Sport

The demand for women’s wrestling is growing, and along with it a coterie of ambitious proponents following their squared circle dreams. By Engel Schmidl.

The smashing success of women’s wrestling

MCW women’s champion Steph De Lander slams her opponent Avary from the top rope at Thornbury Theatre last month.
Credit: OWEN JONES

Avary confronts the monster once more. She hooks Steph De Lander, aka the Python Powerhouse, into the “cattle mutilation” submission hold. Still no joy. With 20 kilograms on her opponent, De Lander muscles out and unleashes a guttural scream. She’s done playing. She drags Avary in by the hair, heaves her 60-kilogram frame onto her broad shoulders, and drops her with the “death adder”. Avary face plants on the mat. The “hot mess” of Australian women’s wrestling is out cold. That’s all she wrote.

De Lander returns the next night to fight again in Melbourne City Wrestling’s (MCW) inaugural women’s championship tournament, which was held at the Thornbury Theatre on October 11 and 12 as part of its ninth-anniversary shows. Avary returns in a tag-team match. Another night of punishment.

It’s tough to make it in pro wrestling, doubly so for women. Talent, luck and connections help. Avoiding crippling injuries is good, too.

At 21, Avary has taken her share of bumps since debuting four years ago. In May, she broke her hip during a match. “It just went pop,” she tells The Saturday Paper.

Back from a stint in Japan with the all-female Stardom promotion, the former heel (wrestling talk for a villain) has transitioned to a face (fan favourite). Her feral energy excites the crowd. She prowls the ring in high-cut Spandex shorts and torn fishnets, “DADDY” written down the side of her left knee-high black wrestling boot.

“Females are sexualised. Whether it’s by a small minority of people or half the crowd, it’s what happens,” says Avary’s creator, Tallara George. “I want to take control of how people sexualise me. I want to turn that against them and make them disgusted by it. I’d rather people sit there and say, ‘What a gross bitch’ than ‘Yeah, I’d do her.’ ” She channels her “grotty, grungy” qualities into Avary. “It’s an exaggerated version of myself.”

She first saw wrestling on TV at age 10. By 14, she wanted in. For the next three years, often twice a week, she did the six-hour round trip from home, a sheep farm on the Bellarine Peninsula, to a wrestling school in Hallam, on the edge of Melbourne’s south-eastern suburbs. She left school at 16 and followed her squared circle dream.

 

Women’s wrestling has received some mainstream love over the past few years. The TV series GLOW has shone a light, as has the film Fighting with My Family, which is about British wrestler Saraya-Jade Bevis, ring name Paige. More critically, the demand for women’s wrestling is growing.

Local wrestlers can work the fistful of independent promotions that hold regular shows in Australia and New Zealand, but few earn a living from it. Everyone has an outside job. If you want a career, you go overseas. The big ticket is World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE). Australians Billie Kay and Peyton Royce are there and MCW regular “Impressive” Indi Hartwell recently signed with NXT, WWE’s emerging talent showcase.

Wrestling is booming. WWE’s revenue last year was $US930 million, 16 per cent up from the previous year. It is focused on creating more content and international development. Women’s wrestling is part of that. Three years ago WWE ditched its Divas brand and rebranded its women as Superstars, putting them on par with the men, in name if not earnings.

The Divas era was pillow-fights, bikini shows and a little wrestling in between. Following an insulting 30-second tag-team title bout in 2015, a Twitter hashtag protest, #GiveDivasAChance, highlighted WWE’s farcical treatment of women. Grassroots fans were embracing a gutsier style of women’s wrestling.

WWE saw the potential and, last October, held Evolution, its first pay-per-view featuring only women’s matches. Female wrestlers have fought for a place at the table. However, this being wrestling, you can never be sure when someone might whack that table over your head.

 

Growing up in the Melbourne bayside suburb of Seaford, Kellyanne’s first hero was WWE Diva Lita. She didn’t see her on TV. Instead, she fell in love with Lita’s character on the PlayStation game SmackDown! 2: Know Your Role. “I didn’t know what wrestling was,” she says. “I thought I was playing a fighting game.”

She was soon obsessively renting wrestling videos. After seeing her first local show at 13, she lied and said she was 16 to get into a wrestling school. She debuted three years later when she actually was 16.

She has travelled the world to learn her craft. In Canada, she trained with ring veterans Lance Storm and Teddy Hart. The Harts are wrestling royalty and patriarch Stu Hart founded the Hart Dungeon, a school noted for its borderline sadistic methods.

“I was legitimately kidnapped by Teddy Hart. It was insane,” says the 26-year-old, whose Misfits horror punk look meshes with her outsider persona. “I lived with him for two months before I went to Mexico, and I trained in the actual Stu Hart gym. It was an experience.”

Her dungeon apprenticeship served her well. She once completed a match with a torn trapezius. Now, at Thornbury Theatre, on the second night of the tournament, she faces Steph De Lander.

Boos greet the self-professed Python Powerhouse but the 22-year-old from Sydney’s northern beaches laps it up. She has dispensed with Avary and Kiwi wrestler Candy Lee to reach the final. She’s ready to do the same with Kellyanne. Earlier in the evening, she stormed the ring and smashed Kellyanne, victorious from her semi-final bout, over the head with a folding chair. Textbook villainy.

Away from wrestling, De Lander loves animals and works in a pet store. One of her earliest wrestling memories is a 2005 match between “Nature Boy” Ric Flair and Triple H. “There was a screwdriver and blood everywhere … I remember thinking this is unlike anything I’ve ever seen.”

Tall and commanding, she looks like a wrestling natural. Ironically, growing up watching the WWE Divas, she thought she was too big. “I was naturally athletic, but I was always a bigger build,” she says. “All my favourites were tiny.” It took seeing her current coach, Madison Eagles, in the ring for her to believe she could make her dream real. “She’s 6'1", and I saw her wrestle and it was amazing. I was like, ‘Wow! I can do this.’ ”

Earlier this year, she tried out in London for WWE. She doesn’t hide her ambition. “My ultimate goal is to get to the WWE.”

 

No one survives two consecutive cannonball flips. But De Lander does. Twelve minutes into the bout, she spear-tackles Kellyanne, priming her for the inevitable “death adder”. Bam! The referee gives the last rites, a hand slamming the canvas mat: 1, 2, 3. Ding goes the bell. He retrieves the champion’s belt and trophy from ringside and hands them to the victor, who briefly taunts the crowd and exits backstage.

De Lander’s work is done.

The semiotician of the suplex, Roland Barthes, wrote: “The function of the wrestler is not to win: it is to go exactly through the motions which are expected of him.” The crowd serenades the noble loser with chants of “Kellyanne! Kellyanne!”

Except De Lander isn’t done. She’s back to clobber Kellyanne with the shiny champion’s belt. The crowd boos ferociously again as MCW’s first women’s champion showboats around the ring and two referees carry Kellyanne away. Squared circle dreams are made of this.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 16, 2019 as "Ring of ire". Subscribe here.

Engel Schmidl
is a writer and co-founder of sports culture website Shoot Farken.