The Internet: Wrestling's Unconquered Territory
I’m not the first person to write about the correlation between the internet and the death of “kayfabe” in professional wrestling, but I may be the first to look at it from this perspective. I’ve never known life without wrestling, I’ve been watching it since before I could form proper sentences thanks to my great grandfather.
When I was 9 years old I saw Ric Flair win the Royal Rumble in my hometown, at that time I still believed it was legitimately real. I used to read magazines like Inside Wrestling and Pro Wrestling Illustrated while my mother grocery shopped (She’d never allowed me to buy them) trying to get whatever rumors I could.
Fast forward to the rise of America Online in the mid to late 90’s, I’m a teenager at this point. During arguably wrestling’s apex of popularity the “Attitude Era”, the lines between kayfabe and reality began to blur.
Of course by this time I knew wrestling was pretend fighting but I didn’t know wrestlers’ real names, who they were dating, their true birthplaces, etc. until my friends and I had access to the internet.
Yet many of the sources for wrestling news and rumors weren’t reputable then, so watching the actual live shows was still the way to go. As the vastness of the world wide web began to expand so did the wealth of information the casual fan like me had access to.
In my opinion the “Near Death of Kayfabe” was the countdown to of Chris Jericho’s debut in WWF during the summer of 1999. Once that countdown premiered on WWF television the internet immediately started buzzing and everyone knew it was going to be Jericho because his contract with WCW had just ended. All in all it was masterfully done like most of Jericho’s creative work, he used the platform of the internet to get one of the largest crowd reactions in wrestling history.
Now would that type of countdown and build up be possible in the late 70’s? Would Jericho get that type of reaction if he was just moving from Stampede Wrestling to Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling? I very much doubt he would.
Wrestling definitely would not have expanded the way it did in the “Attitude Era” without the popularity of the internet. With the rise of the internet everyone had the world at their fingertips, seeing things and reading things they never could comprehend previously.
This gave everyone an opinion (including myself), allowing everyone and they babymamas to get the inside track to their favorite wrestler’s life outside the ring. Just to find out the good guy you love to watch on television is actually a disgusting piece of filth and the guy absolutely hate is a loving father of two.
For me this did two things, this humanized the industry and gave me appreciation of everything that goes into making a show work. I’m able to understand that these guys work ridiculous hours, travel constantly and put their bodies on the line just for my entertainment. Sure I could remain suspended in reality believing Kane is truly a demon from hell and not a stout Republican running for Mayor of Knoxville, Tennessee but I think the later is much more badass at my age.
Being in my mid 30’s I don’t think I would still be a fan of the WWE product unless they went to over the top Lucha Underground kayfabe route. This could be the reason why I enjoy watching Lucha Underground more than I enjoy watching RAW in recent years.
They haven’t completely let go of the mentality of the fans don’t know any better formula. Well we do, with a swift click we can find nude photos, angry tweets or obscure status updates of the industry’s biggest stars, how can I possibly see them for more than what they are. Human, not Superstars, but vulnerable everyday humans working a very physically demanding job constantly in the media’s spotlight.
Instead of WWE talent having twitter and facebook pages as their real live selves, maybe they should remain in character when they interact on social media. Fabricate that suspension of belief using a different format to help establish and develop their characters. Embrace the cheeky and campiness of the wrestling industry by trolling the masses. While twitter and facebook have a firm foundation in the real world, wrestling doesn’t need to remain grounded in that reality. Why should it?
The Hardy Boyz were doing just that before re-signing with WWE, it was the most over thing in professional wrestling. They successfully blurred the line between reality and kayfabe as Jericho did in 1999 albeit from a different angle. Imagine that on a company wide scale, Braun Strouman threatening to flip a fan’s car over on twitter. Or releasing an exclusive YouTube video of Bray Wyatt stalking a supposed unbeliever. It would make for some awesome entertainment making the fans really feel like part of the universe.
Kayfabe is only dead because WWE allows it to be, they promote the company not the characters within the company. This is why it’s so hard for them to build the next Steven Austin or Rock level star. One of two things need to happen for WWE to gain popularity again;
They either need to have talent be completely real and accessible on and off camera, not just on social media. Get rid of dramatic storylines and focus primarily on in ring ability and athleticism. Bring a sense of true realism back to the sport much how NJPW operates.
Or go completely over the top having the show never truly end. Whenever a fan interacts with any talent in WWE it’s completely in character. As cheesy as this may seem, it’s also very entertaining in a world where trolling has become king. People already don’t take wrestling seriously, why not use that to your advantage to promote your product.
All in all I think kayfabe can work in the current internet and social media based world if done right. Belief no longer needs to be suspended but accepted as another form of entertainment. Something needs to happen with WWE’s product or their ratings will continue to drop as lifelong fans like myself are bored with the status quo. Vince McMahon has conquered every territory in the wrestling industry, except for one: The Internet.