Professional Wrestling Does Not Deserve You

“There shouldn’t be any wrestling right now.” Outside of an acknowledgement of the NBA suspending its (now concluded) season and the WWE moving an episode of SmackDown from Detroit to the WWE Performance Center, this is the first sentence I wrote about professional wrestling in what we’re probably going to call “the COVID era,” and, looking back to March and everything that’s happened since then, it should have been (and should be) every sentence I write about it until the pandemic is resolved. This piece may end up sounding like an “I told you so,” but trust me, it is not. I take no joy in being right about this issue, in being part of a coverage team that was the first to arrive at this conclusion, a site that has been so consistent in its belief in this thesis that it took a month off of covering weekly shows, sacrificing the steady, reliable traffic recaps bring to sites like this because show coverage, negative or positive, is a normal part of wrestling’s weekly churn. The reason we have wrestling right now, what we’re told is so important about wrestling at this moment in history, is that it provides a sense of normalcy. If we disrupted that, even a little, in covering old WCW and FMW shows instead of episodes of AEW Dynamite and NXT, good.

There shouldn’t be any wrestling right now, but it’s not just COVID. This year has been relentless in dealing blow after blow to fans and wrestlers alike. It’s not like the year started great, either. Teetering on the precipice of a pandemic, January brought us the death of La Parka and indie promotion CHIKARA cutting ties with wrestlers Juan Francisco de Coronado and Rory Gulak, both over Twitter allegations of sexually abusive behavior (see here and here for Gulak, and here for Coronado). But once the pandemic began “shutting down” the United States, it felt like everything accelerated. WWE’s reticence to cancel WrestleMania had a cataclysmic effect on the packed slate of indie wrestling shows scheduled for that week, as some venues refused to refund fees to promoters. Roman Reigns sat out WrestleMania and several months of WWE television due to being high risk as a leukemia survivor. Other WWE wrestlers, like Daniel Bryan, Kevin Owens, and Sami Zayn, would also sit out. In May, Shad Gaspard died saving his son from drowning at sea, Hana Kimura took her life after a protracted campaign of cyberbullying on the part of fans of Terrace House: Tokyo, and popular deathmatch wrestler Danny Havoc died just months after his wife passed of heart failure.

There Shouldn’t Be Any Wrestling Right Now

June saw the beginning of the #SpeakingOut movement, a long, painful discussion of sexual assault and abuse propagated by the culture of professional wrestling. This started with accusations against indie wrestler David Starr and has spiraled to touch every promotion this website covers regularly and many that we cover intermittently, among them the WWE, AEW, NJPW, ROH, Impact, and CHIKARA. The effect of #SpeakingOut is something that we’ll be hashing out for a long time. CHIKARA closed once owner and impresario Mike Quackenbush was held to account for overseeing an abusive environment that largely pitched itself as a family friendly alternative to the rest of wrestling. Beginning with many promotions pledging to never book Starr again, many wrestlers accused that month lost their jobs, among them Jimmy Havoc, Joey Ryan, Dave Crist, Jack Gallagher, Travis Banks, and Ligero. Others were suspended but have since returned. Some of the most prominent accused of misconduct during that month—NJPW’s Will Ospreay, ROH’s Marty Scurll, and WWE’s Matt Riddle, Velveteen Dream, and Austin Theory—were either subject to “investigations,” a word that is wrestling parlance for “weighing whether a wrestler’s presence on a roster is profitable enough to keep them around despite what they’re accused of,” or nothing at all.

In the real world, the police slayings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and too many other Black people sparked months of protests during which police brutalized protesters in major cities across the country, spurred on by a president whose rhetoric and actions towards those protests, in addition to being a fascist’s response to unrest, emboldened white supremacist terror cells to threaten, assault, and in some instances kill protesters, to say nothing of their appetite for storming state capitols, plotting to kidnap governors, and parading around with the Confederate flag like the sniveling cowards that they are. WWE’s response to this was to create a stable clearly based on black bloc antifa, a group who started out by throwing Molotov cocktails, smashing windows, and spray painting the WWE’s Performance Center set-up who are now just a group of wrestlers in Bane masks speaking vaguely of being held down in the workplace.

If it wasn’t enough to try to turn a profit during the pandemic, 2020 has been one of the worst on record for labor within WWE. In April, the company made a staggering number of layoffs of wrestlers, coaches, and other personnel as a “cost saving measure.” Having saved tons of money by moving shows from arenas to a venue they owned and operated, they later reported a $43.8M profit for the second quarter of 2020. One of the men cut in those layoffs, Drake Maverick, was brought back for a tournament to determine an interim WWE Cruiserweight Champion (Jordan Devlin, another name that came up in the #SpeakingOut movement, is sequestered in the UK due to COVID travel bans), and while he didn’t win, he was presented with a contract at the end of the tournament, the implication being that he just wanted it a little more than everyone else who got cut. In a gaudier show of its wealth, WWE moved Raw and SmackDown from the Performance Center to the Amway Arena and put a ton of money into turning the venue into the world’s biggest Best Buy television display so that the gigantic, grainy faces of the WWE Universe could soundlessly gaze at the show in real time. Recently, WWE has been working to insinuate themselves into what their wrestlers do outside of the ring, not only demanding an end to third party arrangements between wrestlers and entities, but taking over the Twitch streams of its performers, taking a cut and (presumably) mandating that its stars perform on those platforms, a kind of mandatory fun that means that, in addition to the unethical nature of their being classified as “independent contractors,” WWE now owns its performers’ personal time.

It’s hard not to hate wrestling right now, so I’ll be blunt: I fucking hate wrestling right now. Most of the wrestling fans I know share that sentiment, but continue to watch. continue to watch, and while every single tweet I make about professional wrestling in 2020 should be “There shouldn’t be any wrestling right now,” I’m usually a bit more topical on the subject because to meditate on my dissatisfaction with the mere existence of something I’ve carried on a love affair with since I was a child would cause the cascade failure I’ve been trying to ward off since March. Why wrestling? Why writing? Why my public-facing job managing a record store? Why music? Why anything?

But here I am, asking “why wrestling,” and once again it’s because of the pandemic. More specifically, it’s about The Collective, a three day, ten show, indoor wrestling fan festival held in Indianapolis, Indiana, the capitol of a state whose “eh, fuck it” attitude towards the pandemic made it something of a home away from home for Game Changer Wrestling, the promotion at the forefront of The Collective and indie wrestling’s return to action in general. If “three days, ten shows, plague-ridden state” didn’t set off any alarms, you may have been surprised when wrestlers who performed at The Collective began testing positive for COVID-19. While the positive tests of Dan the Dad, AC Mack, Cabana Man Dan, and Tony Deppen are newsworthy on their own, what they portend is worse: like other superspreader events, the true extent of the damage to come out of that weekend will never be known—even at an event with a “limited” capacity of 500, there will be people who went to and performed at the Collective who will never get tested, either because they don’t want to or because they believe they don’t need to, and the impact of that irresponsibility will travel with them from the Marion County Fairgrounds to the hotels they stayed at, the cars they rented, the airports they flew in from, the gas stations they stopped at, and, ultimately, to the communities they live in.

There Shouldn’t Be Any Wrestling Right Now

The Collective was, frankly, a catastrophe for indie wrestling, but you’d never know it from the way GCW chose to run a show one week later, featuring 12 wrestlers who’d performed at the Collective, to say nothing of GCW promoter Brett Lauderdale, commentator Kevin Gill, and other members of production staff. Given that news of Deppen’s positive test from The Collective broke a few days ago, and AJ Gray testing positive after traveling to California for The Last Resort, I’m being very, very charitable in saying that the decision to take an east coast wrestling promotion at the center of an outbreak to the west coast for another show was irresponsible. But not everyone agrees. Looking for reactions to GCW’s press release, Joey Janela’s tweets about procedures at The Collective, and Lauderdale’s interview with Fightful’s Sean Ross Sapp, the divide on Last Resort is roughly equal to the one that existed before The Collective, the same “with us” and “against us” factions that have defined GCW’s history.

This isn’t endemic to GCW fans, or fans of independent wrestling in general. Like, broadly, this is something capitalism aims for, personal identification with a brand. In wrestling, it’s a little more complicated, as it’s not just the various promotions inviting you to project yourselves onto their product, but the performers themselves—hence why WWE is looking to nose into its employees’ personal time, and why efforts like The Collective have shows booked in the image of specific performers, Joey Janela’s Spring Break being the obvious leader of the pack. This isn’t necessarily unique to wrestling, but off the top of my head I can’t think of many entertainment mediums that encourage company loyalty and parasocial relationships to the same degree, and outside of major sports organizations, Donald Trump campaign rallies, and Christopher Nolan movies, few things have pushed harder for its supposed right to endanger others during a pandemic that has killed 220,000+ people in the United States.

This is a long introduction, and I apologize for essentially rehashing what’s been said better elsewhere, most recently by the head of this section. That said, I feel like it’s important to contextualize all of this up front so that I can say in no uncertain terms that professional wrestling does not deserve you. More than that, you do not owe professional wrestling a single fucking thing. You don’t need to watch Raw, SmackDown, NXT, AEW, Impact, ROH, MLW, or anything else on television. You aren’t required to pony up money for PPVs or Fite streams or subscriptions to NJPW World and the WWE Network. You’re welcome to spend your money any way you like, obviously, but it’s time to stop acting like wrestling, a kind of performance art with over 100 years of history behind it and a future much longer than any of our lifespans ahead, is going to die if we don’t allow it to potentially kill others.

A Brief History of Fan Loyalty

None of this is to say that wrestling once existed in a state where fans weren’t encouraged to think fondly of promotions and their owners. I mean, what we call World Championship Wrestling was, at one point, Jim Crockett Promotions, and many of the regional territories that were laid waste by Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Federation were booked around owners who wrestled and/or their children who wrestled. It made sense—wrestlers cycled in and out of promotions at the end of a feud or angle, but family and loyal wrestlers stuck around, giving territories a base of wrestlers who worked as drawing cards no matter who else was there while your Terry Funks and Road Warriors went to different territories. This is an admittedly reductive take on that system, and my comfort zone as a critic is more on the meaning of angles and matches than on business history, but if you’ve never watched 1980s wrestling, particularly the World Wrestling Federation and Jim Crockett Promotions’ Georgia Championship Wrestling, I highly encourage you to do so. It’s like watching the first mammals crawl out of primordial ooze, two entities whose function had been “putting on a show” learning how to be a corporation.

GCW is my favorite of the two to watch. The match quality is better, yes, but that’s not it. There’s something very charming about its expansion, how it having a time slot on Ted Turner’s TBS “Superstation” led to its market expanding to the Midwest, so that a company with “Georgia” in its name was running shows in Grand Rapids, Michigan and Chicago, Illinois. The WWF’s growth was far more brutal than that. Signing Hulk Hogan after AWA owner Verne Gagne failed to recognize his burgeoning star power in the wake of Rocky III, Vince McMahon immediately put the WWF Championship on him and, behind Hulkamania and signed top star after top star from territory after territory, one of the cornerstones of his offers being an unparalleled merchandising machine including action figures, t-shirts, and other accoutrements no other company had the capacity to produce. When he tried to push into the south, he bought the controlling stake of GCW from the Briscoe Brothers, including their time slot on TBS. How much did fans love Georgia Championship Wrestling? Enough that McMahon’s replacement bombed and he sold the slot to Jim Crockett Promotions. Three years later, nearly bankrupt, JCP was sold to Turner, whose fondness for wrestling (pretty much always a staple of TBS) and need for cheap content rescued what became WCW where every other major WWF competitor had fallen to ruin.

What’s strange about this era, at least so far as modern wrestling is concerned, is that the brands themselves were not the star. Ric Flair and the Four Horsemen were at the top of JCP, and Hulk Hogan was the undisputed ruler of the WWF, which was incorporated as Titan Sports. Yes, everybody loves the old school WWF logo, but Hulk Hogan was the brand. Hulkamania outlasted “Rock and Wrestling,” and the company’s cartoon was Hulk Hogan’s Rock and Wrestling, not the WWF’s. It made a certain amount of sense, building around these two men, but it put both companies in awkward positions. When Flair left for the WWF in 1991, WCW suffered. Flair was still the company’s top draw, audiences didn’t buy into the rise of Lex Luger, and chants of “We want Flair!” were a regular feature of WCW shows for their first year without them. The WWF had no real answer for Hogan’s 1993 departure, having failed to manifest a suitable successor at WrestleMania IV and WrestleMania VI (due in part to his selfishness), and found themselves forced to transition to a roster that couldn’t tell the same stories Hogan did, with stars who were just beginning to transition out of the midcard and tag team divisions. Within two years (and given other circumstances, like the federal steroid trial) the WWF was doing so poorly that episodes of Raw were taped in high school gyms and there were rumors the company was on the verge of bankruptcy.

What both companies did was to circle around their brand, the three letters on the marquee, trying to make it so that instead of paying to see Hulk Hogan and Ric Flair, you were paying to see the WWF and WCW. Yes, individual stars were pushed as the face of those respective brands, but Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels, Diesel, and Razor Ramon were “the New WWF Generation,” a concentrated effort to make it known that they were a part of something, not necessarily the thing itself. WCW got Ric Flair back and managed to retain its image as the company that cared about wrestling. Then they signed Hulk Hogan and immediately became the Hulk Hogan show, only with a Hogan who was nearly a decade past his prime and a gaggle of Hogan’s friends who never had a prime to begin with. Despite the innovations they made later, they never learned from the mistakes of 1994-1995, wound up chasing the dragon that was the WWF’s new “Attitude,” and ended up dying.

In this dead, miserable period for American wrestling, a small company based in Philadelphia called Extreme Championship Wrestling was beginning to catch fire. Booked by former WCW manager Paul Heyman, the company eschewed what was old and unhip about wrestling, christening itself “Extreme” when Shane Douglas won the NWA World Heavyweight Championship in a one night tournament at the ECW Arena, threw it down, told tradition to screw itself, and announced the beginning of the “era of extreme.” ECW was different—adept at finding exciting new talent and repurposing wrestlers who’d fallen victim to bad creative in corporate wrestling, Heyman created a promotion that thrived on the margins of the business, that was proud of being looked down upon for its violence and vulgarity, and that had fans who ate up lucha libre and technical wrestling as rabidly as they did garbage brawls and overly complicated soap opera storytelling. It was everything that WCW and WWF revitalized their brands with from late 1996-1998, but it happened two years earlier and without the corporate gloss businessmen like to apply to organic, original ideas.

ECW is probably the most successful marketing experiment in the history of professional wrestling. That a company like it ran for as long as it did and was as successful as it was boggles the mind. A lot of that was simple branding. Their video packages were engaging. Their slogans—”It’s not for everyone!” and “Join the revolution!”—presaged Vince McMahon’s smirking shrug at the conclusion of the “WWF Attitude—Get It?” Super Bowl spot. And while it’s fun to make fun of some of the weirder t-shirt designs the company produced, the ones bearing its logo are some of the most iconic in the wrestling business, particularly the classic logo shirt and the endlessly parodied EC F’n W tee. WCW and WWF had fans, but fans are fickle and come and go. ECW had a following, a devoted community of people filling out the ranks of the crowd that they too had names and gimmicks decades before Brock Lesnar Fan, Frank the Clown, and the dude who goes to AEW shows dressed like Jesus.

ECW wasn’t as original as they’re hyped up as being—like everybody else whose ever booked wrestling, Heyman picked at the bones of territory era wrestling a fair amount, and owes a heavy debt to FMW—but when you have an audience of lunatics chanting your promotion’s name at every other high spot, and when the company that purchases you at the end of the line realizes that there’s money to be made in reifying that outsider mystique to the point of acknowledging that mystique’s influence on its own product, you end up becoming legendary.

There Shouldn’t Be Any Wrestling Right Now

I don’t think ECW needed help burnishing its reputation, but here, I think, is where the lessons wrestling took from ECW branch off. In the world of corporate wrestling, you look at ECW and see a small company whose roster was constantly raided by its much larger competition, a promotion that should have died as a result of those raids but kept going because the fans believed in the purpose of the company and went to see the show because the letters “ECW” meant something. So WWE took that to a new level. You like the WWE? Welcome to the WWE Universe, a collective phrase used to twist and bend crowd reactions and trends in a way that masked (or attempted to mask) bad booking. The WWE Universe was split on John Cena. The WWE Universe pushed Daniel Bryan into the main event of WrestleMania XXX. The WWE Universe is who politicians running against Linda McMahon for the United States Senate were insulting when they made commercials featuring footage of her kicking Jim Ross in the nuts, who journalists were criticizing when they made note of the generally offensive things the company has put on its television shows, so won’t you, the WWE Universe, join us and Stand Up for WWE? The phrase has been with us since the 2008 launch of WWE’s first failed attempt at a social media network, and will be with us until the end of time. Why is WWE running shows during a pandemic? To put smiles on the faces of the WWE Universe. And because it’s the WWE drawing this Universe in to watch its Superstars, it can justify things like moving in on its employee’s Twitch streams—it’s not like the Universe is going to wink out of existence in protest.

A muted photo of a WWE crowd circa 2012 with the Stand Up For WWE logo, those words in a red and black comic book speech bubble, superimposed upon it.

Again, “fandom” has been a factor in popular culture for a very, very long time, and its impact on popular culture ranges from rescuing television shows like Star Trek from oblivion to creating the modern convention circuit to contributing to the rise and fall of various social media networks. WWE was never unaware that Wrestling Fan was an identity—efforts like fan clubs, VHS and DVD releases, magazines, the WWE Universe social media app, Tout, YouTube shows, watch alongs, and podcasts are acknowledgements to a core audience to whom the occasional episode of Raw or SmackDown is not enough, but efforts like Stand Up For WWE, however laughable they are, were something else entirely, an attempt to utilize fans as a cudgel against something the company didn’t like. A “you’re with us or you’re against us,” if you will.

“You’re with us or you’re against us” has been a guiding principal of independent wrestling since (and even before) ECW’s closure. Ring of Honor, Combat Zone Wrestling, IWA Mid South—all of these promotions succeeded in carving out ultra-specific niches. This being before the “contract era” of indie wrestling, wrestlers made and sold their own shirts at the merch table, and promotions sold shirts with their logos on them. While no promotions have come close to ECW’s influence, vintage shirts with the old ROH logo, CZW logo tees, and IWA:MS’s “Operation: Exterminate Vince” tees are as indicative of their time and place in wrestling history as Chris Hero’s Superman logo tee or Necro Butcher’s “Choose Death” shirt. With ECW creating a vacuum in the market, these companies sought to create the same kind of devoted, cultish fanbases out of various aspects of what made the ECW product so special. To varying degrees, they succeeded. That era of indie wrestling is pretty unsavory, rife with homophobia and misogyny, white to the point that Black wrestlers often had gimmicks that served as a commentary on how white the rest of the roster was. None of this was taken seriously—if you were “with” the promotion, you either didn’t care or could excuse it because you liked the product; if you were “against” it, there was no reason for the promotion to change because you weren’t giving them any money.

This has been the blueprint for practically every indie promotion you’ve heard of since then. Don’t like that PWG doesn’t book women’s matches? Don’t buy their DVDs. You’re a woman who wants to go to a SHIMMER show? Enjoy sitting amongst a couple hundred men whose definition of “athleticism” isn’t as kind as yours. Upset that CHIKARA underpays its wrestlers compared to other indie promotions? Don’t worry, there will be new wrestlers to fill those vacant gimmicks as soon as the old ones vacate them in frustration. Because these promotions are able to cover their costs and achieve their ambitions based on the fans they’ve converted into followers, there’s no need to apologize, take responsibility, or change when a line is crossed—the offended parties are just knocking what they don’t understand, governing the fun of others because they’re easily offended, jealous of success, or have nothing better to do. This extends to individual wrestlers, too—whole crews of people devote their free time to namesearching wrestlers on Twitter to defend them against accusations of homophobia, racism, misogyny, and physical and sexual abuse, often accompanied by snitchtagging the implicated wrestler on the grounds that saying something in a public venue that gives wrestlers the same ability to find what people are tweeting about them without explicitly tagging them is cowardly.

Shot Callers and Cop Callers

(The Collective)

Here’s where I’m going to drop the thread on WWE and #SpeakingOut and turn my gaze back towards GCW, which is, without question, the most influential indie wrestling promotion in the United States. When Brett Lauderdale purchased and rebranded Jersey Championship Wrestling, GCW focused on a predominantly ultraviolent deathmatch style, a magnet for fans disaffected with the direction of CZW and the intermittent and frequently shoddy nature of IWA shows. CZW’s status as a “fallen” promotion is crucial to GCW’s success—their 2017 explosion was fueled by their recognition of Joey Janela as a star attraction (the first Spring Break event was in March of that year) and the cult surrounding Nick Gage, a death match wrestler famous for doing a few stints in prison on account of robbing a bank and later violating parole. When Gage and Lauderdale appeared at a CZW show in December to launch a botched invasion angle, Gage tweeted something that codified GCW’s “with us or against us” attitude.

“Cop caller” has faded from GCW fan vernacular in the nearly three years since Cage of Death 19, but that’s it, that’s their “It’s not for everybody,” their “Join the revolution,” and their “Get it?” all rolled into one. An army. A crew. A gang. Partially due to his mystique and partially due to WWE plundering the indies, Gage became one of the top draws on the indies. It didn’t matter where he wrestled—he pretty much exclusively wore GCW shirts, a walking billboard for a promotion that was rapidly expanding out of New Jersey, whose WrestleMania weekend shows, deathmatch tournaments, and surprisingly deep pockets when it came to big name, off-beat draws and international flights managed to check off boxes for seemingly every kind of wrestling fan—the nostalgic, the new, the bloodthirsty, and those who just want to watch something when they’re fucked up.

I’ll confess to a general disinterest in GCW—I’ve tried to give them a shot in the past, but their shows (most indie shows, if we’re being honest) have a real “you had to be there” energy about it, the surreality of watching Great Sasuke wrestle Joey Janela at four in the morning not really translating to on-demand viewing. Their success was interesting at a distance, though, so I read results and saw GIFs and watched Nick Gage promos when they dropped on Twitter. They deserve a lot credit for how in-tune they are to practically every niche in wrestling fandom—when Razor Ramon HG was announced for Effy’s Big Gay Brunch, I nearly bought a ticket. Instead, 2020 saw me become a cop caller when I published a comprehensive post about GCW regular SHLAK’s ties to the Atlantic City Skins. The article prompted official responses from Brett Lauderdale and SHLAK addressing that past, the response on the part of GCW and SHLAK fans was the first time I’d really seen how passionate and quick to believe an indie promotion this microgeneration of fans was. It was enough that it led me to do some tattoo sleuthing on Instagram, which showed that ACS affiliates had attended GCW shows as recently as February 2019. That thread begins here.

The response to that article, for and against, wasn’t surprising, but it was hard not to notice how much the defense of SHLAK hinged on him being “a good dude” or nice in person, how it seemed like the primary criticism of the article was that I had attacked a friend in SHLAK and a family in GCW. What I didn’t cover in that article, what I haven’t covered until now, is how the event that article preceded was GCW’s third since the pandemic shut down indie wrestling in earnest, how, beyond any issues one may or may not have with individual wrestlers, GCW had transitioned from “outlaw” promotion to a promotion that was actively seeking, finding, and exploiting loopholes to hold large gatherings in New Jersey and Indiana. The usual words—protocols, social distancing, masks—were thrown around, but given the ways in which companies with millions more dollars at their disposal had (and are having) trouble keeping the virus from their hilariously, obviously flawed versions of the NBA and WNBA’s bubble, it was hard not to imagine those protocols being a couple of banquet tables with some hand pumps of Purell. Screenshots, GIFs, and live reports revealed the same thing: Fans and production wearing masks on their chin or with their nose exposed, little regard for social distancing, full on mobs around Nick Gage.

New Jersey’s case count is pretty low compared to other states (particularly Indiana), but from the outside looking in it felt like everybody going to GCW shows, wrestlers and fans alike, was whistling past the graveyard. In August, when GCW ran Keep In Touch in Indianapolis, Indiana’s daily case count was on the rise. 843 cases were recorded on September 2, when they ran Bring ‘Em Out. In October, the state has recorded two days with fewer than 1,000 cases. Here’s the thing about those numbers: They are woefully incomplete, accounting for voluntary tests and hospitalizations. As of August, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology estimate that the actual rate of infection is 10.5 times higher than official reports. In March, April, and May, when COVID fatalities in cities like New York were so heavy that mass graves were dug in a potters field on Hart Island, the country was so short on testing kits that the only way to get a test was to exhibit severe symptoms, and even then that wasn’t a guarantee. The notion that a country so woefully unprepared for a pandemic at the start and so willfully cruel about it in the months following its incompetently paced and executed reopening needs professional wrestling at this point in time is absolutely laughable.

There Shouldn’t Be Any Wrestling Right Now

But that’s what we’ve been told since the moment WWE moved production to the Performance Center. It feels like a lifetime ago, but I can remember how that first pandemic show opened with Triple H saying what has become the WWE’s refrain, that their show is important because it puts smiles on faces. Cody Rhodes and the Elite did the same when they moved to a crowdless format. GCW ran a two night show in Philadelphia where fans were encouraged to donate to the roster, featuring a “Social Distancing Match” between Joey Janela and Jimmy Lloyd. The event raised over $10,000, then indie wrestling went (mostly) dark. Most things did. Major sports leagues closed, the concept of essential and non-essential businesses were introduced, states issued shelter-in-place orders, the television show Blacklist had to resort to hastily produced animation to finish a finale compromised by the pandemic. But there was wrestling, running in two states that refused to acknowledge the severity of the issue. In April, Florida governor Ron DeSantis declared WWE an essential business, stating “If you think about it, we have never had a period like this in modern American history where you’ve had so little new content, particularly in the sporting realm. I mean, we are watching reruns from like the early 2000s.” The same day, America First Action, the pro-Trump Super-PAC run by Linda McMahon, pledged to spend $18.5M on advertising in the Tampa Bay and Orlando media markets. AEW permanently moved into their Jacksonville home base a month later after taping a number of shows in Norcross, Georgia.

Is it unfair that a billionaire businessman and his politically connected wife paid for a backdoor he and his primary competition have used to carry on their day to day business of creating entertainment properties completely free of attachment to reality? Yes, absolutely, capitalism is incredibly unfair—just look at how many small businesses were denied participation in the first round of the Paycheck Protection Program when franchises like Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse got in, how Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest man, grows even richer every second as those same small businesses are shuttering in record number. Yes, indie wrestling promotions suffered while WWE recorded record profits and AEW garnered critical acclaim—in his interview with Fightful, Brett Lauderdale stated that the venue that was to play host to The Collective did not reimburse him $42,198—but is that where we are now? Do we, as people who follow professional wrestling, value whatever “freedom” and “normalcy” are so much that we’re willing to risk our health, to say nothing of the health of others, for the sake of an indie wrestling show? For the sake of ten indie wrestling shows? Is that what it means to be a wrestling fan in 2020?

The Collective was a disaster, and it’s one that wrestling is, of course, slowly and poorly reacting to. Last night, Joey Janela was pulled from AEW Dynamite because he wrestled AJ Gray at GCW’s Last Resort and tested positive. Last Resort was on Saturday, Gray got tested on Monday—his positive test can probably be traced back to The Collective. Janela’s replacement, Sonny Kiss, also wrestled at The Collective. Marko Stunt, who accompanied Jungle Boy to the ring for his match against Wardlow, wrestled at The Collective. Orange Cassidy wrestled at The Collective. Jon Moxley wrestled at The Collective. Again on the whistling past the graveyard front, AEW has allowed its talent to work indie shows despite the fact that the tightrope they’re walking to produce a television show through a pandemic is razor thin. Remember when Taz cut a promo about WWE running “a sloppy shop?” AEW can pay for all the rapid tests they want—nobody stays lucky forever, especially when you’re gambling with such high stakes for so little reward.

But we allow this to happen—and by “we” I mean everybody in the wrestling bubble, fans, promoters, wrestlers, journalists—because there is a hole in the world where the ability to do some things without consequences used to be. It’s about money. It’s about missing your friends. It’s about needing to perform. I hate to sound callous about all of that. I understand and have been hurt by that lack too. But it’s hard, impossible, to live in this world where COVID-19 has cut short the lives of many people I respect and love, that has taken loved ones away from friends, that has made it impossible for many people to celebrate occasions like weddings or grieve at funerals, that’s made it so that all I can hear when I talk to my stepmother is how difficult it is to breathe, that has made every interaction with every single person I encounter on a day to day basis feel like I’m playing a game of hot potato with a hand grenade and pretend that professional wrestling supersedes any of it, that it’s remotely possible to watch wrestling and feel like things are normal again.

The Collective was our reckoning. GCW ran on luck over the summer, and that luck has run out. You can say that they tried their best. You can say that you felt safe while you were there. It wasn’t enough and you weren’t. Wrestling is not necessary. It is an option. Wrestling is not an identity. It is an exercise in branding. A brand is an entity projecting an image in an attempt to sell you shit. You are not obligated to buy it. You certainly aren’t obligated to defend your choice to do or not do so. But it’s time, beyond time, to realize that encouraging the show to go on has consequences, and that they are farther reaching than we’ll ever know, certainly farther reaching than a few positive tests and some pulled talent. If you can support that and own up to it, fine, but there are more important things to fight for than something that will live regardless of whether or not you do. Wrestling does not deserve you. It’s never tried to justify itself and it never will, unless you start asking it to. A good first question to ask: Was any of this worth it? Answer for yourself and proceed from there.