[Content Warning on this piece for discussion of sexual violence and trauma.]
Over the last two weeks, wrestling has been confronted with a problem that, frankly, too many people within and without the industry have known was coming for some time. When #MeToo began spreading at a pace faster than anyone in the entertainment industry anticipated back in 2017, there were more than a few articles with titles like “When Will Wrestling Have Its #MeToo Moment,” and now, three years later, it’s here. #SpeakingOut has been dizzying in its size and scope, encompassing every major American wrestling promotion, two continents, too many wrestlers and non-wrestlers with power inside the industry to list, and a staggering, heartbreaking number of victims who were effectively silenced by the power structure that separates “the marks” from “the boys.”
Fanfyte Editor LB Hunktears wrote an editorial statement on behalf of the site that was as nuanced and detailed about the subject as it was honest and pained, and we talked a lot about whether or not I should write something as well. I’m disclosing this because I feel that, given my position as a critic who was once an announcer for an independent wrestling promotion, I am close enough to the subject that it hurts to dwell on. I have called matches featuring some of the men accused, well before I knew anything about what they’ve been accused of. Outside of wrestling, I am also a victim of sexual assault. In the interest of keeping any sense of personal betrayal out of this piece, I’ve decided to take a broad approach. This will not cover specific accusations, responses, or punishments. There are plenty of wrestling news sites doing that already, and at this point I would feel like a gawker if that’s how I handled this issue. This piece, then, is about the culture of professional wrestling, how pervasive and all-encompassing misogyny is within it, and how that creates an environment that has historically not been safe for women—both as fans and performers.
Wrestling has always been hostile towards women. There is no avoiding that fact. Another fact that’s impossible to avoid is that wrestling has always relied on the presence of women. Look at the crowd of any major wrestling show, and it’s full of women. You wouldn’t know it, the way women are portrayed, the way ratings favor young men, and the way the cheers of women (and children) for wrestlers like John Cena are almost immediately drowned out by the full-throated roar of men who don’t like things, but wrestling has always been aware of (heterosexual) women and has tried to book towards them. Young heartthrob tag teams. Wrestlers like Rick Rude. Angles where heels like Ric Flair bust up the pretty visages of babyfaces like Ricky Steamboat. If one were to write about wrestling fans without acknowledging the massive role women have played in its success and perception, that analysis would be missing the most interesting part of the picture.
To acknowledge that, however, means acknowledging this: The history of abuse in professional wrestling is as long as the history of professional wrestling itself. Here’s a notable example: After the 2007 death of WWE Hall of Famer the Fabulous Moolah, allegations surfaced that she not only took financial advantage of the women who signed up to train at her school, but that she was a pimp, operating a human trafficking scheme where she’d send a group of her wrestlers to various shows where the promoter and wrestlers would rape them. There are numerous accounts to this effect, to the extent that when WWE decided to add a women’s battle royal named in Moolah’s honor to WrestleMania to compliment its Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal, WWE fans threatened to boycott the show and bombed regular WrestleMania sponsor Snickers on Twitter until Moolah’s name was dropped and the match went on without a name. Moolah began training female wrestlers in the 1950s and continued well into the 1990s. Imagine how many stories about her school remain untold.
Women in the general universe of professional wrestling have always been sex objects—even now, in an era defined by women headlining WrestleMania and being taken seriously by promoters and fans alike, there are Twitter accounts with handles like @wweporn that are exclusively GIFs of wrestlers adjusting their gear and men who think that buying something off of an indie wrestler’s Amazon wish list entitles them to an inordinate amount of a wrestler’s time at intermission. Wrestling fans were conditioned to view women’s matches as piss breaks and soft fetish material for so long that this attitude will likely persist through the generation of wrestling fans following mine, which I can attest to having seen a seven year old scream “suck my dick, you slut” throughout a women’s show while his dad laughed it up the whole night.
The problem that I am describing is misogyny, which is boundless in its control over society, but where women have been able to push forward inch by inch in other industries, wrestling has never yielded any ground. As performers they’re considered “featured attractions,” which means that maybe one or two of the matches on an eight match card features one woman, let alone several. Cost, talent, and drawing ability are often cited for their lack. In other on-camera roles, women are largely backstage interviewers, written to stand and hold a microphone, ask one question, and look vacantly into space at the segment’s conclusion. As promoters … there haven’t been many. Aileen LeBell Eaton promoted wrestling and boxing out of Los Angeles’ Olympic Auditorium. Lia Maivia ran the NWA territory in Hawaii. Both are likely more popularly known for the successes of their sons (and in Maivia’s case, her grandson) than the ground they broke.
On the other side of the curtain, female wrestling fans have been similarly disregarded and degraded by the industry. Consider the phrase “ring rat,” which is a derogatory term casually thrown around about women who’ve had sex with wrestlers. It’s “slut” but scene-specific, coded in such a way that manages to shame women for having sex and for having any proximity to professional wrestling. It doesn’t have a place in wrestling now, it shouldn’t have had a place in wrestling then, but despite this Boomer-age turn of phrase feeling like a mouthful of glass, it’s still something wrestlers use—and now that fans know everything there is to know about insider wrestling lingo, the ring rats are a frequent in-character bit on Twitter for edgy heel wrestlers like MJF, whose work would be better without that bullshit and the chorus of men who chant “it’s okay because he’s a heel” like it’s impossible to be a heel without leaning on misogyny.
Ring rat is a particularly irksome turn of phrase because men created it, men defined it, and men have pounded that definition into the ground so much that it’s the sports entertainment equivalent of “groupie,” which implies a fanaticism that makes the woman seem to be the instigator almost universally. Out of curiosity, I Googled the phrase, and the same one pops up everywhere from Wiki articles to listicles like “Top 15 Insane Ring Rat Stories You Won’t Believe.” Here’s Wictionary’s definition:
A promiscuous person, often a young female, who attends professional wrestling events primarily to seek sexual liaisons with wrestlers and other performers.
And here’s Urban Dictionary’s:
A female (not necessarily underage) who attends professional wrestling shows, and attempts to sleep with crew members to get to the wrestlers, or sometimes the wrestlers themselves. A groupie, in plainer terms.
I understand user-sourced dictionaries are flawed, but one’s specificity on youth and the other’s casualness with which it regards the prospect of statutory rape speaks volumes about the perception of the word in fan culture. If you take a concept like “young woman” and apply it to an action like “seeking sex,” you get the age old concept of jailbait, wherein men project maturity and eager consent upon children. If you make that idea part of the marrow of professional wrestling, you create an environment where it’s easy for men to prey on fans, grooming them, sending them unsolicited dick pics and text messages, and coercing them into sex. When wrestlers are accused of this behavior it’s often played off like the woman or girl was asking for it, like ring rats are reputed to do, that she’s just upset that it was a one night stand and has become a stalker. And too many men who like wrestling look at both sides of the story and, fantasizing about living the minor rock star life of a wrestler, buy into the ring rat myth and either dismiss the allegations or take to hounding the accuser.
— Andy (@AndyMaiden86) March 6, 2017
Here’s a notable example: In 1993, Jerry Lawler was indicted for raping children. Fanfyte contributor David Bixenspan did a thorough examination of the 228-page case file in 2018, prompted, if you can believe this, by Lawler’s comments on the #MeToo movement. Lawler was a 44 year old man at the time, and in his defense of himself he decided to write the following about his accusers:
I also know that if you did a background search on the two girls in question you will find that one of them is having a sexual relationship with the other ones [sic] brother. That their mothers are both aware of this relationship. That she smokes, drinks, has been suspended from school several times. That she brags publicly about having numerous sex partners, has claimed to be pregnant, and has exposed herself publicly and has committed lesbian acts in front of witnesses.
The other girl is currently involved in a sexual relationship with a 40 year old neighbor whom she babysits for and also was caught having sex with a black man. Her mother is aware of both of these situations and admits that her daughter lies to her all the time. The girl also claims to have had sex with ‘several’ wrestlers. She has also bragged in public about having numerous sex partners and she has committed lesbian acts in front of witnesses.
There’s real desperation in Lawler’s letter, a sense that if he didn’t damage the characters of two children that something truly awful might happen to him. If you read Lawler’s Wikipedia page, the case is never outright mentioned, just a weird thing where Shawn Michaels had to take Lawler’s place at the 1993 Survivor Series due to “legal troubles.” In reality, he was released, this being a year after the ring boy scandal, which saw two employees fired and Pat Patterson released and rehired over allegations of sexual abuse by former WWE employee Tom Cole. But Lawler’s “legal troubles” resolved in time for him to rejoin the WWE at WrestleMania X. Lawler got off after pleading to harassing a witness, and the larger case was dropped because his accusers didn’t feel like they could testify. Read Lawler’s statements, which are textbook so far as implicating women as nymphomaniac stalkers out to ruin the lives of respectable men are concerned, and ask yourself why they didn’t.
The fact that this has been so effectively buried is a testament to the fondness wrestling fans have for him, not just as “The King of Memphis” or the guy who kissed Bret Hart’s foot, but as a color commentator who spent most of his time talking about how big his co-worker’s breasts are. People are fond of this man despite his gimmick being sexually harassing women at the behest of his employer for two decades. This issue, sexist commentary, is so deep that it didn’t even cross my mind until Portia Perez, a retired wrestler who has taken to play-by-play commentary, offered to rerecord sexist commentary for indie promotions so that women could watch their own work, and Lawler is pretty much the godfather of this milieu. Just for the sake of seeing how quickly Lawler could skeeve me out, I put on the 2004 Raw main event between Trish Stratus and Lita. Three seconds into the clip, Stratus’ music just starting to play, Lawler goes “ohh, man, c’mon Trish” like he’s a patron at a go-go club in a Russ Meyer movie, only this is one of the most historically significant matches in this history of Raw. Lawler was 55, Stratus and Lita were both 29. The age gap across which Lawler has cast his perpetual horniness has only widened as women’s wrestling has become more central to his employer’s treatment of it, and the specter of statutory rape hangs over every gross, miserable thing he’s ever said about women before an audience of millions.
Lawler’s case is like a swirling vortex of all the reasons wrestlers get away with being creeps. He’s too big of a draw in his hometown to compromise. He’s a heel and heels do sexist, pigheaded shit. The children who accused him weren’t perfect victims. The charges were dropped. His employers don’t care. On and on and on, this old man bugging his eyes out at the mere hint of a woman’s breasts, as if his sole purpose in life is to demean and belittle women who are just trying to do their job.
Playing the Victim
Given how male-centered wrestling is—it is, after all, a masculine entertainment created, produced, written, shot, performed, and advertised towards men—it’s hardly surprising that women are disposable, objectified to the point that the term creating the sort of distance that allows exploitation to thrive under the noses of even the most woke wrestler is a kind of vermin. Again and again in #SpeakingOut threads, male wrestling fans, wool freshly torn from their eyes, are asking themselves whether or not they should run away from their escapist hobby, which elides the problem entirely. Abandoning professional wrestling does not solve the problem, but confronting it is a start. Something that men need to understand about this moment is that while wrestling is designed to fail women, it’s also done so in a way that’s meant to be invisible to its primary audience, the male viewer.
Some of this is a matter of time, and some of this is a matter of persona. Some of the names implicated in #SpeakingOut were shocking because they’d built personas based on social justice, often fighting on behalf of women. If you’re new to wrestling and all you’ve known is Women’s Revolution era-WWE and easily accessible joshi, I get why the glut of issues presented by #SpeakingOut are difficult to come to terms with, but women have been screaming about the gendered inadequacies of wrestling’s culture for a very long time. As fans, women are constantly quizzed by men to see if they’re really into wrestling for the wrestling, or if they just think Roman Reigns is hot. As wrestlers on the independents, women don’t get to build the same kinds of community that men do, as spots on the card are “limited” and many have to travel from long distances. In big promotions like WWE, women have been booked in angles where they’re forced to bark like a dog at the owner’s feet, are bullied on screen for being pregnant, and given kayfabe goodbyes like the live auction of one’s stolen panties and vibrator.
Many of the women who’ve endured the puerile objectification of their persons and life’s work are inspirational figures to many women who like wrestling, often because of the things they were put through. The retirement example in the paragraph above is how Amy “Lita” Dumas exited the WWE. She’s one of the most popular female wrestlers in company history and is frequently cited by women breaking into the business as an influence. In 2005, she was dating Matt Hardy, something WWE had made hay with over the years, as Lita was the third member of Team Xtreme along with Matt and his brother Jeff. The relationship between the two of them ended when it was disclosed that Dumas was having an affair with Adam “Edge” Copeland. It was Hardy himself who disclosed it, on his blog and message board, presumably after the affair had become message board fodder. Before digging into the subject, I want to note that Copeland and Dumas’ affair, betraying the trust of their monogamous partners, put them in the wrong. If the consequences from their actions were a divorce and being asked to leave the house, that’s how a lot of relationships broken by infidelity end. But the story of what happened is one that’s stuck with me for a long time and is, I think, illustrative of how wrestling is able to look the other way for men who seek to do harm to women. A lot of primary sources on the matter are long gone, so I’m sourcing the archives of Bryan Alvarez’s Figure Four Weekly for Hardy’s blog posts, and Dave Meltzer’s Wrestling Observer Newsletter for context.
In his first post about the relationship, Hardy noted that he asked his site’s administrator to take all photos of Dumas off of his page, writing “If you happen to run into Amy at an appearance, I think you should ask her why her pictures have been taken down,” later adding “Matt (E)-fact #5: Matt hates being lied to and having his trust broken.” He began by asking his fans to stalk and harass his girlfriend. Almost immediately, house show reports of fans chanting about how Matt was screwed and betrayed started filing in, which made it to Dumas’ WrestleMania appearance, which became a regular occurrence on television. Once it reached this point, Hardy was released, Meltzer said “could almost be described as morally reprehensible.” The firing, not what Hardy did to precipitate it. Hardy’s account of his firing painted himself as the victim of cruel circumstance:
I have been kicked down before (although probably not this much, in such a short amount of time), but I always find a way to rebound and make my life a better place. Thanks for the outpouring of emotion and letting me know how much you care – I need that now. For all of you who believe in me, cheer for me, and care for me, I am not going away – I will rise above. Thanks and much love.
On his blog, Hardy continued to thank fans for pressing his harassment campaign, and Copeland’s ex-wife posted a long screed on his message board where she repeatedly calls Dumas a bitch, says she looks like a man, and postulates that Matt was the one fired in all of this “b/c all the WWE is interested in now is Bimbos.” On radio shows, Hardy played the victim, building a narrative that Copeland should have been fired for his infidelity, which is a comparatively minor thing compared to encouraging and succeeding in getting thousands of people to harass your ex-girlfriend on live television for weeks on end. On the Opie and Anthony Show, he intimated that he had sex tapes with Dumas, then posted on his website the next day that fans shouldn’t get their hopes up. Around this time his interviews also frequently mentioned that he remained on friendly terms with Dumas and would absolutely go back to WWE if they called. In other interviews he talked about shopping for engagement rings and planning to propose on Valentine’s Day earlier in the year and didn’t close the door on the two of them getting back together. In promoting his reality webseries, he posted a clip where he shot a photo of Lita with a gun.
This is abusive, controlling behavior, a kind of gaslighting where Hardy starts off with this huge declaration of heartbreak and vengeance, thanks people for engaging in his revenge, then backs off, saying that “bits and pieces” of the story were leaking and he needed to address them instead of acknowledging that he did the leak, focusing his ire on Copeland when he knew full well that Dumas was receiving the same blowback from fans, and constantly harping on how much he loved and was dedicated to her and, under the right circumstances, could be again. During this time, WWE booked Lita and Kane together in a bizarre saga that involved induced abortion and baby dolls getting punted into the stands. With crowds turning on Lita, they ran an angle where she and Kane were to be married, only for Edge to run in and reveal that the two had been a couple behind Kane’s back. In response, Hardy renewed his calls for “We Want Matt” chants, calling them “revolutionary,” and said of Dumas “to go through with the angle speaks volumes about her.”
The Dumas/Hardy/Copeland situation was acknowledged in Paul Heyman’s famous “shoot” promo on ECW One Night Stand in June. WWE played Hardy’s theme on Raw during an Edge and Lita angle. Hardy’s radio interviews continued to be oddly sympathetic towards Lita, as he lamented that her character had been “turned into a slut.” Then, like magic, Hardy was brought back and inserted into a feud with the people he’d been hounding for four months, kicked off with an angle on Raw, followed by this confrontation on WWE’s online call-in show, Byte This:
I won’t go into the rest of the feud, but look: WWE went from doing the right thing in releasing Matt Hardy to rehiring him and allowing him to throw his issues in Amy Dumas’ face on a show they produced. This happened because fans begged for it to happen, taking up the cause of Matt Hardy the martyr to the point that the company saw money in him again and went ahead with exploiting the issue. When you turn real life into wrestling, you’re applying broad stereotypes and good/bad alignments to a wound. By making the jilted, abusive ex the face, by giving him vindication, you’re telling your audience that it’s okay. By giving the ex a job, you’re approving of his actions. By doing this in the largest wrestling promotion in the history of the medium, you’re setting a standard for the rest of the industry.
The Dumas/Hardy/Copeland story is important to the narrative of how wrestling has fostered an environment that’s rife with abuse because it’s one where fans were actively invited to participate in arbitrating a very real, very personal situation, and because the only party doing any talking in public was Hardy, that’s the person wrestling fans chose. Always a good hand, Hardy was already one of the guys diehard fans pointed to as someone who WWE was wasting. Given a blog and a subscription-based webshow where he could pour out his feelings, Hardy invited wrestling fans to not only project themselves onto his character, but onto his person. WWE re-hiring Hardy in some weird way probably saved Dumas’ career—he utterly ruined her in public, and the “We Want Matt” chants would have followed her around forever without the resolution the wrestling feud offered—but man, what a ludicrously unfair trade-off, and what a message to send to your fans, that your feelings for a male wrestler supersede the safety and mental health of a female one.
Boys Rehabilitating Boys
Given the foundation upon which wrestling was built, the way it creates built-in defenses against allegations of abuse and sometimes actively rewards men for what they do to women, it comes as no surprise that incidents that look, feel, and sound like sexual abuse are taken by fan and worker alike as road stories, the kind of weird thing road warriors get into as a consequence of their strange, impossible career path. This is just as true of most wrestlers, regardless of whether or not they’re seen as a good person. The crazy, sex-filled road story is a staple of shoot videos, one on one interviews with wrestlers and other personalities in the business about their career and personal life. They’re mostly awful, lifeless things where someone like the Honky Tonk Man tells half-truths and total lies about what this or that wrestler did while coked up, but sometimes they reveal more about individual wrestlers than I prefer to know.
One of those wrestlers is Michael Elgin, recently released from Impact Wrestling due to allegations made against him over the past week. In 2013, he was the inaugural guest on The Kevin Steen Show, a shoot video series where Steen, now Kevin Owens, interviewed other indie wrestlers. Elgin, at the time, had not been accused of anything, but was known for using his Twitter account to retweet stuff about sex, something he told Steen was so that women might “think of something they wanna do with me.” Steen then prompted Elgin to tell a filthy road story, which Elgin does. (The story Elgin tells is very detailed and a transcript of it can be found here.) What he describes is the kind of sexual assault that’s on the margins to many people, where he takes a bet that he’ll be able to urinate on a woman’s face, attempts to convince her to do so, is told no, receives what he interprets as a mixed signal, does so, and does not stop when he is asked to.
Elgin: Now I see the light of the camera behind me. So, I proceed to ask this girl if I can piss on her. And at first, she’s saying no, but I’m being very persuasive and saying “Ahh, it’s going to be so good, just keep going and I’ll piss all over you,” blah, blah blah. Finally, to where she gives me the okay to piss on her.
Steen: Kevin Steen Show is not the classy affair I expected to be.
Elgin: So, as she’s saying yes, I begin to piss on her. Her deflection of the piss is this—(motions arms waving in front of his face)–but that ain’t stopping no stream of piss from hitting you in the face.
Steen: Especially not from a Canadian crazy horse.
Elgin: So as now she’s realizing that I wasn’t fucking around when I asked her if I could piss on her and she said yes, I was actually gonna pee on her. So, she’s going like this (more motions of arms waving in front of his face) and all I hear is “No! No! Stop pissing on me.” They’re laughing, I’m laughing. We have to go back to get my money now.
According to Elgin, this was videotaped, multiple wrestlers were there, and rather than stop him, they participated. It’s a horrifying story, made worse by the fact that its facilitator is Steen, a man whose moral character and kindness beyond this shoot interview I think very highly of. The casualness with which the story is told you might expect. The casualness with which the story is received is disappointing. Not because of who the facilitator is, but because these stories are told to build reputations rather than tear them down. Wrestling—specifically this hyperspecific niche of wrestling that caters to the obsessed—is a business that thrives on gossip, so Michael Elgin urinating on a woman without clear consent is just a thing that happened, just a story swapped from brother to brother to brother until there’s a new story to swap, until it’s just background noise one hardly notices because it’s just a story, and the wrestling is good.
Promoters and failed tried to rehab Elgin—he was booked as a surprise by both AAW and IWA-MS and was later signed by Impact despite accusations of abuse that led to a bitter and public legal dispute—because of his perceived value as a draw, someone who could be counted on to wrestle at a high level regardless of the opponent. But promoters and wrestlers are willing to do this for wrestlers who aren’t draws, like Teddy Hart, booked repeatedly despite arrests for sexual assault and substance abuse that date back to 2014, Bram, a current NWA wrestler who was arrested in 2015 on two counts of domestic battery, and Chasyn Rance, a trainer and wrestler who rented his school’s gym to AEW for last year’s Fyter Fest despite being a registered sex offender. Wrestlers get away with this for any number of reasons—Teddy Hart’s a kooky guy, Bram’s a good person, Chaysn’s school has a ton of positive referrals and nobody in wrestling Googles anything—but more often than not it’s due to someone’s belief that rehabilitating a wrestler’s image will lead to more money at the gate.
One of those wrestlers is Marty Jannetty. Best known for his run in the WWF as one half of The Rockers, Jannetty’s reputation has never been that he’s dependable. It’s not that he can’t work—as the “loser” of the Rockers’ split, he became the archetype of the wrestler who was great at his craft but not charismatic enough to break through to true main event status—but he’s had issues with drugs and alcohol and no-shows events to the extent that CHIKARA booked the main event of their final pay-per-view before their first closure around Jannetty not showing up to support a wrestler despite promising to do so. One story about Jannetty and Shawn Michaels goes that in 1989 the two were fired during a European tour and hired back the next day. Asked about this on Kayfabe Commentaries Timeline: The History of WWE 1989, Ed “Brutus Beefcake” Leslie had this to say:
That might have been back in the days when—now, what do they call it now, when you put a pill in somebody’s drink or something? Roofies. We didn’t have roofies then, but I think it was called—jeez, it was another sleeping pill, what was it called? House yachts. That was a drug that pilots—it was in and out of your system quick, so pilots on overseas flights would be flying, you know, 18, 20 hour flights because they had to make a nap, obviously, or sleep or something, and they could prescribe this pill, it would help them sleep for six hours or something, but it would be out of your system. You know, in or out of your system so you wouldn’t see the effects of it later. [Laughs.] The Rockers loves those house yachts, man. They freaking— [imitates throwing pill into drink]—boom. They dropped them on all the broads. And then they get them into the room and then—[makes noise imitating falling over]—they’d be passed out. [Laughs.] And they’d come in and take their laundry off and they’d have a good time with them. And they’d throw them out in the hallway and shit, naked. Needless to say, they got in trouble in a few hotels, and that’s what got them fired, because the hotels called the office, you know, because they kept finding these naked girls in the hallway. They’d have their eyebrows shaved off, magic marker written all over them, “I’m a douchebag” or something written all over them in black magic marker, and throw them naked out of the room.
This clip, as transcribed, does not indicate how truly funny Leslie finds his anecdote about Jannetty and Michaels drugging and taking advantage of women, as he laughs his way through the story until his laughter punctuates the bit about how the victims were thrown naked from the room. [You can watch the clip here.] You can debate whether or not Leslie told this story to get a pop from Sean Oliver or to provide something scintillating for the DVD trailer, but nothing about his body language or tone of voice suggests that he’s so much as exaggerating. To him, it’s just a thing that happened. But if you do doubt Leslie, Jannetty was a regular on forums like Wrestling Classics, where, unsolicited, he’d drop road stories like the one Leslie told. This behavior was not appreciated and Jannetty frequently ended up banned, though whether or not it was due to his conduct or the believably of his stories I don’t know. In 2003, one of Jannetty’s lost forum Wrestling Classics posts, “The Red-Eye From SF to Dallas,” was posted in its entirety on Bodybuilding.com’s forum.
Prefacing his story by saying “this was back when GHB was legal,” Jannetty tells a story about a “wild party” on an airplane where he implicates himself, Michaels, Earl or Dave Hebner, Sgt. Slaughter, and the Ultimate Warrior in spiking the drinks of two young men and one young woman, shaving their heads, cutting the woman’s top off, and leaving the plane in a state of complete disarray—three drunk, puking kids and hair everywhere. The veracity of this story is tenuous to say the best—despite trashing the plane and disturbing other passengers, the police were not called upon landing because a “special clean-up crew” would have been required—but what’s important about the story is the casualness with which Jannetty refers to his and Michaels’ use of GHB:
Shawn opens the bottle and we drop in one scoop… two scoops… three scoops… per glass. Except for the girl, she only got one and a half. The stuff will drop you into a coma if you take too much, but with just the right amount, these boys are gonna go nite-nite. About 10 minutes go by, and the first guy says to me, “Hey, I don’t feel nothin’! You guys are pussies! I told you we could out-party anyone!” Well, before he could finish his next sentence, he stops and says, “Oh… oh… I think I am starting to feel something.” Well, all the boys know the game plan and are alerting each other to get ready. One of the kids gets up and says, “Damn, I can’t hardly stand up,” and another gets up and runs to the bathroom, leaving me with one guy and the girl. Well, this guys starts slurring so bad, I knew he was about to go down. I told him my name was Steve Lombardi. We are talking and he turns and says something to the girl, and he gets no reply. He then turns on the overhead light, and… there she is, leaning against the window wall, throw-up running down the side of the wall. She is out. He jumps up and tries to go the bathroom, and is falling down everywhere, hollering “Oh, this ain’t good!”.
Well, one of the Hebner brothers was the first to attack. The girl was big titted and wearing a shirt with straps holding it on. Hebner takes the scissors and cuts the straps. Bam, her big tits fall right out. Now all the boys are coming around. Sgt. Slaughter, who is sitting right in the seats in front of her, turns and sees this. He smiles big, and decides to distract the stewardess’ attention by going and asking for things. Next, the Ultimate Warrior comes back from first class and asks, “Where is she?”. As the boys are taking turns with the scissors snipping at her long beautiful hair, Warrior start twisting hard as hell on her nipples. She starts to wake up, and looks down at her tits, and tries to cover them up, but stops… looks… and… throws up right on both tits. Mounds of throw-up is all you could now see. Her hair is steadily being cut. Well, about this time, here comes tall boy from the bathroom with some napkins for her… but he looks and sees this mess. She has throw-up all over the plane, her seat, her boobs, and she now looks like Sinéad O’Connor. She’s practically bald; just bits and pieces of hair left on her head.
Jannetty told this story, which looks a lot like Leslie’s, of his own volition, complete with a “it was a different time” self-exoneration. And yet, there have been multiple attempts to rehabilitate a career that’s largely been one kind of self-sabotage after another. The WWE brought him in as part of a 2005 storyline between Shawn Michaels and Kurt Angle. CHIKARA, who owe a lot to the WWF New Generation era in which Jannetty was a featured midcarder, booked him semi-regularly from 2011 to 2013. Most recently, Jannetty was featured at the inaugural Joey Janela’s Spring Break, a WrestleMania weekend event promoted by GCW that functions as a night of tape-trader fantasy matches that would be impossible under any other circumstance, headlined by a dream match between Janela and one of his heroes. That match and its follow-up in AIW were extremely well-received, and Jannetty’s sporadic indie appearances and the easy access to his era of wrestling have shifted the narrative of his career from his being an unreliable, deeply problematic person to his being one of the best midcarders of all time, a wrestler’s wrestler who still has it for 10-15 minutes when he needs it.
That a fandom can look past a body of evidence that suggests Jannetty was a frequent, unrepentant abuser of women is troubling. That it is often done at the behest of another wrestler is where you start to see the system at work. Over the course of four events, Joey Janela’s Spring Break has featured four men who were arrested for domestic abuse or sexual assault (Jannetty, Hart, Rich Swann, and Necro Butcher), and while I am not precluding the possibility of innocence (though dropped charges are not themselves an implication of innocence) or rehabilitation, the fact that they are booked without a serious discussion of what that booking means is the issue. If promoters can’t take state intervention seriously, what hope is there that they will look at Tweets, screenshots, and leaked DMs seriously? What we are seeing now, the promises that wrestlers and promoters are making to fans and other wrestlers, is an aberration caused by overload. That’s why the “#MeToo moment” hadn’t happened until now—if there were allegations against one wrestler, the result would be either the release of the accused, or the sweeping under the rug of the abuser. Now that there’s too much to ignore, we’re talking. There are people who knew and didn’t say anything. There are people who knew and said something and were ignored. There are people who were there but didn’t know. There are people too new to know. And now we’re all here in the same room, with the same impossible question.
Where Do We Go From Here?
In truth, I don’t know. The easiest answer, at least so far as clearly defined outcomes are concerned, is to tear the scene down and build a new one from scratch. This will not happen, obviously, both because there is too much money at the top levels of wrestling for companies like WWE and AEW to face the same consequences as the wrestlers they employ, and because change on such a massive scale is terrifying to people whose livelihoods depend on things staying roughly the same as they are now. If that’s the case, then what we’re looking at is a struggle to reform a system that was designed to be broken. Even then, there are challenges, the first of which is that a majority of men in wrestling, promoters, fans, and performers, just don’t care. They want to watch wrestling. They’re willing to do so right now, in the middle of a pandemic, in venues with fewer controls than the virus-stricken leader in sports entertainment.
But hear me out on this: Fuck them. If there is something the last few weeks have proven, it’s that there *is* a network of fans and wrestlers who do care, who will listen, and who are willing to work to make wrestling safer, more accessible, and more accountable for its faults. Given that some of the wrestlers and promotions who’ve been implicated by #SpeakingOut built their brand on that kind of rhetoric, stepping out in that direction is cause for trepidation. But coupled with their outing has come action—before CHIKARA shut down, most of its roster, including wrestlers from its first graduating class, left the promotion. I’ve never seen anything in that in indie wrestling before, and indie wrestling, with its propensity for “surprise” booking abusers the rest of the locker room could refuse to perform with but don’t, doesn’t do gestures of solidarity often.
The door is open, I think, to a serious, genuine conversation about the abuses that wrestling fosters. This doesn’t mean accused abusers “stepping away to listen” and it doesn’t mean asking how many skeletons are in other people’s closets. If you’re a wrestler with skeletons in the closet, it’s probably better to bring them out and live with the consequences as opposed to living with the fear that someone else will drag them out for you. If you’re a fan who has pushed boundaries with regard to your interactions with a wrestler, there is no time like now to find out what good boundaries are like. As Low-Ki says, respect is a two-way street.
This is not a moment for wrestling to go on the defensive, but it can be a moment where those of us to whom this artistic medium matters can learn and heal and work towards something better. I am not talking about rehabilitating abusers within the bounds of the system—that is a road that leads here, where we are right now. What I mean is that we push this conversation further than immediate consequence, that women, queer people, and people of color be allowed to speak about the injustices they’ve faced in their career/fandom, and that the white, cis, heterosexual men who have largely benefited from the status quo *actually* listen and do something about it.
What does that look like? For starters, more marginalized people need to be brought into promotions across the board. Not just as performers, but as bookers, producers, announcers, and so on. Promoters and fans need to come to terms on a real, actionable code of conduct and accept that whatever minor losses there are at the gate due to that code will be worth it for a safer, less hostile working environment for marginalized performers, and a better time for fans. Promoters and wrestlers need to listen and act of their own volition when someone in the industry is outed, and not just when it comes to future bookings. If an abuser’s work is in your video archive, remove them. When the commentary on women’s matches makes your performers uncomfortable, re-record and re-release them. When you’re booking someone new to your promotion, don’t just do it based on a GIF or a match, do some research, make sure their reputation is good, and move forward in good faith. This is difficult work, but it is necessary if wrestling is to survive as a form of entertainment and a kind of labor. A better professional wrestling is possible—I wouldn’t have dedicated so much of my life to it if that wasn’t the case. How bad do we want it? What are we willing to do to get there? Those are the questions. I hope we’re able to answer them together.