Wrestling In a Time of Pandemic

There shouldn’t be any wrestling right now. The fact that wrestling is a going concern, regardless of how many people are or aren’t sitting in the audience, is wildly irresponsible. One of the only live sporting events on television on Friday, SmackDown’s broadcast from the WWE Performance Center was restricted to “essential personnel only.” Think about that. Think about what’s required to broadcast a wrestling match between two people. At a bare minimum, you need two wrestlers, a referee, a camera operator, and a director. Five people. 

Doesn’t seem like a lot, but there are twelve people on a basketball team, and it took one positive test to suspend the remainder of the NBA season. So let’s limit the field a little and work out what’s being brought to the Performance Center. You have a wrestler. Let’s say they’re a frequently traveled member of the SmackDown roster. The United States confirmed its first case of coronavirus on January 25. Since January 25, SmackDown has run or been part of 15 shows in two foreign countries and eight states. 

I don’t know the specifics of how WWE Superstars travel, but let’s assume that this wrestler flies home from Oklahoma on 1/31 and flies out to California on 2/8, hitting three airports, walking through crowded spaces, breathing recycled air. After moving through the Northwest, an initial hotspot for the disease, they fly home from Washington on 2/16 and fly out to Arizona on 2/21. That’s five airports, one of them four times. Then they go to Saudi Arabia. Then they fly back to Boston the next day, drive through upstate New York, and do Elimination Chamber in Philadelphia, all before the announcement that SmackDown in Detroit has been cancelled and moved to the Performance Center in Tampa Bay. Two more airports, two more trips through your home airport, all while reports indicate that the virus is spreading faster than we’re able to account for, all while the world around us begins to close down and encourage social distancing. None of this begins to consider the literal tens of thousands of people in those audiences over that stretch of time. 

Before this empty arena SmackDown at World Wrestling Entertainment’s fancy gym, the performers on it encountered an unknowable number of people, an unknowable number of which carried coronavirus. This isn’t alarmist speculation—airline travel is a vector of American life along which this virus has spread. Bring the other wrestler and the referee back into the picture, since they’ve had a similar travel schedule. The camera operator and director have been at the television shows and pay per views, so their travel schedule is a little less rugged, but no less intense. It is likely, at this point, that one of those five people has encountered someone carrying the virus, probably asymptomatically. But this is WWE, so the definition of “essential personnel” is somewhat expanded. There’s more than one camera operator. There are announcers. There are wrestlers on the show who aren’t wrestling. Sure, there’s nobody in the crowd, but everybody involved in making the show, every single person, has encountered thousands of people over the past two months. They went home after the show and interacted with dozens more. A sane person can see how this is inadvisable. 

But wrestling isn’t a sport for the sane, so we have shows scheduled to take place in front of empty crowds, reduced crowds, and as many people who are willing to risk getting sick as possible. You have wrestlers patting each other on the back for working under these bizarre circumstances, recalling times when they wrestled in front of sparse audiences for reasons a little different than pandemic. You have some independent promoters claiming that running show is the spirit of the independents and others trying to use this as an excuse to drive booking fees down. And, most terrifying of all, the grim specter of WrestleMania looms in our near future, the prospect of tens of thousands of fans pouring into a city for a week packed with shows in quarters much closer than the football stadium and arena WWE is planning to run this weekend. 

We are looking at a situation where wrestling may kill people, where it will almost certainly be a means of infection, for reasons varying from indie promoters’ inability to recoup the cost of venue fees, transportation, and lodging to Vince McMahon’s longstanding belief that his show stops for nothing beyond maybe a murder-suicide carried out by one of his most beloved performers. WrestleMania may yet be cancelled—the city of Tampa Bay has cancelled other events, and with the numbers of confirmed coronavirus cases steadily climbing, it’s hard to imagine it going forward, but it seems like the only thing that’s going to stop the Showcase of the Immortals is government intervention, and if there is none I guess we’ll be testing the viability of that particular nickname.

Yeah, but how’s the wrestling?

When I started thinking about this issue, I was mainly fascinated by how wrestling might look like if its participants decided to move forward with their work despite the advice that people maintain six feet of distance between one another. Despite what matches like GCW’s Invisible Man vs. Invisible Stan and the career of DDT’s legendary Yoshihiko portend, wrestling requires close contact and involves a great deal of sweat, spit, and blood. The companies who’ve run shows through this pandemic—think here of DDT, Stardom, and WWE—have made attempts to adjust their presentation accordingly. For DDT, who are known for running shows in campgrounds and matches in empty venues like the Tokyo Dome, running their kind of match to no audience was nothing new. Stardom ran their No People Gate from Korakuen Hall, one of the most raucous venues in Japan, and put on a Stardom-style show. 

WWE, by contrast, ran one of the worst shows I’ve ever seen them put on. Alternately an advertisement for a gym none of us can join and a plea to the home audience to forgive the company for maybe struggling to work without crowd reaction guiding them, Triple H’s “let us entertain you” opening monologue gave way to a night of shortened, mediocre matches and longform interview segments in a miniaturized version of their normal television set-up, a set-up that revealed just how talented the company is at homogenizing space as well as talent. While one tends towards leniency due to unusual circumstance (not that I want to be lenient given that fully half the show was given over to a replay of the tag team Elimination Chamber match), the wrestling on the show wasn’t bad because of the lack of an audience, but because they were purposefully truncated and wrestled as if to ask the question “what, exactly, are we doing here?”

There is no way to answer that question that doesn’t come back around the the negligence of a company more interested in its bottom line than the safety of its performers and staff, and the people they live among. It can be—and has been—dressed up in other ways. What WWE does is entertain. What WWE relies on is the fans, the lifeblood of the company. This is how dedicated the company is to those fans and their entertainment, that they’re willing to ignore a world in crisis for two hours in an attempt to help those fans forget as well.

But it’s impossible to shut that world out, even in the vacuum of the WWE Performance Center, even given the novelty of John Cena cutting a promo in a pumped up Planet Fitness or Jeff Hardy playing to fans who aren’t there. How am I supposed to have fun watching Sami Zayn and Elias talk into the same microphone headset? How am I supposed to shut out the fact that John Cena and Bray Wyatt are building to a match in a football stadium? What am I supposed to celebrate?

It’s Sunday now. Tomorrow is Raw, which has been moved from Pittsburgh to the Performance Center. So when the glass shatters and Steve Austin hits the ring, nobody will be there to greet him. It will be surreal. It will be pointless. Then AEW Dynamite and NXT will happen on Wednesday, also in front of limited or non-existent audience. By that point, we will be numb to this new spectacle, which is too bad because SmackDown on Friday has promised empty arena Bill Goldberg. All of these men and women marching into empty venues to perform in silence, to build to shows in the future that should not happen. What are we supposed to celebrate? What, exactly, are we doing here? What would it take for wrestling to stop, to realize that no matter what precautions it takes, it is not above this particular moment in world history? I genuinely want to know the answers to these questions, but I don’t believe the right people have them.