For the edification of the younger fans who never lived during the territorial days when kayfabe ruled I am posting my article that was published in the program/magazine of the 2016 PWHF Induction Ceremonies.


By Mike Tereshko

Today’s wrestling fans toss around the word “kayfabe” without really knowing its true meaning and the deep concept that the word encompasses. As we will see, the use of the word “kayfabe” to describe modern wrestling is, in fact, an anachronism. The definition of kayfabe given by the “US English Dictionary” is:

“In professional wrestling the fact or convention of presenting staged performances a genuine or authentic.”

While this definition is basically correct, the concept of kayfabe goes much deeper and, in fact, represented a sociological phenomenon that created a separate world for the wrestling industry and its fans.

The origins of the word can be traced back to the carny circuit and was used to protect the secrets of the trade. If a stranger appeared someone would say, “kayfabe” to warn everyone to stop talking because a “mark” or an outsider was present.

A “mark” or “kayfabian” was a sucker who was set up for a scam. The one assigned to look out for an easy victim was called the “agent.” When the agent spotted someone whom he believed to be easy pickings he would strike up a conversation with him and mark his back with chalk to indicate to his carny accomplices that this was a fish to be played. Thus, the origin of the term “mark” for an easy victim.

The Golden Age of Wrestling is loosely construed to be the period from 1950 to 1965. During that time kayfabe was at its height and pro-wrestling was watched by its fans as a competitive sport – no less legitimate than boxing or baseball. Kayfabe not only suspended disbelief in its followers, but actually fostered true belief in a large number of fans that professional wrestling was a competitive sports contest.

I was raised in the 1950s and 1960s in a blue collar immigrant neighborhood in East New York Brooklyn. Everybody – and I mean EVERYBODY – was into professional wrestling.

On Thursday evening from 9 PM to 11 PM the streets were empty and everyone was in their apartments watching Capitol Wrestling from Washington DC. Hosted by the iconic announcer/commentator Ray Morgan, the best wrestlers of the NWA’s Northeast Territory were brought into our living rooms. The next day at school and in the streets there would be serious discussions between the adults as well as the kids regarding the previous evening’s bouts.

Television was in its infancy and having difficulty coming up with shows to fill its empty time slots. Wrestling was used to bolster TV programming and, as a result, was brought into the living rooms of millions of families who, otherwise, would never have watched it.
The sports sections of major newspapers reported on wrestling events the same as they reported on other sports. Without computers and the internet we kept up on the game through the monthly and bi-monthly publications such as “Wrestling Revue” and its sister publication “Boxing Illustrated-Wrestling News.”

The one thing that was inviolate during the Golden Age was the concept of kayfabe. No wrestler would dare break the code and admit that the results of the matches were pre-arranged. On television, in print, and in their real lives kayfabe ruled.
Many of you may be familiar with the story of Wladek “Killer” Kowalski visiting Yukon Eric in the hospital the night that he accidentally chopped off Eric’s ear with a mistimed knee drop in 1952 during a match at the Montreal Forum.

At the request of promoter Eddie Quinn, Kowalski went to the hospital to see him. When Killer saw the large turban appearing head bandages around Eric’s head and the two men’s’ eyes met, Kowalski broke out laughing. To his surprise, a number of reporters were present. The next day in the sports sections of the newspapers headlines read “Kowalski Taunts Injured Yukon Eric in Hospital.”

People who never lived and experienced the Golden Age of Wrestling simply cannot imagine the hold that kayfabe had on the industry and the fans.

I remember personally seeing Count Karl Von Hess and Abe Jacobs, “The Jewish Champion,” create a near riot on the live broadcast of Capitol Wrestling TV one Thursday night back around 1959. Jacobs entered the square circle carrying a flag with the Star of David while Von Hess goose-stepped around the ring giving the Nazi salute to the fans. The bell never rang as Von Hess attacked Jacobs from behind after the referee gave them their instructions. Total chaos ensued with the fans throwing garbage into the ring as Von Hess wrapped the tag rope around Jacobs’ neck and put him in a literal “Hangman’s Noose.”

Von Hess was disqualified and quickly escorted out of the arena before the irate crowd could get their hands on him. What no one knew was that Karl Von Hess, i.e. Frank Faketty, was not only not a Nazi, but a WW II veteran who served as a U.S. Navy “Frogman” fighting against the Nazis. Also, he was not German, but the son of Hungarian immigrants to the United States.

Faketty’s kayfabe persona was creating such volatile reactions among the fans that Vince McMahon, Sr. actually did the unimaginable and broke kayfabe in 1956. In response to the District of Columbia Athletic Commission’s outrage over the violent feud between Von Hess and Jackie Fargo, McMahon, Sr. made a statement that Von Hess was not really a Nazi.

The statement was picked up by the Washington Post and printed in the paper. Apparently, this rare break in the kayfabe code had little to no effect on the fans judging by their reaction to the aforementioned match between Von Hess and Jacobs three years later!

It also didn’t have much influence on Faketty who continued to live his Karl Von Hess persona in and out of the ring. After Faketty was stabbed by an irate fan he was subpoenaed to testify in court. Faketty refused to speak English and break kayfabe when he was called upon to testify!!! The judge met with him and the two agreed to have Von Hess testify but in German using a translator.

The self-proclaimed “sports entertainment” of today is not your father’s or grandfather’s wrestling. In fact, the creation of the concept of wrestling as “sports entertainment” killed kayfabe as surely as the WWE killed off the competing independent territories as it expanded its monopoly in the mid-1980s.

To be fair, kayfabe’s demise was the result of a number of factors not the least of which was the high tech revolution in communication which began in the mid-1990s with the advent of the internet. Perhaps the stake driven through kayfabe’s heart was due to the WWF’s admission that pro-wrestling was, indeed, not a competitive sport. What do you say when the industry itself tells you that everything is a pre-arranged show and that wrestling is not a sport, but “sports entertainment???

Interestingly, the term “sports entertainment” was used as early as the 1930s. The eccentric promoter Jack Pfefer was famous for saying that “wrestling was fake, but it doesn’t matter to fans who will believe it anyway.” It turned out that he was right. Pfefer carried out a number of campaigns to discredit the legitimacy of wrestling – the first being in the mid-1930s when he felt he was disrespected by a group of promoters. Later, after Nature Boy Buddy Rogers fired him as his manager in 1949, Pfefer again “bit the hand that fed him” and went after the legitimacy of pro-wrestling using Rogers as one of his major examples.

Pfefer’s attacks on wrestling had little effect on kayfabe and the fan’s belief in it. However, on December 28, 1984 the popular television news program “20/20” broadcast John Stoessel’s damaging expose on the legitimacy of wrestling that shook the foundations of kayfabe.

With kayfabe already on the ropes Vince McMahon, Jr. went before the New Jersey Senate on February 10, 1989 and testified that wrestling was prearranged and not a real competitive sports contest. McMahon was fed up with paying state Athletic Commission fees and was testifying in support of legislation to remove professional wrestling from the list of legitimately competitive professional sports.

The death of kayfabe erased the passion which moved fans to riot in Madison Square Garden in 1957 during a bloody match between the iconic high flyer Antonino Rocca and his partner Edouard Carpentier against the legendary monster heel Dr. Jerry Graham and Dick (the Bruiser) Afflis. The McMahon admission liquidated the enthusiasm that drove fans in Winnipeg, Canada in 1964 to attack and trap the Fabulous Kangaroos under the ring and try to smoke them out by burning chairs and garbage.

For better or worse, the mentality of today’s wrestling fans has been irreversibly altered. Back in the day we watched a wrestling match the way one would view a competitive sport, and everyone associated with the industry lived kayfabe during and after the event.

Today’s fans watch wrestling the same way they would view any television show. The wrestling is merely a backdrop and vehicle to convey the latest adventures in a never ending soap opera where the participants are acknowledged as actors who are just playing a role.

The double edged sword of technological progress along with the corporate agenda of the WWE monopoly killed kayfabe. Whether this is a good or bad is something that each individual will judge for himself. One thing is for sure – the days of kayfabe have long since come to an end and the NYPD will most likely never again be called out to Madison Square Garden to put down a wrestling riot.

Long lived kayfabe!


The newspapers back in the day reported on pro-wrestling in their sports sections the same way they reported on baseball, football, basketball, and hockey.

The Chicago Sun Times was only one of myriad newspapers around the country that reported on the June 30, 1961 title switch at Chicago’s Comiskey Park. A record crowd of 38,662 was present to watch that NWA World Championship match The Rogers/O’Connor attendance record held for over 20 years!

3.5 million readers read the photo essay in the June 2, 1957 Sunday Daily News.

Eccentric promoter Jack Pfefer was notorious for biting the hand that fed him. He went on a “wrestling is fake” kick back in the '30s when he felt he was disrespected by other promoters. Again in 1950 Pfefer went berserk when Nature Boy Buddy Rogers fired him as manager. Rogers became the target of his second “expose” of pro-wrestling.

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Nice read.

But if you factor in when people get offended over a written angle these days…kayfabe isn’t as dead as you think. It just morphed.

And all sports is just sports entertainment. They have storylines and some are even manufactured especially when it comes to combat sports.

That Pfeifer guy was prophetic.

You’re missing the point, my friend. Back in the day most people believed or suspended disbelief. Kayfabe was part of the sub-culture of wrestling and allowed fans to watch and consider wrestling like it was a competitive sport.

As I mentioned in the article, today fans just watch WWE’s shows like they would watch “Dallas” or any other TV soap. They look upon the wrestlers as actors playing roles in a story with wrestling as a backdrop. The mentality of today’s wrestling fan is nothing like the mentality of the fan back in the day before the advent of Vinny, Jr.'s “sports entertainment.”

Kayfabe didn’t morph - it died. People use the word, but they are not talking about kayfabe which no longer exists.

Thinking a work of fiction is a statement of fact sounds pretty kayfabe to me.

I’ll tell you what. Go and talk to 100 wrestling fans above the age of 12. I am willing to bet that you won’t find one that believes wrestling matches are competitive and not pre-arranged.

Back in the day if you talked to the same sampling of 100 fans above the age of 12 you would find half-suspended disbelief and the other half actually believed that wrestling was a legit competitive sport.

Also, as I mentioned, when the industry itself says that it’s not for real how can anyone who is sane really believe it is on the up and up? Back in the day the industry refused to admit it was not competitive and pre-arranged which added to the mystique of kayfabe.

You can do that poll about religious people and get the same stats.

And the more abroad you take it, the bigger that number gets.

In the broad sense of the term all sports are “sports entertainment.” However, the difference is that those sports are competitive and the results are not predetermined. I’m using the term in the narrower sense relating to wrestling as it was used by Vinny, Jr. when he admitted wrestling was fake.

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I really enjoyed this, thanks for the repost! As a relatively recent fan myself I often wonder what it must have been like to have lived in the days of kayfabe. The way my Dad’s generation reminisce about big daddy and giant haystacks does make them seem larger than life in a way that just isn’t possible the way wrestling fans are today and with how promotion has changed. I was reminded of that when I worked with lebanese teachers a few years ago. When I told them I watched wrestling, they basically said “now it’s all fake, not like when we used to watch the Von Erichs and Kamala! That was real!” Some of these folks lived through 30 years of civil war, occupation and invasion including trials I can barely imagine in what was then one of the most volitile parts of the country, but they still remember the Von Erichs and Kamala above it all! Just goes to show you how strong an impression kayfabe made on a lot of people. Must be a trip to see how differently things are treated today eh? I take it you grew up around the same time as the writer? Do you find wrestling as easy to enjoy now that it’s morphed into something totally different? Is there a product/wrestler out there today that helps you suspend your disbelief like wrestling did for you back in the day? Do you find today’s wrestling lesser or is it easier just to think of it as different? Always a pleasure to hear from wrestling fans such as yourself with different perspectives :slight_smile:

Whilst I do see your point, I think the main problem is this approach means that the heat ends up going to the promotion rather than the performers, which doesn’t really help anyone. At least back in the day if say Roddy Piper was smashing Snuka with a coconut, Piper was getting the heat for it. If you’re talking about some sort of modern equivalent, such as struggles to think of the last time anyone got actual heat Alexa calling Nia James fat for instance, (sorry about the terrible example, it’s late and that’s all I can think of right now) the audience rightly knows that more than likely this was written for her therefore the heat goes to the office, and she just looks like someone who is stuck making the best of someone else’s words as opposed to being someone with a genuinely polarising view. Edge to me is a prime example. While he was great at being a WWE sports entertainment heel, there’s nothing about the man that makes me think he really is that much of an asshole. On the contrary, he seems like a great guy which is a big part of the reason I don’t think he resonated outside of a wrestling audience like Punk, Jericho or Piper did. There are a few performers in recent memory who could genuinely rile up that sort of heat (Jericho and Punk come to mind) and marshall it into their storylines, but it’s such a fine art that can’t be taught in a performance centre. It comes from being an asshole and having the genuine awareness of your behaviour and the effect it has on others. That second part is what’s really missing in today’s antagonists.

So I don’t think people being frustrated at poorly thought out angles is neccesarily proof of kayfabe still being alive. If anything, unfortunately I think it’s more a symptom of the opposite being true, otherwise the performers would be given a lot more leighway to generate the type of heat that translates to cash. It takes more than a bit of hollow line recital or clumsy jingoism. It takes a plan, genuine discipline and the balls to stay the course without pulling the plug too soon on behalf of the performers and the office. Not to mention listening to the audience to make sure that the heat you’re getting is the right type of heat (which of course is arguable in itself to begin with).

It’s an interesting thought though,probably the most fascinating thing about wrestling for me is how product reflective of it’s time really does go to show what it’s audience is willing to tolerate at a certain time. Is race baiting OK if there’s a feeling the storyline has some civic value and the racist gets their comeuppance? Is jingoism still acceptable when you have a global audience? The world certainly is a fascinating place in 2018 :slight_smile:

Not only did I grow up at the same time as the writer - I AM THE WRITER. lol

I’m not a major wrestling historian, but I’ve had a few articles published in the PWHF magazine.

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Kayfabe didn’t come from a single wrestler or product. It was literally a subculture that wrestlers, people connected to the game, and fans belonged to. It was watched as a competitive sport, not like any other television program with actors as it is watched today.

My son was brought up on Stone Cold, 'Taker, Kane, The Rock, Goldberg, etc. so when I offered to show him some wrestling from my day I expected him to be bored. I put on a video of the Rogers/O’Connor title switch at Comiskey Park in 1961. Not only was my 12 year old NOT bored, he sat through the entire 35 minute video without moving. When it was over he turned to me and said, "So, pop. Some of the matches were for real back in your day."

I had always impressed upon him that wrestling was prearranged and he was well aware that he wasn’t watching guys and gals beating the hell out of each other for real. When he made the above statement I almost fell over! lol Out of the mouth of babes…

“Nia James”: She’s definitely “not like most girls!”

Yet that image not intrigues me.yet excites me for some reason? I thank you good sir/madam.

The Wrestlers made sure when they wrestled back then to make it look legitimate. video game indy wrestling today no one can take seriously as a “real” fight. Im Sure most kids would have the same reaction especially if they watch any MMA fights as well as the wrestlers mimicked almost what a grappling mma fight is today. more modern times look at pancrase in the 90s no hold barred/mma fighting but many of it was thought to be kayfabed or “fixed” “predetermined” yet MMA fighters have it on there records. Kayfabe will never be brought back but certain feuds if booked right could seem really real if wwe or indys ever want to go that way but a limited mma mimicking style would be needed.

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