It’s Christmas school holidays, 2004. Burwood RSL auditorium. ACDC’s ‘Highway to Hell’ is interrupted by a disembodied announcement: ‘Introducing Rozzzzzy Jnr, Total Wrestling Australia’s number one-ranked referee! Veteran commentator Frank Ferrari spits into the mic: He’s found himself between the likes of Gilly Mcleod and Marco Mendez on many occasions and has taken a beating to get here, but you won’t find a fairer ref, will you, Serge?’
‘No Frank, Jnr is the best in the biz and now that George “Rozzy” Roberts has retired we look forward to seeing how he handles this main event...’
Serge continues on as I inspect the ring. It’s my first match as the highest ranked referee in Australian pro-wrestling and the commentator’s extended introduction and rare praise tell me this is going to be a rough one. But I’ve done my time. Taken the knock-outs, tightened loose matches, let the crowd heckle for just long enough and, most importantly, I’ve swung my arm like the world depended on it.
There’s quite an art to it, you know. You swing and swing and swing again with exactly equal force on each upward rotation but you must hold your arm momentarily at the apex and snap it swiftly back on that last down. If you know wrestling you will know there’s a rest. It’s something like that pause before the chorus in ‘Blister in the Sun’ by the Violent Femmes, ‘...Let me go ooooon!’; you don’t notice it the first time, maybe not even on the second, but once you realise it’s there you know it wouldn’t be the same without it.
‘And now for the main event: The Jungle Kid and DJ Jackson in a grudge match that goes all the way back to the 2003 Trans-Tasman showdown. We’ve all been waiting for this, so let’s get ready to RRRRRRRRUMMMBBOOOOOOLLLL!’
I’ve been around long enough to know that real showmanship is in the small things. In the best matches I’m closer to an auctioneer than an umpire: matching the feeling in the room to the pace of the game. It’s keeping that flow of unspoken communication on the fly and jumping in with a stop-gap call of ‘Eye-gouging!’ when things run off the rails. This is what I do. I hold this ring together; I am 30% gymnast, 50% director, 20% audience member. I stand in the impact zone and wait.
Ding ding ding.
The first ten minutes are the usual dance of ducking, slipping and getting caught up in the fray. These two tend to play a showy game. As long as I stay clear of the fly kicks from The Kid and keep an eye on DJ’s dodgy ankle we should get through this one without any injuries.
The Kid puts DJ in a sleeper hold. It’s a perfectly legal headlock that is supposed to cut off the blood supply by putting pressure on the carotid artery. I get down on one knee and prepare myself to conduct the consciousness test: a simple lift of the arm to see whether it falls.
DJ kicks silver-and-purple clad legs and tries to push back against the corner post. The Kid shifts his weight. Lowers his arm across DJ’s windpipe. I’m in close, on one knee, fist pumping in the air. ‘Onnne…’ The Kid ignores me. ‘Twooo…’ My index finger is in his face now. ‘Threee…Foouur…’ The Kid returns to the sleeper hold and Steve opens his eyes. Inhales deeply.
‘That’s a warning, Kid. You know five means disqualification. Keep it to the rule book.’ The Kid leans over. Dreadlocks shroud my face. ‘Shut your mouth, Ref.’
With The Kid in range, DJ sees his chance. He sweeps up the opposite fist and The Kid’s chin snaps vertical, his face skyward. The Kid’s grip slackens. DJ scrambles back onto his legs, squatting. He grips the thick forearm around his neck. Prepares. Pulls down on the offending lump like he’s hoicking a bag of concrete to the floor.
The Kid’s bulk is forced to follow. One hundred and ten kg of fur and fake tan flips over the top and…SMACK! The Kid’s lying face up in front of DJ. Puts his hand to the small of his back and writhes.
I pop to my feet and move back. Buck is standing now, too, but appears dazed. ‘Not again. Last time I ended up with a bloody elbow to the temple.’ He turns to face me, teetering on spaghetti legs and shaking his head.
I know what’s coming. He takes a wobbling step back, making space for the run-up. The crowd is shouting, a cacophony of sounds – they are each trying to tell The Kid he’s looking at me, and should be looking at DJ, but the outbursts are like a poorly mixed set of competing beats that don’t mesh together so nothing cuts through.
I wave my hands in front of my face. Pull emphatically on the badge on my shirt. He’s not paying attention. An 110kg man in furry, zebra-print pants charges. He’s preparing for a coat hanger but I’m a foot shorter than DJ Jackson. A swirl of tribal tattoos clocks me across the eyes. I remember to tuck my chin mid-fall. The back of my head meets the taught bottom rope and is sprung off it immediately towards the mat. Wetness drips down my heavy face. Sweat or blood? My legs twitch. A familiar chill and I welcome an inviting sense of déjà vu.
It’s a summer scorcher, 1992, and I’m number one of three skinny boys. Perched high over leafy, river-hugging south-west Sydney, our house is just a small interruption in the canopy of bushland that stretches down and away from us without discernable end. And that is where it all happens. Once I have scuttled safely past the cave, past the smell of pot and tinned food emanating from the hippie who is ‘in-between’ houses, I know I’m off the radar: beyond the scan of Mum’s worried eye. My legs twitch as I rock-hop my way down to the river. I morph into a tree-climbing boy, a run-and-tackle-in-the-leaves boy, a head-home- the-light-is-low-and-the-possums-are-scratching boy.
I think I’m like all the other kids but I really should know better. I have a weird name when most boys are still called things like ‘Matthew’ and ‘Tom’. Having returned from their year-long botanical survey of Australia’s east coast, and most likely longing to escape clapboard and brick, Mum and Dad have decided to name me – their long overdue and restless firstborn – Araluen. It’s been enough to cause a broken sternum and a chronic case of chipped shoulder – and it’s only Grade Four. I’m told an Araluen is a water lily, but a tall, skinny gum tree would probably be more appropriate.
Easter holidays, 1994, and I’m sitting on a brown leather chair that’s too big for me – my legs swing and I pretend I’m up the big snow gum at home. A Professor in Wollongong says I am made anxious by fences, clocks, being put on the spot. Dinner-time. Learning rules. Sitting, reading, reciting, Bradley Richards’s fists. His list is accurate and growing, and he prescribes a mix of hormone-fucking medication and any ADHD sufferer’s nemesis: team sports.
My brother looks at me from behind his purple, swollen eye and I know there’s no arguing. I want to say that I feel safer thirty metres up a swaying tree being smacked in the face by a southerly, than walking onto a field with thirty sets of eyes, waiting for the ball to finally christen my well-intentioned-McCracken-family-tradition-custom-made cricket bat. Mum knows it won’t go well, but she says I have to learn to play with others.
‘Aaron, just keep your eye on the ball.’ (I only answer to this now) Whoosh. ‘Don’t try so hard, just let the ball come to you.’ Whoosh. Stomp. ‘Con-cen-trate...’ Whoosh. Clonk.
‘Nice one, water lily!’ floats in from the outfield.
‘Piss off, Richards,’ I mutter under my helmet.
Go back. Wait. Repeat.
After the game I throw my bat – and a whole lot of family expectations – off the balcony; I picture the smooth imposter reclaimed by lantana and weakened by the white ants and feel a whole lot better.
A day like any other, 1997. After watching the Undertaker on Wrestlemania, Brother Three and I are practising our power bombs on the living-room floor. Brother Two feels the floor shaking from his bedroom and runs down the hallway. As he reaches the stairs we instantly make like WWF tag-team champions the Legion of Doom and each take one of Brother Three’s arms, hurling him into the ropes – otherwise known as the wooden barrier above the stairwell. It gives way and Three crashes through like he’s just been shot in a Western.
Cousin Danielle turns up an hour later. She has been sent to get me out of the house. I find out Mum’s given her $50 for her troubles and when we stop at the corner store she buys ten packets of Winnie Reds. She distributes them throughout her cargo pants and we head to the RSL.
The rockshow-lit auditorium is alive with wriggling kids and three-beers-down dads who are losing the battle with themselves not to show any signs of enjoyment. This is the ‘main event’ where The Big Kahuna and the now-injured Jackson Shore are up against Cremator and Hillbilly Archer in a two-way tag-team headliner. Danielle returns, bag of chips and a chocolate bar in hand – her half-uncle is the promoter and she’s out for as many freebies as she can squeeze.
‘Cremator has run scared from Kahuna!’ I say.
‘The Ref looks like a distracted Peewee Herman in a bikie brawl,’ she drawls, rolls her eyes and turns her attention to the chip bag.
Hillbilly Archer issues another cheap stomp onto Jackson’s ankle. Low and high-pitched insults fly across the room as wily children and their parents ride the chaos. Jackson reluctantly tags out. Looks beat. The Kahuna tags in and shifts his bulk onto the inside of the ropes. Hillbilly is wild-eyed now and running. Kahuna takes a chop without moving an inch. Positions to suplex. Long hair and cowboy boots splay across the floor. Kahuna squints his eyes, pouts his lips and fist-pumps Jackson over the ropes. Hillbilly, still spread-eagled, twitches. Jackson scales the ropes like a wounded Godzilla, clutching at his leg and wincing at each rung. He flexes, eyeballs the crowd and thumps on the turnbuckle cover – the slow clap begins. Hillbilly begins to rouse. Jackson braces – leaps from the top rope! A flying moonsault flattens the redneck, sending the Ref’s arms rotating. One! Two! . . .Three!
I realise I’m standing up when I hear Danielle’s voice from below. ‘Come on,’ she says, ‘let’s go see if my Uncle Ron can get us some beer.’
Backstage the wrestlers are out of their tights and more than half are sporting a uniform of track pants and black bum-bags. The ‘green room’ is a sea of knee pads, used strapping tape and face-paint smeared tissues. Jackson chills out with his feet up – but I don’t see any ice on his ankle. Big Kahuna is a Tongan colossus and he nods quietly when I perch on the chair next to him. Danielle leans in, passes me a cold bottle and whispers to me from somewhere within the haze of Lynx Africa, ‘He works for the RSPCA when he’s not on night shift at Porkies’.
That is enough to drop my guard. I should say hello. Congratulate him or something.
‘So, how do you become a wrestler?’ The words have left my mouth before I have a chance to stop them.
‘You hit the weights. Bulk up. And go to wrestling school. You interested, mate? My name’s Kim, anyway.’
I shove the VB throwdown into my mouth so as to smother my grin. As he grips my hand I know all my impending growth spurts won’t make me big enough to throw these guys around a ring, but I shake back as hard as I can, and wonder if Kim has ever had his chest broken on a desk before.
Summer holidays, January 1999. The CV-joint of my 1989 Honda clacks loudly as I turn into the eerily quiet 100-space Workers’ Club carpark. The entirety of the club’s patrons could fit around my dinner table, though now they sit alone in separate parts of the bar. I walk into the ‘Banksia Room’ with my bag in tow and expect the usual fireworks of casino carpet underfoot – not here though, this one’s still sporting that 1970s fuzzy geometry of tangerine and faded-out brown, it even covers half of the walls and a column.Why would you carpet a column?
This is it. After a year of loading and unloading the truck and letting the wrestlers test new moves on ‘the little guy’, I finally have my chance. I know how to fall so my body will spread the impact out, how to tuck my head under in a suplex and how to keep my hands from getting in the way during a full nelson – a painful lesson just learnt – and I’d known it was only a matter of time before I’d be in the ring. For all the chicken breasts and protein shakes I’ve been living on, and the associated gas, I can’t seem to get bigger than 70 kilos. But small Refs make the wrestlers look bigger and if there’s one thing I now know, it takes just as much skill to take the hits as to dish them out. The promoter has said I should ‘chuck in black shoes and pants, just in case’ so I have packed the bottom half of my Woolies uniform and told Mum I’d be home late.
Burly men, wrenches in hand, tighten steel ropes on a two-metre-high wrestling ring – they flick it into place as if it’s fishing line. For the first time, I can see the thick springs beneath the ring and multi-coloured foam tiles that hang over the top like icing. I resist the urge to climb the white ropes and issue my best moonsault onto the marzipan floor. There’s a half hour to go before ‘doors’. I wonder if I should be stretching?Should I put the pants on? I don’t want to look too eager so I head outside while the gang pump their muscles and stuff fake-tanned lumps of flesh into their spandex.
The carpark now hums with sub-woofers and the eeeeeeeepsssscchhh of turbo exhaust. I should really get dressed, right; even if it is ‘just in case’? I don’t want to miss any chances so I find a toilet and get ready. By the time I go back inside ACDC’s ‘TNT’ is playing through the PA.
‘Five minutes till showtime, folks. Please be seated and let’s get ready to...RRRRRUMBOOOOLLL!’
‘Mate, where have you been? Darren isn’t coming and we need you to ref. Here.’
The promoter hands me a white and black striped shirt – the one that has been sitting in the truck since last summer tour and smells like engine oil and BO.
‘Ah. Okay. What do I need to do?’
‘Just go to the curtain, buddy, coz Serge will announce you first.’
I pull my WCW shirt off at the collar with my uninjured hand and dive head-first into Valvoline, sweat and Brut. The Big Kahuna and Jackson Shore are waiting at the curtain. I’m itchy and hot.
‘Aaron mate: we’ve decided we’re going to call you “Rozzy Jnr”, because you look like George but you’re like 12 years old – cool?’
Jackson thumps me on the back and I almost fall through the curtain.
‘Okay. But what do I need to know?’
‘Nothing, really,’ says Kahuna.
I’m not sure he gets what I’m asking. I think back to training but we never had full matches.
‘No. I mean, do I need to know who...which of you...ah…I mean, when is it over?’
I was pretty sure I had a handle on this. Danielle’s uncle had spoken about good and bad, or ‘faces’ and ‘heels’, but what if there is something I was supposed to be keeping track of? What if there is some kind of code I don’t understand?
‘But, it can’t be...’
‘Real? Buddy you know the moves are real,’ Jackson points to my strapped hand. ‘Don’t worry, you’ll know.’ Another thump.
‘Jnr, the only thing you need to know is,’ Kahuna leans in close and his big white bug eyes bulge at mine in the dark, ‘Don’t. Fuck. Up.’
‘Introducing the second-ranked national referee for International Wrestling Australia: Raaaaawwwwwzzzzy Jnr!’
Thump. I spring out into the glare. I can’t see a thing but give my most official-looking nod to the commentating table. I have no idea where to go.
Right. The ring. ‘You’ll know’ he says! How will I know? I know it was funny watching the Kahuna take the whole tray of chicken at Sizzler this afternoon but I’m pretty sure we didn’t discuss anything important. I know Jackson was complaining about getting the worst hotel room – is there something in that? He’s been working hard on that frog splash of his, maybe that’s the big finish?
I make it to the ring and start inspecting things to keep myself occupied – I tap the turnbuckle a few times, remove and re-secure the Velcro covers, pull on the ropes and pace around a bit. It occurs to me that it feels more like an empty stage than a fighting ring. A stage awaiting a classic story of good vs. evil. My thoughts are interrupted by a blast of Screamo music.
‘The winner of the trans-Tasman heavy-weight title, Jaaaaacksonnnn Shoooooooorrrrrre!’
Great. In a matter of moments I will be dodging two 100kg-plus giants as their massive limbs fly across this five-metre by five-metre cell and I have no idea what to do. Is there a plan? Shouldn’t I know what moves to expect so I can get out of the way? I hope I don’t get thrown onto my chest. Or my hand.
Jackson comes over and I notice he has adjusted his look with a thick slice of black eyeliner. He growls at the crowd, then turns and winks at me while he tightens his bootlaces.
‘And straight from the Island of Tonga, the reigning Asia-Pacific champion, The Biiiig Kahuuuunnnaaaaahhhhhh!’
Kahuna rolls in on a wave of undulating hip-hop and flips his 115kg frame over the top rope like it’s nothing. Three is immediately a crowd. How do they move around in here without tripping over each other?
Almost unconsciously, I turn to the commentary box and raise my right arm.
Ding ding ding.
The next 15 minutes thunder by in a reactive blur. It’s like I’m a character in Mortal Kombat and call on a dependable bag of tricks according to the other people’s moves. I instinctively know where to stand, when to duck or look away and have no hesitation in splaying my hands wide between the chests of these two hulking, sweating bodies when things get out of control.
From my position between the two opponents I see them exchange a look – its subtleness clangs against the norm of wildly moving limbs and overblown pantomime reactions. I pull myself out of the action for a moment and get the sense that I’m about ‘to know’.
I try to hold my hands stiff but they are dripping with wrestler sweat. The Kahuna steps and swings as if to punch across me to Jackson. His reach is too short. CRACK! White rises in my vision. I make a half turn like a corkscrew, losing legs before my chest hits the floor.
Nothing happens until the sound of children screaming fades up into my awareness. I feel the sprung floor pulsing beneath me and know that the match is still going.
Get up. Get up! No. Wait. Maybe I’m meant to stay down. I flick one eye partially open, peering through my lashes. Jackson has taken his Trans-Tasman belt off the commentating table and has it in the ring. He is standing behind the Kahuna, arms raised, defiantly facing off against a fiercely booing crowd.
SMACK! Kahuna’s massive chest hits the ground at my feet. I spring up to my knees, blink my eyes, look dazed for a moment and then swing my arm: One...Two...Three! Ding ding ding!
The crowd hates it. I mean really hates it. One kid is throwing hot chips at Jackson as he postures and puffs himself up from the top rope. Jackson thumps his chest, gives an arrogant nod and jumps down right next to me.
‘It’s time,’ he says. I raise his right hand with my left and brace myself for the crowd to storm the ring. They don’t.
Screamo music blares again and Jackson simply struts out of the ring, kissing his imaginary fans while he does a victory lap around the ring and heads back through the curtain. Brilliant.
The crowd is so riled up for the next match that the Kahuna quickly experiences a miracle recovery and exits the ring just as the commentators announce that Enzo Enriquez is going to fight the Lizard Man.
And so I go, doing the same kind of dance again and again until I find myself post-show out hanging around the merchandise table with the rest of the talent. My body feels like its courting rigor mortis and my right shoulder throbs. I’m starving, too. The Kahuna and Jackson sit around signing autographs and laughing together. I suppress the feeling of having been fooled. How can I be a referee for a sport that doesn’t play by the rules? And how can I be a part of a show where the characters’ backstories don’t go beyond their punning names? I remember my drama teacher’s lesson on the fourth wall: ‘Aaron, there’s plenty of honesty in presenting bullshit – and if you let your audience behind the curtain for just a moment, they will thank you for bringing them in on the joke.’
I look around at the excited children and their parents. The Wizard of Oz-like reveal clearly doesn’t bother them as they line up to meet the best and worst. As theatre, we’ve transported them to a classic contest of superheroes vs villains and, as a sport, they have felt the adrenalin that comes from hanging on each moment as it unfolds.
I look down at my Woolies work shoes. My legs are twitching again. Ever since the knockout I haven’t been able to shake the feeling that I’ve both been set up and been part of the set up, but I love the ambiguity. The boys’ welcome match has slapped me in the face – or the air just before my face – and I know that I’m addicted.
Christmas school holidays, 2004. The ground starts to bounce again. A warm wetness creeps across my face and I can taste something familiar but not pleasant. Sweat or blood? The rigor mortis eases just as my head starts to throb and I can feel control in my legs again.
I let go of the déjà vu reluctantly, though I can’t remember exactly what I’ve been thinking about. It’s the mat – it’s wet. I feel fur brush my arm. I know where I am. I keep my eyes closed and wait for the right moment. There’s quite an art to it, you know.