‘Wrestlers’ Isn’t Just for the Fans

Ohio Valley Wrestling is making a movie. The regional pro wrestling league, which launched Hollywood stars John Cena and Dave Bautista, puts on a rousing weekly live event and local broadcast. But in an early episode of Netflix’s Wrestlers, in advance of a crucial pay-per-view show, OVW co-owner and CEO Al Snow has cinematic ambitions. He’s just bought a hyperrealistic $70 pig mask from a party store. “My crew,” he explains, “consists of one guy and a camera and sometimes a flashlight.” And he’s about to spend all night in an overgrown field with a bunch of topless musclemen, directing a clip that sends the wrestlers to hell to fight a demon heel. “Gosh, I love wrestling!” Snow chuckles, hoisting a heavy mat above his head.

The sequence encapsulates what creator Greg Whiteley is up to with this riveting seven-part documentary, which follows OVW through a pivotal season, as Snow clashes with new co-owners and the future of the league hangs in the balance. Whiteley is known for the humane Netflix community-college sports docuseries Last Chance U and Cheer. Yet his latest project for the streamer frames its subjects less as athletes than as outsider artists, devoting their lives to captivating their dwindling audiences and preserving what might be a dying lifestyle. Each match skillfully combines choreography and improv. The line between self and persona blurs. Wrestling may not be your passion—it isn’t mine—but Wrestlers resonates beyond the ring. It’s about the scrappy vitality of independent entertainment in a world where it’s direly undervalued.

For those of us who need a crash course in wrestling, Whiteley recruits journalists to clarify the condescending misconception that fans believe these fights are real. Of course they’re in on the artifice; they’re invested in the personalities and story lines, like the viewers of any scripted entertainment. The diehards who follow the Louisville-based OVW, described by The Ringer’s David Shoemaker as “one of the last remnants of the regional wrestling system,” aren’t so different from midnight-movie devotees or punk fans crowding into church basements to access a more raw, less commercialized experience than mainstream outlets provide. (OVW also books a church rec room in one episode; the faux-clergyman wrestler Rev. Ronnie ends up relegated to the sidelines.) Unlike the handsomely compensated stars of national behemoths WWE and AEW, these wrestlers are DIY artists, taking crappy second jobs to support their passion.

'Wrestlers' Isn't Just for the Fans

At the center of the shoestring operation is Snow, a WWF/WWE alumnus best remembered for playing a mentally ill character who projected his psychosis onto a mannequin head that he used as a prop in his fights. As that remarkable backstory, which came out of the wrestler’s study of abnormal psychology, suggests, Snow is fascinating enough to fuel an entire documentary series of his own. Intelligent, creative, and fiercely devoted to OVW and its stars, he does everything from writing the league’s story arcs to disciplining recalcitrant employees. Or, as he puts it: “I’m Kermit the Frog, and I literally run The Muppet Show every week.”

Integrity is paramount to Snow, who clashes with new co-owner Matt Jones, a sports-radio personality with no prior experience in the wrestling business, over Jones’ gimmicky efforts to expand OVW’s audience. “They don’t work for you,” Snow reminds Jones, about their underpaid talent. “We work together.” It’s clearly this collaborative spirit that has won Snow the wrestlers’ loyalty. But Whiteley resists any temptation to make Jones the villain. A jarring incident midway through the season humanizes the outsider, who’s painfully aware that Snow and the wrestlers don’t trust him. “I’m a people pleaser because I started out trying to be a mom pleaser,” Jones reflects later. It’s not exactly the kind of confession you expect to hear in a wrestling doc.

In contrast to the cartoon machismo of the world it’s set within, Wrestlers teems with authentic emotion and introspection. One wrestler jumps into the ring to propose to his girlfriend, who’s just won her own match. Another wrestler, a husband and father, struggles to get clean after a drug arrest threatens his future in the league. Whiteley spends time with OVW’s reigning heavyweight champion (a title that, although the outcome of each fight is predetermined, effectively makes a wrestler the face of the league), Mahabali Shera. After a devastatingly brief stint in the WWE, Shera—a veritable wall of a man—has found a champion in Snow. Yet an air of melancholy surrounds the Indian wrestler, an avowed loner living thousands of miles from home as he mourns a father he idolized. “When I trust people,” he laments, “they hurt me.”

Aside from Snow, Whiteley devotes the most screen time to HollyHood Haley J, a charismatic, 22-year-old platinum blonde who loves to play the heel. Haley’s biography is more compelling, and more poignant, than any fictional origin story. A second-generation wrestler, she spent her childhood bouncing from one unstable living situation to the next as her mother, Maria, rotated in and out of prison. Eventually, Maria found wrestling, and it became her salvation. Haley, who suffered mightily in her absence, left home at 16. But she too found her way into the ring—and back into her mom’s life. Although Maria mostly works behind the scenes these days, a story line emerges that pits mother against daughter, playing up Haley’s residual anger over years of neglect. “Haley is a carbon copy of me,” Maria observes, sounding proud and worried at once.

The arc culminates in a deathmatch—a particularly violent form of wrestling that uses props like ladders and barbed wire—between the two. They roll around a ring covered in thumbtacks, their costumes and skin collecting little silver dots that will have to be pulled out one by one. Blood pours from Maria’s scalp. The match is hardly Snow’s idea; he isn’t a fan of baroque spectacles that detract from the skill of the performers, and when it’s happening he can hardly watch. It’s Maria who loves doing deathmatches. When Haley confesses on camera that she’s dreading the event, too, a producer asks why she agreed to do it. Her response: “It’s good storytelling.”

Even if you find deathmatch wrestling barbaric, it’s hard to disagree. Whiteley captures the rapt expressions on the faces of fans in the venue, and it’s no mystery why they’re so absorbed in Haley and Maria’s violent reenactment of the darkest aspects of their relationship. The pathos and masochism and catharsis really do add up to a form of art—one not so different from Marina Abramović’s most extreme performances or the self-harming ’70s stage antics of Iggy Pop. (What goes unsaid, but is doubly relevant in light of the fact that Wrestlers appears on global streaming monolith Netflix, is that OVW is at risk of extinction for the same reason that local independent arts venues have become so hard to sustain: because the increasingly powerful giants within an increasingly consolidated entertainment industry are crowding it out.) 

As Bryan Kennison, a commentator who spends much of the season running errands and negotiating small-time sponsorships in an effort to justify his full-time salary, sees it, the WWE and AEW are “a Michael Bay action movie. That’s awesome. But you know what? When you come to OVW, you’re getting The Squid and the Whale.” Something from Roger Corman’s low-budget exploitation canon might have made a more obvious analogy. But hey, if you’re a Noah Baumbach fan who can appreciate a no-holds-barred throwdown between a flawed parent and a disgruntled child, well, that is just one of the many deeply human stories you’ll find in Wrestlers.  

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