Story: Boxing and wrestling

Page 3. Wrestling

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Wrestling is a combat sport in which participants grapple with one another in a square ring, overseen by a referee. Wrestling has always been a mixture of entertainment and athleticism, with some matches a demonstration of orthodox, genuinely competitive wrestling and others a choreographed performance. Wrestlers can be amateurs or professionals.

Showmanship

Professional wrestling has long had a hefty element of performance to it. In 1931 the president of the Dominion Wrestling Union said, in reference to criticisms about wrestling and violence, that ‘it is true that at times some of the bouts have been a bit rough, at any rate in the eyes of New Zealanders, but there are many of us, of course, who realise that a good deal of this so-called “rough-house” wrestling is mere showmanship, and is practised by the participants for the purpose of adding a little more interest to the proceedings.’1

Early days

Informal wrestling matches occurred in the 19th century, and more organised bouts took place at Caledonian sports days and other athletic events.

The first professional wrestler of note to visit New Zealand was Estonian Georg Hackenschmidt, who toured in 1905 and 1910. Māori wrestler Ihakara Robin (known as Ike Robin) became a local sports figure and wrestled one-time world champion Stanislaus Zbyszko three times in Auckland in 1926.

Administration

The New Zealand Wrestling Union was formed in 1930 to administer wrestling, and its first national championship took place in 1931. The union’s rules applied to both amateurs and professionals until 1965, when the wholly amateur New Zealand Olympic Wrestling Union (now Wrestling New Zealand) was formed.

Promotion

The Dominion Wrestling Union was founded in 1929 to promote professional wrestling and brought numerous international wrestlers over to New Zealand.

Wrestler Steve Rickard ran the Dominion Wrestling Union before replacing it with a new promotional organisation, All Star Pro Wrestling, in 1962. Another leading promoter and former professional wrestler was John da Silva of the Central Wrestling Association.

Professional promoters active in the early 2000s were Kiwi Pro Wrestling, New Zealand Wide Pro Wrestling and Impact Pro Wrestling.

Money earner

During the economic depression of the 1930s, people continued to pay to attend wrestling. In 1930 gate takings by the New Zealand Wrestling Union were £10,744 and this rose to £19,259 (almost $1.9 million in 2012 terms) the following year.

Boom times

Wrestling boomed in the 1930s. New Zealander Lofty Blomfield was one of many high-profile professional wrestlers, including foreign visitors, who thrilled local fans. Huge crowds packed town halls to watch the bouts and more listened via radio. The outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 curtailed wrestling events.

Professional wrestling’s stocks rose again in the 1950s, which coincided with the emergence of Wellingtonian Pat O’Connor. A silver medallist at the 1950 Empire Games, O’Connor based himself in the United States, where he was a world professional champion from 1959 to 1961.

Wrestling reached a wider audience through radio, and particularly television. Promoter Steve Rickard masterminded the popular television show On the mat, which showcased New Zealand and international wrestling stars from 1975 to 1983.

Decline

Professional wrestling declined in popularity in the 1980s, though New Zealand teams who had found fame overseas, such as The Bushwhackers, continued to attract good audiences. New promotional organisations were started, but most were regionally based and had a limited following.

Amateur wrestling

Amateur wrestling is a minor sport in New Zealand. In 2012 there were 16 wrestling clubs affiliated to Wrestling New Zealand.

National amateur wrestling championships have been held since 1931. Women’s amateur wrestling was introduced at national championship level in 1991. Most amateur wrestlers in New Zealand are freestyle wrestlers, the other main form being Greco-Roman. In freestyle wrestling, wrestlers can use all parts of their body against their opponent’s entire body; in Greco-Roman wrestling only the arms and upper body of both wrestlers are involved.

New Zealand’s most successful amateur wrestlers have included Doug Mudgway, John Armitt and Dave Aspin, who were all Commonwealth Games gold medallists.

One of the most noted New Zealand trainers was former Estonian Olympic representative Anton Koolman, who ran a gym in Wellington and produced a succession of national champions from the late 1920s to the early 1950s.

Footnotes:
  1. Evening Post, 23 June 1931, p. 4. Back
How to cite this page:

Joseph Romanos, 'Boxing and wrestling - Wrestling', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/boxing-and-wrestling/page-3 (accessed 28 March 2017)

Story by Joseph Romanos, published 5 Sep 2013, updated 27 Jan 2015