Ever try to wrestle someone from six feet away?
On April 9, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed an order designating “employees at a professional sports and media production with a national audience” as essential workers in the state, putting them in the same category as nurses and sanitation workers. You might be thinking to yourself, “that’s comically reckless even for people who light themselves on fire,” or “Florida does not actually exist and it’s a collective fever dream with a time zone,” or “this is hell and we live here now,” and all three are a hard yes.
As journalist Aaron Rupar pointed out, DeSantis justified his reasoning by saying, “People have been starved for content…we’re watching, like, reruns from the early 2000s.”
“People have been starved for content … we’re watching, like, reruns from the early 2000s,” Gov. Ron DeSantis says of his bizarre decision to classify live pro wrestling shows as an “essential service” during a deadly pandemic pic.twitter.com/rWeCOJKkh2
— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) April 14, 2020
“The people needed new content” is going to look great on somebody’s headstone.
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Aside from the ties World Wrestling Entertainment has to the current presidential administration and the $18.5 million that pro-Trump’s super PAC America First Action chair Linda McMahon jangled like car keys in front of the governor shortly before the order got signed, which is probably coincidental, the whole thing still poses an interesting question: How do professional wrestlers touch all over each other’s sweaty bodies in front of equally sweaty crowds without being part of a petri dish filled with mortal danger?
“The only possible way we can make this better as a society is if we all do our part and stay the hell away from each other. No entertainment is so vital that it should risk lives.”
An important thing to keep in mind here is that professional wrestlers in the United States are classified as independent contractors, even by the heavy-hitters like WWE and All Elite Wrestling (AEW), the second-biggest show going. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, wrestlers were on their own with stuff like health insurance and worker protections, largely thanks to that time in 1989 when Vince McMahon, the head of WWE, went in front of the New Jersey Senate and killed a bill to regulate professional wrestling by admitting that it wasn’t a legit athletic competition.
Wrestlers are, as always, left to fend for themselves in an industry that has a habit of grinding the performers into a fine paste for use as mortar mix to build another McMansion for the people at the top. (McMahonsion?)
Independent wrestlers, or pro wrestlers who aren’t employed by WWE or AEW, are currently considered non-essential workers. While most indie wrestlers are cobbling together a list of alternate and wrestling-adjacent methods into lifeboats, they have their own opinions about WWE’s decision to put on the world’s most expensive production of The Masque of The Red Death.
“Only the majors should run, that’s for sure, if the people involved truly consent to work and sanitation is consistent then I think it is the way it must be,” said wrestler Billy Dixon. “It is unpopular, but I feel that WWE is, in a weird, morally obtuse way, keeping smaller business alive in the long run.”
“I think any promotion running events right now, in any capacity, is criminal,” said wrestling gear-maker and artist Kate Nyx. “The only possible way we can make this better as a society is if we all do our part and stay the hell away from each other. No entertainment is so vital that it should risk lives.”
Nyx’s husband, Ophidian The Cobra–a professional wrestler whose gimmick is that he’s an anthropomorphic king cobra–agreed.
“The difference between WWE and [the independent circuit] running shows is the financial and medical coverage WWE can provide their employees,” added Ophidian The Cobra. “No indie can afford to pay hospital bills if you become sick, but WWE sure could if they wanted to.”
But without the ability to promote matches and get dropped on their heads repeatedly in front of crowds, what are pro wrestlers doing during this terrifying and uncertain period? Social media has proven to be the key for many independent wrestlers, both for maintaining a connection with their fans (which will prove crucial when the quarantine is lifted) and for making a living from their homes.
Some wrestlers are even making lemonade out of the situation by using the quarantine itself as a match stipulation.
“Nothing is as good as watching live wrestling or wrestling to a live crowd, but we can use this time to step outside the box and get weird!” said Chuck Mambo, who created a Social Isolation Match on YouTube with TK Cooper.
Since wrestling doesn’t have an off-season like one of those highfalutin sports leagues, and wrestlers have to turn their bodies into spandex hamburger for audiences around the world, the current kibosh on travel has made it hard for them to leave their homes.
“We’re like everyone else right now, man,” said one wrestler who preferred not to be identified. “The most we can do is stay home and stay in shape for when we can get back out there. But most of us don’t have a gym, so I’m spending a lot of time in my driveway with my medicine ball.”
“It sucks,” they added. “I don’t want to work out. I want to watch The Great British Baking Show.”
“I’ve been self-quarantined in Canada the whole time with my wife and stepdaughter,” said Danhausen, a wrestler whose thing is that he’s like a friendlier version of Beetlejuice. “I’ve been making a living through selling Danhausen stickers, my Patreon, and Pro Wrestling Tees, luckily. It’s not as much as I was making but it’s definitely helping.”
Fans and industry workers are mixed on whether or not it’s a great idea for wrestling promotions to throw open their doors and welcome an audience back into a respiratory minefield made of lungs and moisture.
“There’s more than one camera operator,” wrote wrestling columnist Colette Arrand in an article for Fanfyte. “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.”
“My employer, World Wrestling Entertainment, aka WWE, is forcing me to work the TV tapings for its weekly shows despite home orders for coronavirus. I am unable to speak out as I need this job and I know I will be fired if I approach my higher-ups,” one anonymous WWE employee allegedly said to Florida’s Orange County Board of County Commissioners.
At Tuesday’s Orange County Board of County Commissioners meeting, a #WWE employee named “John” submitted public comment they’re being “forced to work” TV tapings despite stay at home orders. Says he’s unable to speak out and feels he will be fired if he approaches his higher-ups. pic.twitter.com/UJTvX1RGc7
— Jon Alba (@JonAlba) April 21, 2020
It’s not great! Allegedly!
Outside the cartoon swamp of WWE, plenty of independent wrestlers are used to MacGyvering a living out of whatever’s on hand. Kate Nyx and Ophidian The Cobra, for example, are falling back on the business they’ve been doing from their homes for years now.
“Kate and I were set up well before the pandemic began to make income from home,” said Ophidian The Cobra. “Utilizing platforms like Patreon, YouTube, Twitch, and Ko-fi, we are still able to generate a moderate amount of income to care for ourselves.”
“Relying on income entirely built from content creation and merch sales feels like walking a tightrope, sometimes, but I guess it is some form of Living the Dream, so I can’t complain,” added Nyx.
Many wrestlers and promoters have recalled the strange atmosphere of the last live shows they did before the quarantine went into effect.
“80% of me felt like we should just scrap the show for everyone’s safety, but 20% of me wanted to try to raise some money for our city that had already gone through and lost so much.”
“Nashville had just been leveled by a tornado and we lost our home venue, The Basement East,” said Righteous Jesse, owner of Southern Underground Pro and occasional deathmatch wrestler. “We tried to keep everyone as safe as possible [from coronavirus]. I know personally I was torn about 80/20–80% of me felt like we should just scrap the show for everyone’s safety, but 20% of me wanted to try to raise some money for our city that had already gone through and lost so much.”
“It was tense, and awkward, because we all knew we probably shouldn’t be there, but no one knows how long this is gonna last, and you need that tape,” said one independent wrestler who asked to remain anonymous. “Right before the show starts, the promoter starts asking one of the students about doing a social media post to try and get ‘40 more people’ to the venue–at a show that’s already well, well past the state limit of people. I’m gonna say that will probably go down as the lowest, most shameful thing I’ve allowed in my career. ”
It’s hard for performers or fans to see a way forward while the whole world waits for the people in charge to actually, you know, do something to stop the virus. But the industry that brought us the Exploding No Rope Barbed Wire Exploding Ring Time Bomb Death Match has been through bad times before, and fans are still going to be hungry for wrestling on the other side of the pandemic.
“We gotta all just hunker down and then go absolutely CRAZY when this is all in the past and we can do what we love again!” said Chuck Mambo.