When I found out my hometown was hosting a House of Hardcore show I was so excited! Now I knew I wasn't getting deathmatches but the main event was Tommy Dreamer vs Sami Calihan so maybe a thumbtack spot at least right? Nothing. Not a drop of blood on the whole card. Of course there's nothing wrong with that inherently but house of Hardcore does sometimes do, and stay with me now, hardcore matches. The match was even no DQ and it worst that happened is Callihan bumped his noggin on a tree. I'm not some blood crazed fiend; if wrestlers don't want to bleed, don't bleed, but I was still confused as to why the whole show felt different from HoH. Turns out, it's probably because I live in Virginia. Wrestlers cannot bleed in Virginia without the entire match being stopped, as decided by the State Athletic Commission.
Most people have heard the title state athletic commission at least in passing, but what do they actually do? Pretty much every state in the United States of America either has an athletic commission, or a regulatory board that serves an identical function. They govern combat sports such as boxing, kickboxing, single discipline martial arts, mixed martial arts, and wrestling, at both an amateur and professional level. Now for all of those sports besides wrestling at the professional level I think the commision is fine. Combat sports are very dangerous so having clear, distinct rules is good. We can argue about whether those rules should be standard across the country, but in general, it makes sense. The problem arises with the fact that professional wrestling is, as some states describe it, "combat sports entertainment." Yes, I believe professional wrestling is a sport, absolutely, but due to its predetermined nature the rules should be a lot different. Imagine if every fine a wrestler paid in WWE for hitting the referee was real, now make it payable to the state, and there you see the problem. Thankfully, most states that do have athletic commissions cover professional wrestling have separate rules for them, and some states don't have any regulations from the commission at all. Then there's the old-timey states. The states where I can actually hear a carnival barker reading the rules. Rules that I’m sure Lou Thesz would have approved of, but wrestling isn’t the same as it was then.
As an example, here is subsection 2 of section 8 of the regulations from Maryland’s commission.
A. The promoter shall provide the Commission with a list of wrestlers scheduled to appear in a contest at least 21 days before the date of the wrestling contest.
B. Substitutions shall receive prior approval of the Commission.
C. A main event substitution shall be reported immediately to the Commission with an accompanying explanation for the substitution.
D. The wrestling card shall specify the number of falls required for each contest.
That is what I mean by carnival barker. In a sporting event where the rules actually matter this would make sense, but has anyone told them wrestling is predetermined? Rules make this make the commission sound like your old grandpa who still thinks Bruno would never lose. Ultimately though, it doesn’t matter if you have to write how many falls each match will have; it does matter however, that state athletic commissions severely limit wrestling in four major ways: deathmatch, travel, ring creativity, and intergender.
Let’s start with deathmatch as this is where people often hear about commissions getting involved. Many states that have athletic commissions over wrestling, like Virginia, do not allow any blood. Full stop, if someone bleeds the match is paused. Going back to the House of Hardcore show, even if Dreamer and Callihan wanted to do more, the state would not allow it. Some states, like Delaware, allow bleeding if the wrestlers have a blood test first. This does make sense, as if you have Hepatitis C you probably shouldn’t be bleeding on people. This could be made a national standard though, as if it’s good enough for some states, why is it not good enough for others? This is why you often see deathmatch wrestling in certain states such as Delaware, or states with no commission like Florida. I love a good deathmatch, but my car is not exactly in shape to get me to Florida. It makes zero sense that my favorite shows like No Peace Underground would be illegal in my State. Even if they didn’t do a single deathmatch, No Peace is a no ring company. Most of their shows don’t have a wrestling ring, which is illegal to do in Virginia. I understand the idea of wanting people to be safe, but letting states pick and choose what wrestling meets their standard of wholesomeness is nothing but grandstanding. What’s worse is states like Ohio, where every single “foreign object” introduced into the match must be approved by the commission. That reeks of favoritism from the get-go. If the Ohio athletic commission doesn’t like me or my company for literally any reason, be it just a disagreement, or something more sinister like racial, orientation or religious based prejudice, they can deny a spot that they let another company do. That leads me right into the second point: travel.
Beyond Wrestling is happy to tell you how bad the New York Athletic Commission is. I’ll let them take this one.
Things like this and needing individual weapon spots approved make it very difficult for indie companies to travel. But let’s say you want to run a safe, wholesome, family friendly Saturday afternoon show, you’d be fine right? Depends on the size of your ring. In some states you only need 14 foot long sides, but Virginia needs at least 16. You may not be able to travel simply due to the size of your ring. The days of territories have been over for decades. Yes, indie companies have a home audience, but due to streaming, on demand, and DVDs, people across the country may know about these local groups. Making it harder for them to go on interstate tours just keeps wrestling more divided, and encourages stagnation. The athletic commissions are basically saying, “don’t go anywhere, you have your little place, and you should be happy with that.” Not everyone can have the luxury of travel, so when a company comes closer to you it can be a real treat. We are in an era of connectedness we’ve never seen before in wrestling, unless you mean live events.
But let’s go back to ring size. Oklahoma is an example of a state that requires at least 14 foot sides. At first, I thought this meant they were looser on ring standards than Virginia. Looking closer though, Virginia also lists size requirements for six-sided rings. Oklahoma says the ring must be square. I feel like one of those dumb law of the day calendars, but six sided rings are legitimately illegal in Oklahoma. Regardless of your thoughts on six sided rings, I think we can all agree they shouldn’t be illegal. Between this and the aforementioned no ring style of matches, we see the problem that the athletic commissions limit ring creativity. While this certainly hurts deathmatch wrestling the most, everyone is limited by this. I’ve seen great no rope matches that were more Hoss Fight than hardcore, but again, illegal in some states. Companies like Beyond have the front row right there with no barricade, again, illegal in some states. Jumping across the pond, White Wolf Wrestling in Spain has fans smacking the mat on the apron. That is super illegal in pretty much any state whose commission covers wrestling. Some people will always be traditionalists, and think wrestling only needs four sides and three ropes, and that’s fine. That wrestling will never go away, but it doesn’t mean different, new ideas should be illegal. I want to see wrestling grow and change, and I’m tired of that only happening within rules made by state boards.
Finally, we come to intergender wrestling. As before, traditionalists are going to say we shouldn’t have intergender wrestling, but even then, should it really be illegal? Professional wrestling is predetermined. I don’t know how many times I have to say that but it seems the commissions still just haven’t got that through their heads. It’s one thing to complain that intergender wrestling doesn’t look believable, it’s a stupid argument that you believe in an undead wizard more than a woman fighting a man, but still, that argument is about optics. What the state of Maryland does, on the other hand, is incredibly outdated and frankly offensive. If you want to have intergender wrestling in Maryland, the competitors must be evaluated by experience and fitness by the commission. Now it says both competitors, but we all know that it’s the woman they are concerned about. Maryland has the ability to tell you it’s illegal for you to even be thought to be fighting a man. Intergender boxing is outside the scope of this article, but treating gender in wrestling like you do boxing, while acknowledging that wrestling is scripted unlike boxing, means you no longer care about safety, you’re a misogynist. Who the hell does the state of Maryland think they are that they can pick apart a woman’s career and body claiming its for her safety but a 150 lb man can fight a 400 lb man with no problem. Intergender wrestling is here to stay. Between companies like Beyond and Camp Leapfrog showing it on the indie scene, to even WWE having intergender matches, it’s everywhere. But if people can’t see it at their local live events, that will be a major hurdle in normalizing intergender wrestling. That doesn’t even get into when transgender or non-binary people want to wrestle. Until we break down archaic, gross rules like this, wrestling isn’t for everyone, it’s for who your state says it is.
So that’s a lot of strikes against athletic commissions, but enough states still have them for wrestling that it’s a problem. So what can be done? Well, it’s simple, petition. I’ve included a link to the petition I’ve started that can then be sent to states that still have athletic commissions overseeing professional wrestling. As this gains traction, send it to your district representatives and governors. This is the way change happens. In the wake of Wrestlemania 34 people petitioned Lousiana to end their oversight of professional wrestling, and that is the only way we can change things. Look into your state, see what rules they have, and get active on this issue. I see a world of limitless creative options in professional wrestling, but only when we get it through the thick heads behind these archaic rules that, and say it with me now, wrestling is predetermined.