Summary: Wrestling is not fake.
Since wrestlers are revisiting the whole “independent contractor” and “unionization” conversation again, the documentary Beyond the Mat has returned to my radar. Beyond the Mat is a kind of like a rite of passage for wrestling fans. Widely regarded as one of the best documentaries on “sports entertainment,” it covers several legends in the industry like Terry Funk, Mick Foley, and Jake “The Snake” Roberts from 1997 to 1999. 21 years later, it still holds up and is a fascinating watch. I know that professional wrestling isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, so I wouldn’t recommend this or Dark Side of the Ring unless you’re at least mildly interested in the topic, you’ve watched wrestling a few times, or you knew one of those names back in the day. You know, a bit of a foundation or at the very least, some appreciation for the medium.
Director and writer Barry Blaustein does a great job of explaining what’s so attractive about wrestling- the spectacle, the exaggeration, the pizzazz. Beyond the Mat touches upon all of this and more, interviewing not just wrestlers, but families, writers, trainers, talent scouts, producers, and Vince McMahon himself. (I assume this is the most candid we’ll ever get to see him, as he’s busy revising history on the Network; and it’s a little jarring to see business-wise, how much has changed and how much hasn’t.)
I think the next layer that isn’t so obvious and what nonfans won’t really know is the amount of respect audiences have for the wrestlers themselves, which is what the documentary really is about and why it has stood the test of time. Watching The Rock’s rise to where he is today isn’t at all dissimilar from a basketball fan watching Lebron James’ entire career. Seeing Stone Cold Steve Austin pal around with Foley backstage is like seeing Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal play doubles on the same team. But it’s not just star or celebrity status- wrestling audiences have kind of a weird bond with wrestlers, where the talent and the scripted stuff is acknowledged (and sometimes criticized) on an equal playing field. Beyond the Mat really hones in on the relationship between viewer and subject. More-than-casual fans know that a lot of what goes on in wrestling, verbally or physically, is a product of the wrestler’s own creativity and capabilities. We respect the hell out of the humans behind the larger than life personas and all the moves, all for the sake of the fan’s enjoyment.
For some reason, wrestling gives nonfans the impression that its performers are invulnerable to impact and that couldn’t be further from the truth. Like any other television show, they’re contributing an idea- either in character or movement for a narrative- and sometimes the idea goes wrong. More commonly (and more acknowledged today), injuries build up over time and can often have long lasting, devastating effects. Especially from 1997 to 1999, ooh whee. There’s a lot to be said on that time period, when chairshots to the head were common and often encouraged. That’s real impact from a real blunt instrument.
So when Beyond the Mat delves into the lifestyles and psyches of the wrestlers (they are all highly aware of their mortality), it can be emotionally charged and disturbing at times. BUT I think this kind of information and insight is badly, badly needed, due to the above paragraph. Above all else, people’s safety and well-being needs to be guarded as much as possible. I can’t help but feel a deep appreciation and respect for each wrestler who chooses to make this their career. It’s truly a unique medium and one that certainly doesn’t get enough respect or acknowledgement from the masses, despite having an incredibly rich history, engaging personalities, and some really great fans. There will be more on this soon- so if you’re interested, check back.