Is WWE Fake? – Kayfabe & The Dark Truths

Growing up in a house with two younger brothers and only about 15 TV stations to choose from, there wasn’t much that kept us entertained together.

While we all liked the Simpsons, there was also one program that none of us wanted to particularly admit to enjoying but kept us coming back anyways. That was WWE Smackdown, which then aired on Friday nights on UPN.

Like many young boys, we imitated wrestling moves in the house and we even had a trampoline to rough each other up. We mimicked Rob Van Dam’s Five-Star Frog Splash and Rey Mysterio’s 619 and enjoyed the antics of the Guerrero family.

There’s still something chilling about hearing Undertaker’s walkout music.

But eventually, reality struck when we grew up and it became clear that the answer to “Is WWE fake?” is a resounding yes. At least that’s what we thought at the time.

Rey Mysterio 619 vs. the Undertaker
Image: WWE

So, is WWE Fake?

The answer is a bit complex. Some brand the WWE as a “macho soap opera” as much of the entertainment comes from the absolutely outrageous and even controversial storylines.

Like many of the long-running soap operas that continue to be on TV today, WWE’s storylines can be traced all the way back to January 1953, when Capitol Wrestling Corporation Ltd. (CWC) was founded.

WWE is fake due to the fact that the competition-based aspect is certainly fixed. The matches are choreographed and the winners are predetermined.

Hell, the WWE even brands itself repeatedly in seemingly every episode as “sports entertainment”, a term Vince McMahon coined following legal proceedings in the late-1980s.

While the brand and the athletes no longer continuously try to convince viewers that what they’re watching is a real product, they certainly used to do so to the extreme during the “neo-kayfabe era.”

Though the internet and the growth of WWE pretty much put a halt to kayfabe altogether, there are many extremely real aspects of WWE that have resulted in carnage both inside and outside the squared circle.

What is Kayfabe?

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, kayfabe is “the tacit agreement between professional wrestlers and their fans to pretend that overtly staged wrestling events, stories, characters, etc., are genuine.”

Prior to the internet and social media, kayfabe was believed to be paramount to the success of the wrestling industry.

To the surprise of the McMahons and everyone else involved at the top, the WWE has continued to enjoy enormous growth even after it was made abundantly clear that the sport is purely entertainment.

The secrets of professional wrestling were kept under wraps and misguided much of the public, especially the young viewers, to believe that the feuds, the rivalries, and the drama were all real.

It went so far that wrestlers were told to not break character in public and not be seen out with their rivals, even when simply eating or traveling together.

On occasion, kayfabe was accidentally broken and was headline news around the wrestling community.

Arguably, the biggest such example was back in 1987, when The Iron Sheik and Hacksaw Jim Duggan were set to take part in an important match at Madison Square Garden.

At the time, Hacksaw was involved in a long-standing patriotic storyline with the Sheik and tag-team partner Nikolai Volkoff, pitting the USA against Iran and Russia.

However, they were arrested on the Garden State Parkway riding together in possession of marijuana and open alcohol containers, with the Iron Sheik in possession of three grams of cocaine.

Hacksaw was let go for three months and the Iron Sheik was released by the company for a year, only to be eventually hired back.

Kayfabe was such a critical component that the wrestling industry themselves did not acknowledge the fact that they were simply providing entertainment until 1989, when Vince McMahon was forced to testify before the New Jersey State Senate that wrestling was not a competitive sport.

McMahon was doing so in order to essentially dodge taxes that some states placed on income from athletic competition held in that state. It was also done to avoid meeting state minimum requirements on hiring medical personnel for athletic events.

What’s Real in WWE?

What is absolutely real is the athleticism involved, the pain the entertainers endure, the stunts they pull, and the risk involved that sometimes has resulted in serious injury and even death.

It’s not all about wrestling either, you have to become a showman in order to rise to the top. Without having a strong personality and the ability to craft together lines on the fly in front of a packed house and millions watching at home, even the best wrestlers won’t reach the heights of the WWE.

Even as recent as a decade ago, wrestlers would often self-harm themselves in the ring in order to visually enhance their performance.

This often involved wrestlers cutting themselves with hidden razorblades (blading), which sometimes developed into more serious injury and even infection over time.

While blading is no longer a thing, WWE talent and professional wrestlers altogether have not stopped risking it all to put on an insane spectacle night after night.

At AEW Revolution 2024, which celebrated Sting’s last match as a professional wrestler after 40 years, Sting’s tag-team partner Darby Allin went viral for jumping off a 20-foot ladder in the center of the ring through a pane of glass.

Darby Allin
Image: AEW

It’s needless to say that the shards of glass in his back and the pain are very, very real. I can’t imagine what he went through over the following days.

These moves that you see on TV are insane and some of them have even been banned as their injury risks are through the roof.

For example, piledriver variations have been banned in the WWE since 2000.

The ban is largely due to a fight that took place at the 1997 Summerslam when Owen Hart injured Stone Cold Steve Austin with a sitout tombstone, ironically the same move that Steve Austin used that broke Masahiro Chono’s neck in 1992.

The injury was a major factor that led to Stone Cold’s early retirement in 2003.

Triple H had to tweak one of his own signature moves, the Pedigree, which initially was done in such a way that his opponents had their arms locked and could not protect their face upon impact.

The most severe case of this backfiring was during the 2000 Summerslam triple-threat match against both The Rock and Kurt Angle to decide the WWE Championship.

During a botched move, Kurt Angle was admittedly concussed and even said to be snoring asleep at the ringside announcers’ table mid-match.

Despite the danger involved, the three wrestlers finished the match, which is said to be one of the best in WWE history.

Triple H now releases his opponents arms to allow them to protect their face, head, and neck.

Triple H
Image: WWE

Early Deaths

The biggest black spot in WWE have undoubtedly come from wrestlers dying at an early age, which is, unfortunately, extremely common.

Between amateur and professional entertainment wrestling, thousands of athletes have died from unnatural causes far too early.

A 2014 study from FiveThirtyEight found that while normally death rates among people aged 50 to 55 are around 5%, the death rate was 20% among former World Wrestling Federation (WWF) athletes.

The same study found that in those 40 to 45, the death rate for wrestlers was around 15%, a huge increase from the sub-5% rate amongst normal everyday human beings.

Owen Hart at Over the Edge

While it’s extremely rare that wrestlers die in the ring, it does happen occasionally.

The most famous occurrence is undoubtedly Owen Hart’s death at the 1999 Over the Edge pay-per-view event in Kansas City, Missouri.

Hart, 34, who was known for dramatic entrances and wild stunts, fell to his death from the rafters 78 feet onto the top rope.

Hart had planned to be lowered slowly and would fake being tangled and fall flat on his face (from a safe height) for comedic effect using a release mechanism.

Unfortunately, it’s believed that Hart accidentally triggered the release mechanism while adjusting himself for the stunt. The Hart family sued the WWE over how dangerous and poorly planned the stunt was and were awarded $18 million.

The incident was not shown on TV and a very controversial decision to go on with the event was made by Vince McMahon after the event was put on hold.

With the crowd completely unaware of the aftermath, before the era of Twitter and social media, announcer Jim Ross famously delivered the news of Hart’s death on live TV with the audience cheering and screaming in the background.

It’s a sound byte that still delivers chills to WWE fans to this day.

Endless Stories of Drug and Steroid Abuse

It’s no secret that drug and steroid abuse plagues the wrestling community, as many have succumbed to their long-term habits in one way or another.

Trying to cut corners to make the WWE is almost normalized due to the extremely poor wages in amateur wrestling and lower levels of professional wrestling.

On top of that, the physical and mental toll on the body has driven many wrestlers to develop nasty alcohol and drug habits that have, in many instances, become fatal.

Drug, alcohol, and steroid abuse is by far the leading cause of death amongst wrestlers and has taken many legends away far too early.

Some of the more popular WWE wrestlers who died from drug, alcohol, and/or steroid abuse include Test (33), Bam Bam Bigelow (45), Chyna (46), Andre the Giant (46), Umaga (36), Louie Spicolli (27), Big Dick Dudley (34), Curt Hennig (46), Eddie Guerrero (38), and countless others.

Suicide

Given the rough conditions and extreme physical and financial pressure to become a success, many aspiring wrestlers found it all too much to handle.

Recently, WWE’s Sara Lee (30) took her own life in October 2022 with a combination of alcohol and pills. WWE’s Ashley Massaro (39) died by hanging in May 2019.

Other notably WWE wrestlers who took their own lives include Crash Holly (32), Mike Awesome (42), Brian Christopher (46), Rockin’ Rebel (52), Ludvig Borga (47), and Kerry Von Erich (33).

Sadly, Von Erich is one of three brothers in the wrestling industry who left this world too early in the same manner.

Chris Benoit

One of the more talked about early deaths largely attributed to long-term steroid use, alcohol abuse, and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is Chris Benoit (40).

The Rabid Wolverine was one of the more popular WWE wrestlers of his time and won an incredible number of titles, most notably the World Heavyweight Championship at WrestleMania XX.

Over a two day period between June 22 to June 24, 2007, Benoit murdered his wife Nancy, a former wrestler in her own right, and his third child Daniel, who was only seven years old at the time.

Following the murders, on June 23, he engaged in phone conversations with fellow wrestler Chavo Guerrero claiming that the two had bad cases of food poisoning and that he would be late for his flight to Houston. He also sent texts to referee Scott Armstrong.

Guerrero was supposed to be in Houston to face CM Punk for the vacant ECW World Championship at Vengeance: Night of Champions on the 24th.

After Guerrero went to the airport and Benoit was not there, he was further concerned after being bothered by the tone of Benoit’s voice both in his calls and his texts.

Of course, Benoit would not turn up to the show and was found on the 25th during a welfare check having hanged himself using his lat pulldown machine.

Benoit’s double-murder suicide sent shockwaves throughout the wrestling community as a whole and even led to a federal investigation looking into steroid abuse in professional wrestling.

It turns out that on top of alcohol, and steroid abuse, Benoit was extremely depressed, had problems with his marriage, and developed a severe case of CTE.

Medical tests determined that Benoit’s brain injuries were so bad, that his brain resembled that of an 85-year-old Alzheimer’s patient.

Famously, before the details of the crime were revealed, WWE had aired a three-hour special tribute show honoring Benoit’s career.

The following day, Vince McMahon was forced to backtrack, issuing the following statement before their ECW broadcast:

“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. Last night on Monday Night Raw, the WWE presented a special tribute show, recognizing the career of Chris Benoit. However, now some 26 hours later, the facts of this horrific tragedy are now apparent. Therefore, other than my comments, there will be no mention of Mr. Benoit’s name tonight. On the contrary, tonight’s show will be dedicated to everyone who has been affected by this terrible incident. This evening marks the first step of the healing process. Tonight, WWE performers will do what they do better than anyone else in the world: entertain you.”

The WWE quickly distanced themselves from Benoit and have virtually wiped their archives clean of Benoit’s likeness as well as Nancy Benoit’s.

The WWE have rarely mentioned his name since and are careful not to include his face in any promotional material or videos dedicated to other wrestlers.

His son David is an aspiring wrestler and wants to perform under the name Chris Benoit Jr., which he can legally do given that Christopher is his middle name.

While the chances of him getting to wrestle in the WWE with his dad’s theme music and wrestling style are slim, David Benoit is currently training to compete in AEW.

Conclusion

While the question of whether WWE is fake has certainly been answered, the knowledge that the product is purely entertainment has certainly not stopped wrestling fans from investing.

In WWE’s 2022 annual report, the company reported $1.3 billion in annual revenue while having $479 million in cash on hand.

While the matches and the feuds are predetermined and the storylines are outrageous, there are too many very real elements that may warrant a much closer look.

Should wrestling be the way it is, given that it’s led so many athletes to early deaths? Or should the wrestlers be accountable for making the decision to get into the industry fulling knowing the risks?

That’s for you to decide.

Blaise Bourgeois
Poker and Gambling Expert

Blaise is an Expert Gambling Writer and a professional poker player in Brazil. He has played and traveled throughout Latin America for the last four-and-a-half years and recently won his first WSOP Circuit ring! He received his Master's in Sport Management and Sports Analytics from St. John's University. Blaise also holds a Mathematics and Computer Science degree from SUNY Purchase, where he still holds the school's Men's Soccer record for goals in a season. Blaise has worked for Catena Media, OddsSeeker, WSOP, PokerNews, and Poker.Org in various capacities. He has a passion for extensive research and aims to provide accurate…