It's been a long time since the heyday of professional wrestling but Steve Deane finds the sport still has a stranglehold on its hardcore Auckland fans. Brett Phibbs took the photos.
James Shaw spends his nights in a tiny wooden hut waiting for the crackle of a VHF radio to break up the monotony. When the call comes, he swings into action, using a joystick to raise the Wynyard Crossing bridge. The watercraft that pass through the narrow passage into Auckland's Viaduct Harbour tend to be of the Super variety, ostentatious yachts and multi-level motor launches. Shaw clocks in at midnight. For the next eight hours he's pretty much the marine version of a doorman for the rich and famous. Perched in his tiny hut, he could hardly be more anonymous.
On Saturday nights, Shaw steps out of the shadows.
Dressed in an exotic yellow and red one piece that skates perilously close to being a mankini, and sporting a bright red dye job on his naturally blond hair, the nightwatchman morphs into New Zealand's most popular professional wrestler.
"James is the best wrestler in IPW. I'm a big James Shaw fan," says 26-year-old IT student Robert Foggin, the first person in the queue gathering outside the John Locke Theatre at South Auckland's Alfriston College.
Foggin points to his yellow cap with the word "bang" written in red marker pen. It's Shaw's signature piece of apparel. The recently deposed IPW champion is flogging them ("$10 and I wrote on them myself"), as well as signed photos, at a stand in theatre foyer. Next to Shaw is the well-muscled Aaron Henry, whose costume consists of a pair of white wrestling speedos, brown skin and face paint. Together they make quite a sight.
Inside the theatre, roughly 150 people settle into their seats. A colourful blend of family groups and hardcore wrestling fans, they too make quite a sight. Some of the hardcore types appear unlikely to have dated recently. The exception is a couple of female "10s" in their twenties seated ringside. The mystery of their presence is solved after the show when they sidle up to Kingi and Vinny Dunn, a pair of good-looking gym rats who wow the crowd during an eight-fighter tag team match.
Pro wrestling is cool, but it's a special kind of cool.
"The athletic side of it is amazing," says 28-year-old Megan O'Neill, a long-time wrestling fan who is at IPW's Ignited show with her mum. "The storylines are fun, too. You never know what is going to happen. It's unpredictable."
Well, kind of. You never know exactly what is going to happen, but pro wrestling is highly formulaic. There are goodies and baddies, set moves with exotic names, lashings of slapstick and massive overdoses of bravado. Done well, it's cracking, wholesome entertainment.
And IPW does it well. I'd pitched the Herald's editors a "How can this be a thing?" story. Following its 1990s heyday, top-flight pro wrestling has all but disappeared from our television screens. Andre and the fellow giants of the WWF (that's World Wrestling Federation as opposed to World Wildlife Fund) have mainly re-entered the consciousness of Kiwis via untimely demises (fare you well, Ultimate Warrior and Rowdy Roddy Piper) or PR disasters (fare you not-quite-so-well racist sex tape victim Hulk Hogan).
A once-vibrant domestic Kiwi wrestling scene collapsed three years before our economy followed suit in 1987. Thirty years later, the fading remnants of long gone glory days must resemble a car crash, surely?
Not so. Turns out pro wrestling in New Zealand is alive and dropkicking.
"It kind of left the mat for a while there," is how IPW director Daniel Burnell describes the 13-year period when wrestling in New Zealand was defunct.
There were doubtless many reasons for the demise of On The Mat, the iconic show that enjoyed a nine-year run from the mid-1970s to mid-1980s. Chief among them was the perception our fighters were rubbish compared to the big guns overseas.
As Kiwi wrestling fans turned their eyes to the increasing available television offerings from the likes of the WWF, the local product shrivelled and died.
The rebirth began in 2000 when a group of aspiring wrestlers attended a stunt woman training school. Three years later they clubbed together, bought a ring and formed what would go on to become IPW. The company isn't the only show in town. Its main competitor in Auckland is a promotion called Maniacs United that operates in the city's west. Wellington boasts two promotions and there is another in the South Island. But IPW, by most accounts, is the class act.
"There are so many guys on our roster who are just incredibly talented," says Burnell, a storeman who doubles as IPW's creative director.
Big guys (and girls) with big dreams, many of them.
Their aim is to use IPW as a springboard to an international career, most likely in Japan or North America. The rewards can be considerable. Wrestling icon-turned-actor Dwayne Johnson's net value is estimated at around US$150 million. The former Richmond Rd Primary School student started out fighting on a smalltime Tennessee promotion under the name Flex Kavana. He joined the WWF as the much-despised Rocky Maivia, before finding success and adulation as The Rock. A good chunk of IPW's 30-odd fighter roster would love to emulate Johnson. The rest do it purely for the love.
"[We] have a core of the roster who are all about New Zealand wrestling and building that up, making sure that when they go they leave it in a better state than where we came from. We started the company from absolutely nothing," says Burnell. "There was no pro wrestling in New Zealand at all. It had just completely disappeared.
"It has been a very long road back."
The potholed carpark of an industrial lot in Mangere Bridge doesn't take long to flood in the torrential rain of a grim Auckland winter's night.
I'm up to my ankles the moment I step out of my car to meet Niwa Mcilroy and Leanne Panayiotou, two of the rising stars of Kiwi wrestling. They've carpooled with Jack Williams (AKA Jakob Cross, the psychopathic 1.9m, 115kg IPW champion) and Tahu, a trainee who recently moved north from Blenheim. The quartet's tiny blue Honda Fit hatchback suggests no one is getting rich just yet. IPW HQ is arun down warehouse behind a Korean Food importer that houses a ring and the gear the company trucks out to its monthly shows.
"We are a do-it-yourself company," says Burnell. "We do everything." It's immediately obvious just how wide of the mark my uninformed assessment of the wrestlers will turn out to be.
Their warm-up routine consists of a standing jump on to the ring apron followed by a dive over the top rope and a slither back down under the bottom rope. It's entirely practical, given their need to enter and exit the ring at will, but also gutbusting. Next up is a series of tandem corner to corner ring sprints, with one wrestler springing backwards off the ropes and vaulting the trailing runner.
Niwa, also storeman in his day job, is doubling down on the cardio work. His character, the high-flying good guy Johnny Idol, has a title match on Saturday night against the beastly Cross, who is working just as hard - if at a slightly different pace - on the opposite side of the ring.
Leanne, a squeaky-voiced receptionist by day who morphs into the busty, bitchy Carmen Rose, spends the time between sets tending to a bothersome right knee.
Fatigue is clearly setting in by the time the wrestlers begin rehearsing a combat sequence that involves a hip toss, shoulder charge, ring post collision and spectacular exit over the top rope. Leanne gets clipped on her left knee then, in a run through with Tahu, the ring exit goes wrong and she goes face first into the top rope.
"Control, guys," shouts Duncan McDougal, a veteran wrestler whose character is a narcissistic stripper. "Slow it down a bit."
There's still two hours to go in the session, the first of three for the week. It takes a few moments to realise that an unremarkable bloke who wanders in is the same guy I'll next see dressed in a spandex one-piece flogging hats and photos on Saturday in Alfriston.
James Shaw isn't the biggest or most athletically gifted wrestler on IPW's books. But he does have the biggest personality. He's first up on the card in Alfriston, underscoring his good guy status by showering the crowd with lollypops.
His opponent, a golfer-themed posh chap, isn't impressed.
"So we're in South Auckland and people are receiving handouts," he quips to a chorus of heartfelt boos.
My 8-year-old son and his mate are instantly hooked (see Mack's review), booing, cheering and stamping their feet from the get-go. I've never seen them so engaged with anything that doesn't involve an LCD display. The boys are particularly taken with Mason Daniels, an acrobatic recent graduate from IPW's training school, who overcomes a cynical, repeated attack on his right knee by the dastardly Michael Richards.
The female fight between attractive, athletic foes Evie and Carmen is another highlight. Both women have plied their trade in Japan already and have solid overseas prospects.
The dream is there for the chasing. But its pursuit can be far from glamorous, as audiences saw in the critically acclaimed 2008 movie The Wrestler. Mickey Rourke starred as Andy "The Ram" Robinson, an ageing, steroid-ravaged wrestler whose addiction to adulation fatally undermines his attempts to rebuild a broken life.
Robinson was an amalgamation of themes from a bunch of wrestlers' lives, including Jake "The Snake" Roberts, Lex Luger and Piper but as wrestling fans will tell you, the movie wasn't strictly a true story.
WWE Hall of Famer Brett Hart described it as a "dark misinterpretation" of the industry.
"I'm happy to report most of us don't swerve off the road quite so severely," Hart said. That, though, was before James Hellwig - The Ultimate Warrior - died of sudden heart failure at the age of 54 last year. Another magnificent physical specimen of the WWF golden era, "Ravishing" Rick Rood suffered the same fate at just 40. And just last week Piper joined the ranks of the gone-too-young after suffering a heart attack in his sleep.
Piper, who was 61, died on the same day as IPW's Ignited show.
The Kiwi scene is clean, says Burnell, and nothing like as dark as that portrayed in The Wrestler. But the injury toll can be brutal, and the wrestlers clearly live for their next performance.
"There are guys in there who have broken and torn just about every body part you can name and quite a few that you can't imagine,' says Troy Rawhiti Forbes, a former wrestler and ring announcer.
"I had a perfect working spine until I started wrestling. I blew my rotator cuff, broke an ankle, tore a calf and have done untold crazy things to my neck. I had a short career. Some of these guys have been going 10 years plus and done everything short of die.
"But for a lot of them it is their expression. They will work five days a week selling pet food or designing clothes or whatever. On the weekend they get to dial their personalities up to 11."
Television exposure is the promised land for aspiring sports and entertainment entities, but it almost killed IPW. The company had spells with Sky's Alt channel, Canterbury TV and Maori TV, but found the greater exposure and increased workloads didn't translate into increased revenues. "Everyone got absolutely exhausted, including the fans," says Burnell.
To stay alive, IPW returned to its roots. "[Live shows] are when people get an appreciation for the athleticism of the guys - that what's actually being done by two humans out there is pretty incredible. And they have the opportunity to be far more interactive with us than they do with any other entertainment product out there."
Last weekend IPW took its show to Queenstown for the first time, attracting a bumper crowd of 350 people. The domestic wrestling scene is once again thriving, but it's not about to knock rugby off its perch any time soon.
"This is as big as it is going to get," says Rawhiti-Forbes. "It is no different to having a shelf of CDs from international recording artists, but you'll still go to the Kings Arms to see your local pub band. This is your pub band."
'I like the wrestlers with weapons'
Steve Deane's eight-year-old son, Mack, explains why pro-wrestling is awesome.
Here are top ten things I like about wrestling:
1. Awesome wrestlers jumping out of the ring
4. Baseball bats
8. More pain
9. Epic music
10. Tag teams
I liked the wrestlers who had weapons - baseball bats, chairs and golf clubs.
The best fights of the night were definitely the tag teams.
My mate Dylan also loved it. We both closed our eyes when something bad happened. I'm pretty sure Dylan closed his more than I did, like when somebody was about to jump and land a flying elbow.
It sounds quite painful when they get flipped. You hear the big bang (PS: I'm writing this in a font called sigma 1* - it makes it look cool).
Mr favourite wrestlers are Aaron and NO FACE. I've asked my dad if we can go to the next show. He said yes.
*The Herald thinks this font is cool too. Unfortunately, it is unable to be used here.