In professional wrestling, kayfabe (pronounced KAY-fayb; IPA: Template:IPA) refers to the portrayal of events within the industry as real, that is the portrayal of professional wrestling as not staged or worked. Referring to events as kayfabe means that they are worked events, and/or part of a wrestling storyline. In relative terms, a wrestler breaking kayfabe during a show would be likened to an actor breaking character on camera.
Kayfabe is often seen as the suspension of disbelief that is used to create the non-wrestling aspects of promotions, such as feuds, storylines, and gimmicks, in a similar manner with other forms of entertainment such as soap opera or movie. In the past, kayfabe was strongly adhered to in order to preserve the illusion that pro wrestling was not staged. With the advent of the Internet Wrestling Community and the sports entertainment movement in pro wrestling, the maintenance of pro wrestling's backstage secrets are more difficult to keep than they were in earlier decades. Today, kayfabe is sometimes broken to advance storylines, to explain prolonged absences due to legitimate injury, as a tribute to a wrestler, or even for comedic effect.
However, (even today), wrestlers who unexpectedly break kayfabe are often punished for their actions. One of the most notable such cases was the MSG Incident where Triple H's rise to professional wrestling stardom in the WWF was stunted for some time after he embraced his soon-to-be departing onscreen rivals, Diesel and Razor Ramon, at the end of a house show at Madison Square Garden.
Pro wrestling can trace some of its stylistic origins back to carnivals and Catch Wrestling, where the term "kayfabe" is thought to have originated as carny slang for "protecting the secrets of the business." The term "kayfabe" itself may ultimately originate from the Pig Latin form of "fake" ("ake-fay") or the phrase "be fake."
Kayfabe may also derive from another trick used by traveling carnival workers. With money tight, a carny would call home collect and ask for "Kay Fabian." This was code letting the people at home know they had made it safely to the next town without paying for the cost of a phone call.
The most obvious part of kayfabe is in the wrestling itself. Many of the moves employed in wrestling have the potential of inflicting serious injury, and it is the responsibility of wrestlers to protect each other in the ring while appearing to inflict massive amounts of damage (a notion known as selling a move in wrestling circles). As such, wrestlers are often less injured than depicted, and thus appear to have recovered in time for the following show. Hardcore wrestling is an example in which this part of kayfabe is enhanced (yet in a sense, broken) for good effect - that the moves that wrestlers often inflict on each other are legitimate, and should not be used to those who are not trained in wrestling.
Conversely, healthy wrestlers may be absent for prolonged periods of time in order to recover from a fictitious injury or storyline termination of employment, when in fact other commitments may preclude them from appearing (in the past, it may be the case where wrestlers tour abroad, and in recent years, appearing in movies). Journeyman wrestlers may appear or disappear from various promotions without explanation, sometimes due to the fact that either the wrestler or promotion may travel while the other does not.
It is common for pro wrestlers to play certain characters adopt ring names that conform to their gimmick. To break kayfabe in this case is to refer to a pro wrestler by their real name instead of their ring name. Some pro wrestlers, however, choose to wrestle under their real names (or some appellation therein), reinforcing the illusion that their behavior inside the ring is identical to their behavior outside of the ring. Some wrestlers, such as Dallas Page or The Ultimate Warrior, refer to themselves solely by the ring name that made them famous and may even legally change their real names to that of their adopted ring names.
Wrestlers, when considered as fictional characters, are typically organized into an alignment spectrum, with faces (the good guys) and heels (the bad guys) on opposite ends. In a well-known form of kayfabe, faces and heels are not allowed to associate with each other in public, unless the possibility of a character changing alignment is being entertained. Many storylines that pit wrestlers against each other in the ring actually develop or enhance friendships outside of the ring. Because of this, some pro wrestling feuds and storylines are highly implausible in real life.
Many storylines make use of kayfabe romantic relationships between a male and (usually) female performer, just like in the movies. Very often, both participants have other real-life relationships, and the "relationship" between the two is simply a storyline. However, more than once, kayfabe romantic relationships have resulted either from a real-life relationship, such as between Edge and Lita, or ultimately developed into a real-life one (e.g., Triple H and Stephanie McMahon, who became husband and wife in 2003, more than a year after their "kayfabe" marriage ended).
For years, the World Wrestling Federation presented real-life spouses Randy "Macho Man" Savage and Miss Elizabeth as a wrestler-valet relationship; no mention was made that they were married. In 1991, the two began a kayfabe romantic relationship, which culminated in a wedding ceremony at SummerSlam 1991. The storyline ended a year later with the couple's real-life divorce (and Miss Elizabeth's departure from the WWF).
Tag teams of wrestlers who resemble each other may be presented as relatives, though they are not actually related. Examples:
- The Hollys (Hardcore Holly, Crash Holly, and Molly Holly)
- Edge and Christian
- The Basham Brothers (Doug and Danny).
- Kayfabe families the Andersons and the Grahams.
- The Brothers of Destruction (Undertaker and Kane)
The Von Erichs, despite being a real life family, had peripheral kayfabe relatives, most notably Waldo Von Erich and his "son", Lance. Additionally, the "Von Erich" name itself was somewhat kayfabed; their real family name was Adkisson.
"Injuries" are often used to explain a wrestler's disappearance from a storyline, usually due to legitimate injuries or real-life incidents or matters involving the wrestler. Examples of kayfabe injuries:
- Kurt Angle "breaking" Randy Orton's ankle during the April 14, 2006 edition of SmackDown! Orton had just been suspended from the WWE for 60 days.
- Angle's "cracked rib" injury so he could recover from a recurring neck injury.
- Shawn Michaels supposedly being injured with a "crushed larynx" after being attacked by Kane on an episode of RAW in 2004. This was to explain Michaels' absence on paternity leave.
"Injuries" are also created when a wrestler leaves to film a movie, recover from an illness, or to attend to family matters or are involved in legal matters.
The vast majority of instances where a paramedic team is prominently featured on TV to tend to an "injured" character, even though the announcers (and sometimes the wrestlers) pretend to acknowledge them as legitimate.
"You're fired!" and "I quit!"
Through kayfabe, wrestlers also quit or get fired, or are booked to lose a match where their jobs are on the line (e.g., a "loser leaves town match"), only to return at a future time. Just as with fictional injuries, these storylines are often created to explain a wrestler's temporary or permanent departure, and are seldom used to explain a real-life termination.
However, such "departures" may also be used to advance a feud between two wrestlers. A classic example is the "masked man," where the wrestler (usually a face) who has supposedly lost his job makes appearances at subsequent events while wearing a mask, and then interfering in his heel opponent's matches; eventually, the masked wrestler's identity is exposed by his foe and the feud intensifies. This storyline was used for the Dusty Rhodes-Kevin Sullivan feud during the 1980s.
The "you're fired" gimmick has also be used to re-package a wrestler with a new gimmick.
A recent example of the "I quit" aspect came on the May 1, 2006 edition of RAW, where Joey Styles publicly quit (so he could become the play-by-play announcer on the WWE's new Extreme Championship Wrestling program).