Pro-wrestling has always been known for its drama, over-the-top characters, and non-stop action. And not all of that happens inside of the ring. The history of backstage and real-life drama is just as interesting as its scripted counterpart. Throughout the years, different filmmakers and producers have tried to tell those stories. Some have been more successful than others in trying to separate truth from fiction. So when the new series Dark Side of the Ring was announced, I was excited to see how the series would present the real-life drama that is part of the pro-wrestling world.
When the subjects of the episodes were announced, it was obvious that producers were looking for a variety of themes for the series. Popular wrestlers such as Randy Savage and Fabulous Moolah were each given their own episodes. Meanwhile, personal tragedies such as the murder of Bruiser Brody, the death of Geno Hernandez and the Von Erichs were all covered. Probably the most interesting choice by the producers of the show was to cover the Montreal Screw Job. It was a choice that was sure to pull in wrestling fans as it is a well-known event, but one that might have been too “inside” for non-fans.
From the beginning, it was obvious that none of the Dark Side of the Ring episodes were going to go deep into any of the subjects. The episodes come in at under an hour without commercials, there would be no way to dive into all the twists and turns available. Instead, the producers chose to skim the surface and unearth a few tidbits that may not have been known. It was a choice that made sense to try to reach a wider audience. It helped to eliminate the risk of non-wrestling fans becoming bored with a lot of wrestling-specific lingo. Instead, most of the episodes focus on stories that would be just as interesting even without the wrestling component.
One of the first challenges was to get casual and non-wrestling fans alike to give Dark Side of the Ring a chance. The need to hook those casual wrestling fans is more than likely what prompted them to focus on Randy Savage and Miss Elizabeth in the first episode. In The Match Made in Heaven, audiences are introduced to what many consider the first couple of wrestling: Randy Savage and Elizabeth. The producers take the time to introduce Savage’s and Elizabeth’s early wrestling careers within the company that Savage’s father started. While Savage made his mark in the ring, Elizabeth worked in the office and eventually as a ring announcer for the company. Throughout the episode, the focus that we come back to over and over is Savage’s paranoia and need to protect Elizabeth.
While doing the interviews with the various talking heads, it felt as if the focus of that paranoia was not for his own selfish reasons. It was out of a genuine desire to make sure that Elizabeth was protected from some of the less desirable components of the business. Unfortunately, it seems that the end of their relationship drove Savage to a place where he felt lost and spent the rest of his life searching for happiness. History tells us that many of those unsavory components eventually caught up with Elizabeth and her life ended in the same tragic way as many others in the business.
The Montreal Screwjob is an event that anyone who is a wrestling fan has heard of. The whole story and fallout from it is something that can still be felt and seen within the wrestling world today. At live events in Canada (and especially in Montreal), a bizarro world exists where Canadian wrestlers are cheered for wildly, and American wrestlers face hostile crowds. Perhaps the most lasting legacy was the creation of the Mr. McMahon character. Mr. McMahon was a hybrid of real-life-vs.-character in which no one truly knows where the real Vince McMahon starts, and the character ends. While the breakdown of what led up to the event at the PPV is covered, the intriguing part is who was involved and who claims credit for the actual idea. There’s still doubt about what really happened and who really knew what, with several people claiming to be the inspiration.
The next three episodes focused on the independent scene and specifically on WCCW, founded in Texas by Fritz Von Erich. In The Killing of Bruiser Brody, we learn more about the deceased wrestler. The focus on who he was outside of the ring, where family was always first, presented a different picture of the wild man that legitimately scared fans and foes alike. Once again, the producers did an excellent job presenting the story in a way where non-fans can easily be drawn in by the true crime aspects of his death.
Similarly, the episode The Mysterious Death of Gorgeous Gino lays out the man in the ring and how that clashed with what he was outside of the ring. However, unlike the Brody case, Gino’s on-screen persona began to bleed into his real life. Stories of him beginning to run with the wrong crowd and getting involved in the drug scene of the 1980s are repeated by several of the talking heads. Of all of the episodes, the Gino story is the one that felt the most scripted for TV. Talk of his mother living in fear for decades are met with a very anti-climactic conclusion.
The Last of the Von Erichs had the heaviest lifting to do as it did not focus on one person or one event. Instead, it took on the task of covering the entire Von Erich family story. While the producers did an excellent job of giving the basics of the numerous family tragedies, this is the episode that would have gained the most from a longer run time. They barely touch the surface when it comes to the family’s importance and popularity in Texas. Everyone gets the briefest of introductions before their tragic story is told. Even the end — talking with Kevin at his home in Hawaii — feels rushed as we are left wondering where the story of his life is headed.
The final episode focused on the first lady of wrestling. The Fabulous Moolah tells the story of Moolah as she began her career in what was a male-dominated business. For years, stories of the way Moolah treated other female wrestlers has been the subject of secret innuendo. They’ve only recently become common knowledge after the WWE tried to name the women’s battle royale in her honor.
I had one big concern about this episode. All the blame for what was being done to the girls was laid at the feet of Moolah. The fact that Moolah’s husband fathered one of wrestler Sweet Brown Sugar’s children was barely covered. It is a fact that feels like it should have been explored further. I do applaud the producers for finding a panel of talking heads who do well at presenting how hard it is to define Moolah’s legacy.
The ratings for Dark Side of the Ring were respectable for a series on Vice. More importantly, the viewers rose from one episode to another before an evening out. With the solid ratings and the critical acclaim for the series, a second series feels like it should be a given — although as of printing, nothing has been announced. If a second season is picked up, one of the hardest choices producers will need to make is deciding which stories deserve the documentary treatment. As a fan of the show, I have a few suggestions of my own:
Arn Anderson stabbed
For any fan of the old NWA/WCW days, Arn Anderson is a household name. A ring technician who lived up to his nickname “The Enforcer,” he spent many years as the silent back-up to his flamboyant friend Ric Flair. Whenever a version of the wrestling staple known as The Four Horsemen was formed, Anderson and Flair were always the foundation of the group. One version had Frank Eudy, known as Sid Vicious, as one of the most intimidating members of the group’s history.
Sid was always a bit of a wildcard both in and out of the ring, including quitting companies occasionally to go play softball. But nothing could prepare anyone for what happened on a European tour. During the tour, Anderson and Vicious got into an altercation that led to Anderson being stabbed 20 times with a pair of scissors. Anderson survived. However, to this day, the details leading up to the event and the aftermath have rarely been discussed.
Owen Hart’s Death
Wrestlers do amazing and often dangerous things in the ring daily. The moves can and have led to serious life-altering injuries and, in some cases, death. In 1999, wrestler Owen Hart was playing a character named The Blue Blazer. In character, he claimed to be a superhero who was there to protect the WWE and the audience from the filth and evil that existed. At the Over the Edge PPV, Hart was supposed to rappel from the ceiling to take on his opponent. At some point, early on in the descent Hart’s harness came unhooked, and he fell to the ring, hitting his head on the turnbuckle. Hart died shortly after. Since then, much debate has been had over what went wrong and over the choice by the WWE to continue the PPV.
1994 Steroid Trial
In 1994, Vince McMahon stood trial for knowingly distributing steroids to WWE performers. It was a trial that was filled with plenty of bombshells. The curtain of the backstage politics was pulled back for all to see. Some wrestlers refused to take part in the trial. Those that did were forced to decide how much they were going to reveal. One such wrestler was Hulk Hogan. While McMahon ended up being found not guilty in the trial, his relationship with several wrestlers and promoters was permanently changed. Included in that list is Hulk Hogan, whose relationship with McMahon has been tenuous at best.
Brian Pillman burst onto the scene in WCW in the early 1990s. He was presented as an athletic and undersized performer that could be cheered on as the underdog. It was not long though before Pillman showed that he was more than just a good-looking performer. His knowledge of the business and his ability to connect got him a large contract before they were a common occurrence. He also showed an ability to reinvent his character to stay fresh within the business.
His career was not without controversy. There was an incident with the booker, Kevin Sullivan, which led to Pillman quitting a match and exposing some of the backstage politics. An incident on an episode of WWE Raw, where Pillman’s character pulled a gun on Steve Austin, almost led to the show getting canceled. He battled an addiction to pain killers while recovering from a car accident that nearly killed him. His early death due to a heart attack was one of the first times that the WWE ever had to discuss a wrestler’s death on television.
The murder of Chris Benoit’s family is something that many people outside of the wrestling world know about. The murder-suicide is a tragic story in more ways than one and serves as a warning for many. It not only changed the way the WWE has handled concussions and other health issues, but it impacted many other sports as well. If they choose to cover the incident, it would be important for the producers to find a way to discuss the wrestler and his career without glorifying him. Instead, they would need to focus on the effects of years of abuse on his body and his mind. In addition, it would need to focus on how repeated brain traumas affect people in general with a larger discussion of others who have had issues with CTE.
Other than Hulk Hogan, there is no other name that comes close to transcending the wrestling world than Ric Flair. His catch-phrases are used by people who have never watched a wrestling match in their life. His signature strut is copied by professional athletes to celebrate accomplishments and mentioning his name will get hoards of people to respond with a “Woooooooooo!” Beyond all of that, Ric Flair has had a career and life that will entertain anyone. From surviving a plane crash that broke his back in 1975, to wrestling in North Korea when Americans were not allowed in the country, to personal tragedies like the death of his son Reid. Flair means ratings.
Evidently, Dark Side of the Ring has a treasure trove of subjects to choose from to keep the series going for years to come. The hard part will be getting people within the wrestling business to talk about them on camera.
Catch Greg’s full reviews of the individual episodes of Dark Side of the Ring only at http://www.dis-member.com/.