Skip to main content

I. Showdown with the New York State Athletic Commission

By Kris Levin

Originally published 4/19/2018 at
Updated 2/11/2020.

When I entered Saint Finbar Church on August 19th, 2016, I had no intention of having a showdown with the New York State Athletic Commission. For me, that stiflingly humid, late summer day in Brooklyn was never meant to be anything other than business as usual. Just another day at the office doing what I love: refereeing professional wrestling.

Then the New York State Athletic Commission decided to interfere.

In the weeks and months leading up to the night of the incident, certain state inspectors, namely Mr. Robert Orlando (who, at the time, was Deputy Commissioner of the New York State Athletic Commission) and Ms. Dorothea Perry, had developed a reputation for becoming increasingly aggressive, to the point of intrusive, in how they handled the enforcement of SAC regulations in regards to professional wrestling. This included shutting down several matches and even entire events with legally questionable justifications over the most minor infraction. Touch the guardrail? Match over. Show goes a hair past eleven? That’s a wrap. Conveniently, that last one did not seem to affect certain companies whose events typically end at 11:05PM or whereabouts, but I digress. Plain and simple, it was no secret that the inspectors in question—along with the majority of the upper bureaucracy within the New York State Athletic Commission—considered professional wrestling the black sheep of the sports that fell under their department's legislative umbrella.

On the night in question, the state inspectors (typically only one inspector, if even, is assigned to an event—in this case, Ms. Perry. I assume Mr. Orlando decided to attend solely because he was looking forward to a fun night at the matches) had been given advance notice of what the scheduled event would entail, something I personally oversaw. Several hours in advance of the opening bell, I explained the contents of the evening's card with them. One of them even took a picture of it on their cell phone. They studied the card with me and had supplemental time afterward to continue doing so. In short, they were fully aware of what would be happening that night and, at the time, had not one word to say in protest against it.

One of the matches that night was an intergender bout between a man and a woman, something that is not uncommon within this industry, especially at an independent level in more progressive areas. My partner-at-the-time and lifelong best friend, Bonesaw Jessie Brooks, was taking on Marc Hauss, a friend of ours and a man of great integrity and professionalism; it was a bout that all three of us, not to mention the fans, were looking forward to since it was publicly announced over a week prior on August 11th. Up until the match in question, the event consisted of the standard fare that we have all come to expect within a professional wrestling event. Caution was certainly heightened, given the presence of the SAC, but, otherwise, business was running as usual—or at least as far as the definition of “usual” can be stretched within the confines of professional wrestling, but again, I digress.

At approximately 9:30PM, several hours into the event and several hours more, on top of that, after the inspectors' initial examination of the card for any malfeasances, I called for the opening bell of Bonesaw Jessie Brooks and Marc Hauss. In the opening moments of the match—less than a minute into the match, in fact—as Jess and Marc were in the feeling-out process of chain wrestling, the bell suddenly rang. Marc seemed to grasp the situation prior to Jess or I—if you watch the video, you can see Jess continuing to go hold-for-hold, thinking, as did I, that it was simply an error on the part of the timekeeper.

I remember, clear as day, Marc asking Jess to hold up, as we all turned and saw Mr. Orlando and Ms. Perry self-importantly approaching the ringside area, waving their arms and causing a fuss. Before a word had even been said, I instantaneously realized what was happening: they were declaring that the match must be stopped. What I did not initially understand, however, was why. Before all in attendance, Mr. Orlando testily explained to me that the match had been stopped solely on the grounds that it was an intergender contest.

I was immediate and frank in my response: “that’s sexist.” When he continued his explanation that his action was within the guidelines of the state and that there was nothing he could do, I retorted, “I’m sorry, but that’s not true.” Amid a chorus of boos, Mr. Orlando upheld his decision, leaving me to ask, “are you saying that the state of New York condones sexism?”

So I did the only thing I felt I could do at the time: I picked up a microphone. Knowing Jess is a woman of few words, I looked at Marc and quickly asked, “are you doing this or am I?” Dumbfounded, Marc gave me an encouraging nod, and off I went.

Now at this point, before I continue this story, two things must be said. The first is in regards to the concept of intergender wrestling. In light of the fact that this tale involves that often controversial genre of this industry, it goes without saying that professional wrestling is not really a competitive sport in the strictest definition of the word. A professional wrestling bout between a man and a woman is, at its core, no different than what would occur in any other dramatic offering, be it in a wrestling ring, on-stage, or in a Hollywood backlot: a group of professionals are working together to present a choreographed story which contains simulated violence for the sake of dramatic narrative. Concepts of fairness and sportsmanship are moot points.

Discussions abound about how intergender wrestling affects the appearance of legitimacy that professional wrestling strives for. However, that is not within the purview of this discussion. Whether you, the reader, are a fan or not of intergender wrestling, is also immaterial. This is about consenting adults being told how they can or cannot express their Constitutionally-guaranteed, First Amendment right to practice free speech—based solely on their gender. That was an act of discrimination and something that deeply unsettled me.

The second aspect worth discussing is a brief background on why I reacted as I did. In the immediate aftermath of our public confrontation some, including Mr. Orlando, attempted to paint my reaction as solely owing to the fact that, at the time, Jessyka and I lived together and were involved in a long-term relationship. However, that does not even come close to providing the full measure of the backstory. This is not the time for my own story, but certain elements are key to fully understanding my mindset at the time. 

Entering the wrestling business as a socially awkward, timid, and undersized fifteen-year-old, I was acutely aware of the destructive nature of bullying. This created within me a deep empathy for anyone who faced discriminatory practices, particularly the plight faced by women in this world. Even more particularly, that faced by dedicated women wrestlers. Too often I saw sexual harassment from fans, promoters, and fellow wrestlers alike. Career advancement not predicated on ability, dedication, and performance, but how far one would go to sexually exploit themselves. To be clear, I am not judging anyone who decides to go the route of sexual exploitation, but I do lament that for so long, it was absolutely necessary for meaningful career advancement. More often than not, those who were uncomfortable with that were left to the footnotes of history. Again, I digress.

This strong spirit of feminism led me, along with Jess and a handful of others, to run New York City’s first-ever all-women's wrestling event since women’s wrestling had been legalized within the state in 1972. Promoting VALKYRIE Womens Wrestling was a great crash-course on the business side of things, which led to me developing an intimate understanding of how it all worked. Most pertinent to this tale was my understanding of the rules and regulations of professional wrestling as set by the New York State Athletic Commission. And, suffice to say, nowhere within that tome of “Boxing and Wrestling” guidelines did it state that a man and woman could not perform with one another within the confines of a professional wrestling ring. They were citing a nonexistent rule.

The fans were confused and disappointed. Marc was at a loss. Jess and I were outraged. So, I did the only thing I could think of: for the first time in my life, I picked up the microphone, unscripted, and said my piece. Now, it goes without saying, in the world of professional wrestling, using the microphone without the consent of the promoter is generally look at as a no-no. Especially if you are a background or auxiliary character, such as an official. However, the moment that the SAC inspectors attempted an act of state-sponsored sexism and gender discrimination, this became bigger than the confines of professional wrestling. This moral play transcended me and my career, consequences and repercussions be damned. This became a matter of right and wrong and, steaming, something inside me was stirred to do something about it.

So, knowing their justification to be untrue, with a live mic I called out the State Athletic Commision representatives for their extrajudicial enforcement of discriminatory and sexist practices. The inspectors attempted to play it off as if they were just doing their jobs. Steamed, I asked the crowd, “the state of New York says that women are not equal to men. What do you guys think?”

More boos reigned down directed at Mr. Orlando, as fans began chanting, “fuck that guy!” Which was soon followed by, "this is bullshit!” I reminded them that women got the right to vote nearly one hundred years prior, only to be reminded by Marc’s cornerman, the well-spoken intellectual, Jackson Smart, that the word I was looking for was “suffrage.” 

Upon going backstage in an attempt to arbitrate the issue, Mr. Orlando immediately informed me that my antics had resulted in my suspension from the state of New York. Mind you, the State Athletic Commission does not have the authority, let alone jurisdiction, to do such as thing. There are no licensing requirements for performers in the state of New York (including referees) and there had not been so for well over a decade. That speaks nothing of him handing out such a judgment without proper due process. I imagine he knew this and was just attempting to shut me up, but following the rest of the exchange, I no longer make the mistake of assuming that these people have even the faintest idea of how to do their jobs or conduct themselves as human beings.

While deliberating backstage, Mr. Orlando professed to have never witnessed or even heard of intergender wrestling before. This is despite such encounters occurring regularly in New York City, including on events he has previously personally inspected. After a half-hour of searching for the exact provision that stated intergender wrestling was unlawful in the state of New York, they presented a statute in the book of "Boxing and Wrestling" guidelines that states female boxers could not compete against male boxers. This, they cited, was the lawful justification for the stoppage.

Jess and I pointed out that this was a wrestling event, not a boxing event, as the book specifically indicated the rule applied towards boxing—but that fell on deaf ears. Neither Mr. Orlando nor Ms. Perry could provide a suitable explanation for why the rule was specifically written to reference boxing, since it was allegedly in reference to both.

Regardless, Marc, Jess, and I did not allow the issue to be dropped. The New York State Athletic inspectors called their superiors, who called their superiors, who called their lawyers to deliberate on the matter. It occurred to me that a friend of mine was in attendance who happened to be a lawyer. I felt that if they were speaking to a lawyer, I should as well. I asked my friend to accompany me backstage, where I could discuss with her the legality of what they were claiming.

Upon discovering that she was a lawyer, Ms. Perry immediately left. Mr. Orlando informed me that my friend was not allowed to be backstage. I asked him if he had the authority to make that decision, given that he was solely an inspector and this was in no way his event. He responded in the affirmative. I called his bluff and, in response, he decided to leave as well. Now that only reasonable adults remained in the room, my lawyer friend informed me that there are legal constructs that speak to what is written in the law as opposed to how they choose to interpret it—in this case, by adding in additional details made up on-the-spot to suit their agendas.

It was not until my friend left that Mr. Orlando returned. I calmly asked him if he could clarify some specifics regarding this issue. However, at that point, he refused to continue speaking to me. I responded that, as a taxpayer and as a human being, the least he could do as a government official was to engage in an open dialogue regarding the laws and statutes he was enforcing.

He refused, saying he would only speak to the promoter of the event. He walked into a side hallway to speak with him. I said that I was going to accompany them in order to bear witness to this conversation. As I approached the entrance, Mr. Orlando said I was not allowed to participate in the conversation. I asked him if he had the legal authority to do that. He said yes, before shutting the door against me—physically shoving me out. Textbook legal definition of unlawful battery.

After the inspectors conversed with the promoter and their higher-ups, it was decided that with the looming threat of legal action, there were no legal grounds to stop the match or prevent it from occurring. After the higher-ups at SAC begrudgingly relented, the match was held as the main event of the evening. Jess and Marc went on to have an incredible, emotionally-driven bout that ended with Jess victorious and receiving a well-earned showing of respect not only from the crowd but every performer in the back, as well.

Following the match, Mr. Orlando told the promoter that he wanted me fired from his company and, once that idea was dismissed, stated he was going to write-up both myself and the promotion for "publicly disrespecting an official." Why he felt I have no right to free speech, I am unsure. Why he felt he is exempt from being censured and criticized in the face of a humiliating unprofessional error on his end, I am also unsure.

Mr. Orlando also stated that part of his reasoning for writing me up was owing to the fact that, "the only reason he spoke his mind was because she's his girlfriend." While I applaud Mr. Orlando's psychic prowess, I question his accuracy. I have a long track record of supporting women wrestlers and women's wrestling. The fact that Jess was the one in the ring when this happened was mere happenstance. I would speak boldly and proudly for this issue regardless of who was targeted.

The story earned a handful of press nationwide, including a response from the New York Athletic Commission that they would “better train their inspectors” moving forward.

It would be years until I saw Mr. Orlando or Ms. Perry again. Certain sources within the Commission have privately expressed to me that, after bringing so much embarrassment to the SAC, they were temporarily barred from attending events that I was to be at. Those same individuals expressed the belief that these inspectors were targeting wrestling due to political ambitions motivated by career advancement. Allegedly, of course.

So, why did they do it? I will not do as they did to me and make assumptions and claims on their behalf. However, I will share my own, personal theory. It is in my opinion that, despite advanced notice, the fact that any issues regarding this match were not brought up in the days leading up to the event or on show day, prior to the event starting, speaks to rather 1. a gross ineptitude on the part of the inspectors or 2. they were deliberately making this a public display of their (abuse of) power. Weird flex, but I digress.

At any rate, I believe Mr. Orlando knowingly misrepresented the extent of his legal power in an attempt to subdue and intimidate Marc, Jess, and I. Mr. Orlando and Ms. Perry showed their lack of professionalism in failing to privately discuss the matter prior to the event and in their rashness of publicly enforcing a statute that proved to be nonexistent. By the way, the write-ups they kept threatening? Like their earlier claims, they also proved to be nonexistent.

Fans and industry insiders alike have asked me numerous times: was it a work? After all, the thought is understandable, given the Kabuki-ish nature of the professional wrestling industry. I took that as a compliment toward my own acting chops, as It would have been a well-done work, if so. But unfortunately, no. The truth is much sadder. This was no preplanned story arch endeavoring to add drama to the evening’s entertainment.

Since then, Jess and I have turned down many offers by promoters to reenact or to make an angle out of what happened, but we have always politely declined. All is fair in love and wrestling, as the old axiom goes, but what happened that night eclipsed both. That night was about right and wrong. It was about not allowing the evil discriminatory practices of sexism to prevail, even if only in our tiny microcosm of society that is professional wrestling. To dramatize that for a storyline would only serve to cheapen its meaning.

In a timeline of the past, present, and future of humanity, acts of discriminatory sexism have occurred daily and will likely continue indefinitely. There is very little that Marc, Jess, and I can do to prevent that on a wider scale. However, that night, we were afforded the opportunity to successfully prevent it from infecting a professional wrestling event held in a Bath Beach parish. With pride, I consider that a win.


Kris Levin is a traveling storyteller, professional wrestling referee, and Locker Room Detective. He can be seen internationally as television wrestling’s most junior official, #KidRef, and on social media at @RefKrisLevin.