How Pro Wrestling Works

Kayfabe and Wrestling Lingo

WWE RAW Superstar The Big Show greets soldiers in Afghanistan as he walks to the ring. The Big Show has gone from heel to face and back again many times during his 10-year wrestling career.
WWE RAW Superstar The Big Show greets soldiers in Afghanistan as he walks to the ring. The Big Show has gone from heel to face and back again many times during his 10-year wrestling career.
Photo courtesy Journalist 1st Class Kristin Fitzsimmons / U.S. Department of Defense

The wrestling code is called kayfabe, an old carnival term. In wrestling, it refers to the illusion that the characters and storylines are real. It was once an important wrestling code, and some wrestlers even stayed in character outside the ring to reinforce the illusion. To "break kayfabe" was to step out of character in the ring, or dispel the illusion. This dampened fan enthusiasm and hurt business, so promoters were not too kind to wrestlers who broke kayfabe, often writing them out of important storylines or not using them at all.

Kayfabe is not as important today. Pro wrestling is more or less open about the fact that the stories and plots are predetermined. They rely on the fans' willing acceptance and desire to be entertained by the stories, but wrestling performers still need to stay in character during a match. When a wrestler breaks kayfabe, it is a shoot. A shoot can be a match where the wrestlers get angry and actually fight each other instead of using the choreographed moves. It can also happen when someone accidentally uses another performer's real name, or when behind-the-scenes events spill into the ring.

Infamous shoots include:

  • The MSG Incident: A group of wrestlers whose characters were enemies, but were friends in real life, hugged each other goodbye in the ring because some of them were leaving to join another league.
  • The Montreal Screwjob: Popular wrestler Bret Hart was promised that he wouldn't lose his championship belt in his home country to another wrestler whom he personally disliked. Instead, a crooked referee and the league commissioner seemed to cheat him out of his belt, although some suspect that the incident was worked -- that is, a part of the planned storyline all along.

So now you know what "kayfabe" means. But what about those other terms that announcers use? Why is one of the perfomers a "heel" and the other one a "face"? Here are some common wrestling terms:

  • Smark - A fan that knows what goes on behind the scenes, but still enjoys watching the events.
  • House show - An event that isn't televised.
  • Promotion - A wrestling league, also known as a federation, or fed.
  • Face - A good guy, a character who is designed for the fans to love and emulate. Short for babyface. Hulk Hogan was a face for most of his career.
  • Heel - A villain, a character designed for the fans to boo. Examples include the Iron Sheik, Lance Cade and the Undertaker. Most characters will switch back and forth between face and heel during their careers.
  • Sell - Making the wrestling moves look realistic and painful.
  • Squash - A match in which a big name wrestles a nobody and beats him easily.
  • Push - When league management directs the storylines to make a certain wrestler a big star.
  • Angle - A part of the ongoing plot. For example, a feud between two wrestlers is an angle.
  • Job - To lose a match in order to help push another wrestler. Sometimes, wrestlers refuse to job to another wrestler, resulting in a shoot.
  • No-sell - When a wrestler stops selling his opponent's moves. Sometimes it's a part of the script -- the heroic wrestler gets a second wind and suddenly becomes invincible. Other times, it happens because of poor wrestling skills or because a wrestler decides to break kayfabe.
  • Screwjob - When a performer is double-crossed by either his opponent or the promoter he is working for. This refers to a legitimate double-cross, not one that happens within the context of kayfabe.

Next, we'll discuss the rules that are made to be broken.