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Despite much of the world’s sporting and entertainment events being cancelled due to Coronavirus, I and hundreds of other pro wrestling fans braved the Wulfrun cold to attend Fight Club: PRO’s Friday the 13th event. It was surreal to see the likes of Travis Banks, Trent Seven and Tyler Bate perform in front of a live crowd just hours before their fellow WWE superstars would compete to the sound of silence in the Performance Centre.
But you didn’t have to go half the world away for such a stark juxtaposition. Moustache Mountain would lose their Fight Club: PRO tag team titles to young local young babyfaces Dan Moloney and Man Like Dereiss, in a fine match where the more established team put the rising stars over strong. They however leave the weekend still the OTT Tag Team Champions, due to the Coronavirus stopping them wrestle Irish fan favourites More Than Hype. This despite the fact that a flight from the English West Midlands to Dublin is barely more than an hour long. It’s just one example of the seemingly random effects to pro wrestling of the different decisions Governments around the world are making in the face of such a historic crisis.
President Trump Did What!?!
I was pre-recording an episode of the Deep Dive with Rich Fann when the news broke that President Trump had announced a ban on travel from the European Union to the United States, whilst explicitly excluding my own country, the United Kingdom. As officials scrambled to clarify what the President had said, it became clear that Britain was far from the only European country not included in the travel ban.
As explained by the Department for Homeland Security, the American Government was banning travel from the Schengen Area. Alongside the Euro, Schengen is the most visible sign of European integration to the average person. It is an agreement between 26 countries (several of which are actually members of the complimentary European Free Trade Area rather than the European Union), that people can travel without the passport checks you would normally expect when crossing international borders. I had direct personal experience of the Schengen Area whilst traveling to the Oberhausen for WXW’s 16 Carat Gold, as after arriving in France I managed to go to Belgium, Holland and Germany and back again without having my passport checked until I was once again at Anglo-French border control. Indeed on the way back, I was able to get to Holland from Germany without my train ticket being checked, let alone my passport!
The problem is that whilst most European countries are at a similarly early stage of the Coronavirus crisis as America, within the Schengen Area is Italy, which is currently the country worst affected by the virus outside of the South-East Asia and Iran. If you believe that banning travel from affected countries is an important tool to slow the spread of the disease (expert opinion differs on this point) then it would absolutely make sense to ban anyone who has been to Italy from entering the USA. However, the lack of border checks between Italy and its neighbours means that you cannot rule out that somebody who lives in, or has visited, one of the other 25 Schengen countries hasn’t made a recent trip to Italy. In the same way my passport will only tell the authorities I went to France on Thursday 6th March and re-entered the UK through France on Monday 9th March, despite having actually been to three other countries in the interim, a French person’s passport could not confirm nor deny whether they had been to Italy.
The impact of banning travel from the Schengen Area was immediate. WXW became the first promotion to cancel its Wrestlemania Weekend show, with it obviously proving impossible to present its 16 Carat Revenge show when its roster is banned from entering the USA. Less clear is it what it means for Cara Noir, Black Taraus, Bandido, Puma King and Daniel Makabe, none of whom are Americans but all of whom are scheduled to compete in America over the next few weeks, having wrestled in Germany as recently as the 8th March. According to President Trump’s executive order, non- Schengen Area nationals will also not be allowed into the USA if they have visited one of the 26 banned countries within the past fourteen days. There’s enough time to ensure all men can participate in Wrestlemania weekend should it somehow still exist, but not enough for Bandido or Puma King to be confident they can easily cross the Mexican border if they have dates for the remainder of the month. Likewise given that Taraus and Makabe both competed for Preston Championship Wrestling on Friday night, one hopes they have direct flights back to Mexico and Canada booked.
Its clearer what this all means for WXW’s erstwhile underboss and current NXT UK Champion, with the “Austrian Anomaly” surely being covered by an executive order that says citizens of Austria, anomalous or not, are banned from entering the USA. That is a problem for WWE as the recent NXT UK television tapings in Coventry heavily implied that Walter would defend his title against Finn Balor over Wrestlemania weekend. The only plausible workaround would be if they rushed Walter into the United States before the travel ban came into operation, as they seem to have done with Ilja Dragunov, who was apparently in Orlando despite having been scheduled to appear for Fight Club: PRO. However one struggles to imagine Walter agreeing to be away from his family for such a prolonged period, especially during a public health emergency.
Of course, pro wrestling in his planned opponent’s home country has already been directly affected by Coronavirus.
When Rich told me the initial reporting of President Trump’s new travel ban, it felt that for the second Wednesday in a row that I would learn a planned trip was being cancelled whilst on the air. That turned out not to be the case, as Ireland is not part of the Schengen Area due to a desire to maintain the longstanding Common Travel Area with the United Kingdom. Incidentally, the Common Travel Area is why even after Brexit, Irish pro wrestlers will continue to be able to work within the United Kingdom and vice versa.
As I suspected, that turned out to be a temporary stay of execution, with the Irish Taoiseach announcing that there should be no indoor gatherings of more than a hundred people as part of a series of measures that included the closure of all schools. OTT responded with admirable grace, immediately releasing a highly professional statement confirming that Scrappermania was cancelled, and promising that all tickets for that and the following day’s Hangover show would be quickly refunded. In an admirable example of efficiency and transparency, they have already processed the refunds for the smaller Hangover show whilst issuing a follow-up message explaining that refunds for the larger Scrappermania will follow next week.
Scrappermania was meant to be headlined by Jon Moxley’s first match in Europe since leaving WWE. He would instead donate €1000 to a Go Fund me campaign that was launched to mitigate the financial damage that cancelling their biggest event of the year will cause OTT. Elsewhere there has been a push to get fans to buy pro wrestlers’ merchandise or subscribe to VOD services to help mitigate the loss of income that performers across Ireland and Britain will suffer due to such a large event being cancelled at short notice. OTT will be making the previous year’s Scrappermania available for free, so that fans worldwide can participate in a watchalong on Saturday evening.
This frenzied damage limitation did throw into stark contrast the eerie calm the other side of Monaghan, let alone the Irish Sea.
On this week’s The Fix, Todd Martin queried sporting leagues going into lockdown when the Coronavirus crisis may have several months to go, and such extreme measures couldn’t be plausibly extended for that long. Little did Todd realise that the British Government had only hours before laid out a similar argument when explaining their novel strategy.
As explained by our Chief Medical Officer and Chief Scientific Advisor, the British Government does not believe it is desirable let alone possible to stop most people contracting coronavirus. Leaving to one side the reason they believe its not desirable, which is to do with complicated ideas surrounding herd immunity being needed to combat a second deadly wave of the disease which are above all of ours pay grade, the reason it is not possible is important. The British Government believes that the virus will not fade away until June or July, and may well come back when winter returns towards the end of the year. Therefore the goal should be protecting older and more vulnerable people for whom coronavirus may prove particularly harmful, placing them in a “protective cocoon” as the Chief Scientific Advisor told one British broadcaster.
The key way to do that is through the type of social distancing that other countries such as Ireland have already moved to. But the British Government’s experts believe that’s a mistake to go to those measures now, because people will tire of such severe restrictions just as this wave of the virus has hit its peak. In their eyes, countries that go into extreme lockdown are artificially limiting the number of cases in a way that will be more than undone the minute they relax the restraints. Therefore they want to prepare for a prolonged periods of social distancing in late-April/May/early-June when they feel it will have its most impact in protecting older and more vulnerable people.
Likewise, the British Government doesn’t feel banning mass gatherings helps stop the spread of the disease. The reason is that until the country goes into full lockdown people will respond to the cancellation of things such as sporting events by engaging in other activity i.e. going to the pub or visiting elderly relatives that are more problematic when it comes to the spread of the disease. The Government has explicitly said to sporting bodies that at this time it does not feel that sporting fixtures have to be postponed to delay the spread of the disease.
The cancellations that are going to be forced upon sporting bodies in the coming weeks are due to the very different issue of properly marshalling the resources of the National Health Service and other public services. Already Scotland has moved to ban gatherings of more than 500 which require emergency support due to its lower population density meaning that its public services are more thinly spread. The Pavilion Theatre announced on Twitter that despite the size of its crowd, it doesn’t require emergency support and so would proceed with Grado’s Big Family Wrestling Bash.
It is likely a similar approach will be taken when a similar ban on mass gatherings is introduced across the rest of the United Kingdom in the coming weeks, although the ban will most likely have a higher threshold than Scotland’s. Whilst this ban may come early enough to cancel UFC London (although I suspect they’ll let it go ahead with a crowd given the spare capacity already freed up by soccer matches having been cancelled across the capital), the British Government’s approach should mean that live pro wrestling continues across the United Kingdom at least until the crisis hits its peak in May. We already see the first signs of that, with British fans getting to not only see the aforementioned Grado but also major events in Blackpool, Preston, Brighton and Wolverhampton this weekend. However, larger and latter events such as April’s For The Love of Wrestling convention has already been cancelled, whilst one would assume that both Epic Encounter and particularly Super Strong Style 16 are in danger of cancellation.
What Comes Next?
To a certain extent that events such as indie wrestling are allowed to proceed in the UK is something of a curse rather than a blessing to British promoters, who until their told to cancel have no leeway to walk away from whatever financial commitments they’ve made when booking the shows. Instead they have to navigate the minefield that comes from hosting a pseudo-sporting event in the middle of a pandemic. At Fight Club: PRO the steps were clear, with the toilets having new signage reminding people to thoroughly wash hands after using the facilities. Likewise it was hard to escape the sense that the crowd was unusually subdued, no doubt perturbed by the knowledge that in other countries such as an event wouldn’t be allowed to proceed.
If, as seems likely, the British Government will not anytime soon step in to ban events as small as indie pro-wrestling shows then the big question will be how to stop an outbreak amongst the workforce. The Guardian Football Weekly’s Barry Glendenning sarcastically compared the decision to proceed with the prestigious Cheltenham horse races with the decision to cancel the same meet at the height of “Foot and Mouth” outbreak amongst animals in 2001. He noted that whilst the race owners were happy for fans to be infected, they had zero tolerance at the possibility happening to the livestock. That attitude has been clear in British sports approach to coronavirus, with cancellations of soccer and rugby matches coming because of concerns players were at an unreasonable risk of contracting the disease.
This raises the question as to what happens if a British indie pro wrestler contracts Coronavirus. At the very least they would be obliged to self-isolate for seven days, but best practice would suggest those they performed against or otherwise interacted with do the same. The problem of course is that despite promising a massive £18billion fiscal stimulus to handle the economic damage caused by the crisis, the British Government has not acceded to calls to make statutory sick pay available to the self-employed. Indeed the Government is seemingly suggesting that the self-employed go on benefits in this situation, having dropped the minimum income threshold to claim Universal Credit.
If an infected individual pro wrestler is placed into a horrible position, the position of promotions will be more fraught. My suspicion is that fans used to seeing larger sporting events, including WWE, go behind closed doors or be suspended, will expect similarly draconian responses, regardless of whether they’re requested by local authorities. Always ahead of the curve, Will Ospreay has partnered with WrestleTalk to host a non-fan show on Monday 16th March, with himself, Bea Priestly, David Starr, Kyle Fletcher, Michael Oku and Paul Robinson already announced. The proceeds of the event, and a special “Support Wrestling – Screw Coronavirus” t-shirt, will be shared amongst the workers and crew.
The irony of course is that at the moment, there’s nothing other than arranging the event on such short notice that is stopping Will Ospreay and Wrestle Talk from opening the doors for paying fans. Indeed, Revolution Pro Wrestling have capitalised on Will Ospreay not being able to wrestle for New Japan Pro Wrestling by booking a pop-up show at London’s Resistance Gallery for two weeks’ time.
Maybe at some point we will see independent promotions forced to run shows from their training schools rather than continuing to fly under the radar whilst running live events as normal. But then again, British pro wrestling has managed to fly under the radar of the mainstream authorities and media for decades. My suspicion is that as long as fans are still willing and able to attend, business will continue as normal for several weeks to come.