Meet the state regulators who keep the blood out of pro wrestling

By: - October 4, 2018 6:10 am
Professional wrestler Ric Flair in 2010. (Wikimedia/Creative Commons)

Professional wrestler Ric Flair in 2010. (Wikimedia/Creative Commons)

Better Know a Board is an occasional series exploring some of Virginia’s more obscure state boards and commissions.

Name: Boxing, Martial Arts and Professional Wrestling Advisory Board.

Purpose: To provide guidance on the regulations of fighting sports, both real and scripted.

Meeting location: An office park in Henrico County.

Regulating boxing and martial arts make sense to Jay DeBoer, the director of the Department of Professional and Occupational Regulation. The sports have governing bodies with model regulations that states adopt and enforce for the safety of participants.

He’s less sure why the General Assembly decided the state should oversee professional wrestling, a vaudevillian enterprise with circus roots.

But he has theories.

“It was before my time. I suspect it was near the onset of the televised Saturday afternoon wrestling from Charlotte, N.C., that became very big in our area and the folks that were wrestling in that area, I can name a few if you want — Ricky Steamboat, Gene and Olé Anderson, Ric Flair and Haystacks Calhoun — they were local heroes and they started touring their show, and it was a show, for crying out loud. No one thought it was real.”

But in the old shows, he says, “they would do things like cut their eyebrows so they would bleed. There would be blood all over the ring and they’d spit and bite and things like that.”

“And Virginia didn’t want that going on,” he said.

DeBoer’s department oversees the regulation of everything from architects to geologists. But under state law, he is also the final authority in martial arts, boxing and wrestling regulations and discipline. The board, made up of two citizen members plus three practitioners in each of the three fighting fields, only serves in an advisory capacity. (Under state law, the martial arts member must be a black belt or higher.)

A quick review of historical news clips suggests there was indeed a wave of new regulations that accompanied the popularization of televised professional wrestling in the 1970s, but the board’s roots go back to 1934.

That’s when the General Assembly legalized professional boxing and created the “Wrestling and Boxing Commission” to oversee the sports. It’s not exactly clear how boxing and wrestling got lumped together because news coverage at the time focused almost exclusively on the boxing side of things.

The first mention of a regulatory action concerning wrestling came later in the year, when the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported on a decision to revoke the wrestling license of Joe Little Beaver for hitting below the belt during a match in Richmond that devolved into a brawl and was broken up by police.

A sports columnist writing for the Times-Dispatch backed the decision: “Wrestling, of course, has a place in the entertainment world. The commission doesn’t recognize it as competition, of course, but as ‘mere exhibition,’ but as long as it sails under the guise of competition with ‘champions’ and all that, it must be regulated as such.”

Today, professional wrestlers must still be licensed by DeBoer’s department. But regulatory actions concerning their shows are few and far between, he said.

As of last month, 585 had paid the $40 fee and filled out a form attesting that they have not suffered a serious head injury and outlining any criminal convictions.

The wrestlers far outnumber the boxers (58) and martial artists (42) licensed to compete professionally in the state.

Likewise, revenue from a 5 percent gate tax the state imposes covers nearly the entirety of the board’s budget.

Most of it comes from big events, for instance WWE’s match at Scope Arena in Norfolk last year netted them $6,757.

Going over the revenue report at a meeting this week, the board’s executive director, Kate Nosbisch, said the state is “very fortunate” that the wrestling franchise generally holds a half dozen events in the state annually.

“You’ll notice some months are very low and some months are much better, and those are the months we have WWE,” she told the board.

Unlike the events they regulate, the board is pretty quiet and, aside from me, no members of the public attended.

DeBoer wondered why there was only one manager’s license issued so far this year. David Holland, the program administrator, told him most people acting in that capacity just work informally to avoid paying the fee.

On-site, day-of licensing for boxers, martial artists, trainers, seconds and cut men is up, the staff reported. It’s a new option that comes with an additional $35 fee.

“Does anyone honestly expect to come here and fight without acquiring a license? Seriously,” Deboer says.

Yes, Hollands says, blaming promoters for not warning fighters in advance.

Otherwise, no major business was discussed outside of a warning of the potential impact a state law directing that the Department of Professional and Occupational Regulation as a whole eliminate 25 percent of its total regulations.

For the record, it’s still against the rules for wrestlers to intentionally make themselves bleed.

Correction: Due to a transcription error, an earlier version of this story misquoted DPOR Director Jay DeBoer listing 1970s-era wrestlers.

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Ned Oliver
Ned Oliver

Ned, a Lexington native, has been a fulltime journalist since 2008, beginning at The News-Gazette in Lexington, and including stints at the Berkshire Eagle, in Berkshire County, Mass., and the Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly in Richmond. He is a graduate of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass. He was named Virginia's outstanding journalist for 2020 by the Virginia Press Association.