Craft Beer & Blood: Meet Deathmatch Downunder

We’ve never done this before and may well never do it again but we'd like to advise that there are violent images below you may find distressing. 


On a balmy Saturday night in Melbourne's Swanston Street, two members of The Crafty Pint team make their way down the stairs into a hotel's function centre just as a the crowd makes way for a hospital stretcher being wheeled into a side room.

At the back of the space is a row of tables offering merch, being sold by the people whose names and likenesses adorn the posters and t-shirts. One of those people is drinking from a blue tin of lager from Hobart's The Albert Brewery. He's also wearing nothing but lycra budgie smugglers (I'm sure there's a more appropriate term, but you get the idea) and a sheen of sweat.

If you're thinking this all sounds like a beer event conjured in the depths of some sort of fever dream – the Altamont Speedway Free Festival meets GABS, perhaps – then you could be forgiven. But when we tell you that in the centre of the room is a wrestling ring, albeit one complete with various barbed wire-wrapped weapons and strip bulbs ready to be administered to someone's head, things might start to make sense. At least a little...

Ahead of the next match, a warning comes from the speakers, words to the effect of: “There's going to be barbed wire in this one, maybe head outside if it’s not for you.”

Nobody heads outside, of course. If anything, the smokers and vapers we'd passed on the way in make a beeline for their seats instead. As the contestants make their way into the ring, attendees fill rows and line the walls, all while enjoying tins of cherry sour, pale ale or Impaler Ale – a collaboration between Venom Brewing and metal band Cradle Of Filth – and preparing to fire up their vocal chords for a fresh battle.

If you're trying to work out how this collision of craft beer and choreographed chaos came together, it's found at the top of the bill. "The Smash Hit" – aka Joel Bateman – isn't just one of the star wrestlers, but is also one of the founders of Deathmatch Downunder (DMDU) and a longtime craft beer advocate who will have poured some of you a beer in the past.

“We immediately decided to go craft because in wrestling, like most sports for the last 20 years, you turn up and it’s Carlton, VB and Jim Beam & Cola cans and that’s it,” Joel says.

As a company, DMDU is relatively new. It formally launched last year after delays caused by the pandemic. But this form of wrestling – which can be particularly hardcore and includes thumbtacks, fluorescent lights exploding on heads, participants' backs being thrashed by chairs wrapped in barbed wire, and a whole lot of blood – goes back further.

 

"The Smash Hit" Joel Bateman during a recent bout.


“Deathmatch in one form or another has been around since the 1970s back at Festival Hall,” Joel says. “But we’re kind of the first company in Australia to really put a spotlight on them, as opposed to other companies doing one or two a year, whereas we do two or three a show usually.”

Joel has been wrestling for close to two decades and had been a fan of the format since he was a kid before launching DMDU with a group that includes other wrestlers and people with experience in radio and the music industry. His love for craft beer doesn’t stretch back quite as far but he spent time at The Park Werribee when it was one of Greater Melbourne’s earliest craft beer-focused pubs, later moving to Ascot Vale Cellars and Jimmy’s Tap & Barrel. And although he’s less involved professionally now, you’re still likely to see him pouring beers for mates at beer festivals.

When it came to slaking the thirsts of DMDU fans, the decision to work with a small, independent brewing company was an easy one; not only does he enjoy craft beer but the DMDU team is eager to work closely with other small businesses.

“We wanted to work with an independent craft brewery so we could really build that personal connection,” he says.

“It means if you’ve got an idea or something you want to work towards, you have that immediate feedback and there’s no delay in getting shit done. Which I love because things move really quickly in both beer and wrestling.”

He says attendees have been quick to embrace the crafty offerings too, which are supplied by Venom and associated distro company Bandwagon Beverages. Indeed, he says craft lagers tend to be their slowest movers, whereas Venom’s Cherry Sour disappeared when put on just after its launch.

“We got a few slabs of it and we burnt through it before the end of the second match,” he says.

“We’ll put on IPAs, double IPAs and sours and the fans are just ripping through them.”

 

 

He attributes part of craft beer's success at their shows to the fact DMDU is a relatively premium outing compared to some other wrestling options: a higher ticket price means attendees don't mind paying a little extra for a more flavoursome beer too. And, as with the spread of independent beer through the likes of music festivals and sports clubs, Joel believes there’s a wider community change taking place – particularly in Melbourne.

“I think people under 40 really try to push back against big business as long as there is another option,” he says.

Furthermore, he sees strong similarities between the craft beer and wrestling communities, with the partnership between DMDU and Venom helping fans of both discover something new.  

“I always draw a lot of parallels between craft beer and wrestling in terms of where to next? Because I think everyone who knows about local wrestling in Australia goes to local wrestling in Australia," he says.

“But what we need to do, which is very similar to craft beer, is to get to the people who don’t know that this stuff exists even though they might enjoy it. It’s just about getting people to take a chance on it, whether it’s beer or wrestling.”

Bringing craft beer to hardcore wrestling matches isn’t the only way Joel has combined the two passions: he's been involved in organising the Moon Dog and Melbourne City Wrestling matches too. The first in 2019 saw 700 people head to Moon Dog World when it was still an empty warehouse, while the second sold out quickly last year.  

“Because it’s live entertainment, there’s the chance to do really cool events with breweries and the sky’s the limit really,” Joel says.

 


Although big beers are on the menu, what you won't see at DMDU matches are people falling over drunk or making a general nuisance of themselves. Joel says that on starting the company, great strides were taken to create a safe space in which ticket-holders are looked after within what Joel calls a big family vibe.

Proceedings always start with an Acknowledgement of Country, while Joel says a lot of members of the LGBTQI+ community attend their shows. They also provide sensory kits for those who might need extra support to attend public events, such as noise-reducing headphones.

He says in recent times wrestling has faced its own #MeToo reckoning, which led to much soul-searching within the wider industry. Given what happens in the ring can genuinely be quite dangerous, Joel says as a business they continually strive to make it as safe and welcoming as possible for participants and punters alike.

“When we started DMDU, we wanted to make sure we were a safe space for everybody,” Joel says.

“I was expecting maybe 80 to 20 men to women but it’s probably a 50-50 split. It’s because we’ve made this safe and inclusive space where you know if you come through the doors, you’re part of our crew, and if anyone tries to fuck with you, they’ve got 400 people to deal with.”

For Joel, he's felt the impact of building that safe community personally. When he walks on stage, an Aboriginal flag appears behind him.

“I’m a proud Indigenous man and it’s not something I’ve really been comfortable having at the forefront of my wrestling character," he says, "because you get a whole bunch of racist shit thrown at you and I don’t need that.

“But by creating such a space, and to be able to show that more genuinely, is really empowering and really cool and that’s led to more Indigenous wrestlers leading more on their heritage, which is great.” 


If you'd like to see The Smash Hit in the flesh, tickets are still available to the next DMDU event on April 16: Not Here 2 Fuck Spiders. They can be purchased here.  

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