The Resurgence of Australian Wrestling

Australia is a country full of people who are sports mad (with a special preference for those that hit hard) and we’re full of larger than life characters. In many ways it seems only natural that we’d be drawn to the weird and wonderful world of professional wrestling. It has taken a while, but now the Australian wrestling scene is returning to the wonder years of long ago, and may be becoming bigger than ever as our talent stretches across the world.

To look at the heyday of Australian wrestling, one has to go back to the 60s and 70s where you might recognise a certain combination of letters. WCW. Long before Ted Turner went toe to toe with Vince McMahon in the Monday Night Wars, World Championship Wrestling was a promotion run in Australia. International names like Harley Race, Killer Kowalski and Abdullah the Butcher all made appearances while the company built itself off the backs of stars like Dominic DeNucci and Spiro Arion, Europeans who appealed to an exploding immigrant population in major areas like Sydney and Melbourne.

It wouldn’t last however, and when WCW shut down in 1978 it essentially killed the local scene for decades.

My wrestling fandom began in the mid-to-late 90s as the Monday Night Wars brought wrestling to the mainstream, and there wasn’t a fellow countrymen for me to latch onto and support. 2003 marked the first time I saw an Australian wrestle and it looked like he was set to be a big star, debuting alongside the likes of The Undertaker and The Big Show, both main event staples at the time.

Alas, Nathan Jones would not be the one to fly the flag for Australian wrestling. If you don’t recognise the name, there’s a good reason for that. He was in and out of the company, lasting less than a year on screen before quitting due to the travel. Though you can spot him now in various movies playing assorted muscle bound foes.

It was around that time that I got my first true taste of live wrestling. The year prior WWE ran their first show in Australia in 16 years. The Global Warning event is special to me for many reasons, being not just the first time I saw wrestling in person (including a Triple Threat between Brock Lesnar, Triple H and The Rock), but it was also a rare moment I got to spend with my father, who normally spent every waking moment working.

But you didn’t click the link to read about my family life.

Toni Storm celebrating her 5 Star Grand Prix victory. Credit: World Wonder Ring Stardom

The show drew 56,000 people, an incredible number that instantly proved the demand was there for the industry to once again rise in the country. From then until 2019 the WWE would return to Australia at least once a year, with only a global pandemic breaking that streak. It was a big leap forward from the usual touring shows: which were ,messy, throw together events that generally featured up and coming talent and old past their prime performers to little fanfare. Though in hindsight, some of the younger talent would go on to become big names in the industry. Did you know AJ Styles wrestled Down Under in 2002?

Originally WWE stuck to house shows until 2017, when they ran an NXT taping in Melbourne. Headlined by Shinsuke Nakamura winning back the NXT title from Samoa Joe inside a steel cage (that refused to lower properly!), the show certainly wasn’t as big as Global Warning, but the passionate crowd didn’t care. That was then followed up with a 70,000 strong event at the iconic Melbourne Cricket Ground.

WWE weren’t just coming down to entertain us Aussies, they were bringing some with them. Nearly a decade after Nathan Jones, WWE had another Australian in Tenille Dashwood. Going by the name Emma, she became one of the early catalysts in changing the perception of women’s wrestling in the WWE. Although she never did win gold in the company, her matches with Paige in NXT started to get a discussion going that would then be launched by the likes of AJ Lee, the Four Horsewomen and Asuka.

It also launched the beginning of an Australian invasion. In 2013 Buddy Murphy signed on, followed a couple of years later by Peyton Royce, Billie Kay, Shane Thorne and Nick Miller. These additions were also signs of a burgeoning local scene breeding not only talent but interest. Thorne and Miller (known as Shane Haste and Mikey Nicholls on the independents) in particular had already made a name for themselves as a part of The Mighty Don’t Kneel, a faction which also included notable Aussies such as Slex, Jonah Rock and Elliot Sexton – the latter two who have also found their way to WWE. Miller and Thorne had worked around the world before signing with WWE, finding particular success in Pro Wrestling NOAH. When they were signed, fans were excited. Now Aussies weren’t just appearing, but there was an expectation of success beginning to build.

Rhea Ripley at Wrestlemania. Credit: WWE

As of 2021 there are a host of Aussies signed to WWE, be it on the main roster (Buddy Murphy), NXT (Indi Hartwell) or on Performance Center contracts (Matty Wahlberg). And many are showing great promise. At the forefront is 24 year old Rhea Ripley, who recently claimed the Raw Women’s Championship from Asuka at WrestleMania. She has both the skills and the look to be a long term mainstay of the division, and seeing that potential realised from her first couple of appearances in the Mae Young Classic is a big step forward for giving young Australian wrestling fans something to aspire to.

Rhea wasn’t even the Australian with the most hype entering that second Mae Young Classic. Perhaps the most accomplished Australian in WWE is only a year older than her. Toni Storm (who was technically born in New Zealand but like all good Kiwis became Australian…hey she moved here when she was four!) had already conquered much of the world before she signed on with the WWE. In 2017 alone: she was crowned the first Progress Women’s Champion, won both of Stardom’s big singles tournaments in the Cinderella Tournament and the 5 Star Grand Prix, and capped it all off by winning the World of Stardom Championship. Now she’s seen some success in NXT UK and has become one of the premier talents on NXT.

Many of those mentioned have been making their name abroad. Whether it be in WWE itself or in bigger promotions in England and Japan. The Australian scene has been producing talent, but it needed to be able to develop a scene that was worth sticking around in too.

Several companies have proven up to the task, with PWA (based out of Sydney), EPW (based out of Perth) and MCW (based out of Melbourne) standing out in particular in recent years. Any Australian wrestler worth knowing has appeared for these promotions, and several international names too. Melbourne City Wrestling struck up a partnership with New Japan Pro Wrestling, and were treated to two of their biggest stars in Kazuchika Okada and Tetsuya Naito making appearances. Along with other big names like Bad Luck Fale and Will Ospreay, these coups have helped to draw in fans who might not have normally paid attention to the national companies. Ospreay in particular took time during the brief period between his move from the UK to Japan to hoist the local scene onto his shoulders, bringing a global spotlight onto Australian wrestling in a way that hasn’t been replicated.

Slex at the Thornbury Theatre in Melbourne. Credit: WWE

New Japan Pro Wrestling haven’t just sent down a couple of names either, running several shows under their banner in Australia. Their 2018 tour featured key storyline developments as the company’s top Aussie Robbie Eagles completed his turn from Bullet Club, after one of the best matches ever on Australian soil against Ospreay. New Japan’s focus on developing the Oceanic scene can’t go unmentioned either, partnering with OG Bullet Club member Bad Luck Fale and his New Zealand Dojo to help train future prospects, while also producing arguably the best regional export of all time in Kiwi Jay White. Even the English commentary isn’t safe from the Land Down Under, with Gino Gambino bringing our special brand of humour to a worldwide audience.

Eagles has become one of the best representatives for Australian wrestling: choosing to split his time evenly between performing internationally, building a global fanbase, and helping develop the local scene. Robbie could easily focus his time abroad: given how difficult VISAS are during this time it is notable that he was the lone international import for last year’s Best of the Super Junior Tournament – that’s how much value NJPW see in him. Eagles has a real passion for wanting to see the image of Australian wrestling continue to grow. It’s one thing for young aspiring wrestlers see success stories in the big leagues, but they also need to see what is possible within the country’s borders.

Robbie Eagles vs Jushin Thunder Liger. Credit: New Japan Pro Wrestling

With international travel restrictions currently putting a limit on who can travel in and out of the country, Australian fans are spoilt for choice in seeing the best the country has to offer. Aussie Open, a young tag team that should be on any company’s radars are back tearing it up after making their name in the UK. Slex, who was beginning to break out with appearances in Impact, New Japan and Ring of Honor (the latter he recently re-signed with) can continue to build his legacy in his home country. Adam Brooks, a veteran of the industry continues to leave his mark, crafting a national career to rival any other.

The release of Billie Kay and Peyton Royce from WWE was a sour note. Like Gino in New Japan the IIconics were spreading authentic Australian comedy to a global audience and gaining recognition because of it. I genuinely believed Kay was carving out a valuable spot as a female R-Truth, a comedy wrestler who wouldn’t win lots of accolades but could always be counted on to entertain. Alas, their hard work is now up for grabs for any company that wants them, during a time when women’s wrestling has become a hot commodity.

Going to an Australian wrestling show is special. The crowds are raucous, drawing influence from their Queen’s homeland over in the United Kingdom. Fans are loud, crass and often funny, but more importantly they also want to contribute to the experience. It’s not just about being noticed, but they recognise the value in big reactions one way or another. If you want to work as a bad guy, we’ll give you the boos you crave. If you win us over, we’ll show our undying appreciation. And those two reactions aren’t always mutually exclusive.

The Mighty Don’t Kneel. Credit Pro Wrestling NOAH

The Pandemic has certainly slowed down the international markets coming down to Australia, but it hasn’t dampened the spirit of the country and its love for professional wrestling. While it’s questionable if local Australian wrestling will ever dominate television like the original WCW did decades ago, the scene has once again become a hotbed for incredible talent and events.

For all of the big names and global recognition Australian wrestlers are starting to get, there may be no better proof that the industry is thriving in this country than the fact that even though I live in a pretty nondescript town in the country’s smallest state, we have our own promotion that is thriving. Wrestling is big again in Australia. We’ve come a long way since Nathan Jones.