Thriving indy wrestling scene delivers exciting contemporary theatre
On Saturday night as I sat with around 70,000 of my closest friends at WWE’s Super Showdown at the MCG and watched as The Undertaker pulled out Old School for one last time, I heard Lucille Bremer’s voice ringing in my ears. “We don’t have to come here on a train or stay in a hotel,” Bremer says, gazing at the Palace Of Electricity as the evergreen 1944 musical Meet Me In St Louis draws to a close. “It’s right in our own home town.”
Though WWE and its developmental arm, NXT, have done plenty of live “house shows” in Australia before, there was an extra frisson about Super Showdown being a real, live pay-perview that everyone else in the world could see. Even through binoculars from the top of the Southern Stand, seeing Charlotte Flair’s moonsault in real life still gave me goosebumps.
Not for nothing does WWE refer to WrestleMania as “the grandest stage of them all”, and while Super Showdown might not have reached ‘Mania attendance heights, there’s very little that can compare to the gobsmacking spectacle of a WWE show. At the ‘G, witnessing that largesse in full swing was an experience I imagine not unlike Louisiana Purchase Exposition attendees felt seeing an X-ray machine in 1904 –baffled, a little scared, ultimately thrilled – but my own excitement was due in no small part to Super Showdown having capped off a huge 24 hours in local wrestling.
“Soap opera” is a term commonly used to describe pro wrestling, and perhaps it’s appropriate in the context of WWE’s long-running Raw and SmackDown TV shows, but it’s always struck me as an oversimplification. The true appeal of pro wrestling is not the soapiness of the storylines, but the intensity and artfulness of the theatre of it all – and nowhere is that theatricality in a healthier state than Australian indy wrestling.
If we accept that Melbourne really is Australia’s cultural capital, then it makes sense that the “sports entertainers” of the city and its surrounds are currently responsible for some of the country’s most exciting contemporary theatre in the round.
On Friday night, Melbourne City Wrestling’s “New Horizons” unfolded at the venerable Thornbury Theatre. The crowd might have been just 1% of the WWE Super Showdown attendance, but in that room 700 people felt like 70,000. The roar that went up when Robbie Eagles – announced over the weekend as the newest member of New Japan Pro Wrestling stable Bullet Club – got “Mr Juicy” Gino Gambino in a submission hold was deafening.
The night was an embarrassment of wrestling riches, from a gravity-defying grudge match between Slex and Adam Brooks to a three-way between JXT, Canberran fitness maestro Mikey Broderick, and NZ soccer hooligan Marcus Kool that was as hilarious as it was breathtaking. Hell, you know the scene is in a good place when even the opening match features some of the country’s best, with Perth’s Damian Slater and Marcius Pitt (The Untouchables) facing off against improbably talented brothers Tome amp; Stevie Filip (The Natural Classics).
As if that wasn’t enough, a full house rocked up to the Corner Hotel at midday on Saturday for WrestleRock’s “WrestleBrunch” (the lack of point sandwiches was noted by this correspondent) for a second helping.
If New Horizons showcased the local scene at its most spectacular, WrestleBrunch offered something a little looser, with the card indulging in the sort of appealing idiosyncrasies that are often shed on the journey to the big leagues.
While I love wrestling’s high-flying moments of derring do, I live for its more transgressive qualities, so seeing unhinged “body guy” Alan Payne unleash a genderfluid gimmick, complete with expertly applied false eyelashes, as he taught male stripper creep “The Player” Jake Lindo a lesson in informed consent was a dream match I didn’t even know I wanted. (The Corner crowd was, perhaps, a little more perplexed, a bit like Wayne and Garth discussing Bugs Bunny in drag.)
From cruiserweight-esque dazzle to experimental stipulations, the weekend was a stunning showcase of some of the country’s finest wrestling talent, as ever laced with the bittersweet knowledge that Australia can only hold such talents for so long. Every time the formidable Kellyanne heads overseas, I hold my breath; it can’t be too long until someone snaps her up for greatness. Adam Brooks, Eagles and Jonah Rock have been making waves in Californian promotion PWG. As an Australian indy wrestling fan, you’re only ever a few great matches away from a farewell bout and a heartfelt “you deserve it” chant.
Who can blame them? It’s a timehonoured journey, and one that often holds untold wrestling glories. Adelaide’s Demi Bennett, who wrestles for WWE as Rhea Ripley, recently became the inaugural NXT UK Women’s Champion, the first Australian female wrestler to hold a WWE belt. And on Saturday night, Buddy Murphy – formerly well known to MCW fans as Matt Silva – took the cruiserweight championship in front of a 70,000-strong hometown crowd, making him the first Australian “main roster” title-holder in history.
My wrestling pals tell me I came to the fandom “backwards”; most people get into WWE and then discover there’s a local promotion in the scout hall down the road. I, on the other hand, fell in love with the local indies and never looked back. It was nice to plug in to the “big league” brand of sports entertainment and all its pyrotechnic largesse for one night, but as soon as I got home, I booked tickets for events in Thornbury, Sunbury, and Burwood East. Let them come to us with their fireworks and their TitanTrons: we’ve got everything we need here in our own home town.
And as I pinned my Brooksy 8x10 glossy portrait to the wall, I heard Judy Garland’s bell-like tones in my ears: “Right here where we live. Right here in St Louis!”
Adam Brooks aims a flying kick at Slex at the Thornbury Theatre in Melbourne. Photograph:Owen Jones/Digital Beard Photography
Kellyanne (facing camera, doing the powerbomb) and Avary at MCW New Horizons inMelbourne. Photograph: Owen Jones/DigitalBeard Photography