By Erin Dick | @eztweener Featured image by Andrew Stewart
It’s been 50 years since the 1967 Referendum, and 25 years since the Mabo Decision of Native Title. Yet, in 2017, Australia is a nation still grappling with the idea of Reconciliation with its First Nations people.
Sport of all kinds has long been a connecting force between Indigenous and non-indigenous Australians, and wrestling is no different. But for many decades, the Australian professional wrestling scene has struggled to be recognised – both locally and internationally.
In recent times, wrestling has pushed its way back into the limelight. With this comeback, a handful of talented Indigenous performers are hoping to leave their mark on the sport.
27 year old Joel ‘The Smash Hit’ Bateman began his training at Melbourne’s Professional Championship Wrestling back in 2001. He has wrestled all over the globe – most extensively in the renowned hardcore Philadelphian promotion, Combat Zone Wrestling.
“Everywhere else in the world, there’s a second or third generation [of wrestlers] to learn from. In Australia, we had to work it out for ourselves,” says Joel.
The Golden Age of Australian wrestling in the 70s saw sell-out shows at Festival Hall on Monday nights. The fights were even televised by Channel Nine, before the sport all but ceased to exist here throughout the 80s and 90s.
In turn, the lack of brains to pick encouraged innovation unique to the Australian experience. “(Promotions like) Melbourne City Wrestling, Gippsland Pro Wrestling, New Age Wrestling and others feel organic. It doesn’t feel like we’re trying to be something we’re not,” Joel says.
31 year old Michelle K Hasluck has spent 16 years in the wrestling business, predominantly with Perth’s Explosive Pro Wrestling (EPW). She first discovered the Perth wrestling scene when she came to a World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) event in Melbourne at the age of 15, after running into someone wearing an old EPW shirt at the airport.
“I was looking at training over in America or in the eastern states, and to hear that there was anything here in Perth was mind-blowing,” says Michelle. Today, she is a part of a flourishing independent wrestling scene in Australia.
“It’s not as it appears…”
While some feel that there is not only is a lack of true Australian representation of wrestling in the mainstream, there is also an unbalanced portrayal of people of colour.
“Watching it on TV when I was growing up in the 80s, if you weren’t American – you were a bad guy,” says Michelle.
“The closest representation (of people of colour) that I can remember was Papa Shango… He was a bad guy because he did voodoo and he was black. You make those really small connections when you’re young.”
Michelle is a Noongar woman. Her mother was a part of the Stolen Generation, and the people she knew as her grandparents were Anglo-Saxon.
“It was incredibly difficult for people to understand how I could be white, when my mother was black and my grandparents were white,” she recalls. But through connecting with her Indigenous heritage, Michelle discovered Noongar Radio. Here, she began to realise a sense of community and a sense of self that she had felt was missing.
Joel also felt as though he was between two different worlds when growing up. As a Mutthi Mutthi man, his mother encouraged him to identify with his Koori side, where he finger-painted, danced and read Dreamtime stories.It wasn’t until he grew older and met people of other ethnicities that he began to realise his differences.
“In this age, we are exposed to a lot of the negativity when it comes to Kooris. But there’s so many amazing people I know who are very driven and are proud of their culture and history,” he says.
Both Joel and Michelle are passionate about their art form, pro wrestling, and appreciate the free reign that comes with working on the independent scene in Australia.
Both the physical and entertainment aspects play a fundamental role in a performance. Michelle describes playing her character as cathartic. “I had a lot of anger issues (before wrestling)… I can walk up to someone in a wrestling ring and punch them in the face, but you can’t do that in real life.”
Performers will usually have a side job that they rely on to support themselves financially. “Wrestling in Australia, even though we’re taking it more seriously than ever, is still hobby or addiction for all of us,” says Joel. He is also the owner of Jimmy’s Tap and Barrel in Ascot Vale, which he established after being injured.
“It’s a show to an extent where the injuries are real, but it stops being a show when you cross the line,” he adds. Wrestling relies on a respect between the audience and the performers.
“It’s like any performance art. It’s not as it appears. You enjoy it more when you suspend your disbelief and immerse yourself in the experience. As a fan, you obey the laws of the universe that are created.”
It is here that the line becomes blurred.
A “Casually Racist” Culture
“If I had to sum up Australian culture in two words, it’s ‘casual racism’. Australia is so young as a country. We’re so multicultural, but we’re also very ignorant,” Joel says.
As for the wrestling business itself, Joel admits that it can be a bit of a “boys club,” where sledging is commonplace. He reiterates the idea that the wrestling community is one big family – they’ll joke and jest amongst themselves, but they’ll know not to cross that line.
“There’s a subconscious support against that kind of thing,” he says.
Michelle shares her experience: “It’s more off-the-cusp comments that people make without realising, because I don’t look as dark as other people. People need to stand up and say something sometimes, because they often don’t understand that they’re offending someone.”
Michelle has previously considered incorporating the Indigenous flag onto her wrestling gear, but the fear of losing support as a result has prevented her from doing so.
As a young performer, Joel was interested in adopting a Koori gimmick. But, he was told that he would have to be the bad guy as a result.
AFL footballers Eddie Betts and Adam Goodes have publicly exposed this level of discrimination, whereby an Indigenous-identifying sportsperson cannot express their Aboriginality positively, without ramifications.
“There’s no way, at least in a performance capacity, to be a proud Aboriginal and not be chastised for it, unless you are in front of mostly Aboriginals,” Joel adds.
In the world of wrestling, audiences are quick to forget that the characters in the ring are real people.
Joel explains. “There are impressionable kids here. If I go backstage, switch off my character and I’m still affected by what you’ve said, that’s a problem.”
Taking the Next Step
Joel and Michelle are two of many proud Indigenous performers both doing their bit for the wrestling business and leading the next generation of Australians closer to Reconciliation. But to take the next step, we must acknowledge the disadvantage faced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in our country.
“I think a lot of people say we have to move on and we have to forget about what’s happened. I think once you decide to forget, you’re acting like it never happened in the first place,” Michelle says.
“Your family is gone, your connection to the land is gone. I’ve got kids now, but I can’t trace back past my mum’s history. That’s not fair.”
“Acknowledging traditional owners of Country on the bottom of a wrestling show programme is awesome,“ says Joel. He also stresses that Aboriginal and Indigenous values are inherent in communal living.
It’s important for us to recognise the original values of the first people of this nation, and try to adopt some of these into our own lives, rather than encouraging the stereotypes that others may push.
“Reconciliation hits roadblocks that it shouldn’t. It’s a dirty word to people when it shouldn’t be,” he admits, as Australian society appears to be at a crossroads.
“It wasn’t you, you didn’t do this to me. Why does what has happened need to affect this relationship? It’s been so long since it happened now that the people that were directly affected aren’t around anymore. Some of them are starting to pass away and are not here to appreciate how far we’ve come. Every year, we take a step further.”
The future appears to be bright and far more inclusive for performers of all colours and creeds in pro wrestling, as Australian talents are working harder than ever before.
“Everyone’s watching us now,” says Joel.
“Indigenous representation is there, but not a lot of us own up to it for whatever reason, be it self-doubt, fear of backlash, or maybe it’s not that important to that individual… It’s just something that will come with time. I just don’t think the crowd is ready for it,” he adds.
Joel and Michelle are just two of the incredible Indigenous talents in the Australian wrestling industry doing their bit to change the game. There’s also Erika Reid, Jungle Cat, Shell, Ace Wilson, NC Viper, Mighty Mel, among others. But it’s now up to the fans to make Reconciliation a reality.
“I’m doing this because I get to live the dream that the eight-year-old me wanted,” Joel adds.
Michelle expresses a similar sentiment: “I would love to see more Indigenous representation in wrestling. Indigenous people – or anyone who wants to give something a shot, whether it’s wrestling, or anything else – you’re never going to know until you try.”