It’s a balmy April afternoon in the midst of a plague year, and the self-proclaimed “Bernie Sanders of Professional Wrestling” is on the phone explaining to me the similarities between wrestling’s WWE and hard rock’s most maligned punchline.
“Everybody knows Nickelback; there are people that love Nickelback, there’s people that hate Nickelback, but at the end of the day, we all know the lyrics to ‘How You Remind Me,’” David Starr tells me, a trace of his native Philly ‘burbs creeping back into his voice as he commits to the example. “That’s how it is. Everyone groans when Nickelback comes on, but we all just wanna be big rockstars.”
It’s that very desire to win that fuels so many people to don the tights, hit the ring, and reach for stardom, even if the world is burning around them and, as independent contractors, their benefits package is nonexistent. To become a WWE Superstar is to achieve immortality, and some are willing to sacrifice everything to get there. Others, like Starr, hope to build their legacy elsewhere. Our man is no ordinary professional wrestler, and these are no ordinary times. Several days before our interview, the WWE unexpectedly furloughed or laid off 100s of its employees—from big-name superstars to backstage production staffers—in the midst of a global pandemic. Some wrestlers cut from their contracts say they were given only 30 days of full pay. Meanwhile their now-former coworkers are still performing as the WWE is classified as an “essential service.”
“All these people had what they thought was a stable job, sitting there like, ‘Yo, I’m a signed wrestler, it might suck that I’m wrestling still because my boss is evil and making me come into work, but at least I’m getting paid,’” Starr, né Max Barsky, says. “You’re talking about people who have families, who just had children, people who were brand new at the company, people that had been there for thirty years, that’s who got fired.”
Deonna Purrazzo, who had been signed to the WWE’s NXT brand since 2018, was one of the 21 wrestlers who were released from their contracts on April 15. As she tells it, they initially found out via text message.
“All WWE employees got a text from Talent Relations to sign into the company wide app and watch a video from Vince McMahon,” she told me via email. “He explained how there would be cutbacks and furloughs and immediately after that, it started happening. I don’t think anyone realized how massive it would be until everyone logged into Twitter, and it was just name after name of people being let go.”
Less than a week prior, a pro-Trump super PAC run by Linda McMahon had sunk $18.5 million to run campaign ads in select Florida markets on the exact same day that Governor Ron DeSantis announced that the WWE had won a coveted “essential service” classification and could continue live taping. All the while, the coronavirus continued its death march through the Sunshine State, and WWE wrestlers were reporting for work in front of empty audiences. “It’s insane,” Starr says. “They shouldn’t be subjecting these people to it. They just had WrestleMania in an empty arena.”
At an Orange County Board of County Commissioners meeting this week, an anonymous person claiming to be a WWE employee submitted a public comment alleging that they and their coworkers are being “forced” to work the TV tapings for its weekly broadcasts, despite the state’s ongoing stay at home orders. “Despite sanitary precautions, we cannot maintain social distancing and have to touch other people,” they said in their statement. “I request the government to shut down these tapings and enforce the stay-at-home order so my colleagues and I may follow social distancing rules without fear or repercussion of losing our jobs.”
In a response to the allegations, WWE told Bleacher Report that “these accusations aren’t true. Employees know they can confidentially go to Human Resources, not the public. Notwithstanding the appropriate protocol, no one would be fired if they were uncomfortable with their surroundings. We’ve made accommodations for individuals upon request.”
The WWE maintains that it is “following appropriate guidelines while taking additional precautions to ensure the health and wellness of our performers and staff.” But its employees and performers are being forced to make tough decisions—and face unemployment—despite the WWE, a publicly traded company, having $500 million in reserves.
Esquire also reached out for comment, but as of press time, has yet to receive a response.
“We were told that it was optional to work and if we weren’t comfortable, it wouldn’t be held against us when normalcy returned,” Purrazzo said of the coronavirus expectations before she was cut on April 15. “True or not, I did feel as though it was presumptuous to ask someone to make that decision in times like these.”
Purrazzo, who most recently wrestled against Nia Jax in an April 6th RAW matchup, says that the company did seem to be taking basic measures to keep talent safe, and ramped up its efforts as the pandemic intensified. She joked that, as an independent wrestler, wrestling in front of an empty room was “nothing new,” and said that she still felt she was able to “turn it on” for her invisible crowds. But despite the precautions taken, the risks remain—and the shows have gone on, whether or not the wrestlers are happy about it.
As major sporting events around the world have been cancelled and other television productions have been either halted or moved into isolation (even the SNL cast is working from home), corporate wrestling bosses stand alone in continuing to have employees show up for events. The WWE is also one of the first major entertainment companies to announce mass layoffs, while many other workers across the industry have been furloughed or remain on the payroll. The McMahons’ cozy ties to the notoriously anti-labor Trump administration may also offer a clue as to their views on workers’ rights; Linda McMahon spent two years as the head of the Small Business Administration before leaving to work toward Trump’s re-election, and Vince has been drafted into Trump’s scattered efforts to re-open the U.S. economy.
In a press release, the WWE estimated that the April 15 “headcount reduction” would save the company about $4 million per month. For context, CEO Vince McMahon is currently worth about $2 billion, and in 2019, the WWE brought in over $960 million in revenue.
Before the coronavirus crisis derailed live events and disrupted Starr’s schedule for the foreseeable future, the 29-year-old socialist was wrestling all over Europe and sitting pretty as one of the scene’s highest-paid performers in between studying Marxist economic theory and paging through the latest issue of Jacobin. The WWE’s habit of snatching up indie talent to add to their NXT roster means that many of Starr’s contemporaries are also now working under the brand’s banner, and logic would dictate that his time to move up to the big leagues was nigh. Starr himself was in informal talks with the network for several years, beginning with a 2014 tryout—and ending abruptly in 2019 when he hijacked the microphone on a WWNLive stream to blast the WWE for its failure to provide its wrestlers with health insurance.
An ardent supporter of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign (he even canvassed for the candidate during the primaries) and card-carrying member of the Democratic Socialists of America, Starr has made it his mission to unionize pro wrestling. As he says, the WWE’s workers currently have no seat at the table, which is why they’re constantly getting ripped off. While their counterparts in major sports and television enjoy benefits, pensions, and stability thanks to rock-solid union contracts, the independent contractors of the WWE are out there without a safety net. “Other major sports across the board, most of them have unions, and the revenue split towards what goes to paying athletes tends to be about 50 percent of the revenue,” Starr explains. “In the WWE, about 10 percent of its revenue goes towards paying wrestlers.”
While the WWE itself is a tough nut to crack for any labor organizer, Starr has already made inroads in the UK with his We The Independent project, and dreams of building a global network of organized labor within the wrestling industry.
“We sacrifice our own financial, mental, emotional, and physical well-being as workers to grab the brass ring of being a star, [and] in 2019, I realized that I would rather leave a legacy of helping my fellow workers than of great performances on the biggest stage,” he explains. “If it takes the sacrifice of one indie schmuck to help people, or to make people stand up for themselves more, that’s worth it.”
As unemployment figures continue to soar, mass layoffs have become just another part of our gut-wrenching normal, and workers across a number of industries have been fighting back as best they can. Strikes, petitions, socially distanced rallies, rent strikes, and online campaigns have all become staple hallmarks of labor unrest in the age of coronavirus, and it stands to reason that even relatively highly-paid performers may start feeling a twinge of rebellion. The push to unionize pro wrestlers is far from new, and the issue continually bubbles up as the WWE flaunts its stranglehold on the industry (Jesse “The Body” Ventura was a vocal proponent of the idea before he left the ring and entered politics). Wrestling is one of the only major sports that lacks any kind of union, and the workers suffer as a result. If the WWE keeps pushing ahead with live tapings as bodies pile up outside, does Starr think a wrestler’s strike could potentially be on the horizon?
“The time is now, but now is always, it’s always now, because labor always has the leverage; we always have the power if we stand together,” he says. “Who fuckin’ cares, honestly, if you had the best match of the night? That’s so awesome, and I appreciate that, and I love the work and the performance art, but sometimes you have to put that aside for real life. People in the wrestling bubble need to understand that their love for wrestling and their desire to be on WrestleMania and all of that is being used against them so that they can be taken advantage of and exploited.”
As independent contractors, wrestlers already have precious few protections under labor law; now, those without viable side hustles may be looking to the unemployment line until restrictions ease up and people feel safe filling seats again.
For now, Starr is living off merch sales, but isn’t sure how long it will last. “That’s going to carry me for another month or two, but I don’t see how we can carry on without borrowing or something after a month or two, no way,” he says ruefully. He’s already lost tens of thousands of dollars on cancelled bookings, and there is no Plan B; he had a few manual labor gigs and worked in his family’s jewelry shop for a spell before he went pro, but otherwise, wrestling is it (though I doubt anyone would be surprised if he pivoted to full-time labor organizer in the coming years).
On the corporate side, Purrazzo and the other wrestlers caught in the April 15 cuts have only got a few weeks of full pay. After that, they’ll be free of any obligations to the WWE, and on to their next acts. Purrazzo, who was already planning her exit before the layoffs hit, is staying upbeat. She says she’s looking forward to getting back on the indie scene and unleashing her Virtuosa character anew, but does have a fallback, just in case. “I was a preschool teacher in New Jersey before I started wrestling full time, so luckily, I can always go back to teaching,” she says.
With schools across the nation closed for the rest of the school year, here’s hoping she lands on her feet.