 10 minutes of booing. The crowd were nuclear for him and it was one of the most memorable segments on any WWE show in years. Just think of how many keyboard presses there have been since the Undertaker made that long walk from the ring on Sunday night. How many clicks, how many youtube reaction videos and how much consternation sitting in front of the TV at home? The reaction from the fans is no different to the old and traditional reaction inside an arena to a heel.
Death of the heel
In a recent interview or press appointment before Wrestlemania Triple H was asked about turning Roman Reigns heel. His answer just convinced me that the ‘imperfect world’ theory I am trying to explain is alive and well. He said there was no need to officially turn him heel because he had been getting a heel reaction for the last six months. I may have summarised but the off-hand nature of the comment spoke volumes to me. If the WWE are genuinely abandoning the Face/Heel dynamic in some circumstances, then all the logical and illogical decisions of ‘creative’ make sense. In the case of Reigns and the Undertaker, it is the only explanation. At the Royal Rumble, the only reason they had to fight was the nature of the event. Reigns eliminated Taker and from that, a rivalry was born. This was not new as it used to be used all the time back to Hogan eliminating Savage, or Hogan eliminating Warrior before their eventual showdowns at mania. The difference now is the choice of who get this slot. Sitting in their creative meetings, the decision would be made on who would get the biggest reaction for retiring Taker. There was only one answer Roman Reigns. Reigns retiring Taker was like letting off a hand grenade and walking out of the room. It was precisely the scenario that everyone in the international wrestling community feared the most and they did it. They ripped the hearts out of 90% of their fanbase and that 90% remain unfulfilled and keep watching the product willing it to be the way they want it to be. It is the risk and the basis of the imperfect world. Keep it imperfect in every way and enough of the people will keep tuning in wishing it to be their best memory.
Collateral Damage to the Art Form is The Conclusion
Unfortunately, with this strategy, the art form of professional wrestling has no option but to suffer. Gone are the beautifully crafted personas and matches like Hart and Austin at Wrestlemania 13. That quite rightly is regarded as a perfect match but if there had been any hint in the build up that firstly Bret would win and secondly there would be a double turn then the match would have been portrayed as predictable. Now there is no way to avoid spoilers and as such the new kayfabe is the only option. The art form of working the crowd, bleeding and the spoken promo are shadows of their former selves and wrestling is poorer for it. The only option for us as fans is to do what the WWE wants and keep watching. There have been shoots of recovery. The return of the Hardy Boyz at Wrestlemania was a shock to those watching as they didn’t know when they would come back. The problem was we knew they would but not when. That was the moment the WWE gave to us on Sunday night so the other moments in the imperfect world theory had to be illogical and antagonistic to keep the interest. That’s why we have to put up with the rubbish of the Wyatt vs Orton match. That’s why we had a one legged Seth Rollins beating a Triple H in the physique of his life, That’s Why Dean Ambrose and Baron Corbin are fighting after the most storied and prestigious title left on the roster in the pre-show. Those moments of pure rubbish are like selling so the pops will be better. They are stringing us out like addicts waiting for the eventual pop.
Say the last match had gone the way of perfection. Undertaker would have refused to go down no matter what and Reigns would have been forced to brutalise him and in doing so turn heel. Leaving a bloody and bruised Undertaker to limp his way from the ring, or be helped from the ring by Kane. As much as I am excited imagining the reaction and impact on screen this would have had, the reaction the next night on RAW would have been ‘Bad For Business’ to coin the phrase. Reigns would have got a mixed reaction. Perhaps even some cheers. His kryptonite status to the international wrestling community would be over and he would too have been on a plateau. It may be better for the art form and would allow us to enjoy his work more but it would also let some of us turn off as we knew that element had been ‘fixed’ with the WWE.
But of course, you can’t turn off from an imperfect world…