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MPs say wrestling is a sport in training schools – but shows are theatre

MPs have settled a debate that has run at least since Big Daddy body-slammed Giant Haystacks in front of a TV audience of millions in the 1980s.

An all-party parliamentary group on wrestling has determined that the professional pursuit in Britain should be classified as a sport within its training schools and as theatre or entertainment once the show begins.

The adjudication in a 103-page parliamentary report into the state of wrestling is more than an attempt to resolve a moot point. The MPs hope it will tackle serious problems in the industry which they heard included “hyper-masculine, homophobic and sexist” promoters, “fundamentally exploitative” working practices and a “toxic” culture.

British wrestling has been on the rise in recent years after a period in the doldrums when it was dropped from the TV schedules in 1985. Training schools, with names like House of Pain and Knucklelocks, have produced homegrown stars including Scotland’s Drew McIntyre and Tegan Nox from Wales, who have been signed to the WWE – the US wrestling promotion giant, which has also an outpost in the UK.

Audiences have been growing steadily in areas such as south Wales, Newcastle, London and Birmingham. One promoter in the capital – putting on freewheeling US-style shows – was attracting around 700 people to monthly shows before the pandemic.

But what some term a “performance sport” and others a “contact art” has been largely unregulated and the report identifies concerns about sexual abuse and misconduct, wrestlers being paid less than the minimum wage, an absence of concussion protocols and dangerous practices such as “blading” by wrestlers to create drama with real blood.

The MPs now want ministers to classify wrestling training as a sport so safeguarding concerns can be handled through existing disputes processes operated under the auspices of Sport England and its equivalent bodies in the other UK nations. It would mean, for example that wrestling schools would have to ensure criminal record checks for coaches, which are currently not required. It would also mean wrestling could access government support, needed now during the pandemic, which it is currently denied by Sport England and the Arts Council.

Last summer, wrestling had its own MeToo movement, known as Speaking Out, and one of its co-founders, the retired wrestler Sierra Loxton, told the committee “there were no rules, no one was in charge, people were groomed, abused and then ‘gaslighted’ or victimised”. She said it wasn’t just at wrestling shows where problems occurred but also at post-show events and after parties.

“I was floored by some of the harrowing firsthand evidence we heard from women, men and children: how they were treated in terms of pay and conditions; a lack of concussion protocols,” said Labour’s Alex Davies-Jones who led the committee.

“In wrestling there has been a culture of toxic masculinity. There have been claims of rape. We have evidence of people as young as 13 being sexually assaulted by older wrestlers, female wrestlers being told they will have to sleep their way to the top. We encouraged anyone who spoke out about abuse to go to the police.”

One witness, herself a victim of alleged sexual assault, told the MPs she “witnessed and was subject to instances and a culture of sexism, misogyny, bullying, abuse of power and an overly sexualised atmosphere towards women in general”.

One promoter, Progress Wrestling, said it welcomed the report.

“The root of all the problems is the lack of a regulation body from the schools to the promotions,” a spokesman said. “It is only the start, but it has to be welcomed because regulatory change is required.”

The MPs’ verdict that the shows amount to theatre is unlikely to upset many in the industry. The MPs were told by ring announcers, crew and fans “in no uncertain terms” that it was showbusiness with one witness saying that to think of it as a sport is “insulting to actual sportsmen”.

As another witness put it: “Wrestling is a form of theatre that demands the same amount of respect and discipline as sport, that can be as spontaneous as improv comedy or be as planned and choreographed as a West End musical.”

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