Breaking Kayfabe

By Daniel Scherrer

I had to stand on the seat of my folding chair to see him over the cursing mob, illuminated by the house lights, godlike, looking down on us with a withering contempt peculiar to the divine. From Row C, Seat 19, he looked maybe eight feet tall; his nearly naked frame adorned with thick ropes of solid muscle, and wrapped tightly in hairy, glistening brown skin. His giant head was hairless, save for a dense, beautiful, slightly obscene black handlebar mustache, the centerpiece of an articulate face, alternately contorted into hateful sneers and preening gloats and mock pleas of innocence.

This was my first introduction to the Arab Assassin, one time contender to the American Professional Wrestling Association championship. He was a heel, and a damn good one. A heel is the bad guy. It’s a word I picked up from a book I took out from the school library. The Pro Wrestling Bible. In my eyes, it was indeed a holy book. The Assassin and I met in 1984, when things were simpler. That’s what they like to say. Things were simpler then.

To a seven year old boy with an incomplete, often contradictory understanding of morality, especially the Judeo-Christian, Reagan-American brand, this man was exotic, unbelievably masculine, and impossibly fascinating. He was a Colossus. A god among men. It was a day that changed my life.

The rest of the mostly white, most male lynch mob didn't see it that way. To them, he was an alien. Worse. A backstabbing terrorist. Worse. Evil incarnate. That he was not like them was exactly the point. A foreigner. An outsider. One of Them. It’s an old wrestling trope. If you need a villain, get yourself an ethnic. Ethnics are easy to hate.

Especially scant months after the Beirut barracks bombing. With back page headlines still sorting out the Iran hostage crisis. And with the horrifying screams of the Munich Games tragedy a distant, but unceasing echo. I remember going target shooting with my uncle and his kids at the quarry the previous fall. I remember the high fives and whooping as Uncle Jeff put a round through the crotch of the Iranian Ayatollah, printed on a paper target. This was the world we lived in. This is what the Assassin was up against. Finally, I remember my older cousin Tommy looking at me expectantly, gauging my response. After a painful pause, I lost my shit too. Because, honestly, what seven year old doesn’t love a good crotch shot. I didn’t fully understand the geo-political context, that a half a world away there was actual hate and actual violence.

The Assassin was certainly more interesting than the pale, blond-haired pretty boy that was lying lifeless and bloodied at the Assassin’s feet. They called him the Tallahassee Kid, a real babyface if ever there were one. A babyface, or face, is the hero. All smiles and winks, the Kid had a curly waterfall twisting down his back and a waxed, swollen chest. Before he found himself in peril at the hands of the Assassin, he strutted down the aisle, posing and making stripper-eyes at the ladies hanging over the runway gate, practically begging for their unembarrassed leering, all to the strains of Van Halen’s Jump.

In those days, it was a foregone conclusion. The Kid was undefeated. The Assassin was beaten before he ever entered the ring. It’s called a work; that is, wait for it, the matches are fixed. Because the child perceives the first level of meaning only, and I didn’t pick up on that at all. Although I wasn’t aware of it at the time, I think I sensed the inevitability, the injustice in this. That the Assassin was being thrown to the lions to satisfy the orgiastic, xenophobic bloodlust of the crowd. And I found that to be heroic. A man against the world.

I looked down at my mom’s tiny, pale frame from my perch. Soft spoken, blonde, of Norwegian descent: she seemed to me to be on one end of the human spectrum, the polar opposite of the Assassin. She got the wrestling tickets. My biological father disappeared years earlier, before I was born, but I hardly recognized his absence. She took me everywhere a dad might; the airport to watch the planes land. The barber shop with the worn, dog-eared girly mags. The liquor store so I could buy candy cigars. And so forth. Usually, on our adventures, I’d catch her smiling at me conspiratorially, as if to say, don’t tell Mom. But this time, she was engrossed in the action, serious and squinting to see the battle. Practically studying it.

A typical wrestling match has a certain cadence. The face gets the upper hand early. It’s call shining. The Kid worked over the Assassin with some high-flying, crowd-pleasing maneuvers. Standing drop kicks. Suplexes. A knee drop from the top turnbuckle; the Kid swooped in like a hawk and wounded his prey.

Next, comes the cut off; that is the heel cuts off the face’s shine with a low blow, or any dirty move. The Assassin shrewdly shoved his thumbs into the Kid’s pretty blue eye. Smelling blood, the Assassin brutalized his blinded foe with blunt force attacks. A headbutt to the face. A closed fist to the groin. At this, I squealed with delight. Classic crotch shot!

The Assassin tossed the Kid over the ropes and down to the concrete arena floor. The Kid had found himself on ‘Rubberleg Street’, and just feet from where we are sitting! At last, the Assassin was right in front of me, pummeling the Kid with a ringside folding chair. I even thought, in that moment, that he looked right at me. Time slowed to a stop.

I later learned, that the promoters liked the Assassin because his bumps were stiff, but not too stiff. He knew how to generate heat from the crowd. More importantly, he put the face over, time and time again. That means he made the other guy look good. But what they loved about him most of all, was that he never, ever broke kayfabe. Kayfabe, my library book explained, is the fourth wall. The charade. The word was originally used in vaudeville. To break kayfabe is to break character. And the Assassin never did.

His colleagues from the squared circle remember him from the early days, a quiet, green kid who was eager to please. Before he became the Assassin, he was called Ahmed Sahabi. I later learned he was a former Olympian and once was a bodyguard for the Shah of Iran. After he immigrated to the US, he was recruited into the world of pro wrestling. Back then, he was an affable guy with a contagious smile. He even had a pretty American girlfriend. She was at every match. Life was good.

Suddenly, something in him changed. Maybe it had to do with the fact that the cute blonde wasn’t around as much. And when she was they argued violently. Without warning, she stopped coming at all. Afterward, he barely spoke at all, but when he did, he was in character. He was the heel. He was the Assassin. So complete was his commitment to character that he wouldn’t dine with his babyface colleagues on the road. After he left the arena, he continued the ruse. On the street, he was the Assassin. At home, he was the Assassin. Always disdainful. He never smiled. He was bereft of the gentler sentiments. It became impossible to distinguish the man from his mask.

Generally, at this point in the match, the heel loses to the face. The Assassin was to be crucified before the ecstatic throng. And the crowd would go home sated. Sanctified. And the poor Assassin would limp back to the dressing room, bleeding sweat, battered, and cursed by soccer moms and latchkey kids alike.

Following the playbook, the Kid prepared to take the Assassin out with his finishing move, the Flying Death Drop. He paused to blow a kiss at a comely female fan as he mounted the ring ropes. I later learned, as a more cynical adult, that the Tallahassee Kid wasn’t a ladies man at all. He was indeed quite gay. But the child perceives the first level of meaning only, and I didn’t pick up on that at all.

Suddenly, the Assassin sprang to his feet and charged, catching the Kid unaware, and tossed him halfway across the ring onto his back.

The crowd stood, shocked. They intrinsically understood how this was supposed to play out. And while he was still in character, the Assassin had just gone off script.

The Kid was out cold. In reality. Seizing his self-made opportunity, the Assassin pinned his helpless opponent, as the referee looked around for instructions that never came. Finally, he shrugged and counted the Kid out. The Assassin was, against all odds, the new Heavyweight Champion of the World. I felt like I had exorcised seven years’ worth of demons in a joyous celebration. Even mom could not stop laughing. I didn’t think she gave a crap about wrestling. I thought she was here just to make me happy.

As the Iranian champion walked back toward the dressing room, gold belt draped over his shoulder, he paused in front of us again. He looked long at a completely random, small, blond woman and her scrawny kid in the front row. Then, the Arab Assassin, after years and years, finally broke kayfabe. His perpetual scowl, which had creased his face, awkwardly contorted into what looked like a life-affirming, joyful grin. He even winked at me. And then he was gone.

I later learned. I learned things that the Pro Wrestling Bible did not teach.

Daniel grew up in the 1980’s with a profound and undiagnosed case of ADHD. His career aspirations before the age of 16 included Hollywood stunt man, Nobel prize winning chemist, professional breakdancer, parapsychologist, escape artist, and professional wrestler. Unfortunately, he has yet to realize any of those ambitions. Instead he lives those dreams by writing about them. He is supported by his beautiful wife and four talented kids.