Editor’s Note: Wrestling with Regulation is a series covering the Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission’s regulation of professional wrestling and the strange intersection of state-regulation and one of the state’s most vibrant — and secretive — subcultures.
By Gary Joseph Wilson | PA Independent
HARRISBURG — On a hot July night inside the sweaty Irish Center of Pittsburgh, professional wrestler Peyton Graham comes to the ring wearing a gasmask and carrying a noose.
Graham promises destruction to all who cross his path, and performs his wrestling craft in front of a few hundred fans gathered in the heat to watch the spectacle. By the end of his segment, wrestler Chest Flexor is hanging in Graham’s noose until two fellow wrestlers enter the ring wielding steel chairs to fend off the attack.
Graham has just committed a felony assault on Flexor in front of more than 100 witnesses, but everyone is quick to forgive and forget things that happen in a wrestling ring.
That is, as long as the promoters pay their ticket tax to the Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission.
Although pro wrestling is a form of entertainment featuring predetermined outcomes, the pain, and often the blood, is very, very real. Perhaps it is for this reason the state feels a need to regulate it.
The Athletic Commission oversees boxing and mixed-martial arts bouts out of safety concerns, placing fighter health over financial gain. Two years ago, the commission pulled MMA fighter Nate Marquardt out of a scheduled Ultimate Fighting Championship main event after a doctor found elevated levels of testosterone in his blood.
But why is the commission concerned about staged wrestling matches?
“Most things the commissions do are because of money,” Rickey Shane Page, a 12-year veteran of professional wrestling told the PA Independent.
The Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission says there are abut 350 pro wrestling events each year in the state, more than anywhere else in the country.
The publicly traded World Wrestling Entertainment (formerly the World Wrestling Federation) is by far the largest promoter of wrestling, but it’s not the only one. The show in Pittsburgh was promoted by Vicious Outcast Wrestling, one of dozens of small wrestling promoters in the state.
No matter the size of the company, they are all governed by the state’s Wrestling Act.
The Wrestling Act portion of the state athletic code is a three-page document and very little of it actually concerns wrestler safety. The portion of the code governing boxing is more than six times as long.
The key provision of the Wrestling Act is the imposition of a 5-percent tax on the face value of all tickets sold to a wrestling performance, which is turned over to the Athletic Commission. The commission boasts on its website that is is financially self-sufficient, a fact made possible by the state’s strong pro wrestling culture.
Prior to the 1980s, the Athletic Commission played a much more active role in overseeing wrestling and had more power to protect the health of wrestlers. But Vince McMahon, owner of World Wrestling Entertainment, staged a multi-state campaign to get the government out of the professional wrestling ring.
Irv Muchnick, a journalist who frequently covers professional wrestling, told PA Independent that Pennsylvania was “ground zero” in the 1980s legal battle to deregulate pro wrestling.
Muchnick, in a 1988 Washington Monthly article, said a lobbying effort led by Rick Santorum — before Santorum entered politics and rose to become a two-term U.S. senator and presidential hopeful — successfully convinced the General Assembly to strip the Athletic Commission of most of its power to regulate professional wrestling.
After all, Santorum had argued, professional wrestling is not a sport and should not be treated as such.
The General Assembly agreed and granted his wish. Lawmakers eliminated most of the health restrictions on wrestling, but kept the ticket tax, maintaining a healthy stream of tax revenue. Many other states followed suit and eliminated regulation.
This has left wrestling in a weird legal gray area, where it’s regulated, but not really.
Greg Sirb, executive director of the Athletic Commission, said one of commissions’ main functions at wrestling events is to ensure all the wrestlers are at least 18 years old.
Unlike MMA and boxing, the commission does not license wrestlers, require physicals, or perform drug testing. And while the commission can stop a fighter for having another bout for at least a month after a knockout loss, or from fighting for up to two months for suffering a cut in a fight, it has no such power over wrestlers.
Yet fighters, boxers and wrestlers all risk concussions, strained ligaments and broken bones. And all are at risk for abusing steroids and painkillers.
Page, the wrestler, told PA Independent he had received numerous concussions while wrestling and once broke his foot. For wrestler Rob Strauss, who performs as Robbie E. for TNA Wrestling, the second largest wrestling promotion in the nation, his worst injury was a broken ankle.
Dave Meltzer, publisher of The Wrestling Observer and a sports journalist covering MMA, said although MMA is more dangerous for someone in the short-term, wrestling has greater long-term effects on a person’s body.
“Most guys that have done both say wrestling is more difficult,” Meltzer said, adding that wrestlers “always get really hurt” at some point in their career.
But even though the state treats pro wrestling as though it is not a sport, it taxes it as if it were. As a result, the wrestling industry is left holding the bill for implementing safety measures that apply to everyone but them.
So a wrestler is free to shrug off a concussion, glue his lacerated eyebrow closed and hobble on his broken foot back into the ring to earn more tax revenue for the Athletic Commission.
And according to Muchnick, that’s a scary thing.
“There are more Chris Benoits,” Muchnick said referring to the former WWE wrestler who killed his family and himself.
This story was updated at 10:20 a.m. on 7/23/13 to correct the spelling of former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum’s name in the 16th paragraph. It was also updated to correct the spelling of journalist Dave Meltzer’s name in the 25th paragraph.
NEXT: The only acts prohibited by the commission is the act of blading, where a wrestler cuts himself with a razorblade to create a theatrical flow of blood down his face.
Contact Gary Joseph Wilson at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @gjw34.