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Grappling with COVID-19: Ring of Honor creates professional wrestling bubble in Baltimore suburbs

Jamar Shipman, left, who wrestles as Jay Lethal, wrestles before no fans at the UMBC Event Center.
Jamar Shipman, left, who wrestles as Jay Lethal, wrestles before no fans at the UMBC Event Center. (Ring of Honor Wrestling/Ring of Honor Wrestling)

Jamar Shipman, better known by his professional wrestling moniker Jay Lethal, knew exactly what to do with his ice bucket, a roll of tape and a pair of creamery cups.

He built an imaginary friend, dubbed him “Ulysses” and gave him the growly voice of a childhood wrestling hero, Randy “Macho Man” Savage. Last Wednesday, they played blackjack in Shipman’s hotel room at the DoubleTree BWI.

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If you’re confused, well, these are strange times for Shipman and his co-workers at Ring of Honor wrestling, owned and operated by the Hunt Valley-based Sinclair Broadcast Group.

ROH shut down operations for more than five months after the coronavirus pandemic hit full force in March. But with wrestlers itching to get back to action, the company, in consultation with the Maryland State Athletic Commission, sought a safe way to restart. Orlando had the NBA bubble; Baltimore would have a pro wrestling bubble.

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That meant finding a hotel where wrestlers could quarantine in single rooms, funding three rounds of COVID-19 testing for more than 100 performers and staffers and taping television shows at an empty UMBC Event Center. ROH tested its grand experiment for a week in late August and taped for another two days last weekend.

That’s why Shipman was alone in his room at the DoubleTree, creating diversions with hotel accouterments.

“Wrestlers, we live in hotel rooms,” he said, laughing. “So I was like, ‘This isn’t going to be too bad.’ Until you’re told you can’t leave your room. … We could’ve made a whole show just sending a camera to everyone’s room to see how they were passing the time.”

Ring of Honor wrestler Jay Lethal.
Ring of Honor wrestler Jay Lethal. (Marvin Atwell / Main Event Photos)

He brought his Nintendo Switch for gaming, his Rosetta Stone program for Spanish lessons and his creativity for arts and crafts. In the rooms above, he heard colleagues improvising workout sessions; his buddy, Everett “Rhett” Titus, fashioned an inclined weightlifting bench out of his hotel couch.

These castaway pursuits felt good after months of existential crisis. While making light of their time-wasting rituals, ROH wrestlers raved about their company’s cautious handling of a situation that filled many of them with personal and professional dread.

Last week, ROH sent home one performer who tested positive for COVID-19 and three others who’d wrestled on another company’s show featuring performers who tested positive. ROH chief operating officer Joe Koff said these decisions, which forced shows to be rewritten, demonstrated how seriously the 18-year-old wrestling company is taking its precautionary measures. He called the pandemic bubble one of ROH’s “crowning achievements.”

The Wrestling Observer Newsletter, which has covered the industry for four decades, said ROH is employing “some of the strictest COVID protocols of any wrestling company in the world.”

“As much as it hurts to see your friends not be able to participate because they may have been exposed to something … it’s still better safe than sorry,” said Matthew Marinelli, who wrestles as Matt Taven. "It’s the reason why this bubble has worked so effectively this entire time.”

After ROH canceled its March pay-per-view show in Las Vegas and other companies went on hiatus, Shipman feared the pandemic “could end professional wrestling.”

“Which was terrifying to me,” the 19-year veteran said. “If I can’t wrestle, I don’t want to live. It’s like telling me I can’t breathe.”

Wrestlers accept harrowing travel schedules, booking uncertainties and debilitating injuries as the costs of pursuing their craft. But this was a problem that, in Shipman’s words, “you could not just slap a Band-Aid on.”

On a corporate level, Koff said it was an easy decision to fill the company’s weekly television episodes with archival material while wrestlers waited out the pandemic in the safety of their homes. “I was not comfortable until we had a set of protocols that we worked on diligently with the Maryland State Athletic Commission,” he said. “It took us months.”

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Though media watchdogs have criticized Sinclair for its on-air messaging regarding COVID-19, ROH wrestlers said the company could not have treated them more considerately through the crisis.

They watched as industry leader World Wrestling Entertainment continued taping shows through the pandemic and, at the same time, announced mass layoffs. Meanwhile, ROH told them to stay home and promised to pay their contracted salaries.

“We’ve got the best bosses in the world,” Shipman said. “Essentially, [Joe] was saying, ‘Stay home. You guys are going to get paid, and I just want you to stay safe until we can limit risk as much as we can.’ For someone to tell you that … it really warmed all of our hearts.”

“That was a huge weight lifted off me,” said ROH announcer and wrestler Caprice Coleman, who gave up his side job as an Uber and Lyft driver because his daughter has asthma and he wanted to lower his chances of transmitting the virus to her.

As they listened to the company’s plans over group Zoom calls, wrestlers felt increasing confidence that a bubble could work. They would be asked to take a COVID-19 test 14 days before traveling to Baltimore and then another the day after checking into the DoubleTree. While at the hotel, they would be confined to their rooms until cleared by the test and then, permitted to leave only for a jog or a quick workout in the socially-distanced gym. They would interact with co-workers only at the arena. The ring and mats would be cleaned after every match. Wrestlers would remove their masks only during in-ring action. They would take another COVID-19 test at the end of the taping for contact tracing purposes.

“I could almost physically see the relief on people’s faces when this game plan was presented to us,” Marinelli recalled.

“Not only was it a chance to go back to work … they were taking care of everything to make sure we were safe,” Coleman said.

Sure, it would be weird to share a hotel with dozens of friends and not actually see them. “Kind of like being on the playground but you can’t talk to anybody,” Coleman joked. But that seemed a modest price to pay.

Wrestling is an interactive craft. Heels taunt fans in the front row to invite derision. Babyfaces pound the mat to get the same onlookers clapping rhythmically in their favor. Every gesture is designed to stir a reaction.

With that element removed, ROH has built its shows around “pure” wrestling, with a greater focus on grappling and more realistic looking competition.

“I thought it was going to be a nightmare without the people there,” Shipman said. “The flashiness that’s normally there is put on the back burner. You aren’t pandering or working for what some would call the pop. … I will admit not everybody’s going to like it, but this I feel is the perfect style of wrestling for the pandemic.”

Despite the success of the first two sets of tapings (locally, episodes are broadcast Saturday night on Sinclair-owned WNUV), the road ahead is uncertain. Wrestlers tentatively expect another taping in December, but Koff said ROH is also looking at possibly staging shows in other states. He added that the company has no immediate plans to bring back fans in Maryland, though Gov. Larry Hogan has eased restrictions in recent weeks.

“We’re doing this in baby steps,” he said. “I can only deal with what I know today … and we are prepared to operate this way.”

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Wrestlers offered differing views on how long they’d be comfortable with this new normal.

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Coleman joked that it’s “like New York — I love to visit, but I don’t want to live there.”

“If you said it was going to be like this, hypothetically, for another year, I don’t think I would mind,” Shipman countered. “I would miss the fans, sure, but I don’t think our product would get stale. … I think we’re doing a really good thing here.”

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