The thing about pro wrestling is that the bar is low. Like really low. Like really, really low. Like all a wrestling promoter needs to do to be a shining example of what a wrestling promoter should be is pay the talent fairly and on time. All a wrestler needs to do to be an impressively smart or impressively woke wrestler is to think the world is round, vaccines are useful, and racism is bad. The bar is so low that wrestlers’ careers are barely affected by slur usage, propagating absurd conspiracy theories, selling snake oil, or sometimes even sexual assault and domestic violence allegations. For companies, the bar is so low that a company can be lauded as a beacon of hope for worker conditions just by trying to get some people healthcare. The bar is even so low that an online wrestling section editor like me can feel good about myself as a paragon of good ethics in my field just because I’ve never worked on a reality show where Joe Arpaio arrested petty criminals via Punk’d-style pranks.
WWE, the American pro wrestling behemoth, is a big part of why the bar for wrestling is so low. Expectations for WWE’s corporate behavior are just as low as expectations for its match quality, story freshness, and exciting week-to-week developments. Thanks to the WWE, any wrestling company can be The Good Wrestling Company as long as they don’t do propaganda shows for oppressive political regimes and kind of bribe the president so that they can be deemed an essential business during a global pandemic right before firing huge amounts of talent.
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In the last year or so, no one has benefited more from those low expectations than the Khan-backed upstart promotion AEW. Fanfyte was the place that published the thing about how great it was that AEW was even trying to get people health insurance at all, even though healthcare is a benefit that is a pretty standard part of working for a place, especially exclusively. We cover all of their shows and their news. Their product feels fresh, and comes with a nice feeling of comparative ethical neutrality. Which is easy to do when the most prominent alternative is a company that once killed a guy by cheaping out on a stunt.
I’ve been pretty quiet lately in terms of writing. Part of being an editor is that sometimes you have to focus on the non-writing parts of the job, but the fact is I just haven’t had much of anything to say. I hate watching wrestling right now. The fact that wrestling is still happening even though every other form of entertainment has moved to stay home, socially distanced models, is disgusting to me. It taints all the wrestling I want to watch, even old stuff. Post-pandemic productions are pretty much unwatchable.
Wrestling feels bleak, and it just keeps feeling bleaker.
Last week, after the aforementioned essential business designation and firings, Colette Arrand tore into WWE and I suspended weekly coverage of their TV. This week, AEW confirmed that they are going ahead with their Memorial Day weekend pay-per-view Double or Nothing as planned, just from a different location and with no audience. Today, it was reported that AEW will also return to some live tapings of its weekly show Dynamite in two weeks.
WWE and AEW can pretend that pro wrestling is what the world needs right now, that pro wrestling is part of the fabric of our society and to remove it in these trying times would be a great injustice. But I’m not alone in not wanting to watch these pandemic wrestling shows. What a surprise that seeing people erroneously deemed “essential workers” touching each other at their job for no good reason isn’t as transcendent a piece of escapism as the suits think it is. Maybe fans will get mad enough that AEW will adjust their plans, but the pro wrestling outrage machine is so exhausted by firings and releases, by scandal after scandal, that I can’t say how much energy is left to ask AEW not to do the thing we just begged WWE not to do.
When the bar of normalcy is set by a company that is almost cartoonish in its villainy, how do we determine how low is too low?
WWE and AEW are pretty much the only companies still running right now. Mexico’s AAA is set to resume shows this weekend (which seems like massively irresponsible timing). And that’s it. That’s everyone else. Ring of Honor, whose internal issues we covered pretty closely at the end of last year, canceled all of their shows through the end of May. Wrestling in Japan has completely come to a halt. Aside from posting videos of their masked stars urging fans to stay home, Mexico’s CMLL, the longest running wrestling company in the world, has had no activity. European companies aren’t running either. Independent wrestling companies worldwide, who are much more at risk of losing everything than the publicly traded WWE and billionaire backed AEW, have all stopped running even no-audience shows.
So if the global norm is not running shows, why are we giving AEW a pass? Why am I giving AEW a pass in continuing to cover them and not WWE? Why am I still grading AEW on a curve set by WWE when I can give example after example of wrestling company after wrestling company doing a better job of handling Coronavirus than the company who claims to really care about wrestlers?
I don’t have an answer, nor do I know how I’m going to adjust Fanfyte’s coverage to keep my conscience clear. To continue like it’s all normal, like it’s fine that what we’re watching is happening, like this couldn’t get someone killed, isn’t an option for this site. It wouldn’t just be unfair to the wrestling companies handling this situation responsibly, it would go against everything we stand for, everything we want wrestling to be.
I make no secret of my love of some of the more gruesome aspects of pro wrestling. I love to see light tube fights and exploding barbed wire. I love to see an old man with deep blading scars get back in the ring. I love dives from high-up places. I love blood and stiff shots, and even more than that I love the novel spectacle of the unusual—of wrestlers hitting each other with cars, of stomach-churning gore. I can defend all of that. But no matter how I look at it it, AEW and WWE continuing to run during COVID-19 is indefensible.
The amazing thing about wrestling, the thing I said about wrestling the day we launched, the thing that captured me as a fan and kept me, and continues to hold me, is that wrestling can be anything. If pro wrestling can be cinema, if pro wrestling can happen without touching, if pro wrestling can happen without any wrestlers at all, then all I’m asking is: why can’t pro wrestling happen under conditions that are ethical?