It’s always an exciting time when a new deathmatch company is announced. It’s even better when that company is announced in a territory I haven’t seen very much from, with a diverse roster of wrestlers I haven’t had the pleasure of seeing. Then, to top it off, they’re also doing strong matches with no gender segregation. Sounds fun, right? Welcome to the world of Deathmatch Downunder. A new strong/deathmatch company coming to us from Melbourne, Australia. We here at SteelChair got the chance to chat with Joel Bateman and Erin Dick, the head of community engagement, about everything Deathmatch Downunder. Enjoy!
My first question is, where did Deathmatch Downunder come from? What was the spark that brought it to life?
Joel: Well, Deathmatch Downunder is something I’ve had in my head for, you know, fifteen years because I’ve always wanted to do a deathmatch promotion. But it all kind of kicked off the back of Casanova Valentine coming to Australia. He was coming out here, and we were able to put on a no-ring deathmatch show with him, thinking because for the past twenty years, deathmatch wrestling has been a super niche corner of the market, there’s no company that really puts it at the top of their priorities list. They’ll host maybe one a year to end a year, and they’ll fly over Jun Kasai, or whatever, and that’ll be the only one they do with no context to it. We were going to bring Cas out, and if we got a small, dedicated house, I’d be happy. We sold the show out really quickly. So, I was like, huh, there might be a market for these. Working on that show with like-minded people, like Jay (Stevens) kind of put the spark in, and at the same time, a couple of other people in management go, “Oh, I want to run a deathmatch show. I want to run a deathmatch show,” so I said why don’t we get together and run a deathmatch company as opposed to running six spot shows and never doing this again? We should all pool our resources. We met at a bar in Footscray, which will mean nothing to people outside of Melbourne, put it all together, and here we are.
Any specific things you had in mind when you decided you were going to make this company?
Joel: Yeah. I guess we’ve had the good timing of a pandemic if there is such a thing because the company that would have launched in May, which was the original plan to the company that launched in October. We did say we wanted to base it more off the Japanese style and structure in terms of booking. We wanted the whole company to be gender-neutral. That was a given off the bat. We did want to be incredibly progressive because we are all pretty progressive people as it is in terms of things like the acknowledgment of country, pronouns, and stuff like that. Which is one of the reasons our team has grown the way that it has grown. That was how it started, but the benefit of the pandemic gave us time to write things like a code of conduct, a talent-wellness plan, and even though we’re doing a super-risky style of pro-wrestling, we’re probably one of the safest companies in Australia based on the things we’re doing for our talents and the things we require from our talent to keep them and our fans safe.
It seems like you’re trying to form the Australian version of BJW. The Strong and Deathmatch divisions…
Joel: As much as I’d love to claim that, I do not have a deep enough roster to run seven tag matches a show. But yeah, Big Japan, FREEDOMS were always the frame. I’ve always liked the Japanese style of booking. There’s enough media out there that are critical of the US-style killing big matches every single time. That well will dry up eventually. I do like the Japanese way they pace that out. The issue I have is depth of talent. Especially because we went with IWTV instead of making our own streaming service, no one knows who the fuck we are, to be completely honest. There’s a couple of people who have transcended Australia, like Mad Dog and KrackerJak, who’s currently retired, but outside of that, in terms of deathmatches, oh, and Vixsin, no one really knows the crop of talent we have here. So until we can develop and get people emotionally invested in that crop of talent, we can’t be blowing big matches every single show because we don’t have twenty-thirty world-class deathmatch guys. We have ten, you know what I mean? So we need to be able to space those big singles light-tube matches out and have them mean something, otherwise, in nine months, we aren’t going to have any matches.
I must admit, it wasn’t until that Casanova Valentine tour, I didn’t even know Australia had a deathmatch scene. What’s it been like trying to develop this company with a relatively unknown source of talent?
Joel: They’re known here. Deathmatch wrestling has been in Australia as long as wrestling has been in Australia. Here comes the history lesson…
Erin: I was just going to say, can you do the current affairs history lesson…
Joel: So, back in the 1970s was when deathmatch and hardcore wrestling started here. Jim Barnett from Crockett, he had a territory here called WCW or World Championship Wrestling Australia. He had that territory here in the ’70s, and it was huge. It was mainstream here in Australia, prime-time television. They were running 5000 seat buildings and selling them out on a weekday every week. It was very much like a Florida territory, lotta blood, lotta guts. Purple Haze Mark Lewin, King Curtis, the Sheepherders, Mario Milano, Spirios Arion, Ron Miller. Those type of guys, all doing blood and guts brawling, cage matches, take a look at Mark Lewin’s forehead, you’ll get an idea what the territory was like. Once wrestling went off the TV, in ’74 or ’75, wrestling took a huge nosedive because there was no television product to support it. The Australian scene is like the US indie scene in that there was no WWE, AEW, or Ring of Honor. There’s no top-tier, we’re all here, and companies are continuously growing, but there’s no company already at the top. In the late ’90s, because we didn’t really get American wrestling on the TV in the late ’90s either, it was a lot of tape trading. It was a lot of video stores like Blockbuster, Video-Easy that kind of thing.
So in the late ’90s to 2000/2001, which was when I found Australian wrestling as a kid, it was all ECW influenced. All the big companies in Australia were doing ECW and FMW style matches. A lotta barbed-wire, lotta thumbtacks, fire. Glass didn’t really come into it for another few years. What happened was, there was a company called PCW. They’re still around and run a very family-friendly product now. Back in the day, they were about six months behind what ECW was doing. I found them in May of 2001, obviously, ECW closed that January, and they’re doing flaming tables matches, thumbtack matches, stairway to hell matches, all that. They were drawing really well too, six-hundred, seven-hundred, eight-hundred, and they were growing and growing. It all built to a show called Carnage on September 9th, 2002. I’ll never forget it. I’m front-row as a 12-year-old kid and was already training. I was fucking terrible at it, ask my lower-back. It’s Mad Dog, who’s one of the guys I said is known internationally, against Lobo. Now we have a Lobo as well, which is really fucking confusing as CZW had a Lobo at the same time. They both retired around the same time as well, which is really annoying. It built to those two in a no-rope barbed wire, 40,000 raining thumbtacks, Taipei deathmatch.
Okay… this match sounds insane…
Joel: They drew 1200 people to this basketball stadium in suburban Melbourne. It was a really well-booked card. They had the culmination of a bunch of angles and then this deathmatch. Even by modern standards, it’s a really bloody deathmatch. Both guys wear jeans and white shirts and bleed all over the shop. A really good deathmatch for the time, and I still think it holds up. But the issue that happened was, they advertised it as great family entertainment. They put a disclaimer at the start of the show and a disclaimer before the match and a disclaimer whilst it was being set up, but there were a lot of kids in the audience, myself included. What happened was, there was a little bit of negative feedback a couple of people left during the match, but a disgruntled wrestler who wasn’t in PCW, he was with a smaller promotion, who didn’t like PCW, went to the media. It got picked up by all the papers,. All the state-wide papers, the editorial shows, and he went TV and exposed the business. He talked about blading. He said people in the crowd got splashed with blood, which was a lie. He called it organised barbarism, so the back page of the paper was the end of this no-rope barbed-wire match with two guys in white shirts just covered in blood. It almost killed the business in Melbourne. It almost killed the business in this entire state. The house went from 1200 to 80 in three weeks. We lost the venue. We lost sponsors. All the fans almost closed the company down.
All because of one disgruntled wrestler…
Erin: Welcome to the world of Australian wrestling.
Joel: From there, everyone just whitewashed deathmatch wrestling with being super super risky. PCW did a bit more of the hardcore stuff because that’s what they were built around being a hardcore company. The next year they did a hardcore tournament for their hardcore title. They called it a deathmatch tournament, but there wasn’t anything deathmatch-y. It’s just kind of limped along. Mad Dog is still going now, to give you an idea. Mad Dog is in his 20th year, which blew my mind. I only worked that out when I was writing the commentary notes for the first show. But he’s in his 20th year now, he’s still going. KrackerJak was flying the flag. That show that I was front row for, Carnage, in addition to my mentor introducing me to FMW at the tender age of eleven, is why I went, “Okay, I want to be a deathmatch fighter.” So, there’s been a crew of us, where there’s been an opportunity to do an 18+ show, we’ll always raise our hands and go, we’ll do the deathmatch. Or we’ll run a small show with only two or three matches in a beer garden in a pub in suburban Melbourne, and the main event will be a barbed-wire light-tube match in front of 30 people who don’t know why there’s a ring in a beer garden. It’s just kind of limped on.
There are some 18+ promotions that have pushed the envelope like Wrestle Rock here, but looking at Melbourne now and Melbourne 20 years ago. Melbourne is an incredibly progressive city; I’d put it over Adelaide in terms of the arts capital of the country. We have a lot of live events, overall, we’re a pretty left city, so I think it’s a different city now, wrestling fans are a lot more open to different styles of wrestling now, and I didn’t believe it myself until we sold the Casanova Valentine show out in like a week. Since then, the uptake we’ve had, Erin can talk about it as well, it completely blew me away. We’re like alright, we’re going to carve our little corner in the market of this city. We’ll run our smaller venue and get our 100 people a show, and we’ll put on something that is creatively satisfying. Then we sold the show out in two weeks. It’s not a cheap ticket either. We’re charging $10 more than the biggest company in Melbourne. We sold out in two weeks and the front row in an hour.
Erin: I think it’s a combination of things, though. People just want change and people are just excited to come out of COVID. I haven’t said much yet because Joel says things so perfectly, and I don’t have a lot to add.
Joel: I think you’re a large part of why we sold out. Because you’re a lot of the voice of the company. The things you’ve got us to put at the front. We could have led with blood and guts as a deathmatch company, but the things we have led with like the code of conduct, community surveys, talent wellness plans, all the training we’re doing with KultureCity. I think it’s been a large part because people realise it isn’t a cash grab.
Erin: So, for context, I came in a little bit later than the original group, kind of like mid-pandemic over here. It was like mid last year, as speaking out was kind of happening. For me, that was my personal call to action, seeing all that happen and having stories coming out here, locally. I’d been floating around wrestling, writing for SteelChair and other places, coming at it from journalists’ point of view. A fan point of view. After seeing all these stories coming out, it felt like it was my time to get involved and see what change I could help make in a product that appealed to me. Deathmatch Downunder was the product that when Joel came to me, I was like, that is sick. It’s got a bit of everything I like as a fan, so it made sense naturally for me to join the team. As Joel said, we’re a lot more than blood and guts. We really want to make sure our workers are safe, our fans are safe at shows, and we want to set a precedent in Australian wrestling and hopefully, international wrestling as well for how to treat people in the business and how to put on a professional product that everyone can be a part of.
Stay tuned for part 2.
Deathmatch Downunder on IWTV, be sure to check out And Out Come the Wolves… on January 28th
All images courtesy of Deathmatch Downunder, Jake Hurdle Photography, Zimbio