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    Thursday, April 16, 2020

    The Word on the Rings: Of Empty Rings and Released Wrestlers

    Around nineteen years ago, Vince McMahon stood in the middle of his wrestling ring, surrounded by WWE Superstars and proud Americans, and said the words that ring true to this day: "We will not live our lives in fear." The WWE did what no other show or sport would do during that time: SmackDown was the first live event on American soil, just two days removed from the 9/11 attacks. It was a bold move that had all the bells-and-whistles of a patriotic tribute to the American way of life, challenged by terrorism and looming global conflict. There's really nothing more American than wrestling, and it seemed somewhat par for the course that WWE—a lasting symbol of almost everything American—stood tall in Houston that day.

    Wrestling has always existed in weird times, if not to narrate the weirdness of a weird world in a weird way. Yet over the past few weeks, the weirdness has taken shape in even weirder ways. Because of the coronavirus epidemic, shows have taken to broadcasts from an empty Performance Center, where the sole solitary fan in attendance is the sort of appliance you hang from a ceiling. Matches have become a little more physical as if to compensate for the lack of a crowd reaction. It all seems weird to see it unfold: the pleasant weirdness that comes with the WWE being maybe the only sports organization to be active despite the COVID-19 crisis.

    That weirdness, though, has to stop somewhere. And I write this all as a lifelong fan of professional wrestling.

    Just today, the WWE released an unprecedented 20 Superstars. Some producers, writers, and agents have also been released, with furloughs and more expenditure cuts on the horizon. This, despite the WWE being deemed an "essential business" in the state of Florida. This, despite Vince McMahon being deemed an advisor to the Trump administration in reviving the economy. This, in light of the XFL filing bankruptcy and canceling its season. It's all fun and games—subversions of an empty-arena WrestleMania included—until wrestling stops becoming weird.


    Like any business, the WWE is challenged by the coronavirus pandemic. The WWE—for all its might and production levels—cannot withstand the crushing financial blows that come with a key source of business being wiped away in an instant. Travel restrictions and social distancing effectively cancel out a good part of what the WWE stands for. No matter what you feel about dwindling attendance records, wrestling cannot exist without the crowd that surrounds the ring. Whether that's a throng of 20 people or 20,000 fans filling an arena, wrestling is as much an interplay between physically-present spectators watching a physical encounter in a ring. Sure, cinematic matches—like the Final Deletion or the Boneyard Match—can challenge that idea, but the problems of wrestling in a time of community quarantines are a little more real than, say, semantics and mental gymnastics about what constitutes "wrestling."

    Now that the WWE is broadcasting matches from the Performance Center, it really doesn't need a roster as stacked or as many agents as before. Say what you will about "loving your job" or being "good at what you do," but economics—be it a financial crisis, company mismanagement, or whatever it is that forces the hand of a business to close or scale down—don't have much in the way of feelings. It's not about being empathetic as much as it is about being realistic: companies will do whatever they can to stay afloat in situations like these, and if it means letting go of people, it will. The idea of "the greater good" loses all nobility and virtue in times like these, especially when you put the phrase "the greatest number" right beside it. "The greatest good for the greatest number"— utility—is what it really is all about.

    Like many fans, I'm miffed at the whole idea. I don't appreciate someone as talented as Rusev being released. Finlay has so much wisdom to give to the WWE as a producer, having honed and trained many of the women who ply their craft in a WWE ring today. I despise the idea of Mike Chioda—the most senior referee on the WWE roster—being let go. I revolt at the idea that Mike and Maria Kanellis—who welcomed a new baby boy into the world just a few months ago—are now jobless. I am saddened at the realities that Drake Maverick painted for all of us: this wasn't just a career getting halted; this means that bills don't get paid.

    Throughout this pandemic, you hear of the kindness of business—rare as they may be—to try to protect their people in times of great uncertainty and need. Sure, hires may be frozen and pay raises may be postponed, but many top-ranking executives have cut their compensation, too. You hear of corporations doing their part to reach out to vulnerable communities and saluting frontliners, guided by a sense of duty. I'm sure the WWE does—or has done—the same thing. But what bothers me is how, despite all of these things, the show still goes on. Or how that show has managed to cut people in times that they need it the most.

    Maybe there's kindness in Triple H showing us an empty Performance Center with the confidence of The Game we've grown to know and love, but the more I watch RAW or SmackDown or NXT, it just completely feels off. Mano y mano action and cutting promos with a live mic just doesn't cut it in an empty arena: the lighting and music that seeks to bring a sense of spectacle only serves to highlight the noise of the ring spring. Every passing match and promo just gets a little harder to watch in a time of social distancing and self-isolation. It just doesn't work. Imagine this silence and emptiness in a Ladder Match or a Steel Cage Match: if good old wrestling feels weird, those matches will feel even weirder.


    I'm not the first fan—and I won't be the last—to say that the "independent contractor" clause must go, especially for wrestling talent. Having employee benefits is critical at this time: after all, the wrestling business has been built on the backs of people who have done everything an employee in a wrestling company can ask for, but never got the security of employment. And for being such an "essential business"—and the Network being an important resource in the WWE—the company could have found a way to assure some form of presence for its wrestlers, from Brock Lesnar right down to No Way Jose. The WWE could have created and assured a secure future for its wrestlers had the "independent contractor" idea been cast away decades ago, way before people like me started writing about the stories of wrestlers who died penniless.

    But that raging is magnified by what really ticks me off as a wrestling fan right now: why does the show go on? It's one thing to "escape the realities of life," but it's another thing to deny it altogether. Again, I prefaced this post with the idea of wrestling being a weird way to tell weird stories about weird things, but the weirdness of a social distancing match should show that wrestling as we know and accept it cannot go on just yet. Not because wrestling is irrelevant during these times, but because it has become irreverent of the times. If anything, news around the novel coronavirus shows that there is a reason to fear things: the thousands of deaths and confinements that occur from physical contact with people who aren't at home among other things. Which dovetails to the point above: in the absence of proper employment benefits, are wrestlers literally wrestling to keep their heads above water?

    Or do we even need live wrestling at these times? Of course, we need wrestling: almost a quarter-century worth of wrestling content exists out there for people to get their wrestling fix if they wanted to. Live wrestling, however, needs to take a backseat at a time when we ask everyone to stay at home. I'm sure this is as good a time as any for wrestling to take a break, to refresh itself, and to assess its presence in a changed world. Unlike a post-9/11 SmackDown 19 years ago, patriotism and a love for America will not bring about the catharsis or healing that the world needs. That even as an escape, live wrestling is out of place. It leaves a bad taste in the mouth: not just for the wrestlers released, but for fans who have to put up with more of this weirdness.

    That post-9/11 SmackDown was one of my favorite episodes of wrestling. Looking back, it was something that people waited for, people craved, people wanted. I can only imagine what would have happened if the WWE—and a troupe of wrestlers somewhat secure in their jobs and their futures—would have all stayed home for a while, and appeared on the first live episode of RAW when social distancing rules are relaxed. The crowd wouldn't sell out an arena, but they would have been raucous and enthusiastic, watching the revival of wrestling in a so-called "new normal." Sure, some people would have been cut, but it wouldn't have been as painful as watching Drake Maverick on the verge of a breakdown. It wouldn't have been as heartbreaking as the thought of Mike and Maria worried for the real future of their very real family.

    It wouldn't have been the weird dose of wrestling—or what passes for it—that we've watched over the past few weeks.

    Header image from USA Today
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    Item Reviewed: The Word on the Rings: Of Empty Rings and Released Wrestlers Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Marck Rimorin
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