Published in The National on February 2, 2001

Smut peddlers …not

LENA LIEW has a chat with two young women who made PNG history of sorts recently and finds out why mud-wrestling in a figure-hugging bodysuit is not smutty.

One hot Saturday night in December, I turned my back on a barbecue of masala-marinated kebabs, drool-inducing beef patties and succulent prawns accompanied by free-flowing grog and gossip. I announced that I was going to watch the semifinals and grandfinal of the Lamana Gold Club's Mud Wrestling Championship here in the national capital. 

"Ugh! Distasteful rubbish!" came the dismissive response in various forms. "What's the big deal?" said one of the guys. 

Inspired by these and other negative comments elsewhere from people who hadn't been to a mud-wrestling event before, I set out to find out for myself. It was after all going to be PNG's first mud wrestling event. The grand prize of K2,500 cash would be a lot of money to sweat for by any count, I thought. 

It turned out to be an eye-opening experience and more, despite being far removed from what I had watched on one "sexy" episode of the television series "Ally McBeal". I came away >from the Gold Club that Saturday night with blotches of mud on my clothes and in my hair ... and churning thoughts.

The four girls who appeared for the semi-final were nervous and tense. They looked like young inexperienced athletes fidgeting at the starting line. Despite being dressed in figure-hugging bodysuits that covered half their thighs but revealed much of their shoulders and a hint of cleavage, I found them hardly attractive or sexy. But, of course, I'm a woman!

I reminded myself then that I was sitting there by the ringside with a preconception that women wrestling one another in a ringful of mud could only mean a sex show. A circus with women, instead of animals, performing tricks to entertain the paying public.

I remembered a message I came across in the webforum of PNG Women's Web (www.pngmeri.com). "What is next? Striptease girls? ... Using girls to lure patrons ... is a form of prostitution!" said the posting by a "Dr Mauzzy". This topic drew 16 responses, making it the second most-discussed topic on the web forum.

Still, exploitation and self-empowerment were two sides of the same coin, depending how you see it. Is it not "self-empowerment" if a woman chooses to undergo physical pain for the sake of a handsome reward that gives her a chance to improve her present station in life? Is it not "exploitation" if the same woman cooks, cleans and cares for the household only to endure domestic violence... because she has no other option? Well, things are always not what they seem on the surface.

And indeed, I found that to be the case when two weeks later, Gold Club manager Claire Hayes arranged for me to interview champion mud-wrestler Levittie Aila and runner-up, Rose Joe.

"The K2,500 grand prize money was good. But taking part in the mud wrestling competition has gained us more than just money. It has made us somebody without us doing cheap, degrading things," Rose said.

"I get a high each time someone calls out 'hey wrestler!' on the streets. I feel very proud that I am seen as a tough woman.

"I am now much more confident about standing up for myself against a man who tries to bully me," Rose added.

I found myself looking into the shaded eyes of an earnest 22-year-old young lady. I believed Rose when she said she is using her K1,175 prize money to build a house back in her home village of Boregaina in Rigo, Central province.

"My family know me as the meek quiet girl who will shed silent tears when she's upset. They were very surprised, and proud of me, when they read in the papers that I had become a wrestler.

"And now they are so proud that I am paying for them to build a house in the village," Rose adds.

Sitting across Rose at the terrace of Lamana Gold Club, 19-year-old Levittie sat twiddling a piece of notepaper. For someone her size - a solid 65kg packed in a 175cm frame - Levittie nods girlishly as she declares that she's keeping her accumulated K2,875 prize money in the bank.

"My family was proud that I was taking part in something new ... that required toughness. They came to watch me in the grandfinal. I think my mother cried when the referee declared me winner," she says.

Rose was clearly the more matured and experienced of the two. She spoke thoughtfully through lips painted with garish pink lipstick. She was dressed in her workclothes of a gold-coloured short skirt topped with a black long-sleeved blouse labelled "Gold Club" near her left shoulder. She appeared slightly smaller than when she was slugging it out in the ring two weekends ago. And definitely more lady-like than the fighter tightly rolling on the balls of her feet, ready to pounce.

I recalled Rose’s deep-set look of fierce determination as she leveled her eyes with Levittie's murderous glare in the ring. I had bet that Rose would win ... she was oozing determination all the way across the ring to the opposite corner, where Levittie looked like she was getting angrier by the minute.

I thought then that Levittie was raring to end the fight by punishing Rose because the stitch wounds on her eyebrow, chin and neck were serving her agony. She had winced and grimaced each time her ringside attendant tried to mop away the yellowish liquid mud from her face. The bits of gauze dressings were replaced with Band-Aids by the time she entered the ring for the grandfinal. But barely midway through, Levittie had angrily torn off the Band Aids that were already hanging off her face and neck.

During the interview, I couldn't wait to ask if her stitch wounds were sustained from the earlier bouts of mud-wrestling.

"No, no. I was in a car crash two days before the grandfinal. Yes, it was very painful during the fight.

"Mr Yiannis (Nicolaou, the Lamana Hotel general manager) was very concerned. He kept asking if I was all right, and if I could handle the fighting.

"But K2,500 is too much money to walk away from. I had no second thoughts. So I kept telling him I was okay, and I wanted to continue fighting."

Rose piped in: "I couldn't hold her around the shoulders or near her neck because of her stitches. So it was very difficult to get a good grip to down her." She sounded so matter-of-factly that I did not think she was being sour grapes at all.

After all, the grandfinal had been a long, tough fight with the both of them squaring off until nearly the last minute. I remember holding my breath as I watched their fingers slip again and again from trying to grip their opponent’s thigh. There were numerous tight clinches followed by one or both the girls slamming into the slippery mud in a tackle. Stubbornly refusing to be held down, they would quickly twist their bodies and get up on their knees, before either opponent could get a chance to straddle and pin the other down. I remember thinking to myself that the one time Levittie managed it keep Rose down for that few seconds, it was because Rose had slipped at a bad angle.

To my surprise, Levittie and Rose told me they are "sisters" - close friends - who knew each other even before the mud wrestling competition. They got to know one another at Players, their favourite nightspot prior to their introduction to the Gold Club. In fact, Levittie was for a while putting up with Rose and her sisters at their Uncle's home.

Levittie's father is Kairuku-English while her mother is from Samarai in Milne Bay, and she has two older brothers. Levittie completed her Grade 10 in the Port Moresby Grammar School and went on to finish Grade 11 and 12 at the Nelson Girls' School in Wellington, New Zealand. Upon her return, she worked as an office assistant in Island Fresh Bake Shop before family problems inspired her to leave home.

Rose, on the other hand, comes from Boregaina in Rigo, Central province. She is second-born with two brothers and two sisters. Rose graduated with a Grade 10 certificate from Kwikila High School in Central province in 1994. Midway through a computer course at the Commercial Training Institute in the national capital, Rose was forced to seek employment due to financial difficulties, and that saw her becoming a receptionist at the Waramini Lodge in Hohola. Other jobs include clerical stints with Colin Ritchie Agency, Allied Enterprises and waitressing at Lamana Hotel's Galliano Restaurant.

"At one point, I was working office hours at Colin Ritchie and then rushing off to work at Galliano from 6 to 10 at night. It was a very trying time for me," Rose recounted.

And why did she finally choose waitressing over office work? I asked.

"Office work is better for our future; but we can earn more from waitressing, through tips. That tides us over from day to day in between the fortnightly pay-days.

"And although waitressing is boring sometimes, we occasionally get to meet interesting people and learn more about other people and their culture. As long as we keep to the Gold Club's rules of not socialising or going out with the customers after work; otherwise we get sacked," Rose said.

Both Levittie and Rose had been offered jobs at the Gold Club when the initial rounds of the mud wrestling championship started in mid-October.

Levittie pipes in: "Here (at Lamana) we feel very comfortable. Especially during the mud wrestling 'games' ... drinks, food, resting rooms were provided for us competitors. The bosses also treat us well.

"Still, waitressing is not for me," Levittie said, explaining why she quit waitressing at the Gold Club.

How did they come to join the mud wrestling championship?

"We thought the Gold Cold was for members only, so we stayed away. But one night in September, our friend Albert brought us to the Gold Club and David (Hook, Gold Club operations manager) approached us to ask if we were interested to join the competition," they explained.

"We felt this was going to different from the time we got influenced into taking part in the ‘Beach Babes’ competition at another night-club; where we were derided for parading on the catwalk dressed in swimsuits or bikinis."

And how was the crowd at the Gold Club?

"Oh, they were very encouraging! Especially at the final ... we felt as if they genuinely wanted us to win," the girls said. By my estimates, some 200 people turned up to watch the grandfinal.

Rose added: "There was also tremendous support from the other girls who took part in the earlier rounds. They were the ones shouting and cheering the loudest from the roof above the bar overlooking the ring. We had all become close friends over the course of the mud-wrestling competition."

According to the Gold Club’s Claire, Lamana gave away a total of K7,200 throughout the competition, including cash prizes each week.

"All 32 competitors underwent training on basic wrestling techniques from former boxer Bernard Fong and former wrestler Darren Collet.

"None of the girls had engaged in wrestling before, and none of them were allowed in the ring without basic training," Claire added. Mr Fong and Mr Collet naturally played referee for the matches.

The championship ran with six weeks of round robins and then three weeks of knockouts.

"At the round robin sage, the girls went by weight categories - 50kg and below; 51kg to 55kg; 56kg to 60kg; 61kg and above. The heaviest contestant was Levittie (65kg) and the lightest was Oncy Pune (49kg). Oncy made it to the quarterfinals," Claire said.

"During the knockout bouts, we began handicapping the fights. Where there was a difference of 7kg or more, we awarded the first (out of three) rounds to the smaller girl."

This meant the smaller girl only had to pin her opponent down once to take the match. That sounded like any ring sport to me.

I am glad I made that last occasion of the Gold Club’s mud-wrestling competition. Gladder still that I was fortunate enough to gain access and further insight into the other side of the story. Between exploitation and empowerment, things are not always what they seem.