If pro wrestling conjures notions of overdeveloped meatheads throwing indiscriminate punches, Andrew “MadDog” Mccrae is here to tell you that you’ve got it all wrong.
“People think pro wrestling, and the first thing that comes to mind is musclehead, jock dickheads,” he tells ABC RN’s Life Matters.
And while there’s no denying that deathmatch wrestling — the niche variety he’s practiced for nearly 20 years — is very rough and very, very bloody, Mccrae says there’s more to it than meets the eye.
Deathmatch has reckoned with movements like #MeToo and Black Lives Matter to evolve into a scene setting a new benchmark in sports inclusivity.
Its wrestlers — decorated with barbed wire scars, thrown through the air and bleeding through their costumes — are diverse in gender and cultural background.
All, says Mccrae, are welcome in this subculture of a subculture.
“For us, if you’re there, you’re already one of us,” he says.
WARNING: THIS STORY CONTAINS IMAGES OF VIOLENCE THAT SOME MAY FIND DISTRESSING.
What exactly is ‘deathmatch’ wrestling?
In a deathmatch, wrestlers fight in a ring where ropes might be substituted for barbed wire, and pull moves that are part choreographed and part influenced by what the raucous crowd is cheering for.
Smash a fluorescent light tube over an opponent’s head? You’ve got it. Stick wooden skewers into their head? Sure thing. Slam their body onto upended thumbtacks? Of course!
Matches last for around 20 minutes, until a wrestler either pins their opponent’s shoulder to the ground for three seconds, taps out in submission or is knocked out.
In Australia only a small number, perhaps 30 people, count themselves as deathmatch wrestlers, but overseas, in countries like Japan, Mexico, the US and UK, that figure is significantly larger.
This is no sport for the squeamish — or the easily scared.
“That style of wrestling is dangerous. There’s no two ways about it. There are so many margins for error, for things to go wrong,” Mccrae says.
Wrestler Charli Evans agrees. She’s been wrestling for about seven years and says matches can get “very, very violent and very, very real”.
“The risk of hurting someone is so much higher because we are throwing glass and we are using weapons and things that can really hurt someone else,” she says.
But she believes the increased risk equates to increased camaraderie amongst the wrestlers. This is, after all, a small scene where most people know one another.
“I think there’s a big mutual respect for the person you are fighting,” Evans says.
A ‘great equaliser’
Wrestler and promotor Joel Bateman, a First Nations Wotjobaluk man, describes the deathmatch scene as “one big family”.
“Gay, straight, black, white – when you’re putting your life in someone else’s hands, we’re all on the same team,” he says.
“Wrestling is the great equaliser when it comes to diversity.”
He says in 2020 the pro wrestling scene was “hit hard” by movements such as #SpeakingOut (which he says was “wrestling’s version of #MeToo”) and Black Lives Matter.
“In a post-SpeakingOut, post-Black Lives Matter world, we went, ‘what does wrestling look like?’,” Bateman says.
“Let’s make a safe space for everybody.”
Shows open with acknowledgement of country, promotion is deliberately inclusive of the LGBTQ community, and players’ physical safety is prioritised.
Strength and conditioning coaches help athletes minimise injury, there’s a paramedic on site for matches, and all wrestlers have to take a six-monthly blood test — something Bateman says they’re the first wrestling company in Australia to enforce.
“If we’re doing something as crazy as deathmatch wrestling, something risky — because it’s admittedly risky — we want to make sure that everybody’s still safe,” he says.
The need for a new way of thinking
For Evans, risk forms part of the mental challenge of the sport: a perpetual grappling with the question, “how far can we push our bodies?”
She appreciates that deathmatch allows her to explore the answer to that without the kinds of gender boundaries in general wrestling that she describes as arbitrary and limiting.
In fact, she wants the term “gender” dispensed with altogether in her sport.
“My goal in wrestling is to just seal that term right off and have everyone see me as a wrestler, and not even put my gender into it,” she says.
Deathmatch fans agree.
“Intergender matches are happening more and more now. It’s really good to see,” says one supporter, who recently queued to watch Evans fight.
“Women can kick ass.”
Evans says in Australian pro wrestling she could only fight other women.
Her deathmatches, meanwhile, invariably see her fighting — and defeating — men.
She currently holds several championship titles — “not female championships, just championships”, she says.
“I just think it’s very important that we start not even looking at gender, just looking at the story that we can tell.”
Evans is “over” being told in pro wrestling that she can’t wrestle a male “who’s probably worse at wrestling than I am” and says the sport could learn a thing or two from its deathmatch off-shoot.
“Wrestling in general needs to be more open to this new way of thinking,” she says.
“I’ve never wrestled a female in a deathmatch. And no one has ever, ever, ever in the crowd gone, ‘Why are a male and a female fighting?’
“I just wrestle like a wrestler.”
RN in your inbox
Get more stories that go beyond the news cycle with our weekly newsletter.