From the bright lights of Florida to the spotless streets of Japan and the chaos of the Congo, Damian Abraham dives headlong into the fascinating ways cultures around the world have embraced one of America’s greatest exports: professional wrestling.
For decades, professional wrestling has had its share of drama, both inside and outside of the ring and like any popular sport and entertainment, there are enough rags-to-riches stories; career-ending injuries; strange myths; urban legends; and heartbreaking controversies to fill the pages of several novels. From harassment suits to steroid abuse to screw jobs and double-crosses to backstage affairs and real-life suicides and murders— there’s never any shortage of topics to discuss in the world of professional wrestling. Luckily for wrestling fans, documentary filmmaking over the decades has provided a candid and deeply personal look at the lives of some of the world’s most famous wrestlers and the best of these documentaries act as a source of valuable information, sometimes shedding a light on a wrestling promotion or superstar— and bringing understanding (and closure) to controversy.
Last year, Viceland debuted one such documentary series titled Dark Side of the Ring, a compelling six-episode show that explores several of pro wrestling’s most notorious backstage controversies. The series was well-received and proved successful enough to greenlight a second season but what I didn’t realize until this week, is that Viceland produced another docuseries about professional wrestling that very few people (including myself) had heard of, nevermind seen. The Wrestlers, hosted and created by Damian Abraham (the frontman for the Canadian punk band Fucked Up) is Viceland’s other 2019 wrestling series which shines a light on a variety of fascinating and bizarre wrestling subcultures with which most fans are unfamiliar. And as with Dark Side of the Ring, The Wrestlers is a must-watch for wrestling fans and non-wrestling fans alike.
Lucha Libre Wrestling
What makes The Wrestlers different than just about every other wrestling documentary is how Damian Abraham projects it through a fresh new lens. Rather than simply telling a story about the career of a well-known superstar or making a film that documents the tragedies of the industry— Abraham instead uses wrestling to explore various cultures from across the globe and examine wrestling’s place in the ever-changing social, and political climates of the world. “As a lifelong wrestling fan, I’ve always felt there’s more to wrestling than just choreographed violence,” Abraham says in the introduction. “At the core of every wrestler, there is a storyteller, every ring a stage to reflect the struggles of its audience — whether it be gender, sexuality, race, religion or class.”
In one of my favourite episodes titled “The Next Wave of Mexican Luchadores,” Abraham follows legendary lucha libre fighter Black Spider and soon-to-be-famous Rey Fenix through the streets of Tijuana, as Mexico copes with an ever-present drug war and Donald Trump’s America. Despite lucha libre wrestling being more popular than ever, due to Trump’s crackdown on immigrants, many of the Mexican wrestlers are no longer able to cross into the U.S. and wrestle at various promotional events. Over the course of sixty minutes, Abraham dives deep into the history of Mexican wrestling and how the current political climate is making it harder and harder for many of the best lucha libre wrestlers to breakthrough. In one scene, we get to see the now-famous Sam Polinsky in action at Arena México, the holy site of Mexican wrestling, which regularly draws 10,000 fans. In the fall of 2016, Polinsky approached the CMLL promoters with a suggestion to tweak his “pretty boy” character, playing off the political situation of the time. With CMLL’s approval, he rebranded himself as Sam Adonis, “El Rudo de las Chicas,” and became a staunch Donald Trump supporter, including waving a four-foot-long US flag emblazoned with Trump’s face as he played off the then-President Elect’s stance on Mexico and immigrants while whipping crowds into a frenzy. His over-the-top, absurd style blends well into the sport, making him the perfect heel for the Mexican crowd to root against. Of course, you’d be forgiven for entirely missing the footage of Sam Adonis since it’s just a minor side story in an hour packed with so much history and so much conflict, I figure they can do an entire series just on the lucha libre scene alone.
During this episode, Abraham also interviews professional wrestling personality, manager and former professional wrestler Konnan who sheds light on how he discovered Rey Mysterio Jr. and why he sees Rey Fenix and his younger brother Pentagón Jr., as the next big thing. Fans of AEW tag team wrestling will not want to miss this episode as it shows these young struggling Mexican wrestlers performing at the corners of the bustling city streets in order to beg for money from people driving by while gaining media attention for their creative panhandling approach which involves scripted wrestling matches at busy intersections. If you ever want to see where Rey Mysterio Jr. got his start or witness a beautifully shot lucha libre wrestling match through rush-hour traffic, this is not to be missed!
Whether you are a casual wrestling fan who catches the occasional pay per view event or a long-time fan, The Wrestlers is bound to keep you entertained from start to finish since it’s such a personal journey— and not just for Damian Abraham who is a longtime wrestling fan— but for the men and women he interviews who allow him to capture a side of them, they would normally hide from the general public. Despite the title, The Wrestlers isn’t just a story about wrestling, it’s a story about different cultures and different beliefs and it works equally well as a travel show since Abraham’s globe-trotting series takes us from the indie wrestling scene sweeping the United States — to Bolivia where women are fighting misogyny and abuse through wrestling— to a war-torn Congo, where a cultural collision has helped popularized one of wrestling’s strangest subgenres: Catch Fétiche — loosely translated, to voodoo wrestling.
Yes, there is an entire episode about voodoo Wrestling, in which suplexes and powerbombs mix with hexes and deadly black magic. But don’t be fooled, this isn’t like Charles Wright’s WWE Papa Shango act from back in the ’80s— these men and women actually practice traditional black magic to defeat their opponents. In modern Catch matches, pretty much anything goes; from weapons to concrete blocks, to sacrificing live animals or using them as weapons, sometimes both. And while Catch Fétiche is a combination of traditional African wrestling moves, some fighters use voodoo almost exclusively, preferring not to engage in physical combat and instead kill their opponents by cursing them. The craziest parts of this episode are watching the thousands of fans follow their favourite wrestlers through the streets and to the ring to watch the main event matches. While the rest of the world seems to understand that wrestling is scripted, the people of Congo believe that what they are watching is totally real, even if it’s a wrestler slicing someone’s stomach open and feeding on their intestines.
Japanese Death Matches and American Backyard Wrestling
While “Voodoo Wrestling” is at times disturbing, it’s not even the most terrifying episode— that honor goes to the episode titled “Death Match” which follows several famous hardcore wrestlers who battle with barbed wire, razor blades, and broken glass, challenging the idea that wrestling is fake. “Death Match” is not for the faint of heart and even opens by warning its viewers of the extreme violence that lies ahead. Yet, amidst the blood and bodily carnage are some heartfelt moments including a scene with hardcore legend Danny Havoc who heads into his final bout at CZW’s Down With The Sickness, to compete with his longtime rival Alex Colon. Taking up the remainder of the episode is an extensive interview with Japanese pro wrestling icon Atsushi Onita, best known for having brought the legendarily brutal “Deathmatch” style of wrestling to Japan with his storied Frontier Martial-Arts Wrestling (FMW) organization. If you are not familiar with Atsushi Onita, the man is a living legend— the first true graduate of the All Japan Pro Wrestling dojo, and who trained in Amarillo, Texas, with Dory Funk Jr. and Terry Funk. If I ever made a list of the greatest hardcore wrestlers, Onita is sure to make the cut. Listening to him speak about his career while the camera circles his body showing in painful slow motion every single one of his scars is powerful stuff— but watching his wife prepare the weapons he uses to destroy his body during these hardcore matches is just fucked up. And even more, fucked up, is watching him hold his newborn baby while he debates his retirement or seeing his mother at ringside, enjoying his blood-soaked deathmatches. Again, I must stress, this episode is not for the faint of heart.
In the episode titled “Body Slamming Homophobia in Mexico,” Abraham interviews some of Mexico’s most famous male wrestlers known as exóticos, who embrace the feminine and dress in drag inside the ring to battle homophobia. These mostly gay, male luchadores participate in regular fights while wearing full makeup, very feminine outfits and boast stage names that sound like characters from a John Waters movie (i.e.: Diva Salvaje, Chi Chi, and La Braza). They’re conniving in their flouncing and have no qualms in using their character’s sexuality to intimidate their competition. We watch exóticos flirt with the refs, blow kisses at the crowd, psych out their opponents by propositioning them in the ring, and even sneaking an easy win by landing a low blow. As someone who’s never seen exóticos in action, this episode proved one of the most fascinating of the bunch, and left me wondering if former American WWE superstars such as Adrian Adonis and Golddust (Dustin Rhodes) took inspiration from the Mexican wrestling scene when creating their wrestling personas?
Japan DDT and Stardom
The Wrestlers is an eye-opening experience, to say the least. Even as a longtime fan of professional wrestling, there was so much I learned while watching the series. Of the entire first season, however, my two favourite episodes both focus on the various wrestling promotions in Japan, diving deep into both the history and inner workings of how these organizations, differing styles, and competitors came to be. In “Japan’s Finest Wrestlers,” Abrahah visits Tokyo to get up close and personal with the ladies of Stardom, considered by many to be one of the world’s leading all women’s promotion. Meanwhile, “The Craziest Wrestling in Japan,” is by far the wackiest installment as it follows the weird and wild world of Japan’s DDT, the world’s strangest wrestling promotion which often parodies WWE, with a Japanese puroresu flair to the matches. It’s not for everyone since there’s a heavy emphasis on offbeat comedy, with invisible wrestlers, blow-up dolls, subway brawls, waterpark matches, and other wacky gimmicks— but DDT also has the most robust talent development program in Japan, and has produced some incredible main-event matches over the years with guys like Kenny Omega, Kota Ibushi, and Sami Zayn carving out their names there. During his time in Japan, Abraham manages to capture the fascinating behind-the-scenes skullduggery that goes into crafting a successful show and the many unbelievable stories of how competitors from every walk of life wound up landing a gig working for DDT. If you’re a fan of the Netflix series GLOW, you’ll love the spotlight on Stardom and if you’re a fan of the wackier WWE storylines, you’ll certainly find an interest in learning more about DDT. Thanks to Abraham’s obvious love of wresting and infectious curiosity, we get to see beyond the guise and mystique of these colorful characters, and what they’re like outside the ring and behind the scenes.
Evolve Wrestling and More
It’s too bad The Wrestlers hasn’t received as much recognition as Dark Side of the Ring because in many ways it’s better and far more ambitious. Unlike most wrestling docs, The Wrestlers doesn’t rely heavily on talking-head interviews and stock footage— instead, Damian Abraham and his crew went out and shot hundreds of hours of original film. It helps too, that the show is beautifully shot and features a killer soundtrack, not to mention Abraham managed to interview several wrestlers just before they got their big break and were hired by major promotions such as the WWE and AEW. In retrospect, it seems Abraham chose the perfect time to make the docuseries, capturing the early careers of some of today’s hottest young talent. The first episode for example, immediately grabbed my attention as it follows Gabe Sapolsky, a veteran wrestling promoter who founded Evolve Wrestling which is now known for showcasing emerging indie superstars. If you didn’t know, Evolve’s alumni page is a who’s who of current wrestling favorites, and this episode features early appearances from Drew Galloway, Drew McIntyre, NXT sensation Matt Riddle and All-Elite Wrestling’s Darby Allin who shares his backstory and reason for deciding to be a professional wrestler. It’s fascinating to follow these wrestlers before they became household names and equally compelling to see how much Sapolsky cares for their well being and future success.
The Wrestlers arrives at a remarkable time for pro-wrestling. The WWE is still a massive success, especially thanks to NXT; meanwhile, AEW is giving WWE a run for its money and indie promotions around the world are selling out major venues. What’s great about The Wrestlers is how it covers so much ground, circles the globe and offers a snapshot into the lives of people we would otherwise never see. It allows many wrestlers to voice their opinions, and open up about their struggles while sharing their personal stories to an audience worldwide. In a particularly touching episode, Abraham even heads to northern Quebec to join a crew of wrestlers who brave weather and isolation to bring professional wrestling to remote and disadvantaged First Nation communities. The world of professional wrestling could use more episodes like this.
The Wrestlers is a truly engrossing watch and one of the very best docuseries about professional wrestling. If you consider yourself a fan, this is something you really shouldn’t miss.