Beyond the Mat

Professional wrestling is truly postmodernism in sport, which makes it surprising to me that there have not been more documentaries like Beyond the Mat, directed by Barry Blaustein. This movie, though it is rather badly organized and tries to do too much, contains some marvelous, even unforgettable footage of what life is like behind the scenes of the World Wrestling Federation. In the end, I think, Mr. Blaustein is a little too close to his subjects. Right at the beginning he tells us that he has been a huge fan of the sport since he was eight years old, and we see an amusing vignette in which a middle-aged man, presumably standing in for Mr. Blaustein’s old-fashioned, buttoned-up father, says with a shake of the head: “Can you imagine the level of the mind that watches wrestling?” But it seems that he is still just a bit too much of a fan to see his featured wrestlers—Terry Funk, Mick (“Mankind”) Foley and Jake (“The Snake”) Roberts—without the filter of hero-worship.

But there is much to like about his film. For me, its best moment comes in the climactic scene. Foley, a mountain of a man with a frizzy mop of long hair and no front teeth who wrestles in what looks like a leather dog-muzzle, is set up to lose his “title” in a “Royal Rumble” with a wrestler called “The Rock.” After a see-saw battle in which both wrestlers are hurled from the ring more than once, smashing up adjacent furniture, Foley is bashed over the head several times by the Rock with a folding chair as his wife and kids watch from ringside. Or don’t watch, for all three are in tears as they watch daddy getting beaten up and finally have to leave. Afterwards, we see Foley having a huge gash in his head sewn up backstage and reassuring the family that he is OK. “They can’t hurt dadas: It’s a big booboo, that’s all.”

As the doctor is stitching him up, another wrestler, suited up for action on the same card, pokes his head in the door with his tribute: “Unbelievable, brother! You are the f***ing man.” The winner, that is, not only to his fellow wrestlers but to the crowd too, is the guy who takes the worst beating. What a perfect sport for the age of the victim! As the voiceover tells us in showing the set up of Terry Funk’s farewell match before retirement (the one in 1997; he retired again, at 55, in 1999): “Terry was going to lose. He didn’t think the crowd would believe that an old man could beat the champ. Besides, as every wrestler knows. there’s nothing to beat going out on your back.”

Foley too recognizes the importance of playing the victim when he comments to the camera as part of his fight post-mortem: “If it had been someone else besides Rock, I’d have strangled him, hitting me that many times. But in retrospect, that’s what made it, those last couple of extra ones.” Later he asks Vince McMahon, the owner of the WWF and himself a wrestler (it’s great for the audience to be able to see the boss getting beaten up): “It wasn’t too gratuitously bloody, was it?”

Actually, he comes to think it was. We see him some time later at his luxurious home in Florida watching on video the footage of the match as filmed by Blaustein. As he watches the pain of the wife and kids at witnessing his own pain he says: “I don’t feel like such a good dad anymore—like my priorities were out of order.” He adds his assurance: “I will never do something like that again; I want our family to have the last laugh.”

Foley’s the lucky one. The twilight of Jake the Snake’s career is in some ways more painful to watch than Mick Foley being bashed with a chair. A pot-bellied drug addict in his fifties who still carries around with him his trademark python in a sack, he spends more time talking to Blaustein’s camera than any other wrestler, explaining how his family life was ruined by the easy sex to be enjoyed on the road, his health by the drugs he claims he had to take just to keep going. Blaustein tries to engineer a meeting between Jake and his fat, slatternly daughter who hasn’t seen him in four years. She is “getting her master’s in psychology; so she’s a real freak,” he says, rather proudly, and we see her showing the camera her scrapbook of about her dad, embellished by bafflingly abstract drawings and “by a really wonderful poet called Sylvia Plath.”

“In the words of Sylvia Plath,” she says: “’F*** you, daddy.’ It’s the way I felt, the way I still feel sometimes.”

Not altogether surprisingly, the meeting between this budding psychologist and her daddy is not a success, as she can do nothing but nag and hector. Alone with the camera, Jake in tears says he “swore up and down he wouldn’t do what his father did” with him then did “the exact same thing.” To daughter he can only say: “It’s not the way I wanted it to turn out.”

“How did you want it to turn out?” she says.

He mumbles something about a “Walt Disney ending” and she primly announces the obvious: “Dad, we’ve never had a Walt Disney ending.”

Quite what Jake’s family problems are supposed to have to do with wrestling is never clear, and the time Blaustein spends on them strikes us as being rather a manipulative device up until this point. But “we’ve never had a Walt Disney ending” has something of a ring to it. It is as true of the lurid melodrama of the WWF as it is of a great many other things in our degenerate culture—including even Walt Disney endings, I would argue. Perhaps “the level of the mind that watches wrestling” cannot rise to them.

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