Beyond the Mat Documentary Retro Review

In March of 2000 comedy writer Barry W. Blaustein made his directorial debut in Beyond the Mat, a documentary about professional wrestling. He wrote, directed, and produced this documentary about something which he loved all his life, but admits always feeling embarrassed about it.

Beyond the Mat starts with the filmmaker’s own childhood, explaining how he was always a wrestling fan.He recalls seeing a wrestling show as a kid, and feeling befuddled when after the show he saw one of the wrestlers meeting their own family backstage. Seemingly in that moment that wrestler appeared to be a normal family man. Hence, the essential question of this documentary is, who are these people that become pro-wrestlers?

Blaustein starts at the top with the WWF. At the time of this filming the WWF was worth close to a billion dollars, which the filmmaker says is more than the New York Knicks, Rangers,and Mets put together. During a business meeting we hear that WWF was, at that time, the #2 license (I presume this means in retail products) and that they were fighting it out with South Park. WWF is compared to the Muppets, in the sense it’s a family business involving fictional characters. Vince McMahon is interviewed, and gives a very interesting insight into his business. He explains that a lot of people don’t understand what they’re really about, saying “We make movies.” He goes onto say he makes monsters, and compares WWF to the old Hollywood Studio system.

Writer Vince Russo is seen backstage with Sable (Russo would go on to write for WCW). We also see the wrestler and former Denver Bronco Droz, who apparently early on was going to base his wrestling persona around his ability to vomit on cue. It is noted at the film’s end that shortly after the film wrapped, Droz was paralyzed in the ring. There are also a few wrestlers that briefly get screen time sharing their gripes against Vince, including Justin Credible, Koko B. Ware, and Al Snow. While it’s not clear in the initial viewing, Blaustein’s audio commentary reveals Al Snow is in fact talking about his previous run in WWF where he had a different gimmick called Avatar.

World Championship Wrestling is not covered in this film at all. It is only mentioned twice in passing, once by an indy promoter and once by an ECW fan. From the time I saw this in the theater I wondered why that was the case. On the same commentary Blaustein reveals he approached WCW but they would not sign the necessary paper work to let him film. He says WCW wanted creative control of the project. Interestingly enough, he adds that even though they are not covered, WCW programming still ran adds for the show and apparently discussed it on air.

Vince McMahon/the WWF were not as cooperative at first either. The commentary reveals that Ron Howard, who produced the film, lived near Vince McMahon, but amusingly only had a slight understanding that he was somehow involved in the wrestling business. After several meetings Vince finally agreed, but later wanted to control the project, offering to cover the film’s budget. Vince’s request was declined. Apparently after the movie came out WWF stars were told not to do press for the film, nevertheless, Blaustein and WWF star Mick Foley appeared on Larry King Live around the time of the film’s release.

Back to the documentary, Balustein’s favorite wrestler, Terry Funk, is profiled next. Extreme Championship Wrestling is also profiled along with Funk, as Funk wins a match at the first ECW Pay Per View. ECW was a renegade ultra-violent promotion based out of Philadelphia that had a rabid international fan base. Blaustein says in the film “No fans scared me more.” Just after this documentary was made ECW had a TV deal on TNN.

Later, due to health problems, Funk decides to retire and have one last match (It should be no surprise to hear his retirement doesn’t last long). His “last match” is in Amarillo Texas, where he lives and is a local celebrity. His opponent is then WWF champion Bret Hart. WWF and ECW wrestlers are show in the audience. Personally I didn’t see any WCW wrestlers in attendance, but ECW’s Shane Douglas says that only Terry Funk could have brought together people from WWF, ECW, and other promotions. Two fans are also interviewed who came all the way from England for this match.

From Funk the film segues into Mick Foely, perhaps the most unlikely WWF champion. His friendship with Terry is highlighted, and the climax of the film is his brutal I Quit Match against the Rock at the 1999 Royal Rumble, which his wife and two young children had front row seats for.

Also of note are the segments with Jake the Snake Roberts, who was at a low point in his life at the time, and was heavy into drug use. At the time Jake objected to how he was portrayed in this film. He has subsequently got himself through treatment and has been clean for a while. I imagine his feelings on this film might have changed over time.

WWF female superstar Chyna is briefly portrayed, as is former WWF star Koko B. Ware, Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura, ECW’s Spike Dudley and New Jack, and a small California based promotion. From this promotion two indy wrestlers get a WWF try out.

Beyond the Mat is perhaps an unintentional time capsule of a time when wrestling was the in thing. Blaustein on his commentary observes, correctly in retrospect, how wrestling was hot at that time, but adds “I know that will go away pretty soon.” While it is disappointing that WCW is not covered, it seems that was beyond the filmmaker’s control. The goal of the film was to cover the types of people that become professional wrestlers, and I would say it had mostly succeeded at that.

Monday Night Wars Documentary Review Part 7: The War Goes Extreme

In the late 90s, a small Philadelphia promotion took the wrestling world by storm with it ulta-violent hardcore style and rabid fan base. Extreme Championship Wrestling, although it did not air programming on Monday nights, served as a third party in the Monday Night Wars.

At first we get yet another recap of Turner investing in WCW, and how Raw’s Saturday morning style did not work with a prime time audience. We see Jeff Jarret’s cowboy gimmick along with the Bushwhackers.

Then we get to the good stuff. The early days of ECW are re-capped, how they broke away from the NWA, how the lower production values added to the content, and how the audience was as much a part of the show as the wrestlers and would even bring weapons to be used. The clip of the Foely/Funk tag match is shown where the audience literally showered the ring with chairs.

As well as this episode tells the story of ECW, unfortunately it still uses the narrative of WCW “stealing” ECW stars, saying “Eric Bischoff had a blank checkbook signed by Ted Turner.” What is not mentioned but is well documented elsewhere is that ECW often had trouble meeting it’s payroll, prompting talent to leave for more security and stability, not to mention a bigger platform. Eric Bischoff is at least given a chance to respond, saying “One man’s raid is another companies acquisition.” In fairness, ECW founder Paul Heymen is shown saying he didn’t like it personally but knew it was just business. He added “When you’re up against WWE and Vince McMahon in a Monday Night War what else are you supposed to do?”

Just before Monday Nitro began to air, WCW acquired Mexican Lucha Libre talents along with other cruiser weights such as Eddie Guerrero, Dean Malenko, La Parka, and Chris Jericho. As time went on, both WCW and WWF would recruit ECW stars like the Dudley Boys, Sandman, and Tazz. Heymen says “Our move was always to find new talent and develop them faster than they were pulling people out.”

ECW pulled off a small miracle on April 13th 1997, by having their own PPV Barely Legal. To help promote it, ECW stars actually appeared on the 3/17 episode of Raw. Paul Heymen was actually in the ring and on commentary with Vince, and announcer Jerry Lawler challenged the ECW locker room to come out the next week, which they did. They appeared on several Raws, and the ratings increased. Cable companies were hesitant to put the violent federation on PPV, (MMA events were not even allowed at the time) but fans picketed outside the cable companies demanding the PPV be aired.

Over the next few years ECW had enough momentum to get on television. TNN, The National Network, debuted a Friday Night ECW show on 8/27/99. This gave ECW more legitimacy, allowing other projects to be possible like a video game, magazines, and T-shirts deals. This episode doesn’t mention it, but the ECW video game was the first, and I believe only wrestling game to get a mature rating.

Unfortunately for them, write as ECW was going on TV, the Sandman and Mike Whipwreck signed with WCW, and Tazz and the Dudley Boys signed with WWF. Sandman in WCW was known as Hack. Mikey Whipwreck is interviewed in this episode, and says that he signed while he was taking time off for injury. Even though he agreed to a WCW deal, he feels WCW simply signed him so ECW wouldn’t have him.

The ECW show had 1 million views per week, but they hit another obstacle as their champ Mike Awesome jumped to WCW while still on contract with ECW. He is shown on the 4/10/2000 episode of Nitro attacking Kevin Nash. The announcers say he’s the champ but the belt is not shown on TV. This led to one of the more curious incidents of the Monday Night War. At an ECW show, Mike Awesome fought Tazz, who was on loan from the WWF. It was the first and only time during the Monday Night Wars that a contracted WWF wrestler fought a contracted WCW wrestler, and the match was in an ECW ring for the ECW title. Tazz won, and days later dropped the belt to ECW star Tommy Dreamer.

It is well documented elsewhere so it was a little disappointing this episode did not cover the censorship issues and other restrictions that TNN placed on ECW. It does cover how TNN was in negotiations with the WWF to move Raw to their network, which they eventually did. Paul Heymen often suspected TNN only aired ECW to test if they could get a wrestling audience, and also to lead into TNN’s Rollerjam show, which was an attempted revival or Roller Derby.

ECW was only on TNN for one year, and without their TV deal, the company folded. Paul Heymen envisioned ECW being a global promotion. What no one knew at the time, was the Vince McMahon was secretly subsidizing ECW, and used it as a developmental territory. In January of 2001, WWF purchased ECW, and just a few months later purchased WCW. ECW’s revival is covered, with the One Night Stand PPV on 6/12/05. What is also covered is the influence ECW had on WWF and the attitude era.

From the beer drinking Stone Cold Steve Austin to the advent of the WWF Hardcore title, ECW’s influence on the Monday Night Wars is unquestionable.

Monday Night Wars Documentary Review Episode 5: Have a Nice Day.

While episodes 2 and 4 of this documentary profiled a specific faction, NWO and DX, this is the first episode to focus on an individual wrestler, that wrestler being Mick Foley.

It starts with Arn Anderson explaining how the WCW strategy was to use already established stars (Sting is shown while he says this). Mick was in WCW, but was not a big star, and eventually left for ECW, Extreme Championship Wrestling. There’s an interesting bit here about how in ECW he turned away from his fans and purposely started having slower paced, scientific wrestling matches, as opposed to the more brutal, hard hitting, hardcore style his fans liked. He started wearing a suit and a pony tail,and carried a teddy bear named Chuck with him.

Meanwhile WWF was still using cartoony characters, and the same clip is shown when they made this point in other episodes. Foley eventually signed with WWF, and early design sketches are shown of ideas for his character. Foley thought about the destruction of Mankind, and came up with that name for use in the WWF. The early vignettes are shown that introduced him before he had his first WWF match on 4/1/96.

Early on Vince was not a fan, but apparently he gave some speech backstage where he admitted the methods he used in the past weren’t really working, and that a wrestler’s character should be an extension of their own personality.

From here the WWF showed home movies from Foley’s childhood, and his childhood character Dude Love was actually brought into WWF programming on 7/14/97. His WCW/ECW era character, the more evil Cactus Jack was brought in on 9/22/97 and got a huge pop from the crowd.

The infamous Hell in the Cell match is covered, where he got thrown off the cage by the Undertaker, only to continue the match and later fall through the cage, and still finished the match. Vince says today that match would be stopped immediately, but they were in uncharted territory then.

After this obviously his physical problems were taking their toll, so he started introducing more comedy into his act, hence the birth of Mr. Socko. His segment with the Rock: This is Your Life bit which drew 9 million viewers. It was not rehearsed at all, to the point where he introduced the Rock’s school teacher as Betty Griffin, when on the graphic for TV it read Mrs. Schubert.

Tony Schiavone is interviewed regarding Mankind winning the WWF title and it being spoiled on WCW programming. This was a tactic WCW used from the beginning, but in this case it backfired, as an estimated half a million people switched stations to see the title win.

Of all the personalities of this era, Mick Foley’s is undoubtedly the most interesting. This episode does a good job of chronicling the journey of perhaps the most unlikeliest of superstars and their rise to the WWF championship.

Monday Night Wars Documentary Review Episode 3: Embracing Attitude

The Attitude Era is considered by many fans to be the WWF’s greatest era, featuring the height of Stone Cold Steve Austin’s popularity, along with the Rock, Mankind, and DX.

This episode opens with the more cartoon-ish gimmicks of the pre-Attitude WWF, such as the Sultan, Steve Austin’s Ring Master gimmick, and Ron Simmons in that goofy looking helmet.

Eric Bischoff was riding high with Monday Nitro and the NWO story line. At the time he believed WWF would never recover. Someone warned him that WWF was about to try Howard Stern/Shock Jock type programming, but he dismissed that thinking it would never work.

The Austin/Pillman gun incident is covered, where they filmed a segment at Brian Pillman’s home during which he fired a gun at Austin. Hugely controversial at the time, Vince apologized on air the next week. However, announcer Jim Ross said they got a 75% positive response from their audience to that segment.

Sports journalist Bill Apter is interviewed for this documentary. He supplies a few quotes as it is explained that from here the WWF roster became more edgy. Acts like the black militant group the Nation of Domination formed, as well as De-generation X.

Vince McMahon’s opening speech on the 12/15/97 edition of Raw is shown, where he explains how his programming will now be more contemporary, and away from the older formula of good guys vs bad guys.

By January of 1998 Raw was still losing the ratings battle to Nitro but was on the rise with its new edgier gimmicks like Val Venis (basically a porn star), sexual chocolate Mark Henry, Mr. Ass (Billy Gunn), and the pimp character the Godfather.

Meanwhile, Eric Bischoff still wasn’t impressed. Jericho says that Bischoff was telling people in six months McMahon will lose his TV sponsors and go out of business. Meanwhile Sable (who is not interviewed here) is shown on TV guide, and Nash says that she beat any segment Nitro had at that point.

Just as WWF was embracing the Attitude Era, the corporate structure of Turner Broadcasting was becoming more restrictive on WCW. Standards and Practice representatives were in the WCW creative rooms while porn star Jenna Jameson did a segment with Val Venis on Raw, and WWF introduced their hardcore title.

WCW embarrassingly tried to compete with the Attitude Era while wearing the Standards and Practices handcuffs. They tried their own hardcore title, and we see that clip where Terry Funk almost legitimately almost got kicked in the head by a horse. We also see the infamous junkyard invitational, the viagra on a pole match, and Judy Bagwell on a forklift match. WCW Stunt Coordinator Ellis Edwards is interviewed here and says “I would tell them the things I would do in the stunt business and they would write it into the storyline.” This is the one part of the episode I would have liked to have seen more elaborated. I would have like to have seen who thought of trying to have a WCW Hardcore title and how they balanced that with standards and practices, etc.

This episode layed out the interesting parallels of the shifting creative direction of WWF that mirrored the more restrictive environment of WCW, but I would have like to have seen more of the struggles that came with the latter.