HomeMovies1999 Movie-versaries: Beyond the Mat

1999 Movie-versaries: Beyond the Mat

1999 was a big year for movies. It was the year that The Matrix‘s slow-motion bullet influenced action movies for years to come. It was the year American Beauty won Best Picture at the Academy Awards and Oscar fans have been arguing about it ever since. It was the year Pokémon jumped from Gameboys and TV to the big screen. And worst of all, it was the year that disappointed a generation of Star Wars fans with the release of The Phantom Menace.

To celebrate that landmark year in film’s 20th Anniversary, The Pop Break continues its year-long retrospective of 1999’s most influential (at least to us) films with writer and wrestling fan, Matthew Widdis, looking back on Beyond the Mat.

I’ve been a professional wrestling fan since I sat on my grandmother’s couch on a Sunday afternoon trying to figure out how, just how for goodness sake, was Hulk Hogan going to be able to beat King Kong Bundy with broken ribs? As I grew up, so did the pro wrestling industry. Giant zombies and flag-waving superheroes gave way to beer-swilling anti-authoritarians and brooding loners armed with baseball bats, weekends at noon or at 6:05 Eastern weren’t as important as that Monday night primetime slot, and I became less interested in what was happening in the ring as I was with the goings on behind the scenes.

The dawn of the world wide web and the lightning-fast T1 line of my college dorm gave me access to information long protected under a code of carny silence and I couldn’t get enough. With the cat out of the bag, another life-long fan, Barry Blaustein, set out to capture the stories of the pro wrestlers in their day-to-day lives.  What resulted was the 1999 documentary, Beyond the Mat, and the tagline “The Movie Vince McMahon didn’t want you to see.”

Probably the two most prominent features of Beyond the Mat were how it allowed viewers to so easily fall in love with some of the subjects and come to view others with pity. Mick Foley waddles onto screen as a pear-shaped family man in sweatpants. At the time of the film’s release, he was the biggest star featured in Beyond the Mat and one of the most popular in the world. Often playing a violent psychotic character that used barbed wire, thumbtacks, and 2×4’s in place of toe holds and headlocks, Mick was experiencing a career renaissance. His “everyman” persona had audiences looking past his ripped-off ear and missing teeth to see a nice guy willing to destroy his body with high falls and broken glass to live his dream and provide for his wife and children.

Perhaps the most gripping moment of the film is watching his children crying at ringside as their father is handcuffed and receives repeated blows to the head with a steel chair courtesy of a young Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. We’re left wondering who puts their family through that as Mick is shown in the trainer’s room later, head lacerations being stapled closed and offering the equally chilling and endearing “It’s okay. Daddy has a boo-boo. That’s all.”

Meanwhile, Jake “The Snake” Roberts, one of the most iconic names of the ’80s boom period of wrestling, is traveling from middle school gymnasium to VFW hall trading on his former glory with a dry cynicism. We see him unable to connect with his father, the infamous former wrestler, Aurelian “Grizzly” Smith, or his estranged daughter, Brandy. Before and after he walks out on a dinner meeting with Brandy to smoke crack back at his hotel, we get a detailed and disturbing impromptu therapy session where Jake goes over his history of using drugs and prostitutes to dull the psychological and physical pain from his wrestling career, travel schedule, and horrifying childhood.

Rising stars, old hands, and also-rans are profiled throughout Beyond the Mat. Tattooed and pierced former NFL player, Darren “Droz” Drozdov, has a job interview with Vince McMahon himself in which he demonstrates his ability to vomit on demand. Joanie “Chyna” Laurer jokes about how her family had voiced concerns about her sexuality when she started bodybuilding and then cries when she gets a phone call that her dog has died while she travels from show-to-show. Tony Jones and Mike Modest are two wrestlers on the California independent scene working regular jobs while trying to secure a try-out match with WWE. New Jack (real name: Jerome Young), a man who boasts of four (unverified) justifiable homicides while working as a bounty hunter (also unverified) tries his hand at acting.

Philadelphia’s Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW) is profiled along with their rabid fanbase and charismatic owner/promoter, Paul Heyman. Heyman produces the promos and interviews for their first pay-per-view event in his parents’ basement. The star of that night is Terry Funk, a legend of the ’70s & ’80s and a former National Wrestling Alliance World Champion who non-fans may recognize from his roles in cinematic classics like Roadhouse and Over the Top.

In ECW’s main event, Funk’s wife and adult children watch him do backflips on to the concrete floor around the ring and get hit in the face with a steel ladder at 53-years-old.  It’s time for Terry to retire or so he’s willing to be told. If you’re like me, you had to chuckle as Terry asked his doctor if a knee replacement was necessary for him to lead a comfortable life and the doctor informed him that, with no existing cartilage in his knee joint, he is supposed to be in chronic and debilitating pain. Terry’s retirement match is to take place in his hometown of Amarillo, TX. Amarillo’s other (and much less known) local wrestler, Dennis Stamp, is a sympathetic figure. With an exterminator business to pay the bills and an exercise regimen that consists of trampoline dumbbell work in his underwear, he refuses to attend Terry’s show because an old code of professionalism discourages wrestlers from attending shows they aren’t booked to work. When Funk goes to Dennis to ask him to referee the main event, it’s genuine even if just to assuage his guilt for forgetting his neighbor.

After years as a comedy writer on Saturday Night Live, Police Academy 2, and the funniest movie ever made, Coming to America, Beyond the Mat was Barry Blaustein’s directorial debut. Upon its release, he was commended by film critics and retired wrestlers alike for an honest portrayal of the people and practice of professional wrestling. Since then, he has written for films like Nutty Professor II: The Klumps (having also worked on the original,) 2005’s ill-conceived The Honeymooners, and the upcoming Coming to America sequel. As a director, he helmed the controversial but sweet Farrelly brothers film, The Ringer, and the star-studded flop, Peep World. Although Blaustein had no involvement with the Oscar-nominated The Wrestler, one look at the character of Randy “The Ram” Robinson can easily drum up memories of Jake the Snake and Terry Funk’s twilight years.

The subjects themselves have seen varying levels of success and tragedy in the years since. Mick Foley had to retire from performing full-time in 2000 due to mounting injuries. By 2012, no doctor would clear him to get in the ring anymore and he embarked on a second career in stand-up comedy. Joanie Laurer would have a tumultuous life including mental illness, reality TV, battles over the rights to the name “Chyna,” a career in pornographic films, and the drug abuse that ultimately claimed her life in 2016. Neither Tony Jones nor Mike Modest made it fulltime to a major promotion with Modest coming close in the US [in the waning days of WCW] and Japan.

New Jack continues wrestling sporadically despite numerous instances of his causing legitimate injury in other performs under dubious circumstances. Dennis Stamp released a memoir in 2014 and lost his recurring fight with lymphoma in 2017. Jake Roberts made several attempts to get clean through rehab and has now entrusted his recovery to yogi, self-help guru, and former pro wrestler, Diamond Dallas Page.

The epilogue of Beyond the Mat gave us the next steps in several other figures’ careers. Vince McMahon took his World Wrestling Federation public, making sure to keep the controlling majority in the hands of himself and his immediate family. Since then, he won his “Monday Night War” against Ted Turner’s World Championship Wrestling (WCW) and absorbed it, changed the name of the company to World Wrestling Entertainment, and, after decades on basic cable, debuted their product on primetime network television in October of 2019.

Even his then-cringe-y proclamation that they “make movies” came true as his bankrolling of films like The Rundown and The Marine helped skyrocket the careers of crossover megastar, John Cena, and worldwide top box office draw, Dwayne Johnson. Paul Heyman took ECW to cable TV’s TNN (the precursor for Spike TV) for over a year before being taken off the air, folding the company, and selling it off to his new boss … you guessed it … Vince McMahon. Terry Funk’s retirement lasted about 90 days and he went on to have more farewell tours than The Rolling Stones for another fifteen years. Darren Drozdov suffered a spinal injury during an in-ring accident and has never walked again.

But no one, not documentarian, not wrestlers, not promoters has seen more changes since Beyond the Mat’s than the wrestling industry itself has. Vince McMahon’s WWE has held a near-monopoly on wrestling in the United States with upstart promotions like Total Nonstop Action/Impact and All Elite Wrestling carving out niches to lesser notoriety on national television. Ironically, the wrestling done in bingo halls and YMCAs has become profitable for the first time in a generation with wrestlers gaining loyal cult followings and greater control of their career trajectory.

WWE has begun a corporate “Wellness Policy” that monitors the physical well-being of its current employees, including regular drug tests. Substance abuse rehabilitation by numerous former employees (including Jake Roberts) has been paid in full by WWE. With CTE believed to be part of the perfect storm of terror that led to Chris Benoit murdering his wife and child before committing suicide, there is now a concussion protocol similar to the NFL with chair shots to the head now expressly taboo. To protect against spinal injuries, moves like the “pile driver,” where a wrestler is inverted and dropped on their head are rarely seen anymore and often outright forbidden.

Beyond the Mat was released during the height of wrestling’s popularity. WCW was selling out the Georgia Dome for their Monday Nitro program and WWE reached Nielsen ratings of 8.6 million viewers (similar to season averages for the CBS comedy, How I Met Your Mother). Since then, viewership has waned significantly…or so it would seem. Currently, there are no less than nine wrestling promotions with weekly programming nationwide on network and cable television, streaming services, and syndication. Even companies besides WWE are selling out 10,000 seat arenas for the first time in 18 years.

Wrestling fans are saturated with product. With social media and a 24-hour information cycle, we are constantly plugged in to events and ostensibly genuine behind-the-scenes moments in arenas around the world. We see the wrestlers’ political opinions on Twitter, their family vacations on Instagram, and are alerted to leaked sex tapes by TMZ. Hashtag uproars have killed careers and made main events. A quick look on YouTube will get you access to dozens of “shoot” interviews where your favorite wrestlers explain what happened during specific moments in their career. Injuries, contract disputes, and legal troubles can’t be hidden anymore. Fans of wrestling, an art form built on misdirection and sleight-of-hand, are now expected to pay attention to what’s behind the curtain that Barry Blaustein first pulled aside 20 years ago in Beyond the Mat.

Beyond the Mat is available on Amazon, iTunes and various VOD platforms.


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