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The New Kayfabe

There was a moment towards the end of the 2019 WWE Fastlane pre-show when panelist Sam Roberts made a quick reference to superstar Dean Ambrose’s future with the company.

Roberts said something along the lines of “he’s quitting anyway.” This was, of course, a reference to recent speculation that Ambrose – who’s been a high-profile member of the roster for about eight years, if you count his developmental days – is leaving WWE after Wrestlemania next month.

What’s interesting was how direct Roberts was about it. And this wasn’t the only reference to Ambrose and his future that was made during Fastlane – there was no shortage of selling the main event as being the last match the Shield, the faction of which Ambrose has been a part since it formed (barring the odd storyline-driven break), would wrestle.

The Ambrose thing has been interesting for two reasons. First, Ambrose is a big star in the WWE. And second, the WWE hasn’t made any effort to keep it secret.

In fact, WWE got ahead of it all back in January, when the company released an official statement reading that Ambrose would be leaving when his current contract expires. The statement even used Ambrose’s shoot name, Jonathan Good.

Now, it’ll be a shame to see Ambrose leave. He’s been a huge asset to the company, and always entertaining both in the ring and on the mic. He will, of course, land on his feet, and be back with another promotion soon enough, no doubt.

As far as WWE’s openness about contracts and personnel matters, well, maybe, as mentioned, they were just trying to get ahead of it. They knew it couldn’t be kept secret for long, so they might as well announce it on their terms, right?

Or, possibly, it came down to respect. Ambrose has been good for the WWE, and people leave and return to wrestling promotions all the time. If Ambrose needs a change, he needs a change. WWE announces it early, Ambrose can start gauging interest and talking to other promotions, he leaves on good terms, and maybe he reappears in a WWE ring one day.

Or maybe, it’s a work.

This isn’t new. There’s been endless talk and speculation about whether or not Ambrose is actually leaving. It started the instant the statement was released, and is still going on today. Other superstars have commented on it. There was a rumour that WWE had Ambrose’s friend and Shield-mate Roman Reigns trying to talk him out of it.

In any case, the end of April is approaching quickly, so we’ll all know what’s real and what isn’t soon enough.

But contrast the Ambrose situation with the 1997 departure of Bret Hart and the Montreal Screwjob, and how that all came to light. Think about what that Summerslam championship match could have been if it was sold as being Hart’s last.

Please correct me if I’m remembering this wrong here, but details like Hart’s plan to leave the company and his backstage issues with Shawn Michaels were kept relatively quiet, weren’t they?

The whole Ambrose-vs-HR storyline isn’t the only thing that has wrestling fans wondering what’s real lately, though. I am, of course, referring to the Becky Lynch-Ronda Rousey feud.

What a wild one this has been, right? Their back-and-forth tweeting is getting very personal.

There’s also the matter of Rousey’s recently-posted video, in which she sounds off on the WWE for being “scripted” and “pre-determined” – she didn’t use the F word, but she did tweet it – and her fellow wrestlers (and some of those fellow wrestlers are now taking her to task in return about that).

No more following the rules, she said. Rousey is going to do what she wants, and she doesn’t care anymore.

And Lynch, too, is playing the game well – this is far from one-sided, to be sure.

But what it’s doing – in addition to building hype for the big Lynch-Rousey-Charlotte Fair match at Wrestlemania – is, again, making people question what’s real. Is this legitimate backstage heat? Do these two really hate each other that much? If so, what happened?

Or is it all because Rousey, who only joined the WWE a bit more than a year ago, is legitimately frustrated with the wrestling business, and she’s really at her breaking point?

Of course, it’s none of those things. It’s a work, and it’s a beautiful one. It’s not only making for excellent TV and matches, but it’s the source of endless discussion and thinkpieces (sorry) in all sort of places, from the Internet to the television screen to the radio.

I listen regularly to SiriusXM’s excellent Busted Open show, which airs on the network’s Fight Nation channel weekday mornings. Bully Ray (formerly Bubba Ray Dudley of the WWE), who co-hosts, assures listeners it’s a work, and a certain former ECW person who’s now in the WWE has his hands all over it (he hasn’t mentioned the name, as far as I’m aware, but I think it’s a fairly easy guess).

Bully Ray says it’s working so well because Ronda is an outsider. She didn’t come up through the wrestling business, she was recruited after her MMA career ended, and she was a huge star in her own right before she came in to the WWE.

It would work just as well if other outsiders, like Ken Shamrock or Kurt Angle said these things. And as much as Brock Lesnar plays the loner who doesn’t care and does what he pleases, he did come up through the business, and would never say the kinds of things Rousey is saying.

And, of course, Bully is right.

What’s happening with Lynch and Rousey, and Ambrose, and even Kofi Kingston – which we’ll get into a bit later on – is really the new kayfabe (it’s not that “new,” sure, it’s been going on for a while, but it’s a catchy title, so bear with me here).

Look, everybody knows Ronda is right. Pro wrestling is scripted. It’s theatre.

And if I may digress here for a moment, that is not, in any way a shot – professional wrestling is as legitimate as anything else. The things pro wrestlers do in the ring, and outside of it, are nothing short of incredible – the athletics, the character work, the mic work. We celebrate actors, we celebrate athletes, and we should be celebrating professional wrestlers to the same extent. But that’s a piece for another time.

Wrestling has always been, at its heart, about the battle between what’s real and what’s not. It’s always been about trying to convince the viewer that what isn’t real is, and what is real isn’t.

It’s suspension of disbelief – kayfabe. For decades, the business played it absolutely straight. What you saw was real. The bad guys were really, legitimately bad guys, and the good were the opposite, and they could never, under any circumstances, do anything to break that illusion, even something as simple as being seen together in the “real world.”

Whatever happened in the ring really happened. It was competitive, a fight.

Kayfabe, of course, has eroded. The curtain has been pulled back. We all know what wrestling is, and while we cheer for the faces and boo the heels, we’re in on it.

We know Braun Strowman’s elbow wasn’t injured by those steel steps, that wasn’t why he had surgery (the surgery was legitimate and wrestling related, but what we saw on TV, as much as it was played for shocks, wasn’t the reason).

But we’ll happily buy in when he walks out to the ring in a cast, and vows – and eventually gets – his revenge on the guys who did it.

Now, we have social media. Documentaries about the wrestlers. Make-A-Wish visits. Talk show appearances. Even reality shows. We know who these people are outside of the ring, and breaking character is part of the deal. They play a role at WWE shows. We know that, and accept it.

Kayfabe as it once was is gone. But you know what? That’s okay. It can evolve, and we’ve been seeing that happen now for several years.

Wrestling storylines rooted in reality aren’t new. An obvious example is the Matt Hardy-Edge feud involving Lita, which was based on something that really happened in their personal lives.

But what’s happening now is a mix of the secrecy the wrestling business espoused for so long, and the relatively-newfound openness that really can’t be avoided these days.

The characters we see are extensions of the people that play them (look at the New Daniel Bryan, berating people for eating hot dogs while he struts around with that sustainably-crafted wooden belt). The Miz and his Hollywood superstar persona is perfect for a guy who got is break on MTV’s Real World, isn’t it?

And that applies to the storylines, too. The WWE is no stranger to embracing reality to the point that the things we, on the outside, wouldn’t be privy to are being used for story purposes, but this seems a bit different. These are stories about contract disputes, backstage politics, the frustrations of a wrestler trying to find his place in a crowded roster – things we might hear whispers of through wrestling news sites or other places.

Take Kofi Kingston, for example. At Fastlane, you may recall, his New Day stablemates told Vince McMahon that Kofi deserves his title shot because he’s been waiting 11 years for it. That’s a long time.

It’s no secret that the WWE has a huge – some may argue too-huge – roster, and many wrestlers don’t find their place on it. They get left out, buried, forgotten, eventually released. Kofi hasn’t been buried, he’s part of the New Day, after all, and has held various titles, but he’s never held the WWE Championship title.

So what does McMahon do? He tells Kofi, okay, you’re in, and the WWE Championship match is now a triple threat. Kofi goes down the ramp and gets in the ring to the enthusiastic cheers of the crowd, and then …

Swerve. He’s not in the title match, which is actually taking place later on in the card. He’s in a two-on-one handicap match, and Kingston proceeds to get thumped by the Bar.

And the crowd hated it. In fact, they spend most of the actual championship match – which was really good, incidentally – chanting Kingston’s name.

So, what’s going on here? Kofi will no doubt be facing Daniel Bryan at Wrestlemania. But McMahon is playing with the emotions of his fans, building up Kingston as the underdog (and himself as the heel boss).

How loud do you think the cheers will be when they announce that match? How much louder would they be if Kingston wins the belt?

This type of approach is working for Lynch and Rousey beautifully, too. We can believe Rousey is going rogue, given what we knew about her before she came to the WWE – we know she’s tough, and we know she’s competitive. She’s perfect for this angle, isn’t she?

All the things she’s saying, well, we can imagine her really saying them. She’s frustrated and doesn’t care. She’s lashing out. And because we know what we know about her, it comes off as real to the point that people, even huge wrestling fans with in-depth knowledge of the business and its history, are questioning whether it’s a work or a shoot.

Hell, even Rousey’s former MMA rival Miesha Tate chimed in, adding some fuel to the fire by assuring people what they’re seeing is real.

And Lynch is the perfect opponent for Rousey. She’s the underdog, she clawed her way up, and she’s absolutely fearless. She’s not going to let this opportunity get away from her, no matter if it’s Rousey, Charlotte, or Triple H standing in front of her.

Incidentally, the WWE handled this perfectly at Fastlane. The question always was how Becky was going to find her way into the title match at Wrestlemania, despite McMahon’s machinations to keep her out.

Lynch, nursing an in-character knee injury, was forced to wrestle Charlotte on one leg. If she wins, the Raw Women’s Championship match at Wrestlemania becomes a triple threat.

Now, wrestling Charlotte injury-free is a daunting task, at best. So what happens? Rousey breaks the rules, sprints to the ring, and attacks Lynch mid-match.

Since she’s technically helping Charlotte in doing so, Charlotte is disqualified. Lynch takes the win, and earns a trip to Wrestlemania.

Another example: earlier this month, WWE announced it would celebrate Ric Flair’s 70th birthday on Raw. Among the attendees was Triple H.

The birthday didn’t go as planned, with Batista making his return, attacking Flair backstage to wrangle him into a Wrestlemania match.

Now, that kind of thing happens all the time in wrestling. And as much as I’m looking forward to Triple H-Batista at Wrestlemania, that’s not the interesting thing here.

A week later, Triple H addressed the incident, again on Raw. And in doing so, he spoke not just about how many times Batista has up and quit the WWE – twice – but also about Richard Fliehr, the person who plays the character of Ric Flair.

In 2017, Fliehr was rushed to hospital, and reports indicate, was near-death. Triple H spoke about that during his promo, bringing up that he and Fliehr are very, very close friends.

He choked up recalling that he dreaded the ring of his phone during the period Fliehr was in hospital, out of fear it would be bad news.

Triple H wanted nothing more than to stand in the ring and celebrate Fliehr’s 70th birthday with his friend. But Batista – who Triple H referred to as “Dave,” incidentally – ruined it (those two will be face-to-face on Raw tonight – March 11 – by the way).

This is real-life stuff. This storyline may play out in a WWE ring, but it’s rooted in our world. It’s absolutely relatable, and tremendously compelling.

The WWE doesn’t have to make the audience believe they’re seeing vampires or other otherworldly beings in the ring these days. They don’t need to make us believe to that an urn really is the source of the Undertaker’s power.

They don’t need to convince us that Nailz really was an ex-con, or that the Big Boss Man actually dragged the Big Show’s father’s coffin behind a car.

That worked well, for a time. But those days are gone.

Now? Make us question whether or not our favourite wrestler will be leaving the WWE after Wrestlemania, and what he’ll do before then.

Make us wonder if a former MMA champion is legitimately angry, looking to only expose the secrets of the business, and has real-world heat backstage. Make us guess how that may play out in the ring.

Build heat not by having Dave Batista interrupt a promo, but rather attack a 70-year-old man who really did nearly die in hospital not so long ago. And in the process, deny Triple H, a real-life executive in the WWE, the opportunity to celebrate his dear friend’s milestone birthday.

There’s still room for classic wrestling stories. There’s still room for good vs. evil, the underhanded use of “foreign objects,” and feuds erupting when someone “accidentally” knocks their tag team partner off the apron.

But sometimes, it’s good to see the WWE digging deep. That works, and it works for a simple reason – it’s real. A new kayfabe, for today’s brave new world.

What’s real? What isn’t? If people are watching, does it really matter?

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