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I saw Rob Van Dam wrestle in suburban Melbourne

Bringing bodyslams to an Italian social club in Burwood

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The Whitehorse Club sits off the Burwood Highway to the east of Melbourne. An Italian social club, it plays host to bocce and billiard tournaments, baptisms, weddings, and wakes. On Thursdays it offers pensioners a special luncheon. With its pearl white exterior, purple drapes, and neatly trimmed lawn, the building has the architectural mood of a new-age church, a place of alternative spiritual devotion.

On Friday night, The Whitehorse Club threw open its doors to one of wrestling’s most perennial figures. Twice voted Most Popular Wrestler by readers of Pro Wrestling Illustrated, winner of 21 WWE championships, and record-holder of WrestleMania’s longest undefeated winning streak, Rob Van Dam.

Inside, a crowd of people file in across polished timber flooring to surround the ring and watch a parade of wrestlers provide foreplay before the main event—Rob Van Dam verses Syd Parker. The host, a tall, Mediterranean figure with a sparkling blue jacket, introduces the first match: crowd favourite Maddog verses country-bumpkin Cletus. The host is lacking a little theatre and I suspect he’s just filling in for the night—taking a break from hosting club functions. But the performative element he’s lacking is offset by Maddog who storms out like Cletus has flogged another bottle of his whisky.

Maddog is the stuff of outback nightmares. The kind of guy you hope doesn’t show up when your car breaks down on the Stuart Highway. The kind of guy that’s banging around in his tin shed at all hours doing God-knows-what. Cletus is your typical scrawny Aussie country kid that used to bully you in High school. That guy you wish you drop-kicked in food tech.

These two do a nice job flinging each other around the ring but it’s evident Cletus is just cannon fodder for Maddog’s wrath and at one point it actually looks like Cletus is going to have his head ripped off. They’re in the corner of the ring and Maddog has him in a headlock. His shining blue eyes search for the right area of Cletus’ neck to apply pressure. The referee looks a little worried until Cletus is flipped into the middle of the ring and pinned down for the count.

Next up are the women.

The venue staff step out from their kitchen duties to check this one out. The chefs are on their phones, filming Katie Forbes prance around the ring wearing an inconceivably tight, sparkling pink outfit. She throws her long blonde hair back and blows kisses at the crowd in the front row. The match doesn’t last long. The obvious wrestler and punk rocker Kellyanne pins her to the canvas after humouring her for a little while.

Ding ding ding. Intermission.

During the break, fans are encouraged to take photos with their champions. There’s lots of merchandise: DVD’s, t-shirts, posters and toy figurines. But the fans behave differently beneath the lights of the foyer. During the wrestling they yell, berate, and chant as one. There’s a bar situated near the ring but no one really drinks. They’re already drunk on adrenaline. Encouraged by the wrestlers, they bully, harass, and cheer for their fighters. The noise in the arena is perpetuated often, as wrestlers and coaches step up to the metal gates and scream back at the crowd. There’s a physical boundary between the wrestlers and the crowd (steel gates and ropes), but there’s no emotional boundary, and the wrestler’s will often jump the gates to pile-driver each other anyway.

But in the foyer, the fans approach the wrestlers in a shy, stilted manner. It’s hard to pin down an exact demographic (generally, most of the crowd seem to be males between 25 and 30), but it’s apparent that these wrestlers are offering everyone something larger-than-life. An exaggerated physicality and personality. From beyond the ring, the crowd are involved with choking, slapping, kicking, and humiliating wrestlers. They’ve got loud voices that are listened to, responded to, and offered deliverance in the form of outlandish physical violence. It’s a far cry from the awkward exchanges of money and photos in the lobby.

After the intermission, a weapons match gets underway. The crowd brings along an array of miscellaneous objects (light sabers, globes, piñatas, cricket bats, dildos, keyboards) to throw into the ring. This is a violent match and there’s real blood being spilt. The two wrestlers slam each other into tables, chairs, and bins. The crowd are in a frenzy. There’s a young girl bouncing on her dad’s lap as he’s yelling and swearing. When Gabriel Wolfe shoves a dildo down Slade Mercer’s throat they’re totally out of control, chanting, “You are a sick fuck.” Amidst a pile of broken tables and chairs, Slade Mercer is crowned champion with blood streaming down his forehead.

Then the lights dim. Time for the main event.

The lighting technicians paint the room green to signal the entrance of Syd Parker. Out he steps, looking part reptile, part teenage angst. He twists and struts around the ring with his girlfriend trailing behind. She takes time to defend her boyfriend from the crowd’s verbal assaults. They target his weight, his pallid skin, his gigantic green Mohawk. The couple lie across each other on the canvas like lizards, waiting for their prey—Rob Van Dam.

Out he comes to a roar and his signature tune ‘One of a Kind’. It’s a classic rock anthem: The fear I see when I look in your eyes / makes you believe I’m one of a kind. His outfit is stretched further than I remember. His hair has thinned and his arse is a little bigger (he’s 43) but this was still Rob Van Dam, and when he jumps up onto the ropes and sticks his thumbs behind his head and gestures at his back the whole crowd is ecstatic, chanting “R.V.D.” Syd Parker then spits green powder into his face and they’re off, throwing each other out of the ring and into the crowd. Mouths drop open, partners legs are grasped, fingers and teeth are clenched. Their all-American hero was unloading an assault on that weird street kid. That lizard that ran away from home. The fucker with the loud girlfriend.

Van Dam climbs the ropes yet again. Preparing for his signature Five Star Frog Stomp. Syd’s girlfriend slips into the ring to hold and protect her boyfriend. The crowd boo and demand blood. Van Dam rises. The crowd chants. Then he takes off, flying through the air. They brace for impact. The kitchen staff peer out from the pass. This was going to hurt. Rob Van Dam body slams them, immortalising them both across his chest, and dripping buckets of certified WWE sweat onto the canvas of the east Burwood Whitehorse Club.

  • Written and photographed by: Gabriel Filippa

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