March 2021

The Nation Reviewed

A more enlightened deathmatch

By Jenny Valentish

Deathmatch Downunder is making wrestling progressive, accessible and inclusive

Joel Bateman will be on “weapons transport” for the first Deathmatch Downunder event, in Melbourne. Technically speaking, he’ll hire a van to shift the hundreds of fluorescent light tubes accumulating in his shed to the venue, Arrow on Swanston. There, wrestlers Callen Butcher and Damian Rivers will smash the tubes over each other’s heads.

Under the moniker “The Smash Hit”, Bateman will himself be hurtling into boards studded with gusset plates and jagged-edged tin cans, at the hands of his opponent “Gweedo”. And vice versa.

“The gusset plates suck, really, really bad,” says Bateman. “I have no problem with glass, but gusset plates are wildly unpleasant things.”

Deathmatch is a genre of wrestling in which tables, bins, barbed wire, blades and staple guns are used, among more inventive home-cobbled weapons. Bateman, a veteran of the field, is one of a five-person team behind a new wrestling promotion that aims to marry ultraviolence to a progressive, politically correct manifesto.

Deathmatch Downunder (DMDU) has a code of conduct that all talent, staff and contractors must sign, and a whistleblower policy to protect those who report sexual misconduct. The condition of entry for fans – which pops up when a ticket is being purchased – includes the instruction that: “Hugging or inappropriately touching fans or performers, without consent, is unacceptable. High fives and handshakes are acceptable if and when invited by the other party.” Posters bear the phone number of one of the management team, for audience members to report any harassment.

Accessibility and inclusivity are also a priority. Wrestlers on the bill – who have alter egos such as “Big Rig Fox” and “Australia’s Most Dangerous Man” – are introduced with their gender pronouns, and the promotion calls itself “gender fluid”, meaning there are no gendered divisions for the wrestlers. At each event there is a quiet, dimly lit room for audience members with sensory needs who are feeling overwhelmed, in which fidget spinners and headphones are available.

But can a sport so knockabout and unruly by nature, one that relies on the audience buying into feuds and the legitimate danger the performers face, really be curtailed and made safe without killing its spirit?

Maybe it’s not as big a stretch as it initially seems. The ultraviolence of wrestling is consensual, after all. It requires cooperation, communication and discussion of boundaries in order to put on a choreographed spectacle for the crowd. Egos and selfishness quickly get a wrestler a bad rep.

And while wrestling can seem like the last bastion of un-PC entertainment (over the past few years I’ve witnessed AIDS jokes and discriminatory slurs used as jovial insults), the audience demographic has also broadened significantly as promotions have teamed up with breweries, music venues and city bars, making the chasm between old-school and new-school attitudes less easy to ignore.

Just as the Australian music industry had its take on #MeToo – the #MeNoMore campaign – wrestling has its #SpeakingOut hashtag. Stories had emerged globally, and those from the Australian circuit included a promoter who wanted women to audition by sending him nude pics that he then leaked, a wrestler accused of rape, another accused of violence towards his former partner and another caught on film talking about underage girls. Some promoters found themselves having to address rumours that had been doing the rounds for years, with the result that talent was let go and reputations took a big hit.

Although the COVID lockdown brought things to a standstill, it gave the team behind DMDU time to adjust to a new, inclusive environment.

“We had the luxury of not having started, so we didn’t have to change our policies and come across as reactive,” Bateman says. “We built the framework of being a responsible wrestling company first, before we started announcing all the wild and crazy matches.”

When he’s not acting as DMDU’s head of brand expansion, Bateman works in an administration role for a local Melbourne council. The rest of the DMDU team is made up of two other wrestlers – Rivers (head of talent relations) and Butcher (executive producer), as well as Jay Stevens (head promoter) and Erin Dick (head of community engagement).

Bateman says that no one out of the 40-odd wrestlers they’ve been liaising with has pushed back on their policies. Not even “Gore”, a wrestler who wears a Texas Chainsaw Massacre–style flesh mask, and who in his promo videos promises a “bukkake of violence” and “snuff porn holocaust” – language he’s been asked nicely to rein in when appearing on a DMDU bill. (“ ‘Ooh, hey, maybe you wanna reword that,’ ” Bateman recounts. “He’s been wrestling for a while now, and he was like, ‘Yeah, I completely get it.’ ”)

The use of non-gendered pronouns, Bateman says, did generate a bit more debate in some quarters. “If you’ve spent some time with wrestlers, we’re usually meatheads. So it’s prompted us to have those conversations, about how we want to make people feel comfortable from all communities and walks of life. If they don’t like it that’s not going to make us change it. I mean, we sold out in two weeks.”

The landscape has changed enormously for Bateman, too. He started training at age 11, in 2001, and had his first match at 13. By then he’d also seen his first deathmatch show. It was a particularly bloody event that had regrettably been advertised as “great family entertainment”. Afterwards, rumours spread on the internet – and eventually on talkback radio and other mainstream media – that the audience had been splattered with blood. “It wasn’t true, but it almost killed Melbourne wrestling,” Bateman says. Certainly deathmatches have only been very sporadically featured on bills ever since. He sees DMDU as being on a mission to restore the reputation of the genre. Paramedics and mental health workers will be on site. And their shows are for over-18s.

“We’re very careful about not coming across as sterile,” Bateman says. “We do have a very punk-rock DIY voice, particularly because Jay has played in bands for 20 years. But also, I don’t think we could have done this promotion in any city except Melbourne. Melbourne’s a progressive city. I think that’s why the fans have been so reciprocal.”

There are 25 DMDU events slated for 2021, starting with the launch, …And Out Come the Wolves. Jay Stevens is first in the ring, to deliver the event’s statement of intent and point out initiatives such as the safe room and the hotline. (Bateman tells me later that the hotline was put to use. A fan had been filming one of the female wrestlers – which is allowed, but he was zooming in rather salaciously – and was reported by someone who spotted it over his shoulder. “We went and had a word and he was fine with that,” says Bateman. “But now he’s known to us so if he does it again, we’ll bounce him.”) This is followed by acknowledgement of country – a rare observance at wrestling matches.

After the singles and inter-gender tag-team matches comes the real spectacle: the three deathmatches. Bateman emerges to Goanna’s “Solid Rock” and soon bloodies his opponent Gweedo on the tin cans. The canvas – and talent – may be covered in claret, but DMDU’s talent-wellness program offers some comfort: all wrestlers must present recent blood test results.

As the two wrestlers slump between beatings, the crowd takes up a chant: “Thank you, Joel.” The fact that the audience has noted all the work behind the scenes touches Bateman to the point of almost crying, he tells me later.

At the end of the evening, Bateman, who is a Koori man, points to his Aboriginal flag patch and shouts, “This is the first time in 18 years that I’ve been able to wear this flag on my fucking tights, so thank you all.”

Later, he tells me that this wasn’t a “work” – which, in wrestling terms, means fake. While there are Indigenous wrestlers who have broken through in recent years, such as Erika Reid, who paints markings on her face and publicly embraces the fact that she is a Wiradjuri woman, Bateman – as someone who broke through in the early 2000s – had never had the confidence to celebrate his own background, until now.

The post-show clean-up of glass, blood and beer keeps Bateman and the deathmatch wrestlers at the venue until 3am. These stragglers are bandaged up, ravenously hungry and still high (from their injuries, of course – the talent wellness program forbids the chemical kind). The wrestlers who had their matches earlier in the evening conveniently buggered off home before the lights came up.

“That’s one of those organisational things we need to change for the next show,” Bateman mutters. There’s still a lot of work to do.

Jenny Valentish

Jenny Valentish is a journalist and novelist, and the author of Woman of Substances. Her latest book is Everything Harder Than Everyone Else.

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