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CW: This story contains mentions of domestic violence. If you are in Australia and in need of support, you can contact 1800 RESPECT or visit 1800respect.org.au.
Riley’s return to wrestling has been nothing short of triumphant. The 35-year-old ACW (Adelaide Championship Wrestling) Evolve Champion has a powerful relationship with wrestling, and a message she wants the world to hear.
A late bloomer by comparison, she came across WWE while channel surfing when she was 17. She was right in the mix of the Attitude Era, more specifically, the McMahon-Helmsley Era. In storyline, Triple H and Stephanie McMahon were the presiding force over WWE’s hierarchy.
Riley explains, ‘I was in an abusive relationship at the time, which sucked. But, wrestling was a bit of an escape for me. Seeing this power couple in Stephanie and Triple H, who were on the same side, and a dominant, tough woman in Stephanie McMahon… I think it was everything I wasn’t, and my relationship wasn’t.’ Although she was the bad guy, Stephanie was the ‘take-no-shit’ powerful female role model that Riley craved.
Almost 20 years on, Riley’s escape from domestic violence became a means to empower women, to stand up and fight against oppressive men.
It wasn’t until 2009 that Riley had access to a local training school in Adelaide. She was thrown into the deep end, taking on a tag match only weeks after beginning training. ‘The booker at the time wanted to bring a female in, probably for his own interests rather than mine. We call it the match of never-ending waist locks. From that moment, [I decided] I hated this,’ Riley reflects. Her tag partner would go on to be her husband, Joe Mundie. After a stint as his wrestling manager, she then had a baby, and spent her time around the outskirts business supporting her partner.
‘I went through a rough patch in life mentally. I felt broken. My confidence had been shattered.’
In 2015, Riley realised she had hit a new mental low. She decided to take her life back into her own hands. The thought of her failed venture in wrestling always lingered in her mind. ‘I need to get out of my comfort zone and do something that is going to make me strong again. I thought, “Stuff it! I’ll go back.”’ After getting back into training in September 2015, she was back in the ring by January 2016, tagging with her husband.
‘From then on, we very much separated ourselves from each other in the wrestling world. He does his thing I do my thing and we only cross over every now and then.’ Riley wanted to carve her own path and legacy, finding herself at home as an intergender wrestler. ‘Here at Adelaide Championship Wrestling, we’re the new kids on the block. We’re only about three or four years in. The Adelaide scene is thriving, but something we do a little differently to other local promotions is our incorporation of intergender wrestling.’
Riley faced many obstacles in her climb to the Evolve title. She was faced with an ultimatum; win against a male opponent in an ACW ring by the 21st of October 2016, or be fired. She spent six months losing, yet each match got a little harder hitting as time went on. She finally gained a tap-out win against Matt Hayter, who she had lost to twice before, on the 21st. A tournament to decide the winner of the emerging Evolve Championship culminated in a final between Riley and Isaac Bailey.
‘I was the only girl, and the underdog throughout the whole tournament. The message that I want to send to people is that it doesn’t matter if you’re small, or people tell you that you can’t do it, or you’re a woman. It just doesn’t matter.’ Riley’s title win and post-match speech spoke loud and clear to doubters of intergender wrestling, and her son in the crowd.
‘No matter how hard things are, if you really want it, you can make it happen. There’s always the underdogs in life, regardless of gender.’
Throughout Aussie wrestling history, the inclusion of women has been sparse. Up until last month, Riley was the only active woman on ACW’s wrestling roster. With a returning Blair Valentine, debutant Violet Blitz, and a new female trainee in the mix, more women are turning to pro wrestling in Australia’s south. Intergender wrestling has almost happened out of necessity for Riley to compete.
Two pioneers in intergender wrestling that Riley looks to are Madison Eagles and Kellyanne: ‘They started on this path well before I did. I’m not doing anything that either of them haven’t already done… We had to get our crowd accustomed to seeing this kind of thing. We had to build the storyline [between Blake and I] up over a long time for fans to become conditioned, to believe it, and to not be offended by it.’
Riley acknowledges the challenges that come with representing an intergender conflict; realism, sensitivity and integrity, to name a few. Nevertheless, she appreciates the art form of an intergender match, and relishes the opportunity to go head-to-head with her male peers. ‘Shout out to the guys who let me do what I do. I think it takes a strong man to get in the ring with a girl and not feel emasculated in any way.’
‘I have kind of painted myself into this corner. But, I am completely prepared to see this through. I can either be part of the problem, or I can be the change.’
In 2018, we’re seeing new ways of thinking about intergender wrestling, and more diverse discussions of the gender binary and gender roles in popular culture. In wrestling, we’re constantly witnessing the products of women training with their male counterparts coming to life. Riley says, ‘Problems start when we judge wrestlers for what they look like [and how they present], over their ability.’ The more variety we are exposed to, in every sense, the better our wrestling and social experience will be.
Meanwhile, Riley is always looking to improve and grow. She is currently studying costume and fashion design to help her career along, making wrestling gear and other designs for herself and her peers. ‘I picked up my Mum’s sewing machine and I started sewing. I really enjoyed doing it, and I think I have a bit of a knack for it…. The idea is to be my own boss and have a bit more flexibility being a mum.’
‘Times are changing, and I want my son to grow up knowing what a strong woman really looks like.’
In the past, Lita was someone who always stood out to me. The older I get, the more I realise I liked Trish Stratus as well. I’ve always had a big crush on Stephanie.
Toni Storm is someone I’m always watching. She’s throwing bridging German suplexes and has a very technical style, and looks like a bit of a tom boy too. Kimber Lee… I’m always going to relate to people who have done lots of intergender stuff.
I haven’t gotten to work with a lot of women in South Australia, but someone I’d be desperate to wrestle, and someone everyone should take a look at, is Casey Johns. Locally, people that I look up to and want to wrestle are Kellyanne and Madison Eagles. [Then there’s] Aria; I wrestled her in Tasmania and I think she was about seven matches in [to her career]. She just gets it. I like Facebrook and Lena Kross because they’re both powerhouses.