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Gristmill: The Big One

Wed, 10/04/2023 - 17:36
Among professional wrestlers, Ric (Nature Boy) Flair’s rants were unmatched in their day.
WWE via YouTube

“Can you imagine the level of a mind that watches wrestling?” Frederick the artist asks in Woody Allen’s “Hannah and Her Sisters.”

Well, yes, I can.

My older brother and I used to laugh long and loud at World Wrestling Federation broadcasts in the 1980s, with the musclebound impresario Vince McMahon stuffed into his three-piece suits and Randy (Macho Man) Savage’s flying elbow drop from the ring’s top rope.

We were trying the other day to come up with some of the memorable rants of the time, and the best I could do was the glistening man mountain Hulk Hogan shouting into the camera, “Whatchoo gonna do, when the Hulkster runs wild on you?!”

My brother hit me with Ric Flair’s “To be the man, you gotta beat the man!”

And sure enough, the seventh and final episode of “Wrestlers,” the new documentary series on Netflix, opens with none other than Ric Flair, Nature Boy, “the greatest professional wrestler of all time,” they say, meaning, perhaps, the most theatrical, in an unhinged flashback: “If you think for one minute, that you guys are gonna walk around, telling the world that Ric Flair’s done, you’re outta your mind!” he screams as he brandishes a softball bat and rips off a neck brace, finishing with his trademark cry, “Whoo!”  

In professional wrestling, the story’s the thing, we learn, pitting a “babyface,” the industry term for a match’s good guy, or gal, against the “heel,” the bad guy, which generates “heat,” the drama, the tension.

Our guide is gravel-voiced, straight-shooting Al Snow, retired from the ring, where he appeared with a prop, Head, a disembodied mannequin noggin with “Help Me” written backward across its forehead. He now runs Ohio Valley Wrestling in Louisville, the last of the independent, regional outfits.

The series director is Greg Whiteley, the man behind “Cheer” and “Last Chance U.” He’s Mormon — the ultimate American religion, homegrown. And this is a BBC Studios production, which made me think it’s in part an effort to get at the real America, which it very much does.

Because these fans are down-home, countrified, many overweight with a preference for oversized T-shirts; in a number of instances too many teeth are missing. You could imagine a quarter of them on disability.

Good people, in other words. Looking for a little wholesome entertainment.

No spoilers here, but over the course of the buildup to a season-ending smackdown dubbed the Big One, we meet the remarkably likable and forthcoming ring talent: HollyHood Haley J, Mr. Pec-tacular, Cash Flo, Freya the Slaya, Ronnie Von Rocket, Shera, a massive and worshipful Sikh who’s the league champion, and so on. Outcasts all, they struggle with money, sometimes drugs, other times romance.

It’s in fact a good thing there’s wrestling, because otherwise, as Al Snow says, many of them would be homeless or in jail.

“It’s the most ridiculous way to make a living,” he points out in the final episode, in what’s got to be the most uplifting 52 minutes of television I’ve ever seen. “And probably the most fucking awesome way too.” 



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