The founder of a Northeast Philadelphia wrestling network “discontinued” the organization last month following public allegations of misconduct and inappropriate behavior by wrestlers, trainers, and the owner himself.
The accusations against men affiliated with Chikara, a professional wrestling events company with a deeply loyal fanbase, were made as part of the #SpeakingOut movement, a social media campaign that’s something like the #MeToo movement for wrestling and impacted the industry from local, indie organizations to high-profile WWE stars.
At least a half-dozen people in June shared their Chikara experiences online, detailing a range of behavior over the past decade from inappropriate comments to physical abuse. Among the allegations, levied primarily on Twitter, were claims of an unprofessional environment that allowed for offensive comments and graphic discussions about sex in the workplace. One ex-employee accused a wrestler of openly bragging about bruises he gave to someone he said he’d had sex with.
Two other wrestlers were accused of improper behavior with female fans. One woman said a wrestler sent her sexually explicit messages when he knew she was a teenager. Another said she dated a wrestler who became physically abusive, once hitting her so hard she passed out.
After the allegations went public, dozens of Chikara wrestlers, men and women, resigned en masse. Chikara founder Mike Quackenbush shut down the network three days later, though he hasn’t ruled out resurrecting it once he can “ensure that the mistakes of the past are never repeated.” He also said the pandemic has affected the network’s ability to generate revenue from ticket sales.
“It does feel like a couple weeks ago like a mob ran into our house, lit it on fire and ran out,” he said. “And we gotta put it back together. It’s gotta be better. We’ve got to look at where we went wrong, and we’ve got to change.”
The way the #SpeakingOut saga hit Chikara shows the dramatic and swift impact public allegations of misconduct have today, more than two years after the #MeToo movement sparked a new level of openness among people who have experienced varying forms of violence.
In the case of Chikara, dozens of high-profile wrestlers said they believed the women. Quackenbush (whose real name is Michael Spillane) — himself accused of using misogynistic and homophobic language years ago — apologized in a 13-minute statement posted to YouTube and said he, too, in many cases believes the accusers.
“Almost all the responses were positive,” said Wiggy Wachowski, a wrestling podcast host who lives in Toronto and tweeted both her own allegations about a Chikara wrestler, as well as other accounts anonymously sent to her. “People immediately believed us.”
Quackenbush, 44, is himself a wrestler. He founded Chikara in 2002 to promote what many wrestlers refer to as a type of performance art, a sort of modern-day vaudeville, and he’s long been the face of the organization. The network, which ran shows out of Northeast Philly in addition to coordinating dozens of wrestlers’ travel across the country, was seen as a progressive cult favorite in the wrestling world and it was known for its family-friendly atmosphere. Matches were marked by fantastical, cartoonish characters and intricate storylines that felt like a comic book come to life.
About 100 people worked at Chikara all together, and all were independent contractors, Quackenbush said. Most of the several dozen performers weren’t full-time and carried day jobs outside wrestling.
Chikara is affiliated with The Wrestle Factory, also founded by Quackenbush, the city’s premier wrestling training school, which remains open just off Torresdale Avenue. It has existed largely to prepare people to debut in professional wrestling at Chikara. Quackenbush said he stepped down as the school’s head trainer. The school said in a statement Quackenbush is undergoing “extensive sensitivity and workplace harassment” training.
He said in an interview with The Inquirer that the #SpeakingOut movement “is not clearly good, not clearly bad.” While it took down people accused of sexual assault, it was also coopted by online bullies and bad actors with unclear intentions, he said.
Quackenbush said if Chikara is to return, it must evolve, including formalizing a code of conduct. He took responsibility for some negative experiences outlined online and admitted to making homophobic comments nearly a decade ago. He denied an allegation he talked about his sex life in the workplace.
The #SpeakingOut allegations as they related to Chikara gained traction June 19, when a fan tweeted a statement from a friend she identified as “Angela,” who said she was in a relationship in 2013 with a wrestler named Kobald — whose real name is Anthony Wilson — that turned emotionally and physically abusive.
Angela, a 36-year-old who lives in Massachusetts, confirmed her account to The Inquirer and requested to be identified only by her first name for fear of backlash from Wilson’s fans. She said over the course of their six- or seven-month relationship, Wilson beat her with a belt, burned her with a lighter, and once punched her head so hard she passed out. She said the abuse began in the context of sexual gratification, but said it went on long after she repeatedly told him to stop.
Jamar Wilson (no relation to Anthony), a former Chikara wrestler, said he was friends with Angela in late 2013 when she told him that Anthony Wilson physically hurt her during their relationship.
“Even though there was physical abuse, there was a lot of mental abuse, a lot of gaslighting, a lot of manipulation,” Angela said. “And it took a lot of therapy for me to realize that I didn’t deserve any of it, and none of it was my fault.”
Anthony Wilson didn’t respond to requests for comment sent to his email and publicly listed phone numbers.
Two other women posted tweets hours later accusing him of emotionally abusive behavior in their relationships with him, which started when they were fans. One was Wachowski, whose real name is Debbie Mitchell. She said she met Wilson in 2012 and was initially infatuated with him because she was “a nerdy girl who one of the cool kids was interested in.” She described controlling and “manipulative” behavior.
After Wachowski tweeted about her experiences in June, she received an email from Wilson, whom she hadn’t heard from in years. The email, viewed by the Inquirer, read only: “I’m sorry for everything.”
Less than three hours after Angela’s account was posted to Twitter, Chikara announced Wilson was removed from the roster. It represented at least the second time this year a Chikara wrestler was removed for alleged misconduct. In January, Chikara posted it had severed ties with a wrestler named Rory Gulak, the brother of a WWE star, after unspecified “allegations of misconduct.” Gulak could not be reached for comment.
Word also spread on social media that a woman claimed a former Chikara champion sent her sexually explicit messages via Twitter in 2013. At the time, she was 17, which she said she disclosed to the wrestler multiple times. The now-24-year-old wished to remain anonymous and confirmed the account to The Inquirer in an interview. The woman, who lives in New Hampshire, provided screenshots of the messages from the wrestler, one of which read: “I won’t say nothing if u don’t say anything.”
She also provided a video of the wrestler performing in 2013 and backing up onto her lap, flexing in front of her. Surprised, she placed her hand on her chest and young women sitting near her shook their heads in disapproval while others in the crowd booed.
The wrestler left Chikara in November 2019, Quackenbush said. The departure was unrelated to the allegations.
‘I feel like I was used’
The first big name to resign after the wave of allegations in June was a wrestler called Hallowicked. Wachowski said his departure was “like Carson Wentz quitting the Eagles. For him to walk away, that made everybody pay attention.” Then came announcements from more than a dozen others, including champions like Dasher Hatfield and Princess KimberLee.
“I feel like it’s my fault. I feel like I was used to give women hope and to make Chikara look like a safe place,” Lee tweeted. “I’m just disgusted. Going to be thinking long and hard about the rest of my future today.” She didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Among the top wrestlers who resigned following the allegations, a handful also praised Quackenbush’s quick handling, saying he shut Chikara down as soon as he realized it was beyond return.
Sidney Bakabella, whose real name is Joey Eastman, said while he didn’t experience a culture problem during his time with Chikara, there’s a “new generation” that doesn’t tolerate offensive behavior. He said “that’s great” and that cultural evolution in the wrestling world is necessary.
“I’m just sad that I’m not going to go to this place that I’ve gone to for the last eight years and create this amazing thing that we created,” he said. “Chikara is the only wrestling company that creates wrestling the way we do. It’s like, there’s chocolate and vanilla ice cream. We were like cake batter ice cream.”