*EXTENDED ARTICLE FROM PASSION ISSUE 2, PG 16-19*
I was driving to the House of Free Fighting, a training school and home of Newcastle’s very own Professional Wrestling company. With a show at City Hall coming up in a few days, I wanted to meet the pro wrestlers to try and understand why they do it.
Explaining what I was doing to friends and family, I was met with a recurring dialogue.
“The fake wrestling?” they would ask.
Unsure of how to describe it without undermining it, I would reply, “like the WWE wrestling.”
It was an uncomfortably hot day, and I was dripping sweat inside the tin warehouse that housed the wrestling school. Loud rock music played over the sound system. A wrestling ring occupied the majority of space, but there was also a free weights area. Walking in, I found myself ducking between a group of about ten younger trainees, of all shapes and sizes, doing their circuit and cardio training. So far, none of it seemed fake at all. Was I in the right place or had I wandered into a boxing gym?
I sat down with Shayne Sheffield Sinclair, one of the pros who trained there and had been wrestling for six years and was also the event manager. Shayne towers over most wrestlers with his height and filled-out build. He told me the trainees were in their ninth week of a 10-week training program designed to get them comfortable with the basics of wrestling moves and to improve their physical conditioning. After graduating from this training level, they would then move on to training in the ring “It’s a privilege to get into the ring, not a right”, he said. The training programs had proven to be a testament to newcomers’ commitment and physical ability, with only one in four trainees progressing through each training block.
Although he is still wrestling regularly, Shayne made it very apparent that his ambitions were focused on the back end of the industry.
“My goal here is to increase professional wrestling notoriety in Australia,” he said.
“What makes you passionate about doing it?” I asked.
“Seeing how Adam (the owner) and Newcastle Pro Wrestling drove Australian wrestling forward… I’m motivated by keeping that alive.”
We started talking about the upcoming show and what it meant to be able to perform at City Hall. He explained how it had been a culmination of hard work over the years to “make our business seem as legitimate as it is”.
This made me empathetic for professional wrestling organisations as it sounded like they were not taken seriously as professional performers because of the gimmicks and stereotypes of their work.
He said, “even for the wrestlers in the ring, it doesn’t matter if it’s performance or not… there’s years of work”.
Later, I caught up with Carter Deams, a young, high-energy wrestler. Shayne explained that when Carter was in rookie training, many years back, it was obvious that he would be a great wrestler. Carter was tall, not as tall as Shayne, but had a muscular, athletic build and wore a short skin-faded mullet. Living up to the praise, he exuded confidence.
He told me he had attended a sports school and originally had dreams of playing soccer at an elite level until he experienced a dream-ending injury. He said, “If I couldn’t be the best version of me, I didn’t want to be a version at all,”.
Despite working two jobs, studying, and looking after his family, he still makes the time to dedicate himself to training and performing shows. A packed work-life-wrestling routine was consistent among all the wrestlers I spoke to.
I asked what got him into wrestling. Carter said, “It’s always been there…I’m very obsessive like I’ll get wrapped up in something for a couple of weeks, like video games or phone games. I’ll spend hundreds of dollars on phone games and then lose interest in a week. But the one thing in my life that I never phased out of was wrestling,”
He explained that in his six years of pro wrestling, he’d performed in shows wherever they had wrestling and even had some international stints in New Zealand and Japan “I’ve done the whole nine yards”.
“Are you content with your wrestling career?”
“Yes, 100 percent,” he said, but he also explained that having great matches doesn’t always feel as great as you’d think and that he enjoyed other parts of wrestling, “I thought winning the [championship] belt would be the best thing I ever did, but then I got to train and see my rookies get on shows and make their own accomplishments so I could sort of live vicariously through them”.
Carter is currently one of the most highly-regarded wrestlers in the country. However, not too long ago, he was just a rookie in this gym too.
I headed to the office to talk to Adam Hoffman, the head trainer and owner of Newcastle Pro Wrestling. Adam, a middle-aged man with piercing blue eyes, a blonde goatee, and a short mohawk, oversaw the whole company from match planning to the training curriculum and has been wrestling for 20 years.
Adam said that he continues to wrestle in the current shows, and as I had him reflect back on his career, he said, “I had dreams in the early days of making it to WWE,” but after seeing that you needed to go international to make it and that the Australian wrestling scene was lagging behind the U.S.A wrestling, “the dream became very early on to make wrestling big enough here so that we could live off it here”.
Adam explained that he enjoyed wrestling because it had the athleticism of other sports without the risk of injury from smashing into someone playing rugby, but that you get to perform and “connect with emotions”.
“That’s the most important thing if you look out in the crowd and see them reacting emotionally how you want them to… it’s addictive, I think it’s what keeps people going for so long,” he said.
I reluctantly asked Adam what he thought about people calling it fake. For someone who has dedicated a large portion of his life to it, I think this rightfully upset him as he said, “it’s just a stupid mentality to have”, he trailed off and explained that in the 80s, it was important that pro wrestling appeared fake to have the audience buy into it, but now wrestlers don’t try and portray it as fake.
Adam said, “Pro wrestling has that stigma of just fake fighting and men in spandex. It’s actually heroes and villains and stories…It’s storytelling.”
“Would you call yourselves storytellers?” I asked.
“Absolutely, a match has a story, a show has a story, a series of shows has a story,” he said.
“Is there anything like wrestling?” I asked.
Adam took a long pause to genuinely consider this question. He explained that having played elite-level sports and done drama, pro wrestling is so unique in its audience interactions and story-telling “you can’t compare it”, he said.
He explained that regardless of the match outcome in wrestling, as long as the audience becomes immersed in the story that you’re telling, “that’s a win”.
It was the night of the show, Brawl at City Hall 3, I arrived a few hours prior to show time with the hopes of seeing some behind-the-scenes. I was nearly escorted out by security, but after persuading them with my camera and notepad – I was in.
It was a grandiose venue, with tall ceilings, wall detailing, a mezzanine, and red velvet seats traditionally used for theatre plays. This setting was juxtaposed with the wrestling ring. Old entertainment meets new, I thought.
After a pep talk from Adam, the wrestlers jumped into the ring and began planning their matches with one another. Carter reminded me of a director, running through his broad plan for his tag-team match with Shayne and the two other wrestlers adding to his outline. I tried my best to understand what was being said, I heard things like,
“Then I’ll do a hurricanrana…come in with the German suplex… back body drop… arm drag…hip toss…frog splash…code red”.
The barrage of fast-paced technical information all sounded interesting, but I had no idea what any of it meant.
I asked, “Is this the first time you have been together to discuss the match?”
“Yes, but Carter texted through a bit of a script earlier in the week”, Shayne said.
As an outsider looking in, this seemed like very last minute, and I wondered if that was the typical way of preparing for a match. I learned later that the match times can change or the angle -meaning the storyline in the match- may be altered on the show day, so it paid to stay flexible.
At the pre-match meet-and-greet function, I spoke to Carter about what it was like to have engagement with the fans and asked if he ever feels a bit like a celebrity, he said “one of the first things my stepson ever asked me was ‘do you know John Cena?’
Carter said that the young fans don’t know he is not as big as the wrestlers on TV, and “they don’t know that I work at Coles and go to uni. So for tonight, it sounds weird, but I’m like a star”.
“You come out here, you talk to the kids, you make ‘em laugh, joke around with the other wrestlers, it creates a good environment going into that show… if I didn’t have this banter and interactions with the fans, I don’t think I’d be doing it anymore,” he said.
As the fans cleared out and the meet and greet came to an end, I asked Carter if he was in character as soon as he steps on location.
Carter said, “I think I’m just myself…maybe I play it up a little bit”. He said that he elevates his arrogance for the show, but for the most part, he is still being himself.
It was match time, Carter and his partner came out first, jeering and bouncing around as the crowd booed at them. They were clearly the villains and they fit the part. Jake and Shayne followed them shortly behind— young Jake dressed in his sheriff attire, and was chaperoned out by his physically imposing giant partner Shayne. It was a classic story; the Sheriff Department riding into town to stop the punk outlaws, and most importantly, the audience felt this and cheered for the law as the match began.
I asked before, “who wins?”
“If I tell you, it won’t be as interesting,” Shayne said.
I saw three kids in the front row sitting with jaws wide open, and their eyes lit up every time a wrestler got hit hard or did a high-flying acrobatic move. Even the adults with sceptical facial expressions became curious and attentive as the match went on.
After taking a beating, I noticed Shayne was crouching out beside the ring clutching his arm in agony. Referees and stagehands quietly rushed over to him while the match continued.
I read Shayne’s lips say, “I heard a POP!”.
This made me think of the long list of injuries I had been told about by the wrestlers I’d met. Even though it’s not real violence, Shayne explained that lying in bed after a hard match a few years back, he found himself struggling to breathe. After rushing to the hospital, the doctors found he fractured his sternum, so badly that it resembled injuries sustained in car crashes.
Despite Shayne’s injury, the match went on, and he even managed to get back in the ring, but the Sheriff’s Department was defeated and the crowd let out a round of boos and insults at the show-boating villain, Carter.
I hustled backstage to follow up on the injury, only to find Shayne’s arm was fine. The injury was fake, and I fell for it. Shayne reassured me that because they were wrestling with people whom they trusted and had plenty of match experience, the risk of real injury was low.
But this wasn’t to say every injury that happens out there is fake. Shayne and Carter showed me plenty of fresh small cuts and red bruises surfacing from slamming on the ring floor.
Despite putting on a compelling show, Shayne and Carter seemed a little defeated. They explained that when performing, you walk a fine line between the match plan and improv. In some instances in the match, they saw gaps in the performance that needed another planned move, but it was too late to add one without causing potential confusion for the other wrestlers.
I asked Carter, “Are you happy with the match?”
Carter explained how he spends time processing and over-analysing every aspect of the performance “I’m my own worst critic,” he said.
“There are certain things in the match that I thought would get a much bigger crowd reaction and other things I thought would be water under the bridge, but they got really big reactions.”
That’s what I try to tell people when they say, ‘well, it’s just predetermined anyway, who cares’, A lot of unseen work goes into it,” he said.
I asked, “Do you think it’s something the general population or even the fans don’t understand?”
Carter said, “You almost don’t want them to understand… you want them to buy into it. But sometimes it’s good when people see it as fake because you get more appreciation for the work you put in”. He also said that the real goal is when the people watching who know it’s a performance become so immersed that they forget.
I wondered whether his obsessive tendencies made him so focused on his performances, that he was unable to enjoy his achievements. But then again, maybe this critical attitude made him such a good performer in the first place.
Pro wrestling’s relationship with audience engagement and the goal of immersion through simulated violence and performance makes it unique. It doesn’t fall neatly into the category of sport or theatre. Yet, the outdated stereotype that considers it “fake”, ignores the hard work of the wrestlers and undermines their devotion to athletics and storytelling.
* * *
After the show had ended, I persuaded Shayne to let me take a bump in the ring. A bump is when a wrestler falls to the floor, landing on their back as if they got knocked over, it is one of the most basic moves.
Shayne did a demonstration and walked me through it. I got into the squat position and leaned back whilst throwing my legs out from under me like a rug was pulled from underneath me. I slammed on my back and accidentally threw my head onto the ring floor in a loud BANG. I mistimed my breathing by a second and was left winded and had a very real headache.
*Everything in this article is true except some elisions of time for narrative purposes.