Garyson Waller wrestlers
Australian wrestler Grayson Waller, real name Matthew Farrelly, has made a splash in the WWE. Photography: courtesy of WWE.

A COCKTAIL OF SPOTLIGHTS and dry ice lingers over a squared circle as the rhythmic ‘one-two-three’ of the referee’s count claps around a room that suddenly feels much smaller than it is. The crowd is enraptured: as breathless as it would be watching any show, as tense as it would be watching any sport. Then, jubilation as the victor emerges triumphant.

It is, as so many pro-wrestling sceptics are at pains to point out, all scripted. The outcome: predetermined. ‘Sports entertainment’, as WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) would put it. But fake, as is so commonly thrown around? Not even close. As the blood and sweat that streak the canvas at the end of the night will attest to, the risks and the pain are often all too real. The whole thing is, ultimately, just another scene in a century-long performance that, for those watching, feels inexplicably real.

Shows like this are most commonly associated with those that pro wrestling’s biggest promoter, WWE (formerly WWF until an unfortunate lawsuit from the World Wildlife Fund), has put on in arenas, and broadcast on TV screens, across the US more or less every week since 1993. Tonight’s setting, however, is decidedly more humble: the back room of an unassuming bar in Sydney’s inner-west, where Pro Wrestling Australia (PWA) is putting on a show for a crowd not of thousands, but dozens.

PWA spends most of its time criss-crossing the city in service of a small yet dedicated group of local fans for whom this kind of show represents pro wrestling at its purest. While they occasionally play bigger venues, most shows are held in the function rooms of pubs and workers’ clubs. Most performers work part-time jobs or train other young hopefuls to pay the bills between shows.

Even so, it’s world-renowned. From here, and from other local promotions that dot Australia, have emerged genuine superstars, some of whom will return home to Perth’s Optus Stadium in late February to perform for a worldwide audience of millions as WWE hosts Elimination Chamber: its first major show in the country in more than five years.

It would be easy to dismiss WWE’s decision to bring a live event to Australia as a quick earner ginned up by a company always on the hunt for a new market to exploit. To those in the local community, however, it’s much more than that—the culmination of a decade in which Australia has become one of the most successful hotbeds of pro-wrestling talent anywhere outside the Americas or Japan, producing indie darlings and WWE champions alike. For these performers, the main story of a saga more than 40 years in the making is only just beginning.

Australians-in-WWE wrestlers

Performers from Pro Wrestling Australia constitute the grass roots of the sport.

SHED OF ONE’S TEENAGE preconceptions and viewed through an athletic, dare we say ‘artistic’ lens, pro wrestling suddenly becomes far more impressive to behold. A travelling circus of athleticism that has criss-crossed the globe since the 19th century, it evolved from the amateur wrestling that’s been an Olympic sport since antiquity. When organisers of wrestling competitions realised they could make more money by fixing the outcomes of the bouts before they were fought, introducing storylines and characters along the way, a new form of theatre was born—a never-ending stage show that has played out continually ever since. Under companies like WWE, it evolved to become the stadium-filling spectacle we know today: a showcase of entertainment immortals and setting for moments that have become iconic in the wider sphere of pop culture. Think Hulk Hogan slamming André the Giant. The Undertaker. The Rock and his People’s Eyebrow. John Cena and Dave Bautista before they became Hollywood darlings. Often, it’s utterly ridiculous. At its best, it’s can’t-look-away compelling.

“It’s a male soap opera in a world where there are more male soap operas than we care to admit,” says broadcaster and host of The Ringer Wrestling podcast Kazeem Famuyide. “We have this phrase: ‘everything is wrestling’. Anyone who’s followed it from a kid into adulthood comes to appreciate the influence it has on everything else we enjoy. Just like Game of Thrones or Marvel, it’s escapism. It’s entertainment. It’s art. But these guys only get one take.”

Career trajectories in pro wrestling are precarious; subject to rise and fall on the back of an injury, an unexpected crowd reaction or a last-minute decision to pivot a story line. In the pressure cooker of the WWE, competition for TV time and attention is fierce, as performers fight and politic to stand out in a group that combines the athleticism of a pro sports team with the showmanship of a broadway cast. Every match and every monologue needs to be perfect.

These real-life struggles often bleed through into the WWE’s scripted storylines, further blurring the barrier between fiction and reality. But at a time when WWE boasts arguably its strongest-ever collection of talent, a select group is forging a path for Australian talent that a decade ago was almost entirely uncharted territory. Take Jermaine Haley, who goes by the in-ring moniker of Bronson Reed, and Grayson Waller, real name Matthew Farrelly, for example. Both are in their mid- thirties, yet have established themselves in the WWE’s main roster only in the last 18 months.

From L-R: The Rock and Hulk Hogan face off against one another; the Undertaker is pushed by Kane; the one and only ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin.

The circumstances in which we first meet Reed are a world removed from the pubs and clubs across Adelaide and Melbourne in which he once used to wrestle. A 150 kg cannonball cut in the cloth of an NFL lineman, he spent his childhood playing rugby and Australian Rules, sports that lent him a ferocious athleticism to complement his natural size. A wrestling fan from an early age, he turned his attention to performing at 18 (his mum wouldn’t let him until he graduated high school), working warehouse jobs to pay the bills while quickly racking up titles across Australia and, eventually, getting the call to perform overseas. This is Reed’s second tenure in WWE—the company released him once before, in 2021. He spent a year and a half criss- crossing the globe and revamping his reputation before resigning.

“I got so many bumps and bruises during those years that nothing anyone does to me now will ever compare”, he tells us backstage on the afternoon of a show in New Orleans. He’s in the middle of recording a segment for that evening’s episode of one of WWE’s two flagship weekly shows, Raw. A few days later, he’ll walk out in front of almost 50,000 people to compete in the Royal Rumble—one of WWE’s most historic events. “Mentally, walking out into big arenas, whether it’s 20,000 people or the big stadiums, nothing prepares you for the WWE,” says Reed. “You’ll only ever really know what that feels like when you do it.”

You may be familiar with Grayson Waller already, though not for what he’s currently doing in the ring. During his years in Australia trying to make a name for himself, he appeared on a season of Survivor. A week before we speak, he goes viral during a press tour of Australia for (only half-jokingly, one suspects) threatening to punch a Sunrise crew member during a live interview. Headlines made. Job done. Out of character, speaking to us from Miami where he’s booked to perform on SmackDown the next day, he’s confident and candid.

Born in Sydney, Waller spent four years performing in PWA and daylighting as a high- school history teacher before WWE scouts approached him for a tryout. “I had the right eyes on me at the right time and we kind of went from there,” he recalls. Waller’s WWE persona is, like all the best wrestling characters, merely his own personality dialled up to eleven: a cocky Sydney boy with the gift of the gab and a penchant for loud shirts and calling everyone ‘lad’. The loudmouth on the footy field. Put simply, the kind of guy someone would pay to see punched in the mouth—a trait WWE can’t get enough of.

“I get on with him very well, but the fact is he’s a little bit of a prick,” says Reed when asked about his compatriot. “He’s so talented in the ring, but there’s just something about him that’s hateable. But for WWE, that’s money.” After signing, Waller quickly established a reputation as being one of the company’s most prodigious talkers, even being given the industry honour of sharing a segment with John Cena. Two days after we speak, he too takes part in the Royal Rumble.

Australia’s performers are not only being noticed by the biggest companies in the industry, but elevated to its very highest echelons. They even have a roadmap to pro-wrestling Olympus in the form of Demi Bennett, ring name Rhea Ripley. Like Reed, Ripley rose from Adelaide’s pro-wrestling circuit to become one of the faces of WWE’s women’s division. She’ll arrive in Perth as Australia’s first and only WWE women’s world champion, having now held one of the industry’s most prized female belts for more than a year. In 2023, ESPN, Sports Illustrated and Pro Wrestling Illustrated (the industry’s top publication) unanimously named her the best female wrestler in the world. “She’s a prodigy,” says Famuyide. “And she’s over-delivered on all of the promise she had when she first came to America. Now she’s basically got her own stadium show in Australia.”

“Rhea changed everything for us,” says Waller. “There were Australians before who opened the door a little, but she kicked it down. She showed the world how good we could be.”

Both Reed and Waller remember times when the thought of Australians ever stepping into a WWE ring felt like a pipe dream. Australia was a “forgotten nation” in the world of pro wrestling, says Reed. “Growing up, there weren’t any Australians in WWE. When I started wrestling, it wasn’t on my mind that I could ever be a part of that world.”

“There was a lot of frustration around,” recalls Waller. “We’d have guys go overseas to Japan or the UK, or to smaller promotions in the US and then come back and share what they learnt, but we knew that we had better performers here than anywhere.”

Reed and Waller remember times when the thought of Australians ever stepping into a WWE ring felt like a PIPE DREAM.”

GIVEN WWE’S FORMER PENCHANT for cliche and stereotype, it’s probably fitting that Australia’s first performer to arrive in the company did so in the form of Peter Stilsbury, who played Outback Jack: a two-bit Crocodile Dundee parody cooked up to cash in on the character’s popularity in the mid-late ’80s. With an America-first approach dominating WWE’s creative direction in the two decades that followed, the foreign performers it did bring in were mostly used as comic-book villains or comedic foils to make American talent look good. Just one other Australian, Nathan Jones, would appear on WWE TV during this time, enjoying a year-long run in the company in the early 2000s.

It would take almost 30 years, and a significant cultural shift within WWE, for things to change. The first step came as WWE restructured its talent-development programs into a single televised show, NXT, in 2011, pivoting at the same time to focus on signing established stars from other indie promotions around the world. By 2017, the industry was paying attention to Australia in a big way, with WWE signing local performers on a regular basis, and Australian promotions attracting more and more global stars—social media making it possible to beam world-class matches from Australia to a global audience for the first time.

“I think the advent of the internet changed a lot,” says Famiyude—something Reed agrees with. “Before this, if you wanted to watch Australian wrestling, you had to do so on VHS or DVD. WWE already had feelers around the country at the time, but once people around the world saw the kind of talent we had, it all snowballed from there.”

Since then, Australia has produced more WWE signings than almost any other country of its size, Reed, Waller and Ripley among them. “Once they started bringing in the Australians, I think they saw how entertaining we can be,“ says Waller. “Not just as wrestlers, not just that we’re good in the ring, but we’re entertaining.’”

Three decades removed from the days of Outback Jack, a larrikin aspect still tends to prevail throughout most of WWE’s Australian characters. Their charisma and swagger, particularly in the case of performers like Ripley and Waller, make for the kind of loveable villains that more clued-up modern wrestling audiences adore. Waller says that Australian trainers teach a mix of styles brought back to Australia from around the world, along with a hard-arsed work ethic that makes them versatile. Adaptable. Dependable. Experienced heads atop relatively fresh bodies. “We’re easy-going and easy to work with,” he says, “but when we get on TV, we take our opportunities very seriously because we know how hard it was to get there. The Americans expect things to be handed to them, but we know that there’s people back home who would do anything to have our position.”

From L-R: Big Bronson Reed has become a key part of the modern WWE; Seth Rollins punches Seth Rhodes.

THAT WWE IS MAKING its way back to Australia after a five-year absence is no coincidence. Nor could it be better timed. A decade-long strategy of global outreach by the WWE is in full swing, with the company having already held major events in the UK, Puerto Rico and Saudi Arabia. France and Germany will join that list later this year, while there’s talk of bringing Wrestlemania to London.

At the same time, a cultural shift is taking place that has wrestling back on the cusp of the mainstream for the first time since the halcyon days of Stone Cold Steve Austin and The Rock. The sport’s popularity and pulling power, punctuated with names like Logan Paul, Snoop Dogg and Bad Bunny stepping into the ring as performers, have forced traditional sports media to revise its once-derisory approach to pro wrestling. Internet broadcasting and the formation of new alliances between different promotions have pushed fan interest in companies outside of WWE to unprecedented levels, with rival promotion AEW playing to a crowd of 72,000 at Wembley Stadium last year.

“I firmly believe we’re on the cusp of a new wrestling revolution,” says Famuyide. “I think it’s the culmination of many things. There’s more mainstream access and interest, but the quality of the product itself is also so good right now. You’ve got the return of stars like The Rock and new megastars like Cody Rhodes whose storylines touch on all aspects of professional wrestling around the world. It’s a great time to be a wrestling fan.”

Both money and media attention are pouring in as a result. In September 2023, WWE merged with UFC parent company Endeavour to form TKO: a company whose $23 billion market cap is significantly bigger than the valuation of any sports team in the world. The week we speak to Waller and Reed, TKO announces a global deal to bring WWE programming to Netflix worth $7.5 billion over 10 years.

“It feels like wrestling’s cool again. In 10 years, we’ll look back on this as a GOLDEN ERA.”

Conversely, with new investment and new leadership has come a renewed focus on the company’s past demons. Two days after he and Dwayne Johnson—who himself has joined TKO’s Board—ring the opening bell at the NYSE in celebration of the Netflix deal, it’s reported that Vince McMahon, WWE’s longtime owner (and following the merger TKO Executive Chairman), is facing a lawsuit over the alleged battery and sex-trafficking of a former staffer. The next day, after more than four scandal-plagued decades as both a colossus and a cancer in the company he took over from his father and built into a near- monopoly, the company’s fabled ringmaster resigns in disgrace, seemingly for good.

In instances like these where the stage- managed world of pro wrestling bleeds over into real life, intrigue follows. As such, wider public interest seems to be hitting another crescendo. Netflix documentary Wrestlers, the latest project from Cheer creator Greg Whiteley, brought a fresh audience into the gritty yet endearing world of small-time wrestling promotion Ohio Valley Wrestling, a fading promotion that once produced superstars as a feeder system for WWE. Meanwhile, Vice’s Dark Side of the Ring and A24’s The Iron Claw have earned plaudits telling the stories of countless talents lost to the addiction and violence that were once hallmarks of the industry.

“I think we’re reaching a new Attitude Era,” says Reed, referring to a period in the late ‘90s when WWF became one of the defining counter-cultural forces of the era. Waller concurs: “It feels like wrestling’s cool again. In 10 years, we’ll look back on this as a golden era.” Shortly after, they’re seemingly proven right, with reports that Saturday’s Royal Rumble is, barring last year’s WrestleMania, the most-watched WWE event in US history.

From L-R: Rhea Ripley is the first Australian woman to hold the WWE women’s world title; influencer Logan Paul on his way to the ring.

Elimination Chamber is WWE’s final Premium Live Event before WrestleMania, both narratively and financially significant for the company as it builds towards the biggest show in wrestling. An unprecedented audience will have its eyes trained on Perth as a result, with the company’s Australian talent set to take centre stage in front of their home crowd. The same weekend, Perth promotion EPW will host an Australian wrestling super- show, giving the nation’s best local performers another platform to show their skills and, just maybe, follow in the path of those who have grabbed the industry’s proverbial brass ring.

“This is the biggest thing that has ever happened to us,” says Waller. “I think it’s going to do wonders for the Australian scene. I know Bronson is going to give everything he has. Same with Rhea, same with me. In a lot of ways, we’ve been looking at this show specifically for months. It’ll be our local fans, our mates, our family there. For us, Elimination Chamber is our WrestleMania.”

Until then, whether in a hazy RSL function room or a floodlit arena in the US, Australia’s wrestlers will be honing their craft and enthralling audiences as the most important weekend in the history of wrestling in the country approaches; both an ending and a new dawn in a story that never truly ends.


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