Pro-Wrestling's NZ Golden Age
February 15, 2006 by Nick Venter
World Wrestling Entertainment is bringing the hoopla of superstar wrestling to New Zealand in March. Nick Venter looks back to the time when New Zealand had its own wrestling heroes.
Robert Bruce, talent agent, actor and raconteur leans forward and points to his left ear. It looks ordinary, but he is partially deaf, a consequence of a rough night at the Auckland Town Hall in the 1970s.
These days, Bruce earns his living representing the likes of Temuera Morrison, Mark Hadlow and Susan Sarandon's make-up artist out of a pleasant villa in a leafy Auckland street.
But there was a time when he was one of the most hated men in the country - a comic book-style villain who could incite pro-wrestling crowds to fury with simply a look.
Bruce was part of a golden age of wrestling built around a locally produced wrestling programme, On the Mat. Regular participants like Bruce, King Curtis, Mark Lewin, Ricky Martel, John da Silva and promoter Steve Rickard became household names in the 1970s. They not only drew big television audiences, but also filled town halls and other venues up to seven nights a week. Their signature moves were replicated in playgrounds up and down the country.
By the time the show ended, Rickard estimated he'd promoted bouts in 135 New Zealand cities and towns.
Compared with the lavishly staged and plotted American wrestling shows on television today, On the Mat was a basic affair. There were no fireworks, no dry ice and no blaring rock music and some of the overseas wrestlers were past their physical prime. But the elements that make wrestling a multibillion-dollar business today were present then as well. There were clean-cut heroes ("faces" in the modern parlance), villains ("heels"), who could be relied upon to knee, elbow and gouge their opponents at every opportunity, and deaf referees who, night after night, failed to hear the audience clamour to look behind them to where the good guys were being choked by the tag rope or bashed with chairs.
There were also lashings of blood, a no-no in today's post-Aids world, and rudimentary plots, the most memorable of which was built around the notion that Martel was Lewin's illegitimate son.
The unlikely star of the show was Curtis, a 200- kilogram former American football star with a horribly scarred forehead, who had, says Rickard, a greater talent than any wrestler he ever saw for saying the things people loved to hate. His trademark move - the Big Splash - was lovingly played out with all the attention to detail one would expect of a Shakespearean actor. First, he would stun his opponent, usually through some foul means, then he would slowly hoist himself up to the top rope where he would teeter dramatically before casting himself on to his writhing victim.
The strange thing was that his victims always recovered quickly enough to endure the same punishment the following night.
In the United States, Vince McMahon, the owner of the WWE franchise, which is to bring its stars to Wellington's Westpac Stadium next March, has publicly admitted that the outcomes of matches are pre-determined and that moves are planned and rehearsed.
But more than 20 years later, Rickard, who instructed his goodies and baddies not to be seen in public together, is still reluctant to concede that pro-wrestling is any different to other sports. To questions about pre-ordained results, he replies with reminders about match-fixing in cricket and Derek Bevan, the referee of the 1995 Rugby World Cup, being given a gold watch by South African rugby boss Louis Luyt.
Bruce is more candid. Asked if his victory over John da Silva in a 1972 match for the Commonwealth belt was planned, he pauses, strokes his beard, laughs and says, "Yeah". The result drew crowds to a series of rematches with da Silva and bouts with other New Zealand wrestlers.
Lindsay Benbrook, floor manager for most of the On the Mat programmes, says he was not sure whether the matches were real or fake till he was instructed in one of his most important tasks - holding up boards, showing the wrestlers how much time was left in their bouts, without the audience seeing. The boards enabled the wrestlers to bring their matches to a dramatic conclusion just as the allotted time for the bouts expired.
"A couple of wrestlers would be in the ring knocking the shit out of each other and they would acknowledge with a wink or a grunt or something that they had seen it was six minutes to go and then five minutes to go and so on. And they had already worked out beforehand what was going to happen and that, at a certain point, a couple of other wrestlers were going to jump into the ring and start bashing the referee and throwing each other around and so on."
There is, says Bruce, an unwritten law that wrestlers don't purposefully maim each other, because everyone has to work. "In the main, when you kick someone, when you forearm them, when you punch them, you precision it to the point where it's not going to damage." But wrestlers do get hurt. By the time Bruce retired in 1977 he was unable to lift a glass of water and struggled to open doors. Doctors told him he had the bone degeneration of a 90-year-old. His back and shoulders were damaged beyond repair, his elbows and knees were injured, and he required $30,000 worth of dentistry.
Today, he is still a powerful, bull-chested man, but that is the result of six hours of intensive gym work a week to maintain muscles strong enough to do the work of dysfunctional joints. His impaired hearing is also the result of a wrestling injury, but not one received in the ring. It was caused by an enraged fan who rammed a full can of beer lengthways into his ear after a bout at the Auckland Town Hall. "I thought I'd been shot because suddenly there was this bang in my head and I looked down and there was just a sheet of blood pouring out.
That was not the end of it. After grabbing his assailant and handing him to a policeman, Bruce was attacked by a section of the crowd. "As I'm walking out, they're all punching and kicking me right where I'd been slit and I thought, I can't go down. If I go down, I'm dead. So I just walked through, bang, bang, bang," he says, miming the blows he took.
"They (the fans) hated my guts. I've had people having to be restrained. I caused two or three riots and, in the end, I had to report to the police station in every town I was wrestling in before the match." Thirty years later, it's hard to imagine Bruce generating such anger. With his wavy grey hair, stylish salt and pepper beard, relaxed manner and soft Scottish brogue, he comes across more as an actor than a ring villain.
But the native of Musselburgh, near Edinburgh, freely admits he set out to inflame the crowds. It was good for business.
When he first came to New Zealand, he was a good guy who fought in the scientific British manner. But when Rickard persuaded TV2 to screen On the Mat in 1975, he switched, or in the modern lingo, "turned" to the bad side.
But rather than just do it once, he did it twice, fighting dirty, then reforming, then going bad again, all in the space of a few weeks. The double betrayal firmly cemented his new persona in the minds of the wrestling public.
After that, says Bruce, he could enrage a crowd simply with a look. "Why bother" Honestly, it's better being a bad guy than being a good guy. I suppose it's the underlying evil you may have. You get a lot more fun, I find. I like to wind the people up that way, rather than get the accolades." It also helps bring in the crowds. On a 1975 trip to South Africa, Bruce enraged South African fans by unmasking the Masked Avenger in his first bout and giving the big South African champion Jan Wilkens a wrestling lesson in their first encounter. A 10-week booking turned into a four-month tour, during which he received 25 cents of every dollar spent by fans lusting to see him get his comeuppance.
But Bruce paid a price for his financial success. After the unmasking, the commander of the South African police contingent, which was supposed to be protecting the wrestlers, leapt into the ring and began hitting him with his stick. He had to be spirited away in a car that drove into the stadium. Wilkens, meanwhile, sought his revenge in a series of brutal bouts.
Bruce returned home to Auckland with a broken finger, broken nose, teeth missing and torn knee ligaments. "I had to be shot up with anaesthetics to get in the ring my leg was so bad."
He retired in 1977. On the Mat continued into the mid-1980s, with Rickard bringing in overseas talent to match against local wrestlers, but eventually he was forced to call a halt to proceedings because of the declining value of the New Zealand dollar. He could no longer afford to import talent.
Elsewhere, the US-based National Wrestling Alliance, of which he was a member, was also coming under pressure.
The alliance, comprising promoters in virtually every state plus outposts like New Zealand, controlled professional wrestling for decades. Each member organisation ran its own operation with wrestlers moving between the different regions, sometimes adopting different personas as they did so.
But McMahon's expansion of his father's New York based franchise into a US-wide operation gradually put the other promoters out of business. Today, his WWE juggernaut dominates the scene. Its performers are bigger, do more dangerous acrobatic stunts, earn more money and play before bigger crowds and a worldwide television audience, but Rickard is not part of it.
"It doesn't compare," says Rickard, who, even in his promoting days, divided his talent into two categories - performers and wrestlers. "Vince McMahon changed its name from WWF which stands for World Wrestling Federation to WWE, World Wrestling Entertainment. He's said it all himself without saying any more.
"Some of them do some good moves, they do, but I'm not going to see a wrestling match that lasts an hour or half an hour.
"You see a guy in there with his wife involved, his daughters involved, his sons involved. Why would I want to watch that""
by Nick Venter..
Chris Pugsley wrote:
My mom is from New Zealand and when ever a show would come by her family would drive the wrestlers to the hotel and the arena and every and sometimes they would stay at their house. Ox Baker is one that come to mind. Living down there for 7 months in 2004 was proof enough that Pro Wrestling was nothing like the golden ages seemed to be. Great Article.
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