• Philip Downes

The Speaking Out Movement - Professional Wrestling's "Me Too" Moment

Updated: Dec 7, 2020

TW: Sexual Assault, Domestic Violence, Rape

I've been trying to figure out how to start this for the past 20 minutes. This is not going to be fun, and I'm going to try and write this with the sort of tact and sensitivity that this topic deserves.

Whenever I mention the term 'professional wrestling', aside from the "you know it's fake, right?" crowd, most people know company and one company only; WWE. That's completely fine - they're the biggest company in the world, and I'd be confident in saying that 99% of people I know would have watched it at some point, either through being a fan themselves, or through an older relative who may have had the PS2 games.

However, for the past decade, the independent wrestling scene (wrestlers who are not signed to the big companies such as WWE or AEW) has been thriving, especially in Ireland and the UK. Over The Top (OTT) Wrestling in Dublin is a promotion that would regularly sell out the National Boxing Stadium for their flagship show ScrapperMania, with over 2,000 people queueing to see guys from both Ireland and abroad do the physically impossible. At the top of the promotion was David Starr, the epitome of independent wrestling - a man who hated everything the WWE and being signed to a contract stood for, and someone who was going to take independent wrestling to the next level. I met him at a show in the National Basketball Arena in June of 2019, and although he was the "heel" (bad guy), he couldn't have been nicer. He came up to me when I approached him, shook my hand, asked how I was enjoying the show, and was more than happy to take a picture with me, even though I was wearing a t-shirt of his sworn rival WALTER, to whom he would lose against for the 26th time later that night. I left the merch table thinking "wow, he's way nicer than I could ever have imagined."

And then, it turns out he was a massive piece of shit. On the 17th of June, 2020, Starr's ex-girlfriend accused him of physical and mental abuse, alongside sexually assaulting her throughout the relationship. While Starr recognised that he was physically and emotionally abusive to his ex, he did deny sexually assaulting her. His apology was met with intense backlash, with some arguing that it wasn't even really an apology ("I'm not a rapist BUT" was the gist of it, and... yeah), and as a result, Starr was stripped of his OTT World Championship, and it looks like his wrestling career is over, something he said he's "completely okay with" in a desperate attempt to save face.

From there, the floodgates opened. It turns out, Starr wasn't the only one who was alleged to have abused partners or women in general. Guys like NXT UK wrestler Travis Banks, who was in a relationship with a 17-year-old Millie McKenzie while he was training her. Independent wrestler Joey Ryan, who has been accused by dozens of women of rape and sexual assault. Matt Riddle, Jordan Devlin and Velveteen Dream, current WWE Superstars who have had allegations against them and are still on TV after the WWE "investigated" the claims - something that caught a lot of flak from fans, especially on the part of Velveteen Dream, whose accuser seemingly had screenshots of their conversations, yet faced no consequences.

There is a lot being done right now to help stomp this out, and have women, both fans and performers, feel safer at shows and in training. Companies like OTT have announced staff and policy changes including Garda vetting of the trainers in the Irish School of Wrestling, and PROGRESS Wrestling in London suspended and fired those who were accused, and have since ceased operations until the structural changes they're making surrounding the safety of female wrestlers are satisfactory. The British Government launched an all-party inquiry into the UK wrestling scene as a result of the movement, with promotions PROGRESS and TRUST Wrestling announcing that they'll be working with the inquiry. Trainers and co-owners of promotions have been fired, and at least one promotion, Bar Wrestling, has been shut for good after owner Joey Ryan had 18 sexual assault allegations against him (he initially apologised for his misconduct, but has since retracted his apology and is currently in the process of suing his accusers and former employers IMPACT Wrestling for loss of earnings).

But what about at the top of the mountain? AEW, the second largest promotion in North America, fired wrestler Jimmy Havoc after he was accused of physical violence towards an ex girlfriend, and Sammy Guevara was suspended without pay and attended sensitivity training after making rape 'jokes' about female WWE wrestler Sasha Banks on a podcast in 2016, with his salary from his suspension being donated to the Women's Centre in Jacksonville, Florida. In the WWE, they fired three people out of a dozen accused; Jack Gallagher, Travis Banks and Ligero, all men who came forward and admitted they did something wrong. But those guys were hardly being used on TV to begin with; they were pretty expendable. As I said earlier, guys like Matt Riddle and Velveteen Dream both had credible allegations against them, but since they're being used on TV in prominent roles, the WWE can't really get rid of them. This isn't a new revelation, the WWE (or WWF as they were known back then) have had several allegations against them earlier on - from the Ring Boy Scandal in the 1980's, to Rena 'Sable' Lesnar suing the WWE after leaving in 1999 for an unprecedented $110 million for sexual harassment and unsafe working conditions (the matter would be eventually settled out of court). There is hope on the horizon with these new policy changes, and while it looks like the 'boys will be boys' excuse has finally stopped working, there's still a long, long way to go.

If you’ve been affected by anything discussed, please contact Women’s Aid on 1800 341 900.

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