Wrestling in Australia - Old School Style
February 3, 2006 by Matthew Geddes
G'day again from Australia. Believe it or not, Australia once had a thriving wrestling scene; primetime TV once a week, sold out venues across both Sydney and Melbourne, and guys (there were no girls back then) who can definitely be classified as legends.
From the 1950s to the 1970s, wrestlers would often do a "tour of duty" in Australia, under the banner of World Championship Wrestling. Obviously this is a different organisation to the WCW of later years, but it was under the NWA umbrella. Champions such as Jack Brisco, Terry Funk and Gene Kiniski would often come down under to defend their titles against local heroes such as Mario Milano and Ronnie Miller.
There was also an Australian version of the "world" heavyweight title, which both Miller and Milano held at one point. Notables such as Dick "Bulldog" Brower, Spiros Arion, Brute Bernard and Waldo Von Erich also held this title at various times.
Over the last twelve months I've been fortunate enough to come across a five video set of matches from the 1950s to the 1970s from the golden days of Australian Prime Time Wrestling. Oh how things have changed!
A lot of these cards were taped in small community halls and the crowd is right next to the action. The sound is occasionally dreadful, as the primitive technology struggled with wrestler's booming promos, especially the great Ox Baker. At one stage, the commentator (former Australian Rules star Ted Whitten) reels off a list of places where the tour will be going (circa 1977). Some of the suburbs he mentions are tiny in 2006, so who knows how they managed to secure slots on the tour thirty years ago.
The first tape kicks off with faces Mark Lewin and King Curtis up against the hated heels Brower and Big Bad John. John came with what looked like a German helmet from the Bismarck era, and a riding crop and would later become a manager of top heels such as the Tojo Brothers and Abdullah the Butcher. Lewis and Curtis were the clear favourites of this era (early 1970s) along with Spiros Arion. Arion was known as "The Golden Greek", and considering Melbourne has nearly as many Greeks as Athens, he was the perfect face for the time.
Australia since the end of World War II has become an increasingly multicultural society, and the "ethnic" wrestler could easily get over on the back of the support of ex-pats. Arion was one of these and in the second match on the tape fights Jack Brisco for the NWA Title. Even with the majority of the crowd behind him, Arios couldn't quite pull off the upset, and Brisco remained champion.
Tape One also features matches featuring Gorgeous George, Dominic DeNucci (who later trained Mick Foley among others), Mario Milano and one of my favourites from the era - Ox Baker.
In a tag match, Baker teams with Brute Bernard against local heroes Kevin Martin and Max Tomboola. The Ox was (in)famous for using the so called "heart punch" which (storyline wise) had killed two people in the ring. (In truth, both wrestlers were carrying life threatening injuries which they kept secret from promoters). Of course being the heel, Ox threatened to use the heart punch as Teddy Whitten did his best Jim Ross telling us fans that the move is banned and he would be disqualified if he used it. In the end he didn't need to. Ox and Brute won clean, with JJ Dillon ringside as their manager. With his handlebar moustache and habit of twirling his amazingly hirsute eyebrows, Ox was a favourite of mine. Since retirement he has become a successful chef and cookbook writer. Who'd have thought"
As an aside, my most vivid memory of Kevin Martin involves a battle royal which also included the great Andre The Giant during one of his many tours to Australia. Kevin Martin was about Bob Holly's size, and he and Andre were the final two in a match where the winner was to receive a sizeable amount of money. Andre walked over to Martin and hoisted him onto his shoulders and split the money with him. I was about five years old I guess, and Andre was a hero to me from that day on.
Tape two includes legends such as Dr Jerry Graham, Abdullah The Butcher (in a very brutal match for its time against Spiros Arion), Tiger Jeet Singh and Mr Fuji. Mr Fuji would be best known for being a heel manager in the 1980s Rock N Wrestling period, but he was also a pretty fair wrestler in his time. And Tiger Jeet Singh showed all the arrogance that paved the way for Tiger Ali Singh later in the Attitude era.
A local by the name of Larry O'Dea was also featured against Abdullah the Butcher. Better known as a tag team wrestler (with Aussie Champ Ronnie Miller), O'Dea was a crowd favourite, looking like the typical surfer stereotype Aussie. Watching Larry made me realise just how technically good he was. He could have given Benoit and Angle a fair run for their money!
On the third tape, Ronnie Miller is forced to defend his title against the evil Butcher Branigan with #1 contender Bulldog Brower at ringside. Branigan was a giant of a man who pushed Miller all the way. Miller was about the size of Benoit and was and is an Australian legend. Towards the end of NWA investing time and money into Australia, he actually ended up being one of the chief promoter in Australia. As soon as Miller won the bout, Brower threatened him, the commentators and anyone else who would get in his way of becoming champion. It was a classic heel promo. Brower was a great wrestler but came across as being slightly deranged. Not quite George "The Animal" Steele deranged, but going down that path! There is another classic promo by Brower in this series where he talks about the faces "hurting his neck". The commentator looks quite bewildered throughout. Any heel who wants to know how to cut promos could do a lot worse than study Bulldog.
Tape Three also features Antonio Rocca - a WWE Hall of Famer. An all time fan favourite, Rocca was one of the first "high flyers". In this match he faced journeyman wrestler Clyde Steeves. Unfortunately information about Steeves is hard to come by, which is a shame because in this match he held his own against one of the greats.
I can't talk about Australian wrestling without talking about Mario Milano. He is to Australian wrestling what Hulk Hogan is to the US. He was a mainstream celebrity. People who knew nothing about wrestling knew who Mario Milano was. He can be credited almost single handedly for the boom in wrestling in the mid 1970s in Australia. His abdominal stretch was a feared submission move, and many great wrestlers succumbed to it over the years. He became the IWA Champ in 1967, beating the great Killer Kowalski. Whether he had the gold around his waist or not, he was always "the People's Champion" of his era.
Volumes four and five feature much the same wrestlers in different combinations. Chief Billy White Wolf takes on Sydney boy George "Tiger" Barnes in one match, while Waldo Von Erich also appears in a tag match against fan favourites Lewin & Arion.
Von Erich and the Great Tojo also come up against tag champs Ronnie Miller and Larry O'Dea. To see a Von Erich in the same ring against the two Aussie heroes blows my mind today. I can't possibly imagine any top line wrestler in the ring against local boys in a community hall in some backwater suburb of Sydney.
But that was wrestling in Australia - old school style. No theme songs. No fireworks. Great storylines and promos, great matches, and wrestlers who became my first heroes of the ring. Without Milano, Ronnie Miller, the Ox, Bulldog Brower, Larry O'Dea and others, (and of course Andre) I doubt whether I'd ever have been excited by Bret Hart, The Rock, Triple H, Kurt Angle and countless others.
So for that I give thanks and great credit to the wrestlers of the old school. May history remember them.
by Matthew Geddes ..
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