Let’s get this out of the way quickly – Professional Wrestling is predetermined. The winner is decided before the match, and the wrestlers involved by and large try their hardest to be safe and not injure their opponent. (Note that the word ‘fake’ has not been used; while the matches are scripted and the action choreographed, the physical impact is very much real).
While this is hardly news to those who tune in each week, there was a time where to doubt the validity of wrestling was akin to questioning whether the Pope was Catholic. The most famous investigation into the legitimacy of Professional Wrestling and the then World Wrestling Federation (WWF) came in 1984 when John Stossel, investigative reporter for the hit US show 20/20, confronted ‘Dr D’ David Schultz and flat out stated “I think this is fake”. With the 20/20 crew filming, Schultz, drunk on pride and aggression, proceeded to slap Stossel, asking, “You think this is fake, huh?”.
He would go on to slap Stossel again, and pursued him while Stossel tried to flee. 20/20 had a huge story, Stossel would go on to sue the WWF for $425,000 and Schultz would later be fired for trying to attack Mr T. For his actions toward Stossel however, Schultz was immediately suspended not by Vince McMahon, but by the New York State Athletic Commissioner, who watched the sorry incident unfold.
The Athletic State Commission of each US state would be at every wrestling event, would grant licences to the wrestlers, referees and timekeepers. It would also levy a tax on all wrestling events, with the percentage of the gate depending on which state the event was held. Ever the smart businessman, Vince McMahon decided that enough was enough. Having already torn up the wrestling landscape, he was going to do the unthinkable: he was going to come clean and reveal wrestling’s biggest secret.
‘Sports Entertainment’ is born
February 10 1989 was the day the facade died, as in front of the State of New Jersey Senate on a bill to remove Wrestling from the regulations that had been applied by the Athletic Commissions, Vince McMahon, representing the World Wrestling Federation, stated that professional wrestling should be defined as "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."
With those words, everybody’s suspicions had been confirmed – wrestling was not in fact a legitimate sporting contest. As a result, the bill deregulating professional wrestling passed by a vote of 37 to 1.
What Happened Next?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, McMahon’s admission drew widespread derision from those within the wrestling community. With the curtain now fully drawn back, many felt that the mystique of the business was gone forever. McMahon himself showed little remorse for this, and was enamoured with his new favourite catchphrase for which to describe his company – ‘Sports Entertainment’.
It was a success not only for Vince but also Linda McMahon, who had lobbied tirelessly to get wrestling deregulated, to the tune of $400,000. It would be the first battle won by the McMahons against the State Commissions, with more lengthy, expensive and ultimately damaging battles to come.
With the regulations now lifted, wrestling events were no longer under the watchful eye of State Commissions, and as such were no longer required to have wrestlers cleared to participate or have an ambulance stationed at the event in case of injury.
In one of the more positive outcomes of the decision, the death of kayfabe actually led to the rise of the independent promotions, as many promoters could now afford to put on show without having to pay for licenses and the other red tape that had held them back. Out of this new world of independent promotions would come Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW) out of Philadelphia, whose wild shows would revolutionise the ‘sport’ of professional wrestling.
But for some, it’s still real to them, dammit.