TV Review: “Wrestlers” – An intimate Look at Some Denizens of the Squared Circle
By Ed Symkus
Pro Wrestling Company Ohio Valley Wrestling is the little train that could and knows that it can.
Wrestlers, directed by Greg Whitely. The first of its seven episodes premieres on Netflix on September 13.
There’s a little pro wrestling company in Louisville, Kentucky, called Ohio Valley Wrestling or OVW. It’s a hybrid organization that has been around for 30 years: it puts on weekly shows of old school-style wrestling – most fans in the area probably pronounce it “rassling” – and serves as a school where men and women can learn the ropes (and how to bounce off them).
From the start, OVW secured a reputation for being a developmental territory for up-and-comers in the game. Its main claim to fame is that it became a place where the WWE would cherry pick promising grapplers for its own rings. John Cena, Brock Lesner, Randy Orton, and The Miz trained and wrestled there — no doubt the reason that OVW adopted the marketing slogan “Tomorrow’s Superstars Today.”
This seven-part Netflix series goes over the OVW’s story, but the narrative keeps a strong focus on three people who are involved in different aspects of the organization. There’s HollyHood Haley, a 22-year-old newcomer who is blessed with raw talent that’s accompanied by an immature attitude toward authority. She has a sizable chip on her shoulder. There’s Matt Jones, a Louisville radio personality and restaurateur who inexplicably becomes a co-owner of the financially strapped wrestling company. And there’s Al Snow, a veteran wrestler who made a splash in the WWE in the ’90s with his odd gimmick of entering the ring and “communicating” with a mannequin head. He now serves as the OVW’s head trainer.
It’s Snow who, sitting in his office, calmly explains to the camera that pro wrestling “is an art form. It’s the art of physical storytelling.” He’s 59, first entered a ring when he was 14, knows and loves every aspect of the business. He seems at his happiest when talking about it. “The job of a babyface (hero) is to make a character that the audience wants to live vicariously through,” he says. “The heel (villain) leads the dance, and controls everything.”
Standing with a gaggle of students in the arena where OVW puts on live TV bouts every Thursday, Snow imparts his expertise: “The center of the ring is where everyone can see you best, and it is the best place to take a bump (hit the mat hard).”
Series director Greg Whitely, whose documentary work also includes Last Chance U (about junior college football) and Mitt (about Mitt Romney’s presidential campaigns) does an excellent job of keeping his trio of characters at the center of Wrestlers, while also looking around at other folks in the operation, including Shera, a former champ from India trying to make it here; Cashflo, a 25-year veteran who deals with a lot of pain, but refuses to stop living his dream; Dark Storm, another long-timer who’s still waiting for his big break; and Mr. PEC-Tacular who, well I don’t know if he’s any good, but he sure has a great stage name.
Just dealing with these personalities, who share their hopes and dreams and problems and plans with the cameras, would have made for a riveting series. But Whitely has the good fortune of being able to tie their psycho-dramas in with all sorts of unexpected extracurricular challenges. Matt Jones and OVW’s co-owner, local entrepreneur Craig Greenberg, understand business matters, but know very little about the inner workings of pro wrestling. Al Snow and his wrestlers know exactly how the sport works and don’t care much about the business end of things. They consider the two owners to be outsiders. Much tension ensues.
The series turns into an intimate study of a company in danger of going under. There’s a last-ditch effort to save it via a summer tour of small venues and shopping center parking lots. The hope is that building name recognition will lead to a successful pay-per-view event at the end of the process.
Whitely also takes us into the organization’s back rooms, where Snow and his small staff hold weekly meetings to write stories that will take place in and out of the ring. Each week their scenarios take melodramatic twists and turns.
Of course, there’s an abundance of ring action sprinkled throughout the series, and it’s top tier. The men and women in OVW are of the same caliber as the folks on WWE RAW — they often go over and above what is called for when taking physical risks. That daredevilry is made clear when a decision is made to stage a “Death Match” between HollyHood Haley and her “mother,” semi-retired wrestler the Amazing Maria (who, it turns out is, indeed, her real mother). It’s a specialized match, one involving the use of garbage cans, chairs, baseball bats, thumb tacks, and (real) blood. The crowd, no surprise, goes nuts.
But what makes the series tick is the generous inclusion of quiet moments, my favorite of which is when Al Snow, reflecting on his career, says, “I’ve gotten to see things, do things, go places, because I chose to fake-fight other men, in my underwear, for money, as a grown man.”
Ed Symkus is a Boston native and Emerson College graduate. Among his accomplishments: He went to Woodstock, interviewed Edward Gorey, Ray Bradbury, Ted Nugent, and Kathryn Bigelow, and has visited the Outer Hebrides, the Lofoten Islands, Anglesey, Mykonos, the Azores, Catalina, Kangaroo Island, and the Isle of Capri with his wife Lisa.