Video via NY Sportscene

Wrestler Bonesaw Jessie Brooks, the Baddest Woman on the Planet, was less than a minute into her match against Rochester bruiser Marc Hauss in a church gymnasium in Bath Beach, Brooklyn on Friday when the bell sounded.

"I didn’t hear it at first," Brooks recalled recently. She didn't notice anything was amiss until her opponent and the ref walked over to the edge of the ring to talk to Robert Orlando, the Athletic Commission deputy commissioner who had stopped the match.

Video shows the moment the match stopped. Orlando, whose agency is tasked with licensing promoters and ensuring that wrestlers don't break state rules such as a ban on fighting in the crowd or using fire, summons referee Kris Levin, who happens to be Brooks's boyfriend and co-owner of the all-female indie wrestling promotion Valkyrie, to the edge of the ring. Orlando says something.

"That's sexist," Levin responds. "I'm sorry, but that's not true."

The boisterous crowd is momentarily confused, perhaps wondering whether this is the setup to some punchline where the state's deputy commissioner rips off his shirt and power-bombs Levin—this would be what's called in wrestling "a work." Then, sensing that something more serious is afoot, the fans begin to boo.

Orlando backs quickly away from the ring and Brooks follows.

"I asked him why he was stopping the match, and he said I as a female cannot wrestle a male—that’s not allowed," Brooks said.

On the mic, Levin asks, "Are you saying that the state of New York condones sexism? That women are not equal to men and cannot fight men?"

"No, in this sport, you can't," Orlando says, arms crossed on the gym floor.

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Flyers of the match were publicized more than a week beforehand, and organizers say, posted at the venue, prompting them to ask why the Athletic Commission didn't object ahead of time. (Tier 1 Wrestling)

Broken out of the normal cacophony of body slams and big-lung-ed announcing, the gym goes silent as wrestlers, managers, and show organizers walk away from the performance area to try to speak with Orlando. Soon the ring is empty.

Brooks, Levin, and Hauss are part of a small but dedicated East Coast indie wrestling scene that in New York fills American Legion halls, outer-outer borough event spaces, and repurposed industrial hangars a few times a month. For around $25, indie wrestling shows offer four solid hours of in-your-face choreographed entertainment, often accompanied by cheap hot dogs and cans of Bud, and draw a strikingly diverse multi-generational crowd including rabid teen fans whose presence is so constant that they chant about the wrestlers' personal lives, professionals who are closet pro wrestling freaks, and families from the neighborhood.

Brooks, real name Jessyka Perea, is a Brooklyn native who has been training and wrestling for seven years between school and day jobs. As one of the few female wrestlers in the New York area, much of her experience has come from wrestling men.

Brooks has faced her share of insults and obstacles on the way to becoming a respected part of the local milieu, but said she had never been bothered by the state before Friday.

"I was just really confused because I have never heard of that, and I have been doing intergender matches for a really long time now, most of them in New York," she said.

Friday's event was a showcase of two area promotions, Warriors of Wrestling and Tier 1 Wrestling, and one of the indie satellite matches that spring up whenever the WWE comes to town, in this case for Sunday's SummerSlam at the Barclays Center.

Brooks gave up on talking to Orlando after he repeated several times that she wasn't allowed to wrestle a man.

Tier 1 owner Dennis Long and Levin, the ref, followed Orlando backstage. There, Long said, "things escalated." Levin and Long say they demanded that Orlando point to a single provision in the state rulebook backing him up, and that in repeated flip-throughs, he couldn't find one.

He did, Levin said, come across a rule barring intergender boxing matches, and try to claim that because the rulebook covers pro wrestling and boxing, so too does that rule.

Long said that Orlando put him on the phone with a supervisor at the commission, a man, who said, "A man can wrestle a man, a woman can wrestle a woman. The only way a woman can face a man is in the bedroom."

"I'm going to quote you on that," Long remembers saying in response.

Both sides made a series of phone calls, and Levin retrieved a lawyer friend from a crowd. The other Athletic Commission representative present, an inspector named Dorthea Perry, made herself scarce at this point, Levin said.

Levin and Long say that Orlando told them he would only speak to Long, the promoter, and that when Levin tried to follow them, Orlando shut the door against him, forcibly shoving him backwards and blocking him out.

Discussions between the commission workers and organizers lasted for all three of the matches scheduled next, and Brooks said the time limit was extended on what was supposed to be the main event while both sides awaited a call back from state lawyers. When the call came back affirming that Brooks could wrestle, the show was allowed to go on, and her match became the last of the night.


Video via NY Sportscene

Brooks took Hauss on a bullet train to Suplex City and emerged the victor, at which point all the wrestlers and refs streamed out of backstage and pounded the mat in congratulations.

Since then, Brooks, Levin, and the rest have become the toast of New York indie wrestling Facebook, and the story has gotten picked up by national wrestling news and rumor sites filling the role once occupied by underground print publications called dirt sheets.

Long said that the athletic commission flexing its muscles on small-time promoters is nothing new—he recalled having a match shut down by Orlando this spring for a wrestler's dive out of the ring, even though it was in an area not occupied by fans—but that pointing to the gender of a wrestler is outlandish in this day and age.

"It seemed like they just wanted to assert power for the sake of it," he said. "To say a woman can’t wrestle a man in 2016 is preposterous."

Long said that he worried that speaking out could endanger his license with the Athletic Commission, which he must renew annually, but that it's important to do it anyway. Brooks said the organizers are in the process of filing a complaint with the city Human Rights Commission.

The Athletic Commission issued this statement today acknowledging that inter-gender wresting is, in fact, not prohibited:

The Commission’s rules do not prohibit an inter-gender professional wrestling exhibition. There was some uncertainty as to the rules by Commission personnel at this event. Mr. Orlando ultimately contacted Commission management to seek guidance on the matter, management provided the correct clarification to Mr. Orlando, and the exhibition proceeded. The Commission regrets any inconvenience to the affected wrestlers and fans that may have occurred during the time that the matter was being resolved. The Commission will be holding additional trainings for Inspectors and Deputy Commissioners in the upcoming quarter. The Commission’s position is that all persons must be treated fairly and with respect at Commission-related events. In regards to the conversation quoted by the promoter, this is the first the Commission has heard of that specific claim, and the Commission cannot comment as to the accuracy of the claim. The allegations of inappropriate comments made by a Deputy Commissioner raise personnel issues that will be internally reviewed. The Department and Commission cannot provide any further comment.

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Jessie Brooks lays the smack down on Marc Hauss. (Brian Krieger/Gothamist)

Filmmaker Ruth Leitman, who directed the 2005 documentary Lipstick & Dynamite about aging women wrestlers, has tracked the history of women in pro wrestling and said the business has come a long way towards valuing women's athleticism (though you might not know it immediately upon turning on the E! reality show Total Divas). Women and intergender pro wrestling dates at least back to the 1930s, when it was a carnival attraction, and occasionally promoters would challenge passersby to fight a woman wrestler taking all comers, Leitman said.

"It’s happened ever since then," she said. "Ultimately, underneath the gender politics there’s money behind it, and there’s the titilation factor, and all of those things that make it always a possibility. It can sell tickets."

And for almost as long as women in wrestling have been seen as a vehicle to pack seats, legislators have sought to restrict them from doing so, through outright bans, and through strict regulations about what they could wear. Illinois, California, and New York were among the last to end their restrictions, Letiman said. New York's ban on female wrestlers lasted until 1972, when WWE owner Vince McMahon's father, Vince Sr., and a coterie of female talent (who exactly is disputed) successfully lobbied the Athletic Commission to lift it.

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And the winner is...Bonesaw Jessie Brooks (with ref Kris Levin). (Brian Krieger/Gothamist)

The prominence of women wrestlers waxed and waned over the 20th century. Over the past few decades, as the WWE has established a stranglehold on the industry and all but destroyed the regional promotion circuit as a business model, working women wrestlers have more uniformly been pushed into roles that value skimpy clothing over ring abilities. A rising crop of indie leagues around the country and in Japan and Canada, matches of which are newly accessible thanks to the internet, is changing that, Leitman said. And she believes that the publicity around the commissioner's bad call at Brooks-Hauss match can feed that trend.

"It’s an incredible opportunity and moment for people in independent wrestling to forge that opportunity for women and men to be in the ring together more often," she said, "to show that women wrestling is not just a lingerie show."

Brooks expressed a similar sentiment.

"I just hope that this brings awareness to things like that that are still happening within wrestling, as far as sexism females being treated differently than males," she said. "I hope something like this never happens again as far as them stopping a match...I'm frustrated that that had to happen in the first place, but I'm glad some good came out of it."

Despite all the serious gender politics implications of the misguided crackdown, and the detailed, career-threatening criticisms of the state that those involved have made, friends and fans couldn't help but marvel how awesome this series of events would be in the soap operatic, nothing-is-as-it-seems world of professional wrestling narratives. In a winking acknowledgment of this, Combat Zone Wrestling brawler Josh Adams wrote on Facebook, "This is the greatest work ever."

"No work," Hauss responded.

"I know lol sarcasm brotha," Adams wrote. "But damn. It would be a hell of an angle."