Posted by: Dr P | February 11, 2009

The Wrestler

My interest in American professional wrestling started in the late 1980s when my parents invested in that pinnacle of modern technology, the VCR. Around this time, ITV’s late night schedule included an hour of the (then) World Wrestling Federation (WWF) programming. To an enthusiastic, sports-mad teen this was sporting nirvana. In many ways reminiscent of a Saturday afternoon trip to Gigg Lane, this was glitz, glamour, showmanship – a million miles from the horrors of Kent Walton and the Saturday afternoon World of Sport wrestling show so beloved of the blue rinse set. In particular I developed a fascination for the tag team scene, the Hart Foundation and the British Bulldogs (Wigan’s very own Davey Boy Smith and the Dynamite Kid – whose autobiography, incidentally, is a must-read).

Fast forward several years to my university life. At this point the internet was just starting to gain a hold, albeit without the fancy web browsers we use now. I became a student of many newsgroups, one in particular the immortal rec.sport.pro-wrestling. I actually can’t remember any of the other groups, but hey. I became one of the only two regular UK posters on this predominantly American list, the other being a certain Jim Hussell from Swansea, who soon became a penpal and later a dear friend – Jim now runs the Monday night rock show on radiotircoed.com and is of course on my facebook friend list – go look him up.

Unlike many typical sites, this group was very much an “insider” type list, exposing many secrets about the business of pro wrestling, long before Vince McMahon and his fellow promoters ever admitted that this was “sports entertainment” and not just a true competitive sport. And yet my interest was not diminished but instead magnified a dozen times or more. Learning the hardships and grind that the average wrestler must go through to earn a measly paycheck was eye opening – not for many the lucrative pay-per-view revenues and merchandise sales of the WWF and related organisations.

For a long while I turned to the WWF’s main competitor, the then NWA (later WCW), and became a huge fan of the likes of Ric Flair, the Steiner Brothers, the Road Warriors and many more icons of the sport. It also exposed me to many an independent star, the most famous of whom was Mick Foley, who later gained global stardom and fame as Cactus Jack, Mankind, Dude Love and indeed as himself – his two New York Times bestseller books remain the absolute pinnacle of wrestling writing, warts and all tales of life on the road. You learn how hard a life it really is – and how lonesome, yet fun, life on the independent scene can be.

Which brings us to the Wrestler movie, an incredible Hollywood take on this curious life.

Arriving at the cinema with my twinster, Nicky Robinson, we were almost hysterical to learn that the central character is called “Randy Robinson”. She will never live it down! But onto the film …

Mickey Rourke has rightly earned every plaudit going for his portrayal of Randy “The Ram” Robinson, and if Oscar success does not come his way this will be the travesty to end all travestys. I recently waxed lyrical about the power and achievement of “Slumdog Millionaire” but for me, this film tops it time after time. Rourke gives a wonderful – and often gritty – performance as The Ram, a faded star of the 80s now earning a meagre crust by putting his body – and sanity – on the line for a humble paycheque each night. Living in a trailer with few friends and an estranged family, The Ram leads a lonely life. I suspect it’s fairly similar to life in Bolton nowadays.

When he suffers a heart attack in the ring, Randy takes stock and seeks to create a better life for himself. He is drawn to a stripper, wonderfully played in a no-holds-barred way by Marisa Tomei, and also seeks to make amends with his estranged daughter, the superb Evan Rachel Wood. The scenes here are both magical and cringeworthy – to see this shell of a man virtually begging for genuine human contact are such a counterpoint to his life in the ring where he is worshipped by his fanbase – and of course by the inevitable “ring rats”, the groupies seeking a quick interaction with their hero. Indeed one of the funniest scenes in the movie comes after a one night stand with one such groupie, where Robinson wakes to discover a bedroom decked out in posters of firemen – there are even firemen pillows and bedsheets. It’s horrible and yet hilarious. I would like to point out to those that have hinted as such, I *never* owned bedsheets like that. Mine had spacemen on them.

The scenes in which Rourke takes his character into the ghastly and sadistic world of CZW, a horrible wrestling world where barbed wire, tacks and brutal weapons are the norm, are particularly moving. We see just how much the average independent wrestler is prepared to maim himself just to earn a buck or twenty. It’s so true to life, which is perhaps the worst part. The aforementioned Mick Foley was a well-known exponent of such gimmick matches, and to know that the man so beloved by the fans has suffered in these contests is a tragedy. The match in which The Ram takes part is recreated in eye-popping, nauseating detail.

Speaking of nauseating detail, it was later that night that I had a bit of a brainwave. You know how the Penguin biscuit was so popular for years? We need to recreate those days by merging well-known biscuit manufacturers with other kinds of bird life. I’ll start the ball rolling by suggestion a collaboration between our largest biscuit producer and some common British garden birds. Ladies and gentlemen … the McVitties Titties. Oddly enough as I was writing this review, that very word popped up elsewhere.

The main drive of the movie comes as The Ram seeks to make one last return to the ring, against all sensible advice, to recreate a match from his glory days. I can’t reveal the outcome, or indeed whether he goes through with the encounter, but suffice to say it is a fitting end to a tour de force of a movie performance. All hail Mickey Rourke. One of Hollywood’s bad boys has never put in a performance like this and never will again.

The film touches on so many aspects of the independent wrestler’s life – steroids, road trips, loneliness, solitude, groupies, fading stardom, trying to earn a few bucks by selling videos at poorly attended fan conventions (a horrible scene in which The Ram looks around at a series of grizzled veterans, all missing limbs or suffering disability in some form) and more.

If you love wrestling you will adore this movie. If you hate it, you should see it because it’s not a wrestling film, it’s the story of a man lost in life desperately seeking salvation. It was really interesting to attend the film with another diehard wrestling fan and another who perhaps isn’t quite as keen – and yet both thought it brilliant. It’s quite simply one of the finest movies you could wish to see, and I loved it from start to finish.

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