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.