Modern Smarkism: A Brief Look


Over the many years since its inception, wrestling has been through many transformations. From the early days of the Greek Olympic sport, to the strong-man carnival attractions, and ending with the modern spectacular of World Wrestling Entertainment, amongst other companies, the manly soap opera has evolved with the times, as well as the fan base. But let us start with the earliest form of wrestling as most of us know: The boom of television wrestling.

The birth of faces and heels – heroes and villains

Gorgeous George and his wife, Betty, circa 1950

Gorgeous George and his wife, Betty, circa 1950.

Many mark the debut of Gorgeous George during the birth of television as being the first moment where wrestling hit the mainstream audience. George Raymond Wagner was widely considered the first true “heel” (wrestling term for villain) in the business, drawing the ire of many fans across the United States, before taking the the attention of the nation via black and white telly-boxes. George captured the imaginations of many, involving the fans for the first time ever, in the characters and story of professional wrestling. Across the nation, people became as embroiled in the personalties and behaviours of the superstars, just as much as they were with the in-ring action. This sowed the seeds and began the legacy of what we now refer to as “Kayfabe” – pig latin or carny for fake. Of course, wrestling had been an act for many years beforehand, but it was during this era that wrestlers truly became the characters they portrayed within the ring. Characters such as Hulk Hogan, Macho Man Randy Savage, Ric Flair and many others were born in the aftermath of these golden years. One has to remember that during this age, professional wrestling was viewed as a sport, to both those in and outside of the business. The action was real, the superstars were real, everything was viewed as legitimate, and thus both the audience and creators treated it so; you could take everything you saw on screen at face value. Fast forward to today, and it’s a completely different story.

The death of kayfabe?

The year is 1997. The event is Survivor Series. Yes, many of you reading this will probably understand what I’m getting at here, the infamous event known as the Montreal Screwjob. Before this point, there were many whispers of Vince McMahon’s true lying in the company, given his father previously owned it, but the on screen president was always named as Jack Tunney, despite not actually holding much weight in company decisions. On the night of the screwjob, all of that changed when Vince McMahon prematurely ended the match between Shawn Michaels and Bret Hart, awarding the Heartbreak Kid the WWF Championship. This, for the majority of fans, was the first time they had ever questioned the legitimacy of the “sport” in front of them. Why did this commentator ring the bell? Why was Bret Hart cheated out of the championship?

Bret Hart, with the championship he would soon lose to Shawn Michaels.

Bret Hart, with the championship he would soon lose to Shawn Michaels.

The event spawned a cavalcade of questions, many of which still haven’t been answered to this very day, but one thing we did learn for certain from that dark day in Canada is that Vince McMahon is the same man behind the scenes as he is on the screen – an evil boss. Or is he?

Thus began the era of what many call “worked shoots”. In simple terms, a “work” in wrestling is something that is made to look real, but isn’t. Your regular wrestling. A “shoot” in wrestling is something that is real, whether by intention or otherwise. A “worked shoot” is, well, something that is made to look to the fans that the illusion of kayfabe, the suspension of disbelief, is being broken for one reason or another. Many argue that the Montreal Screwjob is a worked shoot, a predetermined agreement between Hart, Michaels and McMahon. Either way you cut it, the screwjob began an era of suspicion amongst fans. Gone were the days when everything could be taken at face value. Now, there was an underlying meaning to everything. Events following these years include the “Curtain Call”, again featuring Shawn Michaels breaking kayfabe alongside HHH, Kevin Nash and Scott Hall, as well as the steroid trial enveloping around Hulk Hogan and Vince McMahon which began to peel away at the wall separating the audience from the ring. No longer were the carnival secrets of wrestling completely hushed, it began commonplace for fans to refer to themselves as “marks”, a fan who does not know that wrestling is a work, and those who are “smarks”, who know it is a work, and still enjoy the product. Again, these terms come from the carnival roots of wrestling. Smarks began to see everything a second way, especially in the land of late 90s WCW, where worked shoots were used to the maximum on several, not so successful occasions. But that was then.

And now…The Reality Era

Coming out of the 90s, and with the advent of the internet, pretty much every wrestling fan above the age of 10 knew the program they were watching was scripted, and yet they still suspended their disbelief to enjoy the product. Fans knew that Matt Hardy and Edge didn’t really hate each other outside of kayfabe, but wait, wasn’t Matt Hardy dating Lita in real life, and now isn’t Edge dating Lita in real life too? Storylines such as the one between Hardy and Edge made fans begin to question how real some events in wrestling really were. Feuds between McMahon and Hogan, Mick Foley and Ric Flair, as well as the infamous Chris Benoit incident affected on screen content in a way that had never happened in past years. Suddenly, events in kayfabe were being effected by those outside of the realm of the ring.

The aforementioned “Curtain Call” incident supposedly halted the push of HHH, causing the WWF to choose a man known as Stone Cold Steve Austin to win the King of the Ring that year. Stone Cold would go on to be one of the most successful wrestlers of all time… and possibly by chance. In very recent years, the worked shoot has been pushed to the limit with storylines such as the Nexus debut. The Nexus, a group of partially unknown WWE rookies, debuted at the end of a somewhat lacklustre episode of RAW, tearing up the set and attacking both heels and faces alike. Fans were shocked at what they saw, and hesitated for a second, thinking – “Is what I’m seeing real?” Obviously, it was all within the script, but WWE showed that they can still get under the fans skin, even in a world where full scripts of RAW are being leaked online. All it takes is a bit of timing, the right whispers and the right angle, and the Nexus storyline was the combination of all of those. Further afield, even in the world of Japan, where wrestling is still mostly viewed as a sport, the Japanese play with this trope with wrestlers such as Katsuyori Shibata, who returned from a mixed martial arts career, a legitimate sport, back to the staged world of wrestling. Shibata was accused by many to be “shooting”, refusing to pull his punches and turning the worked fights into real battles. Shibata garnered dislike among the Japanese fanbase for disrespecting fellow wrestlers by shooting.

Brock Lesnar in his shocking return to WWE.

Brock Lesnar in his shocking return to WWE.


Shibata was not the only man to be a “shooter” in wrestling, in fact, men as far back as Ken Shamrock and Dan Severn transitioned from the sport of MMA to professional wrestling, being viewed by many as dangerous loose cannons, legitimate threats, although in more modern years, we have seen a resurgance of shooting. This is mostly thanks, of course, to the “Beast Incarnate”, Brock Lesnar. Lesnar’s return in 2012 and subsequent match with John Cena was one of many examples recently of fans once more questioning the true fake-ness (is that a word?) of what is going on in front of them. Of course, the shooting was not only just done with fists, but also with words. The most infamous incident in recent years, is of course, CM Punk and the 2011 pipebomb incident.

CM Punk, a fan favourite since his debut in the independant leagues, was a man that many thought would never make it fully in the WWE. Everyone knew that, CM Punk knew that, and most importantly, the WWE knew that. Punk took to the stage and verbally ripped apart the company he worked for, piece by piece, shattering the fourth wall and breaking all the taboos the WWE institution set in place. Most importantly, and much like the Montreal Screwjob, the CM Punk pipebomb happened in such a way that to this day people still debate – “Was that real or not?”

The fact that WWE can still do that to this day should be exciting for any fan. Many argue that the days of full blown kayfabe was where the entertainment form was at its best, but now we are in the modern era, the “reality era”, and companies are beginning to take that in their stride. It is almost as if we are in a resurgance of kayfabe, where now we begin to question once again – “Is this really happening?” Promoters and bookers now know that the majority fanbase is in on the act, and now they have to create a new act to dupe us all with. Men and women have become superstars and divas, their in ring personas becoming extensions of their real personalties. John Cena is who he is, John Cena. Yet when John Cena is talking about how annoyed he is at The Rock leaving the WWE, is he speaking as John Cena, the wrestler, or John Cena, the person? Or is there even a difference anymore?

Let’s face it, as wrestling fans, we will always be marks. And that’s great. Being a mark is fun.

WWE Image Source|Bret Hart Image source |Brock Lesnar Image Source


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