A hundred years ago, when an elite few ran the wrestling business, physical retribution was considered the price you paid for playing the game. Highly trained “Hookers” would patrol locker rooms keeping people on board for a promoter to make sure they toed the line. Even twenty years ago, sexual assault of both male and female students was an expectation for a lot of trainees.
The price those people paid was far too high. Over the last few days, a few brave souls have aired their stories and their very valid concerns for their own and other’s safety. The industry needs to be made safer from the grassroots up. It is giving the industry a bad reputation and will cost professional wrestling, especially in the UK, in the long run.
A wrestling school is still a school. A place of learning, and these days with predominantly younger and younger trainees. A lot of whom are underage, but how many have Child Protection policies in place? Are all trainers, especially guests, given full extended DBS checks to work with young people? Most importantly, is there a culture of safeguarding in the school?
If you walk into any primary or secondary school, there is advice on every wall and door, the most important of which will be a sign just above the signing in book which will read “Don’t leave work with a worry about a child.” Who does anyone in a wrestling school report to? Safeguarding is more than just making sure a few “bad apples” don’t get past the system. It is about creating a safe working environment for students and staff. The safer people feel, the more likely they are to return to training, and the more likely they are to spread the word. This is a first stage in developing stronger ties with your community and developing good local business practice.
It does not stop with children though, because, by the nature of the business, adults are incredibly vulnerable too. I have heard a variation on this story from nearly every continent on earth. Sasha Banks related on the Steve Austin Show how she made her own breaks in the industry by requesting a WWE tryout by simply asking for one, against her training schools wishes. I know of wrestlers who couldn’t work outside their hometown for nearly a decade because the school controlled their bookings and which company they could work for. These practices need to stop.
Lance Armstrong’s camps lasted for three months, because why would they need to be longer? However as some schools are run, as the wrestling industry always has been, in a hierarchical manner. This means there is too much control in the hands of certain people, and the more control they have the more it becomes “tradition”. While that can be constructive in terms of respect and learning lessons, it can quite often lead on to straight-up abuse.
The Act Yasukawa incident is a prime example. For those of you who do not know, Act Yasukawa was a great talker with an individual character that was dragging Joshi into the 21st Century. She was also massively over with the Tokyo crowd. This did not sit well with Yoshiko, a veteran star of the Stardom roster. Yoshiko took matters into her own hands when Act came back from an eye injury at a TV taping at Korakuen Hall. What should have been a main event between the companies top young stars turned into a one-sided beating; Act was no shooter and Yoshiko had 40 kilos on her.
Act would be blinded, and never wrestled again, but the event was a catalyst. Nanae Takahashi left the company and the dojo was turned over to Io Shirai and Kairi Hojo (now Sane). Yoshiko retired. She would un-retire, but it meant she was gone from Stardom, and the bosses of the company took a pay cut and allowed a wrestler’s representative into the decision making process. Essentially, they created the first union in pro wrestling. All of that change helped catapult Stardom into the mainstream as it became a much less stressful and happier place to be.
This moment needs to become a movement. To open up the business by protecting its participants. If the industry wants to be taken seriously, it needs to offer proper apprenticeships that offer a total package of training on a core level with transferable life skills.
Thirty-two years ago the industry in the UK nearly died. In the early 2000s, promoters tried to legitimise the industry by trying to create standards, school training methods and a level of professionalism. It was work that was never fully adopted across the country, but it was the right approach. The reason was of course money.
This is expensive work, but the rewards can be great if it can be achieved. The maintenance of a regulated and safe working environment is not a lot to ask for men and women who put themselves in danger on a daily basis.