From the bright lights of Florida to the spotless streets of Japan and the chaos of the Congo, Damian Abraham dives headlong into the fascinating ways cultures around the world have embraced one of America’s greatest exports: professional wrestling.
For decades, professional wrestling has had its share of drama, both inside and outside of the ring and like any popular sport and entertainment, there are enough rags-to-riches stories; career-ending injuries; strange myths; urban legends; and heartbreaking controversies to fill the pages of several novels. From harassment suits to steroid abuse to screw jobs and double-crosses to backstage affairs and real-life suicides and murders— there’s never any shortage of topics to discuss in the world of professional wrestling. Luckily for wrestling fans, documentary filmmaking over the decades has provided a candid and deeply personal look at the lives of some of the world’s most famous wrestlers and the best of these documentaries act as a source of valuable information, sometimes shedding a light on a wrestling promotion or superstar— and bringing understanding (and closure) to controversy.
Last year, Viceland debuted one such documentary series titled Dark Side of the Ring, a compelling six-episode show that explores several of pro wrestling’s most notorious backstage controversies. The series was well-received and proved successful enough to greenlight a second season but what I didn’t realize until this week, is that Viceland produced another docuseries about professional wrestling that very few people (including myself) had heard of, nevermind seen. The Wrestlers, hosted and created by Damian Abraham (the frontman for the Canadian punk band Fucked Up) is Viceland’s other 2019 wrestling series which shines a light on a variety of fascinating and bizarre wrestling subcultures with which most fans are unfamiliar. And as with Dark Side of the Ring, The Wrestlers is a must-watch for wrestling fans and non-wrestling fans alike.
Lucha Libre Wrestling
What makes The Wrestlers different than just about every other wrestling documentary is how Damian Abraham projects it through a fresh new lens. Rather than simply telling a story about the career of a well-known superstar or making a film that documents the tragedies of the industry— Abraham instead uses wrestling to explore various cultures from across the globe and examine wrestling’s place in the ever-changing social, and political climates of the world. “As a lifelong wrestling fan, I’ve always felt there’s more to wrestling than just choreographed violence,” Abraham says in the introduction. “At the core of every wrestler, there is a storyteller, every ring a stage to reflect the struggles of its audience — whether it be gender, sexuality, race, religion or class.”
In one of my favourite episodes titled “The Next Wave of Mexican Luchadores,” Abraham follows legendary lucha libre fighter Black Spider and soon-to-be-famous Rey Fenix through the streets of Tijuana, as Mexico copes with an ever-present drug war and Donald Trump’s America. Despite lucha libre wrestling being more popular than ever, due to Trump’s crackdown on immigrants, many of the Mexican wrestlers are no longer able to cross into the U.S. and wrestle at various promotional events. Over the course of sixty minutes, Abraham dives deep into the history of Mexican wrestling and how the current political climate is making it harder and harder for many of the best lucha libre wrestlers to breakthrough. In one scene, we get to see the now-famous Sam Polinsky in action at Arena México, the holy site of Mexican wrestling, which regularly draws 10,000 fans. In the fall of 2016, Polinsky approached the CMLL promoters with a suggestion to tweak his “pretty boy” character, playing off the political situation of the time. With CMLL’s approval, he rebranded himself as Sam Adonis, “El Rudo de las Chicas,” and became a staunch Donald Trump supporter, including waving a four-foot-long US flag emblazoned with Trump’s face as he played off the then-President Elect’s stance on Mexico and immigrants while whipping crowds into a frenzy. His over-the-top, absurd style blends well into the sport, making him the perfect heel for the Mexican crowd to root against. Of course, you’d be forgiven for entirely missing the footage of Sam Adonis since it’s just a minor side story in an hour packed with so much history and so much conflict, I figure they can do an entire series just on the lucha libre scene alone.
During this episode, Abraham also interviews professional wrestling personality, manager and former professional wrestler Konnan who sheds light on how he discovered Rey Mysterio Jr. and why he sees Rey Fenix and his younger brother Pentagón Jr., as the next big thing. Fans of AEW tag team wrestling will not want to miss this episode as it shows these young struggling Mexican wrestlers performing at the corners of the bustling city streets in order to beg for money from people driving by while gaining media attention for their creative panhandling approach which involves scripted wrestling matches at busy intersections. If you ever want to see where Rey Mysterio Jr. got his start or witness a beautifully shot lucha libre wrestling match through rush-hour traffic, this is not to be missed!
Whether you are a casual wrestling fan who catches the occasional pay per view event or a long-time fan, The Wrestlers is bound to keep you entertained from start to finish since it’s such a personal journey— and not just for Damian Abraham who is a longtime wrestling fan— but for the men and women he interviews who allow him to capture a side of them, they would normally hide from the general public. Despite the title, The Wrestlers isn’t just a story about wrestling, it’s a story about different cultures and different beliefs and it works equally well as a travel show since Abraham’s globe-trotting series takes us from the indie wrestling scene sweeping the United States — to Bolivia where women are fighting misogyny and abuse through wrestling— to a war-torn Congo, where a cultural collision has helped popularized one of wrestling’s strangest subgenres: Catch Fétiche — loosely translated, to voodoo wrestling.
Yes, there is an entire episode about voodoo Wrestling, in which suplexes and powerbombs mix with hexes and deadly black magic. But don’t be fooled, this isn’t like Charles Wright’s WWE Papa Shango act from back in the ’80s— these men and women actually practice traditional black magic to defeat their opponents. In modern Catch matches, pretty much anything goes; from weapons to concrete blocks, to sacrificing live animals or using them as weapons, sometimes both. And while Catch Fétiche is a combination of traditional African wrestling moves, some fighters use voodoo almost exclusively, preferring not to engage in physical combat and instead kill their opponents by cursing them. The craziest parts of this episode are watching the thousands of fans follow their favourite wrestlers through the streets and to the ring to watch the main event matches. While the rest of the world seems to understand that wrestling is scripted, the people of Congo believe that what they are watching is totally real, even if it’s a wrestler slicing someone’s stomach open and feeding on their intestines.
Japanese Death Matches and American Backyard Wrestling
While “Voodoo Wrestling” is at times disturbing, it’s not even the most terrifying episode— that honor goes to the episode titled “Death Match” which follows several famous hardcore wrestlers who battle with barbed wire, razor blades, and broken glass, challenging the idea that wrestling is fake. “Death Match” is not for the faint of heart and even opens by warning its viewers of the extreme violence that lies ahead. Yet, amidst the blood and bodily carnage are some heartfelt moments including a scene with hardcore legend Danny Havoc who heads into his final bout at CZW’s Down With The Sickness, to compete with his longtime rival Alex Colon. Taking up the remainder of the episode is an extensive interview with Japanese pro wrestling icon Atsushi Onita, best known for having brought the legendarily brutal “Deathmatch” style of wrestling to Japan with his storied Frontier Martial-Arts Wrestling (FMW) organization. If you are not familiar with Atsushi Onita, the man is a living legend— the first true graduate of the All Japan Pro Wrestling dojo, and who trained in Amarillo, Texas, with Dory Funk Jr. and Terry Funk. If I ever made a list of the greatest hardcore wrestlers, Onita is sure to make the cut. Listening to him speak about his career while the camera circles his body showing in painful slow motion every single one of his scars is powerful stuff— but watching his wife prepare the weapons he uses to destroy his body during these hardcore matches is just fucked up. And even more, fucked up, is watching him hold his newborn baby while he debates his retirement or seeing his mother at ringside, enjoying his blood-soaked deathmatches. Again, I must stress, this episode is not for the faint of heart.
In the episode titled “Body Slamming Homophobia in Mexico,” Abraham interviews some of Mexico’s most famous male wrestlers known as exóticos, who embrace the feminine and dress in drag inside the ring to battle homophobia. These mostly gay, male luchadores participate in regular fights while wearing full makeup, very feminine outfits and boast stage names that sound like characters from a John Waters movie (i.e.: Diva Salvaje, Chi Chi, and La Braza). They’re conniving in their flouncing and have no qualms in using their character’s sexuality to intimidate their competition. We watch exóticos flirt with the refs, blow kisses at the crowd, psych out their opponents by propositioning them in the ring, and even sneaking an easy win by landing a low blow. As someone who’s never seen exóticos in action, this episode proved one of the most fascinating of the bunch, and left me wondering if former American WWE superstars such as Adrian Adonis and Golddust (Dustin Rhodes) took inspiration from the Mexican wrestling scene when creating their wrestling personas?
Japan DDT and Stardom
The Wrestlers is an eye-opening experience, to say the least. Even as a longtime fan of professional wrestling, there was so much I learned while watching the series. Of the entire first season, however, my two favourite episodes both focus on the various wrestling promotions in Japan, diving deep into both the history and inner workings of how these organizations, differing styles, and competitors came to be. In “Japan’s Finest Wrestlers,” Abrahah visits Tokyo to get up close and personal with the ladies of Stardom, considered by many to be one of the world’s leading all women’s promotion. Meanwhile, “The Craziest Wrestling in Japan,” is by far the wackiest installment as it follows the weird and wild world of Japan’s DDT, the world’s strangest wrestling promotion which often parodies WWE, with a Japanese puroresu flair to the matches. It’s not for everyone since there’s a heavy emphasis on offbeat comedy, with invisible wrestlers, blow-up dolls, subway brawls, waterpark matches, and other wacky gimmicks— but DDT also has the most robust talent development program in Japan, and has produced some incredible main-event matches over the years with guys like Kenny Omega, Kota Ibushi, and Sami Zayn carving out their names there. During his time in Japan, Abraham manages to capture the fascinating behind-the-scenes skullduggery that goes into crafting a successful show and the many unbelievable stories of how competitors from every walk of life wound up landing a gig working for DDT. If you’re a fan of the Netflix series GLOW, you’ll love the spotlight on Stardom and if you’re a fan of the wackier WWE storylines, you’ll certainly find an interest in learning more about DDT. Thanks to Abraham’s obvious love of wresting and infectious curiosity, we get to see beyond the guise and mystique of these colorful characters, and what they’re like outside the ring and behind the scenes.
Kota Ibushi vs Yoshihiko: A Five Star Wrestling Match with a Doll
Evolve Wrestling and More
It’s too bad The Wrestlers hasn’t received as much recognition as Dark Side of the Ring because in many ways it’s better and far more ambitious. Unlike most wrestling docs, The Wrestlers doesn’t rely heavily on talking-head interviews and stock footage— instead, Damian Abraham and his crew went out and shot hundreds of hours of original film. It helps too, that the show is beautifully shot and features a killer soundtrack, not to mention Abraham managed to interview several wrestlers just before they got their big break and were hired by major promotions such as the WWE and AEW. In retrospect, it seems Abraham chose the perfect time to make the docuseries, capturing the early careers of some of today’s hottest young talent. The first episode for example, immediately grabbed my attention as it follows Gabe Sapolsky, a veteran wrestling promoter who founded Evolve Wrestling which is now known for showcasing emerging indie superstars. If you didn’t know, Evolve’s alumni page is a who’s who of current wrestling favorites, and this episode features early appearances from Drew Galloway, Drew McIntyre, NXT sensation Matt Riddle and All-Elite Wrestling’s Darby Allin who shares his backstory and reason for deciding to be a professional wrestler. It’s fascinating to follow these wrestlers before they became household names and equally compelling to see how much Sapolsky cares for their well being and future success.
The Wrestlers arrives at a remarkable time for pro-wrestling. The WWE is still a massive success, especially thanks to NXT; meanwhile, AEW is giving WWE a run for its money and indie promotions around the world are selling out major venues. What’s great about The Wrestlers is how it covers so much ground, circles the globe and offers a snapshot into the lives of people we would otherwise never see. It allows many wrestlers to voice their opinions, and open up about their struggles while sharing their personal stories to an audience worldwide. In a particularly touching episode, Abraham even heads to northern Quebec to join a crew of wrestlers who brave weather and isolation to bring professional wrestling to remote and disadvantaged First Nation communities. The world of professional wrestling could use more episodes like this.
The Wrestlers is a truly engrossing watch and one of the very best docuseries about professional wrestling. If you consider yourself a fan, this is something you really shouldn’t miss.
The Wrestlers can be found through the Viceland website as well as on most streaming services and platforms. You can also watch a couple of episodes completely free on Youtube.
Greatest Royal Rumble Matches: The First-Ever Tag Team Tables Match
Royal Rumble 2000
The Hardy Boyz vs. The Dudley Boyz
The 2000 edition of the Royal Rumble, which was held at the Madison Square Garden on January 23, is without a doubt one of the best WWE pay-per-views ever! It’s an absolute classic filled with memorable moments such as The Rock’s unforgettable Royal Rumble win and the street fight between Triple H and Cactus Jack. It also featured the first-ever Tag Team Championship Tables Match between two of the most significant tag teams a the time.
WWF WWE has always had some truly amazing tag teams— from The British Bulldogs to The Rockers to The Rock ‘n’ Roll Express— but it was at the turn of the century that the tag team division really started heating up with competitors taking it to a whole new level in jaw-dropping hardcore matches, table matches, ladder matches and of course, TLC matches.
Leading this resurgence were The Hardy Boyz and the recent ECW defectors, The Dudley Boyz and at the 2000 Royal Rumble, the two teams would showcase their stuff in an unforgettable championship match that featured high-flying, no holds barred action.
It was the second match of the night and it was a match that would foreshadow the legendary TLC series between The Hardyz, The Dudleyz and fellow tag team competitors Edge and Christian. Taking the opportunity to impress a large pay-per-view audience, the two teams delivered a phenomenal showcase filled with several high-octane stunts and high-risk maneuvers.
In order to win the match, you had to put both members of the opposing team through a table. This meant that fans would be treated to seeing at least three tables smashed before the end of the match. However, these trailblazers wouldn’t settle for just three; by the time the bell rang, at least nine tables had been destroyed.
The match only lasted about twelve minutes, but it was an astonishing tag team match no less, and one filled with plenty of highlights including a mid-rope Powerbomb that sent Matt Hardy through a table. At one point, the Hardy Boyz gained the advantage with a double superplex to Bubba Ray and after a devastating chair hit across Bubba’s forehead, Matt and Jeff Hardy simultaneously performed a diving leg drop and a diving splash, sending their opponent through the table.
The match eventually carried onto the entrance as the Dudley Boyz stacked two tables on top of two other tables under a balcony. In a moment that would define what the tag team division would like over the next several years, Jeff Hardy dove off the balcony and delivered a Swanton Bomb to seal the victory.
There are many reasons why wrestling fans remember the Attitude Era as the peak period of the WWE. Not only did it have edgier, controversial storylines, often pushing of the boundaries of what could be shown on national television, but the Attitude Era also featured a plethora of incredible performers, and yes, that includes many legendary tag teams. In the eyes of many wrestling fans, the Attitude Era featured the best tag team matches — and you’d be hard-pressed to find any other era in the WWE that had as much talent in the division.
The match between the Hardy Boyz and the Dudley Boyz at the Royal Rumble not only put both teams on the map, but it set up one of the greatest rivalries in the history of the WWE. It was the first-ever Tag Team Tables match, and in my opinion, it is also one of the most underrated matches of the pay-per-view.
- Ricky D
Greatest Royal Rumble Matches: Triple H and Cactus Jack Street Fight
Royal Rumble 2000
WWE Championship: Triple H vs. Cactus Jack
The thirteenth annual Royal Rumble gave us one of the best matches in WWE history.
The event took place on January 23, 2000, at Madison Square Garden in New York City. It was the start of a new decade and the WWE was gearing up to build their next great champ. And this was the match that gave one participant the push he needed to become a heavyweight legend over the next decade and arguably the greatest heel for the entire Attitude Era.
Of course, I’m referring to the Street Fight match between Triple H and Cactus Jack for the
WWF WWE Championship.
It was the match the helped Triple H earn everyone’s respect; in fact, in retrospect, it’s clear the whole match was designed as one giant promo in order to give Triple H a believable physical prowess as an ongoing champion contender. And for WWE fans who weren’t familiar with Mick Foley’s earlier hardcore wrestling, the match pretty much certified the man was indeed, truly insane.
Yes, Mankind and Undertaker had already wrestled their legendary Hell in the Cell match two years prior at King of the Ring— and yes, we had already seen plenty of street fights in the WWE— but the WWE Championship match at the 2000 Royal Rumble was a brutal, violent, and extremely bloody affair. By WWE standards, it pushed the boundaries, delivering a level of violence that casual WWE fans weren’t accustomed to seeing.
It was also a match that told an excellent story and had a remarkable buildup leading into the event.
By the summer of ’99, Triple H was finally getting the main event push he deserved thanks to the McMahon-Helmsley Faction, a partnership that benefited from that fact that at the time, Stephanie McMahon had almost full control over the WWE. Great power means great responsibility but for Stephanie McMahon, it meant scheduling unreasonable matches for the wrestlers who were deemed a major threat to her husband. The superstar most affected was none other than, Mick Foley.
Triple H and Mick Foley put on a series of exciting matches in the first year of the new millennium and with this rivalry, came some of the best writing in the history of the WWE. The compelling storyline featured legendary promos, unforgettable drama, and unusual matches designed to wear down Triple H’s main competition. One such match was the “Pink Slip on a Pole Match” between The Rock and Mankind, with the loser forced to leave the WWE. Mankind lost, and thus was fired unceremoniously, only to return two weeks later when the Rock and the rest of the WWE superstars threatened to walk out unless Mick Foley was reinstated. That night, Foley requested a Street Fight for the
WWF WWE Championship at Royal Rumble— and on a January 13 episode of SmackDown!, Foley shocked the world when he returned to the ring in his Cactus Jack persona! It wasn’t Mankind set to fight Triple H at the Royal Rumble— instead, it would be the hardcore legend.
With Mick Foley entering his final year as a full-time professional wrestler, fans were expecting big things from the legend, and the 2000 Royal Rumble Championship match did not disappoint. There have been plenty of Street Fights in World Wrestling Entertainment history, but one would be hard-pressed to find one better than this classic. It was the fifth match of the night— in one of the best Royal Rumble pay-per-view events to date— and by far the most memorable match on the card.
Cactus Jack gained the early advantage after repeated punches but it didn’t take long before both men took to the outside the ring using everything in their reach including the ring bell, the stairs, a couple of trash cans and more. The match featured multiple chair shots to the head along with the destruction of both announce tables and at one point, the two men even took the fight into the crowd. But the real turn of the match came earlier when Cactus brought out a 2×4 wrapped in barbed wire, and slammed it across the skull of Triple H, busting his forehead wide open. It was brutal. It was bloody, and for some fans, it was hard to watch.
Reminiscent of prior a Royal Rumble, Triple H managed to handcuff Cactus Jack and continue to use the steel chair as a weapon, taking advantage of a man who could barely defend himself. Eventually, The Rock made a brief cameo, striking Triple H across the head with a chair, and allowing a police officer enough time to remove Jack’s handcuffs so he could continue to fight. Soon after, Cactus Jack was ready to seal the match but made the mistake of pouring hundreds of thumbtacks onto the ring. In a quick turn of events, Triple H fought back to take control of the match and hit his Pedigree finisher on his opponent, slamming the challenger face-first onto a large pile of thumbtacks and in the process and sealing the victory. The finish was gut-wrenching and graphic but well-scripted given the level of hatred and disdain the Superstars had for each other. Both men took a beating, but in the end, it was Triple H who escaped the victor.
The brutality of the match is a reminder of the differences between the current WWE and the Attitude Era. Nowadays, the WWE doesn’t allow blood in their matches, never mind the use of barbwire and thumbtacks as weapons to use against your opponents. It was a match of its time; a match that stands the test of time— and one of the greatest matches in Royal Rumble history, fueled by the emotion of the competitors, and an epic storyline that would prove Triple H a legitimate headliner.
On a night filled with memorable moments such as the Tables Match between the Hardy Boyz and the Dudely Boyz, not to mention The Rock’s unforgettable Royal Rumble win, Triple H and Mick Foley ended up stealing the show— but it was far from the latest chapter in their rivalry. With the stage set for another iconic battle, the Hardcore Legend and Triple H would step inside a Hell in the Cell for yet, another epic encounter.
- Ricky D
Greatest Royal Rumble Matches: Kurt Angle vs. Chris Benoit
Royal Rumble 2003
WWE Championship: Kurt Angle vs. Chris Benoit
WWE’s annual Royal Rumble pay-per-view is famous for its over-the-top main event, but there have also been many legendary single and tag team matches over the years that wound up overshadowing the titular 30-man brawl. One such match came during the Ruthless Aggression Era when two of the greatest wrestlers in the history of professional wrestling, squared off in what would be a technical showcase between two mat technicians. Of course, I’m referring to the 2003 Royal Rumble WWE Championship match between Kurt Angle and the Rabid Wolverine, Chris Benoit.
The match between Benoit and Angle isn’t just one of the greatest matches in WWE history— it is hands-down, the best match of 2003— a non-stop classic that doesn’t get the full recognition it deserves.
This match took place on January 19, at the Fleet Center in Boston. It was the sixteenth annual Royal Rumble and it unfolded during the pinnacle of the first WWE brand split. Monday Night Raw placed a heavy emphasis on soap opera drama while Smackdown focused more on technical wrestling. And if this wasn’t evident at the time, it became crystal clear during the 2003 Royal Rumble pay per view. In short, there was a huge difference in quality between the Angle/Benoit match which headlined the Smackdown brand and the primary match for Raw which saw Triple H and Scott Steiner fight for the World Heavyweight Championship. It was no contest. The Smackdown brand came out on top thanks to the sheer talent of Benoit and Angle; two world-class competitors in their prime and arguably at the time, two of the best wrestlers on the planet.
For roughly twenty minutes the Canadian Wolverine and the U.S. Olympic Gold Medalist went to war in a non-stop physical encounter which simmered with an amazing series of transitions from the Ankle lock to the Crippler Crossface. Needless to say, both men pulled off every single one of their special movies, multiple times throughout the match. Benoit attempted a diving headbutt on Angle, only Angle avoided the move and attempted an Angle Slam on Benoit which Benoit countered. Later when Benoit applied the sharpshooter on Angle, Angle in dramatic fashion, slowly made his way to the edge of the ring and touched the ropes to break the submission. Their chemistry was off the charts and the action in the ring kept the audience at the edge of their seats, as did the incredibly convincing near-falls which were executed to perfection. At one point, both men laid on the mat unable to get to their feet which almost resulted in a double count-out. It as a back and forth battle that had spectators believing anyone could win at any given moment.
WWE had built Benoit up as a babyface, and despite being the underdog— with the crowd behind the Canadian wolverine, many believed he would finally hold the belt over his shoulders. By the time Benoit executed a diving headbutt, nobody in the arena was left sitting on their chairs. In the end, however, Benoit applied yet another Crippler Crossface on Angle, only to have Angle counter it into a modified ankle lock, forcing Benoit to submit to the hold. It was a clean finish that featured a rare submission from the famously resilient Benoit.
The match exceeded any expectations and in the end, both men received a standing ovation. And while Benoit didn’t win, he walked away as the man who stole the show. Thankfully, it wasn’t the end for him but only the beginning. Over the course of the next year, he would rise in the ranks of the WWE roster and in 2004, he would win the WWE Championship at WrestleMania XX against Shawn Michaels and Triple H in a triple threat match.
As Kurt Angle said when asked about his career-defining match: If you want to learn and understand the art of pro wrestling, you need to watch the 2003 Royal Rumble World Championship match.
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Up next….. Royal Rumble in January 2019. 16 years ago I had the privilege of defending my WWE Championship at the Royal Rumble. This is how the match was explained verbally to those who haven’t watched it. “Professional wrestling in its purest form is as beautiful as ballet, as elegant as a ballroom dance and as captivating as a theater. By purest form I mean technical wrestling, which in today’s world is almost non-existent. The fiery chain wrestling, involving great chemistry, in-ring psychology and dream like story telling is something that happens when all the stars align.” This match was one of my best performances of my career. If you haven’t seen it, give it a look. #itstrue #wwe #championship #royalrumble
Angle vs. Benoit can be viewed as the single greatest non-Rumble match in the history of the pay per view. Watching it again after all these years proved to be just as thrilling— even if I already knew the outcome.
- Ricky D
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