One gloriously weird and wonderful night at Melbourne's Underworld Wrestling

Blood, biceps and the beauty of kayfabe. 

On Friday night, the bowels of the Inferno opened up somewhere in St. Kilda. After centuries operating in secret, Underworld Wrestling opened their gates, allowing a select few Melburnians to witness the eruptions of depraved violence in their illegal fighting ring. Meanwhile, Lord Mark Williamson, leader of the Claw cult, attempted to manipulate the outcome of each fight for his own sinister purposes.

Of course, you could point out that all of this is fake: that the blows to the head are pulled, that the elaborate throws and aerials are choreographed, that Underworld Wrestling hasn’t really been around for hundreds of years and that manager Mark Williamson isn’t really in league with Beelzebub.

But, like a play, opera, ballet or movie, professional wrestling depends on the consensual illusion called kayfabe. If we’re watching Star Wars, we all benefit from a tacit agreement to set aside the fact that what we’re seeing isn’t really real. To object that C-3PO is just a man in a suit misses the point. In professional wrestling, where the precise boundary between fiction and actuality is so difficult to make out, kayfabe is everything.

Underworld’s inaugural round pitted blithe pretty-boy JayStick, sporting dreads and spangly purple tights fit for a Power Ranger, against suntanned beach bum Jackson Kelly. Each round established a clear-cut opposition between the fighters – JayStick’s whimsical acrobatics against Kelly’s humourless, battering-ram onslaughts.

The wrestler, part athlete and part actor, has to communicate his identity to the back rows in the moments before the round starts, setting up a drama the audience can follow. Without storytelling, the round is a mere technical exercise conducted by large people in a ring. A real flair for inventive storytelling is what distinguishes Underworld Wrestling, with its outlandish and difficult-to-follow mythology of betrayal, blood debts and black magic. In the run-up to the first show, Underworld’s pro-Claw social media were repeatedly “hacked” by anti-Claw wrestlers, priming the audience for a duel between light and darkness.

Standout personalities in the ring included the incumbent women’s champ, “Dreamtime Voodoo Witch” Erika Reid, and the genuinely rather scary “Hardcore Bitch” Vixsin, who thundered onto the mat like an R. Crumb giantess.

Reid’s round against plucky underdog Avary showcased Underworld’s genius for camp, as the villainous Lord Williamson managed to slip Reid a golf club to use against her opponent. Another delightful moment came when Vixsin faced off against Reid and a gaggle of Williamson’s cultist henchmen. When the audience booed these nefarious antics, it was essentially a show of appreciation for Underworld’s dramatic prowess. The fourth wall is thinner in professional wrestling than almost anywhere else, and the reality of the show must be propped up by the audience’s heckling and cheering.

Highbrow viewers who dismiss the skull-busting drama of Underworld because it’s fake aren’t being incisive – they’re just missing out on the pleasure of slipping into kayfabe. The spectacle of Underworld isn’t fake – just fictional.

The championship’s worst moment was, in fact, it's most real: when mohawked reptiloid Syd Parker was knocked unconscious during his championship bout with Carlo “Cash Money” Cannon. It took several minutes for the illusion fully to dissipate, as Parker, moaning, was lifted to his feet and removed from the room. It wasn’t until I heard staff heatedly discussing whether to drive Parker to get medical care or to call an ambulance that I was really convinced that the whole incident wasn’t just an Andy Kaufman-style fake-out.

“I hope you guys didn't scrape a KO'd dude off the mat and walk him to the back,” tweeted one fan, “Cause that's sure what it looked like.”

Underworld’s response seemed to be an attempt to pull the incident back into the ambiguous zone of kayfabe: “Like we said, he's in good hands. This is the nature of the Underworld as the Champ [Cannon] said. This ain't no joke.”