The 1960s and 70s were the glory days of Australian professional wrestling, when even prime time TV couldn't get enough of good Aussie grappling. Australia's World Championship Wrestling (WCW) aired on Channel 9 from 1964 - 1978, and featured names like Mario Milano and Spiros Arion, who've long since faded from wrestling's history books.
So when discussing the history of professional wrestling, Australia is a rare feature. But the country is in the middle of an indie wrestling renaissance, with leagues across the country making waves internationally.
Melbourne City Wrestling's Gino Gambino became a member of the infamous New Japan Pro Wrestling stable Bullet Club in 2017. In the same period, WWE started snapping up Australian wrestlers, including Buddy Murphy, Shane Thorne, Nick Miller, Rhea Ripley, Billie Kay and Peyton Royce. Snapped up more recently were Jonah Rock (now known as Bronson Reed) and Elliot Sexton (Brendan Vink).
Rising alongside these names is Robbie Eagles, who joined Kotaku Australia for a chat about the growth of Australian wrestling and where it goes from here.
Eagles has become a semi-regular feature in Japan's premiere professional wrestling org, New Japan Pro Wrestling, arguably one of the largest competitors to America's WWE — but importantly, he's become a prominent figure and advocate for Australian wrestling.
"[Australian wrestlers] have been so hungry, and the talent has always been there. I think with the accessibility of social media and the internet, it really helped us," Eagles explained of Australia's sudden rise. "That pushed us to put on the best show there, whether there's a hundred people there or a thousand people watching a 15 second clip afterwards. We wanted to make sure that anything that was seen from PWA (Pro Wrestling Academy, where Eagles trains and performs) was seen as good wrestling."
PWA has emerged alongside Melbourne's MCW to become a premiere professional wrestling organisation whose stars often cross over with larger America, Japanese and British promotions. This year's Pro Wrestling Guerilla (PWG) Battle of Los Angeles, a prolific indie wrestling tournament, will play host to two of PWA's top stars, the "Rapscallion" Mick Moretti and current PWA Champion Caveman Ugg.
Australia's wrestling star is rising, but for Eagles and his modern generation of wrestlers, it was a long journey before Australia's wrestlers really started to make an impact on the indie scene. Eagles himself started out wrestling in smaller organisations like the Hunter Valley Wrestling Alliance (HVWA), a backyard league that is still whispered about today for its sheer amount of talent and eye-popping athletic displays.
— Aussie Wrestling GIFs (@AusWresGIFs) July 16, 2019
"HVWA, I was actually a fan of at first, in 2004 when I saw videos on some indie wrestling forum that I was part of," Eagles said. "I convinced [my friend Lucas Kelly] to drive up and we would go watch them. Eventually we'd start imitating them wrestling, and it would be in my backyard, or the lounge room or just the grass outside... and then it grew from there."
Eagles would go on to build his own psuedo-ring base to perform in (sans ring ropes and a turnbuckle, standard features of a wrestling ring), as would several other organisations across Western Sydney and the South Coast.
"We would all travel," Eagles said. "We wanted to be professional wrestlers, we just did it our own way — I guess, DIY. It's not the safest thing, it's not the smartest thing. I definitely had to break a lot of bad habits when I started training, but it got me prepared for the physicality... because we did some stupid stuff, and the next day would sometimes hurt, because of that stupid stuff. It prepared me for what pro wrestling training would be like."
In 2007, Pro Wrestling Australia was founded by Madison and Ryan Eagles (a name that Robbie earned through talent, determination and "probably the fact the [he] had the same arse as Ryan Eagles"), and the promotion quickly became one of Australia's local hidden wrestling gems. Like many other indie wrestling organisations, PWA's history began in backyards, basketball stadiums, school gyms and high school halls — anywhere that would rent out spaces to small groups of performers. Since then, its legacy has grown.
Modern PWA shows at Max Watt's in Moore Park frequently sell out. But when PWA was first established, it was a small organisation existing in a time when the wrestling fervour of the early 2000s had almost completely died. While the scene quietly struggled, PWA was busy building a loyal audience with its athleticism and drive to be better. Finding a new home at Paddington RSL was an important piece of the puzzle, and it allowed PWA to find a new audience in Sydney.
"We wanted PWA to be the standard for wrestling overall," said Eagles. "Going unnoticed even through that period from 2015 to 2017 — we were doing really good stuff, but not many people were seeing or hearing it."
Eagles pointed out House of Hardcore, a joint international promotional tour, as a key turning point for Sydney wrestling, when local wrestling fans finally sat up and took notice of the talent in their backyard.
"It was very easy for people to go, 'I want to see those guys again' because they were impressed by us," said Eagles. "So they grabbed a flyer or went on our social media and saw our next appearances and the next one was at Paddington RSL and it was with Will Ospreay."
Will Ospreay, a British wrestler who'd been making waves on the scene for his high-flying offence, took a shine to the Australian wrestling scene, and to Eagles himself. His appearances in PWA and around the Australian indies helped cement the country's importance in wrestling, and brought a lot of international fans into the fold. He continues to support and hold up Australian wrestling today, and recently inducted Eagles into his NJPW wrestling stable, CHAOS.
Buoyed by this newfound attention, PWA was able to evolve its identity further, and push its wrestlers further. Word-of-mouth had spread in the international wrestling community, and PWA's star was rising.
When NJPW made its way to Australia for the company's very first tour of the country, they paired with PWA, allowing the local scene to shine alongside its stable of prominent Japanese stars. Two months later, they were joined by U.K. promotion PROGRESS for a similar tour, winning new fans along the way. These tours were an important part of PWA's growth because it had exposed them to a more mainstream wrestling audience, and they took the challenges that came with expansion in their stride.
"When I first started, it was more common to see emulation ... Everyone was good in their own right, but we could've easily been compared to wrestlers that were on TV," Eagles said. "When we started being more creative, not only with the characters, but with the in-ring action, that's what's led to where we are today — [we wanted] to be seen as a competitor on the worldwide market for independent promotions."
"We can't look similar to anything else — we don't want to look like an NXT-lite, or we don't want to look like an Australian PROGRESS... We want people to be like, yeah that's Matty Wahlberg, that's Unsocial Jordan — and they're standout characters, and their wrestling is standout, as well. It's a credit to how hard everyone trains."
So, where does PWA go from here? The sky's the limit, according to Eagles. "There's a lot of different trajectories that have been thrown out there by other people in the wrestling industry. One of them is people saying there's going to be an NXT UK — but NXT Oceania or Australia... I don't know if that will happen. The trajectory is that it's within the next five years, and I think that's actually rubbish. I think the talent here is so hungry [they need something now]."
According to Eagles, PWA has considered beginning national tours to grow the brand (something that has already been achieved in 2011 in Queensland), as well as collaborative tours with other state-based organisations like MCW or EPW in Perth. But many of these plans are reliant on funding, and for companies like PWA, who lack larger sponsors, expanding beyond their current means is extremely difficult.
"I'd like to see Australian wrestling grow to a point where people can stay here, live in Australia and they're contracted, whether it's to a company like WWE or New Japan, or even All Elite, or something that's nationally based in Australia," said Eagles. "We need something that's more locally based and long-term staying to make sure that people don't forget about the wrestlers that might live right next door to them. But I think in the next couple of years, we're going to see [Australian wrestling] grow into something bigger."
Australia's wrestling scene is constantly evolving, and with rumours growing that WWE has taken an active interest in pursuing an 'Australian NXT', or at least poaching local talent, competition is fiercer than ever, as is the need to constantly innovate.
"It would be [both a good and bad thing] to [having WWE move into the local scene]. What we've seen in the UK is people getting signed up to deals and initially having loose reigns — they've still been able to work independent promotions and still do whatever they want creatively, but now that's tightened up. Now they're getting told that they can't do that. That's what I'd be worried about — pigeonholing these wrestlers to only performing once everything two months or whatever it may be."
Australian wrestling is an interesting spot because while many independent wrestlers in the UK and U.S. are able to eke out a living strictly through their wrestling, many in Australia are supporting themselves with full-time work. Some, like Eagles, are able to find stable work overseas, but despite its booming creativity, it lacks the resources of companies like WWE. The creativity and hard work put in by the local scene is a testament to its wrestlers and their determination.
"[WWE coming in] definitely would be competition, but at the same time, my colleagues, who are still working 9 to 5, like I was up until the start of this year ... If they get signed to contracts, then that's ultimately one of the goals. You can make ends meet as an independent wrestler — you can get by, but you're not going to be living super comfortably. You're going to be very attached to two-minute noodles. You're going to have to look for places with pretty low rent overheads — so yeah, it's good and bad. Good for people individually, but bad for the local product because it makes it harder for us to book longterm and be able to utilise the best talent in the most frequency and availability possible."
Escaping from the wrestling niche is a difficulty for Australian promotions because wrestling in the country has rarely been mainstream. Eagles, for his part, believes that the niche is a good thing, because the mainstream has a way of warping and changing things. Still, he believes that wouldn't be the end of Australia's wrestling story.
"The more people that latch onto what we do, the more we're going to have opportunities to do this full-time. That's the goal that I'm trying to set for everyone else," said Eagles.
"Everything I do is not just for me and my goals. It's for me to wear Australia on my heart and sleeve and tell people to go looking for what else is happening here, for the rest of the world to hear me and go, 'God, I wish Robbie would shut up about Australia already. Guess I better go look it up.'"
In our chat, Eagles also raised the potential of PWA to appear on national TV, like in the golden days of wrestling. It's not that far out of the realm of possibility either, with shows like Underworld Wrestling finding a home on Amazon Prime Video and Netflix housing original series GLOW, based on the glamorous world of 80s wrestling. Companies like All Elite Wrestling (AEW) and NJPW are pushing wrestling back into the mainstream, and Australia could absolutely benefit from that heightened attention.
With two shows planned for August and a national, two-day wrestling tournament planned for October, what's certain is that PWA isn't stopping any time soon. Australia's importance to wrestling history is growing, and the future is looking bright.
When asked how he would describe PWA's wrestling style and appeal to a brand new audience, he had this to say.
"What we do is a live-action stunt performance from a movie with the storyline included, and it's all done in one take right in front of you. It's live theatre — you get the characters at the beginning, and then you get the stunts... you've got gymnastics thrown in there, you've got comedic elements thrown in there... basically anything you could want out of a perfect movie, and it touches on all genres... Suspend your disbelief, go into it with an open mind and don't be judgemental, just enjoy your night... It's a lot of work, and we'd like to share that with the rest of the world."
PWA Black Label's next show, Break Their Backs And Make Them Rumble, takes place at Max Watt's Sydney on August 30. Find out more at their website.