Coronavirus Shutdown Leaves Independent Wrestlers Struggling to Make a Living—and Find Purpose

With events across the globe on hold indefinitely, freelance wrestlers are struggling to make ends meet and grappling with how to spend their time.
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Risk is a necessary element of success. At least, that is what Shazza McKenzie kept reminding herself as she booked her flight from Australia to the United States.

Her roundtrip ticket cost $2,400  but presented McKenzie with the opportunity of a lifetime. An independent wrestler from Sydney, she was headed to the United States for two months, hoping to wrestle on as many shows as possible and integrate herself in the American indie wrestling circuit.

“I quit my job, took my life savings, and booked that flight,” says McKenzie, who is 31-year-old Chantelle Allison. “I had $0 left in my bank account.

“It’s an incredibly nervous feeling to leave your whole life behind for two months and couch surf in another country. But I just had to trust that things would work out.”

If there is a fairytale ending to this story, McKenzie is eager to hear it.

Within the first five hours of being in the United States, her well-developed plans quickly began to disintegrate. Due to fear of the coronavirus and the restrictions it generated, all the shows she was booked to work in April were cancelled.

“I flew out of Australia and everything was cool, calm and fine,” McKenzie says. “Literally as soon as I got off the plane, everything was not cool, calm or fine. It became very clear to me that countries were going to shut their borders and I was going to get stuck sleeping on someone’s couch. So I flew back across the world and went home.”

Her well-planned itinerary of 32 shows in two months evaporated, leaving her to grapple with serious financial fallout. 

“I’m losing at least $5,000,” says McKenzie, a former data analyst. “That’s once you add in my merchandise, selling t-shirts and 8x10s, to my match fees. My job was replaced, but it’s shut down now anyway. We’ll see what happens in a couple weeks. Without working, I feel completely useless.”

Indie wrestling is the underground rock of its industry. Wrestling is a unique profession, where traditional benefits like a 401k and health insurance are replaced with merchandise stands and the organic high derived from the roar of the crowd. There is no shortage of dedicated fans willing to support the women and men putting their bodies on the line in the ring.

There is a do-it-yourself vibe to every facet of the indies. Wrestlers book their own dates and often find their own means of transportation. Talent gets paid in cash by the promoter after the show. Canceled shows can be an albatross for the industry because no one gets paid.

“That’s independent wrestling,” Donovan Danhausen says. “If you’re not working, you’re not getting paid.”

Speaking on the phone from his home in Montreal, Danhausen is articulate, thoughtful and kind, a far cry from his in-ring character. With a screeching voice, spooky attire and painted face, Danhausen has captivated wrestling fans with an incredibly compelling personality and presence.

He describes his character as Conan O’Brien possessed by a demon. Danhausen adds a certain charm and excitement to the indies that simply does not exist in mainstream promotions. Even the most ardent supporters are unlikely to claim indie wrestling is perfect, but this is a major part of its charm. Danhausen’s willingness to devote his entire professional career to wrestling is a major reason why he is a rising star on the indie circuit.

“Wrestling is my only job,” says Danhausen, who made the transition to full-time wrestling in December. And he does more than just perform in the ring, which has kept him busy in our new era of social distancing. “I do a Danhausen cooking show, a Danhausen interview show and a Danhausen food review show. I mix all of those normal late-night television shows together and I put the Danhausen character in those scenarios to give people something different to watch.”

Developing such a distinct persona has made Danhausen must-see in the indie wrestling circuit. He was destined to be a breakout star during this year’s WrestleMania week, when wrestling promotions book shows in close proximity to the main event’s host city. While WrestleMania is the place for WWE stars to etch their name into wrestling history, WrestleMania week is an opportunity for independent wrestlers to enhance their value and get paid.

“I’m losing thousands of dollars, money I was really relying on,” indie workhorse Chris Dickinson says. “It’s more than my career, it’s my life. I am a pro wrestler. I don’t want to be anything else. This is what I love. But it’s tough right now.”

A common narrative among wrestling’s biggest attractions is their lifelong dream to perform in the WWE. Dickinson had different aspirations for entering pro wrestling.

“I’m here to f---ing wrestle,” says Dickinson, a 32-year-old product of Staten Island. “It’s a part of me. This is what I do every weekend and think about all the time. Now I can’t do it at all.”

Through no fault of his own, Dickinson’s career is frozen indefinitely. He was on the precipice of a potentially lucrative WrestleMania week, one that offered significant long-term potential.

He was scheduled to wrestle for the German-based wXw promotion, slated to face Erick Stevens in his retirement match for Beyond Wrestling, and prepared for two matches that could have had international employment implications against New Japan Pro Wrestling stars Minoru Suzuki and Shingo Takagi. For a wrestler with aspirations of working full-time in Japan, losing those matches was devastating.

“It’s extremely demoralizing, and it will probably never come again in the same concentration in which they were this time,” Dickinson says. “But everybody is affected. I’ll do everything I possibly can to have these opportunities present themselves again.

“I’m so touched by the outpouring of support and positivity from the fans. If we do go back to the way things were, I hope people are willing to support independent wrestling, even more than before. That’s the only way our line of work is going to exist.”

Once momentum is lost, there is no certainty it can ever be restored. That is especially true in indie wrestling, where wrestlers are creating new content on social media to remain relevant. Perfecting your craft and monetizing it are two very different entities, particularly during a pandemic—and no one is doing it better than Jake Parnell.

Parnell is Warhorse, a character that is a rare blend of horsepower mixed with heavy metal.

His social media skills continue to heighten his legend among fans, as he has created an incredible series of videos where Warhorse is forced to find work as a soft-rock disc jockey named Breezehorse.

In the past eight months, he has gained over 10,000 followers on Twitter. The 27-year-old Parnell is quickly becoming one of the most popular indie wrestlers in the country. He had six shows planned for WrestleMania, including one that was co-promoted by himself and Danhausen.

“I’m missing out on a pretty good pay day,” Parnell says. “It sucks that everything fell through. I was going to have a nice little nest egg after WrestleMania weekend. Two weeks after WrestleMania, I was going to fly to the U.K. for a wrestling trip. But between all the travel restrictions and cancellations, I don’t have that.

“It's tough to lose these opportunities. From a wrestling standpoint, it sucks. There is no way to get new footage of me wrestling because there are no shows running. So I’ve been putting out new videos and promos so people can see, every day, who I am. That’s already what I’d been doing for the past eight months, so it’s almost habit at this point, and that’s how I’m planning on staying relevant without having matches.”

Warhorse has his own Pro Wrestling Tees store, which makes a nice additional source of income, but not enough to provide a living.

“I’ve always been worried about injuries, so I had a little bit of savings,” Warhorse says. “Between that and putting out videos, people have bought autographed 8x10s, t-shirts, and patches. Fans have been super supportive during this time. But in a month, I don’t know what this is going to look like.

“From the middle of December until all this happened, I had three shows every weekend. I’m the IWTV Champion, which is the championship of the IWTV streaming service, so I traveled to different promotions to defend the title. I was making a good amount of money by doing three shows a weekend, and that’s booking fees and t-shirt sales. To have all that gone really sucks.”

There are ways to make money, though they are limited. Danhausen and McKenzie have Patreon pages, which offer exclusive content with different tiers depending on the price consumers are willing to spend.

“I’ve been promoting my Patreon extra hard,” Danhausen says. “I’ve been saving money the best I can, but getting paid to wrestle is nice because then I can pay my bills. I’m also doing Cameo-style videos for people, which they seem to like. That’s what’s supplementing my income right now.”

“People get my friendship and love on Patreon,” added McKenzie, who offers seven different subscription prices ranging from $1 a month to $500. “I post exclusive content and live streams that only the people in my Patreon can see.”

Most wrestlers have a presence on Pro Wrestling Tees, but these are wonderful supplemental sources of income. Depending on these avenues for a living is a major risk.

Christian Casanova never planned for a pandemic, but he is incredibly grateful that he was prepared for the unknown.

Casanova is 25-year-old Christian Brigham. In addition to wrestling, he has a full-time job that provides him with health insurance. With the indie wrestling circuit currently suspended, this allows him some stability despite being surrounded by endless uncertainty.

He had planned on making his maiden WrestleMania weekend journey this year. Though it is not easy to work full-time in addition to pro wrestling, the food service industry job placed Casanova in a stable position financially while he has begun to emerge as one of wrestling’s rising stars.

“Most independent wrestlers don’t make a lot of money,” Casanova says. “This was going to be my first shot at making some money.”

“Slowing down the momentum, that’s a huge hit. WrestleMania weekend was just setting me up. I had stuff lined up with Ring of Honor and CZW. I was supposed to be in Canada. Building that momentum up is so difficult, and the coronavirus slowed down all of it.”

A six-year pro wrestling veteran, Casanova was using this year’s WrestleMania weekend as a springboard for future opportunities.

“I expected to work four shows during ’Mania week,” said Casanova. “GCW ran a bunch of events under The Collective, and ‘For The Culture’ was one of the events I was on, which was all about getting a lot of underutilized minority talent over. I had the Beyond Wrestling show going on against WrestleMania and I was booked in Faye Jackson’s ‘Gray Sweatpants Battle Royal.’ After WrestleMania weekend, I would have been set up in all the places I wanted to work.”

The WWE has its prized investors. All Elite Wrestling is owned by a billionaire. Independent wrestling has something altogether different, an element that cannot be monetized—soul.

“Wrestling allows you to be the person you want to be,” says Leyla Hirsch. “You connect with people, strangers. They’re watching your match, getting to know you, you’re sharing your stories with them and they’re connecting with you. Every time I step in that ring, I am living my dream.”

Hirsch, 23, wrestles every match with something to prove. Standing only 5-feet tall with her boots on, she stands out due to her short stature—until the bell rings. Hirsch’s passionate, relentless pursuit of inflicting pain on her opponent, and sometimes even herself—she has torn the labrum in both shoulders—is the takeaway from every one of her matches.

Raised in an orphanage in Moscow for the first eight years of her life, Hirsch and her twin sister were brought to the U.S. 15 years ago by their adoptive parents. Shortly after arriving here, she fell in love with wrestling the moment she saw WWE on television and dedicated her life to becoming a wrestler. 

As an independent wrestler, she has the freedom to work wherever she chooses. She was in Japan in February, with matches scheduled through March 30. Then she was set to wrestle in Germany in April. Earning money and gaining exposure, Hirsch’s hard work was beginning to pay off—until the coronavirus spread further. 

Full-time freelance wrestlers like Hirsch now have no source of income, no benefits and an uncertain future.

“Wrestling is my only job,” Hirsch says. “It was my income, my life. I miss the adrenaline, the rush. It’s painful without it.”

Although wrestling’s two biggest promotions in the United States are still performing empty arena shows to satisfy television contracts, the coronavirus has effectively shut down independent wrestling, leaving indie wrestlers out of work. Despite what the state of Florida says, pro wrestling is not an essential business. It is, however, essential to the artists who make the mat their canvas.

“I wake up and think, ‘What am I going to do today?’” said Dickinson. “I hear people say, ‘You weren’t ready for this.’ I haven’t had another job in four years. My job is wrestling.

“I can’t wrestle. End of story. That hurts the most.”

Out of work, Dickinson is relying on savings stowed away from his past few years in wrestling. But like the rest of the world, he is dealing with a future filled with uncertainty.

“I was ignorant about this virus at first,” said Dickinson. “Now I’m at the point where I am starting to worry about what the hell is going to happen. I live in New York, and every time I’ve thought, ‘It won’t be that bad,’ it’s gotten progressively worse and worse. I’m worried about my family, I’m worried about my mom. This goes beyond pro wrestling.

“I have a decent amount of money saved up to pay the bills for now, but I hope that things get back to normal before too long. Wrestling is my job, it’s my trade, and I hope I can continue to apply it. Unfortunately, right now, there is going to be no wrestling.”

Independent wrestling is a necessary casualty of a pandemic. But that does not make it any easier for its performers.

Leyla Hirsch is out of work. Indefinitely. So is Chris Dickinson. Shazza McKenzie is practicing social distancing in Sydney. Warhorse and Danhausen are busy unveiling new content for social media, with one noticeable exception: anything between the ropes in the ring. Christian Casanova sits and waits, thinking endlessly about his next big shot. In between workouts, he gets lost in thought—when will this pandemic end? Like the rest of the world, all he can do is wait.

McKenzie’s husband remains employed, which provides some security amidst all the stress. There have been a number of painful setbacks for McKenzie, including the loss of income and removal of her livelihood. But the most frightening of all for her is the unknown.

“We don’t know, essentially, what type of world we’ll live in in three months’ time,” said McKenzie. “We could go back to normal life in a month, or this could be much bigger than all of that. That’s the scary part.”

The coronavirus is crippling independent wrestling, its promoters and its performers. The wrestling business currently operates in a tenuous position. The empty arena format is proving to be unsuccessful, given the crucial role of the crowd’s reaction in the presentation of the product. The atmosphere feels hollow without a crowd, bizarrely disconnected from its intended recipients.

For independent wrestlers, there is an element at play even greater than the loss of income—their independence. Independent wrestlers work when and where they dictate. That autonomy has suddenly, and violently, been ripped away. Artists without a canvas, innovative minds unable to create. While the world is on hold, so is indie wrestling.

Danhausen has come to terms with the notion that he is out of work, but the more pressing question is how long that lasts.

“Hopefully everyone quarantines for a bit and this won’t be as bad as it could be,” he said. “But that means everybody has to cooperate, which probably won’t happen. The hardest part is we don’t know when this is going to end. Even a couple months without work is a lot of time in independent wrestling.”

Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.