My New Year’s Resolution this year was to start a blog on the IWS site and update it every day. Broken very quickly, although I am averaging an article per day. The following is the first thing that I wrote for the blog, an article on the nature of kayfabe in three parts written over January 1st to 3rd. I just got around to editing them together today.
When We Were Marks “Oh, But They Are Such Wonderful Lies!”
1. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Kayfabe
The new Shane Black film Kiss Kiss Bang Bang opens with the child version of the Rob Downey Jr. character sawing a nine year old girl in half as part of a town fair. The girl starts screaming, conning everyone into believing - against everything that they know to be true - that the “magician” is actually cutting her in half. Her father comes running, yanks her out of the box… and in the process reveals the illusion.
It’s a way of creating a bond with the audience – in its own way a little magic trick: “See,” say the filmmakers, “We’re showing you the truth.” And then of course, the filmmakers start lying like bandits. In other words, they use a small truth, reveal a tiny mystery to shield their big lie. The fact that it is another profession’s - someone else’s mystery - that they are giving away is even better.
(They are marvelous lies it should be said. It is a great film loaded to the brim with film noir references. The title alone is a neat tip of the hat to the James Bond franchise: Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is the Japanese nickname for Bond. In fact, Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang was to be the original title for Thunderball; the producers going so far as to record a song of that title by Dionne Warwick that was never used - except as an instrumental.)
I mention the above because it is a trick that I use and the dilemma that I face in writing these articles: How much truth do I reveal and how much lying do I do? These are not moral choices, they are artistic ones. I tell small truths to mask greater lies that reveal still greater truths.
It is odd that I should feel it necessary to apologize. Theatre does this; the cinema does this; poets; novelists; painters; dancers – they all lie in hot pursuit of the truth writ with a capital “T” and no one thinks the worse of them. But wrestlers and wrestling are almost embarrassed by it, or sometimes angered. “Wrestling is fake!” people cry and wrestlers go nuts. While those of us who keep our wits respond, “Funny, no one asks Russell Crowe if Gladiator is fake.”
We even have a word for it: “kayfabe” which is both a language of fakery and deceit and the word which describes that language and that deceit. It has its roots in the carnival roots of wrestling, when the wrestlers travelled with the carnivals and circuses and put on “Athletic Exhibitions” in the side tents. They would challenge the local strongmen to last five minutes in the ring to earn five hundred dollars or some such, winning with mysterious holds called “hooks”. It was in the dubious moral clay of the carny folk that wrestling laid its roots and the trunk has been twisted by that tradition ever since.
(According to legend, the very word “kayfabe” is twisted pig latin for “be fake”.)
For a brief time, when the US Wrestling Champion, Frank Gotch beat the European Wrestling Champion, George Hackenschmidt to create the first recognized World Champion, it seemed that professional wrestling was a legitimate sport. Although Hackenshmidt whined to anyone who would listen that Gotch cheated – first by using too much baby oil on his body in the first match and then by sneaking a “hooker” into his training camp for the rematch and injuring him.
Gotch retired undefeated and was eventually replaced as World champion by Ed “Strangler” Lewis, who was coached by Billy Sandow and promoted by “Toots” Mondt. Like Gotch, Lewis could beat any comer, but as a champion in the midst of the Great Depression, Lewis discovered that winning was not so important as eating… which required a paying crowd. To draw a crowd, Lewis had to entertain. Since an unbeatable champion did not entertain, Lewis and Sandow and Mondt went out and found someone who looked like he could beat Lewis – a tall, good-looking, former football star from Oklahoma (!) named Wayne Munn. Lewis dropped the title to Munn and the fans filled halls and arenas to watch Lewis chase for the title.
Depending on how you see it, that was either professional wrestling’s original sin or its return to its carny roots. Like an alcoholic falling off the wagon after a decade or so of sobriety and falling hard.
Fast-forward about sixty-five years. In the early 90’s, Vince McMahon Jr., whose father and grandfather were partners with Toots Mondt, is shrouded by scandal and a steroid trial that threatened his entire company. Vince comes out and admits that wrestling is rigged and renames it “Sports Entertainment”. Kayfabe is dead and Vince McMahon pulled the trigger.
Or is it dead?
Consider how close the terms “Sports Entertainment” and “Athletic Exhibitions” are. Maybe Vince was just returning to his own carny roots, distracting us with a bit of truth that we already knew with his right hand and doing the magic with his left.
(And taking advantage of his admission to evade Sport Commissions and Sport taxes and Sport regulations.)
In this brave new supposedly post-kayfabe world, you lie to your audience by telling the truth.
Take the saga of ‘Stalker for instance…
2. NCW and the Night-STALKER!
NCW or Northern Championship Wrestling is one of, if not the oldest, independent wrestling federation in Montreal. It is certainly the oldest federation that matters. Other than Fred la Merveille’s MWF, whose shows are off the island of Montreal and thus difficult to go to for a confirmed pedestrian like myself, and the IWS whom I work for, NCW puts on the wrestling shows that I like the best here in Quebec.
What I admire about NCW is that their story lines are put together with a lot of planning. Their wrestlers are well trained - really well trained. Their trainer Cobra was passed the torch by Marc le Grizzly, probably the best trainer this province has ever had - at least in this generation. Cobra continues Marc’s legacy with le Grizzly dropping by from time to time to add his input. They also invited Lance Storm down this past summer to give pointers to the students and to the active roster. As a general rule, NCW students are expected to spend at least a year training before they step into the ring.
In other words, NCW takes its training seriously and it shows. An NCW student cleared by Cobra to wrestle can usually walk into nearly any federation in Quebec (heck let’s say North America) and have a good match. As an example, the most recent batch of students had a match at NCW’s big show in April, Challenge Mania that stole the show and to my mind is one of the best matches that I saw in 2005.
Quebec wrestling tends to get stigmatized a little bit as “church basement wrestling,” but if you are going to run out of a church hall, you couldn’t do much better than the NDR centre which is a very nice building for wrestling, except during the summer when the lack of air conditioning turns the place into a furnace.
NCW runs a show about every two weeks. In general, they run two or three “build” or house shows which lead to a big “name” or blow-off show. This gives them room to tell stories although it seems to train their audience to only come to the blow-off shows. Sadly, Quebec crowds seem to do that anyway. (One of the reasons that the IWS names every show. We try to pretend that every show is a blow-off show.)
NCW is very old school fed, although old school in a very odd way. They seem to draw their inspiration from the WWF from (depending on your point of view) either the Bob Backlund era or the Bret Hart/Shawn Michaels era. As an example, one of their belts is the Inter-Cities title. Even if it is an odd inspiration, I admire the dedication.
There are a few things that drive me nuts about NCW. I find their ring ridiculously small. It seems that no matter where someone gets pinned that they should be able to reach the ropes to break the pin.
I mentioned earlier that NCW has very well constructed story lines. The disadvantage to this is that things tend to get a little bit predictable in NCW, especially since NCW (like the WWE oddly enough) has a very specific philosophy about paying one’s dues.
As a result, I have the odd tendency of visiting NCW during their build shows rather than their blow-off shows. The unexpected is more likely to happen. This is how I came to be at NCW’s gala on Saturday, Dec 10th, just a week before NCW’s last big show of the year: Noel d’Enfer or literally translated “Christmas Hell”.
As a side note, I should mention that I always pay to get into NCW. I could get in free if I wanted to, but I prefer to pay because I figure that paying gives me the right to criticize the product. I don’t tend to criticize the product much publicly in any case because politically, NCW and IWS are on relatively good terms, friendly but formal. We use some of the same wrestlers and that sometimes cause a little friction, and I don’t want to be the guy that causes a breakdown in the relationship. On the other hand, I just decided that I’m not that important.
When I have dropped by NCW lately, they have been doing very well in their crowds and they have drawn a lot of young kids. Bigger and younger crowds than a year ago. Good for them. This show, the crowd wasn’t great, but it wasn’t terrible. Probably about 125, maybe a little less.
Leading up to Noel d’Enfer, the big story is that one of the veterans of NCW has announced that he is retiring: Night-Stalker or ‘Stalker. Full disclosure here: I am a great big old ‘Stalker mark. I firmly believe that there is room in wrestling for guys of any shape as long as they have cardio to go in the ring and the charisma to tell a story in the ring. ‘Stalker is... well, ‘Stalker is pear-shaped.
‘Stalker has a strong resemblance to the wrestler Tor Johnson from the Ed Wood films... if you went out and dug out Tor right now, revived him as a zombie and taught him to do moonsaults off the top rope and had him start out each match by strangling the ref, that would be ‘Stalker’s gimmick right there.
The best part of NCW are the guys who become so committed to their characters that it almost becomes an extension of who they are. ‘Stalker wrestles as though his neck was broken and healed badly, so he wrestles with his head permanently tucked into his shoulder. When he enters, the fans cheer “Choke the Ref! Choke the Ref!” and he does. In the weird world of Quebec wrestling, looking like a monster, acting like a monster, brutalizing the ref makes ‘Stalker a near permanent face to the extent that every time he tries to act like a heel the fans just cheer louder.
As an NCW veteran, ‘Stalker has typically been a tag team specialist with brief flurries in the NCW mid-card. For an extended period, to the delight of the NCW fans, he was injected into the NCW cruiser-weight division with a note from his doctor claiming that his true weight was 185 pounds, making him eligible to compete for the NCW cruiser-weight title and crushing his opponents with his Stalker-sault.
Recently, ‘Stalker has been teaming with the pastel-wearing self-proclaimed sex symbol Mark Andrews: Captain Sexy, the Pokemon of Style, The Grinch Who Stole Charisma, the Power Ranger of... I forget to be honest. Basically, Marc Andrews gimmick is that he is like Larry Dallas from Three’s Company, a 70’s sex symbol who believes that he is God’s gift to women and because he is so self-confident has become that which he believes that he is. The team is called Anger Management and the idea is that Mark Andrews keeps ‘Stalker’s anger in check with the help of two stuffed animals: Garfield and Pikachu.
Immediately after announcing that he was retiring with his last match being at Noel d’Enfer, NCW announced that ‘Stalker had been admitted to the hospital and that his final match at Noel d’Enfer was at risk. His partner, Mark Andrews, announced that he would wrestle for the tag team titles in the fatal four way elimination with or without ‘Stalker, in honour of his hospitalized partner.
On the 10th of December, the two other teams to be involved in the four way were determined: Busty Love and Domino Jonathan, a pair of fiery rookies, and Karl Briscoe and Diablero, two NCW journeyman who are doing a story line where Diablero is doing a modified Eugene gimmick stalking Briscoe and slowly transforming himself to look like Briscoe a la Single White Female.
Mark Andrews, meanwhile, was scheduled to wrestle in a handicap match to get ready to wrestle alone in a tag situation, but a snow storm kept some scheduled wrestlers away, so Andrews wrestled Diablero’s old tag team partner Jay Phenomenon instead in what turned out to be a pretty good singles match. The whole being greater than the sum of the parts, because it is one of the better matches that I have seen out of either guy, even if the match is short at 5:14. Mark Andrews wins naturally.
After the match, all hell breaks out as the tag team champions “Armes de Destruction Massive” hit the ring followed in short order by the other two qualifying teams. “Armes de Destruction Massive” are managed by Tolo who is bigger than 95% of the wrestlers in Quebec. His two wrestlers are even bigger than he is. Mad Dog is one of those guys who lifts weights by doing curls with two fours and then drinking them down afterwards. Strong as a bull and almost as smart. His even bigger partner Tank is built like a brick. A fat sweaty brick, but still... a brick.
So, there are eight men in and around the tiny NCW ring counting Tolo, who is directing traffic, pounding on each other with the champions coming out ahead on points, despite being outnumbered five to three. Mark Andrews is being bludgeoned by everyone when IT happens...
3. Toto is a Fucking Smark
Everything is going higgeldy-piggeldy. The tag team champions are beating on everyone. The Rookies and the Journeymen are fighting with the tag team champions. And everyone is kicking the shit out of Mark Andrews... just because they can.
At which point, 'Stalker's music hits and he comes lurching down the ramp in his half-stagger, half-sprint charge with his head tucked in his shoulder. He throws everyone out of the ring like a great big face on fire...
And the NCW crowd pops like rabid weasels. Yep, me along with them.
Now, the cynical amongst us might well ask: Was 'Stalker ever in the hospital?
Here is my answer: It does not matter. Whether the scenario was completely made up or whether the NCW booker just perfectly adapted 'Stalker's hospital stay to the pre-existing story line is irrelevant. It was good story-telling and the crowd responded to it.
The truth is we want to be lied to. We want to suspend disbelief. We want people to tell us stories. At least I want it.
It may even be a survival instinct, a genetic trait. Maybe, way, way, way, way, way back when we were nothing more than upright apes with opposable thumbs and we gathered around the camp fire, huddling together against the dark, maybe that was when that blind man with the amazing memory began telling us stories to justify his share of the cooking pot. And by telling us stories of heroes, of men who ran faster, threw stone spears harder and hunted smarter, he inspired us to become those heroes and bring back more food for the pot to keep the tribe alive.
Which may be why we react so strongly to those who insist on pulling back the curtain and seeing how it all works.
Like in the Wizard of Oz. Dorothy and the Scarecrow and the Cowardly Lion and the Tin Man and Toto come to Oz to ask for help from the Wizard and he pulls a classic bait and switch on the them. Teasing them with a heart and courage and a brain and a one way ticket to Kansas and delivering instead a Dangerous Quest. When that gets taken care of, the Wizard, admittedly pushing his luck, tries to bait and switch them a second time until Toto, that Fucking Smark, pulls down the curtain and reveals how the Wizard does his magic.
Of course, the Wizard, no dummy, does his own little magic trick after being exposed - using psychology to give the appearance of granting their request. Giving a fake diploma instead of brains; a testimonial instead of courage; an alarm clock instead of a heart.
The same way that Vince saw the curtain being torn away by his steroid trial and used psychology to pretend to give people the truth while giving them anything but.
I believe in kayfabe. I believe in lying. I believe in telling stories. Sometimes I will lie to tell a greater truth. Sometimes, though, I will use the truth in order to better tell a lie.
Welcome to the Jungle.
Here There be Dragons.
Postscript: At Noel d’Enfer, ‘Stalker and Marc Andrews won the NCW tag team titles. Marc Andrews didn’t figure in the finish however being helped to the back after the defending tag team champions broke his ankle by wedging his leg in the ring barrier and then hitting it repeatedly with a chair. ‘Stalker did not win the belt alone though - he had the help of his retired partner Nightmare and his retired manager Floyd Bronfman. ‘Stalker and Andrews immediately relinquished the belts after the show to set up a tournament for the vacant belts.
After the match, it turned out that while ‘Stalker’s retirement was quite real, part of it was a set-up. Floyd Bronfman had come to the show to salute his old client’s last match, but it turned out that he had been lured to the show so that the NCW could throw a surprise ceremony inducting Bronfman into their Hall of Fame.
For those with any interest in my blog, you can access it by signing up for the IWS’ message board at www.syndicatewrestling.com/board and mailing me your user id to Llakor@hotmail.com.
(edited by Llakor on 15.3.06 1441) "Don't Blame CANADA, Blame Yourselves!"