Wrestling with a Cautionary Tale

“Operator here.  I have a collect call request from Kay Fabian.  Are you willing to take it?”

“Kay Fabian calling collect? Accept it? No sir-eee!”

In Amercia, someone working in a travelling funfair was known as a ‘carny’.  When times were tight, a carny who wanted to tell the folks at home that he’d reached the next venue without either end paying for the call would put in a collect, or reverse charge call.  Kay Fabian was code. “Here okay!” Enough said.

In the slang of those who worked in the travelkling fairs,  ‘kayfabe’  meant both the illusion that an event is not faked and the necessary conspiracy of ‘protecting the secrets of the business’. It may stem from the pig Latin for ‘be fake’. 

The slang was taken up by the wrestlers, who ‘worked’ their contests literally in the fairground booths of the carny and metaphorically in the sense that the bouts were choreographed (worked). It meant the secrets that made their staged contests come across as real or true.

Today, the World Wrestling Federation has taken ‘kayfabe’ to knew levels in a thoroughly post-modern way, with audiences conniving with performers and promoters in the all-encompassing suspension of disbelief.

Was it always so?

Six hundred years ago, the men of Cornwall who accompanied Henry V into the Battle of Agincourt carried a banner depicting two wrestlers in a hitch.

As a boy in the 1730s, Third Man was lucky enough to see Sir Thomas Parkyns – the Wrestling Baronet – who was touring the country signing copies of his definitive guide to the sport of Cornish Wrestling  , The Inn-Play: or, the Cornish Hugg-Wrestler.

Parkyns gave an exhibition on the village green where, in less than ten minutes, he first threw the burley blacksmith and then the Squire himself.

In 1826 at Tamar Green, 12,000 spectators came to see the champion of Devon, Abraham Cann  challenge the champion of Cornwall, James Polkinghorne,  with a purse of £200 a side for the best of three back falls.  

The Times of the 23rd September  reported that, “After a long struggle, the Cornishman won a fair back fall. Cann then threw Polkinghorne, but a dispute arose, and a toss gave it in favour of the latter. After several other falls, Polkinghorne threw Cann, but the triers were divided in opinion as to the fall. Polkinghorne left the ring, and after much wrangling, the match was declared to be drawn. The Devonshire man, using the toes and heels of his shoes, kicked his adversary in the most frightful manner, while the Cornishman neither wore shoes nor kicked.”

In 1877, a 16 year old American, Jack Carkeek , made his first appearance winning fourth prize in a tournament of 64 entries. Later Carkeek met John Pearce, the Cornish champion, in a contest for the World Championship. But by the turn of the 20th century, Carkeek was earning his living in carnies, spicing up strong man attractions with contests that were little more than variety acts.

In America of the 1930s the worked aspects of professional wrestling, the gimmickry and showmanship, began to dominate.

Sport  segued entirely into show business.

As entertainment, ‘wrestling’ relied more and more on kayfabe with the creative use of fictional feuds, angles (back stories) and gimmicks (distinguishing traits) dressing up the moves and catches.

Today; when the post modernist sees realities as plural and relative, dependent on who the interested parties are and what their interests consist of;  audiences, contestants, marketeers and promoters revel in the complicity, fervently ignoring the fraud and, in their collusion, celebrate the scam for itself. 

The lesson from wrestling is clear: sport must entertain but must resist the temptation to become Entertainment.

Cricket is far from this end, but who can disagree that it has taken some steps along the path trodden by those wrestlers who, over a century of time , re-wrote the meaning of ‘catch as catch can’ and ‘no holds barred’.

Vigilance, vigilance, everyone.


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