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“Keep America Great”: Wrestling with the Coronavirus

With the lines between wrestling and politics decidedly blurred, we can neither take comfort in the guile of our leaders nor the well-meaning distraction of wrestling.”

Few have made much of the way that pro wrestling has mimicked politics. This connection is no truer than in the United States, where the World Wrestling Entertainment’s (WWE) plots and character creations regularly echo America’s international relations—a parallel that has been particularly evident during times of national crises such as war. As a ploy to both evoke and provoke xenophobic feelings, WWE has often cast Iranians or Russians as their top heel or bad guy. In the 1980’s, there was the tag team of the Iron Sheik and Nikolai Volkoff. The 1990’s saw Sgt. Slaughter become an Iraqi sympathizer. And, the 2000’s entertained an ill-judged terrorist story involving a wrestler called Muhammad Hassan, whose career suffered badly as a result. To further establish this pro-nationalist stance, these “foreign invaders” are often vanquished by all-American heroes such as Hulk Hogan or John Cena, the latter even announcing the death of Osama bin Laden during a live show.

Unlike any other form of entertainment, wrestling has an uncanny ability to exploit global affairs for commercial gains. However, when faced with a global pandemic where the enemy is literally affecting every person on the planet, does wrestling follow the lead of its sporting peers, yielding until given the all-clear? Or, does it carry on fighting regardless, even if fans cannot attend their shows? In a bizarre twist of fate, it has managed to do both and neither (reflecting President Donald Trump’s conflicting response to the Covid-19 outbreak) without actually mentioning the virus at all.

As wrestling has no overall governing body akin to soccer’s FIFA, the guidance on how wrestling should navigate a pandemic, which requires social distancing without it being mandated by law, has left the industry in an ambiguous hinterland. At a grassroots level, independent wrestling has temporarily ceased, putting the long-term future of some companies in doubt. In Japan, the second biggest market for wrestling outside the U.S., the restrictions have ultimately meant many promotions had to follow suit, excluding fans from their shows or canceling them altogether. Conversely, WWE, which has enough financial security to close down for a few months, has—against all guidance and logic—continued to produce “just-for-television” shows out of a blind sense of commitment to its audience.

In recent weeks, both WWE and newcomer All Elite Wrestling (AEW) have seemingly decided to stay on the air and carry though their obligations to their millions of loyal fans and possibly also to the television executives they have deals with. In a move that practically categorized a pro wrestler as a “key worker,” WWE’s Executive Vice President Paul “Triple H” Levesque justified the company’s position by claiming that “now more than ever, entertainment for people is a necessity.” Similarly, AEW’s Executive Vice President Cody Rhodes commented on “how important the service [they] provide is.” Despite the eeriness of performing in front of a sea of vacant seats, both companies have maintained high television ratings. This has seemingly validated their reluctance to close production completely, as fans continue to demonstrate their enthusiasm for the physical ballet. However, with superstars like two-time cancer survivor Roman Reigns pulling out of this weekend’s pre-recorded WrestleMania amid fears of contracting the coronavirus, the validity of the “empty arena era” is being called into question.

While feigning noble intentions, both companies continue to put people’s lives at serious risk in the name of commerce. This comes as they spar for dominance in this rejuvenated and fiercely competitive billion-dollar industry. This wild defiance and overtly capitalist stance is not too distant from President Trump’s recent rebel yell “THE CURE CANNOT BE WORSE (by far) THAN THE PROBLEM!” The President’s then-position identified the threat of recession as a greater evil than the virus itself, a virus already responsible for taking more than 50,000 lives.

On the face of it, wrestling’s bizarre reluctance to cease programming seems reckless and ignorant, but there has been a clear contrast between the output of the sport’s leading two companies in recent weeks, echoing the mixed messages coming from U.S. federal government. WWE’s show format has mostly remained the same, barring a small change in cameras to compensate for the lack of fans. However, matches—where wrestlers are in close contact and effectively perspiring on each other—have remained the same. By comparison, AEW has made much more noticeable changes to the format of their show, favoring more pre-recorded segments and instructing older members of their roster (or anyone not comfortable) to stay at home.

President Trump’s daily—if not hourly—Twitter rants, in a perverse turn of events, have shown that life can imitate art, with his political speeches becoming akin to a wrestler’s promos.

The Trump administration’s handling of the pandemic has ranged from a wholehearted endorsement of social distancing to encouraging people to  “pack churches on Easter Sunday,” before retracting that and extending lockdown measures throughout the country. President Trump, thanks to his involvement with the WWE over the last few decades, is a member of their Hall of Fame, and his near-negligent approach to preventing the virus has had parallels with the company’s response. Although their fans are kept safe by watching it from the comfort of their own homes, the wrestlers, whose temperatures are reportedly tested before each show, are still at risk of falling ill or being contaminated after being near numerous others. For instance, Daniel Bryan, one of the most popular stars in WWE is still featuring on weekly television and is due to have a match at WrestleMania. In the ring, nothing has changed for him. But, upon returning home, he is having to self-isolate from his pregnant wife in case he has been infected. Furthermore, WWE’s owner, Vince McMahon, who is, not surprisingly, a close friend of President Trump’s is 74 years old and would, thus, fall into the “at risk” demographic. This means that McMahon should be as far away as possible from these shows, rather than calling the shots backstage.

Although AEW has been praised for its more measured and considered approach to Covid-19, it is not entirely without blame. Matches have carried on regardless, with the British-born Jimmy Havoc even grabbing Cody Rhodes’ tongue during one recent bout. (Rhodes would kiss his wife ringside just moments later.) While they postponed their much-hyped “Blood and Guts” match, there is no sign of when AEW’s weekly Dynamite show will stop recording new shows and, instead, air repeats from their small but already impressive back catalog. AEW is owned by businessman Shahid Khan, who also owns the Jacksonville Jaguars and Fulham Football Club. Although Khan might not have as close of connections to the White House as McMahon, surely, he can understand why his other sporting ventures are not currently competing. So why should wrestling be any different?

Ultimately, nearly anything is an entertaining distraction from the almost never-ending barrage of bad news and updates from politicians. President Trump’s daily—if not hourly—Twitter rants, in a perverse turn of events, have shown that life can imitate art, with his political speeches becoming akin to a wrestler’s promos. Hulk Hogan used to shout, “Say your prayers and eat your vitamins.” Now, it’s, “Stay inside and practice social-distancing.” With the lines between wrestling and politics decidedly blurred, we can neither take comfort in the guile of our leaders nor the well-meaning distraction of wrestling. The half measuring that pro wrestling has adopted serves only as a cruel reminder that there is no escaping this virus. President Trump’s hammed political pageantry and foolhardy determination to power through the crisis without widespread testing or the waving of medical costs evokes memories of classic WWE villain the Million Dollar Man Ted DiBiase, a person who was the physical epitome of corporate greed and callousness. Wrestling’s determination to carry on may be noble, but there comes a time to take the politics out of the ring, to take the face paint and promos out of politics, and put everyone’s health and safety first.

Al Binns is the author of The Incredibly Strange Creatures: Or How I Learned to Stop Being a Mixed-Up Zombie and Survive Modern Work!!? (2020) forthcoming on Zer0 Books.  

Greg Evans is a senior reporter for indy100. He has also featured in The Independent, Vice, Little White Lies, Complex, BFI and Four Four Two.

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