Life

Punishing bouts of local pro wrestling offer the purity of ordinary – if unusually solid – people entertaining crowds hungry for heroic stories. By Clem Bastow.

The magic of pro wrestling

Marcius Pitt, left, clashes with Mr Juicy.
Credit: Cory Lockwood

It’s a breezy Saturday night in May, and already tears are mingling with the sweat and soft drinks at Essendon’s Ukrainian Hall, where Melbourne City Wrestling’s latest event is under way.

In the front row, a pretty young woman in a “Super Dowie” T-shirt sobs, pressing her face into her friend’s shoulder for comfort: her hero, Dowie James, has just been taken out with a cheap shot from his opponent, Jonah Rock. James crumples, slipping between the ring ropes and onto the floor as though turned to liquid. In the row behind me, a jovial young man yells out, “JONAH’S GONNA KILL YOU!”

Through it all, a lady with a beatific smile keeps watchful eye of a saucepan simmering atop a camping stove at the back of the hall, dishing out ruby-red hot dogs: fuel for the next few hours of full-throated barracking.

We’re all here to see what the wash-up will be following last month’s Ballroom Brawl. At that flagship event, held at the relatively glamorous Thornbury Theatre, an invasion by local stable The Mighty Don’t Kneel left MCW’s pantheon laid out on the canvas. They also slammed Mr Juicy through the announcers’ table and choked the ref, with the ring rope, for good measure.

If the preceding paragraphs read as impenetrable hieroglyphs, I understand. There are times when attempting to communicate, to a nonbeliever, the immensity of a particular wrestling bout recalls the childhood agony of trying to explain an exciting dream to a distracted adult.

Many of the fans in attendance are lifelong wrestling nuts; I am a relatively recent convert to professional wrestling. My brother was always the wrestling guy in the family. As a teen he reviewed wrestling DVDs for the same street paper for which I reviewed music. Instead, my own experience of wrestling occurred when it collided with the broader pop cultural landscape.

Like most people of my vintage, I had a vague sense of what Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson was cooking around the turn of the century, but it was his charming performances on the big screen that led me back to his former wrestling persona. I’m likely to be one of about a dozen people on Earth who first discovered wrestling icon “Rowdy” Roddy Piper via the Z-movie Hell Comes to Frogtown.

Now I try to attend as many events as possible, generally those put on by MCW or Outback Championship Wrestling, and pay my monthly dues to the WWE Network, the 24-hour streaming service, because I have become so taken with wrestling I feel an acute sense of wanting to make up for lost time. I always looked askance at friends who followed a sporting team or athlete as though their life depended on it, but now I understand; I proudly wear my wrestling merch to the gym, especially the stuff featuring the trademark eye-searing tie-dye of wrestler JXT.

Tonight, though, the mood is subdued – or as subdued as it can be at an event where people regularly belt each other over the head with folding chairs – as within a few rounds it becomes clear that TMDK are hell-bent on staging a hostile takeover on MCW territory.

Slex and Marcius Pitt even go so far as to deface the MCW Tag Team Championship belts with spray paint after taking out the beloved titleholders, Juice-X-T, who lie sprawled on the floor. Bereft, all I can do is bellow, “CAN YOU REMEMBER HOW TO SPELL ‘TMDK’?” at the gleeful heels. A bloke behind me settles for, “What’s going on with your hair, Marcius? You look like a pineapple.”

At the back of the hall, a concerned young boy stands on his seat, clutching his wrestling action figures as though they’ll give him strength. His bell-like voice rings out as his heroes are helped to their feet – “Come on, Juicy!” – and I think immediately of little Ricky Schroder sobbing at the end of boxing weepie The Champ.

Joyce Carol Oates once described boxing as “a powerful analogue of human struggle in the rawest of life-and-death terms … identification with the fighters is so intense, it is as if barriers between egos dissolve, and one is in the presence of a Dionysian rite of cruelty, sacrifice, and redemption”.

Having now regularly attended independent wrestling promotions, as they’re officially described, for the past three years, I find Oates’s words equally, if not more, applicable to wrestling. For although some high-flying contenders in the local rings could well be considered elite athletes, what makes these events so compelling is the sense that those fighting are really not so removed from those watching. Not for nothing do wrestlers and their fans often refer to the community as a family.

It’s not so much a sense that we could do what they do – though we might want to – but rather that the wrestlers are really just ordinary people elevated to extraordinary circumstances. Such is the magic of pro wrestling. The excitement that gripped me at my first event some years ago was almost completely overwhelming. My vocabulary shrank to a mere handful of exclamations: “Whoa!” “Fuck!” “Holy shit!”. My voice was shredded to a hoarse croak for days afterwards.

Crucially, I also immediately realised the difference between “fake” and “staged”. Now, I have as much time for those joyless individuals who sniff about how wrestling is “not real” as I do those who believe the Moon landing was a hoax and that Edward de Vere is actually the author of Shakespeare’s plays – which is to say I would enjoy seeing them choke-slammed through a trestle table. Of course it’s real.

Pro wrestling is, it should be noted, also a form of theatre in the round – tag team Preston & Payne’s offbeat psychosexual presence at tonight’s event is less “sports entertainment” than it is Dada-esque performance art. And what is theatre if not a reflection of real life?

When I witnessed my first hardcore wrestling match, I attempted to convey the magnitude of what I’d just seen to bemused friends: “And then Hellfire hit Cremator with a cricket bat covered in barbed wire! And then Cremator smashed open a piñata shaped like Santa Claus and it was full of thumbtacks!” It sparked something in me that has only flourished since.

With the breathless enthusiasm of Margaret O’Brien’s description of a shooting victim in Meet Me in St Louis, I told everyone who’d listen about the geysers of blood that had poured – squirted – from Cremator’s forehead that night.

Later, I was not surprised to learn that Darren Aronofsky, when making The Wrestler, was inspired in part by jazz legend Charles Mingus’s extraordinary 1957 track “The Clown”. The song tells the tale of a formerly unsuccessful clown who courts the audience’s bloodlust: a clown, Mingus said upon the album’s release, “who tried to please people – like most jazz musicians do – but whom nobody liked until he was dead”.

In Aronofsky’s film, Mickey Rourke’s Randy “The Ram” Robinson regards his audience with a kinder eye. He tells a friend, who is convinced of the peril he faces in the ring, “The only place I get hurt is out there. The world don’t give a shit about me.”

The world, for most wrestlers, is likely to be less bleak, but Randy’s sentiment remains. I never thought I’d see two grown adults going at each other’s foreheads with a cheese grater or slamming each other through a barrier as an act of love, but that’s exactly what it is. Every weekend, these men and women put their bodies on the line for little more than the cheers – and tears – of the crowd.

And that seems a precious currency in an increasingly bankrupt world.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 28, 2016 as "Lords of the ring". Subscribe here.

Clem Bastow
is a Melbourne-based writer and critic.