WWE works best when it sticks to the rules. This is more a question of storytelling than it is of sport, although that’s always true. This is why someone unfamiliar with the beats of professional wrestling but attuned to how narrative works can understand wrestling even if they don’t comprehend the layers of lore and subtext and context around it. You set up the rules of your universe and stick to them, bending them as the story requires. It’s not just wrestling that works this way.
For the most part, WWE is good at this, even when the rules are stupid. They often are, too, which befits the fact that we are talking about grown men and women doing choreographed dance-fighting. The struggle between the script and what can’t be scripted is one of wrestling’s defining tensions, and it can be exciting when the rules are stretched around the unpredictable things built into the sport: when, say, Becky Lynch’s face is accidentally busted during a scrum and that becomes part of the storyline.
The rule that WWE struggles with the most is adherence to kayfabe—the assertion that everything that is happening in WWE is real, unscripted, and part of the show. Over the last decade, the lines of kayfabe have begun to blur; some wrestlers use their real names on Twitter, for instance, and storyline enemies pop up on each other’s Instagram Stories. Even the WWE Network’s Ride Along, a show that puts wrestlers together as they drive to the next city, has skirted the lines of kayfabe. As a general rule, this is limited to off-show programming.
In the approach to WrestleMania 35, though, WWE has abruptly taken fourth-wall breaking to a new and illogical extreme. Of the main event storylines for wrestling’s biggest show, two openly flaunt the lines between real life and kayfabe. The Raw Women’s Championship story between Ronda Rousey, Becky Lynch, and Charlotte Flair, as well as Kofi Kingston’s chase for the WWE Championship, have both used real-life factors in their builds for WrestleMania. It’s worked better in one case than the other.
The less successful of those would be whatever the hell it is that Ronda Rousey is doing right now. The former UFC champion joined WWE last year, with a character template casting her as a wide-eyed superfan; sure, she could break everyone’s arms, but joining WWE was mostly portrayed as a life-long dream come true for the iconic women’s MMA champion. It didn’t work: fans turned on her fast, and while Rousey is preternaturally talented at manipulating bodies in the ring for maximum effect, she is an abhorrent talker. She speaks too fast, gets rattled by hostile crowds, and lacks the mic skills of even mediocre talkers like Bayley or Natalya. Between those shortcomings and some of her, to put it kindly, problematic real-life views, Rousey left WWE little choice but to turn her heel.
Part of that was the promotion responding to a very obvious trendline, but the other part was pitting her against Becky Lynch, a phenomenal talker and a charismatic figure who is understandably the most popular character WWE’s got at the moment. The only problem with setting up this feud was not conceptual, but how Rousey has executed her turn. She’s taken her heeldom and pointed it towards WWE itself, rather than just Lynch, and her promos and missives have turned towards kayfabe-breaking cheap tricks. Calling Lynch by her real name (Rebecca Quin) is bad enough. More egregious is Rousey’s continued attacks on the “fakeness” of WWE.
Positioning yourself as the only real person in a world of fakes isn’t good heel work. It’s lazy, for one thing, but mostly it’s ungenerous—Rousey is aiming to make herself real at the expense of, well, the entire rest of the show. Rousey need only have looked at Brock Lesnar, another legitimately badass athlete who has excelled in WWE, to see how to work this particular angle. Lesnar’s advocate, Paul Heyman, hypes the Beast up not by shitting on WWE as a product, but by highlighting Lesnar’s real fighting accomplishments as equal to his dominance in the wrestling ring. Rousey doesn’t have the finesse to do this, and instead jumped immediately to the fact that she would likely destroy any of the WWE women in a real fight. That’s probably true, but it’s also not the point.
That’s not what WWE is built for, or the kind of fun that it delivers—start arguing the real-life merits of its fighters and the whole illusion threatens to fall apart. Lesnar’s work in this week’s Raw is a shining example of how this works, when it works. Lesnar is going up against Seth Rollins at WrestleMania this year, a size mismatch that would be laughable in real combat. However, Rollins acknowledges that and uses it for the story: he made sure to point out that, in WWE, Lesnar has been bothered by the speed and technical prowess of smaller wrestlers. Smaller wrestlers that resemble Seth Rollins, in other words. With just one promo, Rollins and Heyman put over Lesnar’s physical dominance, Rollins’s underdog credentials, and his plan of attack for WrestleMania.
This is not to say that bending kayfabe can’t work, of course. It can, but Rousey is just doing a lame and clumsy job of it. But while Rousey has petulantly wrenched the sport’s essential suspension of disbelief into an armbar for a solid month now, the promotion has been telling a much better kayfabe-bending storyline on SmackDown Live.
Kofi Kingston, one of the members of the super-positive and obscenely popular faction The New Day, has been in WWE for 11 years without getting a singles match for the WWE Championship. There are a variety of reasons for this, depending on how charitable you want to be towards WWE’s creative team. The more positive way to look at it is that Kingston only really started peaking as a performer with The New Day, which started in 2014 and really took off after an initial heel turn the following year. He’s a great performer and a beloved figure, and this is a perfectly fine time to reward him with a title match. But.
WWE’s history of institutional racism towards black wrestlers suggests that explanation may be too generous. Since WrestleMania 1 in 1985, the promotion has had only been three black champions: The Rock, Booker T, and Mark Henry. Both Booker T and Henry won the World Heavyweight Championship, which was almost always seen as the secondary world title, and while The Rock is one of the biggest stars in the promotion’s history, WWE tends to focus on his Samoan heritage except during Black History Month.
Kingston has been a solid-to-spectacular part of WWE for over a decade, and considering some of the lesser wrestlers that have gotten singles title matches—Ryback, the Great Khali, and late-career Kane, spring to mind—his shot is way overdue. Here’s where this storyline gets interesting, though—WWE knows its history, and has leveraged it with an assist from real-life chairman Vince McMahon, who has spent weeks putting obstacles in Kingston’s way. On Tuesday’s SmackDown Live, McMahon came out and put on a promo master class, telling the New Day that Kingston has been a good part of the show for years, and that he appreciates his service...but that he’s just not good enough to be a main eventer.
This was punctuated beautifully by bringing back a storyline from 2014: Daniel Bryan’s chase for the world title five years ago was centered around him being a “B+ player,” a performer who is appreciated but never celebrated. In a perfect narrative twist, Kingston is now chasing Bryan in his new a Detested Environmentalist heel character. McMahon brought back the “B+ player” line, saying that Bryan himself fed it to him backstage when talking about Kingston.
The true star of Tuesday’s promo, though, was Kingston himself. While his character is a happy-go-lucky athlete supreme, the real man is a man with a job, and a husband with kids. To rally crowd support behind him, and also to sell the very real fact that he’s been a workhorse for a decade with no ultimate payoff, Kingston brought up his kids. Watch in this video at 6:20, when Kingston says that he has never been trick-or-treating with his kids because he’s always working for WWE. The eerie silence that greets it makes clear that everyone in the arena felt it land. It’s just real enough to sting.
It’s masterful storytelling, in short, in a classic WWE style. The workload and stress that wrestlers endure for the company is well-documented; WWE stars, with Roman Reigns the most recent, have long clamored for an off-season. By bringing the conditions of his job into a storyline that already touches upon his workplace’s strange and troubled history, Kingston, McMahon, and the writers raise the stakes significantly—from a wrestler’s overdue title shot to a fight for a man’s worth. It’s melodramatic, sure, but that’s WWE at its best.
It also tests the boundaries in a way that makes sense. Rousey’s insistence that she’s the only real protagonist in a fictional play sells short the company and the broader idea of professional wrestling. Kingston’s interpolation of real history—his own and the promotion’s—deepens his own character and elevates the WWE Championship so that it means more than just one of the promotion’s many titles. It turns the belt into a real career accomplishment for a real person, complete with a real and fully felt history that exists both inside and outside the storyline.
WWE shouldn’t be scared to flirt with breaking kayfabe; some of its most memorable moments have done just that. The CM Punk pipebomb promo. The Montreal Screwjob. John Cena proposing to Nikki Bella at WrestleMania 33. Fans talk about those moments not because of what they entailed but because of how they touched, in a way that was real and resonant and subtle by WWE standards, on something outside of wrestling. The so-called Kofimania storyline is operating in this delicate arena. So far, it’s going well.
The build for Rousey’s match, on the other hand, has begun to mirror one of WWE’s most infamous WWE moments: the Madison Square Garden Curtain Call. Kayfabe was chucked out the window there, too, so that Triple H, Shawn Michaels, Kevin Nash, and Scott Hall could hug it out in the middle of the ring before the latter two left to competitor WCW. The problem was that Michaels and Nash were in a feud at the time, which meant that embracing in the ring was a step too far (Triple H was suspended for the incident; Michaels, the golden boy, skated on punishment.)
Everyone knows this is fake, of course. The wrestler’s job is to make it real. Rousey points to the fabrication at the heart of WWE, but has nothing much to say about it; she doesn’t augment the story so much as she disrupts it. It’s probably too late to reverse course, and her most recent promo on Monday had her calling the company “carnies,” an insult used by supposedly Smart Wrestling Fans (“smarks”) in reference to WWE’s shady business practices. WWE will see this story through to the end now, because that’s what WWE does. But there’s a lesson to be learned from the contrasting Rousey and Kofi storylines, and the company would do well to take it. WWE needs to trust in the world it has made, and respect the suspension of disbelief that’s so fundamental to being a wrestling fan.