On the Mat

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On the Mat
On-the-Mat-Series-Key-Image.jpg
Format Professional wrestling
Created by Steve Rickard
Directed by John Lye
Presented by Steve Rickard
Ernie Leonard
Barry Holland
Starring All Star Pro-Wrestling roster
Country of origin New Zealand
No. of seasons 9
Production
Producer(s) Ernie Leonard
Michael Scott
Location(s) Auckland, Christchurch and Hamilton, New Zealand
Camera setup Multicamera setup
Running time Approximately 24-25 minutes per episode
(30 minutes with commercials)
Production company(s) South Pacific Pictures
Television New Zealand
Broadcast
Original channel TV2 (1975–1984)
Original run 1975 – 23 July 1984

On the Mat was a professional wrestling television program for the National Wrestling Alliance-affiliated All Star Pro-Wrestling (ASPW), or simply NWA New Zealand, that aired on Television New Zealand's TV2 from 1975 to 1984. One of the most popular and the longest-running weekly sports series in the history of New Zealand, the show featured some of the country's top wrestlers and international stars from throughout the world during the 1970s and early 1980s.

On the Mat characterized the "golden age" of professional wrestling in New Zealand and made household names of promoter Steve Rickard, John da Silva, Robert Bruce and others during the 1970s. Much of the show's popularity was based on native New Zealanders and foreign wrestlers working together against their common enemies or, sometimes, being pitted against each other. Several New Zealand wrestlers such as Tony Garea, Peter Maivia, Siva Afi and The Sheepherders, partly from their television appearances, were brought over to the United States where they became major stars during the 1980s wrestling boom. Likewise, wrestlers from the National Wrestling Alliance, Stampede Wrestling, the World Wide Wrestling Federation and other foreign promotions were regulars on the show.

As a member of the National Wrestling Alliance, the NWA World Heavyweight Championship was defended on the show on several occasions, both between North American wrestlers and against New Zealanders, by legendary champions such as Harley Race and "The Nature Boy" Ric Flair. Similarly, NWA storylines and feuds were played out on the program that would usually not have been seen in the US. In 1983, for example, the show aired what was a controversial ending to a best 2-of-3 falls match between Ric Flair and Mark Lewin in Auckland which saw the NWA World title momentarily change hands but was then returned to Flair via reverse decision. A year later, another NWA title change took place between Flair and Harley Race in Wellington and Geylang, Singapore though these would not be officially recognized by the NWA for several years.

Its cancellation in the early-1980s signaled the decline and eventual close of All Star Pro-Wrestling by the end of the decade. Apart from the short run of The Main Event made for TV3 in 1990, locally produced and televised professional wrestling would remain absent in New Zealand until the appearance of Impact Pro Wrestling's IPW Ignition and Kiwi Pro Wrestling's Off the Ropes in the mid-2000s.

Show history[edit]

Background[edit]

In the years following the Second World War, professional wrestling in New Zealand became extremely popular reaching a high point in the 1950s. The death of longtime Dominion Wrestling Union promoter Walter Miller in 1959, however, caused the promotion to go into a slump as appearances from foreign wrestlers dwindled to only a small few each year. Steve Rickard, one of its rising stars, continued to run the DWU for two years before starting his own promotion, All Star Pro-Wrestling, in 1962. Another New Zealand wrestler, John da Silva,[1] started a short-lived rival promotion called the Central Wrestling Association which operated up until the 1970s.

During the next decade, Rickard and da Silva were able to develop new stars such as Al Hobman,[2][3] Tony Garea, Peter Maivia,[4] and The Sheepherders.[5] They were also eventually able, along with Australian promoter Jim Barnett, bring back more foreign stars to the Australasian region.[6] New Zealand was often visited by Australian wrestlers Ron Miller and Larry O'Day of World Championship Wrestling, Robert Bruce from Scotland, Canadians Gordon Nelson and George Gordienko,[7] and French wrestler André the Giant.[8]

American wrestlers became especially popular with the public during the early 1970s. One of the biggest US tours occurred in 1972 when Big Bad John, Bulldog Brower, Les Wolff, King Curtis Iaukea, Spiros Arion, Mark Lewin, Thunderbolt Patterson, Sweet Daddy Siki, Tarzan Tyler, Dewey Robertson and Big Haystacks Calhoun wrestled throughout New Zealand. Calhoun and his wife were often seen and talked about in the national media. The couple made numerous television appearances, press interviews and visited schools.[9] That same year, the Rickard-Barnett partnership ended when Barnett sold his share of Big Time Wrestling, an Australian wrestling program that had briefly aired in New Zealand,[10] and returned to work in the United States. Rickard then decided to promote wrestling events full-time with All Star Pro-Wrestling. Rickard's later affiliation with the National Wrestling Alliance ensured the arrival of many wrestlers from North America and elsewhere for the next several years.[11]

Early history[edit]

With the influx of new talent, both from New Zealand and abroad, Steve Rickard considered creating a weekly television series, much like Britain's World of Sport, to showcase these wrestlers to a national audience and capitalize on the popularity of his promotion's live events and from foreign wrestlers then touring the country. According to Rickard, the promotion sold-out the Wellington Winter Show Buildings ten weeks in a row and still had to turn away hundreds more.[11] Prior to the introduction of television in New Zealand in 1960, wrestling had been extremely popular through live radio broadcasts. In the later years of the "television era" of the 1970s and 80s, television stations commonly aired professional wrestling, such as Hollywood Wrestling or Wrestling at the Chase, as a source of inexpensive yet popular programing.[12]

Encouraged by successful wrestling shows in Australia and the US, Rickard recorded a film pilot at a cost of $500 using matches from one of his shows at the Wellington Winter Show Buildings in 1973. This included a midget wrestling match and another with American wrestler Harley Race. Rickard initially approached TV1 and used the pilot to "pitch" the idea for a New Zealand-based professional wrestling program. The network showed little interest in the show and eventually passed on the idea. When TV2 was established two years later, however, Rickard managed to get a meeting with then programme director Kevan Moore. A deal was quickly made and Rickard worked with South Pacific Pictures to develop and produce this new wrestling program.[10][13] Tim Bickerstaff, a popular New Zealand radio personality and television sports writer, was involved in filming early episodes of the show.[14]

On the Mat debuted as a half-hour late night series on Television New Zealand's TV2 in 1975. The show was hosted by colour commentator Ernie Leonard along with Steve Rickard as the play-by-play announcer. Many of the top stars in New Zealand and from around the world during the 1970s and early-1980s appeared on the show during its 9-year run.[11][12][15][16]

The show became an overnight sensation, both in New Zealand and internationally, and was one of the country's highest rated shows of all time.[17] For much of its history, On the Mat was centred around a core group of native stars headlined by Wellington-based wrestlers Steve Rickard, John Da Silva and Robert Bruce[18][19][20] who became household names by the end of the 1970s.[15] Another Pacific star, King Curtis Iaukea, was the main "heel" wrestler for many years[15][18] as were Australia's Ron Miller and Larry O'Day. Other foreign wrestlers to appear on the program included Pat Barrett, Dick Beyer, Man Mountain Link, Les Thornton, Leo Burke, Ripper Collins, Rick Martel, Tiger Jeet Singh, Ali Vizeri and Abdullah the Butcher.[21][22]

Peter Maivia and Siva Afi were also very popular during this period and they became the focus of the show within several years. Rickard promoted both Maivia and Afi to appeal to the Polynesian market in New Zealand much in the same way Vince McMahon, Sr. did with Bruno Sammartino and Italian Americans in New York during the 1960s. In 1978, Afi defeated John da Silva in a tournament final to capture the NWA New Zealand Heavyweight Championship on 23 April 1978. It was the first time a Samoan wrestler had held the New Zealand championship since 1964.[2][3][22] A year later, Miavia won the NWA British Empire/Commonwealth Championship from Ripper Collins in Auckland.[2][7]

At the start of the show's off-season each year, Rickard and his wrestlers spent the three months on international tours overseas in the Middle East, India, Singapore, Malaysia, Pakistan, Thailand, Hong Kong and Hawaii.[11]

Height in popularity[edit]

On the Mat's success greatly increased attendance for live events throughout the country. Imported talent coming as far away as the United States, Canada, Japan and Australia to challenge local wrestlers, particularly ones that fans could identify with and relate to, kept viewers tuning in each week.[13] The show's popularity also brought the first television exposure to New Zealand stars and, due in part to their TV appearances for On the Mat, Peter Maivia, Tony Garea and The Sheepherders were all brought to the US where they became major stars in the NWA and the World Wide Wrestling Federation in the 1970s, and later in the World Wrestling Federation during the 1980s wrestling boom. WWWF stars such as Don Muraco, Toru Tanaka, Mr. Fuji[4][22] and Rocky Johnson[23] also appeared on the show while touring the country.

Original storylines, apart from the NWA, were also featured in the show. Robert Bruce, who had originally come to New Zealand as a fan favourite, "turned heel", reformed as a "face" then returned to being a heel within the span of a few weeks. His antics gained himself and others national attention[24] and enraged crowds so much that he was actually stabbed by an irate fan.[25] Rickard's two sons were also involved in the promotion. One episode in 1980 featured a tag team match with Ricky Rickard as a participant, his brother Tony Rickard refereeing the match and their father Steve Rickard commentating. The show sometimes featured celebrity guests, most notably, radio personality Billy T. James.[12]

On 17 March 1981, Barry Holland officially took over Ernie Leonard's position as head announcer so Leonard could work full-time behind the scenes in his role as producer. Returning from a period of touring Southeast Asia and Africa, Steve Rickard announced the show was being aired in Kenya, Tanzania, Hong Kong and Malaysia as well as the arrivals of Abdullah the Butcher, Bret Hart, and possibly "The Original Sheik" Ed Farhat. Also on that episode, Rickard read aloud a letter sent to him by Larry O'Day in which the Australian wrestler taunted Rickard over breaking the leg of his son earlier that year and publicly accepted O'Day's challenge to a match for the NWA British Empire/Commonwealth Championship.[12] A month after the death of Peter Maivia, the 6 July 1982 edition of "On the Mat" was a tribute show in his memory and the promotion broadcast two of his matches.[26]

Involvement with the NWA[edit]

An official member of the NWA since 1972, many of its top stars were featured on the program when they visited New Zealand. As a result, NWA storylines and feuds not only became part of the show but were usually not seen by fans outside the country. This was especially true of title defences for the NWA World Heavyweight Championship, defended on the show on several occasions, involving both foreign and native New Zealand wrestlers.

Peter Maivia very nearly won the title from then reigning champion Harley Race in Western Springs in 1979,[4] winning the bout via disqualification, and there was a serious concern the estimated 10,000 fans in attendance[13] would riot if Maivia did not address the crowd to explain why the NWA did not allow title changes based on a disqualification win.[13][27] A 30 minute NWA title match between Race and Rick Martel took up an entire episode of On the Mat. After returning to the US, Race would later send a tape of this match to promoters before he entered a territory.[28]

Another controversial match occurred in 1983 when Mark Lewin seemingly won the NWA title from "The Nature Boy" Ric Flair in a best 2-of-3 falls match in Auckland. Although he scored the winning pinfall, and was given the belt, the decision was reversed by referees due to Flair having been tossed over the top rope moments before. Although this was not an illegal move in New Zealand, the bout was under NWA regulations and referees were forced to disqualify Lewin. In a post-match brawl, Lewin knocked out Flair with the belt and left the ring with it.[29] The following year, the NWA World title changed hands between Ric Flair and Harley Race in Wellington, New Zealand and Geylang, Singapore[30] though it would be several years before the NWA eventually recognized them.[31]

Cancellation[edit]

By the early 1980s, though the show was still popular, it became increasingly more difficult for Rickard to bring in top quality wrestlers from overseas. The World Wrestling Federation's national expansion under Vince McMahon in the US resulted in the decline of the National Wrestling Alliance and made the top American stars less available to travel outside the US.[15] Rickard and World Championship Wrestling had also long shared the transportation costs of bringing in foreign wrestlers into the Pacific, however, the close of WCW in 1978 resulted in Rickard taking on the full cost himself. Even local stars such as Peter Maivia and Siva Afi, despite their popularity in New Zealand, left the country to compete in the US.[13]

The high costs of running the show, in addition to a worsening economy in New Zealand, forced Rickard to cancel the show in 1984. The final episode aired on 23 July 1984, and featured Samoan Joe, Larry O'Day, Mel Fortuna, Tony Rickard and Rip Morgan.[32] He and All Star Pro-Wrestling attempted a couple of tours during the next two years but the show's cancellation eventually saw the close of his promotion.[15]

Production[edit]

The show usually aired on a late night timeslot each week on Tuesdays and was approximately 24–25 minutes in length (produced for a 30-minute time-slot) per episode. The first 14 episodes were taped in Auckland, and in Hamilton for a short time, before settling in at the Canterbury Court Stadium in Christchurch. The final season in 1983-84 was shot at the Auckland YMCA. The show was not only a ratings success, it also helped promote live events which sold out town halls and other venues throughout the country on a weekly basis. By the time the show ended, Rickard estimated he had promoted shows in 135 New Zealand cities and towns.[15]

Episode format[edit]

Each episode opened with a video of the All Star Pro-Wrestlers competing in various matches as well as the show's theme song, before going to an introduction and the opening match. An episode typically featured two to three matches (and sometimes footage from a recent live event or match from overseas) as well as post-match interviews and vignettes from wrestlers regarding their upcoming matches or current storylines. Celebrity guests were often invited to the show where they were later interviewed by one of the hosts such as comedian and radio personality Billy T. James in 1980. The show typically ended after the main event (the final match on an episode) and closed similar to the opening credits.

Memorable episodes[edit]

Episode Date Rating Notes
On the Mat Debut 1975 N/A The first ever On the Mat episode.
Harley Race NWA World Title defence 1979 N/A Sivi Afi unsuccessfully challenged Harley Race for the NWA World Heavyweight Championship.
On the Mat with Billy T. James 29 July 1980 N/A New Zealand comedian and actor Billy T. James was a celebrity guest and later interviewed by host Ernie Leonard.
Peter Maivia Tribute Show 6 July 1982 N/A Tribute in memory of Peter Maivia.[26]
Ric Flair NWA World Title defence 3 March 1983 N/A Mark Lewin defeats Ric Flair for the NWA World Heavyweight Championship but is reversed via referee decision.[29]

On-air personalities[edit]

Champions[edit]

NWA British Empire/Commonwealth Championship[edit]

Wrestler: Defeated: Date: Place: Event: Notes:
John Da Silva Bulldog Brower 1975 N/A N/A [3]
Robert Bruce John Da Silva 1975 N/A N/A [3]
John Da Silva Robert Bruce 1976 N/A N/A [3]
Don Muraco John Da Silva 1977 N/A N/A [3]
King Curtis Iaukea Don Muraco 1977 N/A N/A [3]
Rick Martel King Curtis Iaukea 26 May 1977 Auckland, NZ N/A [3][33]
Ali Vaziri Rick Martel 1977 N/A N/A [3]
Tommy Seigler Ali Vaziri 1977 N/A N/A The championship is vacated when Seigler leaves New Zealand in 1978.[34]
Les Thornton N/A January 1978 N/A N/A [3]
Chris Markoff Les Thornton 1978 N/A N/A [3]
Ron Miller Chris Markoff 1978 Auckland, NZ N/A [3]
Jack Claybourne Ron Miller April 1978 Australia N/A [3]
Toru Tanaka Jack Claybourne 13 June 1978 Christchurch, NZ N/A [3][35]
Steve Rickard Toru Tanaka 22 June 1978 Auckland, NZ N/A [3]
Toru Tanaka Steve Rickard 20 July 1978 Auckland, NZ N/A [3]
Steve Rickard Toru Tanaka 17 August 1978 Auckland, NZ N/A [3][36]
Mad Dog Martin Steve Rickard 28 September 1978 Auckland, NZ N/A [3]
Leo Burke Mad Dog Martin 1979 N/A N/A [3]
Rick Martel Leo Burke 19 March 1979 Auckland, NZ N/A [3][33][37]
Ripper Collins Rick Martel 28 May 1979 Auckland, NZ N/A [3]
Peter Maivia Ripper Collins 20 August 1979 Auckland, NZ N/A [3][38]
Mr. Fuji Peter Maivia 3 September 1979 Auckland, NZ N/A [3][39]
Rick Martel Mr. Fuji N/A N/A N/A The championship is vacated when Martel leaves New Zealand in 1980.[3][33]
Ron Miller N/A May 1980 Australia N/A Won in a tournament.[3]
Larry O'Day Ron Miller 14 July 1980 Auckland, NZ N/A [3]
Ron Miller Larry O'Day 28 July 1980 Auckland, NZ N/A [3]
Steve Rickard Ron Miller 29 October 1980 Auckland, NZ N/A [3]
Jos LeDuc Steve Rickard 23 April 1981 Auckland, NZ N/A [3]
Mark Lewin Jos LeDuc 30 April 1981 Auckland, NZ N/A [3]
Jos LeDuc Mark Lewin 9 July 1981 Auckland, NZ N/A [3]
Steve Rickard Jos LeDuc 13 August 1981 Auckland, NZ N/A [3]
Butcher Brannigan Steve Rickard 17 September 1981 Auckland, NZ N/A [3]
Steve Rickard Butcher Brannigan 24 September 1981 Auckland, NZ N/A [3]
Baron Karl Von Krupp Steve Rickard 3 June 1982 Auckland, NZ N/A [3]
Steve Rickard Baron Karl Von Krupp 1 July 1982 Auckland, NZ N/A [3]
Ox Baker Steve Rickard 9 September 1982 Auckland, NZ N/A [3]
Al Perez Ox Baker September 1982 N/A N/A [3]
King Kamata Al Perez 7 October 1982 Auckland, NZ N/A [3]
Al Perez King Kamata October 1982 Auckland, NZ N/A [3]
Pat O'Connor Al Perez 4 November 1982 Auckland, NZ N/A Title is later vacated.[3]
Butcher Brannigan 1983 N/A N/A [3]
Ricky Rickard Butcher Brannigan 1983 N/A N/A [3]
Larry O'Day Rick Rickard 1983 N/A N/A [3]
Steve Rickard Larry O'Day 1983 N/A N/A [3]
Zar Mongol Steve Rickard 1983 N/A N/A [3]
Steve Rickard Zar Mongol 1983 N/A N/A [3]

NWA Australasian Tag Team Championship[edit]

Team: Defeated: Date: Place: Event: Notes:
Steve Rickard and Mark Lewin N/A 8 October 1981 N/A Awarded titles.[34][40]
King Kamaka and Baron Von Krupp Steve Rickard and Mark Lewin 6 May 1982 Auckland, NZ [34][41]
Steve Rickard and Mark Lewin King Kamaka and Baron Von Krupp 27 May 1982 Auckland, NZ [34][40]
King Kamaka and Ox Baker Steve Rickard and Mark Lewin 19 August 1982 Auckland, NZ [34]
Mark Lewin and Al Perez King Kamaka and Ox Baker 30 September 1982 Auckland, NZ [34]
King Kamaka and General Hiro Mark Lewin and Al Perez 21 October 1982 Auckland, NZ [34][42]
Larry O'Day and Ripper Collins King Kamaka and General Hiro 1983 N/A [34]
Mark and Chris Youngblood Larry O'Day and Ripper Collins 1984 N/A [34]

Commentators[edit]

Commentators Dates
Ernie Leonard and Steve Rickard 1975–1980
Barry Holland and Steve Rickard 17 March 1981 - c. 1984

Ring announcers[edit]

Ring Announcer Dates
Burt Durn 1975-c. 1984

Revival with "The Main Event"[edit]

In 1990, Steve Rickard proposed a new wrestling program under a similar format and, supported by Isambard Productions, secured a deal with the newly established TV3 to air “The Main Event” that year. The show was filmed at ASB Stadium in Auckland and the first episode aired in May. The show's producers attempted to replicate the high production values of the World Wrestling Federation's WWF Superstars of Wrestling, which had premiered on TV2 the previous year to high ratings, but also clashed with the more basic and traditional style of "On the Mat".[13][18]

Airing on a slightly earlier timeslot than WWF Superstars, it was technically not in head-to-head competition, however its attempt to emulate the sports entertainment aspect of the WWF failed to impress neither the critics nor fans. Gus Forearm, a columnist for the Sunday News, wrote "Okay, it is filmed in New Zealand – but it lacks any of the gloss and zap we've become used to, thanks to TVNZ's Superstars of Wrestling show and many of the NWA wrestlers on the show simply don’t rate on the Forearm scale of skill".[13]

The hiring of John Dybvig, a former US basketball coach and commentator, was the main "heel" announcer who portrayed a stereotypical "loudmouth" American.[18] His unpopularity, however, did not come from his on-air persona but rather his lack of knowledge about professional wrestling and is believed to have also hurt the show in the long run.[13]

A WWF tour of Christchurch, Wellington and Auckland had drawn over 15,000 people and it was expected that the costs of filming such a high-cost show could be offset by profits made from the gate takings at the ASB Stadium but attendance was much less than expected. In the end, The Main Event was unable to compete with the WWF for ratings and was cancelled after 11 episodes.[13]

Like the final years of "On the Mat", Siva Afi was the main star of the program. Returning from a brief stint in the WWF, it was his first major appearance in the country since 1978.[13] On 13 July 1990, he defeated Canadian Stockman for the NWA British Empire/Commonwealth Championship and remained undefeated throughout the series. After The Main Event's cancellation, the NWA British Empire/Commonwealth title was retired after a 60-year history.[7]

Legacy[edit]

Over 20 years after its cancellation, On the Mat has remained the longest-running weekly sports series in New Zealand's history. It has since achieved a cult status in New Zealand popular culture and has been an influencing factor among several New Zealand media personalities. Wallace Chapman, co-host of the political interview show Back Benches, has said his "favourite TV moment" was watching "On the Mat" as a child.[43] Oscar Kightley, a Samoan-born actor and writer, has credited the series for partly inspiring his stories.[44] Several writers for NZPWI.co.nz, including editor-in-chief Dion McCracken, have also claimed to have been fans of the show as children.[45] Another childhood fan is New Zealand-born cartoonist Jason Conlan, also known as Pro Wrestling Illustrated's "Mr. J", whose monthly comic strip shares the same name.[46] Tim Bickerstaff, a one time crew member for "On the Mat", recalled working for Rickard in a sports column for XTRA in 1999.[14] Television New Zealand counted On the Mat among the most notable programs in its 50-year history.[47]

It was not until the emergence of the country's three major promotions, Impact Pro Wrestling, Kiwi Pro Wrestling and New Zealand Wide Pro Wrestling, that nationally syndicated wrestling returned to New Zealand television with the debut of IPW Ignition in 2007[20] and Off the Ropes in 2009.[17][18][19] Both shows were also made available to an international audience via internet broadcasting. Also in 2009, in memory of the passing of Scottish-born New Zealand wrestler Robert Bruce, Chris Rattue of the New Zealand Herald named several former "On the Mat" stars including Bruce, King Curtus Iaukea, Rick Martel, Steve Rickard, John da Silva, Peter Maivia, Samoan Joe and The Bushwhackers as among his Top 10 favorite wrestlers of all-time.[48]

In early-2010, two episodes were chosen to be shown on NZ On Screen[28] and Tammy Davis of Outrageous Fortune starred in an internet promotional video which spoofed the series.[49] On 9 April, Scoop.co.nz reported that On the Mat ranked #3 among the top 10 most watched videos on NZ on Screen.[50] The episodes were favourably reviewed by 411mania.com shortly after their release and whose author, Ryan Byers, wrote they "were very fun to watch as a curiosity, a look into an old territory that I, as an American, have almost never seen or even heard discussed" and that "these shows created an interest in me in seeing more from the New Zealand territory, if for no other reason than to document some of the forgotten career moments of US wrestlers who heavily toured abroad".[12]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

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  2. ^ a b c Royal Duncan & Gary Will (2000). Wrestling Title Histories (4th ed.). Archeus Communications. ISBN 0-9698161-5-4. 
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  23. ^ Gorman, Jacqueline Laks. Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. Pleasantville, New York: Gareth Stevens Publishing, 2007. (pg. 13) ISBN 0-8368-8200-8
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Further reading[edit]

  • Dybvig, John and Ray Lillis. Microphones Up My Nose. 1st ed. Auckland: Random House, 1993. ISBN 1-86941-186-2
  • Mancer, John. Steve Rickard's Life On the Mat. 1st ed. Auckland: Rugby Press, 1979. ISBN 978-0-9597553-4-3

External links[edit]