By Phil Dimitriadis
In 1974, living above a milk bar in Victoria Street, Richmond, reality was clearly defined. Richmond was the powerhouse of the VFL, Spiros Arion was God and The Great Mephisto was Satan.
At around midday, every Sunday, pandemonium would break out in front of the old black and white HMV telly as we gathered round to watch World Championship Wrestling. We would laugh, cringe, curse and cheer as this seemingly cartoon-like world came to life and touched us at a level that betrayed any sense of logic or cultural taste.
Spiros Arion represented all that was admirable about Hellenic masculinity. He was tall, hairy chested, ruggedly handsome without having to pose and avuncular in his demeanor. He was the archetypal ‘good guy’ who carried the weight of Greek expectations and went into battle with Mephisto to protect ‘noble’ Christians from the scourge of Islamic fundamentalism that was perpetrated by Mephisto.
Mephisto was portrayed as the evil Arab, who’d come to purge the infidels and beat them up at every opportunity. He entered the ring in the manner of a Sheik. He was bearded, fat and wore black tights. In reality he was a Yank with a really bad middle-eastern accent, but what mattered was the way he symbolised a character that was an alterity to accepted Christian sensibilities. I was frightened and intrigued by this angry Arab. After the show I would steal one of mum’s tea towels and wrap it around my head pretending to be Mephisto. I cheered for Arion, but I found Mephisto much more interesting, theatrical and complex. I was in awe of the way he could instil fear into my five year old psyche. Arion would usually win his matches with Mephisto after unleashing his patented ‘Atomic Drop’. The Greeks and many Italian and Australian fans would be in raptures as the Golden Greek made the world seem safe for one more week.
After the shows my older brother Tim and brother-in-law John would play wrestle with me in the living room. Cushions and pillows would be strewn around the room and generally I’d get strewn around too. I enjoyed the thrill of being thrown around and the comfort of a soft landing. At this stage I thought the wrestling on TV was real, but I knew the play wrestling was fun. We acted out roles and had tag teams where me and my brother would gang up on John, as you do to the bloke who just married your sister, to protect the honour of the Dimitriadis family bloodline. We still laugh about those matches and realise that wrestling helped bond us and gave us a common interest before Sunday lunch.
It is the exaggerated, almost hyper real symbolism and language of wrestling that keeps me interested in the ‘sport’. In what other sphere do you see an Elvis impersonator battling an Undertaker for the World Championship belt? Wrestling is about making the fake seem real, it works at a level where it can awaken irrational fears and hopes for a happy ending. Until recently wrestling was protected by the fact that performers would not break character under most circumstances. It maintained a mystery that made one wonder if these people were really like the characters they portrayed in the ring. Now wrestlers speak openly about their experiences in the ‘business’. There have been a number of documentaries and books released that detail the nuances of a world that was once shrouded in Mason like secrecy.
World Championship Wrestling ended in 1978 and it wasn’t until 1985 that the renaissance happened when promoter Vince McMahon decided to link wrestling with rock n’ roll and Hollywood glamour. The poster boy was Hulk Hogan who with the help of the then popular Mr.T and Cyndi Lauper, brought wrestling back into the psyche of popular culture. The symbolism of these three characters was particularly potent. In Hogan you had the blonde muscular Christian who urged the kids to “train hard, say their prayers and eat their vitamins”. Mr.T symbolised the angry black man who was not going to be bullied or subverted, physically or linguistically. For anyone who was mad enough to take him on he would say: “I pity the fool!” Cyndi Lauper was the working class girl from Queens who became a star and suddenly had clout in the entertainment world. She was not ashamed to display her love of wrestling and managed the then Women’s champ Wendy Richter.
Hogan’s matches would be metaphors for Christ-like death and resurrection. Usually, he would enter the ring with fanfare, Survivor’s ‘Eye of the Tiger’ blaring, start well and then slowly be beaten by the cheating bad guy, often bleeding and seemingly unconscious, the fear of impending symbolic death permeating the arena. Out of nowhere, a surge of adrenalin sent from above would awaken the Hulk and battered and bleeding he would defeat his nemesis. Impervious to pain, blows would rain on him with no effect until he delivered the big boot to the face and finished his hapless opponent off with his famous guillotine leg drop. Order was restored, death was leg dropped into oblivion, the resurrection complete and faith strong until the next battle.
Wrestling is meaningless without an effective saboteur. In the Australian days we had ‘heels’ like Steve Rackemann (Donk from Crocodile Dundee), who loved to pour scorn on the pretty boys through his toothless kisser. Ox Baker whose feared ‘heart punch’ had apparently killed two wrestlers in the States, Big Bad John whose biker persona together with Nazi helmet and other dubious paraphernalia of white supremacy, declared war on ethnic wrestlers. Japanese wrestlers like the Hito brothers were always portrayed as evil and double-crossing schemers, animating the still fresh memories of WW11 extreme stereotypes. In Australia, the Arabs, Japanese and Germans seemed to always be linked with skulduggery. In America, it was the Iron Sheik from Iran who lost the belt to Hulk Hogan in 1984. The Sheik had played his role so well and evoked such patriotic outrage that it helped precipitate the rabid nationalism that Hogan stood for when he came to the ring waving an American flag and bringing the holy grail back to the good old USA.
Fostering harmonious inter-cultural relationships was not a strong point in wrestling and the racism used to draw heat is nothing to be proud of. Thankfully, the racial stereotypes began to be shelved by the late 1980s. In 2005 the Iron Sheik was inducted into the WWE hall of fame to a standing ovation from the same fans that used to jeer and hiss at him twenty years earlier. They appreciated the character he played in this flawed, yet intriguing morality play.