State of Play: Professional Wrestling in New Zealand
From CAC Life Member,Â Steve Ogilvie
Despite being located in an isolated corner of the world, deep in the Southern Hemisphere, New Zealand â?? much like its neighboring country of Australia â?? has a long and colorful history associated with professional wrestling on a grand scale.Â One of the first professional wrestling stars of the 20th century, George Hackenschmidt, toured in 1905 and 1910, usually dispatching the local talent within minutes, then performing â??demonstrationsâ? to the numerous fans in attendance. Stanislaus Zbyszko visited our shores in 1926 to tangle with our local tall timber by the name of Ike Robin. Promoter Walter Miller stepped off the boat in the early 1930â??s and with the help of Canadian hall of fame grappler Earl McCready, set in motion two decades of seasonal wrestling tours, bringing the top names in the industry from the United States. Notable grapplers such as Jim Londos, Lou Thesz, Dick Raines, Paul Boesch, Ray Steele, Vincent Lopez, Ray Gunkel, Bob Managoff, Dean Detton amongst many others to the cities and towns of Aotearoa (â??The land of the long white cloudâ? as the native Maori call our country) came to battle the local talents of Lofty Blomfield, Ken Kenneth and briefly, before they made their names overseas, Pat Oâ??Connor and Abe Jacobs.
In the era following that, local boys made good Steve Rickard and John Da Silva, who were successes in amateur wrestling before making it in the pro ranks, used their drawing power and local support to start their own promotions. Concurrently, Australia was running hot with Jim Barnett and Johnny Doyle at the helm, meaning New Zealand made for a useful detour for many of the talent travelling there. When Australia faltered in the mid 1970â??s Rickard replaced the Australian promotionâ??s television spot with his own show â??On The Matâ?, which ran for nine years in a country that only carried two channels of television. Perhaps unsurprisingly, On The Mat is a strong television memory of any New Zealander over the age of 35. The likes of Abdullah the Butcher, King Curtis, Mark Lewin, Rick Martel, Mr Fuji, Harley Race, Andre the Giant and â??Nature Boyâ? Ric Flair are all household names to a generation of Kiwis who unfortunately show little interest in the goings on of the squared circle in its current format.
When On the Mat ceased broadcasting in the mid 1980â??s, local wrestling petered out with the occasional show rarer than the eggs of the long-extinct Moa bird. However, since then two new generations of pro wrestling fans have surfaced in this country, the first lot becoming fans during the televising of WWF (as it was) programming from 1988 through to 1991, and the second group of fans exposed to the WWE attitude era, WCW, and even more recently TNA, all of which have been shown heavily on New Zealand television during the last 15 years. These new generations wanted more than anything to witness professional wrestling as a regular live spectacle (WWE have run yearly show here for the past five years), and took it upon themselves to build a new scene of independent wrestling companies and talent.
While there are a handful of Kiwis competing overseas in Australia and the United States (Reon Mahima currently competing in FCW rings under the name Rhys Ali is one such example), to date the majority of the homegrown talent has stayed put. What this has done has allowed the scene here to grow exponentially, and can proudly boast three full time companies that have been putting on shows for close to a decade.
Aucklandâ??s Impact Pro Wrestling is the countryâ??s longest-running promotion of the current generation. Unique in that the company is run as a co-operative between the wrestlers themselves, IPW is very much focused on putting on the best in-ring shows in the country. Something that backs that up is the inclusion of â??The Dealâ? Dal Knox, â??The Oneâ? Vinny Dunn and â??Double Dâ? Davey Oâ??Connor in the 2010 PWI 500. Add to that the likes of Alfred Valentine, Jon E. King, Jordan Invincible and â??The Professionalâ? Joseph Kinkade all respected within the local community for their wrestling acumen, and all regularly found at the top of IPW cards. More great talent is on the way up including Brian St James, and the 6â?? 10â?, 310 lb former K-1 fighter, Rueben De Jong. It would be remiss to talk of IPW without mentioning their ladies division, with likes of Evie, Britenay, JPE and others working hard, if not harder than the boys in deliver athletic entertainment of a high calibre. IPWâ??s weekly television series, â??IPW Ignitionâ? is now in its sixth year of syndication and despite being broadcast on two smaller networks, is available to almost every home in the country.
Perhaps their only detractor is being based in New Zealandâ??s largest city, with so much on every weekend it can be hard to attract a regular, growing audience, however the shows usually draw crowds between 150 and 400 fans. Apart from running four varying venues within Auckland, they also have run as far North as Dargaville and Whangarei and as far south as Hamilton and Te Aroha in the Waikato. In addition they have the spot as part of the Armageddon Expo, a booking dating back to 2003, which allows the IPW crew to wrestle in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch on multiple shows over a several day period, and wrestle stars from the US including Raven, The Sandman and Disco Inferno in years previous.
At the Wellington-based NZWPW (New Zealand Wide Pro Wrestling) there is experience in the office end, with owner Martin Stirling having promotional ties with both wrestling boxing linking back over several decades. They are also tied in with the local Marae network, which is not to say that they arenâ??t able to draw on their own, as they run some of the larger venues in the Wellington area, including the Lower Hutt Town Hall. They also run several towns in the lower half of the North Island including Gisborne, Palmerston North, Hastings and Levin, and have made a foray into the South Island (where a new group has recently started). NZWPW is home to arguably the most â??overâ? wrestler in the country, D-Hoya, and they also have a number of guys with a lot of potential including the 6â?? 8â? Tykade, Travis Banks, JC Star, Corey Dallas and several others, and they are also able to boast a number of impressive female grapplers.
Kiwi Pro Wrestling (KPW), also based in Wellington is not short on talent or ambition. Certainly with former wrestler Rip Morgan at the helm, they have plenty of experience when it comes to the operation and productions end of the business. Perhaps the only drawback that could be aimed at KPW is their infrequent number of shows compared to the other main two promotions, but they too have run a variety of locations including Whanganui and New Plymouth. A demonstration of their ambitious nature was their television series â??Off the Ropesâ? – the first weekly wrestling show on a major TV network since Steve Rickardâ??s â??On The Matâ?. Whilst the tenure was brief, just 13 episodes, the production quality was top-notch and exposed local wrestling to a wider audience. Young talent such as Jade Diamond, H-Flame, Max â??the Axâ? Damage, Inferno and Shane â??the Technicianâ? Whitehead all show a lot of potential, and the healthy crowds at their admittedly sporadic shows point to good signs for the future.
Naturally, with increased exposure comes increased attention, and with that, criticism. However, as long as that criticism is constructive it can only be beneficial to the product. Certainly, input from some of the major players in the industry is not only welcomed but overdue.
Despite a generational gap much larger than one found between most nationâ??s professional wrestlingâ??s veterans and newcomers, when approached, names from New Zealandâ??s past including Butch Miller and Luke Williams ofÂ Sheepherders/Bushwhackers fame, Steve Rickard, John Da Silva, the late Al Hobman, Bruno Bekkar, Juno Huia, Bobâ?the Hogâ? Crozier, A.J. Freely and Peter Lane have lent their collective decades of experience, ability and advice to the new breed.
One final point to note is that each of these companies have now been in business for up to a decade, which is a considerable while in this industry. If things can improve and grow then thereâ??s no reason this little corner of the globe couldnâ??t contribute to the greater wrestling world with genuinely talented people, as it once did, and as the European wrestling scene is currently proving, which is that great, profitable talent can come from anywhere in the world.
(Special thanks to Dave Cameron, Auckland Sports Photography, Dion McCracken, â??Handsomeâ? Danny Jacobs, David Dunn and Luke Farmer for without whom this article would not have been completed.)