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More than maybe any other art, professional wrestling lives on the line between fiction and fact. It might be fixed, choreographed, frequently scripted, and self-consciously performed in a way that other athletic events are not, but that doesn’t make it “fake,” as detractors eagerly claim. The physical and emotional pain of putting one’s body on the line 350 days out of the year, along with a hard lifestyle of constant travel and precarious employment, are all too real. Though there have been decades of tell-alls and documentaries digging into the often tragic lives of performers outside the ring, few have explored this subject with the honesty and depth of Viceland’s series Dark Side of the Ring. An overwhelming number of wrestling documentaries are essentially propaganda produced in-house by World Wrestling Entertainment, telling history as the company higher-ups (particularly longtime executive Vince McMahon and his family) want it remembered. Now in its third season, Dark Side of the Ring is a potent and much-needed corrective to that slanted coverage.
The first season tread somewhat carefully, recounting stories that are mostly well-known, like the tragic love story between “Macho Man” Randy Savage and his manager/wife Miss Elizabeth, or the notorious Montreal Screwjob. As the show has grown in popularity, it’s grown confident in peeling back the layers of more controversial stories. A Season 2 episode explored Vince McMahon’s role in covering up the horrific murder of Nancy Argentino by her boyfriend Jimmy “Superfly” Snooka. An upcoming episode of the current season will dive into the infamous 1990s steroid trials, which changed the business completely.
A recent episode on the cartoonish Ultimate Warrior aired the same week as the superstar’s official A&E Biography episode, offering two very different views of him. Dark Side of the Ring recruits legends like Jim Ross and Jake “The Snake” Roberts to talk shit about how the Warrior was careless in the ring, difficult to work with, and an unrepentant bigot. Meanwhile, the WWE-approved biography is much more sympathetic, casting him as a misunderstood, complicated man with some personal troubles instead of a right-wing egomaniac.
Though it trades in expected stories around true crime or substance abuse, Dark Side of the Ring is at its most insightful when tackling the workings of the industry itself. It’s even explored wrestling’s relationship with foreign policy and global politics. A recent episode looks at one of the most unexpected events in wrestling history: the 1995 Collision in Korea, a two-day show in Pyongyang, of all places, which to this day holds the all-time attendance record for a wrestling event by a margin of tens of thousands. This unexpected landmark was aimed at promoting international goodwill, a strange collaboration between the North Korean government, Muhammad Ali, the Ted-Turner-owned World Championship Wrestling, and New Japan Pro Wrestling. (At the time, New Japan founder Antonio Inoki also headed his own political party, the Sports and Peace Party, and he’s even held office.)
The Season 2 episode “The Slap Heard Around the World” is centered on a moment that lasted seconds but had decades of ramifications. Thanks to the massive success of the first Wrestlemania and the company’s early partnership with MTV, pro wrestling as represented by the company then known as the WWF reached new heights during the 1980s. But with that popularity came greater scrutiny from outsiders. The gruff-and-tough redneck brawler David Schultz was on his way up the ranks when McMahon asked him to assault a 20/20 reporter who was poking around backstage asking if the whole thing was “fake.” At that time, protecting the secrets of the business and “selling” the show as genuine was of the utmost importance, even if most fans knew it was rigged. McMahon wanted Schultz to sacrifice his reputation to make wrestling look as real and painful as possible. Schultz’s slap led to a massive lawsuit, a falling out with WWF, and the end of his wrestling career, after which he became an in-demand bounty hunter.
But what’s most interesting is when Schultz voices his feelings about McMahon’s complete change of heart a few years later. During the 1990s, the doors busted wide open on how the wrestling industry actually worked, largely thanks to fan discussion on the internet. But the end of that era also came because of McMahon, who had once sworn to protect wrestling’s secrets. After WWF came under increased government scrutiny following the steroid trials, the McMahons went to court in New Jersey to argue that wrestling was not a genuine sport, but entertainment, and thus it should not be subject to the regulations that sports are — like state-run commissions, certain taxes, or steroid testing by an outside body. They won their case, and wrestling was henceforth “sports entertainment.” After demanding that Schultz sacrifice his career to defend wrestling’s honor, McMahon was willing to air out all the dirty laundry just to keep more money for himself. Though wrestling has been an open book for many years now, few have been brave enough to ask certain questions and push back against the McMahon dynasty. Dark Side of the Ring produces some of the most engaging nonfiction television work in years (about wrestling or otherwise) by daring to take that monopoly to the mat.