Professional wrestling first appeared on New Zealand television as Big Time Wrestling in 1973. The show was filmed in Australia by American promoter James E. Barnett. Steve Rickard often co-promoted with Barnett and as a result many Kiwi wrestlers were seen on the show. The show lasted less than a year on NZ screens however, ending shortly after Barnett sold his Australian operation.
Having witnessed the success other promoters were having with televised professional wrestling Steve Rickard decided to record a pilot film of matches from one of his shows at the Wellington Winter Show Buildings. This included a midget match and a match with American wrestler Harley Race. The film cost him $500 to make in 1973 and the idea was to use this as a pitch to TV1 for a New Zealand-based Professional Wrestling television show. Unfortunately TV1 showed little interest in the show and Rickard would have to wait until TV2 came into existence to find someone willing to back his vision. Kevan Moore, then controller of programmes at TV2 (South Pacific Television), agreed to meet with Rickard and soon after On The Mat was born.
The name came from the show's first producer (Michael Scott). Rickard initially didn't like it at all, but concedes that the name became very successful and synonymous with pro-wrestling in NZ.
The first 14 episodes were taped in Auckland and briefly in Hamilton after which it found a home at the Canterbury Court Stadium in Christchurch; although the final season in 1983 was shot at the Auckland YMCA.
On the Mat ran for a TV half-hour and had two commentators. Rickard described the technical aspects of what was happening in the ring and Ernie Leonard added colour. In 1981 Leonard moved to produce the show and Barry Holland came on as the second commentator and presenter. The commentators would announce the card to camera and then introduce and commentate on each match. Shows generally included two or three wrestling matches, an interview and/or an excerpt from an overseas match (usually from the US).
The show supported, and publicised, Rickard's live professional wrestling shows throughout New Zealand and it was the catalyst for the boom in popularity of the sport throughout the 1970s and early 80s. This was a business model Rickard had seen work well overseas.
One of the larger than life characters that made On The Mat so popular was King Curtis, a large Hawaiian grappler who was one of the best interviews in the business. He was joined by the likes of Mark Lewin and a young Rick Martel who reappeared on New Zealand television screens years later as part of the WWF show Superstars of Wrestling.
Others who got their breaks on On The Mat were Sweet William and Brute Miller, two Kiwis who also went on to great success years later as the comedy tag team known as The Bushwackers. Along with the assorted cast of American imports Rickard fleshed out the shows with New Zealand and Australian wrestlers like Samoan Joe, Merv Fortune, Ron Miller and Larry O'Day. He even enlisted the help of his sons, Ricky and Tony, who both had their share of in-ring battles.
On the Mat ran from 1975 until 1983. Rickard says it ended because the weakening NZ dollar made it too expensive to bring out wrestlers from overseas. He says that the key to the success of On the Mat and his wrestling shows was that there was a lot of international talent available and that he put money into bringing them to New Zealand.
- Details sourced from the 1979 book Steve Rickard's Life on the Mat, by John Mancer; and a 2009 interview with Rickard for the in-production documentary A Kiwi Century On the Mat.