It’s Real to Me: Professional Wrestling in Australia

John Cena, The Rock and Hulk Hogan are all prominent and recognisable names in the popular culture world for their contributions to the professional wrestling industry. Between 1964 -1978, the Australian professional wrestling promotion, World Championship Wrestling Australia (WCW Australia), was broadcasted on TCN 9 and the website http://www.nostalgiacentral.com explains that for thousands of Australian families, “no Sunday lunch was complete without tuning in to Gentleman Jack Little and the Boys

Whilst the period of 1964 to 1978 has been labelled ‘the golden age of Australian professional wrestling’ by the 1980s, professional wrestling in Australia was a shadow of its former self. How could this have happened when Libnan Ayoub in his book 100 Years of Professional Wrestling in Australia (1998)claims that, “1973 was the most successful year for World Championship Wrestling Promotion” and yet a decade later WCW Australia and professional wrestling in Australia was non-existent? In answering this question, I will focus on the key concept of social change with relation to the consumption of popular culture. The rise of sports broadcasting such as the NRL and AFL, in addition to World Series Cricket and the large scale merchandise that was being produced, establishes a notion that these ‘legitimate’ sports evolved to maximise their reach to the Australian society. Alternatively, professional wrestling may have tended to rest on its prior success and in order to understand the changes regarding the consumption of professional wrestling it is necessary to examine the history of the ‘sport’ since the 1960s, and the socio-economic characteristics of both the wrestlers and fans. Furthermore, it will be ideal to compare and contrast the professional wrestling scene from the ‘golden age’ to that of the present day.

Television and professional wresting

The ‘golden age’ of professional wrestling in Australia was brought on by the introduction of television in 1956 to the Australian society, but, it would also aid in its demise by the late 1970s. As a result of the growth in popularity of the National Rugby League (NRL) competition in NSW, the Australian Football League (AFL) and the introduction of World Series Cricket in 1978 would limit the exposure and legitimacy of professional wrestling as a sport. Consequently, television would also create an opportunity for professional, ‘legitimate,’ sports to capitalise on the lucrative corporate sponsorships, from what Michelle Arrow in Friday on Our Minds (2009) outlines as a sacrifice of their game’s tradition. Professional wrestling did not capitalise on its popularity to garner sponsorship there is no evidence of major corporate sponsorship in its 14 years of being broadcasted on TCN 9 and this would bring about the demise of WCW Australia.

Socio-economic characteristics of wrestlers and fans

With the golden age of professional wrestling occurring during the 1960s and 1970s, an examination of the socio economic characteristics of both the professional wrestler’s and their fans will aid in understanding the history of professional wrestling in Australia since the 1960s. In examining the WCW Australia roster, it became apparent that the socio-economic characteristics of the professional wrestlers mirrored the socio-economic characteristics of the Australian society of 1964-1978. For example, Mario Milano targeted the Italian communities in Sydney and Melbourne whilst Spiros Arion would target the growing Greek communities and Ron Miller would target Anglo Saxon Australia through portraying an ‘Aussie battler’ or underdog character. In an interview with WCW Australian fan, Jim, he believed that people’s suspension of disbelief was greater back in the 1960s and 1970s, and society has evolved to become more inquisitive, demanding answers. That is to say, when people watch WCW Australia, most believed what they saw in regard to the wrestling but through inquisitive social change, WCW Australia was no longer the ‘in thing’ by 1978 aiding in its demise.

WWE and the rebirth of professional wrestling

The rise of Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Entertainment to mainstream success in America has had both positive and negative impacts on the Australian professional wrestling industry. The WWE’s transition to a global entity created the situation in which the consumers were to have widespread access to professional wrestling through television and pay-per-view. In Australia, professional wrestling in the form of WWE and TNA is broadcasted on FOXTEL five days per week totalling 13 hours with two pay-per-views a month, making it easily accessible to those who can afford such subscriptions. This televising has a positive impact on professional wrestling as it is readily accessible to the public, and this exposure ensures that society’s knowledge of professional wrestling will not fade in the foreseeable future. But, with Vince McMahon’s WWE and Dixie Carter’s TNA producing a ‘polished’ professional wrestling program (with arguably the best professional wrestlers in the world) the domestic product in Australia struggles to gain a significant following. Firstly, Vince McMahon’s WWE has had a virtual monopoly on global professional wrestling since it bought out World Championship Wrestling (not to be confused with WCW Australia) in 2001. Consequently the term ‘professional wrestling’ is now synonymous with the company ‘World Wrestling Entertainment’ and its ‘superstars’. This has created a vacuum of knowledge for fans as they may believe that professional wrestling does not exist outside WWE or TNA, or otherwise in Australia.

The demise of WCW Australia in 1978 and professional wrestling in Australia therefore came as a result of major changes in which the Australian public consumed popular culture. Corporatisation of the NRL and AFL negatively impacted on the exposure and sponsorship opportunities for WCW Australia and with the rise of the WWE as a global entity, professional wrestling in Australia can never return to the heights of WCW Australia.

“That’s all there is, there isn’t any more.” -Jack ‘Gentleman’ Little.

Further Reading:

Ayoub, Libnan. 100 Years of Australian Professional Wrestling. Marrickville: Topmill Pty Ltd, 1998.

Miller, Ron. “WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP WRESTLING (AUSTRALIA) 60-70s.” Miller’s World Championship Wrestling. June 4, 2007. http://www.worldchampionshipwrestling.com.au/ (accessed October 1, 2012).

Nostalgia Central. “World Championship Wrestling Australia.” Nostalgia Central. July 4, 2004. http://www.nostalgiacentral.com/television/news&sport/worldchampionshipwrestling.htm (accessed October 5, 2012).

Ruff Tuff & Real. Directed by Ron Miller. Performed by Harley Race, Larry O’Dea, King Kurtis, Spiros Arion, Ron Miller Mario Milano. 2007.

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6 comments on “It’s Real to Me: Professional Wrestling in Australia

  1. aandrewclark says:

    John’s blog post is great. Not only because the subject matter is very interesting, but because he demonstrates an honest and deep engagement with a subject matter that interests him. I don’t know alot about wrestling (I must be one of those heathen mainstream sports fans). As a result, I found the breif overview of the state of wrestling to be enlightening. I am familiar with the growth of professionalism in mainstream sports around the time in question. I agree with John that it is essential for sports promoters to find a way to generate significant revenues from sport in order to keep the competition in the public eye. Whilst sports purists may be disappointed by this, I think it opens the door to a wider promotion of sport to a larger audience. Something I am sure that John would have considered in his research project (but was unable to fit in his blog post due to space constraints) is the influence of grass-roots participation in a sport upon the popularity of its professional broadcasts. It goes without saying that many more Australian juniors join cricket and rugby clubs rather than wrestling gyms (dojos?), could this have had an impact on the demise of professional wrestling. As a result of reading John’s blog post, I jumped onto youtube and searched out some classic Australian wrestling. John’s blog post has certainly encouraged me to investigate a facet of Australian sports history I had never heard of previously. Well done John!

  2. Peter Day says:

    Professional wrestling certainly was part of Australian popular culture in the 50s to 70s, particularly through World Championship Wrestling on Channel 9. The picture of Sam Menacher doing commentary (see http://www.onlineworldofwrestling.com/bios/s/sam-menacker/ ) brings back wonderful memories. True, Vince McMahon has taken professional wrestling to a new height, but there is still something very special when one hears the names Mario Milano, Spiros Orion and Killer Kowalski. Thank heavens Ron Miller put Ruff Tuff and Real together to preserve a piece of our history.

  3. James says:

    A great insight by John. I grew up as a fan during the 1970’s and John captured the period and changes well, that I witnessed at the time. Wrestling in the 1960’s and 1970’s was not far too removed from it’s carnival days from decades earlier, and it relied on a time trusted formula.
    To keep their fan base, capture new fans and most and importantly keep their TV air time, Aussie wrestling had to expand on its product and marketing. However Aussie wrestling did not have the foresight to evolve more into sports entertainment field, which the WWE did by the mid 1980’s.

  4. chloesmith90 says:

    This blog post provided a fantastic insight into what I feel is an ‘unknown element’ to australian sport. For example, as a girl I did not even know it existed in Australia! I found the links really helpful in assisting his argument and information. I particularly enjoyed the point regarding how wrestling had reflected Australia’s own socio-economic environment. It is unfortunate how this sport did not continue to progress throughout the 1980’s, however, WWE has certainly filled this gap through its broadcasting on foxtel making it a lot more accesible to other now!

  5. kimberleyhampe says:

    I really enjoyed reading this post as it is a topic I never would have thought of!
    I’m also a massive fan of NRL and it was interesting to read and learn more about a sport I would not have considered.
    I really loved how you described the social climate of the time period as well as indicate how various professional wrestlers appealed to different audiences. Such as Mario Milano targeting Italian communities in Australia.
    I have seen some of the wrestling on foxtel before and must admit I usually end up changing the channel a lot! But this post has given me new insight into a sport I feel is often forgotten in Australia’s history, but obviosuly did once appeal to a wide audience across Australia before the rise of AFL, NRL and cricket as you mentioned.
    Thankyou for letting me read about such an interesting topic and for broadening my understanding of the history of professional wrestling in Australia!

  6. evanvallis says:

    As a fan of professional wrestling, this blog really appealed to me. Growing up, I never questioned why wrestling had such a strong following in the US and not in Australia. I think you provided a great historical insight into how major socioeconomic changes impacted on the demise of Australian wrestling. It was interesting to see how the golden age wrestling superstars of the 1960s and 70s attempted to appeal to different cultural groups in Australia as this still seems to be prominent in the WWE in the US. I’ve noticed a lot of the wrestler’s personas and characters derive from different socioeconomic statuses and cultural backgrounds in order to appeal to a wider audience and become a more accessible sport, as you expressed in your blog.

    Perhaps you could have assessed the foundations of the sport? It would have been interesting to see how the sport developed over the years and progressed into its ‘golden days’ of the 60s and 70s and why historically it has never been as popular a sport as rugby league or AFL. I guess sports such as rugby league have always appealed to the masses, particularly the working class. Notwithstanding, I really enjoyed your historical insight into a dimension of Australian sport that I never knew existed before. Well done!

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