When most people think of professional wrestling, they think of WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment). What you might not know however is that Sydney is fast becoming a hotbed for wrestling, with a plethora of promotions and some of the world's best talent calling the Harbour City home.
In fact, if you watch any of the major global wrestling promotions – be that WWE, All Elite Wrestling (AEW), Impact Wrestling, or New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW) – you are likely to see at least one or two Australians making their mark. In WWE, Australia is represented by the likes of Rhea Ripley from Adelaide, Indi Hartwell from Melbourne, Grayson Waller from Sydney and Xyonn Quinn from Brisbane. Across in AEW the green and gold flag is being flown by Toni Storm from the Gold Coast and Buddy Murphy from Melbourne. In Impact, Tenille Dashwood continues to pave the way for Australian wrestlers on a global stage. And over in Japan, the great southern land is represented in the NJPW by Jonah from Adelaide, Mikey Nicholls from Perth and Sydney's own Robbie Eagles.
Shazza McKenzie and Robbie Eagles
With such a wealth of Australian talent excelling on the global stage, you might be beginning to wonder just how this came to be. Well, for years, all of these talented individuals have been busting their butts putting on amazing wrestling spectacles in obscure community spaces and high school halls to small audiences of hardcore fans. However, over the past decade the Australian wrestling scene has been evolving and maturing. These days attendees can expect to see a diverse range of characters - whether they be a big caveman-esque monster, a bubbly girl with an infatuation for breaking arms, an evil clown, or a flamboyant Freddy Mercury-inspired champion. All of the athletes on modern day Australian wrestling shows have one thing in common though, they are all incredible athletes who continue to give their all whenever they step into the squared circle. Wrestling has become a truly exhilarating night out which is more closely aligned with a rock concert crossed with an amazing theatre experience. You can be guaranteed that you’ll leave having had a great night, regardless of whether you were a prior wrestling fan or not.
While the wrestling scene in the new hit musical Dubbo Championship Wrestling may be a fabrication, there is nothing fake about the blood, sweat and tears poured into the local scene. Time Out spoke with two Sydney wrestlers, Shazza McKenzie and Robbie Eagles, both of whom have witnessed the change in the wrestling landscape firsthand.
Sydney’s wrestling scene before the boom
When looking back on when he got started in the scene in 2008, Eagles explained that wrestling at that time was simply replicating what was on TV while still being "really obscure and tucked away in a niche".
"Most of the shows were in community halls, high school halls or anything that would allow us to rent it out without asking too many questions. We'd put a ring in those venues, then sell tickets on the night and the average attendance was 50 to 100 people."
Back in this early 2000s period, wrestling was viewed by many as a cheap and easy afternoon of entertainment to take your kids to. Although many of the wrestlers were just as highly skilled then as they are today, Eagles explained that "family friendly-shows were our bread and butter" because that was the only way the companies could capture the broadest possible demographic in order to make ends meet.
As the internet opened up the world, and the wrestlers, to new influences from all around the world, the style of wrestling and performance on the Australian shows evolved into something entirely different to what you’d see on television.
Pro Wrestling Australia
"As the world has progressed we've changed our style to be more appropriate for an intimate crowd," said McKenzie. "Wrestling now has morphed into its own version of drama and acting with the athleticism. In the past it was a bit more slapstick and over the top, whereas now we focus a bit more on realism to draw out emotion."
For Eagles, although the in-ring style of wrestling was changing, the effort had always been there: "I've always said what we offer is arena-sized wrestling in a small community hall. The effort we have always put into shows is deserving of a venue like Qudos Bank Arena, because I feel like we are just as good in the ring. We just don't have the financial backing to get into a venue like that."
As a major music fan and regular concert attendee, Eagles was always scouting for new venues to wrestle in and was constantly urging promoters to enquire about hosting shows at spots like The Metro, The Annandale Hotel or Max Watts.
"A lot of the time none of those places had ever hosted wrestling, so I always thought if we could get to those places people would come because they are entertainment venues,” said Eagles. "People check what's happening at those venues on the weekend to plan a night out, so if they see wrestling on a poster they will come check it out. People don't walk down to the local community hall to see what events are on."
The moment that changed everything
Although the Australian wrestling scene had been steadily growing, it wasn't until 2017 when the scene exploded in popularity.
According to McKenzie the turning point wasn't an Australian wrestling show per say. When House of Hardcore, an American wrestling promotion founded by professional wrestler Tommy Dreamer, toured Down Under, the Australian talent on the show proved that they belonged with the big boys.
"When the House Of Hardcore tour happened in Sydney there were 1200 fans in attendance,"recalled McKenzie. "That show made us realise that there were at least 1200 fans of wrestling in Sydney alone. We simply needed to target them and get them to want to come to our shows."
In order to capture that eager fan base, the Sydney based promotion Pro Wrestling Australia (PWA) decided that something had to change in order to hook people in. So it was at that moment that they shifted the branding and marketing of PWA to present a more mature product, targeting an 18+ demographic under the PWA Black Label banner.
Shazza McKenzie immobilizes an opponent
"Up until 2017 we never did adults-only or 18+ events," Eagles told Time Out. "When we made a conscious effort to alter the way we marketed PWA and focus in the 18+ demographic, that really helped us catch fire because we were the only company doing that."
The true test of this new adult oriented presentation came just a few weeks later when PWA made their first foray into the heart of Sydney,hosting NJPW star Will Ospreay at the Paddington RSL. According to Eagles this show was a "big risk" for PWA. Not only was PWA entering a new market, having previously focused only on the outskirts of Western Sydney, but tickets prices increased almost threefold.
"The Paddington show was a big risk, but we sold it out, which was ludicrous," said Eagles. "Some of the people that came to that show had never seen PWA before but they were wowed from match one to the main event. The atmosphere in the room that night really set a trajectory for where we've been heading ever since... If Will had never made that trek I think we'd be in a very different landscape right now."
Pro Wrestling Australia
The rock n’ roll spectacle of today’s wrestling scene
These days wrestling in Sydney can be seen gracing major entertainment venues such as The Star, The Metro, The Factory Theatre, Max Watts and Selinas in Coogee. The family friendly shows in local community halls or RSL clubs still exist, but the legitimacy and truly thrilling atmosphere that these concert style venues brings is undeniable.
By moving into these venues both McKenzie and Eagles have witnessed major changes in the audience, both in sheer volume and in the types of people coming along to shows.
"Wrestling is now viewed as a gig or a fun way to spend a Friday night rather than just something for diehard wrestling fans,"said McKenzie. "Every time we do a show now we have 50 per cent returning fans but the other 50 per cent are completely new people. I love seeing new people who have no prior interest in wrestling coming to a wrestling show and experiencing that atmosphere. It's so fun to watch them fall in love with the whole spectacle of it all."
Anybody who takes a chance on Australian wrestling now is going to be greeted with a show they'll never forget.
"Wrestling is an all-encompassing experience," explained McKenzie. "It's going to make you laugh, it's going to make you scream with anger and it's going to make you feel every emotion. You're going to have an amazing time, meet some amazing people and just become part of the experience yourself."
Costa Georgiadis is a guest at a Pro Wrestling Australia show
A breeding ground for future global superstars
Australian talents are littered across major promotions all around the world. As Eagles explains, if you are willing to take a chance on local wrestling you may just get the inside track on the world's next big superstar.
"Anyone on the PWA roster could be someone who appears on television wrestling next week, it can happen that fast. I know the talent and ability is there because our performers are the best in the world at what they do, it's just a matter of when does the role that they fit open up overseas."
Where to catch a wrestling match in Sydney
Future Wrestling Australia - monthly
Australian Wrestling Superstars
Suplex - Professional Wrestling
Special thanks to Pro Wrestling Australia for welcoming Time Out behind the scenes.