It’s not that I dislike wrestling; I just don’t know much about it. It’s just not clear to me exactly what it is that I am watching. Is it a sport or a performance? Is it real or is it fake?
What I do know however, is that in the peak of many wrestlers careers, they transition into acting. Some do it very successfully, with Dwanye Johnson aka ‘The Rock’ starring in Moana, the Jumanji reboot, as well as the never-ending Fast and Furious franchise. Others include John Cena, Dave Bautista, André René Roussimoff, Trish Stratus and Ronda Rousey.
But how exactly do these muscle-bound-body-building athletes so regularly find success out of the ring and onto the movie set?
This is just one of many aspects explored in documentary, Beyond the Mat; a film that goes behind the scenes of one of the world’s most outlandish sports.
Directed by Barry W. Blaustein, an established screenwriter responsible for penning several Eddie Murphy classics like Coming to America and The Nutty Professor, who is also a huge wrestling fan. Blaustein went to find out an answer to his own question — what happens outside of the arena; beyond the wrestling mat?
From an Australian perspective, if you thought that our major sports codes like AFL and NRL were profitable, last year, WWE — the entertainment venture responsible for the US’s pro-wrestling enterprise — generated the highest quarterly revenue in its history, $281.6m (largely due to its lucrative TV deals).
Beyond the Mat is a raw, real look at the multibillion-dollar wrestling industry and while doing so, it follows the lives of three wrestlers in different stages of their careers. Mick Foley (known to wrestling fans as “Mankind”) who is in the prime of his career; Terry Funk, who should be well retired but every time he tries to throw in the towel (pun intended), something brings him back into the ring; and Jake “The Snake” Roberts trying to get his big break.
Audiences are first introduced to the man behind WWE's success, CEO (1982-current) Vince McMahon (who is reported to be worth 3.2 billion dollars). We learn that this empire hasn’t grown without getting blood on his hands, both literally and figuratively. McMahon’s ruthless expectations have even meant getting into the ring himself. Although, now at 73, I suspect his wrestling days are long gone.
Beyond the big leagues, Blaustein taps into the indie-wrestling circuit, whereby some of what goes on has to be seen to be believed. What these up-and-coming wrestlers are prepared to do to themselves and others to “make it” is not only brutal, but done so for a tiny amount of pay, if any at all. Barbed wire, fire, chairs – shockingly, it seems like nothing is off-limits in indie wrestling. It might be general knowledge that performative wrestling is exactly that; all choreographed and practised, but there are some things you simply cannot fake.
Athletes constantly test positive for drugs, which isn’t surprising considering the rising epidemic of steroid-use in the US. Wrestlers freely admit on-camera to using performance-enhancing drugs to help prolong their careers. However, such is the extremity of the sport, I wouldn’t even call them ‘performance-enhancing’, just, performance sustaining. Endless amounts of pain killers are taken, cocaine for breakfast for that quick wakeup and more. It’s shocking to hear, but seeing what wrestlers do to themselves, I can’t blame them.
But it’s not all negatives, these wrestlers are all a part of a big family and the more they hurt each other, the more they get paid and subsequently, the friendlier they become. I’m not sure it’s the most sustainable cycle but if it works, it works. They love the game, the drama, the physicality, some love the pain and most of all, they love the money.
Beyond the Mat showcases wrestling in its entirety – from the beginning of a wrestler’s career to the end of it and everything in between. For a loud and extroverted sport, this is a juxtaposed intimate documentary. It’s given me a much clearer view of what wrestling is; how it works and why I should watch it.
Wrestlers clearly transition from sport to film so seamlessly because they are methodical in their preparation and exact in their execution. Anything less and would end up on the inside of an ambulance.
Travis is a Wongatha man living on Peramangk country. He is a Film Critic and Freelance Writer. Follow Travis @TravAkbar
Beyond the Mat airs Tonight, 8.30pm on NITV (Ch. 34).