Shock and awe
It’s Sunday evening and I’m in an intermediate school hall in west Auckland, watching a live wrestling show. Just Plain Evil, the headlining villain, is alliterating about how she’s going to “destroy, decimate and dominate” her opponent Delilah. She spots a little boy in the crowd. “You’re the ugliest thing I’ve ever seen!” she snarls. A man in the front row heckles her. “Shut up!” she shouts. “Your opinion’s irrelevant.”
Then she and Delilah, a small but very tough 16 year old, commence slapping each other, jumping on each other, kicking each other in the boobs and pulling each others’ hair.
The crowd is aged roughly from five to 75, and highly vocal. “Beat the crap out of her!” they yell. “Get her!” “Choke her!”
Wrestling is something of a niche activity in Aotearoa, in that no one really does it. Trainer Graham Hughes, who is running tonight’s event, says there are three clubs in Auckland among just six or seven in the country. I’m not alone, then, in my sole reference point for the sport being a hazy memory of Hulk Hogan in a yellow onesie.
Yet this is no mere sport. It’s drama, it’s comedy, it’s art. They call it a “rope opera”. It’s sport for people who may not necessarily enjoy sport, but do love being swept up in the romance and comedy of a great story, while watching people smash the crap out of each other in a ring.
As an added bonus, Hughes has a refreshingly awesome take on gender roles. “I don’t think we have a women’s wrestling scene – we just have wrestlers,” he says. Not every club endorses inter-gender matches, but Hughes is all over it. “Everybody should be seen as equal, because everybody is equal. Take Krystal Kayne or Frankie Quinn, two of our girls. If they slap or kick you, it’s going to hurt. So what’s the difference if they’re a guy or a girl?”
The matches pitch woman against man, tiny against humungous, musclebound versus a wee bit cuddlier. Size and shape have little relevance in the ring. Here, it’s as much about physical strength as it is about charisma, comic timing and being a bit of a clown.
Rising star Delilah attends an all girls’ school and has a bunch of stepsisters, but at training, she is often the only female. She wishes there were more. “I mean, I understand. Sometimes I’m like, ‘Why am I doing this? It’s so weird!’ But honestly, I love the drama and I love the stories. There’s something about it that is unlike any other sport.”
She plays hockey too, but says there is no comparison. One involves passion and emotion; one is just a game you are trying to win. Also, one involves kicking grown men’s arses. “I’ve wrestled men all around New Zealand. It’s really empowering and it’s badass as well. These guys aren’t small. They’re big guys. And who can say they’ve done that? None of my friends can.”
I ask her if she has watched Glow, a Netflix show about female wrestlers that I heroically binge-watched in preparation for this article. “I’m happy how they represented it. They weren’t making fun of it. You could tell the people who directed and made it were aware of the struggles wrestlers go through and they really respected that.” It also piqued the interest of her classmates.
This year she met her idol, American fighter Sasha Banks, when she visited New Zealand. “It was so embarrassing because I was just crying the whole time. Whenever I see her wrestle I kind of get emotional, probably just because I love her so much, and she is who I would want to be if I could be anyone.”
Kartik reckons he’s the only active wrestler in the world with a pacemaker. He was born with a disease called mosaic mutation, where if his heart rate goes over 185 beats per minute, it stops pumping blood to his brain and he blacks out. In hospital after his first surgery, at the age of eight, a bout came on TV between Eddie Guerrero and Rey Mysterio, which he found “funny as hell”. Soon afterwards, a surgeon asked Kartik what he wanted to do with his life. He said, “I’m doing that.”
His parents can’t bear to watch him fight because of his heart. A brother showed up once but never again. But one of his best friends tries to make every show he can, and loves it. I ask Kartik what to expect from tonight’s show. “Entertainment, probably the most fun you’ll ever have, a thrill ride.”
Another rarity on the scene is Spencer Kyle, who at 15 is even younger than Delilah, and the youngest pro-wrestler in New Zealand. When I meet him backstage before the show, he is so nervous he wants to vomit. He gets performance anxiety. So why does he do it? “It helps me step out of my shell, and push my boundaries and limits,” he says.
Wrestling combines Spencer’s favourite things, martial arts and theatre. It’s a way to learn to relax and have fun, because he is shy and often overthinks things. “It helps me, playing a character, because I’m still trying to find myself in real life. You don’t always know who you are.”
Bringing a sandalwood-scented vibe to the ring is Devin Lockhart, with his long wavy hair, trippy tights and hot pink sleeves. He is not too focussed on being ripped. “My character – and this is probably just an excuse – he doesn’t need to be the most athletic. He’s just having fun. I tickle, I hug, I try and incorporate as much goofiness and theatric behaviour as possible.”
While some people do wrestling to come out of their shells, for Devin, it’s the opposite. “It’s really just an excuse to be able to do me more.” When he was little, he encountered his idol Goldust on TV, a super-camp masked man in a golden bodysuit and face paint, who entered under a shower of golden glitter and “sort of rubbed himself. He was really creepy but I was so fascinated by it. I was like, who would do that? Wow!” He and a friend proceeded to spend many hours jumping off trampolines and roofs.
Devin is a good guy, so the audience needs to see he’s in pain, so they feel for him, and so his big killing blow to the villain is all the sweeter. Audience reaction is a match to his flame. “When we start to hear the clap, clap, clap, and they start chanting your name, it does burn inside of you, this weird sensation of, ‘yeah! I can do something! I don’t care how exhausted I am right now!’”
Hughes, aka wrestler The Standard Hero, says they are part of a “real mom-and-pop organisation” around the world, where you have to be willing to start at the bottom and work your way up. “It’s a business very much based on respect and paying your dues.”
Some want to fight the odd bout and some want to “make a whole lot of money and be a superstar. As long as you’re willing to put the work in, those doors are open to people. It’s your own personal journey.”
Hughes has wrestled here and in the UK since he was a teenager, and had “amazing high times and amazing low times. I used to spend two or three weeks at a time on the road, sleeping in a car, showering at venues in a public bathroom. Those times were tough, and you start to question why you do it. But then you have amazing highs every time you go out there.”
Hughes reckons this is the sixth or seventh event to feature women headliners. And no one’s making a song and dance about it. “I get in there and wrestle the girls. They’re another performer, another athlete. They certainly work as hard, and in most cases harder, than the guys do.”
Does The Standard Hero have a signature move? A power bomb, perhaps? A suplex? A Boston crab? “My trainer said, ‘I’m going to come up with the best move’,” says Hughes, “‘it’s called the ‘tomorrow driver’. I’ll show it to you tomorrow.’ I lift somebody upside down, lift their feet in the air and then drop their head to my knee.”
Moments into tonight’s show, the crowd’s in a frenzy, yelling, “Get that plonker!” “What a pussy!” “Not the hair!” and – my favourite – “That wasn’t very nice!” Wrestler Charlie Roberts says even haters eventually turn into lovers. “People bring their kids and they’re standing there with their arms folded, then by the end they’re yelling louder than the kids.”
Hughes says newcomers to the sport can expect the unexpected. “And I hope you go away with a different understanding of wrestling, and just being in awe of what it can be and how entertaining it can be.”
Watch: Highlights video from Hughes Academy