In the 1990s professional wrestling stopped being considered a ‘sport’ by most people inside and outside the industry. Instead, it was labelled ‘sports-entertainment’ — a fitting title since ‘kayfabe’ (the secrets behind how wrestling works) had long been broken by WWE Owner Vincent K. McMahon and wrestling events in North America had predominantly become more spectacle and showmanship-oriented. With the changing trends in pro wrestling, many state commissions in the United States either stopped regulating wrestling, or loosened regulations because of the greater emphasis on entertainment.
In Canada, the Manitoba Commission stopped regulating wrestling in 1996, and recent reports have suggested that the Vancouver Athletic Commission is considering withdrawing from regulating wrestling. Still, there are a number of commissions across the country that continue to regulate professional wrestling. Perhaps the one most in question is the Ontario Athletic Commission.
The OAC has been under fire since bringing an old regulation to the forefront, which although hadn’t been enforced until March 2002, had always been part of the OAC’s Athletic Acts. The regulation in question stipulates that under regulation 52, part 4, line 85 of the Athletics Acts, “No person shall hold a professional contest or exhibition of wrestling where male and female wrestlers are in the ring at the same time.”
According to Quebec-based Indy wrestler, Precious Lucy, who has built a strong reputation as a female who can ‘go’ with the males over the last 5-1/2 years, the OAC only started enforcing the regulation after a rival promoter called to complain about a hardcore inter-gender match she was scheduled to participate in for the now-defunct PWE in Ontario.
Lucy recalls her reaction when she was informed of the regulation. “I really thought it was a joke,” she told SLAM! Wrestling. “This is wrestling. I’ve been performing against guys for 5-1/2 years and never got hurt.”
Lucy continued, “The regulation itself is discriminatory. I can’t perform with the workers of my choice in an entertainment business.” The ban of inter-gender matches in Ontario, Lucy claims, has affected her earning capacities as prior to the enforcement of the regulation she was wrestling “at least twice a month in Ontario,” whereas today she’s wrestling “anywhere but Ontario.”
OAC Commissioner, Ken Hayashi, explained the reasoning behind the regulation in a recent phone interview with SLAM! Wrestling. “The whole context of it is, it is mainly there to protect. Men will wrestle the men, women will wrestle the women. It’s pretty straightforward. It also applies to the boxing,” he said.
Hayashi though, admits that despite the regulation, inter-gender matches are likely still taking place in Ontario. “It’s like speeding. Somebody might be speeding, but you can’t catch everybody,” he stated. “It’s not something that they should be doing. The wrestling, because of it being all pre-arranged and stuff, we don’t regulate it with an iron fist.”
Elmira The Iron Maiden, a wrestler for Big Time Pro Wrestling and CIWA in Canada, says she didn’t take the regulation seriously when she was initially told about it. “I thought it was a joke [when I was first told] because I was scheduled to wrestle a guy the following week. I did the match, and then my friend informed me that it was serious.”
Not surprisingly, Elmira is upset with the regulation and believes that wrestlers should have a choice of whom they wrestle and don’t wrestle, regardless of gender. “I’m not saying that a woman should be in the ring getting beat up by a man four times her size. I’m saying [male] wrestlers should have the right to choose whether or not they wrestle a woman,” she said. “It’s a personal decision and the OAC shouldn’t be tarring wrestling with the same brush as boxing.”
Marty Goldstein, a highly-regarded investigative researcher and head of Broad Range Alternative Talent (BRAT), has worked in the wrestling business in almost every capacity (producer, wrestler, referee, event consultant, agent, researcher) for over 20 years and believes the OAC is incorrect in classing wrestling in the same group as boxing. “Boxing is shoot,” Goldstein said. “To impute the logic of boxing where inter-gender bouts are to my knowledge not legal, with what goes on in wrestling, well it is ridiculous.”
Well-known Canadian wrestler, Notorious T.I.D. (Chris Tidwell), who has been working in Ontario for six years, is in agreement with the opinions of Lucy, Elmira, and Goldstein. “I really don’t think that gender should have any bearing on a performer’s ability to go out in front of a crowd and perform,” he told SLAM! Wrestling. “I think it’s more a matter of having properly trained performers in the ring.”
Tidwell also sees the changing face of pro wrestling as a reason to support inter-gender matches in the business. “I don’t know if anybody has noticed or not but pro wrestling is more of a show and not so much of a real sporting event like say baseball or football. Women have been heroines in movies and other forms of theatre for years so why not add pro wrestling to that list of theatre?”
Scott D’Amore, owner and promoter of Ontario-based Border City Wrestling (BCW), echoes a similar attitude towards the OAC’s ruling. “The rule book in Ontario is archaic,” he said. “You would lose your (promoting) license for eye-gouging or for choking, and I mean the use of a foreign object is prohibited — it’s a wrestling rule book which I didn’t know existed, or at least not in a lot of years, and it really needs to be thrown out.”
Despite his feelings towards the Ontario rule book, D’Amore believes Ken Hayashi is a decent and respectable Commissioner. “Ken Hayashi is actually a very fair and very good athletic commissioner, and I’m not just saying that because I have to deal with him on a monthly basis,” said D’Amore. “Honest to God, he is a guy that if you deal with him he’s a very good guy for a smaller independent promotion to work with because he’s understanding and he’s willing to work with you.” D’Amore further explained, “Ken is handcuffed by archaic regulations, and that’s really the problem.”
An inherent problem is the inconsistency in the enforcement of it. According to Lucy, whenever WWE are in Ontario there are “double-standards.” She poses the question, “How come the WWE is allowed to have inter-gender matches [in Ontario] … and I can’t be part of any events with the same kind of ‘gimmick’?” Hayashi answered her question.
“When you get organizations like the WWE that the people are all well-trained, you’ve got paramedics and doctors right there, and everybody knows it’s a skit, basically, so it’s a little bit different,” he told SLAM! Wrestling. “But you get these small-time promoters. You just don’t know what they’re going to do. Everybody copies what the big people are doing, what the bigger organizations are doing. People can get hurt because they don’t have the training or the know-how and the proper stuntmen training them.”
The question must be raised though, based on the above statements made by Hayashi, is there any evidence stipulating that the dangers are increased when inter-gender matches take place on the Canadian Independent scene? “Is it more dangerous,” said the Commissioner. “I really don’t know. If it was boxing, absolutely… I think it’s (the regulation) there to protect. You have some promoters that may take it one step too far.”
Hayashi outlined a hypothetical situation in which he would potentially class as a promoter going ‘too far’. “You get a 250-pound man, some promoter all of a sudden has a 130-pound female wrestler, and he decides to put them in the ring,” he stated. “He may not have the experience, then she gets hurt. Then you’re showing violence against women, which could create a problem.”
Tidwell agrees with the first fragment of Hayashi’s comments. “I…think you have to factor in the ‘believability factor’. Is it possible for a 125-pound female to really bodyslam a 300-pound man?,” the 6-foot-4, 270-pounder said.
The Commissioner also said that while the regulation is in place, if promoters decide not to adhere to the policy then in any instance where someone is injured while participating in an inter-gender match in Ontario, the promoter will fully be “held responsible.”
At the moment a number of actions are underway to possibly overturn the regulation. Last month, Precious Lucy filed a complaint with the Ontario Human Rights Commission about the issue and is still awaiting their decision. “If the OHRC accepts the complaint, I already passed step one, the next step is mediation [with OAC members],” she revealed to SLAM! Wrestling. “If this doesn’t work, I’ll have to find another way because the regulation has to go.”
Elmira has also taken action in recent weeks, via a petition. She says that if her petition is unsuccessful, then she’ll proceed to “take the matter to a higher level.”
Tidwell too feels that if enough pressure is put on the Ontario Athletic Commission, they will be forced to reconsider their stance. “I think that if any issue is given enough press and limelight it will force the OAC or someone in an opposing Government position to take notice and possibly make those changes,” he said.
Hayashi suggests though, that the regulation is “a very difficult thing to amend” and the overturning of it would be outside his jurisdiction. “That wouldn’t be up to me,” he stated. “If the wrestling promoters wanted to lobby Government and see about getting it changed, then they’ll be asking, ‘why are women wrestling against men?’ … it never ends.”
However, Goldstein strongly disagrees with Hayashi. “The actions of the OAC would be laughable except they are costing Canadians jobs and opportunity, and fail any real test against the supreme court judgments and human rights rulings.”
He continues, “In a political campaign to lobby public support and determine the true public interest, the OAC and any boxing commission body would lose. Wrestling is a work … it being based on gender (without physical testing to create reasons for a different class), would get blown out in court. I would predict damages in that circumstance as well.”
Goldstein remembers a similar situation with the then Manitoba Boxing and Wrestling Commission in 1995. “When the Manitoba Commission proposed this gender rule, as well as many other idiotic ones, I strongly suggested that copying the Ontario handbook was unwise, as that would have been the first rule that would be challenged [by me], and they had no taste for further humiliation after what I had already put them through.”
Indeed, Goldstein is a knowledgeable man on the issue. In 1996 his investigative work was instrumental in the “arbitrary move to wrestling deregulation” in Manitoba, and as recent as April 2003 he was partly responsible for the abolition of Commission oversight of the wrestling industry in Oregon.
“If anyone wants a study or lobbying done on the issues of regulation of pro wrestling,” said Goldstein, “stop hiring lawyers and hire my firm.” He proceeded to explain why hiring BRAT would be a wise decision.
“We are the only group besides Vince McMahon to get rid of two commissions and our expertise and ability to work with government on necessary regulation is unmatched. However, you should be aware that WWE either supports or opposes commissions depending on whether they can make more money with or without one.”
Another problem Ontario promoters have been facing lately is rising insurance costs, which has Commissioner Hayashi “a little concerned.” The Commissioner explained that following an injury in a wrestling match in Winnipeg, Manitoba, a claim was made against an insurance company and as a result insurance costs have skyrocketed across the country. Hayashi uses the rise in insurance as an example to support the regulations the OAC has in check. “That’s what happens with these promoters. They get carried away, somebody gets hurt and all of a sudden there’s a claim and the insurance companies just say ‘we’re not going to touch it.'”
The immediate future for the Ontario Independent wrestling scene looks bleak. Goldstein sees a future, provided some amendments are made.
“In the right environment,” said Goldstein, “the Indy wrestling industry can still be profitable if run in a way that does not necessitate or invite Government intrusion, or allow the perpetuation of the boxing establishment being underwritten by a completely different, non-combative art form.”
— with files from Greg Oliver