On the NXT Kayfabe Renaissance

True kayfabe is a rare bird at this stage of history on wrestling’s timeline. The fact that it is a scripted performance is now firmly a “no duh”. Or maybe a “yeah, and?” We all think about the meta in wrestling now, considering it in terms of storyline, product, and character development. We are completely aware that we cheer and boo for quality of performance, intensity of presence, and for surprises we weren’t expecting. It’s an athletic performance, not a literal competition.

Some of you whipper-snapper millenials may not fully grasp the tremendous evolution that has taken place over time in our ability to access the world of professional wrestling behind the wall of kayfabe. (Sometimes I pretend I’m one of you, but in fact I’m a youngish Gen X’er.) My dad told me it was all “fake” that first Saturday morning in 1985 when I turned the dial and stumbled across Wendy Richter wrestling Leilani Kai with Cyndi Lauper and Fabulous Moolah at ringside, but the whole thing was still rather shrouded in the kayfabe mist. People always talked about how it was fake, but it was almost like nobody could prove it for sure. I distinctly remember Connie Chung doing a segment on it, which was billed in the commercials as an expose that would set the record straight, once and for all. Was wrestling real or was it fake? Connie gave her introductory shpiel about it, and then, if memory serves, she gave a disclaimer for anyone who wasn’t emotionally ready for the truth yet. Like a warning to parents, get all the little kids out of the room. Then she got all like she was telling us a big secret and finally came out with it: “It’s all fake!” And then came the news segment, in which they went behind the scenes and blew the lid off the then WWF.

Consider that. We really didn’t know for sure if it was real or fake, and Connie Chung had to look into it for us. Nowadays, it’s weird to think that somebody might not realize it’s “fake”. Now the people who look gullible are the ones who go, “Wrestling’s so fake!” Because somehow they never saw the memo about how we the followers understand, yes, the matches are scripted and the outcomes predetermined, and we love it nonetheless.

But by coming to this point, where we all know beyond a shadow of doubt that professional wrestling is fiction and that the wrestlers are playing characters, we caused the final death of old school kayfabe, that cloud of confusion that kept us fuzzy about what was for real and what was a work. That is what we’ve lost in this era of wrestling in which its promotions and their audiences saturate the internet with documentary history and podcast, blog, and Twitter analysis. The mystique is gone forever, and without it WWE has plummeted into this strange carny-corporate sports entertainment vortex in which its product has grown into a jittery theater of the absurd, frantically exploiting its own ironies now because without that gloss of kayfabe, irony seems like the only thing they have left to sell us.

And yet, the writers and wrestlers of NXT are ushering forth a renaissance of kayfabe, one that is built upon intricate, carefully crafted storytelling and unique characters based in classical believability. This modern resurgence of kayfabe has broken free from the dichotomy of heels and faces — it is dynamic and complex, and doesn’t manipulate the audience so much as invites us to feel. We like who we want to like now and we refuse to let the company dictate how we will feel, hustle loyalty respect be damned. We are a diverse audience of types, so each of us is drawn to a very personal set of wrestling heroes. If we resonate with a heel we go there, which I believe has allowed NXT to create this new sort of kayfabe that plays on our emotional response and admiration for whichever wrestlers most inspire us.

I for one will admit I had tears in my eyes despite myself when Sasha Banks pinned Charlotte for the NXT women’s title. I was so, so proud for the character, the wrestler, and the woman, all three. I couldn’t resist the exchange of emotional energy with a smartass mean girl heel who shoots her mouth off in the faces of legends. There is a certain part of me that is her. When Sasha held up the belt, wrestling was, for a moment, real to me; I was lost in her kayfabe. Oddly enough, there was a video of her in a post-match interview, which I’m pretty sure I saw tweeted from one of WWE’s accounts with a comment something to the effect of, “an emotional Sasha Banks breaks kayfabe in heartfelt backstage promo.”

But when Sasha tears up as she talks about herself as a ten year old girl who is now living her dream, isn’t she in fact breathing life into a new kind of kayfabe? In this promo, she is making wrestling real again.

Elsewhere in NXT, the renaissance of kayfabe is in full resurgence in the work of Sami Zayn, Adrian Neville, and Kevin Owens. Adrian and Sami laid the groundwork for a veritable kayfabe storm as they played out their carefully written rivalry, one that regularly played at the idea of falsehood: within the rivalry’s fiction, Adrian put sweet, naive everyman Sami  through trials that forced him to learn how to recognize a work, and to experience the opportunity to use a work of his own to win the match. When Adrian shook his finger at Sami after Sami fell for his ruse of injury and was caught off guard for a pin, it was as though Adrian was saying, “Learn not to be so gullible, my friend. This is professional wrestling, where truth and falsehood blur at their boundaries.”

I was out of town during that match and not in a position to watch it, but my husband texted me about it. His initial impression was that something was weird about it, the ending appeared to be botched by Adrian’s knee injury, which he then scrambled to solve with a quick roll-up for the pin, which he was supposed to have come about through a more lengthy series of events. Looking back on it I’m pretty sure the knee injury pin was in fact a masterful work that fit perfectly into the storyline, but they managed to hook my husband into the kayfabe of this moment of injury, an inevitable element of wrestling which, especially since the CM Punk podcast, has us as the audience feeling concerned and unsure of where fact and fiction delineate.

At NXT Takeover REvolution, when Sami found himself with the opportunity to win with a dirty work of his own, he chose the honest path, even though that path was ultimately a work fiction. But just as Sami and Adrian were completing the final chapter of this fulfilling story about honesty and gullibility, Kevin Owens entered the scene as a known long time friend of Sami’s in real life to swerve the moral message of the narrative into disarray and further blur the lines of kayfabe around injury. Recall how jarring it was when, after the entire roster had earnestly celebrated Sami’s victory for several minutes and the final copyright line had appeared like a big THE END, Kevin Owens suddenly powerbombed Sami into the ramp, then threw him again into the apron, right on his neck. And then the show was over and we were left not knowing where things stood or what had happened.

I will admit, in that moment my immediate concern was that Sami Zayn had a concussion or a neck injury. I knew it was probably okay, but when he took such a brutal bump right before the show went off the air, I felt unsteady about it. I didn’t know for certain what was real and what wasn’t. It was brilliant! I scrambled to the internet to see if I could get some kind of confirmation as to what actually happened. What I found was this video of William Regal beside himself, barely able to get the words out:

After that video, I knew Sami must have been okay, more or less. William Regal was giving a promo, his words existed inside the work of Kevin Owens’ betrayal. He wasn’t talking about a wrestler with a neck injury, or a new guy who had gone rogue and was getting fired. I started to feel a little silly I had wondered for a moment if wrestling had suddenly turned “real”. And yet I still felt unsettled — on one hand Regal’s continuation of the work meant that Sami must not have been too badly injured by Kevin’s ambush. But on the other hand, Regal does not play the general manager of NXT as his old snooty British guy wrestling character, he plays it as a deeply concerned father figure who we can safely assume is pretty much his authentic self. Regal’s impressive performance still kept the kayfabe question from definitively resolving itself. I would later watch that moment at the end of NXT Takeover REvolution several more times, and I could see Sami relax his body and carefully allow his neck to bounce off the apron of the ring, taking a difficult but textbook bump. I could step back enough to discern, clearly, that it was a work. A truly sublime one.

This, my friends, is the new kayfabe.

The writers of NXT didn’t shy away from their narrative accomplishment like WWE did when they fizzled the brilliance of the Bray Wyatt storyline after his feud with Cena. They forged ahead with a tale that has had us captivated, unsettled, disturbed and brokenhearted. Kevin Owens bulldozed darling, gravity-defying Adrian Neville, who had to leave the ring on a stretcher, which hurt to watch. Sami returned in a rage, remember? And just whaled on some jobber? Then there was the excellent contract signing, where Owens took his stand as a prize fighter, proud and yet twitchy about betraying his best friend for the benefit of his wife and kids. A little unhinged about it, even, which is fascinating — he’s not a simplistic villain, that Kevin Owens. He’s a devastatingly brutal and believable heel because his fidgeting and shiftiness bring an air of authenticity — his tough guy posturing strikes me not as character but as a hardened front he puts on in public. He’s a real man making harsh and difficult choices, a conflicted soul in a cloud of kayfabe who may or may not be nearly identical to the character he plays.

Wrestlers playing original, authentic characters based on themselves builds great kayfabe, and the writers of NXT recognize this. The photo and interview montage lead-in before the Zayn/Owens title/grudge match showed us real pictures of Kevin and Sami’s friendship over the years, as well as shots of Kevin’s wife and kids. Sami’s assertion that their friendship seemed to stall out when Kevin got married sounded extremely plausible, like something that may actually have happened. The two then delivered a devastating match that was painful to watch and bewildering in its finish — did anybody even realize a title could change hands if the ref stops the match for a knock out? Again we found ourselves in the kayfabe fog — was Sami really concussed? Did he actually hit his head that hard on the ramp? Was this a botched ending? Will Sami be okay?

(I should point out here, that another reason it’s so easy to lose ourselves in the kayfabe of this NXT feud is that Sami Zayn is the most sympathetic and convincing everyman babyface I can think of, more over than Daniel Bryan in my humble o. Sami Zayn is authentically what they try to sell us as John Cena, and I dare say he has cost far less money to create.)

Once again an NXT pay-per-view ended in a kayfabe fog, all of us knocked out of our smarkish comfort zones and into that sublime grey area where we don’t know real from work. And once again they didn’t back away, giving us an authentic-looking doctor’s report on Sami’s injury in the next show. That Sami was acutely injured but cleared to travel to Abu Dhabi was another strange quandry to throw us — if he was really as concussed as he appeared, he should have taken a few weeks off at home. But then, this is still in the realm of the WWE, where we know some concussions are more equal than others.

Ultimately, though, the signifier of the “knock out” work here is hiding in plain sight: the “KO” on Kevin Owens’ t-shirt. All of this, I’m fairly confident, was a narrative built on the double meaning of Kevin Owens’ initials, initials that were clearly and carefully chosen by the creative department. We too, I might add, have been knocked out by the arrival of Kevin Owens.

This stuff is the old school reason we watch wrestling. We have only limited interest in novelties of pyro, goofy gimmicks, and contrived backstage skits. What we want is to explore the boundaries of our emotions, to ride a roller-coaster of catharsis that exercises (maybe even exorcises?) the wild energies that aren’t allowed to fly free in our mundane daily lives. We want to feel these great big feelings and bask in them, feel ourselves in the wrestling characters, feel the emotions that come with the real pain they inevitably feel in this crazy thing they do for us. (Let’s all never forget that — they feel real pain for us.)

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I should add as a post script that Tim of the Work of Wrestling blog has touched on a lot of this same ground from his critical perspective, which is in many ways a fellow traveler with my own critical perspective. I should certainly acknowledge his early use of the word “renaissance” to describe NXT’s role in the world of professional wrestling.  But it’s a funny thing — I wrote much of this post before I read his truly profound most recent NXT Report, which I feel like delivers a very similar message. So if you like what I wrote here, please go read the Work of Wrestling’s NXT Report.

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