Netflix’s Wrestlers takes a hard-hitting look at the larger-than-life underdogs of the Ohio Valley Wrestling circuit.
PLOT: A group of underdog wrestlers try to make the big time.
REVIEW: When people think of professional wrestling, they imagine the glitz and polish of the WWE, which has dominated the landscape for decades. Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler put a spotlight on what is the reality for most wrestlers out there, and that is the struggle they face to remain part of this business, to make money in it, to reconcile this grueling profession with their personal lives and individual demons. Netflix’s Wrestlers, a new docu-series from Emmy-winning filmmaker Greg Whiteley (Last Chance U, Cheer), has captured the everyday drama and struggle of professional wrestling in a way that has never been done before.
The series centers on Ohio Valley Wrestling. Chances are you’ve never heard of it. As someone who has grown up with professional wrestling, been in the ring a bit, and basically loves it with every fiber of my being, I’m quite familiar with the trials and tribulations of OVW. The Louisville, Kentucky-based promotion reached its popular peak years ago when it was a farm league for the WWE. Some of the talents to emerge you actually might’ve heard of are guys like John Cena, Dave Bautista, The Miz, and CM Punk. But those days are over. OVW is on its own, and making it a small regional promotion has been difficult. Creating new stars isn’t easy.
Unsurprisingly, each episode is driven by conflict, more so outside of the ring than inside of it. At the core are the clashing philosophies of Al Snow, a legendary wrestling figure known for his iconic runs in ECW and WWE, now serving as co-owner and creative head of OVW, and money man Matt Walsh. Walsh, an entrepreneur and local celebrity with a wide following and years of business success, is a brash outsider entering a world that is about as isolated and secretive as it gets. Predictably, Walsh charges in like a bull in a china shop with big ideas, goals, and demands. When Walsh pulls dedicated OVW commentator Brian Kennison aside and basically tells him he needs to prove his worth over the summer or be fired, he comes across like the nightmare boss that every employee dreads.
The most enjoyable and fulfilling conflict centers on Hollywood Haley J and her momma, Amazing Maria. Haley is a small woman, a single mother, and a gigantic personality. With her brash, part bougie/part ghetto persona, she outshines everyone else on the roster in terms of having a character ready-made for the big leagues of AEW or WWE because it’s just a heightened version of herself. But Haley and Maria have a roller coaster relationship. Maria, a death match queen who admittedly made her share of mistakes in raising her daughter, recognizes how alike the two of them are, even if Haley will never admit to it. Snow smartly takes the real-life drama between them and weaves it into an epic storyline that builds throughout the summer, culminating in a brutal but cathartic hardcore match.
Across seven roughly one-hour episodes, Wrestlers does a fantastic job of pulling back the curtain on the business and revealing the real-life struggle of the men and women in it. The problems for a small promotion like OVW differ from WWE or AEW. If a bigger company loses a couple of thousand dollars on a show, it’s no big deal. But for OVW, who at this point are losing thousands per show, it can be the end of everything. In one memorable scene, Al waffles over purchasing a pig mask for a crucial horror-themed cinematic match. The DIY energy is strong and endearing, with OVW coming across as the smallest promotion possible, making the best out of their limited resources.
OVW must also cope with a roster with the same goal: moving on to bigger, greener pastures. During one stretch, Haley J and Maria leave for three weeks to work for Women of Wrestling, a California-based promotion with an all-female talent roster. It is a bigger platform bigger paydays, but it throws Al Snow and the weekly OVW live broadcast for a loop. Their hottest feud has to be put on ice at the worst possible time.
Every superstar has a story, and many of them are fascinating, even if there isn’t enough time to give them focus. Mahabali Shera, a soft-spoken Indian behemoth with a kind heart, talks of his journey to America and getting acclimated to the culture, finding early success with TNA Impact Wrestling (where he still works alongside OVW while also working DoorDash on the side), and taking care of his family. His story provides a lot of the series’ heart and soul, and you wish there were more time to spend with him. Shera’s story shines a light on the financial reality for most of the wrestlers at a place like OVW. Nobody’s diving into pools of cash like Scrooge McDuck at this stage. Even someone like Shera is a pretty big name and one of the most popular babyfaces (a good guy is known as a babyface; the villains are heels) on the roster, but he carries multiple jobs on his broad back just to make ends meet. Others work day jobs at Holiday Inn or elsewhere. OVW is a place where you work because you really want to.
Others that catch your attention are the veteran Ca$h Flow, who has invested more than two decades into the game and acts as the steady rock of OVW. Throughout the chaos of a tumultuous summer, Ca$h’s smile and eager personality are a real treat that you can’t help but root for. There’s also Freya the Slayer, a beautiful and intimidating giant of a woman who is changing the perceptions of women like her in this sport; Jesse “Mr. Pectacular” Godderz, a Big Brother reality show veteran whose big ego and persona are only matched by his muscles and balance on his ever-present Segway; and the chatty Eric Darkstorm. Throughout the series, Darkstorm, who is also Haley J’s on-again/off-again boyfriend, delivers his monologues while leaning out the driver’s side door of his car like a gangsta. He chats openly about his disgust for women’s wrestling (females are “handed everything”, he says), but it comes across like a guy afraid of being left behind by his more-talented woman. In all fairness, viewers will cheer for exactly that to happen.
Longtime wrestling fans’ heads are filled with grim stories of those who have been chewed up and spat out by the business. You can watch Dark Side of Wrestling if you want more of that. While Wrestlers has those stories on a smaller scale, it is unabashedly a hopeful underdog story and a crowd pleaser. Whiteley knows this material very well and will have you cheerleading for OVW’s success with each episode. It can be daunting and a bit exhausting as Whiteley makes every hardship feel like it should be a season finale, but that’s a problem with the series’ length, which should be a bit shorter.
Just as in professional wrestling, there will be characters you instantly fall in love with and some that will grow on you over time (don’t give up on Matt too quickly!). But their stories are real, their battles are honest, and casual viewers will get hooked into watching them scratch and claw their way to the top. The Ohio Valley Wrestling motto is “Tomorrow’s Superstars Today”, and with Wrestlers that saying has never been more true.
Originally published at https://www.joblo.com/netflix-wrestlers-docuseries-review/