Toxic Positivity in Wrestling

Toxic Positivity – (noun) The overgeneralization of a happy, optimistic state results in the denial, minimization and invalidation of the authentic human emotional experience. 

Without doing scientific experiments on the topic of toxic positivity in wrestling, I can’t help but think that these phenomena happen in wrestling more times than wrestling promoters might want to admit. The signs of toxic positivity rear their ugly head in various ways. I have seen toxic positivity in every wrestling company since I began covering wrestling.  

What often happens is wrestlers will appear in wrestling media and sing the praises of the wrestling company that they work for; promoters and wrestling executives will tout the positivity and growth of the company and cite specific examples of momentous events; and then seemingly out of nowhere the wrestler quits the company or asks for their release and as wrestling fans, we are left scratching our heads.  While the race of wrestlers will be focused on in this article, I do not think toxic positivity is limited to minority wrestlers. I just notice it the most with minority talent (Black, in particular) because there are so few of them in comparison to white wrestlers, so they stick out more to me.

For the greater part of the last three months, I have been following the drama involving Sasha Banks and Naomi with WWE. I do not know exactly what happened with them but I do know only a year ago WWE seemed happy and elated to tout that for the first time, two Black women (Banks and Bianca Belair) were main eventing WrestleMania. Everything seemed positive! Then in May, Sasha Banks and Naomi won the WWE Women’s tag team titles at WrestleMania, and not even a couple months later, they bounced on WWE like a bad check! Now that HHH is in charge of WWE, there is a good chance that the two will return to WWE so I guess we will wait and see.

If you think that toxic positivity is only an issue with WWE wrestlers, I will point you to the curious case of Lio Rush in AEW. Last year, AEW started promoting Lio Rush in a series of vignettes. “LBO Lio” was set to make his debut. As a Black wrestling fan, I was ecstatic! I was not a big fan of Lio Rush’s WWE run but it looked like he was actually going to get a chance for redemption in AEW.  Rush, himself, admits that he did not really understand his LBO character in AEW, but from my vantage point, it at least, looked cool.

Then before I knew it, Tony Khan and Big Swole had a dust-up in public. Swole mentioned a few of the issues that she saw in AEW in a diplomatic way and Khan mentioned on Twitter the lack of progress of Swole (in a childish way), as the reason why he is not renewing Swole’s contract. Soon after Rush tweets to TK that he should apologize, and the short version of this story is, I never see Lio Rush on AEW TV again. Rush, himself states that it was an amicable split between Lio and Khan but it does seem a little convenient that it happened so close after this incident.

Fast forward to June 23 and we get reports of Jonathan Gresham demanding his release. In my street voice, I just want to ask TK one question and that’s, “What’s really hood, my dude!?!” 

There is something going on in AEW that needs to be fixed. I am not sure exactly what it is but the signs point to toxic positivity.

I have been following Jonathan Gresham’s career since 2014. From the very beginning, I could tell he was a gifted performer. I have never seen any of his peers talk about how difficult he is or how much he complains backstage. For all intents and purposes, he seems to be a team player. Speaking to the generosity of Gresham, Seth Rollins stated on Twitter:

“One time a young JG paid my booking fee—when the promoter couldn’t come up with the cash—so I would stay and work. We ended up tearing it up in front of about 6 people, & had a couple more bangers months later. He never looked back. Invest in yourself, friends.”

Bryan Danielson has also spoken highly of Gresham, praising his wrestling ability and saying, “[T]he title is in good hands with Gresham”. 

With such praise heaped on the former Ring of Honor World Champion by some of the most well-respected men in wrestling, it seems he would be a perfect fit for Tony Khan’s new vision of ROH. A guy that can wrestle, has the respect of his peers and has seemingly stayed out of legal trouble.

The talent who work for AEW loudly sing the praises of the company and its CEO, Tony Khan. As an outsider looking in, it does not seem like AEW is a toxic work environment. It is clear to me that the wrestlers who love working in AEW really love working there.

Now that Vince McMahon is not in a creative role in WWE, it seems like more wrestlers are coming forward in subtle ways, expressing their grievances with AEW.  Recently, former AEW TNT Champion, Miro, liked a tweet where a fan suggested that he was used better in WWE.

Could this be a sign of Miro legitimately not being happy in AEW? Perhaps this is a subtle way of Miro telling TK that he is not a fan of his creative direction and is willing to go back to a HHH ran, WWE. 

I often wonder, though: What happens when a wrestler does not love working in the company that launched in 2019 as an alternative to WWE Is it an unwritten rule that if you work in AEW you must be happy all of the time?

I ask this question as a fan, as someone who has traveled out of state on more than one occasion to attend AEW shows. I have paid to watch literally every AEW pay-per-view.

With all this stated, my criticisms of AEW on the diversity front have been consistent, and are similar to the criticisms that I have with WWE as well. And those criticisms ultimately come down to this simple question: How much thought is put into the creative direction for minority talents in these companies?

Please understand that I am not saying that AEW or WWE are not diverse. Both companies are clearly diverse. I question instead whether either company thinks about the relatability of minority talents and the communities they represent.

I wonder how long it took Vince McMahon to come up with the idea of jobbing out Bianca Belair to Becky Lynch in seconds or how long it took TK to come up with the vision of Scorpio Sky’s lackluster TNT Title run. I also can’t help but notice that Keith Lee and Swerve Scott have not defended their titles on Dynamite.  Granted, it’s only been a month, so we will wait and see.

It does not seem that storylines are fleshed-out when it comes to the minority talent especially when they hold titles. In fact, it seems like often when minorities win titles in AEW or WWE that they are just placeholders for the next white man or woman that the promoters really want to have the title on.

When Kofi Kingston won the title in 2019, it was a magic moment for his fans. Like Daniel Bryan before him, Kofi Kingston’s fans organically got behind him; I do not know of anyone who would say Kingston was the chosen one. And he had a good run with the WWE Title… until he lost to Brock Lesnar in a nothing match on the debut episode of Smackdown on Fox in less than 10 seconds. He has not seen the world title picture ever since.

Back to AEW. My favorite wrestler in AEW is the longest-reigning women’s champion in the company’s history, Hikaru Shida. She carried the women’s division during the early pandemic era without full capacity audiences. She eventually lost that title to Britt Baker as AEW started having shows in front of packed crowds again. And as a fan of Shida, her title run seems like an afterthought now. Shida herself stated (translated to English):

“At the time of the launch, the women’s division of AEW relied heavily on Japanese female pro wrestlers, and that was one of the selling points of the division. But that was only for a while after the launch. Nowadays, being a Japanese female pro wrestler is not as much of an advantage as it used to be.

“On the contrary, it has become more of a handicap in terms of language barrier, obtaining a work visa, and the Corona disaster. I myself am no exception to this, and even as a member of the AEW since its inception and a former Women’s Champion, I am struggling to survive in the current AEW.”

Reading this statement broke my heart. I understand that the talent level in AEW has risen among the women but should it really be as dramatic as feeling like she is struggling to survive? Shida is someone who should still be in the upper echelon of stars in AEW so for someone as creative as Tony Khan to not be able to find a meaningful role for her is mind-boggling.

Someone else who is a favorite of mine in AEW is Scorpio Sky. He has been a mainstay in AEW since the beginning like Shida: the first African American to hold the company’s tag title and the first African American to hold the TNT Title. I was extremely excited he got a chance to be TNT champ but, like Kofi in WWE before him, he just seemed like another Black guy in a wrestling company who was keeping a title warm for the white guy that the promoter really wanted to have the title. I do not think it is hyperbolic for me to say that Scorpio Sky, my favorite male wrestler in AEW, is the worst TNT champion in that company’s history through no fault of his own.  I say this because outside of his feud with Sammy Guevara, he did not have any meaningful feuds.  He looked like he was on his way to becoming a top babyface but nonsensical booking hampered that and him turning on his SCU cohort, Frankie Kazarian, almost seems like a forgotten afterthought.

This brings me back to Gresham and the reports that he wants out of AEW. At the time of this writing, it seems so bad that even his on-screen manager, wrestling legend Tully Blanchard wants out.  

Tony Khan is a minority himself, and he has admitted that he did not always like the way Asians were portrayed in wrestling from a historical context. Granted, there are no overtly stereotypical wrestlers in AEW, and it does not seem like wrestlers are asked to portray caricatures.

However, the bar in AEW for minority wrestlers needs to be higher than, “Well, we do not have any stereotypes.” I was never a fan of HHH when he was a wrestler who destroyed everyone in his path (the less said about his feud with Booker T, the Better), but on the original version of NXT, I can honestly say that I didn’t feel like any of the minority talents were there just to be placeholders.

It pains me to have to put Gresham in this category but he seems like another Black wrestler who was asked to drop a title in favor of a white wrestler that the promoter sees more potential in. It hurts because I love Claudio Castagnoli and few in wrestling deserve a title more than him but did it need to be at the expense of Jonathan Gresham in his infancy of Tony Khan’s ROH?

Are the frustrations of people like Shida or Gresham listened to in AEW? Or are those wrestlers just expected to be happy simply to be there and making money? Must they pretend to be happy even if they are not? And are they allowed to voice frustration? I have gone on record to say I did not think it was a good idea for Lio Rush to publicly tweet his boss to apologize, but it didn’t seem like a fireable offense. But I have not seen Lio Rush in AEW since that tweet. 

Toxic positivity seems like an industry-wide problem and it goes double if you are a minority. From Kofi to Scorpio Sky, from Shida to Sasha Banks, minority wrestlers should not be penalized for not pretending to be happy in a promotion. I hope that TK publicly addresses this situation with Gresham, because, granted, there are a lot of Black wrestlers in AEW like Jade Cargill who are thriving and who seem to be happy, but the ones who are not happy have stories that are way too similar. 

In both companies, I want to believe that when Black or other minority wrestlers win titles, they will have honorable reigns and not be forgotten about when they lose. Far too often it feels like the reigns of these wrestlers are to fulfill a quota and for the company to simply say that they had a minority champ.  

The real world is not always Shangri-La. And for wrestlers, I want them to know that it is positive to sometimes acknowledge that things suck.

Kristoffer Ealy is a political science professor and business psychologist with a Ph.D. in Organizational Leadership. He co-hosts the Nubian Wrestling Advocates podcast on POST Wrestling.