How Is Pro Wrestling During a Pandemic Going?

Pretty bad, honestly

Fanfyte was founded a year ago to coincide with what looked like a big boom in the world of pro wrestling. AEW premiering a weekly national TV show to rival WWE? The biggest promotions in Japan and Mexico finally easily accessible internationally via streaming? Independent wrestling having exciting, experimental, fun shows on iPPV? What a hopeful time!

Happy anniversary, I guess.

2020 has sucked, and just keeps getting worse.

There are some high points. I mean, Orange Cassidy and Io Shirai being major stars on American television is pretty cool. Eddie Kingston is on TV every week. That’s pretty alright. That’s something I like to see. Or I would, if I wanted to see wrestling.

But wrestling shouldn’t have been happening at all

Wrestling isn’t like other sports. The most obvious reason is that it’s predetermined, which we all know. But it’s also not unionized. Wrestlers have no way of advocating for themselves, no form of collective bargaining. Some states in the US have athletic commissions that oversee pro wrestling, but many don’t, which means there’s no governing body making sure that wrestling is being done safely. Everything is at the mercy of the promoters. Wrestlers, as a rule, even in companies like WWE and AEW, generally organize their own transportation and travel. In indie wrestling, it goes without saying that the performers are getting themselves to the venues, often handling their own accommodations as well. Most indie wrestlers also work additional jobs. In the age of COVID, bigger companies seem to mostly be doing their own testing, but independent promotions aren’t. It’s unclear which indies are requiring tests at all.

Pro wrestling can’t do the kind of “bubble” technique we’re seeing major sports leagues use. The question of transmission isn’t an “if” but a “when.”

The “when” turned out to be September for outbreaks in both WWE’s NXT brand and CMLL. For independent wrestling, October is not looking great.

What’s more true to the realities of life in 2020 than watching people who need the money sweat and breathe on each other in an indoor facility in Indianapolis in front of an audience? The Collective, a group of independent wrestling shows with Game Changer Wrestling (GCW) at the helm, rescheduled their Wrestlemania week extravaganza and ran twelve shows at an indoor space at the Marion County Fairgrounds this past weekend.

Since then, at least three wrestlers who performed have tested positive for COVID and urged other wrestlers and attendees who were at the event to get tested.

The Collective shows featured some match-ups that could easily be called dream matches, and cards like Effy’s Big Gay Brunch and For the Culture that highlighted historically marginalized members of the wrestling community. I remember thinking that even if the weekend were to go off without a hitch, with everyone being perfectly safe, it’s still a shame matches like AR Fox vs 2 Cold Scorpio or Cassandro vs Sonny Kiss couldn’t have happened in front of a full crowd with no public health anxieties.

There was no lack of people expressing concern about these shows before they happened. Indiana’s COVID cases have been on a steady upward trajectory since June, hitting new highs on October 9th and 10th, the first two days of the Collective’s shows. (Indiana has since beaten those records with a new case high on October 15.)

So why is this happening?

Why run shows then? If it means risking people’s lives? Why run shows if it means risking the health and well-being not only of wrestlers performing and fans in attendance, but also the people they come in contact with in their day to day lives and as they travel to and from these events?

It’s for the same reason I see bars and restaurants open and doing table service, even as my neighborhood maintains a pretty sizable case rate. It’s the same reason that small businesses are overwhelmingly shutting their doors, unable to weather the storm of COVID shutdowns. Independent wrestling companies, unlike billionaire owned AEW and WWE or corporate owned ROH and New Japan, are small businesses. Wrestlers who need the money and the exposure took the risk. Other wrestlers who don’t need the money or the exposure (major stars from AEW, ROH, and Impact all appeared on Collective shows) believe in the preservation of independent wrestling enough to have taken the risk.

It’s stupid and it’s cruel that the US government, happy to bail out the airline industry even as it furloughed and laid off the very workers the bailout was supposed to help, has done very, very little to effectively assist anyone outside of the ruling class in this crisis, including small businesses like indie wrestling companies.

Parties who are concerned with pro wrestling being something that doesn’t contribute to the ticker of deaths and permanent health problems that we’re watching rise as the year goes by— like me, I count myself among these people— can very easily say that pro wrestling shouldn’t be happening right now. And we’re right. It shouldn’t.

Parties who are concerned with the survival of their own wrestling companies and wrestling careers can very easily ask: if wrestling doesn’t run, then how is wrestling supposed to still be there waiting for us whenever the COVID problem is behind us? If wrestling shouldn’t be happening, especially in places where infection rates are rising daily, then should everything just shut down? They would also be right.

Pinpointing the real problem

Way back at the start of the pandemic, both WWE and AEW insisted that they were providing a vital service to audiences by providing a form of escapism. In April, when I urged wrestling companies to stop their shows, like every other sport, like every other major form of entertainment, I pointed out that, for the huge numbers of people risking public health and their own safety just to “keep the economy going,” maybe watching wrestlers do the same thing isn’t a very effective form of escapism.

As 2020 saw the untimely deaths of multiple wrestlers, as the Speaking Out movement exposed the massive amounts of sexual assault and abuse that have run rampant through the industry and fan communities, pro wrestling has felt less and less like an escape and more and more like a microcosm of everything we want to escape from.

And that’s because it is.

There’s a few ways of looking at this. It’s absolutely true that pro wrestling is a mode of entertainment with a deeply individualistic culture and no history of worker organization, so it, even more than the motion picture industry or professional sports, is fertile ground for all manner of exploitation.

But maybe it’s also true that the world is looking more and more like pro wrestling. Wrestling fans joke that pro wrestling is always way behind on trends, but wrestlers were ahead of the curve on current trends like white nationalism, conspiracy thinking and pseudoscience. Wrestling was even ahead of the curve on deciding Donald Trump was a great guy who should be in charge of things.

Pro wrestling, after all, has a rich legacy as a carnival con. Its fans are still called “marks,” its artistic deceptions are still called “works.” As wonderful as wrestling can be, as hard as well-meaning wrestlers, promoters and fans try to make wrestling something that isn’t actively malevolent, extracting it from its roots in predation, exploitation, spectacle (in the Debordian sense) and lies seems like difficult work.

I am nothing if not empathetic to indie wrestling promoters struggling to survive 2020. I want us to figure out a way to save pro wrestling, but pro wrestling needs to do a better job of being worthy of being saved.

GCW’s The Last Resort, featuring several wrestlers present at The Collective shows, is, as of the publishing of this article, still running as scheduled tomorrow in a park in Orange County, California.


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