Barry W. Blaustein’s Beyond the Mat was a peek behind the curtain of professional wrestling like nothing before it. Dismantling the veneer of kayfabe (the internal logic, or canon that shapes the disconnect between fans and entertainers that the ‘sport’ so heavily relies on maintaining for believability), and showing the industry warts-and-all was not a move that was popular with the older generation of the sports’ insiders; those who had made both their names and their wealth off of the great trick that it is the show itself.
Saying this, Beyond the Mat explores its own validity along the road. Blaustein pries into the modern mindset of the fan; the fan who knows the gig of smoke and mirrors and watches despite this, maybe because of the pageantry and absurdity of the format that can’t be found elsewhere. ‘Gimmicks’ (pro wrestling’s larger than life characters) are explained almost immediately in the Darren Drozdov section, if you were wondering at what level the fourth wall is coming down. Droz is invited into the office of then-WWF, now-WWE titan Vince McMahon, to discuss on-screen personality tweaks that would better his position within the company. He’s to become ‘Puke’, a wrestler who… well, you know.
The next section is concerned with the world of independent wrestling, and what it may offer that the ‘franchise’ does not. Naturally, these leads us to ECW. Extreme Championship Wrestling, the notorious Philadelphia promotion run by Paul E Dangerously (also known as Paul Heyman) was wildly popular in the late ’90s. Known for its hardcore matches (where weapons are encouraged) and high flying action, it perfectly embodied the counter-cultural angst of the era and channelled it into stories and memorable performances. This limit-pushing backdrop is hugely important contextually to the next two featured wrestlers.
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A parallel is created between a rising star, and one that may be burning out. Bonafide Texas legend Terry Funk contemplates retirement. He talks through the ins and outs of his accumulating injuries, and wanted to be there more for his family more in his advanced age. The problem with this decision was best summarised by another legend, the late, great ‘Rowdy’ Roddy Piper (unfeatured): “Wrestling has a tremendous entrance plan. You come in, and it’s ‘Boy, here you are. It’s rock and roll; it’s wonderful’. It’s got no exit plan”. There is no union for professional wrestlers. No retirement, nor injury funds. Just the show, and then it’s over.
The incomparable Mick Foley, who it’s hard to imagine now was ever an up-and-comer, describes similar grievances at much earlier in life. Famous for his death-defying bumps and ‘spots’, (big, hold-your-breath type pre-planned moves designed to get a reaction from the crowd) Foley details what it’s like to be the man behind the haywire antics of characters Cactus Jack, Dude Love and probably most well-known, Mankind. “It’s got to be done for the sake of history”, he says calmly, of destroying his body for entertainment.
Next, Blaustein talks to in-ring psychology master and lauded icon Jake “The Snake” Roberts. Jake talks the horror-story of his upbringing: addiction; using wrestling as a tool to get back at his father; and about how being “on the road” has ruined his romantic relationships. This whole segment is incredibly dark, and we’ll avoid the details, with good reason. The man has been through so much and it’s so hard to see such a beloved figure in this way. Be sure to watch The Resurrection of Jake the Snake doc afterwards to pick you up, it’s fantastic.
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“I’ve tried to pick a time where I can go out, and still be somebody that’s important.” Funk prepares for his last clashes, and Jake Roberts ruminates of never getting a “Walt Disney ending, and not the Old Yeller one” in a hotel room with his estranged daughter. The pieces are coming together, and there’s a clear ideology amongst all the wrestlers, no matter their background, that nobody knows exactly when to walk away.
Six months later, Mick Foley’s self-destruction has earned him the WWE Championship. Barry catches up to him as he is set to lose the title to The Rock in an ‘I Quit’ match, at marquee event Royal Rumble 1999. The two spitball on the match’s events backstage, planning significant beats to make those in attendance roar. Mick’s family arrive, and he gives a somewhat embellished disclaimer to his children: “You know Rock is Daddy’s friend, right? That he’s not gonna do anything to really hurt Daddy, right?”.
If you’re brushed up on your history, you know where this is going. During the match, Mick (in his Mankind incarnation) crashes from the first tier of seating onto several large speakers, and eventually, ends up in a situation where his hands are cuffed behind his back in the ring. Usually, steel chair shots in wrestling are protected by a sleight-of-hand trick, literally, a quick flash of the palm(s) above the head to lessen the impact. Not this time.
The obsession with memorability that the business breeds has come first once again, not only in Mick’s agreement to endure five unprotected chair shots to the skull here, but in The Rock’s spur of the moment decision to change that to eleven.
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The finish of the match sees Mick practically bludgeoned. Blaustein shows his footage of the match to a recovered Foley in Florida shortly after. Foley watches, dough-eyed, all the crowd shots of his children watching him take these brutal blows to the head: “I don’t feel like such a good Dad anymore”.
Beyond the Mat is a bit of an exposé, but it’s not really trying to be. The enduring love for this bizarre world that captured Blaustein so young is still the reason, first and foremost, this exists, despite what unravels before his/our eyes along the journey. It’s not intended to make things look rough and unethical; that’s just things as they are. It’s informative and essential to fans of the medium everywhere; a real love story to the most sadistic form of theatre that’s (barely) legal.
Beyond the Mat was first released in the UK on 30th June 2000.