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'Mat' Delivers Blow to the Heart

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 17, 2000


    'Beyond the Mat' Jake "The Snake" Roberts, kneeling, wrestled with more than just opponents – he also had to battle addiction. (Lions Gate)
Don't just think of "Beyond the Mat" as a wrestling documentary, even though wrestling is the subject of Barry W. Blaustein's five-year labor of love.

The real power of this movie – the part that hits home – is the brutal effect of the business on the performers' families. Yes, there are wives, kids, fathers and mothers connected to the likes of Jake the Snake, Mankind and Puke.

And yes, that would be Puke. In one of the most hilarious scenes in the film, a former NFL football player and aspiring wrestler sits in the office of World Wrestling Federation (WWF) owner Vince McMahon and tries to sell him on his "gimmick": the ability to vomit on demand.

McMahon, a wrestler himself, with the kind of hairdo that says "promoter," loves the idea. He asks Puke to demonstrate his trick. No problem. Puke fills the bucket provided.

"Puke is good," says McMahon approvingly. "Puke is nice. It fits the WWF attitude."

An amusing interlude, for sure. But the predominant mood in "Beyond the Mat" is in a more minor key, as people literally suffer for their art. Puke, also known as former Denver Broncos player Darren Drozdov, now suffers from partial paralysis as a result of wrestling.

Director Blaustein, a former writer for "Saturday Night Live," and a lifelong wrestling fan, spent two years hanging around wrestling gyms and arenas, trying to earn the trust of the professional big names – and the not-so-famous contenders.

Eventually, wrestlers Jake Roberts (Jake the Snake), Mick Foley (Mankind/Cactus Jack), Terry Funk and McMahon, among others, gave their permission to be filmed and followed.

The shooting process took another 2½ years. The result: incredibly intimate portraits of wrestlers, both in their swaggering ringside moments and in the more private times.

"Beyond the Mat" takes you to Foley's home, for instance, where the bloodied, beaten fighter frolics with his children before returning for his next beating. The two children, Dewey and Noelle, don't seem to mind that Dad comes back bloody and pulpy. Dad says it's all right.

But the strain on his wife Collette is palpable, as she watches him endure considerable abuse in the ring. She winces at every blow. But Foley keeps going back for more. He doesn't know how to do anything else, he tells an offscreen Blaustein.

It's unlikely you'll forget Jake Roberts, a dark-souled, aging pro with an admitted crack addiction, who cruises from large arenas to pathetically small venues – anywhere he can get a gig.

Roberts becomes increasingly honest about himself, his anecdotes and rambling commentary darkening with each revelation. A man emotionally destroyed by his father, he has also virtually ignored his own daughter. When they meet for the first time in years, she confronts him about this shortcoming. Jake's pain and discomfort, as he tries to explain why he was never there for her, is excruciating.

As for Funk, a fighter in his fifties, he walks around in constant pain – the cumulative toll of all that punishment over the years.

Refusing a doctor's advice to rebuild a particularly damaged knee, he continues to fight. He continues to get hurt. He can't leave this world. It's all he knows, too. So when Funk promotes his final fight, the one to launch his permanent retirement, it's hard to believe he'll actually go through with it. It's a heartbreak to see the hope on the faces of his wife and daughter, who want Funk to come home forever. You can bet your bottom dollar they're not going to get that wish.

"Beyond the Mat" gives a very real sense of a multimillion-dollar subculture, from the fans who come for the sheer spectacle to the quasi-masochistic, musclebound personalities who make it happen. You don't have to love WWF scrapping to appreciate this movie. You just have to have a strong stomach for bloody encounters and a sensibility that appreciates the humanity in any situation. It's compelling viewing indeed.

BEYOND THE MAT (R, 103 minutes) – Contains wrestling violence and obscenity.

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company


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