You obviously know by now that the coronavirus pandemic has shut down sports across the globe. All of the major stick and ball leagues in North America have effectively canceled their seasons due to the public gathering limitations and obviously for the safety of the athletes. The Olympics have been pushed back a year as well. The world is a strange and surreal place right now, where the great majority of us are sitting at home, trying to find things to do.
But there are three men that are doing their best to provide entertainment for the masses, even in these troubled times. One is UFC president Dana White, who is still stubbornly trying to run UFC 249 in just 15 days. He currently has no main event, with lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov trapped in Russia. He currently has no venue for the show as well. It seems all but dead to rights at this rate. Still, Dana won’t quit.
White is not the only one trying to keep the show going though. There are two other promoters out there that have been continuing to run events and put out TV shows, despite the public gathering limitations and the recommendations for everyone to stay home. Those two men are Vince McMahon and Tony Khan.
The first name you probably recognize - Mr. McMahon is the the owner of World Wrestling Entertainment, better known as WWE. Tony Khan’s name might not ring a bell to most but he is in the same business, working as the CEO of All Elite Wrestling, WWE’s closest current competitor.
You might not think wrestling is a real sport, and you would be correct. But there have always been a lot of parallels between mixed martial arts and pro wrestling, and those similarities are clearer than ever in the face of this pandemic. The UFC, WWE, and AEW are going about it in different ways, but all of them are playing a potentially perilous game by continuing on when common sense and government regulations should have completely shut them down long ago.
AEW, for their part, has stuck to regulations in Florida, and then Georgia, and ended up pre-taping at least six weeks worth of television shows before stay at home orders were issued in jurisdictions where they had been filming, right up until yesterday. It’s definitely not the safest of ideas, but there have been no reports of corona-related incidents with wrestlers or anything of the sort on their end of things.
If you thought Dana was crazy when it comes to his dogged determination to run UFC 249 though, you’ll definitely shake your head at what WWE has done.
It’s WrestleMania season. The biggest event of the year for WWE was scheduled to go down this weekend. Normally they sell out football stadiums, make tens of millions of dollars, and spread a bit of the wealth to the sports entertainers that get in the squared circle to put on a show. But obviously things are different right now, and like the Olympics, you would assume that WrestleMania would be postponed.
That assumption would be wrong.
For reasons that very few understand, WWE has put their wrestlers in harms way by initially continuing to run televised events at their Performance Center in Orlando, Florida. Three shows a week - Raw, Smackdown, and NXT. Florida was one of the only states whose governor chose not to issue a stay at home order early on, leaving it up to individual cities and counties. Orange County initially didn’t issue one either. So WWE continued to film shows in Orlando without a crowd, setting up WrestleMania. They obviously can’t run a stadium right now, so WWE decided that they would stage The Showcase of the Immortals live in the same PC, with no fans in attendance, on April 5th. That will reportedly cost McMahon approximately 22 million dollars in revenue.
They had approximately 36 hours at the time before the county order kicked in, so they filmed as many matches as they could for the big show before they were shut down. WrestleMania 36 will be going forward as a two-day pre-taped show this Saturday and Sunday, airing on the WWE Network and Fite TV (and you can watch a stream right here on Bloody Elbow).
Unfortunately though, this whole situation has been awful for the wrestlers working for WWE.
First off, a few of these wrestlers have been quarantined due to COVID-19 fears. That’s right - men and women that had been in the ring, grappling in close quarters with multiple co-workers, were quarantined and pulled from WrestleMania. Not just one wrestler. At least four - Bobby Lashley, Rey Mysterio, Mike “The Miz” Mizanin, and Dana Brooke - are off the show. In the case of The Miz, Dave Meltzer reported on his Wrestling Observer radio show that he worked an empty arena match two weeks ago while reportedly sick, though it hasn’t been confirmed that he had or has symptoms related to coronavirus.
Then there’s the issue of pay. Traditionally, everyone on the WrestleMania card gets a monetary bonus for their work at the event. Although the numbers have never been reliably reported on, it is believed that they can receive checks from around mid-four figures for wrestlers low on the card, to bonuses into the seven figure range for headliners. But despite the fact that these independent contractors are risking their health and safety by continuing to work, most wrestlers are reportedly (according to Tom Colohue of Sportskeeda) not receiving a single penny over their downside guarantee (the minimum amount they would make for working any regular event, big or small) for WrestleMania 36. This is obviously due to the lack of gate revenue, but it is ridiculous that they’ll make the same amount for the biggest show of the year as they would for a spot show in Roanoke or Boise.
There are also some wrestlers that are apparently getting paid nothing for the show. Meltzer reported that a few guys, such as Braun Strowman, have already hit their yearly downside guarantee and aren’t making any money at all right now.
So, why would WWE go forward with this? It seems extraordinarily reckless. Well, it’s because a single individual is demanding that the show goes on. I think you can guess who that person is, and Mike Johnson of PWInsider has basically verified it (transcribed by WrestlingNews):
“I can confirm after speaking to dozens of people in the company. I’m talking wrestlers, behind the scenes people, whatever, there is only one person who felt that they should have went forward with WrestleMania and that’s why they’re going forward with WrestleMania - and that’s Vince.”
Why would wrestlers choose to work the show though? They’re independent contractors, right? They can refuse to perform if they chose to, correct? Well, wrestling is a lot like MMA in the fact that, if you don’t step up, someone else will take your spot. WWE’s reported position (via Meltzer) is that wrestlers don’t have to work if they don’t want to and it won’t be held against them if they don’t. But realistically, wrestlers know that they could be risking their jobs by refusing. A few are taking their chances and have told the promotion that they weren’t showing up. But for the vast majority, they’re effectively compelled to take part.
There is one top star that pulled out for very understandable reasons, and that is Roman Reigns. Reigns, real name Joe Anoa’i, underwent treatment for leukemia in the last two years and is immunocompromised. Reportedly (again via Meltzer), when The Miz worked a taping despite being sick (which flies in the face of WWE’s publicized guidelines), Roman removed himself from his WrestleMania match due to safety concerns. And rightfully so.
The fact that this became necessary at all for Reigns is extraordinarily careless on WWE’s part.
When you take all of the above into account, it begs one obvious question - what is ANYONE gaining from all of this? Having everything pre-taped will inevitably lead to spoilers, which will lower interest in watching the event. There’s no money to be made for WWE with no fans in attendance. Most of the wrestlers are effectively being obligated to work, risking the well-being of themselves and their families, for relative peanuts or nothing at all. And unless they filmed a boatload of other matches, WWE won’t have much in the way of television programming going forward following the show anyway.
It seems like madness for Vince McMahon to demand that the show go on, no matter what. Just like it seems crazy that Dana White is still so obsessed with running UFC 249, against all recommendations and concerns. Rather than encouraging their contractors to stay safe, they are choosing to put them in harms way with no appreciable reward for anyone involved. It’s misguided, dangerous, and totally pointless. As fans, we should be taking Vince and Dana to task for their idiocy in this regard. Unfortunately, like the people that work under the umbrellas of these two overlords, there isn’t much that anyone can do about it.