kayfabe n. the showbiz and stagecraft of professional wrestling, including the ring personas of professional wrestlers, especially when maintained in public.
“Ladies and gentlemen, this next bout is for the No Limits Wrestling championship!“
The announcer’s voice is washed out by hundreds of screaming fans — although ‘fans’ hardly seems like the right word. More like people who’ve spent the last three hours crammed inside a shitty high-school gymnasium, drinking dollar-beers and gorging themselves on snacks. They’ve been growing restless ever since the Wonder Wizards versus the Aztec Assassins ran long, but a title defence always brings them back around.
I’m standing behind the curtain and waiting for my cue, but Bill is nowhere to be found. He’s running behind, as usual, which means we won’t get to discuss any last-minute ideas for our match. Not that it matters. We’ve wrestled each other hundreds of times. Our bouts are more like well-choreographed dances that end with bloody foreheads. I’m not worried about us putting on a good show.
The announcer booms into his microphone, “Introducing first, from Las Vegas, Nevada…“
My entrance music kicks in, filling the gym with the opening riffs of Heart’s ’76 classic, Magic Man. I twirl my signature wand between my fingers, try to focus the adrenaline coursing through my body.
“Weighing in at 235 pounds, he is your current NLW champion…“
The roar of the crowd changes into a cacophony of curses.
“Marco ‘The Magician’ Morrison!“
I throw back the curtain and step onto the ramp leading towards the ring, enveloped by a galaxy of camera flashes. Without missing a beat, I remove my silk top hat and flip it bottom-up, then tap the brim with my wand. Confetti burps from the hat and settles around my feet – a pathetic gag that wouldn’t impress at a toddler’s birthday party – but I sell it like I’m the second-coming of Harry Houdini.
And it drives the crowd berserk.
I can’t help but feel a bit ridiculous during this part, bowing and blowing kisses towards teenagers and full-grown men, but I never once slip out of character.
Not even for a second.
It doesn’t matter what ridiculous costume they give you, or how nonsensical your new catchphrase is. You live your gimmick. That’s the cardinal rule of this wrestling company: Never break kayfabe.
See, I’m what most people call a heel. The villain. My job is to have every last person in the building practically begging for someone to kick my ass.
As it just so happens, I’m a natural.
I walk towards the ring, stopping every so often to single out fans who lean over the guardrails shouting obscenities. This one guy, wearing a faded heavy metal t-shirt and reeking of whisky, I hear him yell that he’s going to fuck me up in the parking lot after the show.
My response is canned, but entertaining. I point to his sagging stomach, then to my washboard abs; to his flabby arms, then to my rock-hard biceps. For the kicker, I wave my magic wand and make a plastic flower appear from the tip, which I offer to the obese woman next to him. He flips me off with both hands and spits on my boots.
Sadly, this is one of the more civilized exchanges I’ve had in a while.
Slipping into the ring, I take a moment to remove the championship belt strapped around my waist and pose with it from each turnbuckle. After handing my belt to the referee, I reach inside my top hat and pull out a microphone.
“Thank you, thank you. Honestly, you people are too kind.” I pause, taking in a fresh chorus of jeers. “However, tonight I stand before you bearing terrible news.”
The crowd begins to chant, “Dozer! Dozer! Dozer!”
I throw back my head and laugh. “Call for him all you like, he’s not coming. Bill Dozer hasn’t fully recovered from last week’s vicious beating by an… unknown assailant.”
The crowd boos louder, and I give an exaggerated shrug. “While we may never know who attacked him with that steel chair, the fact remains that Bill Dozer isn’t medically cleared to wrestle tonight. Someone made his title match disappear!”
I hear the sound of a wrecking ball crashing through brick, then Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA blares over the sound system. The gym erupts with cheers, and within seconds everyone is singing along.
I contort my face into comedic disbelief, screaming, “No! That’s impossible!” but the truth is that this storyline has been planned for weeks now, and is scheduled to continue for at least another month.
Bill Dozer, the construction worker with a heart of gold, has been chasing the belt ever since I cost him a Loser-Shaves-His-Head match against Rootin’ Tootin’ Bobby Newton. Tonight I’m supposed to squeak out a win after blinding him with a ‘magic fireball,’ which is actually just a firecracker wrapped in flash paper that I’ve hidden in my tights. Since it won’t be considered a clean victory, next week we’ll have a rematch inside a steel cage, guaranteeing another sold-out venue the next town over.
But after nearly thirty seconds of thrashing around the ring like a lunatic, there’s still no sign of Bill. His music stops, and murmurs sweep the crowd. Thinking about it, I haven’t spoken with him since we left the Motel 6 this morning, but I’m positive his car is parked outside.
Before genuine concern has enough time to take root, I snap back into full-on Magician mode. “I told you idiots he’s not coming! Bill Dozer is probably sitting at home on his couch, eating buttered popcorn like the rest of you fat–“
Cheering picks up from near the curtain, and the Springsteen music begins again. Through the dim gymnasium lighting I see Bill staggering down the ramp. He’s wearing black and yellow-striped trunks that strain against his thick slab of a stomach, and a hardhat that sits atop his potato-shaped head. It’s the usual get-up, but something is different. He doesn’t take time to high-five the rows of outstretched hands, there’s no stopping to pose and belt out a line from the song. Just a wobbly trek to the ring.
“Introducing the challenger, from the ‘Steel Town’, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania! He weighs in at 300 pounds… Bill Dozer!”
The gym explodes into cheers, but as he rolls underneath the ropes and stands to face me, I know that something is wrong. Bill’s face is red and splotchy, and he smells like a bottle of Jack Daniels.
“Well, look who decided to show up.” I work to maintain my condescending tone of voice. “You aren’t supposed to be here tonight.”
Bill stares me down for a good ten seconds, his body practically vibrating with rage. Few people in this industry can look intimidating like Bill Dozer, but this is way beyond his tantrums over rigged count-outs or cheap disqualifications.
I wonder if he’s forgotten his lines. Maybe that’s the reason for the excess intensity. But just as I raise my mic to speak, he snatches it from my hand.
The crowd goes crazy, and for a moment I feel like one of them. We’re all waiting on Bill to say something, anything. It feels less and less likely that his opener will sound like we’d rehearsed a few days ago, but that’s fine. I’ll just play off of whatever he says.
He lifts the mic to his trembling lips and bellows, “You fucking son of a bitch!”
It’s loud enough to rival the Pontiac Silverdome now, and it takes everything I have to stop me from leaving the ring and walking straight back to the locker room.
He knows. I don’t know how, but he knows.
If this were any other time, Mark Thompson would ask William Daniels to take it easy. He’d remind him of their eleven-year friendship that began all the way back when they were both trying to break into this business. He’d suggest they have a civil conversation.
But inside a No Limits Wrestling ring, Marco ‘The Magician’ Morrison hates Bill Dozer’s guts, and any signs that point otherwise would be disastrous for the company.
You never break kayfabe. Not even for a second.
I signal a guy on the ring crew for another mic, which he slides to me across the mat. “Whoa. Calm down, big rig. This isn’t an R-rated magic show. I don’t know what you’ve heard, but I’m sure there’s a very reasonable explanation.” I force my cockiest grin. “Besides, I have an air-tight alibi for the time of your attack last week.”
Bill’s expression bounces between wanting blood and breaking down. “How could you? How the fuck could you?”
This is heading completely off the rails.
“Okay, you got me!” I throw up my hands in mock exasperation. “I was the one who hit you with a steel chair! But whatever happened is in the past.” It’s a little blatant, but I’m hoping he can crack the code.
“Fuck you, she told me everything!”
And before I can respond, Bill socks me square in the nose.
The secret to a good wrestling punch is simple: stop your fist just short of any real impact, while at the same time stomp your foot against the mat. The spring-coiled suspension of the ring is perfect for creating loud noises that give the illusion of landing a powerful blow.
Unfortunately, this isn’t one of those punches.
I feel the crunch of bone and cartilage against my face, and immediately drop to the mat and roll from the ring, collapsing on the cold cement floor. I’m in a daze, but scramble back to my feet in case Bill is already closing in for another shot.
When my vision clears, I see him pacing back and forth inside the ring, still staring me down like a rabid dog. I wonder why he didn’t just follow me out here and beat me to a bloody pulp, but then I hear the referee counting, “Four. Five.”
This was his plan all along: to make me lose. By our company’s rules, the title can change hands via count-out or disqualification. It isn’t good enough for him to injure me. He wants to humiliate me, either by making me break kayfabe in front of a sold-out house, or pummelling me into the ground. Either way, Bill Dozer will be the new champion – if only for a few minutes.
He’s probably as good as fired right now, but there’s no way management will continue to back The Magician if I run from this match. I’ll be busted back down to the mid-card in no time. It could take years to build up my credibility again.
I can hear fans in the front row chanting, “You fucked up! You fucked up!” They’re right. Blood spurts from my nostrils, runs down my chest and into my waistband. Although it’s expected for me to wear ‘the crimson mask’ before the match is over, a heel is never supposed to bleed this early.
To everyone else, this is all part of the show. A mistake. What we call a ‘botched spot.’
I dive back into the ring and rush towards Bill, locking his arms with mine. My sudden burst of resolve seems to catch him off guard, and I force him back into a corner turnbuckle.
“Jesus Christ, Bill!” I speak in a harsh whisper. “Think about what you’re doing. You’re going to get someone killed.”
Most wrestlers don’t risk talking inside the ring, but I keep my hair down past my shoulders for these very occasions. If a match is beginning to go sour, long hair is perfect for concealing your mouth, allowing you to communicate moves to your opponent. Right now, I can feel sheets of bloody-blonde hair plastered all around my face.
“Please, just let me pin you so we can–“
But he isn’t interested in what I have to say. Instead, he lets out a primal grunt and headbutts me right in what’s left of my mushed nose. I can’t help but scream in agony, and when I break the clinch and stumble backwards, he lunges forward and spears me in the stomach with his shoulder. The impact knocks the wind out of me and I crash to the mat, clutching my ribs.
I curl into the fetal position and struggle to breathe. Bright flecks swirl in front of my eyes. Bill is standing over me, and he’s actually showboating for the audience. He holds one hand flat, then slams his other fist against the open palm. The crowd roars. It’s his trademark signal that the match will be over soon. He’s ready to deliver his finishing move, a backbreaker across his knee that has been dubbed ‘The Leveller.’
Bill grabs me by the hair with both hands and pulls me back upright, shaking my skull like it’s a magic eight ball. He’s shouting too, about trust, or loyalty, or something, but everything sounds so distant, like we’re fighting underwater.
I wonder what the news will say tomorrow about me being killed inside a wrestling ring.
No. It can’t end like this. The Magician still has one trick left up his sleeve. Slowly, carefully, I reach into the waistband of my tights and remove a small, white ball of paper.
Bill is too busy ranting to notice. I hold the flash-papered firecracker up to his eyes and snap my fingers, igniting the tiny ball into a brief woosh of flame. It’s a showy trick that’s perfectly safe when performed three or four feet away from the target. At this range though, it’s hot enough and close enough to scorch his retinas.
Bill shrieks like a schoolgirl and covers his face, releasing me from his grip. I drop to the mat and scramble backwards on my palms.
“You son of a bitch! I’m blind! You son of a bitch!” He swings wildly at the air, throwing haymaker after haymaker in all directions.
I’m running on pure adrenaline now, half fighting for my life, half going through the pre-planned motions of the match. To my gelatinous brain, there’s only one way to end this match. If Bill can get away with attempting a finisher, then so can I.
It’s time for the Ala-ka-Slam.
I stagger to my feet, then take my opening when Bill throws a punch strong enough to lower his head. In one fluid movement, I leap forward, tuck the back of his neck against my armpit, and yank us both towards the mat.
The crowd goes crazy, but all the noise in the world can’t prevent me from hearing the sickening crack of Bill’s neck against the canvas. His entire body goes limp on top of mine, pinning me underneath his massive frame.
“Oh Jesus,” I hear him whisper, face-down against the mat. “I can’t move.”
Laying here on my back, all the adrenaline is ebbing out of my body. Blood bubbles into my mouth and down my cheeks. I’m sure at least one of my ribs are broken, since every gulp of air feels like I’m swallowing needles.
But despite that, the realization of what I’ve done slams down on me harder than Bill ever could.
“How could you?” he starts sobbing against my arm. “Why would you do this to me?”
He isn’t talking about his neck. I have no idea what to say.
A Trio of EMT’s storm the ring and slide me out from underneath Bill. I tell them not to worry about me, that I’m the champ, and slink into the nearest corner to watch them work. Two of the EMT’s slide a bright yellow backboard between the ropes, while the other fits Bill with a thick plastic brace from chin to sternum.
People sitting in the rows closest to the action have started to point and whisper, but most are either too drunk or stupid to realize what’s actually happening. They still think it’s all part of the show, so they laugh and cheer while Bill is slid out of the ring and onto a stretcher. They sing choruses of “Hey hey, good-bye!” as he’s wheeled back up the ramp.
It’s not until he finally disappears behind the curtain that I notice one of the discarded microphones. I pick it up, hock a mouthful of blood onto the mat, then pull myself upright using the ropes for balance.
I know that I should just leave the ring – it would be common human decency – but I’ll never get another opportunity like this one. So instead, I clear my throat into the mic, attracting the attention of the entire gym, and shout, “Would any of you inbred hicks like to volunteer for my next trick?”
The crowd is ready to riot, and suddenly it’s raining popcorn and pretzels, chili-dogs and beer cups. I’m being pelted with snack foods and beverages from all sides, but it doesn’t bother me. I just stand there and blow kisses. Flex my biceps. Take a bow. This is what I’m paid for, and I’ll be better off tomorrow because I do.
Because you never break kayfabe in this company.
Not even for a second.
Chris Lewis Carter was born and raised in Newfoundland, Canada, where he currently lives with his wife, Melissa. When he isn’t playing video games or listening to obscure podcasts, Chris will stare at his keyboard for hours on end. This usually means that he’s writing, but not always. His work has been published in the Cuffer Anthology: Volume Two, and 2013: The Aftermath Anthology. He is currently working on his first novel, and can be reached at email@example.com.