Season 2 Episode 9 Part 1
This episode wasn’t supposed to take me so long. I think that from the day I started writing it, it took me over 3 months to upload. I may have a lost a few listeners and pulled out a few hairs in that time, but the joy I get from diving into a new topic, and the satisfaction I get from releasing such a comprehensive episode, makes it worthwhile.
Henri put extra effort into the production on this episode. I wanted it to sound a bit more immersive, so I downloaded a bunch of royalty-free samples and snippets in order to add to the atmosphere and listener experience. I hope it paid off.
Some interesting links:
Glossary of Pro Wrestling Terminology:
Indian texts about wrestling:
The answer can be found 20ft above us
!t the top of a menacing steel cage lined with jagged barbed wire. Standing atop the cage are two giant men, each weighing over 300lbs; covered in sweat and blood; dressed only in spandex underwear and knee pads.
One giants grabs the other by the throat, hoists him high into the air, leaps off the top of the cage and slams his opponent through a wooden table below.
50,000 audience members break out into euphoric frenzy.
One man lies still amidst the rubble. The other, arises victorious.
But what was the question?
This is Tim Quit His Job, the show that follows me on my adventures into the unknown, as I quit my job and set out on a journey of business and discovery. It’s written and recorded by me – Timothy Spinks – and edited by Britain’s most exclusive experimental Hip Hop producer – Henri Victorious. This is part 1 of a 2-part special to finish off the season. Head over to timquithisjob.com for all the episodes, show notes and more. In the meantime, enjoy the episode.
We’ve all noticed that there is a kind of intangible falseness that surrounds us in the modern world. It has permeated nearly all areas of public information and discourse. Sometimes it’s obvious – social media and reality TV. Other times less so: the news and the music industry. And then there are times where it’s deliberately hidden: politics and war.
The explosion of information available at our fingertips also led to an explosion of misinformation. We aren’t living in the information age, we’re in the misinformation age.
As a result the modern world has become impossible to interpret, it’s so difficult to make sense of things. The harder it is to make sense of the outside world, the harder it is to make sense of your own place within it. And if you can’t do that, then you end up just drifting through life.
Tired of drifting, I wanted to find a way to understand things a bit better, to develop a framework to look at the world.
And I found it. In the strangest of places, with the strangest of backstories. A way of understanding the modern western world.
It’s safe to say, as shit hit the fan this year, it came at a pretty good time.
When you mention the term ‘martial arts’ to someone, they usually think of the Far East: Kung Fu, Karate and ninjas. Spinning kicks and flips. Jackie Chan, Bruce Lee and the classic noise someone makes in the movies when they’re about to beat the crap out of someone:
If you know a bit more about martial arts, if you follow MMA and watch UFC fights, you’ll probably know a thing or two about Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and Thai Boxing. Either way, the term ‘martial arts’ may still inspire in your head a vision of exotic fighting styles from distant lands.
Perhaps the last thing you think about, is England. And yet, even countries as boring and mundane as mine, have their own history of martial art that matches the scale and complexity of any other. It is only in recent memory that we have forgotten the fighting arts that were created and perfected on this rainy island.
For example, In England it used to be a legal requirement to practice with a bow and arrow every weekend. And there are medieval manuscripts, hundreds of pages long, going into extensive detail on an infinite variety of moves and countermoves, strikes and counterstrikes, stabs, slashes and killing blows. English fighting techniques used to be world famous! But not anymore.
Strange as our cultural amnesia is, stranger still is the fact that the development of one such forgotten art would go on to typify the ridiculousness of the modern world. It’s evolution mirroring that of society. Despite fading out of our collective memory, we find the legacy of this sport in the pictures we post on Instagram, the celebrities we follow, the politicians we elect, and the wars we fight.
This sport, forged in the unassuming mining towns of Northern England, would go on to change the world.
Wait a second, wrestling? Like John Cena, the Undertaker and the Rock?
Just like the term ‘martial arts’, the word ‘wrestling’ is full of imagery that does not reflect the true nature of its being. Wrestling, for most of the world, is not a dramatized spectacle that takes place on the big screen – it is way of life, central to people’s culture. Nearly every civilisation that has ever existed, adopted and refined their own system of wrestling: combat that focuses on the use of takedowns, locks, pins and submissions.
It runs deep. Cave paintings dating back 20,000 years depict men wrestling; the Ancient Sumerians cast images of wrestlers onto stone slabs; the Egyptians depicted epic grappling matches on the walls of some of the most lavish tombs; the Hindus, wrote about famous matches in the Mahabharata; and the Greeks built large marble statues of men engaging in the clinch, and then created the Olympics as a forum to determine who was the best.
Wrestling, for all of these cultures, was a way of training for the fights and disagreements that inevitably arose in everyday life. A way of staying fit. A way of determining who was the Alpha Male. But in most cases, it was sportsmanlike and low-risk; more about bravado and social standing than vengeance and dispute. Wrestling matches were designed to stop short of either combatant being dealt serious damage. Unlike many other martial arts, it didn’t focus on extreme violence and death, it wasn’t meant for warfare or blood feuds.
Fighting without the intent to maim the opposition is not unique to humans. Most mammals do it. It is what you see when dogs and cats roll around, biting and scratching one another, but always stopping when one rolls onto their back in submission. It is a combination of play, and practice. They are training for the day when they need to fight to become the leader of the group, or gain a female’s attention. And even in the situations when they fight for real, be it two giraffes swinging their heads at each other violently, two elephant seals goring each other with their tusks, or elks locking antlers in the rut – they usually both live to fight another day. If the prospect of death is too high, it wouldn’t be a functioning system of competition.
And that is what the history of wrestling, across all the different cultures has been like, a way to fight without too much damage being inflicted. A functioning system.
Of course, one culture had to ruin this fine balance. And no surprise, it was the specialists at throwing off international balance – the English – with their own unique style, known as Catch Wrestling
Catch is the abbreviation of Catch-as-catch-can, which essentially means ‘catch’ anything you want. Grab anything you want. Anything goes. Nearly all other styles of wrestling are defined by their restrictions, what you aren’t allowed to do. These restrictions, far from being restricting, create a confined, yet limitless space for creativity and possibility. This notion may seem counter intuitive, but it is what makes the sport interesting, and differentiates the different styles. More importantly, the restrictions placed on different wrestling styles helps ensure the relative safety of the combatants, so that each bout or sparring session isn’t too risky.
Catch wrestling threw all that out of the window.
Catch-as-catch-can. Do anything you want. You’ve probably heard the term ‘no holds barred’. It comes from this sport: no holds or techniques are disallowed. The floor is yours. Hurt your opponent anyway you can.
And as you can imagine, this style of wrestling, whilst dangerous, was a big hit.
In the 1800s, catch wrestling matches in England took place at travelling funfairs and carnivals. Far removed from the dodgems and bumper cars of today, people came to the fair not for candy floss and overpriced rides, but for violence. Huge men engaged in brutal catch Wrestling matches. The audiences loved it. The fairs would travel across the mining towns of North of England, providing an exhilarating break from the murky depths of the coal pits.
Soon, the audience started wanting in on the action. The carnival’s Strong Men began challenging the spectators to competitions. The miners would have the chance to earn a cash prize if they could pin the professional wrestlers. This was a huge draw for the crowds, and led to the Strong Men having to fight more often, their reputation on the line every time. Some of these miners were big! And were themselves no stranger to violence and combat. To ensure victory against the miners, the wrestlers had to create and train techniques that were designed to inflict as much damage as possible as quickly as possible. It led to a sort of arms race within the sport. Moves known as ‘Punishment Holds’, such as finger locks, toeholds, leg locks, spine twists and neck cranks, became increasingly common.
As if catch wrestling wasn’t dangerous enough with no rules, the practitioners were now going against traditional wrestling styles to intentionally make the sport more violent and destructive.
Wrestlers were now putting their bodies and their careers on the line with every fight. If they got injured, which was now more likely, they would lose their job at the fair.
There was also another strange and unexpected problem, the matches became more boring. This sounds implausible and contradictory, but as I’ve said before, restriction in sport creates a confined space for infinite creativity. Sometimes, if you remove the restrictions, the sport becomes more boring and the matches become stalemates. People end up in a kind of competitive gridlock. Imagine removing travelling or double dribbling from basketball, or allowing handballs in football. It would actually make the sports worse. And that’s exactly what happened to catch wrestling. At the fairs, the matches started following one of two routes: either it ended violently with injury, or it lasted hours in stalemate. One was bad for the fighters ,who needed to fight again next week, one was bad for the fans, who had paid a chunk of their wages to see some action.
In summary, Catch Wrestling had two problems: One of risk and one of audience engagement.
Something needed to change. And bit by bit, it did.
Surrounded by the fanfare and artistic exaggeration of the carnival, it is no surprise that the wrestling matches, once the site of raw combat and pure authenticity, found the solution to its problem in the immediate world around them. A world of performance, deception, and misdirection.
It started small, with the carnival promoters altering the ethnicities and names of the fighters on the roster. This added an exotic element to the show that appealed to our patriotism, as the native wrestler had the chance to fight off the invading foreigner. It made it seem like there was more on the line, pulling the audience into the spectacle. They also began to lie about the heights and weights of the wrestlers, making them bigger and taller. A battle between giants!
They even changed the name of the sport, from Catch wrestling, to Professional Wrestling, adding another layer of extravagance.
Inevitably, this showmanship started working its way into the ring. The wrestlers began using flashy strikes and acrobatic manoeuvres to make the matches more interesting. Flying kicks, aerial slams and elaborate throws. It was only natural, then, that soon enough, the entire match would become fake. Scripted, with the winners and losers decided beforehand, the key points in the fight mapped out, the risk of violent injury removed, and the spectacle increased ten-fold.
There was less risk, and more audience engagement.
The success of this initiative was astonishing and carnivals all over the UK and the US profited hugely from the changes. So much so, that wrestling didn’t even need the carnivals anymore. It could be billed as its own standalone event.
But the audience didn’t know anything had changed, and they didn’t know it was fake. They were none-the-wiser. If they knew it was fake, it would have shattered the illusion and made the spectacle less appealing. The organisers couldn’t have this. They had to protect the industry secret.
To do so, they created and codified an elaborate system that upheld, organised and most importantly, hid the truth from the unsuspecting audience members.
They called this system
Kayfabe was a code word. Something wrestling insiders could say to refer to the system without anyone having a clue what they were talking about.
No one is certain on the origin of the term Kayfabe. Some say that it is Pig Latin, a jumbling up of the syllables in the phrase ‘be fake’. Others say that it comes from the Latin word ‘Caveo’, meaning ‘look out for’. Or my favourite theory, that it comes from the popular pseudonym Kay Fabian. It is said that when the carnival wrestlers were travelling cross country, they would always call back home to let their spouses know that they arrived safely in the next town or city. But as many of them were very poor, they would call their family on a reverse charge dial. The operator would ask for their name, and the wrestlers would say Kay Fabian. When the operator then called their families to ask if they would accept the reverse charge dial from a ‘Mr Kay Fabian’, the wives knew this meant that it was their husband calling and that they were safe, so they would hang up the phone without either the wrestler or their families being charged.
Kayfabe engulfed all aspects of wrestling. The lie had to be upheld at all times! When travelling with the show, wrestlers were required to stay in character at all times. They weren’t allowed to be seen talking to other wrestlers they were supposed to be feuding with. If they ever went out of character, strayed from the planned sequences of their matches, or cracked the illusion in any way, it was known as Breaking Kayfabe – and this was a mortal sin. If, in his spare time, Moses had gone back up to the top of Mt Sinai to collect the 10 commandments of Pro Wrestling, commandment number 1 would no doubt have been:
“Thou shalt not break Kayfabe.”
Kayfabe was well planned and well executed, containing code words for everything.
The ‘Face’ was the good guy in the match, the protagonist, who the fans were expected to cheer for and love. The ‘Heel’ was the bad guy, who the fans booed and wanted to lose.
If something was ‘worked’ that meant that it was scripted and fake. Wrestlers would often say they are ‘working something’ or ‘doing work. A ‘shoot’ is when something real happens, often breaking Kayfabe, such as a wrestler going off script, or actually beating an opponent up.
A ‘turn’ is when a face turns into a heel, or a heel turns into a face. This adds depth to the story line, creating a redemption arc and allowing wrestlers to pick up more fans. This usually leads to a ‘payoff’, referring to the satisfying conclusion in a Kayfabricated storyline. You can even have ‘double turns’, when both the face and the heel switch sides during a fight!
But the glossary of Kayfabe terms also gets a bit weird, and strangely specific.
A ‘potato’. A potato is a fake, or worked, strike to the head that accidentally makes real contact. If a wrestler gets hit with a couple of potatoes during the match, you can expect them to get angry and return a deliberate potato of their own. This is known as a ‘receipt’, and is a good example of a ‘shoot’, an event that breaks Kayfabe.
Or perhaps the most outlandish of Kayfabe setups – the ‘Lesbian Pollen’. This refers to when two female wrestlers are fighting and one of them performs an unexpected act of lesbianism that catches their opponent off guard, bewildering them. The temporary lesbian then uses this moment of stunned confusion to take advantage of their opponent and beat them up.
All of this ridiculousness aside, perhaps the most important term in the Kayfabe glossary, is ‘mark’. A mark is someone who doesn’t know the whole thing is staged; an audience member who believes in the illusion that Kayfabe has created. You’ll notice that it is the same word conmen use to refer to their victims – that’s no coincidence.
But surely, somewhere between the turns and the double turns, the potatoes and the lesbian pollens, the marks must have realised that the whole thing is fake – right?
Well, some of them did. Some audience members had figured out that the shows were scripted. They knew the big secret. These fans were known by wrestling insiders as ‘smarks’ – Smart marks. These smarks, whilst they knew that the game was rigged, still played along anyway. Even though they knew what they saw was kayfabrication, they were still just as obsessed, just as enthralled, as the clueless marks.
All this was pre-internet, so there wasn’t the easy access to information like there is today, and the revelations made by the smarks about the true nature of the sport, were not picked up by the unsuspecting marks. They still believed. Or, perhaps more importantly, they still wanted to believe.
Even the families of the wrestlers often didn’t know the true nature of the sport. My favourite example of this, is of a wrestler called Kamala – The Ugandan Giant! He won a battle royale and his character received a $5,000 reward, a lot of money for the time. His wife, not knowing that this was all part of Kayfabe, a fake storyline, went out celebrating, boasting about the money her husband had one, unaware that the whole thing was kayfabe and that the match, and the money, were not real.
You’d think she would’ve known something was up though. Her husband, real name James Harris, was not even Ugandan. He was born and raised in Mississippi! The WWE used to forbid him from speaking English in public, and they dressed him up in rags, covered him in tribal paint, and gave him a wooden spear to carry to the ring with him. He was what is known as a ‘monster heel’, a larger than life bad guy who shed fear into the hearts of the audience. Looking back at the way they dressed him up and villainised him, the whole thing seems pretty racist, but lying about someone’s place of origin is very common within Kayfabe.
A great example of how far everyone was prepared to go to protect Kayfabe is the so-called 20/20 incident. One of the most famous wrestlers of the time David Shultz – AKA Dr D – was being interviewed by TV journalist John Stossel. Prior to the interview, Stossel had done a few reports suggesting that wresting wasn’t real, even going as far as to collect testimonies from former wrestlers. To protect Kayfabe, Dr D decided that he was going to make an example out of Stossel on camera, and show the world that wrestling wasn’t fake. I’ll play the clip of what happened when they met.
What you heard was Dr D – a giant, slapping Stossel with one of his freakishly large hands. Stossel gets knocked to the floor. As he gets up, you hear Dr D smack him again, knocking him to the floor once more. It’s pretty brutal. As a result of the impact, Stossel claimed that he had impaired hearing and headaches for years afterwards. He ended up in a legal battle and the wrestling federation gave him hundreds of thousands of dollars. Dr D however, never recovered from the incident, the publicity was too bad and the organisation threw him under the bus. He sacrificed his career to uphold Kayfabe.
The success of Kayfabe helped Professional Wrestling to grow dramatically throughout the 20th century, becoming a multi-million dollar industry with many different promotions vying for a slice of the pie. But there was one wrestling organisation that stood out head and shoulders above the rest – the WWE. One thing that’s incredible about the WWE, is that its founder and enigmatic chairman, Vince McMahon is heavily involved in many of the Kayfabricated storylines and fights. He often comes storming out from backstage, all guns blazing, yelling at fighters, throwing punches and sometimes even getting beaten up! In fact, it wasn’t until I started research for this podcast, that I realised that he actually is the owner and chairman. For years I thought that he was just another actor, putting on this performance as the company owner. But no, he is genuinely the owner. The business mastermind behind the entire enterprise.
This touches on one of the most important elements of Kayfabe. Despite it being a system of performance and deception. Despite the falsity and fabrication. Despite the potatoes and the lesbian pollen. It is still, in its own bizarre way, real.
The throws and slams, although scripted, are actually happening. When someone gets choke slammed off the top of the cage, through the announcers table below, that actually happens. Rather than using fake blood, it’s more common for wrestlers to make a small cut on their forehead with a razorblade when the audience isn’t looking.
The wrestlers put their bodies through hell to get to the required size and shape, and that’s not to mention the extreme damage done by the all the slams and falls. This is not for the faint hearted, type in ‘wrestling injuries’ into Youtube, and you will see what I mean. Legs snapped in half, broken necks causing lifelong paralysis, and even death.
Even Vince McMahon, the chairman, received real injuries from his cameo appearances. In one match, you see him storm out from backstage and march his way down the boardwalk, chest puffed out and face red with fury. As he slides into the ring, he bangs his thigh on the edge of the canvass and tears the quadriceps in his left leg. He tries to stand but collapses, extreme pain visible on his face. So he sits there, yelling at Bautista and John Cena, continuing the performance. As he limps back off stage, trying to uphold his strongman persona, the quadriceps in his right leg also tear! He ended up in a wheelchair for months, poor Vince.
Due to the years of abuse and damage they take, the life expectancy of a pro wrestler is incredibly low, the likelihood of drug addiction, incredibly high. There’s a whole website dedicated to the premature deaths of wrestlers. Looking through the vast catalogue of entries on that site, you see the all-too-real trends that surround the industry.
People always talk about how the repetitive brain trauma caused by collisions in American Football lead to brain damage and premature death, which is true. But what about the collisions in pro wrestling? That take place without the helmets and padding? It turns out that at nearly 20%, the premature death rate for WWE athletes is 3 times higher than their football counterparts.
It just doesn’t get any more real than that.
The line between reality and simulation – between truth and fabrication –– is blurrier than we’d like to admit. Sometimes, the existence of fiction, is not proof of the absence of fact – and vice vera.
In the world of Kayfabe, the illusion is sold by its unmistakable grounding in reality. The lie, hidden by its connection to the truth. That is why it is so enticing, appealing and intoxicating.
We want to believe, and we can.
The phenomenal success of Kayfabe can certainly be found in the numbers: the growth of Pro Wrestling as a sport, and the unbelievable profits made by the WWE. But it’s real success as an instrument of captivation, can be found in the cult-like obsession that the fan base developed with the sport.
This obsession reached a crossroads in what was one of the most bizarre moments of the 20th century.
In order to maintain Kayfabe, wrestling was licensed under the various US athletic commissions, so that it was legally considered and treated as a sport. The commissions, just like with other sports, had to grant licenses to the fighters, referees and timekeepers before each competition. However, just like in other sports, the commissions took a cut from the overall ticket sales.
This was a substantial levy, and one that Vince McMahon, ever-the-businessman, grew tired of paying. Vince McMahon was faced with a conundrum, he could maintain Kayfabe and continue Pro Wrestling’s legal designation as a competitive sport, or go before the commission and admit, hand on heart, that wrestling was in fact scripted and not a competitive sport. To admit the truth would skyrocket the company’s profits and make the event easier to manage. But doing so would counter the first commandment of professional wrestling: thou shalt not break Kayfabe. A mortal sin. It would shatter the illusion that had been so carefully constructed and preserved.
A secret, forged 200 years earlier in the unassuming mining town fairs of northern England, that was now worth hundreds of millions of dollars, could fill out 100,000 seat stadiums, and attracted a TV audience of 33 million viewers. A secret that Vince McMahon chose to expose.
He stood before the New Jersey State Senate to declare, in his own words, that wrestling is “an activity in which participants struggle hand-in-hand primarily for the purpose of providing entertainment to spectators rather than conducting a bona fide athletic contest.”
He told the world that it was scripted, that the storylines and characters were made up, that the arguments weren’t real and the matches were predetermined. And what happened in response? Nothing.
In one fell swoop, Vince McMahon had turned the audience from ‘marks’ – who didn’t know they were being tricked – into ‘smarks’ – who did, but went along with it anyway. The viewers now knew they were being tricked, but such was the power of the narrative, such was their commitment and obsession to the performance, that they chose to suspend their disbelief. The audience decided that the truth wasn’t as important as the simulation.
They were told that they were in the Matrix, they were offered the red pill, but chose the blue.
That was a clip of a pro wrestling fan at a panel discussion. The passion and emotion in his voice, you can really feel how important the illusion is to his reality. It gives me goosebumps.
Following the decision to declare wrestling as entertainment, rather than sport, the business was able to make more money than ever. Put on bigger shows, acquire more fans, and take the world by storm.
Kayfabe had solved the problem of Catch Wrestling being too dangerous. It had made it more exciting and created a billion dollar global enterprise. Kayfabe had blurred the line between reality and illusion. And now, although completely broken, was more powerful than ever.
But this is not where the story ends.
This moment towards the end of the 20th century – the most eventful in human history – was merely a sign of things to come; the strange evolution of the wrestling industry typifying a world that increasingly favoured narrative and spectacle, over truth.
The rules of Kayfabe, laid down by the wrestling industry, began to spring up everywhere. In education, in the media, in politics, even in the response to Covid-19.
Therefore understanding these rules and looking at the world as though it’s just one big wrestling match, as ridiculous as that may sound, can help us see where the deception lies. Where we are the marks, who have no idea the whole thing is rigged. Or where we are the Smarks, who know we are being fooled, yet buy into the illusion nonetheless.
So that when you stop and wonder why the modern world feel so fake. And ask how, amidst the trickery, can we make sense of it?
You’ll know that you need only look, 20ft up to the top of the steel cage lined with barbed wire. At the two giant men wearing spandex. At the overlap of fact and fiction. At the audience who have become separated from reality.
Shakespeare said that the whole world is a stage. Not quite, the whole world is a wrestling ring. And in part two we’ll look at who, and what, is putting on the show.
See you then