Sun, 13 Jun 2021

Why it's time the UK took wrestling seriously

The Conversation
07 May 2021, 00:43 GMT+10

British professional wrestling has its share of iconic figures, many of whom remain household names to this day, including Big Daddy, Adrian Street and Giant Haystacks. Mentioning these wrestling luminaries is almost a given in any discussion of British professional wrestling.

Although wildly popular among television audiences in the 1960s and 70s, lately British wrestling has been treated as something of an oddity or an anachronism. In the popular imagination, British wrestling has been considered the bleak, run-down antithesis to the "well groomed and slick" product of American companies like WWE.

Despite its dwindling popularity compared with its heyday, British professional wrestling has seen something of a resurgence over the last decade. Companies such as Revolution Pro Wrestling, EVE - Riot Grrrls of Wrestling, and Wrestling Resurgence have showcased the best of homegrown and international wrestling talent, putting on dynamic, exciting performances that have celebrated progressive politics and diversity.

British wrestling's revival is not limited to critical acclaim alone. In 2018, Progress Wrestling put on the biggest wrestling show England has seen in 30 years at Wembley Arena. And in 2016, Insane Championship Wrestling hosted over 6,000 attendees at the Glasgow SEC Centre, the biggest wrestling event held in Europe since the early 1980s. Global market leader WWE recognised the commercial value of British wrestling, in 2016 establishing their own wrestling brand exclusive to the UK.

Acknowledgement of the commercial success of British wrestling has come in the form of an all-party parliamentary group (APPG) on wrestling. The APPG recently published a report on the preliminary results of an inquiry into the status of the industry, its cultural and economic contributions to Britain, and the impact of the pandemic.

While the report found that there are significant areas where Britain could be considered a global leader (especially considering the international success of British wrestlers in recent years), it showed that the industry is suffering because regulation is lacking. During a recent parliamentary debate on the issue, Conservative MP Mark Fletcher noted that although "wrestling does an awful lot of good", there are major prevailing issues.

#SpeakingOut

It's clear that there's a toxic culture within wrestling. Widespread awareness of this stems from the #SpeakingOut movement, wrestling's equivalent of #MeToo. In the summer of 2020, allegations were put forward via social media alleging numerous cases of emotional, physical and sexual abuse within the industry, with alleged perpetrators including wrestlers, promoters, crew and journalists. The #SpeakingOut social movement became a way for victims of abuse to share their stories and raise awareness about rampant abuse within the wrestling industry at large.

This culture of misconduct has been aided by a lack of regulation, which has in part arisen because of widespread unease in categorising wrestling as anything but a low-brow form of entertainment. Though wrestling requires athleticism and is performed by professionally trained people, its sporting credentials are undermined by the predetermined, non-competitive nature of the spectacle.

From as early as the 1920s, wrestling evolved as a result of a desire to entertain audiences. However, the guarded nature of wrestlers and promoters meant that the fictional aspects of wrestling were concealed from fans. This fiction came to be known as "kayfabe". Derived from carnival speak, maintaining kayfabe requires wrestlers to uphold the fiction of the competitive nature of the sport, adhere to storylines, and portray their professional persona as "genuine".

Fans were happy to participate in this shared fiction. Through cheering heroes and booing villains, fans also actively help to construct kayfabe. Despite this, debates over wrestling's true nature continue. In the 1980s, to evade US state regulation, WWE declared that wrestling was not a sport. Without a similar watershed moment in the British industry, the debate over wrestling's legitimacy has been allowed to continue. Falling somewhere between sport and theatre - but not quite either - regulation for wrestling has not been forthcoming.

Reviving British wrestling

The APPG report represents the first attempt to address these issues in a meaningful way. One of the recommendations is to resolve the question of what wrestling is, with the suggestion that wrestling training schools should be considered "sporting", and that wrestling performances should be considered "theatrical". Though it sounds like a surface organisational distinction, in practice it would allow for better governmental support, a common approach to standards, and the development of greater avenues of success for performers and promoters alike. The report also considers the need for safeguarding protocols to combat abuse, robust health and safety guidelines, and more stable employment.

Though it's still in the early stages, the government's intervention is much needed and has largely been welcomed by the wrestling industry and its fans. The APPG report and recommendations have provided hope that this "peculiarly and particular British leisure pursuit" might finally be given a degree of legitimacy; allowing the late Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks to be respected once more and for the contemporary industry to be recognised as a significant contributor to Britain's cultural output.

Author: Tom Phillips - Lecturer in Humanities, University of East Anglia The Conversation

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