SPOTLIGHTED PODCAST ALERT (YOUR ARTICLE BEGINS A FEW INCHES DOWN)...
“Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice. Moderation in pursuit of justice is no virtue.”
Barry Goldwater, 1964 Republican National Convention
It’s not often in that in pro wrestling the defeated man is given centre stage, but in more ways than one that happened on Night Two of WXW 16 Carat. Having lost to Bobby Gunns, David Starr not only had to stand in front of an adoring crowd struggling to comprehend that he had lost a match where in storyline his WXW career was on the line, but announce that they had lost a much bigger battle months before.
Visibly struggling to control his emotions, Starr broke character to explain that he and WXW had come to a mutual decision he leave the company due to the wider political situation. Our sources suggest that WWE did indeed tell their German partner to stop using him. Whilst WXW management would refuse to go into more details, they would heavily imply that the decision for Starr to leave came as early as December. That would be the same month as he finished up with Progress, exiting the promotion after losing to Eddie Dennis and Jimmy Havoc. Crucially, this would be before Starr attacked Gabe Sapolsky for padding out his cards with younger pro-wrestlers wrestling for free in hopes the exposure would lead to future bookings. That incidentially is something WXW is known to also do.
That timing makes sense, with several exchanges between him and Post Wrestling’s Jamesie taking on added resonance in light of what has happened. Not only did he openly talk about how he felt he was in constant danger of being fired by Progress, but that he felt WXW no longer cared whether they got to be the ones who played host to him finally defeating Walter, despite that quest having defined his time in the promotion. But that doesn’t answer why WWE would react this way.
“Freedom of speech is not freedom from consequences”
David Starr, WXW 16 Carat Gold 2020 Night Two
Whilst speaking to the German crowd, Starr spoke about how visiting a former Nazi concentration camp near Oberhausen had changed his life by unlocking a latent political awareness. It’s a story he’s told before, including to myself, but it speaks to an unacknowledged aspect of Starr as a person.
He’s far younger than he appears, having been young enough for the then Senator Obama to speak to his high school whilst campaigning to be President in 2008. Starr has come to embrace political campaigning with an earnestness that sticks out like a sore thumb in a pro-wrestling industry dominated by irony and cynicism. The one place being earnest never went out of fashion is Germany, with the local fans quickly taking to him as if he was one of their own. Likewise, he has more easily navigated the less sophisticated terrain of smaller English promotions than many British super-workers.
But his beliefs, his ability to talk, and his political beliefs came together in an explosive package when, in 2019, he released a video to talk about how he felt being booked to face Jay Lethal in Israel. I described the video and its impact in a profile of Starr for Fighting Spirit Magazine last year:
“He would take a thinly veiled shot at the policies of the Likud Government, saying “supposed to be the homeland for everybody, it’s supposed to be a place that we can all seek peace and refuge, is supposed to be a place that doesn’t deprive its citizens of basic civil rights.” Even saying this would have been highly controversial given that Israel was in the middle of an election campaign when the video was released.
However, what really got the pro wrestling world talking was what he had to say about the owners of Ring of Honor. Sinclair Broadcasting is a television company that is increasingly using its control of local news broadcasts in America to promote hard-right talking points, even if it causes their broadcasts to lose viewers. Starr berated ROH for no longer being “a stalwart of pure professional wrestling” but “instead of representing a far right-wing extremist corporate propaganda machine.” He openly wondered whether he was booked for what was then billed as a World Title match, because they thought “it was some kind of cute publicity stunt; let the little Jew boy get a flight to Israel to wrestle for your championship.” He ends by vowing to win the ROH Title, saying that Sinclair would “have to wake up to your worst nightmare, you’ll have to wake up to the fact that your championship is now represented by a progressive Jew.
It was a promo video that barely lasted two minutes, and was simply Starr talking to camera, but it turned what was an obscure match far away from any strong pro-wrestling markets, into one of the most talked about matches in the world… Unfortunately, rather than run with Starr’s storyline to capitalize on the momentum he had generated, Ring of Honor would instead bitterly complain it. With both Starr and the local Israeli promotion thinking there was a real danger that they would pull Jay Lethal from the show, Starr removed the video. With no follow-up closer to the match, and Lethal no longer carrying his title, the match passed by without much attention from the pro-wrestling world”.
If Starr should have learnt anything from the experience is that despite the fact that Mitt Romney and the Supreme Court are wrong to say that corporations are people when it comes to the right of free speech, corporations are undoubtedly whiny bitches. Maybe he was lulled into a sense of false security by Progress deciding to capitalise on his impassioned denunciation of their affiliation with WWE by having him rather than Jordan Devlin win 2019’s Super Strong Style 16, as originally planned. After all, before the tournament he spared them no quarter; “[a] tournament that prides itself on representing British independent professional wrestling is seemingly absent of that commodity presented by a promotion that is seemingly absent of that commodity.” In the afterglow of victory Starr would heavily imply to me and other assembled journalists just how fraught the political situation surrounding his victory was, saying that we had no idea the power paying and cheering fans had. Whilst the suddenness of his victory would leave to low-level irritants such as Starr frequently being already booked when Progress could have used him to build up his forthcoming title change, the real problems stemmed from elsewhere.
Anti contract ✖️
Anti independent ✖️
Anti David Starr ✔️
Pete Dunne, Owner of Attack Pro Wrestling
By the end of July 2019 the attitude of those close to WWE had visibly hardened towards David Starr. The easiest explanation is the most superficial. At OTT’s Wrestlerama, he was once again facing Walter, during the match he grabbed the Austrian’s NXT UK belt and stomped on it. Speaking to Post Wrestling, Starr said that this was a planned spot designed to play off Walter’s disrespect of the OTT belt back when he was the promotion’s champion. I, however, was personally told by somebody in OTT that the spot was not planned and that Starr got “carried away”. Regardless, the response was immediate, with several NXT UK workers, and their associates, attacking Starr for disrespecting the title’s sacred lineage. The reigning champion notably stayed silent.
It’s easy to say that this was the moment that WWE decided they would have nothing to do with Starr. After all, Progress’s sudden interest in pushing him once again evaporated, as they not only stopped him hitting the same beats that made his pre-SSS16 promo such a hit, but also had other babyfaces attack him and his politics in promos. But I suspect that this would be mistaken. I think the truth is both far more petty and more sinister.
It’s easy to forget that the “smart” reaction to last year’s Super Strong Style 16 was to wryly note that Starr had successfully launched a t-shirt company off the back of hardcore fans’s anti-WWE animus and nothing else. He and other pro-wrestlers would wear the t-shirts whilst Starr would cryptically countdown to July 4. Even after the We The Indie group was launched, it was common for people to highlight that the British Government listed it as a retail company.
It’s worth noting that had it turned out that We The Indy was just a t-shirt company, Starr would probably still have political problems with NXT UK. Because three people who DID (somewhat) successfully launch an apparel company off hardcore fans love of indie wrestling was Pete Dunne, Mark Andrews and Eddie Dennis who even now are still hawking Defend Indy Wrestling merchandise. I always believed that part of their vehement denunciation of Starr was a well-founded fear that he would be better at producing merchandise that hipster wrestling fans would nevertheless buy to make a statement.
But there was more to the petty rivalry. As We The Indie launched, many people pointed out that both Pete Dunne and Mark Andrews had themselves launched a drive to get British pro wrestlers to join the British performers union Equity. And this was true they had, working closely with Steve Duncan-Rice, one of the union’s professional organizers. Alas, their (not unusual) role of both being performers and promoters meant the push stalled. As explained by Steve Duncan-Rice to both Starr on his podcast, and me in person, both Andrews and Dunne wouldn’t pull the trigger on a public campaign for pro-wrestlers to join Equity let alone give the union a formal role within ATTACK. This literally meant that as promoters they were refusing to promise to use the very pro-forma union contracts they had helped design.
The nature of a broad-based union like Equity is that the professional staff cannot focus on industries that have low levels of unionisation. With pro wrestling due-payers a small and not growing fraction of his union’s membership, Duncan-Rice drifted away from the project. But Starr’s public’s advocacy for labour empowerment changed that. Through word of mouth and We The Indie’s program of using their profits to cover poorer pro wrestlers’ union dues, Starr was successful in significantly increasing the number of pro-wrestlers who were Equity members. In anticipation of this success, Duncan-Rice finally managed to get the union’s insurers to finally extend their injury and disability insurance to pro-wrestlers. This mutual success meant that any pro-wrestler who is an Equity member could now claim weekly payments to cover an injury absence, and a lump-sum if injury forces them to retire. I personally believe (although for the record they have stated it was a long-term plan) that it’s not a coincidence that shortly after the insurance issue was finally resolved, Pro Wrestling Eve became the first British promotion to formally recognize Equity, given they had been heavily criticized for their handling of a severe in-ring injury a couple of months beforehand.
More than promoting and improving the benefits of union membership, Starr placed the question of respect on the table. When the idea of unionization was reprioritised by him, I was skeptical about what it could achieve, given that most promotions lose money, but the summer of 2019 demonstrated otherwise. Because Starr quickly brought concepts such as promotions providing food and refreshments to the fore, with promotions suddenly highlighting what they were providing. Starr worked with both Equity and other trade unions to organise workshops that explained to pro-wrestlers their rights at work, and just a couple of weeks ago was in the British Parliament to raise the possibility of forming an All-Party Parliamentary Group for Pro Wrestling with his local Member of Parliament.
I’m a firm believer that Starr’s success infuriated Dunne, somebody who having previously been a cool customer on social media has become ever more defensive and self-defeating as the distance between his previous ideals and his current paycheck widened. But more than that, the realization We The Indy wasn’t a gimmick but a genuine progressive force stirred something in WWE. After all, his exit from Progress and WXW telling him they needed to part ways, happened less than three months after George Barrios said that both promotions may end up on a new third tier of the WWE Network. It may be as simple as WWE learning the same lesson that Sinclair did, that Starr wasn’t going to hold back if they patronised him by giving him a walk-on role.
But if it was something more than WWE would be guilty of something akin to union-busting, a question that David Bixenspan asked on Saturday, by tweeting, “What are the union busting laws in the EU?” At the most basic level, labor laws are not a matter for the European Union beyond a very sketchily drawn series of minimum standards. We can, however, can dismiss the idea of a suit in Germany because Starr was not trying to unionize people in Germany because it was not clear what union he could partner with. Furthermore, much like Leslie Smith in UFC, the law is clear that independent contractors cannot unionise, and therefore attempts to unionize them cannot be protected by union-busting laws. Additionally, Starr is not a union organizer; his status as a campaigner, encouraging and facilitating people becoming members, wouldn’t be recognized in law. And even if he did become an official Equity organiser, it would be likely that much of what he’s said is outside what union-busting laws protect. There’s a reason the likes of Duncan-Rice choose their words carefully. Finally WWE can always point to the fact that they employ, and in one case have repeatedly promoted, people who first had the idea of encouraging pro-wrestlers to join Equity.
In short, he’s boned. Which he knew, hence the mutual agreement for him to leave.
“I think, Bob, we’re the moderates now”
Goldwater to Bob Dole, 1996 Republican Presidential Nominee
As we look at the end of Starr’s career-making WXW tenure and sporadic Progress appearances, it’s easy to focus on the opportunities he sacrificed on the altar of his beliefs. But, of course, it would easy to do the same about Barry Goldwater after he and his radical right platform was buried under President Johnson’s landslide. But that defeat was as temporary as it was overwhelming, with Goldwater’s ideas taking hold within the Republican Party to such an extent that he saw the likes of Newt Gingrich and Dick Armey as extreme.
It’s fun to imagine a similar situation for Starr, maybe him doing a podcast with Brian Last III in the 2050s bemoaning how the young pro wrestlers are demanding too many creature comforts backstage and aren’t leaving enough money for the promotions and training schools to reinvest in the future. And that’s not unrealistic; Jimmy Hill, the player who broke English Soccer’s maximum wage, was a pundit during the explosion in footballers’ wages after the launch of the English Premier League and the Bosman Ruling, and often seemed bemused at the riches his successors enjoyed.
His and Goldwater’s bemusement spoke to how rapidly seemingly radical ideas can spread if a man of sufficient skill and timing advocates for them. Whilst Starr has demonstrated the skill, the lack of solidarity demonstrated by not just his former employers but also the fans who happily chanted “NXT!” the day after Starr heavily implied that WWE was why he was leaving, suggests for once timing isn’t his strong suit.
But, let’s be honest, what did anyone expect from an industry dominated by vice and injustice? But there is a wide gap between the status quo and revolution. As we’ve already explained, We The Indie has already encouraged more British pro-wrestlers to join Equity, secured all pro-wrestlers who are members of that union better benefits, and shamed many promotions into improving pro-wrestlers’ working conditions. That’s not wresting being ruled by a soviet, but it’s not nothing.
There’s an old joke that to get social democracy you need to elect a socialist revolutionary, and just as the concrete achievements of a Bernie Sanders Presidency would probably fulfil the centre-left more than the Democratic Socialists of America, maybe the legacy of David Starr’s activism will be a series of incremental reforms that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. Another frustrated radical, English socialist, and one of my personal political heroes, Tony Benn, put this dynamic well; “It’s the same each time with progress. First they ignore you, then they say you’re mad, then dangerous, then there’s a pause and then you can’t find anyone who disagrees with you.”
This weekend has made me more convinced than ever that I’ll never live to see the wrestling industry that David Starr believes is possible. But the power of the idea he’s fighting for, and the power of the example he sets by fighting for it, will lead to a series of incremental changes that will leaves the industry a better place than he find it.
And how many people can say that?
“The Labour Party is a democratic socialist party. It believes that by the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone, so as to create for each of us the means to realise our true potential and for all of us a community in which power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many, not the few, where the rights we enjoy reflect the duties we owe, and where we live together, freely, in a spirit of solidarity, tolerance and respect”
Clause IV of the British Labour Party’s Constitution, as amended and put onto party membership cards by Tony Blair
Will Cooling did not speak to David Starr on the record or off the record in the preparation of this article. He probably should have given he spent 70 minutes speaking to him on Saturday. Instead, he spent the time mutually commiserating about Super Tuesday.