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Magic in the ring: Keeping the illusion alive in pro wrestling

TDE Wrestling

When CM Punk took verbal and physical jabs at Kenny Omega and The Young Bucks in the fall of 2022, a section of the audience wondered if it was all a work. Every news story that followed what became known as Brawl Out seemed wilder than the last, laying the foundation for what could’ve been a hot wrestling angle.

But then came Punk’s termination from All Elite Wrestling, effectively putting those theories to bed. Despite a missed opportunity, we as a community learned a few things.

First, despite various websites claiming an inside track on the business, no one knows the complete truth about anything. And we realized that the wrestling industry somehow still lives under a shroud of mystery in 2023, where wrestlers and promotions let us know what they want us to know. And based on what they tell us, we will happily invest time and money in almost anything, including pro wrestlers resolving their real-life issues in fake fights, for the sake of compelling entertainment.

In light of these discoveries, I have one question. If pro wrestlers still control their narratives, and fans buy into their tales, why can’t kayfabe exist in the modern era?

Kayfabe, for anyone unaware of the jargon, is the concept of presenting a staged performance as genuine or authentic. According to Al Snow, a 40-year ring veteran, trainer, and star of the popular new Netflix series Wrestlers, kayfabe is an unspoken agreement between the audience and the performers that states that both sides know that what they’re watching is a sham, but they all play along in the spirit of enjoyment (Merriam-Webster, which added the word to their dictionary just last week, agrees with Snow).

In many ways, kayfabe is like going to the mall during the holidays to take pictures with Santa Claus. Everyone knows that the guy behind the beard isn’t really St. Nick, but we go with it in the name of good fun. But nothing kills the mood faster than seeing old Kris Kringle with his beard down, taking a smoke break while hitting on one of his elves.

Over the No Mercy and WrestleDream weekend, wrestling had another “Santa caught with his beard down” moment as video and pictures emerged on Twitter X of Kenny Omega filming a promo featuring Don Callis and Takeshita, his sworn enemies in All Elite Wrestling, on the streets of Japan. It was a disappointing sight because AEW has a captivating storyline that resonates with anyone — wrestling fan or not — because it deals with something most of us understand: betrayal. Callis, frustrated with and perhaps jealous of Omega, stabbed his longtime friend in the back and shacked up with a new client, who he claims is better than Omega and will destroy him.

That’s an excellent story.

But when I see these performers next, I’ll be reminded of Kenny Omega working behind the scenes with Callis and Takeshita. It’s no different than when Braun Strowman and Roman Reigns were spotted sightseeing together in Rome in 2017 at the height of their feud. These images serve as a distraction, a buzzkill, like seeing Mall Santa out of character, ruining the illusion that wrestling was once so great at maintaining.

Of course, this begs the question, when do wrestlers get to stop being in character?

I hate to say never because that is unfair and, in 2023, a bit unrealistic. However, unlike movies or TV, wrestling is a show that never ends, with stories and personas that are constantly working, which almost necessitate wrestlers staying in character most of the time. But it’s not like good guys and bad guys didn’t fraternize in the past; they were just more discreet about it.

And that’s the key — discretion — because despite everyone knowing the truth about wrestling, some people can’t help but be a killjoy by exposing wrestling’s tricks and saying, “See? See this? It’s fake! All fake!”

And nobody wants a reminder that what they’re watching or attempting to view is scripted drama. On some level, whether fans want to admit it or not, we still want to pretend for a little while because, on some level, it’s still real to us.

More than ever, pro wrestling needs kayfabe, that magical thread that lets us get lost in this unique fantasy world. And because wrestlers still wield the power to make us believe, kayfabe is the ultimate magic trick that allows them to do so.

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