Wrestling hasn't exactly regained the zeitgeisty fervor it had in the late '80s and early '90s, but the sport still has its share of rabid fans. What's standing in wrestling's way? Although costumed grappling enthusiasts embrace the artifice of the medium, the most common refrain from detractors of wrestling is that the whole thing is "fake."
It is widely recognized that wins and losses (and entire storylines) are pre-written in pro-wrestling, but the politics of reality in that world are actually rather nuanced. When producer and lifelong wrestling fan Evan Husney began researching wrestling history for his new Viceland series "Dark Side Of The Ring," he realized just how entrenched that world is in a complicated dance between authenticity and illusion.
"For the most part when you're making a documentary series and you're trying to be as realistic as possible, you have to do your fact-checking," Husney told Oxygen.com. "And that can be really hard and tricky in the world of wrestling ... This is the world where [reality] is very gray. That's what's very interesting. There's so many true crime stories about unjust murders – honestly this show was just trying to be 'Unsolved Mysteries' but with wrestling. That was what was both appealing to us – we were trying to separate fact from fiction. But not just literally in the pursuit of truth — it's more about trying to play in that gray area. We're trying to show you how that gray area is super unique and singular to wrestling."
"Dark Side of the Ring" explores the underbelly of this violent entertainment industry by taking a look at some of the most unseemly stories from pro-wrestling's past. But what Husney found while making the show was that because of the wrestling's world's long history of mass deception, the truth behind the legends was actually far murkier than he had realized.
"It's really the art form of charisma," theorized Husney. "It's about getting the audience to believe. It's like a magic trick. Except that it's not even really about getting them to believe what's happening in the ring – it's really if they believe in you and if they believe your character is legitimate."
The concept of "kayfabe" remains confusing to those outside the business: Originally used as the carny word for "fake," kayfabe now refers to the self-contained narrative that pro-wrestling presents about its personalities. For example, the performers playing heels (wrestling slang for the bad guys) might be villainous scoundrels in the ring, but out of kayfabe they might be total sweethearts.
In the early decades of pro-wrestling, especially before the WWF came into existence, the imperative to hide the secret truths of "the business" for the sake of kayfabe essentially formed a sacred agreement amongst performers. These athletes refused to publicly discuss the backstage politics of how matches are planned, the secret tricks of the trade, or the nature of the genre's pre-determined outcomes. Many performers fully embraced their in-ring alter-egos and obfuscated their "shoot" (wrestling slang for real) identities.
"This was the coolest, outlaw era of wrestling," Husney explained. "These wrestlers had to do everything they possibly could to protect the business and not expose it. Even if that meant living their character in life and the stakes of that. The honor, and the code. To have that take place in a murder story — that happening in that world — it's even more crazy to try and figure out what's true and what's not."
Older generations of wrestlers remain adamant about not breaking character even long after they've retired. This presented considerable problems for Husney, who had to figure out how to navigate this dynamic while interviewing his subjects throughout the docu-series.
"There's this female wrestler of the '80s, her name is Princess Victoria," said Husney. "She was one of my favorite interviews we did for the entire show. She had the toughest exterior imaginable; she could kill anyone. She was amazing! There was a story where in a match she got blood, which essentially stems from [a performer covertly] taking a razor blade and cutting themselves. And part of the series was getting these people to explain things for a non-wrestling fan. So I was like, 'OK, can you just walk our audience through what that means, so can you explain how you would do that?' And she stared at me like I was insane. She was like, 'I will not do that. I'm sorry, I apologize, but I will not go there.' And I was like, mad respect!"
Husney found that although the wrestlers were often inflexible about revealing certain truths, a bit of nostalgia went a long way.
"[Abdullah The Butcher] was wrestling back in the '50s," said Husney. "He's obviously someone who is mega-old school. It was really hard [to interview him] because he was not only hustling us for cash every 10 minutes (which is another old-school thing I also appreciate), he also was being the character. He wasn't being Larry Shreve who was born in Windsor, Ontario. He was being Abdullah The Butcher from the darkest depths of the Sudan. There were times I would ask him a question and he'd be like, 'I will never reveal that to you. I will never tell you my secrets.' I was like, 'OK!'"
"We couldn't break him until we played him clips of Bruiser Brody," Husney continued. "We were like, 'OK, watch this.' Stuff he probably hasn't seen in 30-plus years. Immediately, when he saw Brody again his whole persona cracked. You could see at the end of the episode where he gets a little weepy — we're talking about Abdullah The Butcher here! — that's when the real guy comes out. We should have done that first, and then interviewed him. But we actually used that as kind of a way to connect with the wrestlers more throughout the series."
One of the other challenges Husney discovered while working on the new show was the depth of wrestling lingo, which is essentially its own impenetrable language.
"Every time we would ask a question to anybody when we were interviewing them, we'd phrase it like, 'For someone who is not familiar with wrestling, comma,' and then the question," Husney recalled. "A lot of them would be really challenged not to use all the vernacular. If you ask someone like [wrestling critic] Jim Cornette that question, he'd be like, 'Well, you know, it was a shoot and then he pancaked the guy, and then the guy got over,' and we had to tell him that didn't make any sense to anybody. And then it's interesting because they realize how insane what they're saying is."
If the aim of "Dark Side of the Ring" is to delve into the many macabre mysteries of the wrestling world, then the purposeful cloudiness with which people in the wrestling industry describe their own experiences means that what audiences are often left with is more questions than answers. In an episode that covers the hideous accusations made about legendary female wrestler Fabulous Moolah, for example, Husney reached very few absolute conclusions. Although Moolah is widely viewed as a pioneer of women's wrestling, more recently many of her former acolytes have attempted to expose her as a self-absorbed narcissist and a sex trafficker — while other followers continue to embrace her as a hero.
“There's a reason why our episode doesn't end with a clear point of view," Husney said. "It doesn't end one way or the other. I really do think it's complicated. Part of the reason why we did the episode is, now that we're in this post-#MeToo era where people's legacies are being re-examined — and also the conversation about art being separated from artist — for us, that's very topical."
Moolah, specifically, has once again become a controversial figure. As the WWE revamps its women's division so female athletes are taken as seriously as the male superstars, attempts were made by the company to seemingly rewrite Moolah's questionable past for publicity's sake. When WWE attempted to name a memorial Battle Royale after her in 2018, pressure from fans who saw them as whitewashing her extensive list of alleged crimes forced them to drop her moniker from the event.
"It's a story about a woman who is alleged to do things, sort of holding her own gender back," Husney continued. "Which is a more interesting and provocative way to look at it. In my own personal opinion, it's really hard to tell! She's obviously not here for us to ask her. Jim Cornette lays it out and says it's a little bit of both. Obviously, she came through at a time when promoters were sketchier than they are now. So you learn those tricks of the trade. Did she have a huge ego and want to be the center of attention? Yeah, probably. In terms of the more harsh accusations, it's really hard to say. I tend to believe anyone who has accusations of that nature. But I do think as far as her legacy is concerned: It's complicated."
Now that the strictness around kayfabe seems to have been somewhat loosened up, Husney feels that wrestling has — perhaps quite ironically — become even more fake.
"[WWE] nowadays feels a little overproduced," Husney reflected. "I loved it when it was more raw. No pun intended! I just liked it when you really had these amazing personalities who were basically allowed to run wild as extensions of themselves. It's hard for me to see that now — they're trying to control that; it's really not something you can control. Obviously they have to be safer, because you don't want to see people hurting themselves or getting injured. But I think the personalities are held back."
"Just with nerd culture, with board games, video games, anything the dirty kid in middle school would like: These things are coming back," Husney concluded. "They're nostalgic. And people understand it more now, and maybe it's become less stigmatized. I think it's just accepted more as entertainment ... It's become more accessible. People were like, 'Why are you watching that, it's fake?' but now we've gone past that. Maybe that's also what's not so exciting about it any more, though. We know how the sausage is made."
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