For the Stars of Netflix’s Wrestlers, Timing is Everything

Nestled away in what looks to be a warehouse district in Louisville, KY is the Davis Arena. It might not look like much, but the sign outside of the door suggests otherwise:

“Tomorrow’s Superstars, Today!”

This is the home of Ohio Valley Wrestling, what I affectionately like to call the “little promotion that could.” It is also the subject of the powerful, hard-hitting new Netflix docu-series, Wrestlers, which follows the men and women in this struggling developmental territory. They are the future stars of professional wrestling, many of them. All of them have that dream. But to accomplish it, they must first make their name and prove themselves. And that happens in places like OVW. Unfortunately, times are tough for the company. No longer a breeding ground for the main roster stars of WWE, OVW is going through a turbulent stretch with new owner Matt Jones, who often conflicts with 60-year-old wrestling legend, Al Snow, who runs the promotion’s creative direction.

I’ve been on many set visits in my career, but Wrestlers offered a unique opportunity. Wrestling has been in my blood since childhood. I’ve traveled the world to attend wrestling shows, and have seen many of the OVW stars in other places. I’ve even been in the ring and taken a bump or two. But I’ve never been afforded the kind of access that OVW so generously afforded me here. Suffice it to say, I was pumped!

This was the night of OVW Hard Reset, a pivotal PPV show for the company that had been generating a ton of buzz. A key reason is the night’s co-main event, a one-on-one showdown between Mr. Pectacular Jessie Godderz and the NWA World Champion, EC3. Jessie, a former Big Brother contestant with the body of a Greek god, is in the midst of what appears to be a big babyface push, meaning he’s about to leave the dark side and become a good guy. EC3 is a former WWE superstar with a ton of name recognition. Unsurprisingly, the house is jam packed with every seat filled for the show, and the energy is through the roof.

Snow is probably the most recognizable face of anyone on the roster, but of course, he’s nowhere to be seen. Instead, he’s in the Gorilla Position, a name coined for the late great Gorilla Monsoon. It is essentially a tiny control room, and the last place the wrestlers go before hitting the ring. Inside, Snow watches a series of monitors alongside trainer and fellow wrestling veteran, Doug Basham, formerly of the tag team Basham Brothers. This room is pure chaos, as a couple of other people monitor the time cues, Snow and Basham pick apart every detail. Some things are going right, others aren’t. But no matter what, there is a steady flow of traffice in and out of that room.

“That was our finish! They just did our finish!”, booms wrestler Adam Revolver. The opening match between Donovan Cecil and D’Mone Solavino had used the same closing to their match as Revolver’s upcoming blindfold match against Kal Herro, minus the blindfolds.

“Now we gotta change it!”, Revolver says. Snow and Basham barely seem to notice. They’re a tad busy. But also, they seem to trust their stars to figure it out. They’re all professional there. Snow and Basham are like a low-key comedy duo, or better yet, like Statler and Waldorf critiquing The Muppet Show.  Basham knocks wrestlers who don’t can’t sell for shit, meaning they don’t know how to believably take a beating. Snow quips about the pasty white skin of cruiserweight wrestler Ty Vance, who had the misfortune of wearing white that evening…

“You can’t see where the tights end and the skin begins. He’s literally blending into the lights.”

OVW has a lot of history to live up to. Launched in 1993, the promotion has been the starting ground of some names you might be familar with: John Cena, Dave Bautista, Brock Lesnar, just to name a few. We feel we know these people because they are so famous and have grown beyond the sport. But Wrestlers takes us into the lives of these athletes like never before.

While there are a lot of big personalities at OVW, unquestionably the biggest is Hollywood Haley J. The current OVW Women’s champion has a charisma so much larger than her diminutive frame. Wrestlers tracks her the closest; chronicling her rocky relationship with her mother, The Amazing Maria, an OVW trainer and pro wrestling vet known for her hardcore death matches. Haley is exactly like her mother in so many ways, and sitting next to them it is never more apparent.  Haley’s bold, brash, a little bit hood, a little bit glam, and she doesn’t mince words. Maria is much the same, but with the edge of a lifetime of knowledge and experience. Their real-life issues were so potent that they became the driving storyline of the summer.

“The story was basically written that we have this out of control teenager, y’know what I mean? She’s not a teenage obviously, but storyline an out of control child whose mother has to come in and wrangle her down. Bring her back down to Earth. And when she smacked me it’s the greatest part of the whole match”, Maria explains with a smile.

Haley perks up, “I smacked the shit out of her.”

The two joke over Haley waiting 22 years for exactly that moment. They also talk about how they wanted their match, a brutal, no holds barred death match, to go even further than it did. That surprised me.

In professional wrestling, it’s not enough to be just one thing. There are some who can wrestle great technical matches, but they couldn’t put butts in the seats if you paid people to attend. You have to have everything, the skill and that special “It” factor. Haley J is one of those who has the total package.

“We have someone who is a character and knows how to wrestle. Not only wrestle but someone who knows how to work”, Maria says, beaming like a proud mom about her daughter’s talents.

“Al gave me an opportunity and I ran with it”, Haley says with that bravado that has made her, honestly, quite a polarizing figure among the internet wrestling community.

When Maria mistakenly says Haley has defended the title in six states, Haley jumps in “SEVEN!!!”. Mother and daughter are more simpatico than they maybe even realize, finishing one another’s sentences and trading quips like a well-practiced comedy team.

On this trip I had a chance to sit down with a number of other superstars that I’ve admired for years. Two of those are TNA Impact Wrestling veterans, “Mr. Pectacular” Jessie Godderz and the “Indian Lion” Mahabali Shera. In the case of Godderz, who travels everywhere on a Segway which makes him look like a piece of fine art being wheeled to a new gallery, he got his start on the CBS reality series, Big Brother, which I must confess is another personal obsession. You’d be surprised at the number of reality TV stars who have broken out into the world of professional wrestling and found immense success. Along with Godderz, you can count ex-Real World star “The Miz” Mike Mizanin, a former WWE World Champion who has starred in multiple movies and the current series Miz & Mrs. There’s also fellow Big Brother alum Austin Matelson aka Luchasaurus, current All Elite Wrestling TNT Champion. Even a young pre-WWE John Cena hosted the short-lived competition series, Manhunt.

“I’ve definitely shown the villain/heel aspect of myself and because of OVW and the opportunity Al is going to be giving me, people might be able to start seeing a different side”, says Godderz. “And that’s just the storytelling, because what was shown on the docu-series Wrestlers is my real life, y’know. As opposed to me coming through the curtain, and being a professional and iliciting a response. All of that is encased inside this opportunity. It’s a vehicle and it is what you make of it.”

“I know we spoke about The Miz for a hot second, y’know, and he was one of the key influences of me even thinking it was plausible for somebody like myself to actually have a career in professional wrestling to boot, from the get go”, Godderz adds.

If OVW were the X-men, Shera would be its Colossus. Soft spoken and with the soul of an artist, Shera doesn’t sound like the muscled behemoth who easily intimidates inside and outside of the ring. The first Indian OVW National Champion, Shera is one of the most popular members of the roster, and has taken to this business quickly since breaking out in the Ring Ka King promotion in India. He is also fiercely loyal, especially to Al Snow, and has an old school mentality when it comes to doing business. In a key scene during Wrestlers, Shera learns that he’ll be losing the title he worked so hard for to the visiting Impact Wrestling star, James Storm, who is quite simply a more recognizable name. Shera is clearly heartbroken, but trusts in Al Snow and his judgment…

“Everytime I step in the ring, my job is to make sure my boss gets what he wants from me, and then I deliver the audience. The connection I have with Al and Doug…they are the best.”

JoBlos Travis Hopson with Al Snow

Whether speaking with Shera, Jessie, Haley, or others such as the Amazonian goddess Freya the Slaya or OVW’s stalwart veteran Ca$h Flo, everyone has put their faith in Al Snow. It’s funny for me to be seated across from Al, who in the series comes across like a cross between a teddy bear and a laconic Spartan warrior from 300. Al is best known for his run in ECW, Extreme Championship Wrestling, where his maniacal character ran wild with a mannequin head, aptly named “Head”, and drove crowds batty with his entrance to “Breathe” by The Prodigy. Nobody has seen more of the ups and downs of the pro wrestling business than Al Snow. He’s been at the top, and at the bottom, like his disastrous WWE run as part of the New Rockers tag team, which is where I first saw him. Or as part of the J.O.B. Squad, a group whose entire point was that they were losers. Ironically, Al gave me a J.O.B. Squad shirt on the way out.

“Yeah, this wasn’t the plan”, Al says when asked if he ever saw this path for himself. He’s not joking. Al can sound a little bit dismissive, but when you listen to him speak you can feel how invested he is. After being part of the promotion in various capacities, Al bought the promotion from original founder, Nightmare Danny Davis. And with it, Al bought in to a hefty legacy to live up to, and it’s something he is fully aware of. He remembers a time when wrestling, one of the most isolated and secretive communities in the world, would never allow cameras to “look behind the curtain” at  how things really work.

“It was very much a, it took a while to think about it. How open should I be, how willing should I be to do this? My experience on Tough Enough (WWE’s reality competition series where Al was a judge) we didn’t reveal nearly as much as we do here. It turned out it was very much a positive because if you were a wrestling fan it gave you a new respect and appreciation for how physically hard this is. And if you were not a wrestling fan it was an avenue or venue to draw in another audience.”

“This has been my life for 41 years. If OVW succeeds, we all succeed. If OVW fails, only I fail. Nobody else’s name is going to get mentioned. Nobody else is going to get dirt thrown on them for basically putting a company that’s been in existence for 30+ years down…I don’t get another 41 years to build another reputation. So I’m going to feel differently than maybe they (the wrestlers) do.”

While there are tried and true aspects of professional wrestling that always work, there’s no easy formula to long-term success. A lot of it is luck, much of it is timing, and there’s also striking while the iron is hot. There’s also something to be said for consistency, and OVW TV has been one of the longest-running weekly television shows in history, no small feat considering their lack of WWE’s billions of dollars to play around with. And then there’s making the most of your top stars. At OVW Hard Reset, Haley J and Amazing Maria won in a fun mixed tag team match against Shalonce Royal and her manager PJ Jones, the poor guy getting humiliated in the process. Haley commanded the ring like a star, as always.

In the main event, Shera and Ca$h Flo faced one another in a Fatal Four Way match that included Tony Gunn and the current OVW champion, Internet sensation “The Veteran” Jack Vaughn. The night didn’t turn out how Shera wanted this time, either, but Al sees the bigger picture.  These wins and losses have to matter as part of the journey.

“I feel like that for the casual audience is what ultimately makes them tune in. And they can tune in not only this week but next week to see what happens between these two people and the week after and the week after, and oh who’s going to win? Conor McGregor and Floyd Mayweather was as fake as it gets. What sold that? Who they were. And that you could believe in the trash talk so much that you didn’t care whether or not one beat the other.”

The stars of tomorrow are here today, but you have to care about them first.

Wrestlers is streaming now on Netflix. Read our review here!

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