WWE Superstars go Māori

Finally, the most electrifying sports entertainment programme on earth has come back to Aotearoa. This Saturday marks the first episode of WWE Raw to screen free-to-air in New Zealand in over a decade.

WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) has a new tag team partner in Māori Television, bringing a devastating combination of English and te reo Māori in a new format for audiences on-air and on-demand. The matchup of Māori public broadcasting and global professional wrestling might seem perplexing at first, but a quick look at the history of both reveals a strong bond between them – and a victory for long-time fans and newcomers alike.

Wrestling has always been a part of television. From as early as 1948(!) on, some form of televised wrestling has been broadcast to TV viewers across the world, from the earliest commercial networks, to public broadcasters, to paid cable services, to online subscription services. Here in Aotearoa, TV2 screened the locally-produced On The Mat from 1975 all the way to 1984, a period widely recognised as a golden age for New Zealand wrestling. The qualities that tied wrestling and television together so early in TV history remain today: shows can be recorded indoors and year-round without interruption, and the week-to-week scheduled episodes allow for dramatic narratives alongside the high-impact physical action.

But why Māori Television, and why now? Because reasons.

Like the fledgling broadcasters of the late 1940s, Māori Television also produced a wrestling programme in its early days. The wonderful Mana Mamau ran for a season from 2011 to 2012 in partnership with local outfit IPW (Impact Pro Wrestling), and was a pioneering combination of sports entertainment and bilingual content, including te reo Māori commentary. There were two important factors at play in this foray into ring-based raruraru: Māori audiences like wrestling (we simply do, not sorry ’bout it) and the pro wrestling format offers a new environment in which to expand and experiment with the application of te reo Māori.

The WWE orgainastion has grown into a truly global brand with shows broadcast to 135 different countries in 30 different languages, and we’re damned if we’ll be left behind with that kind of linguistic proliferation. Wrestling produces an opportunity – and a necessity – to stretch the limits of vocabulary, grammar and tenor, dealing as it does with specific jargon in a live setting with a specific style of delivery. What is the Māori word for bodyslam or suplex or shooting star press? Will we carry loan words, transliterate, translate or produce entirely new words? So much of wrestling is colour commentary, will idiom apply? These are all issues that have their precedent set once WWE begins their Māori journey. And who knows, maybe some of it will flow back to WWE headquarters where superstars like John Cena are encouraged to learn multiple languages.

As part of its mandate, Māori Television is required to promote te reo Māori me nga tikanga Māori – the Māori culture as well as the language itself. Haters may well ask, “Isn’t professional wrestling just a hot pile of trash and nothing at all do with Mowrees, culturally speaking?” which seems to be the point put forward by the notorious dweebs and non-Māori at the Taxpayers Union.

Great headline, terrible take.

The cultural links between Māori and the world of pro wrestling probably seem tenuous, but that’s also the case with the channel’s decision to screen European arthouse cinema (or Star Trek marathons, for that matter). As I’ve pointed out before, from the inside of contemporary Māori culture we can see that all types of content resonates with the lives and culture of tangata whenua, including a culture of shared viewership and tastes. There is no issue with expanding the plurality of content to all areas of popular culture.

Many have high hopes for a new era of Māori and wrestling, and the upcoming WWE shows are a good start. While we’ve yet to see a Māori superstar emerge from the WWE, our Island cousins fill the ranks of global professional at almost every level. Some Samoan and Tongan family lines are in their third or fourth generation of stardom, and long may we see them thrive.

The American Samoan Anoa’i family have produced four generations of wrestlers, five successful tag teams and The Rock. Source: Reddit

Little doubt exists that within a few years local pro wrestlers IPW will have their own broadcast show, and within it the legacy of New Zealand television, bilingualism and popular culture will flow. And if that doesn’t sound like a winning outcome, ka patua koe e ahau ki tētahi tūru. 

WWE Raw screens Saturday 7:30pm on Māori Television, with a one-hour version of SmackDown following on Sunday 7:30pm.

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