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WRESTLING COLUMNS

Matt Hardy: Savior of Kayfabe
July 15, 2005 by Justin Henry


When I was six years old, my father told me that professional wrestling was fake. It was during a night of watching WWF Primetime Wrestling in 1990 when he explained that the men in tights battling on my television were just actors, not two men attempting to kill one another for the sake of glory, honor, and the pursuit of championship gold. Although I soon came to grips with this truth, I still enjoyed wrestling in the same thrill-ride sense that one enjoys an action movie, cheering for Bruce Willis as he combats the German terrorist gang inside the business plaza. Of course, we all know that when the director said 'cut', that Willis and the terrorists would put down their weapons and head over to the catering table to munch on sandwiches and discuss upcoming shots.

The point is that even though we knew that the wrestlers and action stars were just actors, we allowed ourselves to become engulfed in their performances and take in the surrounding drama. Why do we do it" It's fun, of course. Cheering for good over evil, reacting in disbelief at a shocking turn of events, and watching fresh fodder for your mental fighting/revenge fantasies, these are all reasons why we love to believe, even if only temporary, that the action in front of us is 100% real.

Sometimes the brink of reality would be refreshed when a wrestling promotion pushes the envelope with a realistic storyline. Are Kevin Nash and Scott Hall really here doing Vince McMahon's bidding to destroy WCW" Is Vince McMahon going to really do ANYTHING to make sure Steve Austin doesn't become his World Champion" Did The Undertaker really leave Kane to die as they were children" Is Mike Tyson going to screw Stone Cold over at Wrestlemania" How DARE Triple H drug Stephanie and take her to the all night wedding chapel"! The storylines that piqued our interest did so for two reasons. One was their ability to compel, and the other was us letting our shield down and allowing ourselves to be swept up in the whirlwind. It truly goes without saying that without fans, a wrestling promotion has no chance. On top of that, for a wrestling promotion to truly be at its best, the fans have to allow themselves to be fooled once in a while, to buy into the action.

A few years ago, it became rather fashionable to become smart in regards to the wrestling business. When professional wrestling skyrocketed into the famed boom period, wrestling was mentioned everywhere and generally in a positive light. In 1999, everyone and their mother took in Raw is War, which had double the ratings it has now in 2005. The fans wanted to learn as much as they could about wrestling. Thusly, the magic curtain was dropped and the facade was no more. As exposed as the emperor with his new clothes, professional wrestling's little secrets became common knowledge to every wrestling fan thanks to the internet. Kane and Undertaker aren't REALLY brothers. Stone Cold gets along with Vince McMahon. It's Kevin Nash writing the WCW shows. Triple H may or may not get political leverage due to his marriage to Vince McMahon's little girl. Dare I say even with faces and heels alike lined up on the steel Raw ramp to pay respects to the recently passed Owen Hart was, while touching and moving, still a violation of kayfabe (Hey, I'm not saying that they shouldn't have paid their respects because they definitely did a tremendous job under the circumstances. I'm just saying that if wrestling was 'real', then the Rock would've ran down the ramp and slugged Triple H over their match the previous night at Over the Edge). A little knowledge became a dangerous thing, and thus the way wrestling was looked at changed perspectives. No longer about cheering your heroes over the shady villains, the fans became a part of the business bandwagon. They obsessed over the television ratings, down to the simple quarter hour numbers to make their own personal judgment on what wrestlers had it and what angles didn't. They paid special attention to crowd reactions and would quickly be online to report "The Rock got some boos here and there, I think a heel turn should be in the works!". In short, wrestling fans eventually became a self-aware focus demographic, talking about what worked and what didn't like a younger Siskel and Ebert and reporting their findings to their internet wrestling bretheren.

Around 2001, during the dreadful invasion angle of WCW, things began to really turn for the worse. Sure, you can point at the terrible writing that befell WWE television at the time and it certainly played its part, but on the WWF operating table, bad writing accounted for the clogged arteries when something else was responsible for the pancreatic damage. A simple diagnosis would show the change in fan mindset doing its own damage to not just WWE, but professional wrestling as a whole. These business-conscious fans, mixed with bad writing that didn't indicate long term growth and success, turned away from the product with a bitter taste in their mouths, their visions unfulfilled.

By 2002, you could declare that the wrestling boom was dead. Dead enough for relatives of the boom to clean up on a hefty life insurance claim. Suddenly, the smarter standpoint started to come through at the worst possible times. Brock Lesnar's destroying midcarders" Well, doesn't he resemble Goldberg too much" The nWo is here" But they're not doing the things they did in WCW. Raw and Smackdown are splitting up into their own brands" But that's stupid, a fan can only see Austin four times a month instead of eight! Why isn't Booker T main-eventing" He was WCW's biggest star in their dying year! Why are the Dudley Boyz split up" Now they can't still dominate the tag team scene! In short, every decision WWE made was no longer met with the old "let's see where this goes" thought process, but rather incredible and insatiable scrutiny from fans not old enough to drive their dad's car without their permit handy. While WWE did make many questionable (and stupid) deicisions, fans weren't willing to give them the benefit of suspending disbelief. The nostalgia tour that was the returns of Hogan, Ric Flair, and Shawn Michaels hardly helped matters, as didn't the elevation of uber-talent Brock Lesnar, the debut of the incredible Rey Mysterio, and the birth of the amazing Elimination Chamber. Wrestling fans became the personification of a worrywart, a person who cannot sleep in their luxurious vacation home in Florida, because they believe they may have left their oven on in their Michigan home. Wrestling fans couldn't enjoy the show because a lone aspect of what they watched caused them to dread the future of wher the business was headed.

In 2003, ratings dropped to the threes. Buyrates plummeted like a mighty avalanche. Fan interest declined like a credit card in the hands of the average teenage girl. Only the hardcore fans remained, it seemed. WWE was trying every trick imaginable to try and rekindle the magic of the boom, but to no avail. Return of Rowdy Roddy Piper" Return of Sable" A one legged phenomenon named Zach Gowen" Bringing back the cherished Intercontinental title" Pushing Goldberg to the main event" Unmasking Kane" Nothing worked. None of it. Fans didn't buy into a single thing WWE did at this point. Piper's back" He can't wrestle. Sable's back" Didn't she sue Vince" Gowen's getting a push" How, he has ONE LEG. IC Title" My favorite wrestler won't win it. Goldberg's a main eventer" I hate WCW. Kane's unmasked" Where's the scars" Everything that they did had some kneejerk reaction from the jaded fanbase. Any potential angle that might work didn't, because the smallest flaw ended up outweighing the biggest boon. While the terribleness of the writers was still evident (even moreso than ever), the disillusioned fanbase was certainly a major part of the problem.

2004, things picked up just a little bit it seemed, as McMahon began to roll the dice in terms of trying new things. Chris Benoit and Eddie Guerrero as dual World Champions was a good start, though the fans believed that they were just set up to fail as they weren't "in" with the WWE inner circle (they would lose the belts to Randy Orton and John Bradshaw Layfield respectively, both Vince McMahon pet projects). The Eugene character, a loveable man with a mental handicap who's dreamed of being a professional wrestler started off with a bang, but negative fan reactions at some shows and a hatchet job by the seemingly always-jealous Triple H on his character ruined any impact he may have had. The old school Undertaker returned, bedecked in black and with his old ghoulish expression, yet mindless feuds with Booker T, The Dudley Boys, and Heidenreich damaged the nostalgia run. Brock Lesnar, Goldberg, and Steve Austin leaving the company certainly wasn't a good sign either.

The WWE just had a hard time making the fans believe. If Vince McMahon could find just find that one thing, that ONE thing that would translate into a million dollar idea that would cause the fans to turn their heads around so sharply and nearly snap their own necks in the process, then we just might have something.

July 11, 2005. Vince McMahon strikes gold.

There's no point in recapping the Edge-Matt Hardy-Lita saga that has played out since February, because if you're reading this, you know the story by now. Whether it's a work or a shoot is irrelevant, because the fallout on the internet within the first 18 hours of the incident is enough to clearly prove the impact that it had. Matt Hardy, not seen in 11 months, released from his WWE contract 3 months ago, had returned to beat the holy Hell out of his former best friend, who ran off with his formerly loving girlfriend.

Simple storyline, right" I coulda came up with that. But compound that with the internet fully believing everything from the word go. The delusional journal entries of a man who was cheated upon and screwed out of his job as the end result. The backdoor Romeo convorting around on TV with the girl he stole. Fans seethed when they saw Edge, reddened when they saw Lita, and pained when they thought of Matt. The chants of "YOU SCREWED MATT" showed that the fans had connected with Hardy, and the "SHE'S A SLUT" chants indicated a backlash, an uprising against Lita.

The fallout has been tremendous on both sides of the fence. Those who wanted to believe felt like they were on the world's most dangerous roller coaster, totally flustered and rejuvenated by the experience of seeing Matt Hardy show up on Raw. Those who wanted to believe that Matt Hardy was going to use his star status to jump to TNA and possibly spite the WWE that they constantly criticize, felt betrayed by the 30 year old wrestling zealot. As I write this, Matt Hardy's message board on his official website is down, likely do to a traffic jam. At 4 AM EST, just 5 1/2 hours after his on screen return, there were 26 plus pages of messages on his board from fans, both happy and angry alike.

The fans who believed that Matt would never be caught dead in a WWE ring again don't realize that what Matt has done was a tremendous work of kayfabe. He has played with your emotions, gotten you to buy his case, and returned with his vengeful character to dispel the evil that is Edge. It's what a good wrestler does and it's how he builds support. You may not understand it because no wrestler has done it in the past few years, but it's brilliant in it's simplicity.

Professional wrestling has long prided itself on building up a wretched, vile bad guy and having him be vanquished by the good guy who everybody gets behind. From the golden age to Rock n Wrestling to the Attitude era, the formula has remained well intact. Here in 2005, we have an extension of the formula where the good guy has used the internet to work a hatred against Adam Copeland, a fervor reserved for the slimiest of bad guys. Then after employing a sympathy trip from the fanbase, he has turned their support into a monster storyline just by striking Copeland in the ring. And we all went along for the ride.

Matt Hardy has brought back kayfabe and it was fun. Let's hope for more fun

by Justin Henry ..


Eduver3 wrote:
well, nice article first off. now i didn't really watch wrestling back in this "kayfabe era", but i do know what it was. now, for those who wonder, im no smark, i dont get delusional and think that if i ran the wwe it would become the best thing in the planet, in other words, as OWW has said "No offence, but you're a fan, you're a mark, you would crash & burn if you were in a position of control within the WWE.. And WWE doesn't give a rat's ass what you think anyway, so they're not reading it. " now, as far as this matt/lita/edge storyline i have NO IDEA if this is some storyline w/ bookers and stuff or if matt "f'n" hardy is really trying to destroy these guys, I CAN'T!!!! matt hardy has taken me back to the days we're i really felt hate for a wrestler. oh yeah, i saw BYTE THIS, heard the interview and matt calling in to bash lita and edge and to plug ROH. i cant tell if matt's using a real life situation to bring life into his career acting like an asshole, or if its all storyline stuff.so for that i'll give matt "f'n" hardy his credit.
Troy Tollison wrote:
Wow, excellent article. Extremely well written and great analyzation skills. One thing that needs to be mentioned though is that this isn't the only situation that this is being done with. The Blue Meanie-JBL fued that started from the incident at One Night Stand also seems to be heading in the same direction. Both of these are getting people really interested in wrestling again, myself included. Hopefully this will all lead to bigger and better things.
Eric Cronk (Grimes, IA) wrote:
I completely agree with the column by Justin Henry. Having watched professional wrestling as long as I can remember (I'm 34 years old), I don't find myself surprised very often anymore. However, I don't obsess over it either-it's entertainment. I view it as I do movies-just sit back and enjoy. I've been highly annoyed by the Al Wilson and Katie Vick angles (just plain stupid as well as tasteless). I've been elated to see the best in the biz, Chris Benoit, finally been given a world title and it's not a last ditch effort to get him to stay (c'mon, the guy pulled a watchable match out of Nathan Jones-who else did that") First, Shawn Michaels turns on Hogan (that had me asking myself "what the Hell just happened here"") and then the return of Matt Hardy. I love it. Two weeks in a row that a simple premise caught me off guard.
Jacob Kuhn wrote:
Justin, I think your writing shows a great deal of potential. If you're considering a career as a writer, you may be on the right track.

As far as the basis of your article, I am going to have to say you are giving Vince and Matt way too much credit. From all of the information I have been reading, there is no real indication that this had been planned all along. Although I am a fan of Matt Hardy, I would definitely not give him the sort of credit to be a pulling the wool over anyone's eyes. I have no doubt that WWE would like people to believe that, though.

Ockham's Razor says that the simplest explanation is most likely the correct one. In this instance, I would say that WWE realized how popular Matt Hardy was getting from this situation. They offered him a decent sum of money to come back. Matt couldn't turn down the money, so he risked the popularity to come back to WWE.

Matt Hardy, although not under contract, did have talks with TNA. If he were truly not fired from WWE, having him speak with TNA about a possible run with the company sets up possible legal repurcussions that WWE is generally very smart in avoiding.

So, I would conclude that it's all circumstance. Matt Hardy's popularity probably will not carry over back into the WWE. Wrestlers regarded as sellouts generally are the most shunned of the sport.
Scott Williams wrote:
In the year and a half since I've returned to watching the WWE (I was a huge fan during "Attitude" then quit by the "InVasion,") I haven't really had that much to get excited about. The last time I remember getting really excited was for Chris Benoit winning the Royal Rumble in 2004. Matt's return was definitely one of those rare "mark-out" moments for me. I'll admit I was not one of those who expected to see Matt back in WWE. I was played for a fool and I loved it. I was speaking to someone who thought this was pretty much the biggest thing since the nWo, if not bigger. While I don't personally agree on "bigger" I definitely think that it has that extra special something on it that unites all the fans and makes them want to see Edge get his due.

It's the kind of stunt some writers wish they could've pulled off... I think you might know who I'm talking about.

This has really made the WWE exciting again. It's given them that shot in the arm, and I hope they can really use this momentum, because opportunities like this are rare. They've got to seize the chance.
Krippes316G4 wrote:
Matt says he hates lita well I think he realy doesn't hate her. They have been friends for a wail now and i think they should work it out. P.S:sorry about my spelling
William Barnickel wrote:
Excellently written article, man! I can honestly say that I've left the WWE for dead several years ago. I've been gotting my wrestling fix from ROH DVDs for some time now....the only problem that I have is that I'm unfortunately having to pay for quality wrestling now.....which is a bit of a sore spot. Like every long time wrestling fan, I still tune into the pathetic WWE product now and then just to see if they've actually gotten their act together. To be honest, the only reason I've had to tune in the past few years is the ECW resurgence and a couple weeks ago was the first time I'd tuned into RAW since the 'One Night Stand' PPV. Ironically, this happened to be the RAW where Matt Hardy made his surprising and shockingly 'shootesque' return. Now, I'm a complete 'smark' so I could tell instantly that his return was all a work and everything was intricately planned. With that being said, I noticed a couple key things instantly....and they all brought a smile to my face...and that's something the WWE hasn't been able to do in years. First of all, Matt's plug of his ROH appearances and openly bashing the WWE was brilliant! Not only did it get the self-proclaimed WWE 'smarks' to scratch their heads about if the whole situation was a work or a shoot, but it also fooled every casual fan to think it was 100% ligit. (Also, any plug ROH gets on national TV is a HUGE plus in my book ;)) When you get real WWE fans thinking everything that is happening is 100% real life emotion and completely unscripted, that's gonna lead to A LOT of talk about the WWE...in turn drawing more viewers because they wanna see this insanity is for real. Controversy is the best method of drawing attention. Secondly, both the Matt Hardy saga and the Meanie/JBL Smackdown! confrontation have the same realistic feeling about them that is just saturated and dripping with one amazing thing....PAUL HEYMAN! Am I the only one who sees that Paul E. is nearly 100% behind these angles being played out in the realistic shoot style that were 99% of every major ECW angle back in the day"!"! Paul even stated in an interview that if this were ECW that Hardy would have been brought in long ago and the Meanie and JBL would eventually settle things in the ring. This is absolutely wonderful news for desparing WWE fans because both of these angles are drawing alot of attention (all of it positive from what I can see for the WWE product). All of these clues point towards a conclusion which means that (**everyone, cross your fingers now**) we could be close to having Heyman take over WWE creative control and kick Stephanie (and those two watermelon's she's got attached to her chest) out the door...at least as far as the creative team is concerned, anyways. Paul Heyman is undoubtedly a wrestling masermind and creative genious and this would be a terrific move for the WWE. I don't think anyone would argue that the current creative team consisting of Stephanie, her two oversized twins, and a bunch of yes men is even coming close to doing a decent job....hell, I wouldn't even consider them doing any job at all with the crap they continually put on TV. One thing that made ECW so great back in the day was the realism that soaked every storyline. Paul knows how to tap into human emotions to hook an audience....nobody does it better. While I can't sit here and say that I'm 100% sure that the whole Matt Hardy saga is a huge work, I do know that it's obviously not 100% pure shoot either.....which leads be to believe that there is hope (albeit extremely slight) for the WWE product after all. Just that simple fact that I don't know for sure exactly what's going on is the greatest feeling to a long time wrestling fan that there is. Unpredictability is the greatest thing missing from the WWE and I can honestly say, I'm glad to see where this ride is going. I can only hope (for the WWE's and it's fans' sake) that the ride doesn't come to an end any time soon and that this carries over to the rest of the currently bland, stale, and incoherent product that is the current state of the WWE.
Paul Smith wrote:
I agree not since the late 80s in Dallas when Eric Embry was locked in a fight for the life's blood of the WCCW (Fritz Von Erich territory) against Skandor Akbar and Tojo Yamamoto's PY CHu HI in a cage match and a crimson haired Gary Young emerges from beneath the ring and assaults Embry with a baseball bat. At the time in my adolescent eyes it was the MOST vicious thing I had ever seen ,and I had the pleasure of seeing Bruiser Brody and Abdullah the butcher, in the ring. Knowing the reality was that it was prepared and structured I still bought it hook line and sinker. I was a mark I sold the idea of it all. I still knew it was prepared the next week when a visibly bruised and bandaged Embry entered the ring to announce he was not done for and was again attacked and beaten to the point of blood pouring from his mouth and ears, and being reminded that it was not real."."." I still believed and attest that sequence of events to my first anxiety attack. If this Matt Hardy revival of realism is TRULY back and can Maintain and encourage more of its kind I am SOLD. I am back to watching it at every time it crosses the airwaves (Not TIVO'd) and again feeling a surge in Blood Pressure. Attaboys all around for all those who dig this stuff like I do
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