Sydney’s ‘backyard’ wrestlers are shaking up the game

Sydney’s ‘backyard’ wrestlers are shaking up the game - 15th June 2018


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by Declan Cooley, The Daily Telegraph

Before being buff was a thing, Australian Wrestling Hall of Famer Ken “Dazzler” Dunlop used to regularly throw himself around the ring at Melbourne’s Festival Hall in front of several thousand rabid fans.

As he worked his way around Australia performing to packed-out pubs and clubs six times a week, he says crowds used to get so big and rowdy they would regularly attack him, with one attendee even pulling a knife.

But that was in the ’60s and ’70s, when Australian wrestling was in its prime and monikers such as Mario Milano, Spiros Arion and Andre the Giant were household names.

Back then wrestling was bigger than boxing, bigger than a lot of sports, and a weekly, sometimes nightly, event both live and on television.

We’ve all wrestled in carparks, shopping centres, festival shows and RSL clubs in front of five or six people, so to be on a grand stage is just surreal.

But while it continued to grow in America, backed by a robust amateur system, in Australia the spectacle has been in long-term decline since the 1980s.

Dunlop is optimistic, though, that Australian wrestling is regaining some of its former glory, with regular wrestling events now taking place to show off local talent.

“In the past six months local promoters have been bringing in a lot of overseas talent,” Dunlop says. “It’s encouraging, but the industry still needs to get some good sponsors behind it to help the sport along.”

Tonight Sydneysider Robbie Eagles takes on South Australia’s Jonah “King of Monsters” Rock as the headline event at Max Watt’s in Moore Park.

Others on the bill include Mick “The Rapscallion” Moretti, Jack Bonza, Madison Eagles, Unsocial Jordan, Shazza McKenzie and Caveman Ugg.

PWA Wrestlers training at their Chipping Norton Gym Picture: David Swift.

The venue will be decked out like a Roman amphitheatre and feature colourful match-ups, including one where household items such as ironing boards are used as weapons.

Run by Pro Wrestling Australia, it follows a recent sellout at The Star casino that drew 1200 fans.

“We’ve all wrestled in carparks, shopping centres, festival shows and RSL clubs in front of five or six people, so to be on a grand stage is just surreal,” PWA wrestler Matty Wahlberg says.

“The one thing people don’t understand is how much time we have put into it to be as good as we are. At the end of the day you’re missing birthday parties, weddings and huge moments in your family’s lives,” he says.

The PWA wrestlers perfect their moves, groans and acrobatics in a warehouse in Sydney’s southwest. Between big events they go back to the grind, performing chokeholds, body slams and dodging folded chairs in front of much smaller crowds at local RSLs.

Robbie Eagles has been wrestling for 10 years but always to small crowds.

“A bigger stage means a bigger performance,” he says.

“It’s a huge deal for us and the fact we sold so many tickets at The Star is unheard of among Sydney wrestlers in the past 20 years.”

The high-flyer, who usually finishes off his opponents with his signature move — the 450 Splash, a double-rotation front flip off the ropes into an opponent lying on the canvas — says Australian wrestling is still in a rebuilding phase but is due for a “boom”.

Wrestling historian Libnan Ayoub, the son of pro wrestler Sheik Wadi Ayoub, who died in 1976, said the sport had suffered from a lack of facilities and schools.

“It’s not the same. It’s a different era and the way they are taught now, they haven’t learnt the basics,” he says.

“They’re just being taught moves. Back in the old days you’d learn how to break falls, how to fall on the mat. You’d start with amateur moves and go on from there.”

TV’s World Championship Wrestling started in Australia in 1964 with a fight between Killer Kowalski and Dominic De Nucci. Channel 9 had the broadcast rights and ran shows over the weekend, while there was live wrestling at the Sydney Stadium and, from 1973, at the Hordern Pavilion on a Friday night.

An immensely popular circuit drew crowds of up to 9000 fans, moving from Sydney on Friday to Melbourne’s Festival Hall on Saturday night, then on to Perth, Wollongong, Adelaide, Hobart (and later Auckland and Wellington) during the rest of the week.

Ayoub, whose Over The Top Rope documentary tells the story of World Championship Wrestling in Australia, says: “Wrestling has got to look good but has to involve real wrestling, not just copying what the Americans do.

“I don’t mind the shenanigans. It’s fun — but you’ve got to get back to the discipline of wrestling.

“Hal Morgan, the promoter who ran all the clubs, taught the locals to wrestle and had his own school. That’s all but died out. The amateur scene in Australia is a closed shop. They don’t promote it, no one talks about it and no one understands the sport.

“UFC has evolved from that and has the pay per view.”

According to Ayoub, wrestling remains strong in America due to better promotion when the sport was in the doldrums.

I don’t mind the shenanigans. It’s fun — but you’ve got to get back to the discipline of wrestling

“In 1980 there was a global slump in wrestling,” he says.

“But in 1985 the Americans brought out Rock and Roll Wrestling with Hulk Hogan and Mr T and all the razzamatazz, and everyone loved it. Then Vince McMahon bought up all the little promotions and they all closed down.

“That’s why WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) is huge today and everyone wants to get in there and get paid a lot of money.”

Eagles says tonight’s show is another step towards getting Australian wrestlers known internationally again.

“We’re so undiscovered and that’s what putting on this event is all about, getting these guys on a platform to show the world.

“Australian wrestling is DIY and similar to the music industry.

“Anybody who starts out is not instantly Bon Jovi. They have to play the crap gigs and go to all the pubs to get their name out there.

“If we could do this full-time and wrestle all the time that would be the dream.”

Eagles says Australian wrestlers face an uphill battle to convince local fans they are the real deal and on par with their bulkier counterparts in the US.

“You often hear fans saying, ‘it’s just Australian wrestling’ but with greater exposure our reputation (for being top quality) will increase,” he adds.

“Robbie Eagles is my business. We get paid but it’s not like a salary, you just put it back into your wrestling.”

Fans can be assured there will be maximum carnage because all the wrestlers are out for a win.

“If wrestling was scripted we wouldn’t be very good at our job because you need to think quickly,” Eagles says.

But whatever you do, don’t tell these guys wrestling is fake because they’ve got the injuries to prove just how dangerous wrestling can be.

“Is the divot in my elbow fake? When I go home and feel like crap and have to take care of my body because everything hurts, is that fake?” Wahlberg asks.

“It’s a live performance, it’s entertainment and it baffles me when we’re hitting and flipping and landing on this canvas and people say it’s fake,” Moretti adds. “If you go to the theatre any action is so pantomime but no one ever accuses it of being fake.

“People forget we’re in entertainment.”

We Sold our Soul for Rock & Robbie (18+) is at Max Watt’s, Moore Park, tonight. Tickets are $29 through OzTix .


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(The Daily Telegraph)