If ever there was a sign of the coming Apocalypse, it would be the popularity explosion of professional “wrestling.” For years relegated to the obscure upper reaches of the UHF television dial along with roller derby and fishing shows, wrestling once appealed only to the lowest of the trailer park lowlifes. Now, however, fueled by a tabloid TV culture and massive marketing campaigns across the cable television spectrum, the business — I refuse to call it a sport — has expanded from, but definitely not abandoned, its white trash roots to reach fans all across the country in all demographics. I weep for our future.
“Beyond the Mat,” Barry W. Blaustein’s surprisingly riveting documentary doesn’t probe the worst kept secret in America: that all the matches are rigged. It is instead a human drama and a highly moving one at that, going behind the personas the wrestlers present to their adoring public to reveal the physical, mental and emotional traumas these entertainers endure daily. The film touches on many aspects of the business, including a wrestling school and the world of the sleazy promoter. Even the industry’s most famous ambassador, Minnesota Governor Jesse “formerly the Body” Ventura” makes an appearance. Yet “Beyond the Mat” takes off when it concentrates on three wrestlers at various stages of their careers. There’s Terry Funk, a post-prime superstar who, unable to satisfy his addiction to the adulation any other way, has come out of retirement more times than George Foreman. Even more poignant, a word that definitely sounds out of place when talking about pro wrestling, is the story of legendary veteran Jake “the Snake” Roberts. Once a high octane marquee wrestler in the early 90s, he now finds himself estranged from his embittered daughter, relegated to performing in the hinterlands of such outposts as North Platte, Nebraska and addicted to crack. Finally, and most chillingly, the film follows current superstar Mick “Mankind” Foley, a well-adjusted, well-spoken family man with a beautiful wife and two cute kids…who are horribly traumatized when they watch their dad getting pummeled before thousands of screaming blood-thirsty fans and a worldwide television audience. Of course Foley feels guilty afterwards that they witnessed such a repugnant spectacle. It’s episodes such as this one where “Beyond the Mat” is at its most powerful, demonstrating through its subjects that although the matches themselves may be rigged, the pain of getting repeatedly smacked across the face with a folding chair — both to the wrestler and to society — is all too real. It’s only too bad the money grubbing cretins who run this modern day gladiator incarnation, coldly heedless of the impact they’re having on America’s youths, don’t share Foley’s conscience.