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Monday, September 25, 2023

Stream It Or Skip It: ‘Wrestlers’ on Netflix, a Gritty and Theatrical Look at the Pro Wrestling Underground – Stars Obituary

Over 80,000 howling fans setting a paid attendance record at an All Elite Wrestling show at London’s legendary Wembley Stadium. Sellout crowds across America for WWE archvillain Roman Reigns and his would-be conqueror Cody Rhodes, in arguably the biggest storyline the company has seen since the glory days of the Rock and “Stone Cold” Steve Austin. Pro wrestling is having a moment, and this includes its thriving independent scene — a motley crew of regional promotions and nationwide networks that cultivate the talent of tomorrow. 

Kentucky-based Ohio Valley Wrestling, once the home of future pop-culture superstars John Cena, Dave Bautista, and Brock Lesnar, struggles on past its glory days. Can it put on one last grand tour to preserve its legacy and its life? And is it worth caring about? Let’s you and me find out.


Opening Shot: A worker opens a corrugated-steel warehouse door in Louisville, Kentucky. On the exterior of the building hangs an Ohio Valley Wrestling banner, emblazoned with the tiny company’s slogan: “Tomorrow’s Superstars Today!”

The Gist: Once upon a time, Ohio Valley Wrestling was the petri dish in which the pro wrestling stars of the future were cultivated. Most famously, Hollywood power players John Cena and Dave Bautista and legit UFC champion Brock Lesnar emerged from the same “class” at what was, at the time, the “developmental territory” for WWE — the equivalent of a Major League Baseball’s farm team.

Flash forward to 2022. The relationship with WWE is long in the rearview mirror. But OVW struggles on, under the guidance of former WWE wrestler and respected trainer Al Snow. Once known for wielding a severed mannequin head as a prop, Snow now shapes the careers of the babyfaces (good guys) and heels (bad guys) of professional wrestling’s future, from current AEW star Leila Grey to the irascible HollyHood Haley J, the troubled daughter of Snow’s co-producer The Amazing Maria.

To keep OVW afloat, Snow has been forced to bring on board investors from outside the insular pro wrestling world: local politician Craig Greenberg and Kentucky sports radio broadcaster Matt Jones. Both men, especially Jones, have ideas about how OVW should be run — namely a summer tour that will see the promotion step outside its home venue and its comfort zone. And since they hold the pursestrings, they can force Snow and the other skeptical wrestlers, who rarely trust outsiders, to do what they want.

Can Snow and his ragtag bunch of misfit independent wrestlers make the tour a success, despite their misgivings? Or will Jones and Greenberg pull the financial plug, doing what even Vince McMahon could not do and shutting OVW down for good?

Wrestlers - arena in parking lot
Photo: Netflix

What Shows Will It Remind You Of?: Wrestlers’ most obvious analogue is AppleTV+’s Monster Factory, a similar story of a small training facility-slash-local wrestling promotion’s struggle to create great wrestlers and weather the financial storm. But this show features an escalated level of economic and personality-driven pressure, in the form of the schism between Snow on one side and Jones on the other, that’s reminiscent of the melodrama of Heels, the ongoing Starz drama about a small Southern wrestling company not unlike OVW at all.

Our Take: Professional wrestling is a truly fascinating, uniquely American art form and subculture. Long before I became a weekly viewer — fully three decades removed from when I thrilled to the likes of Hulk Hogan, Andre the Giant, and the Ultimate Warrior as a child — I was drawn to its history, its personalities, and its jargon, which remains one of the most valuable lenses through which to see the world I can think of. (The concept of “kayfabe,” the agreed-upon un-reality in which pro wrestling conflicts exist, is worth the price of admission alone.)

Wrestlers depicts this riveting demimonde through the memorable personae of people living in it. Booker (i.e. head writer) Al Snow, co-owner and promoter Matt Jones, and the Julia Garner character-in-waiting HollyHood Haley J are instantly recognizable character archetypes: hero, villain, and antihero. 

Director Greg Whiteley wisely contrasts the emergence of these figures within the non-fictional narrative (at least by reality-show standards) on one hand and the pre-planned presentation of OVW’s faces and heels on the other. Effectively, he’s announcing that the show will work much like a wrestling storyline; like many magicians, he tells you what he’s doing before does it.

I, for one, am impressed — skeptical though I might be of the way he manipulates events with standard reality-show drama. Do I wish this were a real documentary that just so happened to catch a company at a pivotal moment, instead of what it likely is: a reality show, where Jones and Snow and Haley and the rest have been encouraged off-camera to act their parts and play up conflict, especially around the risky tour that just so happens to coincide with the series’ production? Yes I do. Will it stop me from watching? No, it probably won’t.

Sex and Skin: As is always the case with pro wrestling documentaries, you are guaranteed to see a bunch of very good looking, very physically fit performers in glorified underwear, slamming their bodies around for your entertainment. The heroic Shera the Indian Lion and the villainous Hollyhood Haley J and Mr. Pectacular are the highlights in this regard.

HollyHood Haley J
Photo: Netflix

Sleeper Star: This is HollyHood Haley J’s show, without question. While Al Snow in particular is a compelling screen presence, no one here screams out “make a documentary about me” quite like the explosive, attractive single mom who’s also the daughter of one of OVW’s decision-makers. 

In an apparently improvised moment stemming from an equipment malfunction during a pivotal match, Haley gets into a physical altercation with her mother Maria, sent from backstage in a frantic effort to vamp for time while Snow’s crew gets their tech back online. When the mom mollywhops the daughter, Haley’s face instinctively crumples into a teary grimace, leading to outright cheers not just from Snow and his crew monitoring the action from backstage, but from me in the audience. That’s acting, baby!

This is the kind of solid gold improvisation only the very best professional wrestlers can produce. If it was, indeed, an off-the-top-of-her-head choice by Haley, she’s a woman with a bright future in this business, and in this documentary series.

Memorable Dialogue: I don’t know why it should take me by surprise by people who are in the business of talking you into buying a ticket to see them get their asses fake-kicked have a way with words. And yet I’m struck every time by the insight and dexterity with which pro wrestlers such as these describe their business and the motives that drove them into it. 

“I want to be more than what I am,” says the aging brawler Ca$h Flo. “Wrestling is like a lightswitch: You won’t get it, you won’t get it, and one day it’s like, ‘ding!’, oh, I got it,” says the Amazing Maria. “You’ve got to be a little mad in this world,” says Snow. Little gems one and all.

Slightly more dubious is Snow’s contention that the well-known bit of wrestling jargon “pop,” meaning a big positive reaction from the crowd, alludes to the male orgasm. But what are you gonna do, tell Al Snow he’s wrong?

Our Call: STREAM IT.For all its manufactured conflict — the schism between Snow and Jones, the unprecedented summer tour — it’s still a largely unvarnished glimpse into a place both wonderful and strange.

Sean T. Collins (@theseantcollins) writes about TV for Rolling StoneVultureThe New York Times, and anyplace that will have him, really. He and his family live on Long Island.

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