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February 2015: Rethinking Wrestling Lingo and Booking for a “Smart” Audience

After watching the Royal Rumble both this year and in 2014, a few things have become increasing clear to me, mainly the fact that some words that wrestlers and “insider” fans have used and continue to use, like “smart mark” have now become obsolete and also that wrestling promoters need take a hard look at how to book in the “reality era”.


If you Google the term “pro wrestling” you’ll soon come across the Wikipedia entry for the “sport” where you’ll find that:



“The matches have predetermined outcomes in order to heighten entertainment value …”



Even if you had never seen wrestling before and had no idea what it was, just by Googling it you could find information that it is “fake”. However, from its infancy until the 90’s “kayfabe” was definitely in effect. Just ask John Stossel.


Because they thought that if the public learned the truth, (that wrestling matches had predetermined outcomes) that it would expose their business and thus ruin it, for years and years nobody “broke kayfabe”. In other words no one gave away any of the secrets of the sport. The fans that knew that it was a “work” and not a competition were known as “smart marks” or fans with insider knowledge.


Some people think that kayfabe died in February of 1989 when Vince McMahon said in court that it was just entertainment rather than a sporting contest, but I remember when I was just getting started in wrestling in the early 00’s that a lot of promoters would still tell me to kafabe the fans.


But just by judging the fans’ reaction at the past two Royal Rumble matches, and just by looking on Wikipedia, it’s plain to see that kayfabe has been dead for years. The fans were reacting to the creative decisions playing out in front of them and not reacting to the story being told. They were angry that their favorite, Daniel Bryan, had not been chosen to win the Royal Rumble and instead Roman Reigns had. They proceeded to boo everything else that was happening, incensed by the creative direction that the story was taking.


This tells me that the word “smart mark” is no longer applicable to wrestling fans. It’s no secret that wrestling matches have predetermined outcomes, so therefore smart marks no longer exist. This knowledge is readily available at the click of a mouse. But where does this leave wrestling promoters and bookers a.k.a creative writers?


To me, it seems that wrestling is at a crossroads. Many fans are no longer interested in the in-ring product. Maybe it’s because WWE has gotten lackadaisical since the end of the Monday Night Wars or maybe it’s because of the fact that wrestling’s inside secrets have all been exposed, I don’t know, but something has got to change. Wrestling has got to evolve somehow.


Many fans seem more interested in the private lives of the wrestlers more so than the on-screen personas. They prefer to criticize the creative direction of the story rather than sitting back and enjoying it for what it is. They get angry when their favorite is not “pushed” and another is. And what really surprised me - the fact that there was actually a movement to #CancelWWENetwork because they did not get what they wanted from a creative standpoint. They were actually threatening to cancel their subscriptions to the WWE Network because they were disappointed with the creative direction of the product. That’s just plain ridiculous. Some people need to chill out a little. Who the hell stands up during The Lord of the Rings and starts booing and throwing popcorn at the screen just because J.R.R. Tolkien chose Frodo Baggins to be the ring bearer and not your favorite character, Samwise Gamgee, who never got his “big push” and was held down by creative? It’s absurd, right?


Wrestling and films are obviously two completely different animals, but I think a comparison can be made. Wrestling relies on the live crowd to participate in the show and wrestling fans certainly have the right, and are even encouraged to scream, shout and chant whatever they want during the show. However, I think this whole situation could have been avoided if WWE had approached the situation differently long ago.


In my opinion, WWE has dug themselves into a hole. They constantly remind fans during Raw, Smackdown and their pay-per-views that it’s “just entertainment” and that it’s not real and that everything they are seeing is predetermined. This takes fans out of the moment and makes it nearly impossible to suspend disbelief. To openly talk about it off-screen is fine with me, but DURING THE SHOW there is no way you should be reminding fans that it’s fake. What would happen if suddenly, during Indiana Jones, when that big boulder is chasing down Harrison Ford, he suddenly looked straight into the camera and said “don’t worry, it can’t hurt me, it’s just a film”. The next time Indiana Jones was in danger you probably wouldn’t care so much about him. You might even start to think to yourself “humm, maybe it would be even better if next time Indiana Jones were chased down by a pack of dogs! Screw this sequel, the director has no idea what he’s doing! I can write a better script that that!”


When you’re watching a film, in the back of your mind you still know it’s just a film, and that it’s not real, but at some point you allow yourself to become entrenched in the story. You allow yourself to temporarily forget about reality and be transported into a different world. When that happens you start to care about the story and care about the characters and before you know it, you’re crying when Jack drowns at the end of Titanic (spoiler alert!).


WWE constantly reminds you (during Raw) that the most important thing is that the wrestlers’ jobs are to entertain the fans. Then they tell you that the two wrestlers are going to fight later tonight. How does that make any sense at all? Where is there room for suspending disbelief? As another illustration, what if I leaned over and whispered to you when the boat started to sink, that Jack was not in fact Jack, but Jack was just a character being played by Leonardo DiCaprio. Would you still cry when he drowns? Probably not.


Wrestling is like a movie. You know it’s fake, but you still go along with it because you WANT to be entertained. That’s why you’re watching the movie in the first place. Nobody has ever said to me “I’m not going to see that movie, it’s fake! I only watch documentaries because they’re real.” I believe wrestling fans still want to believe. They want to be taken on that journey. Outside of the ring and off the air, it’s fine to talk openly about wrestling as being predetermined, but during the show there should be no allusion to it or it will take the viewer out of the moment. However, World Wrestling Entertainment spoils it for you by telling you in the name of their brand that it’s just “entertainment” as well as reminding you about it during the show. In short - be realistic behind the scenes and keep the kayfabe during the show.



- Daniel Austin (Don Roid) (blog) (podcast)



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