Sometime in the 1990s--I can't pinpoint the exact date--kayfabe died. Actually, the jig was up even earlier, sometime in the 1980s, maybe much earlier, when the fakery of wrestling became an open secret. Kayfabe was the sacred pact to pass a staged fight off as the real deal. In and of itself, the death of kayfabe should not have been a bad thing. After all, audiences know that movies and TV shows (even "reality TV") aren't real, and the entertainment and cultural value of these events is in no way diminished by that knowledge. But the death of kayfabe indirectly led to something that was good for business but bad for pro wrestling: the trivializing of wrestling.
I usually blame Vince McMahon, but, truth be told, I'm not sure who it was who decided that if the world must know that pro wrestling was rigged, then the world must no longer be allowed even to willingly suspend its disbelief in wrestling. From this standpoint, pro wrestling's only option was to make itself over as not just entertainment, but campy, silly, loud, and cartoonish drivel. Gradually (but it seemed sudden) the merchandise of wrestling became bigger than the wrestling. Wrestlers shed their basic black, white, and primary-color trunks for gaudy costumes made of what appeared to be discarded clown suits. Sensuous grappling moves gave way to high-flying acrobatics, Herschell Gordon Lewis-style gore, and mic-hogging histrionics. This was the birth of pro wrestling redesigned to appeal to people who don't really like wrestling--but who like to be dazzled by a seemingly endless parade of instant celebrities going through the pantomimed motions of wrestling.
The two good things that came out of this transformation were good money for many golden-era pros who had paid their dues, and sexier, better built wrestlers, whose bodies were spectacular enough to conceal the absence of intensity and compelling drama in the matches (except for three or four times a year, during over-produced big-dollar super-spectaculars). These bodies made glorious entrances, which sometimes lasted longer than the contest. Wrestling, what was left of it, was played as an endless succession of inside jokes and a chance to scream oneself hoarse at increasingly farfetched villains.
So the following images (images as old or older than I am) are a tribute to the impassive, no-nonsense wrestlers of the past (a few, very few, carry on the tradition in the present*). Many of them were committed disciples of wrestling, for all intents and purposes devoid of irony, who today mainly (maybe only) appeal to diehard fans of the genre. They kept alive the sideshow con, sensuality, and hypnotizing roughhouse of the pre-television sport.
* I'm thinking of Davey Richards and A.J. Styles, and old-school revivalists like Timothy Thatcher, Biff Busick, and Drew Gulak.
Sources: GoldenAge2008, Chicago Film Archives presents "Wrestling from Chicago," Vintage Films, and wrestlingfilms