The Golden Age Of Professional Wrestling

The Golden Age Of Professional Wrestling 2003 (Credit: ABC - Radio National "The Sports Factor" - 11th July 1997

Amanda Smith: Today, it's back to the golden age of professional wrestling in Australia; to the days when men like Mario Milano, Spiros Arion, Brute Bernard and Larry O'Dea were the kings of World Championship Wrestling.

Jack Little commentary: Urrrr, what a war! What a battle! At Festival Hall in Melbourne, Australia. And the Golden Greek, Spiros Arion; Mark Lewin of The People's Army; and Abdullah the Butcher, Waldo von Erich with Big Bad John....

Barry York: For years, I've told people the story of my first riot, which was at Festival Hall in 1964. And as I remembered it, it involved the Italian hero, Dominic De Nucci who was the World Heavyweight Champion for our region, being attacked from behind by a chap called The Mongolian Stomper, who had a bald head with this pointed sort of bit of hair and a long, Fu-Manchu type moustache, and who used to stomp his opponents into submission.

The Mongolian Stomper picked up the brass bell from ringside, and crept up behind Dominic De Nucci and laid him out with it. And here was I, 13 years old, wondering is this true, is it real, is it really happening? And suddenly 7,000 Italians surging forward towards the ring to get The Mongolian Stomper.

Leaping Larry L: It wasn't real hard in Australia back in the early part of the 1970s when I guess I became aware of the World Championship Wrestling program that was on Channel 9 on the weekends; and I couldn't say I was Robinson Crusoe in that - everyone was well aware of that program then. Had they been doing ratings at that time, I think they would find that that show would have been pulling ridiculous Man Lands on the Moon-type shares: it was probably doing a 70 share going by the people talking about it at school and at the office the next day and during the week.

Commentator... we'll be back after this message.

MUSIC: World Championship Wrestling theme

Amanda Smith: Hi, I'm Amanda Smith - thanks for your company on The Sports Factor. Today in honour of two great wrestlers, Larry O'Dea, who died last week, and Spiros Arion, who died earlier this year. A little later in the program I'll be speaking with another legend of the ring, Mario Milano, who at 62 years old is not only very much alive, he's still wrestling. And we'll investigate signs that the wrestling's making a comeback.

World Championship Wrestling was broadcast on television from 1964 to 1978, and for thousands and thousands of families around Australia, no Sunday lunch was complete without tuning in to Jack Little and the boys. In those days of black and white TV, the wrestling was about the most colourful stuff on air. While professional wrestling had had a strong following in Australia since the 1920s, according to wrestling fan and researcher Barry York, it was television that took it to new heights as the great spectacle of good and evil:

Barry York: Television changed professional wrestling, making it more of a spectacle, more visual. It introduced the gimmicks like Gorgeous George, with the flowing robes and blond hair. And because it made it more visual, the persona of wrestlers also became exaggerated. So you could tell just by looking who were the bad and who were the good wrestlers. Waldo von Erich used to always put the fear of heaven into me, because he was - apart from being about seven foot tall and 18 stone - he actually had this persona of a German stormtrooper. Looking back on it, it was in terribly bad taste, especially when they put him up against Mark Lewin, the Jew from New York, and he'd taunt Lewin about remembering the past, and all that. And he had jackboots. So through television, immediately you could identify the evil and the good, and the promoters sure did play on prejudices - good and bad. In the case of Waldo von Erich, it was a good thing to have him there as a symbol of evil.

Amanda Smith: Well how has who's been constructed as the good guy or the bad guy in Australian wrestling changed over time?

Barry York: The wrestling ring, in a way it represented the wider political issues of the time. In the Cold War period here and in America, but we'll just talk about Australia, there was Nikita Kalmikoff from the Soviet Union (really he was an American). And he was a rule-breaker - of course he was 'Russian' and this was the 1960s. And sometimes he was put up against men like Czaya Nandor, the Hungarian Freedom Fighter, as he was called; or the clean-up, patriotic, ex-marine Dale Lewis, who often referred to his Korean War experience.

Amanda Smith: Well didn't another Australian wrestler, Roy Heffernan, one of the great good guys of World Championship Wrestling, didn't he wear a slouch hat into the ring like he was the fair dinkum Aussie digger?

Barry York: Yes, indeed he did, and his tag-team partner, Al Costello - this is going back to the 1940s - they wrestled in Canada and America as the Fabulous Kangaroos, and they won the World Heavyweight Tag Team title. Because over there, of course, they represented an exotic persona. Here it somehow didn't quite work, because I mean it's like selling slouch hats to the Aussies...

Amanda Smith: Coals to Newcastle?

Barry York: Yes.

Amanda Smith: Well what about for particular Australian immigrant communities - Greek, Italian, Lebanese and so on. The professional wrestling for those groups would have been about identifying with wrestlers like Spiros Arion or Mario Milano or Sheik Wadi Ayoub, I guess, wouldn't it, rather than them being exotic?

Barry York: First of all, you've got to remember that this was a business, an industry, to make money for the stadiums and the promoters and for the Nine Network. And the Italians and Greeks represented by far the largest ethnic market, if we can call it that. So there was the determination of heroism that was largely economically or business motivated. But the actual qualities of those heroic individuals, if you look at Dominic De Nucci and Mario Milano for example, I think you would find that they were portrayed as clean-cut; with due respect to them, but they were portrayed as simple folk, of humble, non-corrupt origins: both of them would genuflect before they started a bout, for example. And that persona was often matched against people from cities.

Amanda Smith: Well why was wrestling in Australia so ethnically mixed, Barry, long before Australia really recognised itself as culturally or ethnically diverse?

Barry York: Well it's interesting that - I mean when Australia did start to recognise itself as ethnically diverse, with official multiculturalism, that's when wrestling declined. And I do think there's a link there, that in the early period, in the early 60s, early 70s, that was a time of non-recognition really of cultural variety and diversity. And for the members, some members of those mainly working-class ethnic communities, their heroes in the ring made them feel good. It was a way of identifying, of feeling a part of the society they were in, as well as, of course, giving them an outlet for venting their frustrations as newcomers in this, what to them, was a strange land. But eventually, through multiculturalism, when you found official support for ethnic clubs and integration to an extent of the Italian and Greeks into our wider society, you find the whole thing tending to disperse. The so-called ethnic market has choices beyond the wrestling ring. They've SBS TV; by that stage they're home-owners, they've worked their overtime like my Dad did, and they've bought their house really quickly and some are getting interested in non-Italian or non-Greek clubs and activities as well. The wrestling becomes less important.

Amanda Smith: Well at that period of Australian postwar migration, the wrestling ring must have been one of the few places where it was a definite advantage to be from a non-Anglo Australian background.

Barry York: Well I think that goes back to the 1920s, when it all started. More so back then, that unless you were highly educated, that most of the migrants were working-class people who were given the worst jobs in factories, or on roadworks, or whatever. It was very difficult to break out of that limited range of opportunities, but there was always the boxing ring or the wrestling ring. I think with the wrestling it was an advantage to be from somewhere exotic. In 1930 there was a bit match in Melbourne at the West Melbourne Stadium between Tom Lurich, who was a Russian migrant - he actually settled here - and George Kostanaris, a Greek wrestler. And the local papers were quite shocked at what happened at that bout - not in the ring, but in the audience, because they reported that there were a lot of Russians and Greeks in the audience, and as they put it, 'the stadium resounded with the exhortations of these strange foreign tongues'. So even back then, there was definitely this ethnic aspect to it. And for Tom Lurick, I mean what would he have done as a Russian migrant? Where could he have been more advantaged than as a wrestler in the ring?

WRESTLING CROWD Jack Little commentary: ... down on the floor Mark Lewin screaming for him to come in, and egging the crowd on to cheer on the People's Army. Abdullah the Butcher now being urged on by Waldo von Erich to get back in the ring. Now Lewin should give him a chance to get back... WRESTLING CROWD

Amanda Smith: Now the other day, I had the great pleasure of visiting Pino's Pizza Shop in Coburg, in Melbourne, where I met the original Italian Stallion himself, Mario Milano. Mario started wrestling 45 years ago:

Mario Milano: My first start in wrestling was in South America: Caracas, Venezuela. I was 17 years old, it's the first time I saw wrestling there when I emigrated with my father after the war, and that's the first time I saw professional wrestling there, and I like it. And some big wrestler there named Ciccliano open a school and I started and became a wrestler.

Amanda Smith: And how did you learn the skills and the holds of wrestling?

Mario Milano: Well of course, at school, and also through the years. Because wrestling is like I guess like any profession - sport, or any profession - if you have the knowledge, don't need to be very, very strong. I mean at my age now, I know I can beat a lot of much younger and stronger than me boys, because I have the experience, I have the knowledge.

Amanda Smith: And what's been your most famous or favourite technique or hold?

Mario Milano: Well my favourite hold is - of course all wrestling fans they like, they know about that - my Abdominal Stretch. I perfected it. My teacher taught me, but I did something that was special, different. If you have long legs, it's easier, and long arms, it's easier to apply and so it has been very successful.

Amanda Smith: So tell me about the Abdominal Stretch - what does that involve?

Mario Milano: Well Abdominal Stretch I have to show you. But I can tell you something: if I apply Abdominal Stretch on somebody, he don't give up; his back, his hip, his leg can be broken very, very easy. It's a very, very strong hold. Very dangerous.

Amanda Smith: Well in professional wrestling, there's definite good guys and bad guys. Were you always a good guy, Mario?

Mario Milano: Well most of the time, yes. But see a wrestler himself, the public create the image. For instance when I came to Australia nobody knew Mario Milano. Soon I went out there in Sydney, it was my first match. I went there and everybody applauds. Either because maybe I was Italian, my size, my looks, my who knows what? But they are certain he's a nice guy. So I have always been a nice guy. But somebody goes in the ring, they maybe don't like him because he's Russian or something, and everybody boos. They accept he's a bad guy. Because I used to kick and punch and pull hair, you know, like the other ones, but I always was accepted as a good guy.

Amanda Smith: Did you ever want to be a bad guy?

Mario Milano: Well at one stage in my life I did a little bit of - I broke the rules and regulations because, I needed some money quickly and they give me a good offer, but the people still saw me as a good guy.

Amanda Smith: So it didn't work for you to be a bad guy?

Mario Milano: No, no, it didn't.

Amanda Smith: Well yours has been a very long career in wrestling. Have you had many injuries over that time?

Mario Milano: Well yes, believe me, too many. But my advantage of that was because I always think positive. Unfortunately doctors - I'm sorry for any doctor listening to me now, I'm sorry to say they're sometimes wrong - because I've had a lot of injuries and many doctors quite a few times told me, 'Mario, forget about wrestling no more. Maybe you can walk properly or you can turn your neck properly, but you cannot wrestle again'. And after two months I was in the ring, because I believe it's a lot in your mind. So the doctors tell you it's bad, but you have a chance. But I've had a lot of injuries, yes, quite bad ones too. But my advantage in wrestling was I was always pretty flexible, which helped a lot.

Amanda Smith: Well what's the secret to your longevity in wrestling, that you've been able to wrestle for a long time?

Mario Milano: I think if you take care of yourself, and do things in moderation, is the principal. Very important, in life not just in sport, in life, because whatever you do... Even if you have too much money it's no good for you. I know a lot of people, I met a lot of promoters that are multimillionaires and they're miserable. So with moderation I think that is the main thing. Keep yourself in shape, and work out, and live an average life.

Amanda Smith: Mario Milano, who fans remember as anything but average.

Now we really can't go any further into this program without addressing the issue of 'faking it' in professional wrestling.

Roland Barthes, the French writer and critic, once wrote that wrestling is 'the great spectacle of suffering, defeat and justice'. And so, according to Barry York, it's the spectacle of the contest that counts, not whether it's 'for real' or not.

Barry York: When people go to a stadium or a venue, I think it's similar to somebody going to see a Shakespearean performance at a theatre: you know that it's acting and you suspend disbelief. You do that, because you're rewarded for doing so. You have a good time, to put it bluntly, or you experience this catharsis. You can boo and jeer and hurl abuse at the bad guy in the ring, but really you're yelling at your husband, or girlfriend, or boss at work you know, and you're getting it out of your system. So you get the reward for suspending disbelief. It happens across all forms of culture: cinema, opera, you name it, I mean upmarket theatre, we all do it, we pay our money to suspend our disbelief.

Amanda Smith: Barry York, who's giving a public lecture next Tuesday at the National Library in Canberra on his favourite subject: Professional Wrestling in Australia.

Leaping Larry L is another wrestling fan, and writer for 'Piledriver', the wrestling magazine. He's also the host and commentator at rock'n roll wrestling events that have taken off in a couple of inner-city night clubs in Melbourne. And for Leaping Larry it also really doesn't matter that the outcome is predetermined:

Leaping Larry L: It's not a big deal any more. It used to be a big deal. I don't think the simplest child in the audience could possibly think it was anything other than what it is. Let alone that the heads of two of the major American federations have both gone to court and publicly admitted in the last few years that it's a predetermined form of sports entertainment.

One of the major American groups at the moment is doing a thing where the major good guy comes down from the ceiling at the end of shows on a rope, with a baseball bat, basically dressed up as the character from the movie, 'The Crow'. Now anyone thinking rationally about that must realise that at this point we're not talking about the world of pure sport, you know. But we are talking about the world of sensational showbiz entertainment. If you can exploit the fact that yes, OK, this is simulated combat, sports entertainment. But you can have a degree of athleticism in it and you can exploit the fact that certain performers are excellent acrobats, or have great psychology, or know their wrestling holds and know how to work an audience and all of that sort of thing, you can combine the two, you can get, in theory, the best entertainment you can possibly present. And you can guarantee it in a way that other sport can't. So yes, it's an inherent part of the game, if it's done properly.

Amanda Smith: But is it still a kind of pantomime expression of wider political or cultural stereotypes?

Leaping Larry L: Like the Nazi guy and the Japanese guy were the bad guys?

Amanda Smith: Yes. I mean they're obviously not going to play now, so what does?

Leaping Larry L: It took the -- see, you understand that, but it took wrestling promoters about 20 years longer than you to work that out! But yes, eventually they did give up the ghost. I mean when the Berlin Wall's come down and when there's no Warsaw Pact and when the Americans are helping the Russians out you really can't have Russian bad guys any more. It'll play maybe in Broken Neck, Idaho, somewhere in the backblocks, but that wouldn't be good enough in a bigger venue. You'd have to have a stronger, more individualistic personality - that's the way things are going.

The most interesting exploitation of that has not been on an ethnic basis, but has been guys in the States doing slightly cartoonised variations of known types, from real life. Like the 'smug college jock' athlete-type. OK, so these smug college jocks go into the real world of pro sports and become a little arrogant, don't care about the fans. Well if you play that up, you're playing into a huge soft spot, an Achilles heel in the psyche of the sports fans, who probably really hate those types of guys: the smug, pretty-boy college jock type. You play something like that right, you're going to get a lot more heat from the audience than you are pressing some outdated ethnic stereotype that they don't care about any more.

FX: BELL Mike Cleary commentary: ...Larry's heard the bell so Larry O'Dea starts straight away...As he picks up the bits and pieces belonging to Abdullah the Butcher...In goes Abdullah, he's a cannibal as he goes in biting at Larry O'Dea...I don't think he even understands English, Abdullah the Butcher... FX: SCREAMS

Amanda Smith: Back at Pino's Pizza shop I also caught up with Dominic Care, otherwise known as The Italian Tank. The Tank is Mario Milano's tag team partner these days, wrestling at places like the Reggio-Calabria Club in Brunswick, in Melbourne. The Tank worked his way into the ring by selling lollies at Festival Hall back in the days of World Championship Wrestling:

Dominic Care: Well I always loved wrestling and I was selling lollies at Festival Hall, you know, the drinks, carrying the drinks and that. Then Mario opened up a school, Mario Milano opened up a school, and saw that I wanted to go on and he taught me how to do a bit of wrestling. And that's how I got into it.

Amanda Smith: Is there a revival of wrestling in the wind again now, do you think?

Dominic Care: I think so. They are coming back. And once a month, twice a month, we are all around Australia. But basically here in Melbourne once a month we're at the Reggio-Calabria Club. All the relations, like the fathers have got young kids about 17, 18 that have never seen it before. Now the wrestling fans of the '70s are coming to bring their kids along now.

Amanda Smith: And why do you think it's the right time for a revival?

Dominic Care: Oh look there hasn't been any wrestling now for the last ten, twelve years here in Australia. And you know, people, every time I walk down the street say, 'Dominic, when are you going to start wrestling again?' You know, and all this: 'Come on, let's start, let's get it going'. And that's what we've been doing and that's how we're getting all the success.

Amanda Smith: Now, what do you say to people who reckon that pro wrestling isn't for real?

Dominic Care: Well I don't know. I'd like for them to come and train at the gym. Unfortunately one who started last week started training, and he's in hospital with his leg broken in two places. And he said 'Well, I've retired before I started'. Because he thought it was fake too, and they all thought it was pretty easy, and that's how they suffer the consequences.

Amanda Smith: Dominic Care, The Italian Tank.

And at the monthly wrestling nights at the Reggio-Calabria Club, Gene Gatto is the ring announcer:

Gene Gatto: Well I knew Dominic, The Italian Tank, quite a few years ago. And I've always been a wrestling fan and my family were wrestling fans; and we used to go to Festival Hall and see Mario Milano and all the guys like Skull Murphy and Brute Bernard and all those sort of guys. And I got to meet The Tank and through him I actually wanted to become a wrestler, and started training and working out with them. And then I got to meet Jack Little and had a few chats with Jack Little and he sort of suggested I should take up commentary, and he'd teach me how to do it.

Amanda Smith: So what did you learn from Jack Little about how to do commentary for wrestling?

Gene Gatto: Well basically he really taught me that the job of the commentator is not to describe what's happening, because people can see that, but just to make it a lot more entertaining for the people there. How to handle the interviews, how to interview people, what to say, what not to say. I mean there's been quite a few times where Jack's said the wrong thing and copped a smack in the mouth. I remember one time Killer Karl Cox gave him what they call a brain buster, and put him in hospital for a few days.

Amanda Smith: Has anyone tried to do a brain buster on you?

Gene Gatto: Well actually I had Cyclo Negro one time, a wrestler from Venezuela - he was the world brass knuckles champion - one time, in Adelaide it was, he sort of did a bit of a job on me, yes. I just sort of stepped in the ring at the wrong time, I didn't see him. And he was wrestling Mario Milano and Mario was out of the way and I copped it, yes. Very painful, believe me.

Amanda Smith: Ring announcer Gene Gatto. And Mario and Tank et al, are all wrestling in Adelaide next week.

Meanwhile, at groovy, grungy inner-city night-clubs in Melbourne, Leaping Larry L is calling the card for a different sort of crowd:

Leaping Larry L: It's a rock 'n roll crowd; it's a crowd that would go to rock 'n roll anyway. It's not like you get more than 10, 20 out of a crowd of sometimes up to or over a thousand that are hard-core wrestling fans. These are people that go and see bands and have probably heard from their friends from earlier rock 'n wrestling shows that you've really got to come and see one of these: they're wild, even if it's not your favourite band, come and see it for the combination of the wrestling and the rock 'n roll, it's a great night out. And the crowds grew as a result of that. It certainly is a different night out, it's an unusual combination of things.

But rock 'n roll and wrestling go together. You see I don't think the golf and wrestling connection or the bridge and wrestling connection is ever going to take off, but rock 'n roll and wrestling. And a night out with, yes, sure, the beer and the smoke and the carpet that your shoes stick to, it all seems to work together. It's not maybe class, but it's exciting and it's fun.

Amanda Smith: So do you believe there is a resurgence of interest under way for wrestling in Australia at the moment?

Leaping Larry L: Oh I can't really say for Australia. I know in the States and Japan it's big business again after it went through a lull in the late '80s, early '90s. In the States it's really big business. I mean we're talking the two highest rated regular cable TV progamming shows in the States are both wrestling from the two different promotions. They run head to head on Monday nights, and the whole business to an extent is geared around what they do as a result, which is amazing for something that was thought to be dead a couple of years ago.

I would say there's a tendency in general for Australian popular culture to follow the American popular culture on a time delay of five to ten years, so given that it's already been going a couple of years, something could happen. I think the interest is there, but it's dormant, and if someone can regularly - and even the rock 'n wrestling shows haven't been regular enough - promote, yes, I think they'd find that they can make a dollar of it.

SONG: "Over The Ropes"

Amanda Smith: The late, unforgettable wrestling commentator, Jack Little, getting funky there. And timewise, we're over the ropes now for The Sports Factor.

Hope you'll join me, Amanda Smith, for another round next week on Radio National. Until then, cheers.

Mediaman Links:

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Interview - Steve Rackman - 13th November 2003

Interview - Walter Killer Kowalski - 13th November 2003

Interview Greg "TNT" Bownds - 15th January 2004

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