Wrestling is a lot like comic books. It has characters and tropes that stick around for decades. It works in the confines of dated rules that would be pointless to break. Most importantly, it has a seemingly never-ending narrative that uses said characters to tell compelling and hyper-stylized stories on a regular schedule.

Unlike comic book characters, however, the wrestlers telling a story in and around the squared circle are real human beings. They act as characters completely separate from their real-world identities, putting their bodies on the line night after night for the advancement of a story and the crowd’s amusement. They experience actual pain, real injuries, and often tragic events.

Unfortunately, wrestlers have little to no support from their respective companies. No major American wrestling promotion actually counts their wrestling roster as employees, but rather treats them as independent contractors. Who wins and who loses in a wrestling match is determined by a select few people, which heavily influences a wrestler’s popularity. A wrestler simply has to work within a backwards and often unfair system where even the most minute discrepancy could break their entire career.

Two bits of news came out yesterday that revealed some unsavory practices by the WWE and the wrestling industry as a whole. Wrestler Ryback vented his frustrations with the WWE and how his consistent losses meant less money to take home, while having zero input on the direction (and win/loss record) of his character. At the same time, recently-suspended WWE wrestler Adam Rose revealed that his 60-day suspension was for a legitimate prescription of Adderall. These two social media posts provided a rare and clearly unsanctioned glimpse into the WWE’s internal politics, while giving fans an explanation for their absence from WWE programming.

Many casual fans, however, seemed surprised by these frank and honest admissions. I, too, only recently learned about certain unfortunate aspects of a wrestler’s life and what one deals with as a contracted but indirectly employed performer. So before you, the wrestling fan, go to the next house show or flip on Smackdown tomorrow night, there are a few things you should know about your favorite grapplers and the company they work for.

Curtis Axel and Ryback (right)

Wrestlers are independent contractors.

WWE, TNA, and the like employ non-wrestling personalities, road crew, production staff, and everything in between. They do not, however, have a salaried staff of wrestlers. Instead, the wrestlers are signed on as independent contractors with little to no benefits, including the lack of company-sponsored health insurance. All wrestlers pay for their own health insurance. They also pay for most of their travel and lodging. They even pay taxes in every state they work in. But since they’re in binding, exclusive contracts, they cannot work elsewhere during their employment, and often cannot jump ship to a different wrestling company after termination due to non-compete clauses.

Wrestlers are paid more based on their win/loss record.

The outcome to a wrestling match is predetermined unless there is an incident preventing the outcome from occurring. As Ryback stated in his post, the wrestlers who are picked to lose put in the same amount of work and are subjected to the same, if not more, physical stress as the wrestlers who are chosen to win. While it is not proven (and even disputed) that the winner gets paid more than the loser, it has been continuously stated by WWE wrestlers and industry experts alike that people who win the title belts are given a pay increase. (Whether or not this is an increase for the duration of the title reign or a permanent pay increase is anyone’s guess.) Nonetheless, if the sum of the outcome of one’s matches determine a wrestler’s success in holding a title, and holding a title increases one’s pay, and the matches are chosen by a person or people arbitrarily or based on any number of factors (popularity, merchandise sales, or just because Vince McMahon likes someone), then it can be said that the predetermined win/loss record can, in fact, impact a wrestler’s pay.

Disgruntled ex-WWE wrestler CM Punk (right).

Wrestlers often work hurt or injured.

Wrestling might be predetermined and manufactured in a way to prevent injury as much as possible, but injuries do happen. When a wrestler suffers a major injury preventing them from performing, they undergo treatment and/or surgery to repair and rehab from said injury. According to former WWE wrestler CM Punk, however, they’re often asked to jump back on schedule as soon as possible to continue or restart rivalries and storylines, despite not being 100%. Even worse, wrestlers are allegedly asked to compete while sick or with minor injuries, which could further worsen or exacerbate their condition both in the ring and in life. At the same time, many wrestlers have willingly competed in the ring with nagging, unresolved injuries to not lose their place in the spotlight. After all, if a wrestler is in the middle of a storyline and abruptly exits programming, the belief is that they may not have the same opportunity when they return.

Wrestling unions don’t exist because of Hulk Hogan.

In the ’80s, Jesse Ventura attempted to start a wrestling union and give the independent contractors more leverage for pay, benefits, and the like. The attempt was unsuccessful, as wrestlers were reluctant to join. Years later, during legal proceedings after Ventura filed a lawsuit on back pay and royalties, it was revealed in court that Hulk Hogan had informed Vince McMahon about the union attempt at the time, which stopped it from progressing any further for numerous reasons. Since then, WWE was subjected to lawsuits for back pay and failure to provide benefits, which were all dismissed. Had these attempts been successful, wrestlers would likely be entitled to much better treatment.

Though it may appear to be glamorous all the time, wrestlers live an often grueling life. They’re on the road for over 300 days, doing mostly physical work for days, if not weeks straight. Yet no matter how hard they work, they still foot the bill for their travel, meals, health insurances, and other quality of life expenses that you would expect a billion-dollar public company to pay for.

While the aftermath of Ryback’s very public look at his and other wrestlers’ alleged situations will unfold in the coming days and weeks, it’ll be interesting to see how the WWE handles this both on the consumer-facing side (read: television) and through press releases. But it brings up a subject that really needs to be discussed in a public forum: Ryback, the character, is Ryan Reeves, the person, and though he may not be your favorite wrestler, he and his peers should still be privy to non-arbitrary compensation, at the very least.

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  • Russ Dobler

    I don’t think winning automatically means better pay, but being higher on the card — a consequence of being a better draw — surely does.

    Ryback’s complaint is wacky to me. Lots of people (not everyone, I know) watch WWE for John Cena. He brings in money, so it only makes sense from a fairness standpoint that he gets a piece of that. From a business standpoint, it makes sense to keep him happy so he doesn’t jump to other arenas like the Rock did.

    If everyone made the same money, where would be the incentive for getting better? Should Fandango doing five-minute squash matches make the same as Cena does for 30-minute main event? Especially when Cena is asked to work hurt much more often than undercard guys?

    I’m not evangelizing Cena here; just the easiest example. They really are bad at building new stars.

    • Patrick Ross

      Agreed. I think there are lots of things wrong with how WWE manages their talent, but I don’t think higher pay for higher spots on the card is necessarily one of them.

      It’s tough though–it’s a fake sport, so how do you quantify how much better guy A is than guy B? You make more money at the top of the card because presumably you draw more. But who’s to say if given the chance to really run with the ball someone who’s currently in the mid card wouldn’t be drawing more houses than Cena? Of course, they invested more money and time in Cena, so he’s going to be at the top. So it’s almost like instead of getting paid more because you win, you win because you get paid more.

      So it becomes a cycle: To make more money, draw more for the company. To draw more, win more matches. To win more matches, make more money. How can anyone truly break through without lucking out and becoming a pet project of Vince McMahon?

      • Russ Dobler

        Or of HHH, now.

        Those are valid points — and they hold true for many professions. Lots of people in varied careers encounter glass ceilings for multiple reasons. Which sucks, and guys should probably have more creative input in their directions, but that’s askew from Ryback’s main point.

        I think he needs to parse out that there are different kind of “jobbers.” Some are perceived as more valuable than others. Heath Slater is reportedly kept around because other guys like working with him. Santino couldn’t buy a win, but his different kind of act functioned as a palette-cleanser. There’s not a lot that’s special about Ryback.

        And it might be that all the trying and hard work in the world won’t change that. “Personally seeing my money go down over the years though even though I
        was working as much as ever and being denied magazine covers and other
        projects as well as watching my role diminish no matter what I did or
        how hard I tried takes its toll on a human.”

        I’m sure that’s true, but it doesn’t change the fact that people have natural aptitudes. Some guys will get better with more training and creative freedom. Some will reach a certain level and max out. Some will try and try and get nowhere. I left grad school when I hit the wall with the math. Should Boston College still duke me a Master’s degree because I tried really hard? What Ryback’s (probably unknowingly) saying is we shouldn’t live in a meritocracy and that effort alone, regardless of results, should be rewarded. Doesn’t seem viable.