Melbourne's underground wrestling scene is Australia's hottest new sport

It's Saturday night and 500 fans are filing in to the venerable Thornbury Theatre for Melbourne City Wrestling's first event of the year, Vendetta. The mood in the theatre is electric: it's been two months since the last MCW show, and the fans are rabid. Long-held grudges have simmered through the summer months, absent favourites are tipped to return, and English hardcore legend and "king of the goths" Jimmy Havoc has cruised in for a match and a beer or ten. The matches combine raw physicality with broad strokes theatre – good guys (faces) versus bad guys (heels) – as otherwise ordinary women and men perform extraordinary feats of "sports entertainment", laying their bodies on the line before rushing out to the merch table to sell t-shirts and signed photographs. Over the course of the night, alliances will be forged, challenges will be thrown down, and at one point someone's elderly parents will accidentally interrupt a promo.

It's business as usual for Australia's thriving professional wrestling scene, which has gone from strength to strength in the past two years. For decades, local wrestlers were met with indifference from Australian audiences, some of whom could recall the good old days of Festival Hall and the Hordern Pavilion in the 1960s and '70s but were unaware there were still promotions running in community halls around the corner from their house. Now, promotions in most major capital cities, and some regional centres, regularly put on shows to hundreds of punters. Streaming video and social media has ensured that said shows reach a far wider audience than those who buy tickets, an audience that often includes very important viewers in Stamford, Connecticut: the home of the world's biggest wrestling promotion, WWE, where stars like Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson are made.

Vendetta is heavyweight Jonah Rock's last show in Melbourne, and the rumour mill has gone into overdrive: word on the street is the Adelaide-based brawler has been signed to a WWE contract. Rock, known as the "king of monsters" (but in reality a big softie whose Instagram regularly features pictures of his beloved cats), has recently been making a name for himself overseas with appearances at Los Angeles' PWG; that promotion has become a reliable drawcard for WWE talent scouts.

What the crowd doesn't realise is that Rock's tag partner Elliott Sexton – a charismatic villain who looks like the spawn of Errol Flynn and a 10-tonne anvil—has also been signed, and the pair will soon jet off for WWE's training facility in Orlando, Florida together. The duo's experience is becoming increasingly common; local wrestlers have lately been carving out impressive international careers, from Adelaide's Demi Bennett (who, as Rhea Ripley, became the inaugural NXT UK Women's Champion) to Melbourne's Ryan Rollins (who wrestles in Mexico under the moniker 'Australian Suicide'). It wasn't always the case. "The WWE was always on the other side of the world but when I started in wrestling 20 years ago, it might as well have been on the moon," Australian wrestling legend KrackerJak tells me. Krackers made a name for himself as "The Mad Bastard" over nearly two decades' worth of comic brawling and bloodcurdling hardcore work.

These days, semi-retired from wrestling, he tends towards commentary and referee duties, as well as serving as an ad hoc scene historian (not long after he took an Xbox console to the head in a match back in 2016, he agreed to co-produce a wrestling documentary podcast with me). He keenly remembers the dark days around the turn of the century when Australian wrestling was at a low ebb. "There was no real internet, particularly at an independent wrestling level, especially in terms of video; we're talking pre-YouTube," he recalls. "Today, you've got guys who started off wrestling in a Chinese restaurant in Tullamarine, Melbourne, winning WWE titles in front of hundreds of thousands of viewers around the world."

The charismatic villain looks like the spawn of Errol Flynn and a 10-tonne anvil

He's talking about Buddy Murphy, who had the poetic experience of becoming the first Australian WWE title-holder – the Cruiserweight Champion – in front of his hometown crowd at 2018's Super Showdown. The MCG, bursting with 70,000 fans and trademark pyrotechnic largesse, must have felt a long way from the Ukrainian Hall, where Murphy once wrestled as Matt Silva, but in many ways, Australian wrestlers are used to putting on stadium-worthy shows in small spaces.

For evidence of that, one need look no further than another match on the Vendetta card, a three-way between Robbie Eagles and newcomers Jett Rouka and Tyson Baxter. Known as "the sniper of the skies", Sydney-based Eagles, 30, proffers a trademark combination of eye-popping aerial feats and "strong style" striking moves - powerful kicks that put paid to the too common "it's all fake, yeah?" whine from non-believers. "The thing that I've said for a few years now is that we give stadium-sized performances in small community halls," Eagles offers.

His three-way with Rouka and Baxter is a case in point. The match is a scorcher, ending in a two-minute standing ovation—at Eagles' urging – for the two bright newcomers, who only recently had been wrestling in the Sunbury Memorial Hall to a crowd of 100 or so punters.

"I had plenty of veteran wrestlers do it for me when I was first starting out," Eagles says of the practice of helping newcomers get "over" with the crowd. "I try not to be selfish, because I know what it's like when I go into a match with someone who's higher calibre or who's been doing it for a long time. I was often brought down a peg because these people would be like 'Who's this kid? We'll go easy on him', when you could have done some cool stuff and explored your skills and abilities."

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Eagles is a fascinating figure, and emblematic of an emerging practice in Australian wrestling. Where once the goal was to, eventually, move overseas to WWE and go "full-time", Eagles is one of a growing field of local wrestlers who see their overseas work—Eagles has fought for New Japan Pro Wrestling and PWG—as a way to boost the Australian wrestling economy. As it stands, even the biggest stars in Australia still have day jobs. Many work in wrestling-adjacent industries—personal training and fitness feature heavily—but the scene also boasts its fair share of graphic designers, public servants and even school teachers, all of whom shed their mild-mannered skins of a Friday or Saturday night to embody their in-ring alter egos. The fact that, despite the lure of international opportunity, Eagles chooses to remain based in Sydney is telling: more eyes on Australian wrestling means more opportunities for local workers to inch closer to their dream of making a living from their art.

"Everything I do, I wear Australian wrestling, my heart, on my sleeve. I'm really representing everyone that I've worked with or trained with, because I want them to get the opportunities as well," he says. "I've always believed in that, as a human moral, to 'pay it forward' in any way."

While the majority of the millions –if not billions – of wrestling fans globally are familiar mostly with the WWE "product", the rise in in-house streaming services offered by larger independent promotions has meant that, impressed by the overseas indies, many fans now seek out independent wrestling in their hometowns. "I think there's an increasing desire in fans for something different. The internet has altered traditional distribution models and wrestling is no longer a slave to television as a medium," KrackerJak explains. "Adult audiences, in particular, look for wrestling that appeals to their adult sensibilities rather than the family-marketed product produced by the WWE. It's a global phenomenon but a local one too."

This growing interest in independent product means that overseas names are also increasingly keen to travel to Australia to wrestle – and the talent here makes it well worth their time. The increasing crowd sizes, and global reactions, at major Australian promotions suggests the scene is reaching fever pitch. Eagles has high hopes for the future. "The talent here is second to none. Because of that geographic issue of our being so far away and everyone doubting us to begin with, we have to work extra hard so that our first impression doesn't just 'blow people away', it ejects them from their seats into another atmosphere," he says, hopeful that audience demand will see a return to the hallowed venues of old within the next few years. "We want to pay homage to those who came before us, and respect, but show those guys what we do it now, and how we do it. I really want to see those 'stadium-like' performances in community halls not be in community halls anymore."

A month or so after Vendetta, the news of Rock and Sexton's WWE signings is made public. Not long after, Rock posts a photo of himself, decked out in the trademark grey "PROPERTY OF WWE PERFORMANCE CENTER" t-shirt, on Instagram. The caption: "This is all I've ever wanted… Now I'm here."

And back home, his entire country cheers.