In our latest series, Australiana, VICE is exploring national identity beyond the stereotypes. There are no cork hats or shrimps on the barbie here, we're letting Australians tell their own stories, free of national myth or propaganda.
I first heard about suburban wrestling from my younger brother. He told me a bunch of his friends were spending Saturday nights getting faded and watching wrestling in an alleyway wedged between a gym and a factory that sold saunas. So I asked if I could tag along, not really for the sake of journalism, but because it sounded like more fun than what I was doing.
I did some googling in the car. What I learned is that Professional Championship Wrestling is Victoria's biggest wrestling event. Each state in Australia has their own community, whether it's in Sydney's IWA Pro shows, or Queensland's Wrestling Alliance, and they're all on Saturday nights. They all seem to be held in these misty neon-lit auditoriums too, where an influx of disparate suburbans roll in to get their weekly dose of mayhem. We were nearly there and I was getting excited.
As I waited in line, Red Hot Chili Peppers' "Can't Stop" blared through the speakers and I noticed the doorman, who looked like a hardened Sam Childers-style outlaw, offering free ringside tickets to special needs spectators, and then bluntly refusing their money and telling them "it's on me, just enjoy the show." Such acts of generosity are extremely rare in entertainment sports, and especially when these shows are on such a small scale and barely make enough cash to support their no-holds-barred extravagant shows.
When I got inside, it felt like being in the foyer of a rollercoaster: everyone was pacing about, anxiously waiting for the show. A young boy in a Mexican Lucha Libre mask was tugging on his father's jacket demanding a hotdog, two little girls were taking a photo on their iPad, a gang of football jocks were sinking VB tinnies, a group of teenagers rocked shirts with the faces of their local favourites as they gossiped with inside information they had about the wrestlers.
In the far corner of the ring, a pack of middle-aged women wolf whistled at the topless Adonis in the ring, Danny Psycho. He looked like a bad boy footy jock, blonde and covered in tattoos. The same went for the group of male Asian students whose eyes glazed over when Indi Hartwell stomped around the ring in knee-high leather boots and an air of disinterested menace.
Indi Hartwell told me backstage that when she was growing up, "Female wrestling was more about bras and panties matches, that's why a lot of girls grew up idolising the men. That was, until I saw Sasha Banks and Bailey who were really tough, badass chicks, who were brawling just as hard as the men and that's what I try and do, motivate the young girls to be fierce and maybe even become wrestlers themselves."
I was surprised by how many women there were in the crowd. I hadn't really experienced such an equal gender balance in any other sporting event I'd ever attended. The young girls sitting next to me would scream in support of their favourite heroine or femme fatales, as they disrupted crowd expectations and confronted the male wrestlers with staunch aggression and cut throat monologues.
As the wrestlers came out one by one, I smiled at the work they'd put into constructing their characters and costumes. I was expecting super DIY backyard jobs, but I was wrong. The Revolution stormed out in pants and gloves highlighted with fluoro green crosses like they were some pissed off motocross riders who'd had their bikes stolen. And there was Aysha the villain, who rocked an anime aesthetic in tie-dye tights with leather straps and buckles.
The concept for entertainment-based wrestling is driven by narrative feuds between heroes and villains that end with a battle in the ring. In the suburbs, these principles are watered down in the same over-dramatic low-fi way kids reenact their favourite movies in their backyards on weekends. The hero and villain duality seemed like a perfect way to instil morals in the young spectators, the traits of a hero were always humble, generous, and responsive to the crowd and supportive of their teams.
The villains, on the other hand, were arrogant cheaters who mocked the crowd and often put their hand out only to remove it as soon as a fan tried to give them a high-five. Tome Filip, an extremely humble athlete who plays a self-centred supermodel villain character explained that "Whether it be that night, or a few months into the storyline, the good guy always prevails and the more boos I get in the lead up, the more heightened the reactions are in the crowd when their hero defeats the bad guys."
As I sat in the audience, letting all this wash over me, I started to think about declining numbers in churches and how sports seem to be the last communal gatherings we have; events where we can absorb cues for good behaviour by emulating our heroes. Or this is the case in suburban sports matches anyway. I wouldn't claim it's the case for WWE, where the wrestler's characters overshadow their moral compasses, and fans prefer only "cool" wrestlers like The Undertaker, Stone Cold Steve Austin, or my personal favourite Brock Lesnar.
While speaking to Rhonda and her son Jamie, two PCW super fans, they told me about their love for the community. "It brings everyone together," Ronda explained. "It's a sport where the crowd is on the same side, and everyone knows each other and we all share intense moments that allow us to form friendships."
The main event of the night that brought together all of these elements, was one totally catastrophic battle between arrogant self proclaimed "true champion" Cass Stone and WAIK, a leather-clad barbarian who didn't speak any language, but simply growled. The wrestlers slammed chairs, wooden sticks, and steel street signs into one another. It climaxed when WAIK propped Cass Stone onto a table, climbed a height of roughly 8-10 metres, and prepared to smash her—but as he raised his arms into a Christ-like position, his boot slipped and he fell onto the concrete. The crowd immediately shot up off their seats with a cacophony of gasps that reverberated across the arena.
In that moment it seemed clear to me that everyone bonds over the impertinence of life. The falls, the fails, strung together by a melodramatic storyline that never quenches our thirst for action.
Aristotle wrote that "tragedy is an imitation (mimesis) of a noble and complete action…which through compassion and fear produces purification of the passions." To me that means that if life is a fucked up show that eventually puts you to sleep, wrestling combines all of the world's hierarchies and instabilities into a self-sufficient utopia.
In the carpark outside, young girls were asking their fathers if they were tougher than the champ, restless boys were practicing their favourite wrestler's signature moves and the middle-aged women were flirting with the topless wrestlers who offered signatures. In an attempt to ground myself from the momentary escape, I bummed a ciggy from the footy jocks, who told me that "post-Mayhem smokos are just as good as post-sex."