Monday, January 19, 2009

Pro Wrestling Primer: The Wrestler

The wrestling documentary Beyond the Mat was billed as “the movie Vince McMahon doesn’t want you to see” upon its release in 1999. Ten years later, we have a new candidate for the tag line: Darren Aronovsky’s The Wrestler, which serves as the first truly accurate depiction of a down-and-out pro wrestler in the twilight of his career. Randy “The Ram” Robinson fits this role to a T. He was a big star during the 1980s, wrestling and defeating opponents like Corporal Punishment with his finishing move, a diving headbutt from the top rope dubbed The Ram Jam. The Ram is remembered most for his 1989 feud with The Ayatollah, which was the talk of wrestling media everywhere.

But twenty years later, Randy the Ram is not exactly in a position to enjoy retirement and regale his fellow ex-wrestlers with road stories at the Cauliflower Alley Club. Instead, Robinson is behind on his rent at the trailer park and locked out of his home. He works a shitty grocery store job during the week, and continues to wrestle on the weekends. A far cry from the huge arenas of the past, The Ram is relegated to the independent circuit, working with opponents who were barely old enough to talk when he was at the peak of his career. Nobody shows up to his autograph session. He still pops pain pills for those old, nagging injuries. And before you ask, yes, The Ram’s physique is chemically enhanced with human growth hormones.

Robinson gets some much-needed perspective on his life when he suffers a heart attack after a particularly brutal hardcore match. Although his rematch with The Ayatollah is coming up, The Ram is now less concerned with wrestling than he is about the fact that he’s lonely and has no one there for him. Wrestling and entertaining the crowd compensates for the loneliness, but the doctors have ordered him to stay out of the ring. But he feels like he’s been making some headway with Cassidy, a stripper at a local bar who has the same problem he does—she’s getting too old for her line of work. When he gets out of the hospital, Cassidy encourages Randy to reunite with his estranged daughter Stephanie. In a scene directly inspired by Jake Roberts in Beyond the Mat, Randy attempts to reach out to Stephanie, and is able to make a connection. Thinking that he’s filled the void, The Ram retires from wrestling and offers to take on more responsibility at work with his free time. It looks like there is a post-wrestling life to live after all.

But Cassidy turns down Randy’s advances, unfairly lumping him in with her no-dating-customers policy. He’s clearly more than a mere patron to Cassidy, but there’s a world outside of the strip club that a mother named Pam lives in. And people at the club aren’t exposed to that side of Cassidy’s life. Yet, she won’t give up a lap dance when Randy, now just a normal paying customer, produces cash. Stephanie decides to close the door on her dad again after he forgets dinner plans. The connection was broken years ago when wrestling became more important than family, and Stephanie feels too emotionally exhausted to invest any more time in her fuckup father. The rejection from the women in his life is too much for Randy to handle, and the only place he’s ever felt at home was the wrestling ring. So he walks out on the grocery store in mid-shift and defies his doctor’s orders to stop wrestling. The rematch is back on, but that’s nothing to celebrate about. Randy “The Ram” Robinson’s fate as another casualty of the wrestling business has been sealed. Hopefully Dave Meltzer would write a nice tribute to The Ram in the Wrestling Observer.

How does a onetime top-flight wrestler like Randy the Ram get to this point? It’s hinted early in the movie that backstage politics had something to do with his fall from grace, but the reasons are never exactly elaborated on. But The Ram also looks like he butted heads with the typical ‘80s wrestler lifestyle and lost that fight. Obviously drugs, booze, and injuries caught up with the man. The work schedule makes it difficult to maintain a normal family life. Had Randy Robinson been a WWF wrestler during the 1980s boom period, he would have been expected to work approximately 300 days a year without complaint. Factor in traveling from city to city, and you have little to no quality time with your loved ones. Also, pro wrestlers are somehow considered independent contractors, so the industry is exempt from having to provide things like health insurance or pensions like, say, the NFL. They don’t even get much for time off to recover from injuries. Although wrestling is athletic entertainment, there is nothing like the Screen Actors’ Guild to regulate it. Wrestlers have actually been fired for attempting to unionize the locker room. Since wrestling is a highly competitive business, there’s always another wrestler willing to be the replacement for a lesser price. The list of broken-down wrestlers with no options is longer than the list of ex-punk rockers that the band Filth once sang about. Randy the Ram is no exception, and is stuck on the treadmill because he didn’t save any of that big money for life after wrestling. Despite putting his health at risk for chump change, Randy doesn’t know how to do much else. He’s living the life and destined for the same early grave as a lot of wrestlers who have died in the past decade or so.

And that’s why Vince McMahon probably doesn’t want you to see this movie. It hits too close to home. After all, there’s been a lot of Randy the Rams in his employ over the years, or guys who walked a similar path. 1950s wrestling legend Gorgeous George never wrestled for McMahon, but was a huge star in his day. Yet, he died penniless, with his fellow wrestlers passing the hat to pay for the funeral. The Dynamite Kid went from making $20,000 for one match at WrestleMania II to participating in illegal garage fights for a few bucks and making little to no money wrestling for small-time English promoters. He is now confined to a wheelchair and has nothing to show for his once-illustrious career. Jake “The Snake” Roberts, the wrestler whose post-WWF exploits bears the most resemblance to Randy the Ram, is left to his own devices in the minor leagues and will more than likely never overcome his drug and alcohol problems. The long-term effects of steroids would have killed Superstar Billy Graham had he not received a liver transplant at the last minute. Eddy Guerrero wasn’t so lucky. He dropped dead in a hotel bathroom while brushing his teeth because his heart could no longer handle the excessive steroid use. It’s speculated that long-term steroid use and too many concussions drove Guerrero’s good friend Chris Benoit to kill his family and then himself. Apparently current WWE champion Jeff Hardy is just one failed drug test away from the unemployment line. It’s debatable, but The Wrestler and the interviews being given by director Darren Aronovsky and star Mickey Rourke, could potentially do a lot to raise mainstream awareness of the problems in the industry, which will cost the McMahon wrestling empire some money.

Every other review you read of The Wrestler is going to make mention of Mickey Rourke’s comeback performance as Randy “The Ram” Robinson, and rightfully so. But since this is the Pro Wrestling Primer, we’re less concerned with discussing his Oscar potential than we are with how the movie represents the True Sport of Kings. Rourke’s performance is a part of that representation, in which he underwent some wrestling training and even alluded to steroids or HGH in a recent interview with Men’s Journal (“When I’m a wrestler, I behave like a wrestler”). He becomes the prototype for the fallen wrestling legend much like he did as the doomed Harry Angel in Angel Heart, although it doesn’t seem like much of a stretch given his checkered Hollywood past. The wrestlers discuss their in-ring plans in the locker room, swapping advice on how to keep each match exciting. They whisper the cues to the opponent and sneak razor blades across their foreheads for bloody dramatic effect. Some rattle off a pharmaceutical sales pitch that your neighborhood drug dealer would certainly admire. Others shop for plunder at the local grocery store and test out potential weapons like cookie sheets and frying pans on each other. The wrestlers are real, as are the indie promotions Ring of Honor (ROH) and Combat Zone Wrestling (CZW). Former WCW wrestler Ernest “The Cat” Miller plays The Ayatollah, and indie wrestler Necro Butcher puts The Ram through hell in a bloody hardcore match. Look for current WWE wrestler Ron “R-Truth” Killings, as well as Hulk Hogan’s old AWA manager Luscious Johnny Valiant. Unlike 1973’s The Wrestler (which is in no way connected to this movie), no attempt is made to present wrestling as anything other than what it is. For that alone, we would highly recommend this movie as a way to further understand what we’re trying to do here at the Pro Wrestling Primer.

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