First published on 18 Apr 2012. Updated on 16 Jul 2012.
Recently, Slex, a Melbourne City Wrestling (MCW) champion, performed in the art deco setting of Thornbury Theatre. The audience bantered lustily with the wrestlers (one man got so angry he threw a chair before storming out), with everyone from kids up to oldies up for a smashing time. As Rohan Herbstreit from WNA jokes, it’s “half sport, half entertainment, half cabaret”.
Australia has over 20 wrestling organisations in Australia and there are three academies in Melbourne alone. There is no sporting code or body that controls professional wrestling. This is why there are so many associations such as AWF Wrestling, PWA and PCW Entertainment. The shows produced by each group are vastly different. One may put on a family show, the other an over 18s; one will champion Slex, the other Danny Psycho. Unique characters like Cletus Blood, Shazza McKenzie and Jacko Lantern (with his trademark Smashing Pumpkin move) may not be as well known as WWE’s Undertaker and John Cena, but they put on a hell of a show.
“The fans are in on it. It’s like, ‘Wink, wink do you get it?’” Herbstreit says. The winner may have been decided beforehand, but it’s the show that counts.
This ‘fake’ element of wrestling makes it hard to justify it as a sport, but Herbstreit groans: “You don’t appreciate it because they’re so well trained. If you jump in a ring, even just running around and hitting the ropes, it hurts. Everything hurts. When the blood’s pumping and the adrenaline’s running it’s okay. But afterwards, it’s a mess. It can take a couple of weeks to recover.” And what about the wrestlers themselves? Herbstreit says that many are quiet by nature and they do it for passion alone; it is currently impossible to make a living from wrestling in this country.
Time to meet some of Melbourne’s wrestlers.
Slex is blond and tanned with enormous biceps; he wouldn’t be out of place as a surf lifesaver. When asked about the misconceptions about wrestling, his face hardens. “To simply say it’s fake is an insult to everything we do.”
He’s a personal trainer and in order to be ready for a match he combines weight training, cardio and a strict diet. “Getting into lycra speedos in front of a crowd most weekends, you want to make sure you’re not a fatty boomsticks,” he laughs. A regular schedule of shows has consequences. “I think it’s all catching up now. It feels like you recover from one thing and then something else creeps up.”
Despite the aches and pains, Slex loves the sport and is excited about having another chance at the MCW Championship and showing the audience why he’s “the best thing going around”, despite having heard every kind of insult under the sun.
The crazy-eyed and curly-haired KrackerJak, the “mad bastard of Australian wrestling” is happy about what’s happening in Melbourne. “You compare it to the sort of crowds an unsigned band or non-televised comedian draws and we do really well. A few weeks ago, simultaneous shows on Bourke Street and in St Kilda drew over 400 fans each.” He’s interested in the sport’s psychological elements and complexities. “People think it's simple or that it's only for simple people. Like many types of performance it can be enjoyed on a variety of levels depending on your understanding of the craft.”
KrackerJak has a wicked sense of humour when assessing his career. “I bet I’ll master the psychology of wrestling about five minutes after my spine irreparably prolapses and I'll never get to put the knowledge into practice,” he says. At 33, he’s been wrestling for 13 years but has no plans to slow down. “I’ll always like the idea of clambering into spandex, smacking someone in the face, kicking them in the balls and saying something highly inappropriate about their mother,” he grins.
Women’s wrestling is also getting more attention. La Lucha Glamourosa at the Prince Bandroom included three bouts between female wrestlers and burlesque stars such as Senorita Sangria and Jey Mysterio. Recently retired wrestler Amy Action saw Japanese Women’s Wrestling and said “I want to do that.” She now writes about the history of women in the sport and provides a different insight.
“Most wrestlers are doing it for low pay – and in some cases no pay – to enthusiastic audiences that are not particularly large by live event standards. We do it for the love of it.” She faced prejudices when starting out her wrestling career, as agents refused to book women. Action reflects, “It’s good to be able to change people’s opinions and preconceived notions.”
The sport of professional wrestling has suffered the odd suplex in its time, but it’s attracting a new, trendy audience – inspiring the House of Rock at Bourke Street’s Palace Theatre to put on ‘Rock’n’Roll Wrestling’ events. Whether it’s nostalgia for the heyday of the ’80s or an ironic hipster makeover, Rohan Herbstreit is excited about the expansion. “Every five or ten years it changes slightly, but wrestling can be violent, it can be a comedy show. A show at the House of Rock could be a rock’n’roll show. You can have a character come out with a guitar. That’s why I like it, it’s evolving.”
With the WWE touring all major Australian cities and Impact Wrestling in the United States investigating this country as the next big market, Australian wrestling may go international. “So many office people you’ve never imagined, probably sitting next to you in a suit and tie… on the weekends, they throw the lycra on and all of a sudden, they’re superman,” Herbstreit laughs.