In professional wrestling, kayfabe // is the portrayal of staged events within the industry as "real" or "true," specifically the portrayal of competition, rivalries, and relationships between participants as being genuine and not of a staged or pre-determined nature. Kayfabe has also evolved to become a code word of sorts for maintaining this "reality" within the realm of the general public. Though the general public had been aware of the staged nature of professional wrestling for decades, the professional wrestling industry did not formally acknowledge this until 1989 when Vince McMahon testified before the New Jersey state senate that wrestling was staged, in order to avoid taxation on his in-house shows and pay-per-view events.
Kayfabe is often seen as the suspension of disbelief that is used to create the non-wrestling aspects of promotions, such as feuds, angles, and gimmicks, in a manner similar to other forms of fictional entertainment. In relative terms, a wrestler breaking kayfabe during a show would be likened to an actor breaking character on camera. Also, since wrestling is performed in front of a live audience, whose interaction with the show is crucial to the show's success (see pop), one might compare kayfabe to the fourth wall, since there is hardly any conventional fourth wall to begin with.
In years past, one tool that promoters and wrestlers had in preserving kayfabe was in their ability to attract a loyal paying audience in spite of limited or nearly nonexistent exposure. Professional wrestling had long been shunned by mainstream media due to lingering doubts over its legitimacy, and its presentation on television was largely limited to self-produced programming, not unlike infomercials of the present day. Scrutiny existed only in limited circumstances, where in certain U.S. states, promoters had to deal with activist athletic commissioners. It was commonplace for wrestlers to adhere to kayfabe in public, even when outside the ring and off-camera, in order to preserve the illusion that the competition in pro wrestling was not staged. This was due in no small part to feuds between wrestlers sometimes lasting for years, and which could be utterly destroyed in seconds if they were shown associating as friends in public, and thus potentially affect ticket revenue.
With the advent of the Internet wrestling community, as well as the sports entertainment movement, the pro wrestling industry has become less concerned with protecting so-called backstage secrets and typically maintains kayfabe only during performances. However, kayfabe is occasionally broken, including during performances, in order to achieve a number of goals, among them advancing the storylines, explaining prolonged absences (often due to legitimate injury), paying tribute to other wrestlers and sometimes for comedic effect or that of driving insider humor.
- 1 Faces and heels
- 2 Uses
- 3 Breaking kayfabe
- 3.1 Andy Kaufman, Inter-Gender Wrestling Champion of the World
- 3.2 The Von Erichs
- 3.3 Hogan/Savage/Miss Elizabeth
- 3.4 1996 MSG Incident: "The Curtain Call"
- 3.5 Montreal Screwjob
- 3.6 Owen Hart death
- 3.7 Bobby Heenan says goodbye to Gorilla Monsoon
- 3.8 Sid Vicious injury
- 3.9 McMahon steroid trial
- 3.10 Lita/Edge/Matt Hardy
- 3.11 Mick Foley/Ric Flair
- 3.12 Special and tribute shows
- 3.13 Ric Flair's retirement
- 3.14 Trump buys WWE Raw
- 3.15 Triple H bidding Shawn Michaels farewell
- 3.16 Michael Cole
- 3.17 Kobe Bryant reference
- 3.18 Jerry Lawler's heart attack
- 3.19 Darren Young's coming out
- 4 Breaks that are apparent but unacknowledged
- 5 Other
- 6 See also
- 7 References
Faces and heels
Faces, short for babyfaces, are hero-type characters whose personalities are crafted to elicit the support of the audience through traits such as humility, a hard working nature, determination and reciprocal love of the crowd. Faces usually win their matches on the basis of their technical skills and are sometimes portrayed as underdogs to enhance the story.
Heels are villainous or antagonistic characters, whose personalities are crafted to elicit a negative response from the audience. They often embrace traditionally negative traits such as narcissism, egomania, unprompted rage, sadism and general bitterness. Though not as prevalent today, xenophobic ethnic and racial stereotypes, in particular those inspired by the Axis powers of WWII, were commonly utilized in North American wrestling as heel-defining traits. Heels typically inspire boos from the audience and often employ underhanded tactics, such as cheating and exploiting technicalities, in their fighting strategies, or use overly aggressive styles to cause excess pain or injury to their opponents.
A wrestler may suddenly change from face to heel (or vice versa) in an event known as a turn, or gradually transition from one to the other over the course of a long storyline.
Matches are usually organized between a heel and a face, but the distinction between the two types may be blurred as a given character's storyline reaches a peak or becomes more complicated. Indeed, in recent years, several wrestlers became characters that were neither faces nor heels, but somewhere in between—or alternating between both—earning them the term "'tweener."
Perhaps the best-known "'tweener" was the WWE's "Stone Cold" Steve Austin. His personality was heel-ish, but became a WWE fan favorite for his kayfabe feud with his boss, WWE chairman and CEO Vince McMahon's in-ring alter-ego, the evil billionaire owner, "Mr. McMahon."
Many storylines make use of kayfabe romantic relationships between two performers. Very often, both participants have other real-life relationships, and the "relationship" between the two is simply a storyline. However, more than once, kayfabe romantic relationships have resulted either from a real-life relationship, such as between Matt Hardy and Lita, or ultimately developed into a real-life marriage (e.g., Triple H and Stephanie McMahon, who married in 2003, more than a year after their kayfabe marriage ended).
Tag teams of wrestlers, who may or may not look alike, are often presented as relatives, though they are not actually related. Examples include The Brothers of Destruction (The Undertaker and Kane), the The Holly Cousins (Hardcore Holly, Crash Holly, and Molly Holly) and The Dudley Brothers. "Brother" tag teams were commonly utilized in years past as a means to develop young talent, by pairing them with a veteran wrestler and giving the younger wrestler a "rub" by virtue of the association. In the case of the Andersons, this was used multiple times over, first with Gene Anderson, followed by Lars Anderson, Ole Anderson, then years later with Arn Anderson. In this specific instance, this also greatly enhanced the shelf life and future legacy of the tag team and its associated gimmick ("The Minnesota Wrecking Crew"). Arn Anderson, as he gained experience as a wrestler, was introduced to Georgia Championship Wrestling audiences as Ole Anderson's nephew (and later cousin to Ric Flair). Although Minnesota roots were central to the Anderson gimmick, Arn clearly spoke with a southern accent. He had also previously appeared on the same program as a television jobber, working under his real name.
Sometimes wrestlers will "sell" a kayfabe injury by not appearing at the following show, in order to demonstrate the severity of what happened to them the week before. In the years when information on the happenings of the business was limited, this was a common tactic for promoters when a wrestler was scheduled to tour Japan, or in more limited circumstances was dealing with a family emergency.
In other instances, if a wrestler (typically a babyface) needs surgery, a storyline will sometimes develop in which a heel will commit a kayfabe, on-screen act to the face wrestler to "injure" the wrestler, in order to give the impression that it was the heel's action that caused the face to need surgery. In these instances, the heel will continually flaunt the notion of taking their opponent out of action, in order to keep the storyline fresh in fans' minds until the face is able to return and "settle the score".
Other times, a real injury is sometimes used later on as a storyline. One way is for the injured to come back and blame someone else for injuring them, even when the feud was not initially planned out at all, to give a sort of closure to the injury time out.
Lastly, when a major injury sidelines a wrestler in such a way none of the above can be done (such as Kurt Angle's neck injury in 2003), the company will plan a sort of return angle that can be used to celebrate a wrestler's return to action. This has been made especially popular in the WWE with the use of their "Desire" video vignettes of wrestlers who returned from a major injury such as Triple H in 2001 or Kurt Angle, in order to show that the wrestler was able to overcome a major injury that could have ended their career indefinitely (which, in many cases, could truly, non-kayfabe, be career-threatening or worse). In many cases, this is done for faces, though these also give a promotion a reason to turn a heel into a face (as in Kurt Angle's case) if what the wrestler brought to the company was sorely missed during their absence. These returns are usually given a particular date in order to increase viewership and ticket sales, as they are promised a star they have wanted to return. Even more so, a wrestler's return will not even be advertised. It will just suddenly happen in order to get a huge pop out of the crowd, such as Edge's return at the 2010 Royal Rumble, where Edge was entrant 29 at the 2010 Rumble event, despite no prior public knowledge of him even being able to return to action or Marty Wright known as The Boogeyman coming to the 2015 Royal Rumble making it his first appearance for WWE in almost 5 years and also John Cena who, at the 2008 Royal Rumble, entered at no. 30 and won the match returning months prior to his expected return from a neck injury.
Contracts and employment status
Through kayfabe, wrestlers often quit, get fired, or lose challenges with their job at stake (e.g., a "loser leaves town match") only to return at a future time. These types of matches are also used when a wrestler's contract is up or to give them some time off to recover from a legitimate injury (before expanding to national television, wrestlers often did leave town as they were booked on the next city or territory on the circuit, similar to the carnival days).
However, such "departures" may also be used to advance a feud between two wrestlers. A classic example is the "masked man", where the wrestler (usually a face) who has supposedly lost his job makes appearances at subsequent events while wearing a mask, and then interferes in his heel opponent's matches; eventually, the masked wrestler's identity is exposed by his foe and the feud intensifies. This storyline was used for the Dusty Rhodes/Kevin Sullivan feud during the 1980s and also for the feud between Vince McMahon and Hulk Hogan in 2003. Junkyard Dog was pinned in an October 1982 televised match (due to interference from Jim Duggan, dressed in a gorilla costume) where the loser of the fall left Mid-South Wrestling for ninety days. Soon after, JYD reappeared as the masked Stagger Lee. In an unusual twist, JYD later appeared on television in street clothes alongside Stagger Lee, acting as his "spokesman". This Stagger Lee was soon unmasked as Porkchop Cash, but it was otherwise JYD under the mask during the course of this angle.
Some more recent examples include William Regal losing a Loser Gets Fired match against Mr. Kennedy on the May 19, 2008 episode of Raw (Regal was actually suspended for sixty days due to violation of the WWE Wellness Policy), The Undertaker losing a Tables, Ladders, and Chairs match to Edge at WWE One Night Stand later that year, (where the winner would get the vacant WWE World Heavyweight Championship) and At Survivor Series, where John Cena officiated a match for the WWE Championship between Wade Barrett and Randy Orton. As a part of a pre-match stipulation, if Barrett did not win the championship, Cena would be fired from the WWE. Orton defeated Barrett to retain the title, thus "ending" Cena's career in the WWE. The following day on Raw, Cena gave a farewell speech, before costing Wade Barrett the WWE Championship by interfering in his rematch with Randy Orton. A week later, Cena invaded Raw first as a spectator but then attacked members of Nexus, explaining that he would still take down Nexus one by one, despite not having a job in WWE anymore. Cena was eventually "rehired" by Wade Barrett a few weeks later in an attempt to prevent a mutiny by members of the Nexus.
The "you're fired" gimmick has also successfully been used to repackage a wrestler with a new gimmick.
On the August 22, 2005 edition of Raw, WWE Champion John Cena successfully defended his title by defeating Chris Jericho in a "You're Fired!" match. Eric Bischoff promptly fired Jericho, and ordered that he be taken from the arena by security. Jericho was not truly fired, however, as his release was a mutual arrangement. The match had been conceived to cover for Jericho's departure from the company, and he eventually returned to the WWE on the November 19, 2007 edition of Raw after an absence of just over two years, remaining with the company until his contract expired in September 2010 and then returned once more in 2012.
On the December 6, 2007 episode of TNA Impact!, Christopher Daniels was fired in the Feast or Fired match and due to the stipulations it was revealed that Daniels' briefcase contained the pink slip, immediately causing him to be released from TNA. He reappeared on January 24, 2008 under the guise of Curry Man, a masked character he has used in New Japan Pro Wrestling. He was then fired under this name in another Feast or Fired Match. He then returned to TNA in 2009 reverting to Christopher Daniels, and was announced as just "Daniels" until his release in 2010.
In April 2001, Vince McMahon announced that The Rock was indefinitely suspended. This was a cover story to give The Rock time off to film The Scorpion King. The Rock returned on the July 30, 2001 episode of Raw to declare that he was taking the WWF's side in their feud with the WCW/ECW Alliance. In 2012, Chris Jericho was fired on Raw. This was used by Chris Jericho to tour with Fozzy, his band, for the remainder of the year.
There have been several examples of breaking kayfabe throughout wrestling history, although exactly what constitutes "breaking" is not clearly defined. It is rare for kayfabe to be dispensed with totally and the events acknowledged as scripted. Often the "break" may be implied or through an allusion (for example calling a wrestler by his/her real name) and standards tend to vary as to what is a break. In the WWF during and after the Attitude Era, the line between kayfabe and reality was often blurred.
With the growth of the industry and its exposure on the Internet and DVD and videos, kayfabe may be broken more regularly. Whereas in the past it was extremely rare for a wrestler or other involved person to recognize the scripted nature of events even in outside press or media, WWE DVDs and WWE.com routinely give news and acknowledge real life. In the case of the former, it has ostensible adversaries and allies talking about each other, and the angles and storylines they worked and their opinions on them. On WWE.com, real life news is often given which may contradict storylines.
Prior to the Attitude Era and the advent of the Internet, publications such as WWF Magazine, and television programs broke kayfabe only to acknowledge major real-life events involving current or retired wrestlers, such as a death (for instance, the death of Ernie Roth, who was billed as "The Grand Wizard of Wrestling"), divorce (e.g., Randy "Macho Man" Savage and Miss Elizabeth) or life-threatening accident (such as the 1990 parasailing accident that seriously injured Brutus "The Barber" Beefcake), especially if said event received mass mainstream coverage. In addition, when WWF top officials and employees were facing allegations of anabolic steroid abuse and sexual harassment during the early 1990s, Vince McMahon responded via a series of videotaped comments defending his company and employees, and several full-page advertisements rebutting the allegations appeared in WWF Magazine.
As of late, WWE.com has included an "Industry News" section to their website, which regularly breaks kayfabe to deliver news about current and former WWE superstars, and even going beyond their former policy of not acknowledging their competition, Total Nonstop Action Wrestling, by posting TNA Impact! and pay-per-view results on their site. Live events for virtually every wrestling company around the world are also listed on a regular basis, as are tidbits regarding wrestlers, such as Nick Hogan's arrest and subsequent incarceration, the Ultimate Warrior's return to wrestling and challenging Vince McMahon to a match, etc.
Kayfabe has been broken many times, though it may not always be apparent to fans as seen below. The following is a list of some of the more notable examples.
Andy Kaufman, Inter-Gender Wrestling Champion of the World
Actor and comedian Andy Kaufman has become known in the years following his death for his lifelong obsession with professional wrestling. In what would sound more familiar when several modern-day wrestlers spoke of being in the audience for the Don Muraco vs. Jimmy Snuka cage match as a life-changing event, Kaufman claimed to have been in attendance at Madison Square Garden twenty years prior when Bruno Sammartino defeated Buddy Rogers for the WWWF championship. Too small to be a wrestler and too successful in his career for any promoter to afford his services as a manager, Kaufman nonetheless spent years looking for a way to be involved in the business.
Kaufman developed a bit for his standup routine of being the "Inter-Gender Wrestling Champion of the World," challenging females from the audience. It has been reported multiple times over the years that Kaufman created this bit with the intention of shopping it to wrestling promoters as a storyline, and that he was turned down by numerous promoters, most famously by Vincent J. McMahon. He finally found a willing promoter in Jerry Jarrett, whose flagship arena the Mid-South Coliseum was considerably larger than most other venues in the United States which ran weekly wrestling shows, and therefore had a need to create enough interest to sell tickets. Kaufman appeared briefly in the promotion in the spring of 1982 to challenge Jerry Lawler, followed by a famous joint appearance with Lawler on Late Night with David Letterman and other appearances throughout the following year.
During this same time period, Kaufman also worked with Freddie Blassie, whose ability to maintain kayfabe in public was so strong, it more resembled an obliviousness to reality at times. Kaufman and Blassie filmed the movie My Breakfast with Blassie, in which both men performed in character. Kaufman and Blassie appeared together on the February 23, 1983 episode of Letterman's show to promote the movie. This appearance, which was also performed in character, culminated with Blassie proclaiming that he was now Kaufman's (kayfabe) manager and physically pushing Kaufman towards the band stage to perform "Jambalaya". Letterman, in the early years of Late Night, featured both professional wrestlers and ordinary people as guests, which in both cases was rare on network television. At one point during the appearance, Letterman and Blassie were discussing the latter's wrestling career, and Letterman frequently goaded his other guest (the ordinary person) to denounce Blassie's claims, albeit with the hint that it was being done tongue-in-cheek. The studio audience erupted in laughter when Blassie, in discussing being Kaufman's manager, stated that Kaufman was a talent of the caliber of Big John Studd and Crippler Stevens.
A decade and a half after Kaufman's death, Lawler starred as himself in Man on the Moon, a film that, in part portrays the kayfabe feud between the pair. The movie shows highlights from the work and then reveals that Kaufman and Lawler were friends. Kaufman was only an amateur wrestler, and his initial attempts to enter the pro wrestling business were met with scorn by promoters, many of whom viewed Kaufman as someone who was eager to use his celebrity to expose the business once he was given an entry. His work with wrestlers demonstrated that he was a quick study of kayfabe. His devotion to the kayfabe would last his whole life, eventually affecting his reputation with fans of his acting and comic careers.
The Von Erichs
Jack Adkisson, better known as Fritz Von Erich, and his sons provided decades worth of examples, discussion and debate of which would become more of a focal point of World Class Championship Wrestling during its decline in the mid to late 1980s than any of its matches or storylines. The examples begin with Fritz himself. Adkisson, who had been a football star at Southern Methodist University, began wrestling in Texas under his real name. He then spent years touring North America as Fritz Von Erich, utilizing a Nazi gimmick. Adkisson later returned to Texas, retaining the Von Erich name and aspects of the Nazi gimmick while promoting himself as a conquering local hero. The 1984 death of son David Von Erich, which was announced as due to enteritis but continues to be highly disputed to this day, provided much fodder for discussion as business slowly dwindled in World Class following the conclusion of the Von Erich vs. Freebird feud. The most minor of contradictions in story would be seized upon by critics, most notably by Dave Meltzer, who lived in Denton, Texas, at the time of David's death and originally reported the death in his Wrestling Observer Newsletter as due to enteritis.
The most egregious examples would actually follow David's death. During his years away from Texas, Jack Adkisson was part of a "brother tag team" (see above) with Waldo Von Erich, who was actually Canadian. As his sons began self-destructing, Fritz had a spot to fill in the roster, so he introduced Lance Von Erich, the son of Waldo. The problem was that in real life, Lance was Kevin Vaughn, a native of the Dallas area who was well-known locally under his real name as an athlete. Gary Hart, in an interview conducted for the WWE Home Video DVD release The Triumph and Tragedy of World Class Championship Wrestling, stated that he returned to the promotion as booker shortly afterward. When he entered the Dallas Sportatorium, fans began asking him about Kevin Vaughn, to which he responded that he didn't know the name. Hart mentioned that these loyal fans were quick to point out that Kevin Vaughn was Lance Von Erich, and that "the Von Erichs lie," whereas they were content to believe in what they were seeing prior to this episode.
About a year after that, Fritz collapsed on the floor of Reunion Arena as he was leaving the ringside area. The suggestion that Fritz had faked a heart attack for cheap heat, with both kayfabe and real-life denials, would prove to be one of the final nails in the coffin for the promotion, which closed down within a year after this angle was shot.
Sometimes a real life issue that a wrestler is involved in outside of kayfabe will be used as a storyline.
The end of The Mega Powers, the alliance between Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage, was inspired by real-life tension between the two men over Randy's manager (and real-life wife at the time) Miss Elizabeth.
1996 MSG Incident: "The Curtain Call"
In the 1996 MSG Incident, real-life friends Shawn Michaels, Hunter Hearst Hemsley, Diesel (Kevin Nash), and Razor Ramon (Scott Hall) broke kayfabe by embracing in the ring at the end of a match between Michaels and Nash. Nash and Hall were on their way to rival promotion World Championship Wrestling, and the embrace was a farewell gesture from Michaels and Triple H. Because of Nash & Hall's departure, and the fact that Michaels was champion at the time, Triple H was the only one reprimanded for the incident. He was relegated to working lower card matches and was booked to lose to Jake "The Snake" Roberts in the King of the Ring 1996 tournament, having previously been booked to win it. The event had a profound impact on the company overall in later years, as Stone Cold Steve Austin was booked in Triple H's place to win the tournament overall, thus setting the stage for Austin's rise to prominence in the late 1990s. Triple H wasn't punished for very long, as his push was only delayed a year and Triple H proceeded to win the next year's King of the Ring.
The most widely-discussed example is the Montreal Screwjob (also called the Montreal Incident), centered around a match in which then-WWF Champion Bret Hart wrestled challenger Shawn Michaels for the championship at the Survivor Series pay-per-view event in Montreal on November 9, 1997. Hart had previously signed a contract with rival World Championship Wrestling and still had three weeks after this match before his first appearance on WCW Monday Nitro. The agreed-upon finish was to have Hart retain the title that night and appear on Monday Night Raw the following night to give up the championship. WWF head Vince McMahon had, months before, informed Hart that he could not financially guarantee the terms of his contract with Hart, encouraging him to make another deal if he was able to. As events transpired leading up to Survivor Series with Hart still champion and booked to remain champion following the event, McMahon feared that his championship would appear on his rival's television program. This led to McMahon making the decision to change the planned finish without telling Hart. McMahon's feelings on this matter were still fresh after WWF Women's Champion Debrah Miceli (also known as Madusa and Alundra Blayze), following her release from the WWF, appeared on Nitro in December 1995 and threw her championship belt into a trash can. History proved that McMahon also held no reservations about such a matter. At least one account of the events of the WWF's expansion in late 1983 and early 1984 states that Bob Backlund was also not told by McMahon that he would lose the WWF Championship to The Iron Sheik, as well as losing his spot in the roster to Hulk Hogan.
During the Hart vs. Michaels match, Michaels put Hart in the sharpshooter, Hart's finisher. Referee Earl Hebner signaled that Hart submitted, even though he clearly had not. At the same time, McMahon came to the ringside area and directed the ring crew to ring the bell and announce that Michaels had won the match. Hart, very upset, spat on McMahon and began trashing equipment around the ring, later punching McMahon in the dressing room. It was long believed that Michaels was also not informed of the events which transpired, yet later it was revealed that he was in fact in on it. The incident was recreated over the years in various angles and storylines. Examples include a "screwing" of Mankind at the following year's Survivor Series. The same finish was recreated on the March 18, 2006 edition of Saturday Night's Main Event. In this instance, McMahon "screwed" Michaels in a match where Michaels faced his son Shane, in order to build up the feud between the two leading up to their match at WrestleMania 22.
The incident occurred during a storyline feud between the United States and Canada. While Canadian nationalism certainly exists, the storyline was often panned for portraying relations between the two countries in a light which is far removed from reality. Hart played a vital role in the feud, doing promos in which he extolled the advantages of Canada in front of hostile American audiences. Numerous accounts of the screwjob have stated that Hart was asked to drop the title in Montreal, with Hart refusing to lose a match on Canadian soil due to his stature (whether real or self-imagined) in Canada. Following Hart's departure from the WWF, one of his chief rivals, Stone Cold Steve Austin, began being cheered by Canadian fans. Michaels, however, continued to receive jeers from Canadian audiences for many years afterward, no matter his babyface or heel status within a particular storyline. In response, numerous television announcers would refer to Canada in their commentary as "bizzaro land" due to their differing reactions to wrestlers, Michaels in particular, as opposed to anywhere else on the planet the WWF appeared. Such a statement is believed to be a cover-up on the part of the promotion, and that this scenario can be attributed to the fact that the screwjob was brought up verbally in some form or another every time the WWF/WWE returned to Montreal for a televised event for many years afterward, inflaming fans by not letting it die. The incident has also been cited for starting the "Mr. McMahon" character in earnest. McMahon, who had appeared on WWF television programs since 1971 (when it was known as the WWWF), had been portrayed on television almost exclusively to that point as the announcer and program host, rather than as the owner (or originally, the son of the owner) of the WWF. A series of angles during 1997 mostly involving Hart and McMahon, which ended with the screwjob, was the beginning stage of McMahon's on-camera appearances in a role other than announcing.
In a shoot interview with RFvideo.com, Kevin Nash doubted the legitimacy of the Montreal Screwjob. He believes the whole thing was a "work". He claims that it was too much of a coincidence that all of the cameras were in the right place at the right time during the Screwjob itself. Nash went on to say that McMahon was staggering a little too much after being punched, as he knew Vince as a man who would never sell a real punch the way he did. Nash also claimed that if McMahon didn't want something to be videotaped, it wouldn't be videotaped, referring to the video footage of the backstage aftermath, including being punched. Contradicting this view, Hart, in his book Hitman: My Real Life in the Cartoon World of Wrestling, noted that McMahon looked visibly concerned that the crew following him for the documentary film Hitman Hart: Wrestling with Shadows was present, but that McMahon never made objection. According to Hart, it was a matter of sheer luck that the crew captured footage of all of the events which transpired. On the January 4, 2010 edition of Raw, Hart was the guest host for the episode. Hart and Michaels had made previous claims that they were ready to "bury the hatchet". The two met in the ring, admitted their faults and embraced in the ring. Despite Hart and McMahon mending their differences much earlier, a kayfabe feud began between the two when McMahon attacked Hart to end the program. This began the storyline that led to their match at WrestleMania XXVI. The timing of Hart's guest host appearance, as well as the ensuing happenings, appears to have been scheduled and booked for the non-kayfabe reason of serving as a competitive retaliation to a special edition of TNA Impact!, airing live on a Monday opposite Raw and featuring the TNA debut of Hulk Hogan.
Owen Hart death
The accident that killed Owen Hart occurred on May 23, 1999 during the Over the Edge pay per view broadcast, but was not shown on screen (a pre-recorded video featuring Hart in character as the "Blue Blazer" was playing at the time of the accident) and, after Jim Ross indicated that something was amiss in the ring, the broadcast immediately cut to a pre-recorded interview with Hart. Afterward, Ross acknowledged to viewers that an accident had occurred and that Hart was being attended to, at one point assuring viewers "this was not a wrestling angle".
Bobby Heenan says goodbye to Gorilla Monsoon
On the October 11, 1999, edition of WCW Monday Nitro, five days after the death of Gorilla Monsoon, Tony Schiavone briefly mentioned Monsoon's passing, and Bobby "The Brain" Heenan, Monsoon's real-life best friend, broke kayfabe and said a few words about Monsoon, despite Monsoon never working for the WCW. Heenan said, "Gorilla will be sadly missed. Now he was one big, tough man. He was a decent, honest man. We're all gonna miss him very much. And you know the pearly gates in heaven? It's now gonna be called 'the Gorilla position.' Goodbye, my friend." Heenan then gave a small salute, and began to cry silently. Monsoon and Heenan had worked together on commentary for many years in WWF, with Monsoon playing the foil to Heenan's heel character.
Sid Vicious injury
Shoot comments were a popular tactic of Vince Russo, who would often blur the line between kayfabe and reality. WCW, in its declining years of the Monday Night Wars, would use real life incidents the wrestlers had as material for storylines, even though they could be seen as tasteless at times. A prime example of this is when Sid Vicious suffered a severe leg break in a match at WCW Sin from a botched second turnbuckle kick in January 2001. The incident was shown the following night on Nitro, with his opponents from the match laughing at the footage.
McMahon steroid trial
In the buildup to Hulk Hogan's match with Vince McMahon at WrestleMania XIX, real life tension between the two men following McMahon's steroid trial was added to the storyline to generate interest in their match.
In early 2005, Lita and Matt Hardy had been a legitimate couple for nearly six years, but around February of that year, Lita cheated on Hardy with fellow wrestler, Edge. Hardy made the situation public, and was fired from the WWE soon after, but the WWE hired Hardy back after only two months. They then put the real-life incident into a storyline with Edge and Lita facing Hardy. The WWE was forced to do this because by the time Hardy was fired, the majority of the fans were already aware of the incident and booed Lita (who was a face at the time). The live crowd would often chant "you screwed Matt" toward Lita and Edge.
Mick Foley/Ric Flair
Ric Flair and Mick Foley's real life issues were also built into a storyline, which used the real criticisms of each man against the other in their respective books as fuel for the storyline. This escalated to the point that on an edition of Raw, a diatribe from Foley saw Flair aim a punch at him which he did not pull and made full contact in Foley's ear.
Special and tribute shows
In specials and tribute shows, kayfabe is often broken. In the tribute shows for Brian Pillman, Owen Hart, Eddie Guerrero, and Chris Benoit, many wrestlers and officials, including those who had kayfabe feuds with them, spoke in their honor. In Owen's case, the show has garnered a reputation as one of the most memorable Raw episodes in history, and has even been labeled "Raw is Owen" by several wrestling fans.
Kayfabe and real life came into serious conflict on June 25, 2007, when the actual death of Chris Benoit necessitated an appearance by WWE chairman Vince McMahon on his Raw program which aired that same day, even though the character of Mr. McMahon had been "killed" in an automobile explosion on a previous episode. The death angle was scrapped, as was the regularly scheduled Raw program. Instead, a tribute to Benoit was broadcast. However, the circumstances surrounding the deaths of Benoit and his family - not known at the time the June 25 Raw tribute was broadcast - led McMahon to also appear in person on the ECW broadcast the following night as well, acknowledging the change in Benoit's "status" and making the last mention of Benoit's name on WWE television. (WWE would take a step away from this policy when it launched the streaming WWE Network in 2014; Benoit matches air uncut on that outlet, but are preceded with a disclaimer.)
The ending of the Raw fifteenth anniversary special featured both heels and faces enjoying a beer together with many WWE alumni. When Ric Flair retired the night following WrestleMania XXIV on Raw, the entire roster of all three brands honored him, as did former wrestlers such as the Four Horsemen and Ricky Steamboat. Most notably, however, this included The Undertaker and Vince McMahon (who, as part of the storyline for Flair's retirement, made the stipulation in which if Flair lost a single match, he would be forced to retire).
On the April 11, 2011, edition of Raw, after Edge announced his retirement due to a legitimate spinal condition, Edge, being a face superstar was seen shaking many heel superstars' hands, most notably Dolph Ziggler, whom Edge had recently been in a relatively long feud with. On the following edition of Smackdown he also announced that he and Kane were best of friends despite the two also recently being involved in a relatively long feud which included Edge causing Kane to push his father Paul Bearer off of a balcony to his (kayfabe) death.
On the September 16, 2011, edition of SmackDown, Edge returned to host the "Cutting Edge". Christian and Edge had formerly feuded about whether or not Edge cost Christian the World Heavyweight Championship at Summerslam and they appeared to reconcile backstage. Still, both appeared slightly uncomfortable to see each other. The feud started again after Christian got angry at Edge for not helping him to convince Teddy Long that he deserves one more match for the title. After the taping of the show, they hosted Edge Appreciation Night where Christian told Edge that he loves him and that whether or not he's in the WWE he will always be his biggest fan, breaking kayfabe. They embraced as lifelong friends.
Ric Flair's retirement
At WrestleMania XXIV, Ric Flair lost his match against Shawn Michaels and he was forced to retire. The next night, on the March 31, 2008 edition of Raw, Flair delivered his farewell address. An emotional night followed during which Flair was reunited with many of the wrestlers he had worked with in the past. Then all the WWE Superstars, faces and heels, came out to bid farewell to Flair, breaking kayfabe.
Trump buys WWE Raw
On June 15, 2009, Vince McMahon announced on a special three-hour edition of WWE Monday Night Raw that he had sold the show to Donald Trump, who appeared on-screen to confirm it and declared he would be at the following commercial-free episode in person. However, it was not revealed that the "sale" to Trump was not an actual sale, but a kayfabe as part of the WWE's storyline. Executives for WWE and USA Network treated the "sale" as an actual sale, and it was picked up as a real event by many industry sources. The day following the announcement, WWE's stock on the New York Stock Exchange fell, leading USA Network to admit that the "sale" was indeed nothing more than part of a storyline.
Triple H bidding Shawn Michaels farewell
On March 29, 2010, Triple H was attacked by Sheamus with a steel pipe as he was trying to tell his real life best friend Shawn Michaels something he apparently had never told him before. At the end of Raw, Michaels gave a farewell address as he had lost a career vs streak match to the Undertaker the previous night at WrestleMania XXVI. Following the speech, Michaels left the ring. As he waved to the crowd, he was met at the top of the entrance ramp by Triple H who came from behind and embraced him, breaking kayfabe by showing no effects from the earlier attack by Sheamus. After another embrace, Triple H placed a DX glow stick on the top of the ramp before the two went backstage.
Michael Cole, who garnered a reputation as a heel commentator on both Raw and Smackdown, broke kayfabe on the February 14, 2011, edition of Raw to acknowledge the passing of Jerry Lawler's mother, saying that he talked to Lawler earlier in the day and that he assured Cole that despite what happened, he would be at the Elimination Chamber pay per view to wrestle The Miz for the WWE Championship that week, a match he ultimately lost. This was worked into their feud throughout 2011 by Cole insulting Lawler's mother in promos building up to their matches at WrestleMania XXVII, Extreme Rules, and Over the Limit.
On a second related account, at the September 10, 2012, episode of Raw, Cole again broke kayfabe to announce that his broadcast partner Jerry Lawler had suffered a heart attack at ringside (see below) and had been rushed to the hospital, receiving CPR. Afterward, Cole remained completely silent during the remainder of the program as a tribute, only speaking between segments to provide updates on Lawler's condition. Lawler returned to commentary on November 12, 2012.
Kobe Bryant reference
During the live WWE Raw broadcast on July 30, 2012, heel manager A.W. made a crass joke referencing NBA player Kobe Bryant's alleged sexual assault back in 2003. As client Titus O'Neil tangled with Kofi Kingston in a singles match, A.W. yelled from ringside, "Titus O'Neil is like Kobe Bryant at a hotel in Colorado. He's unstoppable!!" After a brief silence from Michael Cole and Jerry Lawler, the two continued commentary without discussing what A.W. had said (A.W. was wearing a portable headset at ringside as part of his gimmick, meaning everything he said was heard both on TV and at the arena), then after O'Neil won the match, cut to a backstage segment with CM Punk and John Cena before heading to commercial. Once back from commercial, Cole (also a heel) broke character and acknowledged what A.W. had said and issued an apology on-air for what he said.
The WWE personality issued an apology late Monday evening via Twitter and noted that "there was no malicious intent behind the joke." After Raw, WWE issued an official apology via TMZ.com reading, "A.W. made an inappropriate comment and WWE immediately apologized. WWE has taken appropriate action in the matter." The representative, however, did not specify what "action" was taken against A.W. In addition, Raw was taking place that night from Cincinnati, which had no connection to the at-that-point dated reference, as opposed to Denver or Los Angeles, where the reference could at least been used for cheap heat from the crowd.
The incident would later be a subject for discussion on the August 1, 2012, broadcast of ESPN's Around the Horn with ESPN analyst and Miami Herald columnist Israel Gutierrez using his "facetime" (for winning the day's show) to criticize the WWE for the incident, despite A.W.'s joke being an off-the-cuff moment and not scripted by WWE. A.W. was released by WWE on August 10. After his release from WWE, he would go on to rant on his WWE verified Twitter account, @AWPromotions, about his former employer. Eventually, WWE suspended his account.
Jerry Lawler's heart attack
On the September 10, 2012 edition of Raw, after competing in a tag team match with Randy Orton against Punk and Dolph Ziggler, Jerry Lawler collapsed (legitimately) at the announce table while Kane & Daniel Bryan competed against The Prime Time Players. Updates were provided during the live broadcast by commentator Michael Cole, who broke kayfabe to make clear to viewers that Lawler's collapse and hospitalization was not a planned part of the show. As of the end of the broadcast at 23:15 EDT, it was announced that he had received CPR, but was breathing independently and reacting to stimulus. It was later confirmed on Dutch Mantell's Facebook page that Lawler had suffered a heart attack.
Darren Young's coming out
Darren Young became the first openly gay WWE superstar during a non-kayfabe interview on August 15 2013. This prompted several other on-air employees - both heel and face - to express their support for him. Young, along with his Prime Time Players tag team partner Titus O'Neil was a heel at the time, however the surge of support he received for coming out soon lead to them making a face turn.
Breaks that are apparent but unacknowledged
In the wrestling ring, as in theater, scripted events can easily go wrong. This can be due to wrestler error, equipment malfunction, or moves that result in unexpected injury. As in theater, these events are often covered up and not apparent to fans. On other occasions, mishaps have been brought into sharp relief due to the circumstances or actions of individuals, making the mistakes obvious.
- Bret Hart once talked about a match against Dino Bravo he was meant to win; during the match, Bravo threw Hart into a barrier outside of the ring and broke Hart's sternum. Without letting Bravo know, Hart battled on and was in severe pain. When he was thrown back into the ring, he rolled himself back outside the ring and was counted out without giving away his injury.
- In the 1995 Summerslam ladder match for the Intercontinental Championship, Shawn Michaels twice fumbled in his attempt to retrieve the belt, the second time very obviously, forcing his opponent Razor Ramon to lie down for a lengthy period of time, far greater than what is normally associated with the bump that he took. It is generally believed, however, that this mistake actually made the match better than what it would have been with the scripted ending. It is often ranked as one of the best WWE matches of all time.
- At the headlining match of SummerSlam 1996, Shawn Michaels defended the WWE Championship against Vader. At one point during the match, Vader did not roll away from an elbow drop off the top rope from Michaels, which Michaels responded to by adjusting his orientation in mid-air, simply landing on his feet next to Vader, then stomping on Vader's head while yelling "Move!" at him.
- At SummerSlam 1997, in another Intercontinental Title Match, a botched reverse piledriver administered by Owen Hart to Steve Austin resulted in a (real life) serious injury for Austin. He was clearly unable to move for several minutes and eventually only did so with great difficulty. Austin was booked to win, and Owen taunted him and the crowd for a while until Austin rolled him up for a weak pin and the win. Despite valiantly continuing to perform for several years afterward, Austin's neck injury ultimately forced him to retire.
- On March 12, 2000, New Jack (legitimately) suffered brain damage and was temporarily blinded in his right eye, when he and his opponent, Vic Grimes, fell off a balcony, missed the tables that were supposed to absorb the force of their fall and landed on the concrete floor (with Grimes landing on New Jack's head) at Living Dangerously 2000.
- At SummerSlam 2000, in the three-way match for the WWF Championship between The Rock, Triple H, and Kurt Angle, Triple H attempted to give Angle a Pedigree, his finishing move on the announce table. The table unexpectedly collapsed from their weight and Angle was rendered unconscious. The microphones from the collapsed announcers table picked up and broadcast Triple H whispering "Are you OK mate?" to the injured Angle. The other two participants improvised until Angle was able to regain consciousness so the match could go on to its scripted finish. However, Angle would later claim in his autobiography that while his injury was real, everything that led up to it as well as the aftermath was scripted.
- At No Way Out 2001, The Rock wrestled WWF Champion Kurt Angle. As noted in Angle's autobiography It's True! It's True! the finish to the match was supposed to be The Rock giving Angle a Rock Bottom to win the match and the title. He did so, but referee Earl Hebner stopped his count at two by mistake by almost counting three but stopping short, apparently forgetting the original finish. Ringside announcers Jim Ross and Tazz covered for Hebner's mistake by saying that Angle had kicked out despite the fact that Angle made no visible effort to do so. The Rock then gave Angle a second Rock Bottom and Hebner made a three count to finally end the match.
- On May 21, 2001, Triple H tore his quadriceps during a tag team title match. The injury happened as Triple H was breaking up Chris Jericho's Walls of Jericho while Steve Austin was in the hold. Although he was visibly in pain, the fact that he was apparently injured was not mentioned by Jim Ross or Paul Heyman, and Triple H managed to continue the match, taking the Walls of Jericho on the announce table at one point. Following the match, which Jericho and Chris Benoit won, Triple H would be out of action until the 2002 Royal Rumble.
- At King of the Ring 2001, Chris Benoit, Steve Austin and Chris Jericho participated in a triple threat match. Steve Austin took a bump on the announce table at the hands of the debuting Booker T. Austin landed badly and was knocked out for several minutes and didn't participate in any more in ring action following that bump. Chris Benoit would also get injured when he broke his neck after giving Jericho a suplex from the top rope. He can be seen calling for Austin to roll over and pin him, which Austin would do so even though Benoit was on the giving end of the last move hit in the match, which normally never results in a successful pinfall.
- At WrestleMania XIX, Brock Lesnar botched a Shooting Star Press while delivering it to Kurt Angle, falling short and landing on his head. Fortunately, he did not suffer any serious injury as a result.
- At Armageddon 2006, The Hardys (Jeff Hardy and Matt Hardy) wrestled MNM (Johnny Nitro and Joey Mercury), Paul London and Brian Kendrick and William Regal and Dave Taylor. Mercury was struck in the face by a ladder, he was then rushed to the emergency room where he received five stitches to the inside of his nose, and fifteen to the outside. The WWE worked his legitimate injury into an angle, in which Mercury looked for revenge against the Hardys.
- At New Years Revolution 2007, Triple H tore his quadriceps again (the same injury as in 2001 but in the other leg) while performing a Spinebuster to Randy Orton in a Tag Team Title Match. The match then ended with Triple H (and tag partner Shawn Michaels) getting intentionally disqualified.
- In October 2007, John Cena battled Mr. Kennedy on an edition of Raw. During the match, Cena tore his pectoral muscle while executing a hip toss on Kennedy. For the duration of the match, Cena visibly favored his shoulder and arm. After the match, Randy Orton (then in the middle of a feud with Cena), attacked Cena, eventually performing his finisher, the RKO on him while on top of an announcing table. WWE worked Cena's real life injury into the Orton/Cena feud, stating that Cena's shoulder was injured due to the RKO. Though, Mr. Kennedy in his promos following that match, claimed he had put Cena out of action.
- On October 22, 2007, Candice Michelle battled Beth Phoenix on Raw for the WWE Women's Championship in a two out of three falls match. At the end of the match, Candice Michelle went for a diving crossbody off the top turnbuckle, where Phoenix had pushed the top rope causing Candice to fall on the mat, causing her to hit her head and neck. It was later reported that she had legitimately broken her collarbone.
- In June 2008, at the One Night Stand PPV, Triple H battled Randy Orton in a Last Man Standing match for the WWE Championship. At one point during the match, Orton was supposed to attempt an RKO on Triple H, which was then supposed to be countered, resulting in Orton being thrown over the top rope to the floor. Yet as Orton hit the floor, he suffered a legitimate broken collarbone, and as he was writhing in agony, Triple H could be seen discussing with the referee and the EMTs whether or not to continue the match. In the recorded broadcast it can clearly be seen and heard as the referee advises Triple H to conclude the match early by saying "get the sledgehammer, the sledgehammer" and continuously telling him to "be careful". Triple H then took out his signature sledgehammer, and proceeded to hit Orton in the head with it, thus finishing the match.
- On the January 11, 2010 edition of Raw, Kofi Kingston botched the ending of a match between himself and Randy Orton, which was to be Orton giving Kingston a Punt Kick to get the pinfall. While Kingston was out of place, it can clearly be seen and heard as Orton chastises him by screaming "Stupid! Stupid!". Orton then proceeded to hit the RKO finisher on Kingston to get the win.
- On January 19, 2015, Triple H, the leader of villainous stable the Authority, was heckled by an 8-year-old fan from the front row. Triple H then turned to him and, in character, told him, "Stop messing with me — I'm trying to do my job over here.", causing the boy to break down in tears, prompting Triple H to break character to visibly console him and later invite him backstage. Photographs of this incident were later posted on social media.
Real life information being mentioned on the show
- Several incidents over the years involved Roddy Piper. After appearing as the leading star in Don Owen's Pacific Northwest Wrestling during 1979 and 1980, Piper would return to the territory for special appearances, particularly after establishing permanent residence in Oregon. In one such instance in 1983, Piper appeared on Portland Wrestling to give an interview addressing Steve Duin, a columnist and reporter for The Oregonian newspaper who was frequently critical of Owen and his wrestling promotion over many years. Duin wrote an article entitled "Delineated morality play delights pro wrestling fans," which was published in The Oregonian on May 12, 1983. In the article, Duin described Owen's fan base as "a strange mix of people you never see shopping at Washington Square", and also insinuated that Curt Hennig was perhaps homosexual. In defending the business, his profession and the Oregon wrestling fans against Duin, Piper cut a promo which was essentially a shoot though conducted in character. Portland Wrestling color commentator Dutch Savage, who conducted the interview, was visibly unable to maintain his composure and keep from laughing. On the May 5, 2008, edition of WWE Raw, Piper appeared on Carlito's Cabana and mentioned Santino Marella's recent DUI arrest.
- In a mid-1980s angle in Florida, Kevin Sullivan, whose heel stable was feuding with Dusty Rhodes at the time, hinted at having turned "The American Dream." When The Dream came out it was in fact Mike Davis doing a complete impersonation of Rhodes. The idea of the angle was that Sullivan thought he had a better idea of how the American Dream angle should be played, feeling that it worked better as a heel. In promos he would often refer to Rhodes as Virgil (his real name) and noted that Rhodes had begun in the territory as a heel.
- When Ted DiBiase worked in the WWF as The Million Dollar Man he was assigned a valet/bodyguard named Virgil (played by Mike Jones). The name Virgil was Vince McMahon's idea and was intended as a dig at Dusty Rhodes (real name Virgil Runnels) who was booking the rival WCW at the time. Many years later Jones would appear in WCW under the name Vincent, an apparent payback reference to McMahon.
- During a televised show run by Memphis, Tennessee, independent promotion Power Pro Wrestling on October 23, 1999, Doug Gilbert turned a scripted interview intended to further a feud with Brian Christopher into a shoot that soon led to the demise of the promotion. Gilbert blatantly broke kayfabe by publicly revealing the fact that Jerry Lawler, previously the owner of another significant Memphis-based promotion, was Brian's father. He also made disparaging remarks about both Lawlers, as well as the promotion's booker, Randy Hales.
- On the episode of Smackdown before Survivor Series 2001, Paul Heyman talks about WCW and ECW going out of business. He mentions how the WWF incorporated a lot of its ideas from ECW creative standpoints, even adding, "While Doink the Clown had green hair and a rubber nose, Stone Cold Steve Austin was drinking his first beer in ECW".
- During their feud Paul Burchill revealed the mugshot of Gregory Helms, who had been arrested in Cleveland a few days prior to the event.
- On the November 22, 2010 edition of Raw, The Miz announced that Alex Riley would be taking his place in his match. Before the match started CM Punk, who was the new commentator, clearly said "Are you sure he's not under the influence". This was referring to Riley being arrested for DUI.
- On May 1, 2011 after Extreme Rules went off the air, John Cena returned to the stage and informed the crowd of the announcement by President Barack Obama that a Navy SEAL commando team had "caught and comprimised to a permanent end, Osama bin Laden".
- During the CM Punk–John Cena rivalry in 2011, kayfabe was broken a number of times:
- On the June 27, 2011 edition of Raw, CM Punk, after interfering in a match between R-Truth and John Cena, talks about McMahon, mentions that he is breaking the fourth wall, and claims that the WWE might be better off when Vince McMahon is dead. During this time he also waves at the camera, paying tribute to his friend Colt Cobana, and also threatens to take the WWE Championship to Ring of Honor and New Japan Pro Wrestling.
- At the TNA pay-per-view No Surrender, Jeremy Borash interviewed Thea Trinidad a.k.a. Rosita out of character about losing her father in the September 11 attacks.
- On the October 11, 2012 edition of Impact Wrestling, Austin Aries cuts a promo on Jeff Hardy, he even mentions Hardy's "rapsheet", of several drug offenses.
Storylines becoming real life
Some efforts to promote kayfabe have resulted in real-life consequences.
While working as a booker for WCW, Kevin Sullivan conceived an angle where Woman (Nancy Daus Sullivan, Sullivan's wife both on-screen and off), would leave his character for Chris Benoit's. Sullivan insisted that the two should travel together to preserve kayfabe for the general public. This resulted in Sullivan's wife legitimately leaving him for Benoit when the two developed a real-life romantic relationship during their time together. Nancy ultimately married Benoit in 2000.
Brian Pillman developed the "Loose Cannon" persona for himself while in WCW in 1996, conspiring with Vice President Eric Bischoff and booker Kevin Sullivan. Pillman's gimmick was based entirely on straddling the fine line of kayfabe. He would engage in on-camera actions that seemed to be unscripted, even to the other performers, and even breached kayfabe protocol when he addressed Sullivan on air as "bookerman". In the ultimate act of turning fiction into fact, Pillman convinced Sullivan and Bischoff that their storyline "firing" of him would seem more legitimate with the physical evidence of a release form. They faxed an actual WCW contract termination notice to him, complete with his name and the proper signatures, in order to preserve kayfabe. This allowed Pillman to leave WCW for the ECW and WWF.
When Triple H and Stephanie McMahon entered into a kayfabe marriage in late 1999, Triple H and McMahon started dating in real life, and continued to do so after their kayfabe marriage ended in 2002; the two would eventually marry in real life in 2003. The Catholic priest at the wedding, not aware of the workings of the wrestling business, initially refused to marry the two when he found out about the kayfabe wedding from a choir boy who was also a wrestling fan. Linda McMahon later had to explain to the priest the difference between WWE programming and real life, allowing the marriage to go through. Afterwards, the real-life marriage became an open secret on television before being acknowledged by Triple H in 2009.
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