Robin’s Underrated Gems: Beyond the Mat (2000)

Any wrestling fan can identify with the words director Barry Blaustein uses to open Beyond the Mat: “I don’t know why I like it. I just always have”. When you’re a fan of professional wrestling, trying to explain its appeal to non-fans is virtually impossible. I think the most appropriate quote I’ve heard that’s always been associated with the wrestling business is: “For those who believe, no explanation is necessary. For those who don’t, no explanation will do”. Barry Blaustein, a professional Hollywood screenwriter who achieved much of his success co-writing Eddie Murphy movies like Coming to America and the Nutty Professor films, claims he’s been a closet wrestling fan since childhood, but because of the trashy stigma that’s always been associated with the so-called “sport”, he usually kept that dirty secret to himself during adulthood. However, when wrestling hit its peak of popularity in the late 1990s, Blaustein decided he wanted to do a documentary about it that would showcase the industry to non-fans in an entirely different light. Of course, the major obstacle is trying to convince non-fans to watch this film in the first place. As a lifelong wrestling fan, I couldn’t go out and watch Beyond the Mat fast enough, but having worked at Blockbuster Video at the time it came out on video, I can honestly say that trying to recommend this documentary to customers who weren’t wrestling fans was like pulling teeth. Many people have such a negative view of the wrestling business that they wouldn’t be caught dead watching anything that was associated it. However, my point of defence was that Beyond the Mat got generally positive reviews from critics, most of whom were not wrestling fans at all, yet they still found a documentary about the subject to be fascinating viewing. I seek to convince everyone that Beyond the Mat is not just a great wrestling documentary, but a great documentary period.

While Beyond the Mat will probably never convert anyone into a wrestling fan, it should allow one to have a bigger respect and appreciation for what people in the wrestling business have to go through. Of course, the main stigma that Blaustein wants to break in his film is that pro wrestling is “fake”. Yes, it is fake in the sense that all the shows are scripted and the outcomes of all the matches are predetermined, but the actual performance aspect isn’t as fake as you’d think. No matter how you slice it, taking a fall onto a hard canvas legitimately hurts, and wrestlers wind up enduring a lot of pain and doing a lot of damage to their bodies. That’s why wrestling has a frighteningly high percentage of performers who develop drug problems and wind up dying before the age of 40. Beyond the Mat does not shy away from showcasing the physical, emotional and mental toil that comes from working in the wrestling business. Most importantly, it also shows that most wrestlers are just normal, everyday human beings when they’re away from the ring, although some of them are more troubled than others. At the time this film was made, the two biggest wrestling companies in North America were the World Wrestling Federation (which is now known as World Wrestling Entertainment after losing a legal battle with the World Wildlife Fund over the rights to the “WWF” acronym) and World Championship Wrestling, who were in heated competition with one another until WCW was bought out by the WWF in 2001. WCW refused to participate in Beyond the Mat, but Vince McMahon actually granted Blaustein exclusive behind-the-scenes access to document the inner workings of the WWF. The early scenes in the film are an interesting look at the very unique mindset of Vince McMahon, who compares running a wrestling company to making movies. In one infamous scene, a young, up-and-coming wrestler named Darren “Droz” Drozdov is given an interview with him. Droz has the unique ability to spontaneously puke on cue, and for whatever reason, Vince excitedly believes that a character named “Puke” is bound to become a huge superstar.

Beyond the Mat not only looks at the inner workings of the WWF, but at the cult independent promotion, Extreme Championship Wrestling, and the All Pro Wrestling training school, where young hopefuls learn their craft by wrestling shows in small buildings in front of 100 people for very little money. However, the main focus of the film is three unique individuals who have found great fame in the world of professional wrestling: Mick Foley, Terry Funk and Jake “The Snake” Roberts. Even though Foley does not look like a pro athlete at all, he achieved huge stardom in the WWF because fans really took to his willingness to put his body on the line and do incredibly crazy and dangerous things just to entertain them. Funk has been in the wrestling business for over thirty years and has retired multiple times, but is unable to resist the urge to perform and loves the business so much that he continues to come back and wrestle into his mid-fifties. Of course, a lifetime of this has taken a great toil on his body and forces him to live in great pain. In one harrowing scene, a doctor is looking at his injured knees and says that theoretically, Terry shouldn’t even be walking at all after so much damage! While their performances in the squared circle give off the impression that Foley and Funk are both insane lunatics, they both come across as genuinely nice guys who have ordinary loving relationships with their families when they’re away from the spotlight. On a personal note, Terry Funk will always be in my awesome books because of the time I ordered an autographed copy of his book from his website. Instead of simply just signing his name, Terry went all out and practically wrote another chapter for me!

Of course, the wives and children of both men still have a hard time understanding their mentality of willingly subjecting themselves to so much punishment inside a wrestling ring. However, Beyond the Mat does demonstrate that you need to have a pretty goofy mindset to want to break into the wrestling business, and a lot of very colourful and off-the-wall characters are showcased in the film. One of the most hilarious ones is a friend of Terry Funk’s named Dennis Stamp, whose attempt at a wrestling career never went anywhere. He is now in his fifties and works as an exterminator, but still keeps himself in shape in case he ever “gets the call” from a wrestling company again.

Beyond the Mat does not shy away from showcasing the dark side of the wrestling business and demonstrates that even nice, level-headed guys are capable of making bad decisions. Despite the genuine love that Foley and Funk have for their families, they both have to spent a lot of time on the road away from them and often scare their families to death with some of the crazy things they choose to do in the ring. One of the most disturbing scenes in the film is when Foley’s wife and two young children sit ringside for a match in which he is bashed repeatedly in the skull with a steel chair, and even though their dad has assured them that what they’re watching isn’t real, his kids are still terrified by what they see and start bawling. It’s hard to convince young children that daddy isn’t really getting hurt when they see him getting his bloody head stitched up afterward. These scenes do a great job at denouncing the myth of how “phoney” wrestling is, especially when Mick watches the footage of his kids crying and feels absolutely terrible about letting them watch the match. Of course, the film really starts delving into dark territory when it looks at the life of Jake “The Snake” Roberts, who was a huge WWF star in the 1980s and Barry Blaustein’s personal favourite wrestler, but has let drugs and alcohol addictions completely overwhelm his life. He is now relegated to wrestling on independent shows in small towns in order to make a living and despite having tons of charisma and one of the smartest minds in the wrestling business, his personal demons make him unreliable and difficult to work with. We learn that he had a very troubled childhood and was conceived because his father (himself a professional wrestler) raped his own stepdaughter when she was only 13. Jake’s strained relationship with his own father has helped lead to him having a strained relationship with his own children and the film contains some very painful scenes of Jake trying to reconcile with his estranged daughter. You can tell that the scenes involving Randy “The Ram” Robinson’s strained relationship with his daughter in The Wrestler were likely inspired by this.

Anyway, in spite of his cooperation in the making of the film, Vince McMahon was none- too-pleased with how Beyond the Mat turned out and thought it was a pretty unflattering portrayal of the wrestling business. He refused to allow the film to be advertised during his WWF television broadcasts and ordered his wrestlers not to talk about it with the media, which is why Beyond the Mat was eventually hyped as “The movie Vince McMahon does NOT want you to see!”. In an amusing personal anecdote, I was working at Blockbuster one night in my hometown of Orangeville, Ontario when who should walk in but WWF superstar Adam “Edge” Copeland, who also hails from Orangeville and was home for a brief visit with his family. He actually rented a copy of Beyond the Mat and told me he hadn’t seen it yet, and my first thought was that Edge had to go all the way back to his old hometown to rent the film, so that Vince McMahon wouldn’t find out he watched it! Like I stated earlier, Beyond the Mat isn’t likely to convert anyone into a wrestling fan because it does show that the business can be a very self-destructive industry for many people who break into it and cannot handle the gruelling sacrifice that being a wrestler requires. However, I will always maintain that this documentary is still very compelling viewing for non-fans. Beyond the Mat may be dark at times, but it’s also quite funny and entertaining, as anyone who’s wacky enough to work in the wrestling business is bound to produce great material whenever a camera is on them. It’s interesting to harken back to the old days of “kayfabe”, where the inner workings of pro wrestling were treated with the same secrecy as “The Magician’s Code”, and everyone involved with the business would vehemently claim that it was all 100 % real. Many years ago, the idea of a documentary crew being allowed to film what went on behind the scenes of a wrestling promotion was completely unthinkable, as was the idea of wrestlers breaking character and showcasing their real-life personalities to the world. It goes without saying that wrestling fans had waited a long time to see a documentary like this, but I’m sure we were not the main target audience Barry Blaustein had in mind when he made this film. Quite simply, Beyond the Mat is a terrific, fascinating and highly underrated documentary that is still worthwhile viewing even for those who would rather be hit in the head with a steel chair than watch a wrestling show.

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