Wed. May 29th, 2024

When the mother of global wrestling star Saraya fought at an event in South Africa last month, the challenge to grow the sport across the continent was clear.

“Africa has been the hardest market for professional wrestling to crack,” Julia Hamer-Bevis, better known by her ring name Saraya Knight.

The 52-year-old Brit had just beaten home wrestler Rene Koen, dubbed ‘Black Widow’, at the recently-launched World Association of Wrestling (WAW) South Africa WrestleMonster 6 event.

“The wrestling fan base is huge. I was impressed with the amount of people that turned up and their knowledge,” she said as she reflected on the show in Gqeberha, formerly Port Elizabeth.

“There were people that knew about my family and my daughter and our company. They’d watched us on YouTube.

“I was very impressed that they even knew who we were, let alone come out in full force to support us.”

Saraya left WWE in 2022 and now competes in All Elite Wrestling (AEW)

Having a daughter of the calibre of wrestling superstar Saraya certainly helped draw the crowds to Gqeberha.

Saraya competes in All Elite Wrestling (AEW), having previously fought under the name Paige in WWE, the world’s biggest professional wrestling promotion.

Being part of the Knight wrestling family – which also includes dad Ricky and brother Zak Zodiak – increases her own global appeal.

The family inspired the 2019 film ‘Fighting With My Family’ starring Oscar-nominated actress Florence Pugh and Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson.

And competing in Africa one day is a personal goal of Saraya’s.

“South Africa has a big wrestling community and people adore the business over there,” the 31-year-old told Sport Africa News.

“I can’t wait to maybe one day join them when there is another [WrestleMonster] show. When there is an opportunity, I will be the first on the plane.”

Saraya believes the largest wrestling promotions would “100% benefit” from having more African wrestlers in the ring.

“The athletic ability is incredible,” she added. “I genuinely love Africa. A partnership with WAW will be super beneficial.

“We could bring a couple of AEW wrestlers to go against the WAW wrestlers over there and have a show with the companies taking on each other. It will be fun. You could even get me versus my mum.”

Growing appeal of wrestling in Africa
WrestleMonster, the brainchild of veteran South African wrestling promoter Mark Beale, prides itself as being South Africa’s version of WWE’s WrestleMania, which is regarded as the premier live annual event.

Beale previously owned the World Wrestling Professionals (WWP) Thunderstrike franchise, shown on South African television between 2004 and 2007.

With more than 30 years’ experience in professional wrestling, Beale says there is huge scope for events to grow across the continent – despite him having suffered personal tragedy within the sport.

“I was a second generation wrestler in South Africa,” Beale explained.

“My little brother [‘Little Jimmy’] was the first person in South Africa to die in a fight. He was 23 when he died in the changing room in 1993 after a match.

“Then my wrestling waned and I took up promoting.”

His WWP group grew and notably helped to develop the talent of South African wrestlers Paul Lloyd (AKA PJ Black, formerly known as Justin Gabriel) and Raymond Leppan (AKA Adam Rose) – both of whom went on to earn contracts with the WWE.

Wrestler Little Hillbilly jumps on Werner ‘The Wolf’ Pretorius during the Africa Wrestling Alliance Nights of Champions at the Parow Civic Centre in Cape Town in October 2023

WAW South Africa faces competition inside the country from the Africa Wrestling Alliance promotion

“I’ll do anything that can make opportunities for youngsters,” Beale added.

“Our vision is to get bigger. In South Africa, most of the time, you do that with heart and because you’re passionate about the sport. And wrestling is my life.”

Recruiting the Knight family, with the huge profile of Saraya behind them, was an instrumental move for Beale.

“I realised the relationship can take South Africa to another level, which is awesome,” he said.

“The Knights wanted to show their loyalty to us and to South African wrestling and that was why eight wrestlers from the UK came to WrestleMonster and you had South Africans fighting them.

“They bring a lot of experience to the table. We are open to learning how they do things and they can see how we do things.”

Africa a ‘tough nut to crack’
Wrestling family of Saraya Knight, Saraya and Zak Zodiac

Knight (left) is the mother of global wrestling star Saraya (centre) and Zak Zodiac (right)

Despite the success of her involvement in WrestleMonster 6, Knight says expanding wrestling across Africa has been far from easy.

“Africa, whether it be east or west or south or north, has been absolutely impossible for any wrestling company to go there,” she said.

“The red tape and restrictions made it so hard that wrestling companies gave up.

“Any other part of the world is very easy to go into and link up and create business. For some reason, Africa is the hardest nut to track.

“There are a lot of major companies at the moment in the world that are coming to us right now and asking us how we did it. They’ve tried so hard.

“This is new territory and the whole world wants to access it.”

Expansion hopes in Africa
Saraya Knight (left), Mark Beale (centre) and PJ Knight (right) at WrestleMonster 6 in South Africa

Mark Beale (centre) says South African wrestling can flourish from having links with wrestling families like the Knights

Knight says they are now looking at further opportunities across Africa, including in Uganda, and believes family values are a big pull for audiences on the continent.

“It’s not down to who has got the most money. The secret of getting into Africa to engage the hotbed of talent is simply down to family unity.

“Mark is a family man. My husband is a family man. Two family companies have come together – which around the world, there are not many of.

“This is huge and the rest of the world is looking in disbelief at WAW to see what we have managed to do.”

On the African side, Beale says producing home-grown talent is another priority.

“Local wrestlers must get an opportunity,” he said.

“The vision came a few years back of having a type of WrestleMania for the African continent.

“This year, we are on WrestleMonster 6 and we’ve approached various sponsors. We have a vision for WrestleMonster to eventually fill up a 45,000-seater stadium, but that is for WrestleMonster 10.”

While African talent has flourished at elite level in a multitude of sports, Beale and the Knights now hope to put the continent firmly on the wrestling map.

By Joy

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