Earlier this year, the British wrestling industry was rocked by Speaking Out, a long-overdue movement which shone a light on hidden abuses, exploitation, and misogyny spanning all corners of British wrestling. As a largely unregulated, unchecked industry, wrestling has enjoyed a great deal of independence, but the dark side of that freedom has come sharply to the fore, and we can no longer simply turn a blind eye to it all.
The question now is twofold: what can be done to right the wrongs that have been brought to light? And how can we prevent these kinds of abuses from happening again?
It’s a question Labour MP Alex Davies-Jones asked herself, both as an MP and as a wrestling fan. In September, Davies-Jones – along with Conservative MP Mark Fletcher – launched an All-Party Parliamentary Group for British wrestling. The APPG are currently running an inquiry into British wrestling, focusing not only on Speaking Out and the issues emerging, but British wrestling in its entirety – from Brexit to Covid and beyond.
Laura Mauro had the opportunity to catch up with Alex Davies-Jones to talk about the APPG, the current enquiry, and the long-term aims the group hopes to achieve.
Can you tell me a little about how the All-Party Parliamentary Group came about?
“I’m an MP, and I’m in this hugely privileged position, and I asked myself, ‘Is there anything I can do to help the industry that I love?’. So we have All Party Parliamentary Groups (APPG) – there’s one for every sport, and for all sorts of other things like countries. I knew there were other wrestling fans in Parliament, so I thought, why don’t we set one up?
“I got talking to some of my Parliamentary colleagues across the House from different parties. We are the APPG for British wrestling, and the group’s aim is to support and promote British wrestling as best we can.
“We’ve launched an inquiry into British wrestling, which will touch on all aspects of the industry. We’re going to look at the Speaking Out movement, and we’re encouraging everybody to give evidence to this – you can do it anonymously, you can do it in person, however you want. We’ll be looking at everything from whether a regulatory body is needed, what sort of regulation and guidance the industry requires, and how best to support the industry moving forward, from COVID and beyond. If you’re involved in wrestling – if you’re a wrestler, if you’re a fan, if you’re a promoter, if you run a training school – we want to hear from you. We want to know your views.”
Does the nature of wrestling as a form of entertainment make it challenging to advocate for?
“Part of the problem is that wrestling is such a grey area. It’s not classed as a sport, and it’s not classed as performance. It’s in its own box. And because it’s been allowed to run independently in this way it’s fallen through the gaps, and problems have been allowed to grow and fester. There’s nobody watching it, there’s nobody to look after the talent, there’s nobody to monitor fans. By defining wrestling on an official level, we’ll be able to get support for the industry.
“We’ve met with the sports minister, who said that the way they’ve tackled this pandemic is by meeting with the regulatory bodies and organisational bodies of each individual sport, but also with industry bodies such as theatre. Because wrestling doesn’t have this, the industry doesn’t have a seat at the table.”
Is the general feeling that a regulatory body is needed?
“At this stage, the point of the inquiry is to find out what the people involved at the very heart of the industry want. I wouldn’t want to prejudge the situation and say that a regulatory body is exactly what’s required, but things do seem to be pointing in that direction. But we’ve already heard from promoters and wrestlers who don’t necessarily agree that a regulatory body is the best way to go. We’re really hoping to get this wide range of views so that we can take these forward for the best outcome.
“There are two parts to this. The first is, will the report show that a regulatory body is required? And the second point is, what does a theoretical regulatory body look like? What model could be followed? Do you set it up from scratch, or do you look to other sports and similar industries that already have these and try to replicate those models? Who would sit on a regulatory body? You’d want it to be truly independent, and so all these questions need to be explored.
“We know that this is going to be a huge piece of work for the group. The deadline to submit evidence is the 27th of November, and there’s an enormous amount of evidence to review. Ideally, we would like the report to be completed by early 2021, around January. And we owe it to everyone who has trusted us with their stories to do it justice, and to get the right outcomes, and to actually make things better. So I am feeling the weight of pressure on my shoulders.”
On one hand, it’s very heartening to see this work being done, and to see people speaking up on behalf of British wrestling. On the other, it feels a little sad that it’s taken such terrible stories to make it happen.
“It’s important to note that wrestling isn’t on its own here. We’ve seen devastating things in British gymnastics and cycling and the Me Too movement in the wider media. So I think it’s much more systemic than just wrestling. It’s important that we stamp out sexism and misogyny in all its forms throughout sport and throughout public life. But if it’s taken those people coming forward now for us to take a look at the situation and make it better for everybody, then that’s what we’re going to do. Because it’s not just sexism that’s been an issue.
“We’ve heard stories from wrestlers who’ve said that health and safety needs overhauling, that DBS checks should be introduced, that training schools need better regulation and support. And in order to nurture the new British talent – which is what we all want, ultimately – how best do we do this? How do we get the grassroots money to the people who are doing that work right at the coalface?”
Is this another challenge posed by the hybrid sport/entertainment nature of professional wrestling?
“Again, because wrestling slips through the net, it doesn’t qualify for financial support and funding. We’ve been speaking to Equity, the union body which represents performers, to see if they’d be interested in taking wrestlers on board too. We’ve also heard stories from wrestlers who are earning as little as £20 for 6 hours’ work, and that’s not acceptable either. If you’re doing a job, and you’re doing something you love, you should be paid fairly for that work. There’s also the need for support with regards to signing contracts – how do you know that what you’re signing is best for you?
“But it’s also about making sure that the money trickles down so that it’s not just kept at the big promotions – giving smaller promotions the support they need so they can continue to spot talent and to encourage young people to enter the industry.”
It’s very encouraging to hear that the APPG is so invested in the future of wrestling as well as the pressing issues currently at the centre of the inquiry.
“I think it’s important for us to celebrate our British talent much more. They should be given the status and prestige that other British sports stars and performers are given. We’ve got British wrestlers who are reaching the pinnacle of their careers, and we should absolutely be singing about them from the rafters. I’m a Welsh MP, and we’ve been doing a lot of media around the enquiry, and launching the APPG and whenever I do these interviews, I’m really keen to big up Tegan Nox and Mark Andrews and other Welsh wrestlers because it’s so important to celebrate their incredible achievements.
“When Joe Bloggs on the street hears about Gareth Bale as a Welsh footballer, or Geraint Thomas riding for Britain, they should also hear these names as well because they are equally as impressive and inspiring. And for young people in Wales, to use my own example, these are people they should know about, and they should be proud of. And now we have training schools where young people can learn how to wrestle safely.
“It’s been so inspiring in the last few years that women’s wrestling has been pushed to the forefront for great reasons. It used to be that you had to look a certain way and was perceived to be quite glamourous, to use that word carefully. But now it’s a lot more mainstream, and it’s being taken a lot more seriously. And it’s very empowering to see these women in such incredible positions, holding their own with the men.”
How can we as fans get involved with the inquiry?
“We are very clear that anyone who wants to submit evidence to us can – it’s not only about the Speaking Out movement, you don’t have to have been affected by it personally to submit evidence. That’s why we’ve made it a broad enquiry into the status of British wrestling. So if you’ve got any ideas or if you’ve got any thoughts on how the industry can best be supported going forward, we want to hear from you. You can do this as a fan, as anybody who’s interested in the industry – it’s your industry, and we want to hear your views.
“All the information can be found at www.alexdaviesjones.com, or you can email APPGwrestling@gmail.com, and we’ll send you all the information. There’s a setlist of standard questions we’re asking, but ultimately you can submit us anything.”
Are there plans to keep the APPG running after the current inquiry reaches its conclusion?
“The catalyst for creating the APPG was Speaking Out and the health and safety concerns, but in the long-term – after the inquiry is completed and, we hopefully resolve a lot of those issues – we want the group to continue so that we can keep supporting British wrestling. So if there’s an issue with, for example, venues, or encouraging young people to enter the industry and supporting them to do so. There’s also Brexit on the horizon – is that going to limit the ability to wrestle abroad, or promotions that tour across Europe? So all of these different things need to be looked at, and for as long as I’m an MP – along with my co-chair Mark Fletcher – this group will exist and hopefully thrive, and we will be there to support the industry.”