To say that this has been a surreal week for British wrestling is an understatement. At the beginning of the week, it looked like the most newsworthy event was going to be a Twitter spat between Mad Kurt and Nathan Cruz and Mikey Whiplash. As it turned out, Whiplash – along with many others – would have far bigger problems on their plate. The outing of David Starr and the slew of allegations/accusations that followed in it’s wake is wrestling’s – and British wrestling in particular – Jimmy Saville moment. The exposure of Saville and the floodgate of historical abuse allegations his outing opened showed that this wasn’t just one bad apple, but the tip of the iceberg: that there was something very wrong with British entertainment industry in the 1960s and 70s. Similarly, the events of the past week have the dark underbelly of British wrestling.
The thing about Saville of course, is that while his proclivities weren’t exactly an open secret; if you were in the entrainment business in Britain, you generally knew, or had at least heard stories. A similar state of affairs existed in the British scene, in that if you were involved in or were fairly well-acquainted, you knew of at least one incident/tale. Some of them became public knowledge – the Pollyanna/Wainwright incident and Will Ospreay’s subsequent involvement (at the time of writing it’s been confirmed that Ospreay definitely put pressure on at least one promotion not to book Pollyanna) perhaps being the most high-profile in British wrestling. Others weren’t so well known. For instance, without naming names, there was a high-profile British wrestler’s hobby of chasing after under-age girls that helped out with merch tables. It was one of those things that, if you knew, you knew, and tried not to think about it too much.
Thus, although the scale of what has gone on has outstripped what anyone may have suspected, the existence of these kind of incidents themselves couldn’t have come as a surprise to many. Wrestling has always had a dark heart; it’s carny roots mean that sleaze is pretty much it’s DNA. It’s the sort of industry where someone killing his neighbour’s dog and feeding it to him is considered a ‘hilarious rib’. It’s an industry where Rob Feinstein being caught in a paedophile sting seems to have largely been forgiven and/or forgotten. The kind of incidents we’ve been hearing about over the past few days were simply explaining as “the boys being the boys” or “that’s the business for you.” Because it was wrestling, these things generally flew under the radar of society at large. But the sheer scale of what’s been going floored even a cynic about the wrestling business like myself: this is not just a case of one or two bad apples, this was in fact the tip of a very large iceberg.
There have of course been varying reactions from those accused of rape, harassment, grooming and inappropriate behaviour (this taxonomy came from a friend of mine who had trawled through all the tweets). Some have held their hands up, more often than not with some sort of plea for mitigation (Starr’s “I’m not a sexual predator, but…” still beggars belief). Some have outright denied the allegations, as Jordan Devlin has. But there’s also a third class of response, which is those who have apologised, but don’t really seem to understand what they’re apologising for. Additionally, it’s hard to tell who is genuinely remorseful and who is simply remorseful they got caught. Some of the apologies and remorse expressed may well be genuine. Should some be given a chance to atone for their sins, or should everyone be blackballed? These are difficult questions, and I’ll let someone else take the lid off this particular can of worms.
One of the things that the Ospreay case in particular demonstrates is that, to a large extent, promoters are largely hostage to the talent, in the sense that Will Ospreay vs. David Starr is going to be a bigger draw than two wrestlers who don’t have as high a profile, but are solid eggs behind the scene. Like or not, the sole reason wrestling exists to is make money; and one suspects that there are many promoters who not only didn’t know, but didn’t want to know what was going on in these instances. Wrestling promoters on the whole have not, as a group, been noted for their moral scruples; and in any case, the reliance of promoters on the boys as the lifeblood of their business is hardly a state of affairs likely to promote accountability on the part of the former.
The fact that this is a fairly recent phenomenon is no accident, for the past 15 years or so has seen a vast expansion in the amount of women involved in the business generally. Indeed, it’s hard not to see the kinds of sexual harassment we’ve been hearing about and natural evolution of the kind of…“bullying culture” isn’t the right word, although there is a lot of bullying the business; but when you look back at the stories of hazing, shitting in bags and soforth, it’s clear that there was something very fucked up about norms in professional wrestling. When the majority of women started to break into the business in this country, their trainers by and large would have been men: said men often being closely connected with a particular promotion. As a friend of mine pointed out to me, the influence a trainer can over their student’s career is arguably greater in wrestling than in any other sport. Small wonder then, that people would have been reluctant to speak out about a pervert trainer.
Many have been uncomfortable with the idea of what has come to be known as ‘Trial by Twitter’; and their concerns are legitimate. But as someone correctly pointed out to me, the flipside of the coin is that, given that the boys will more often than not closed ranks and back each other up, in many cases attempts to contact the authorities would have perhaps been doomed to failure. In 2019 in the UK, there 58,657 allegations of rape between January and March, but only 1,925 successful prosecutions – so based on these statistics, you have a 3.2% chance of seeing your attacker successfully prosecuted. Given these piss-poor figures, posting one’s story on Twitter had a far better chance of actually achieving something than going to the police.
Where this will all lead and what the long-term repercussions will be for the UK scene is anyone’s guess. There are some who have argued that it’s hard to see the British scene coming back from this (Pete Dunne’s exhortations notwithstanding); the whole thing has been too badly tarnished. On the other hand, it’s important to point out that not everyone in BritWres is a scumbag, although inevitably the actions of those who have behaved badly will end up tarnishing those who haven’t. It might be that the whole thing needs to be rebuilt from the ground up: new companies and promoters, a fresh start. No doubt there will be some who try to sweep the whole thing under the carpet once shows start running again: it’s to be hoped they don’t get away with it. Whatever happens, the past week has given British wrestling a black eye it will take a long time to recover from.
(Thanks to JB and EAW for their insight offered when I was writing this).