Photo: ‘The Wrestler’
The wrestling industry has always been a bit of an outsider when it comes to mainstream entertainment. Starring athletic men and women sporting trunks and tights, wrestling has been described as a live soap opera where two or more opposing rivals settle their differences by fighting each other inside of a ring. Apart from this unique brand of storytelling, the wrestling business has also stood out by featuring a diverse and bizarre cast of characters. From a walking zombie in The Undertaker, to superheroes and demons with actual magical powers that would give The Avengers some trouble, the wrestling industry is full of colorful personalities that have spoiled their fans rotten with iconic moments for decades.
With how interesting, innovative, and mysterious the wrestling realm is, it’s no wonder why Hollywood has explored its world every now and then, mining the wrestling business for small stories with mainstream appeal and box office potential. These five wrestling-based TV shows and movies demonstrate, better than most in their sub-genre, the magic that can happen when Hollywood and the wrestling business put their differences aside, and come together for the sake of their one common interest; entertaining its audience.
Wrestling Movies & Shows
Netflix’s ‘GLOW’ was a comedy based on the retro 80s wrestling show of the same name, and starred a powerful roster of female talent. Allison Brie played the lead Ruth Wilder, a struggling California actress who’s persuaded into joining the all-female wrestling organization after showing her potential talent for the business. The show was surrounded by an equally talented supporting cast that included the likes of Betty Gilpin, comedian Marc Maron, Brittney Young, and Sydelle Noel, all of whom helped ‘GLOW’ become a television phenomenon and one of Netflix’s most popular shows when it first debuted. Brie’s Ruth and the rest of the characters act as Trojan horses, some only as knowledgeable as the wrestling industry as the casual viewer, sneaking the audience behind the scenes and beyond the mat of this peculiar hybrid of sports and entertainment. It highlighted the wacky, crazy, and sometimes absurd world of the wrestling industry that operates outside of Hollywood’s jurisdiction, and rewards its fans with nonstop laughter and unforgettable experiences.
But on a deeper level, ‘GLOW’ was a character study that analyzed the relationships, motivations, and identities that made up its strong group of characters, who were all united by a wrestling industry that favored diversity, and helped empower women in a decade where Hollywood was still feeding into gender stereotypes. The wrestling industry as a whole is a bit like a circus, as it’s always had an inclusive attitude that has welcomed entertainers from all walks of life, regardless of background or culture, and no other promotion or show televised that better than ‘GLOW’.
‘Fighting With My Family’
‘Fighting With My Family’ was a fictional retelling about WWE wrestler Paige’s journey to becoming, not only a WWE superstar but also one of the driving forces that led to changes for women within the wrestling industry. Adapted to the big screen with brilliant direction and a hilarious script by Stephen Merchant, it starred Florence Pugh as the rebellious outsider whose reality of becoming a WWE wrestler far exceeded her dreams.
From a faraway glance, ‘Fighting With My Family’ resembles the casual feel-good underdog story about the down on their luck protagonist defying all odds to fulfill their impossible ambitions, just coated with a WWE paint job. But ‘Fighting With My Family’ is a more honest salesman than most movies of its kind, and although it sells you the dream of being a superstar, it also sells you the heartbreak that might come with it, reminding you that not everyone can become a Paige. That heartbreak comes in the form of Paige’s own brother, Zak Knight played by Jack Lowden, who doesn’t make the cut after trying out for the world’s, and arguably the universe’s, biggest wrestling organization. And thanks to Lowden’s painfully convincing performance as Zak, watching reality hit him the way that it does is like watching Zak suffer death by firing quad, except it honestly feels as though Zak would prefer the latter rather than having his dreams casually stripped away from him.
Now, Zak must try to find new meaning in his life, assuming there’s still meaning out there for him to find, while his sister is one step closer to being in the WWE. It’s a fascinating dichotomy that puts ‘Fighting With My Family’ on a different league than other rags to riches narratives, as it tells you not only the very popular stories about the dreamers that make it, but the all too common untold stories about the dreamers who don’t.
‘Fighting With My Family’ succeeds in being a different and refreshing take on sports biopics in Hollywood. The places the story treads might seem similar to other biopics that revolve around more popular sports like Football, Basketball, or even Boxing, but since the world of wrestling is still such an untapped pool of content, ‘Fighting With My Family’ is able to add unique twists to familiar story beats usually seen in sports biopics, breathing new life into an often predictable genre. ‘Fighting With My Family’ had also shown the potential mainstream appeal of wrestling-based movies if done right, as the film cost over $11 million to produce and make, before grossing $41.1 million, which was four times its budget. Between its financial success and the overwhelming amount of critical acclaim it received, ‘Fighting With My Family’ truly showed what the wrestling industry could contribute to mainstream Hollywood. Above all else, it’s just an all-around fantastic movie accessible to casuals and wrestling fans alike that you’ll be doing yourself a huge favor by checking out.
2008’s ‘The Wrestler’, directed by Darren Aronofsky, grappled with a darker side of the wrestling industry. Mickey Rourke gives a career-defining, once in a lifetime performance as Randy The Ram Robinson, a professional wrestler who’s aged out of his career, and has no choice but to walk away from the ring when his body is no longer healthy enough to handle the demanding rigors of professional wrestling. With his life’s passion now taken away from him, Randy tries to find a new purpose that will add substance to his life, while attempting to mend broken relationships that were torn from past mistakes. It’s a bleak but sophisticated narrative about mortality, time, relationships, and redemption that took the partnership between Hollywood and the wrestling industry to the next level. For those who claim that wrestling’s fake, the film gives a fictionalized but believable account of the wear and tear the aging wrestler can suffer at the hands of the industry, both physically and mentally, that directly confronts and challenges that argument.
It gives perspective and a voice to the battered and beaten wrestlers that were used up and exploited by the industry with hardly anything to show for it except injuries, but still continue to offer their broken bodies to a sometimes heartless business in a symbiotic, one-sided relationship. ‘The Wrestler’ succeeded in not just being a great wrestling movie, but a great movie period. It netted $44.7 million against its $6 million budget and earned Rouke an Academy Award nomination in 2009. But more importantly, it earned the praise of critics, fans, and wrestlers alike who were all united under their adulation for one of Aronofsky’s greatest passion projects. ‘The Wrestler’ deepened its ties to Hollywood by giving a massive spotlight to a niche market of the television industry at a time when wrestling was still seen as a very juvenile breed of entertainment, something you were supposed to grow out of like children’s toys, and transcended both Hollywood and wrestling by being one of the greatest pieces of Cinematic art ever produced.
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Dwayne Johnson never abandoned or forgot his wrestling roots. There may have been a time period, between 2004 to 2010, that saw Johnson fully commit himself to Hollywood, but coming from a long bloodline of wrestlers meant that wrestling has been written in his DNA since birth; The Rock is a genetic inheritance that he simply can’t get away from. So when Johnson reached the plateau of superstardom he sits on top of today, it’s only right that he started giving back to wrestling by sharing his enormous spotlight with the industry. His first attempt at rubbing some of his magic on sports entertainment was by producing another film on this list, ‘Fighting With My Family’, a movie that he recruited a lot of star power for, while lending it his own with a couple of cameos. But his latest project, ‘Young Rock’, gives back to the business in another way.
Since Johnson’s life story is too vast in scope to be told in a three-hour movie, the People’s Champion decided to produce a TV series instead. ‘Young Rock’ is an NBC sitcom that follows Johnson on his past journey to becoming the biggest star in the world. It features the ‘Black Adam’ star in three eras of his life; as a ten-year-old middle school student, as a fifteen-year-old high school student, and as a college student who plays college football for the University of Miami. ‘Young Rock’ adds to the myth surrounding Johnson’s rise to prominence by reenacting several stories that Johnson has publicly recounted about his past, like being a suspected undercover cop in high school due to his exceptionally mature features at an early age, or the infamous fanny pack accident. But it’s also added to Johnson’s legacy by opening up to fans about stories he hasn’t told before.
Since Johnson’s father, Rocky Johnson, was a professional wrestler himself, the series also depicts a fair amount of wrestling. Occasionally, it takes a deep dive into the life of a wrestler, and how that life had a major impact on Johnson’s formative years in ways that you wouldn’t expect. It features fictionalized versions of late wrestlers like Randy Savage, Junkyard Dog, and Andre The Giant, who’ve all been brought back to life through phenomenal actors that capture the spirit of these legendary performers with an uncanny eeriness.
The behind the scenes access we get to the wrestling business from Johnson’s perspective can be as hilarious as it can be captivating, giving us a deeper insight into Johnson’s family of wrestlers who all had a hand in grooming him to become The Rock he is today. Thanks to stellar writing and an unbelievable cast, ‘Young Rock’s first season has managed to earn a nice amount of critical acclaim, while also drawing millions of eyes to its product each week. Seeing that it’s already been renewed for a season 2, ‘Young Rock’ will continue taking us for a personal grand tour around Johnson’s life, while keeping wrestling in the minds and hearts of fans everywhere.
Not much can be said about ‘Heels’ yet since the new drama doesn’t debut until Aug 15th. But the hype surrounding it has demonstrated a demand for more wrestling-based content that explores the mystique of the industry, and ‘Heels’ looks like it’s determined to meet that demand at all costs. Created by Michael Waldron, and starring longtime wrestling fan and former superhero Stephen Amell, the series is described as a drama about two brothers who are professional wrestlers, but instead of competing for championship belts or bragging rights, both wrestlers are competing for their father’s wrestling promotion. Its intimate camerawork, muted colors, and heavy tone suggest that the series will lean away from more colorful and vibrant contemporaries such as ‘GLOW’ and ‘Young Rock’, and instead will take on a more reflective approach to the industry.
The true test in the series lies in its originality. Unlike ‘GLOW’, ‘Fighting With my Family’, and ‘Young Rock’, ‘Heels’ isn’t based on a specific wrestling promotion or personality. It’s similar to ‘The Wrestler’ in that it’s the complete brainchild of Michael Waldron, and a wholly original product that simply uses wrestling’s platform and backdrop to launch its engaging stories. Despite ‘Heels’ being completely its own thing, it’s still managed to attract a decent amount of attention to suggest that there’s already an audience waiting for its debut. Its first teaser trailer, posted on the Starz channel’s official Youtube page, attracted almost 500,000 views on Youtube. But that was only the tip of the iceberg, as the show’s official trailer drew 4.4 million YouTube views six days ago, and the numbers are still climbing. If youtube viewership is even a slight foreshadow of things to come, ‘Heels’ might be the next program to link Hollywood with wrestling in an accessible, entertaining and engrossing fashion that completely changes the fabric of both industries for years to come.
In the 1980s, the wrestling industry had gone through what fans label a boom period. This was a phase where promotions like WWE had become so popular, that they eventually outgrew the niche bubble they thrived in, and found themselves colliding with mainstream pop culture in terms of impact and appeal. Superstars like Hulk Hogan, Andre the Giant, Randy Savage, and the like were seen as box office action stars on the level of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone. It was a phase that most fans didn’t think could be duplicated, except not only was it duplicated, but arguably surpassed with the second phase of wrestling’s boom period that took place in the mid to late 90s. This era of wrestling, which was filled with the edgy, raucous content that fueled the attitude of the 90s, was spearheaded by the likes of Stonecold Steve Austin, The Rock, Triple H, and others who all elevated wrestling to heights that even challenged Hollywood’s throne on top of the industry.
Since the death of this boom period somewhere in the 2000s, fans have often wondered when the third boom period of the wrestling industry will take place. Some have even given up, and have resigned to the fact that another boom period might never transpire, especially considering wrestling’s dwindling presence in Hollywood’s consciousness. But Hollywood has been orbiting around the world of wrestling closer than ever, now, and with the continuous surge of these new wrestling-based TV shows, films and actors, I have to wonder if this next mythical boom period will be a collaborative effort between Hollywood and the wrestling industry.
By Tony Stallings
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Tony Stallings is an avid follower of the entertainment industry who uses his passion for writing to relay meaningful, positive messages and narratives from the world of Hollywood. Tony doesn’t just focus on covering entertainment, but delving into it. He prides himself on focusing on the bigger picture, concerned with how entertainment culture affects and shapes the world at large with utmost honesty. Tony’s dedication to journalistic integrity, reliability and passion is a common bond that he shares with Hollywood Insider, and he’s eager to help people recognize the value of entertainment through their platform.