Wrestling documentaries and tell-all books have become commonplace on the wrestling landscape. Here are three standout wrestling documentaries that have made their mark across three decades that provide highly recommended viewing.
Not too long ago, there was a time when pro wrestling documentaries were a rarity, and few fans had the opportunity to indulge inside the arcane world controlled by promoters, wrestlers, and their steadfast companion: kayfabe. So let’s take a retrospective glimpse at three classic wrestling documentaries spanning three different decades that left their indelible mark while taking us behind the scenes and changing how we saw wrestling forever.
1. Wrestling Queen (1973)
Wrestling Queen offers us a unique snapshot of the unruly and exciting world of wrestling from the early ’70s when the territories were still dominant, and Hulkamania was more than a decade away.
According to IMDB, Patrick Vallely directed and edited this gem of a film. The viewer becomes close and personal with many stars from that era, and witness some excellent albeit edited matches that exemplify the rough and tumble style of wrestling carried out during that decade.
The documentary is gritty and realistic in its presentation. We witness the fans’ almost palpable emotions that shift from uncontrolled exuberance that will make you smile and maybe even cheer along with them, to white-hot anger that sometimes ends in fights with the wrestlers to the point of near-riots. The excitable crowds contain an assortment of people: young girls crying, old ladies jeering, and men chomping nervously on their cigars. People are so engrossed in the matches that you’d think that the result was a matter of life and death, and to many of this kayfabe era, it certainly was!
Blind Promoter Leroy McGuirk explains in the documentary that wrestling had become less of a scientific contest and more of a brawl with lots of punches and kicks. Because of the increases in heart attacks, he suggests that many older people should get examined before attending. Wow! A disclaimer and promo in one!
Did you know? La Lutte from 1961 is an even earlier documentary than Wrestling Queen and is worth noting, as it may have been the first. Envisioned as an exposé of the sport, the documentary filmed at the Montreal Forum later decided to treat it as a celebration of the spectacle that it is, but without judging it. The beautiful 30-minute movie can be seen below:
The unabashed emotions the fans rain upon the wrestlers in Wrestling Queen is fascinating. They openly insult, yell at the top of their lungs, and even spit upon the heels. Given the smallest window of opportunity, they will undoubtedly try and unmercifully maul the villain, or carry out the hero upon their shoulders like we see them do with their beloved Danny Hodge in perhaps Oklahoma. When observing the eyes of the fans spanning all ages, we can almost see the sparkle they exude as many stare mouth agape betraying a sheer sense of awe. The creators of Wrestling Queen seem to want the viewer to guess what is happening inside the ring by reading the map of emotions emanating from the people’s faces. The immersion by the fans is a highlight of the film. Could this possibly happen today in the era of connectivity where people seemingly always have their smartphones attached to their bodies and have the constant itch to see the latest happenings on the dozens of social media platforms?
The documentary is a throwback to when kayfabe was a way of life, and it shows in the interviews. Maurice "Mad Dog" Vachon is thankful that he has one quart of blood more than the average person because it might have saved his life after a brawl he had with The Crusher. Killer Kowalski talking about how the years of experience in the sport has translated to success in the squared circle. "Blackjack" Mulligan calmly recounts about "having had just about every bone in his body broken, getting stabbed several times and almost dying (story about this here: The Night Blackjack Mulligan was Nearly Murdered in the Ring)." Dory Funk Sr., while outdoors and fishing at an undisclosed location, makes an appearance and stresses the importance of winning to gain main event status.
Even the jaded and cynical fan will enjoy going back to a simpler time when it was either black or white, good or bad. No anti-heroes, no divulging the real names of the wrestlers, no so-called dirt sheets, and certainly no Firefly Fun House matches! Newer fans that never experienced this will probably enjoy Wrestling Queen and its back-to-basics vibe, which in this writer’s opinion, fortunately is never a boring pill to swallow.
Vivian Vachon, who has the starring role as "The Wrestling Queen," was the youngest in the family of thirteen children, where two of her eight brothers (Maurice "Mad Dog" Vachon and Paul "Butcher" Vachon) became wrestlers. The unruly Luna Vachon was her niece.
"She didn’t know what she wanted to do, but she liked to travel and wanted to see the world," says her father, Ferdinand Vachon. So Maurice said, "Okay, we’ll show you wrestling. You got the build for it, but you have to win every time!"
The documentary was going to focus on wrestling in general, but when they picked up on her magnetism and charisma, they decided to make her the centerpiece of the movie’s poster which probably mislead people to think that she would be the focal point throughout. Instead, the viewer gets a front-row seat to the rugged wrestling from territories such as Ottawa and Louisiana, where in the middle of intense confrontations between fans and wrestlers, the police say, "We’re here to protect the wrestlers." Well, isn’t that swell?
The public dubbed Vivian Vachon "The Queen of Wrestling," and the 1972 edition of The Wrestler wrote, "She can be brutal when necessary yet is a master of scientific wrestling." According to the same magazine, she was the favorite to end The Fabulous Moolah’s stranglehold on the championship belt.
During the filming of Wrestling Queen, Vivian Vachon was only in her early 20s and was about to embark on her first tour of the United States. She is sent off on her journey after a big blowout at a beer garden where we witness many wrestlers of the era fraternizing and just letting loose. Kayfabe be damned, I guess! But to be fair, it seems to be a private party.
Other than the two edited matches against Kay Noble and Marie Laverne, the cameras seem to gravitate to her at every opportunity. Even though her interviews are very brief, her candid and sincere demeanor is a refreshing break from the sweaty savagery seen throughout the documentary.
"There aren’t too many women who wrestle in the first place, it’s something original, and it’s something for them to go see," says Vachon. "Besides, men love women, right? They get a kick out of it, I think, watching the women wrestle. I don’t know what they do; they might just sit there and have dreams about us. I don’t know. Whatever they do, it’s good for them, right? [smiles] As long as they’re coming [pauses] to the matches. They get thrills out of it, all kinds of thrills. Nobody’s ever told me what they felt, but I’ve seen some pretty weird things!"
In the ring, Vivian Vachon is all business and convincingly plays the part of the heel but remains very likable. Even though she just had a couple of years of experience under her belt, she is a consummate pro, and her in-ring work is like that of a seasoned veteran. Sometimes it seems like she was even working the referee by the way she brazenly talks to him!
In a 1973 story in the St. Petersburg Times, writer Laura Stein summed up Vachon: "She drinks her whiskey straight, and swears like a truck driver, but in a soft voice. She’s rude when she feels like being rude, but if she likes you, she’ll give you her heart."
Wrestling Queen goes behind the scenes but doesn’t nearly peel back all the layers that fans today expect of a documentary or a tell-all book. At the time, it was a breakthrough that dramatically encapsulated the wrestling of the era, and the kayfabe style interviews might enhance the experience. The original song by William Baldwin, aptly named Wrestling Queen, will stay with you forever. The documentary, as a whole, certainly has an undeniable nostalgic charm of an era of wrestling never to return. Unfortunately, it had a limited showing in theaters with some fans remember seeing it at the drive-in theater or dingy grindhouse cinemas.
Sadly in 1991, a drunk driver caused an automobile accident that killed Vivian Vachon, along with her nine-year-old daughter Julie. The tragedy occurred in Mont-Saint-Gregoire, located in the Southern portion of Quebec, Canada. She is survived by her son Ian Carnegie who is a competitive arm wrestler.
Vivian Vachon was posthumously honored at the Cauliflower Alley Club in 2006 and inducted into the Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2015.
Watch the wrestling documentary Wrestling Queen in full. All participating wrestlers are credited at the end.
2. I Like To Hurt People (1985)
I Like To Hurt People is, if anything, one of the most unique wrestling documentaries that tried to do many things simultaneously, but somewhere seems to have lost its identity of what it wanted to be. The movie was filmed in the late-’70s but released in the mid-’80s with added footage from 1984. The film is relegated as an oddity of wrestling documentaries and memorabilia as it failed to connect with its audience. There are movies that you perhaps don’t remember whether you watched or not, but if you happened upon a copy of I Like To Hurt People, for better or worse, you’d never forget it!
First envisioned to be a wrestling-related horror movie called Ringside in Hell starring a possessed Sheik (Ed Farhat) and other wrestlers, the film takes a more entertainment approach compared to Wrestling Queen. But it was then changed to simply Ringside and reborn as a documentary on wrestling after dropping the horror elements. The movie, abandoned for years due to lack of funding, became a documentary with a seemingly forcibly affixed and campy pseudo plotline about stopping The "Noble" Sheik because he was deemed too violent in the ring. This change happened until the mid-’80s when the film’s director and producer Donald G. Jackson negotiated a deal with New World Video that consisted of selling them movies he had produced to fill out their new laserdisc line. They believed that the now-titled I Like To Hurt People would sell better as a movie with a story instead of a cut and dry wrestling documentary, so they funded the added footage with The "Noble" Sheik.
Unfortunately, this gives the film a disjointed feel. When released, it was odd to see a film released in 1985 featuring stars from the previous decade in small studio settings when not at Detroit’s Cobo Hall, of course. In 1985, wrestling and especially the then-WWF was far into its transition from what we see in I Like To Hurt People (smaller, darker, and somewhat rundown seedy venues) to what is now known as the clean, slick product called Sports Entertainment. The carnage dealt by The "Noble" Sheik to his opponents is in-your-face and bloody. There is an unsettling scene where he wrestles Dusty Rhodes and carves open his shoulder with a foreign object. Surely a disturbing scene for the unaware casual viewer, and not exactly family-friendly. Nonetheless, the tape was available at rental stores in 1985 for all to see, and not given any restrictions. Alas, it never got released in theaters, but if you can find the laserdisc version, you might want to hold on to that collector’s item or just gift it to me instead.
The creative camera work used throughout the movie by the associate producer and director of photography Bryan Greenberg differentiates it from the more unpolished-looking Wrestling Queen. It gives the film a unique artistic touch. While neither movie has a big-budget Hollywood movie feel, I Like To Hurt People is more experimental. Sonya Friedman, who plays the reporter in the film, and was there to try and give it a documentary feel, went on to have a show on CNN called Sonya Live in LA in 1987.
Watch the trailer for I Like To Hurt People:
While Wrestling Queen was a documentary, I Like To Hurt People is more of a mockumentary stuffed with interviews and is a 100% work of kayfabe cinema and never meant to be an exposé. The staged interactions with the fans and the colorful characters do entertain but go into the absurd even for wrestling. Case in point would be the STS (Stop The Sheik) Society and a strange sequence of two black guys staking out a parking lot hoping to meet Andre The Giant, who comically appears in an orange jeep he can barely fit in.
Did you know? Bryan Greenberg claims that this was the first time Andre the Giant had been on TV or in a movie and that the simple line, "Are you talking to Andre?" took many takes because Andre couldn’t speak English.
There is no real unifying narrative, and subplots come and go at random. Wrestlers like Dusty Rhodes, who are known for cutting legendary promos, often look like amateur actors who are out of their element in scenes when they have to deliver their lines. Others like The Grand Wizard (Abdullah Farouk/Ernie Roth) and Eddie "The Brain" Creachman don’t lose a step and prove why they are considered two of the premier managers in wrestling.
Heather Feather is a 5’10", 350 lbs female wrestler in the movie that wrestles A Man (that is precisely how they spell his name). She was not part of Moolah’s camp but instead trained at Lou Klein’s Gym in Allen Park, Michigan. In the movie, she is asked by Sonya Friedman, "What’s a nice twenty-three-year-old girl doing in this racquet?" "Mainly to prove myself," she answered. "I’ve been this tall and this weight since I was twelve, it was tough growing up." During her five-year career that spanned from 1973-1978, she regularly wrestled men, participated in battle royals, and even took on Victor The Bear in an inter-species match, which ended in a draw. Unfortunately, not filmed for I Like To Hurt People because, inexplicably, it didn’t occur to the contacts at Big Time Wrestling (Detroit territory owned by The Sheik) that it would be a good idea to film it. When Friedman asked her how long she thought she could last in wresting, Feather replied, "A girl can only last until she looks young. As soon as she starts looking old, she’s done for. A man can do this until he drops dead in the ring."
I Like To Hurt People was an interesting experiment that, along with Wrestling Queen, paved the way for the countless wrestling documentaries available today. What I Like To Hurt People lacks in seriousness, it makes up with outlandish interviews, nonsensical random segments, and plenty of old-school in-ring action (blood included) featuring many legends that are no longer with us. The difference in tone between I Like To Hurt People and Wrestling Queen is like night and day. Wrestling Queen strived to elevate professional wrestling and takes the craft very seriously. While I Like To Hurt People certainly doesn’t intentionally drag wrestling through the mud, it does derail itself in the tomfoolery wrestling has always been criticized for. You can be carnivalesque without necessarily being carnie.
When released, the movie did offer the viewer a unique chance to see many wrestlers that were no longer mainstream stars by 1985 and when the territory system continued to crumble underneath the WWF.
Wrestling Queen, compared to I Like To Hurt People, does delve into more of the "secrets" of wrestling, although with a heavy kayfabe filter. I Like To Hurt People has it beat by a mile if all you want is mindless fun where you may be keen on wondering which old school wrestler will be making the next cameo and what hilarity will ensue. In a way, it reminds me of movies like Rock’ n’ Roll High School (1979) starring The Ramones or something to be found in the Troma Entertainment catalog of strange B-movies next to The Toxic Avenger (1984) or Class of Nuke ’Em High (1986) as opposed to The Wrestler (2008) or 350 Days: The Movie (2018).
Bryan Greenberg obtained the rights of the movie after director Donald G. Jackson passed away in 2003. In 2017 he was unable to secure funding to release I Like To Hurt People Too, which was going to reveal the story behind the making of the film, including never before seen footage. Jackson is determined to continue trying to re-release the film with a bunch of special features. He regularly posts updates on the official Facebook page here.
3. Beyond The Mat (1999)
Directed, written, and produced by Barry W. Blaustein, Beyond The Mat is a documentary that I dare say most wrestling fans have seen. It compellingly tore itself away from any pretense the previous two wrestling documentaries tried to cling onto with kayfabe trying to protect wrestling and presenting it as a real sport. Beyond The Mat is a representation of a huge wave of change sweeping wrestling that sought to focus on realism and storylines that intertwined themselves with the wrestler’s real lives.
Watch the trailer for Beyond The Mat:
Since its birth, pro wrestling has always had the stigma of "not being on the level." Vince McMahon Jr. trying to deregulate wrestling in the states, testified in front of the New Jersey State Senate on February 10th, 1989, admitting that "wrestling was strictly entertainment, a performance instead of a competition." As far back as 1985, in an interview with The Boston Globe, he alludes to wrestling not being a pure sport. The book Fall Guys: The Barnums of Bounce by Marcus Griffin was trying to tell people that wrestling was all a work ever since published in 1937.
Wrestling magazines like Pro Wrestling Illustrated and its family of magazines who worked with the promotions to maintain the illusion fell out of favor with the fans in the late ’90s. Publications like WOW revealing real behind the scenes news along with the real names of the wrestlers became the new standard. The so-called dirt sheets such as Dave Meltzer’s Wrestling Observer and Wade Keller’s Pro Wrestling Torch were newsletters that began to focus on inside information and gossip behind the curtain wall that was beforehand protected by kayfabe and shrouded in mystery.
With the explosion of the internet, news became practically instantaneous. Now it was almost impossible to stop the flow of knowledge and exchange of information between fans and everybody involved in the industry. The term "smark" – which is short for "smart mark" – is for fans that were "smartened up to the business" and were aware of the inner workings of wrestling but enjoyed the product anyways.
Triple H mocks the fans in the new era of internet and dirt sheets:
Hardcore wrestling was en vogue, and Beyond The Mat truly did go behind the scenes where the previous wrestling documentaries had only scratched the surface. The documentary goes by the credo: "We know wrestling is a show, but it’s not as fake as you think. Of course, the winners of the matches are predetermined, and the violence is choreographed. However, the result of the violence is very real." The documentary seeks out to try and understand: "Who were these guys?" and really gained unprecedented access to wrestling like no other film had done before.
With the innocence of wrestling shattered, Beyond the Mat felt as real as a heart attack, and subtleness was not its strong point. You are swept in the emotion of it all as you almost feel their pain and shed tears of joy celebrating their triumphs. Here we see aging icon Terry Funk warned about the serious health issues he’s facing and how they’d worsen if he decides to continue punishing his body in the ring. In a surreal scene, Mick Foley wearing a dripping crimson mask and after almost dying in the ring, tries explaining to his small children that he is "Okay and it’s just a boo-boo, but they can’t hurt dada." The troubled Jake "The Snake" Roberts reveals his troubled past and the inner demons he fights every day. His estranged daughter also appears in the film, as well as people claiming that Roberts demanded drugs before working. Vince McMahon Jr., the face of the billion-dollar monster that is WWE, allows the cameras unprecedented access. We see that the company uses writers, a music composer, and even wardrobe designers. Back in 1999, the concept of people writing the stories fans saw on TV was a gamechanger and was something that just wasn’t readily known. Where once there was fan naivete, we now have Vince McMahon Jr. inducing Darren Drozdov to vomit on cue.
"My favorite wrestler growing up was Terry Funk. A lot of guys acted crazy, but Terry made you believe it might be true," says Barry W. Blaustein, Beyond The Mat.
Movie critic Roger Ebert commented about Beyond The Mat, "It isn’t a slick documentary; some of it feels like Blaustein’s home movie about being a wrestling fan. But it has a hypnotic quality… wrestling is not a sport but a spectacle, in which weary and wounded men, some not in the best shape, injure one another for money."
He also brings up an essential question about drugs in wrestling. "What we wonder is, how can you be a pro wrestler and not use drugs? A working wrestler performs 26-27 days in a month, twice on weekends. There are bus and plane trips to far-flung arenas, where even on a good day (no serious injuries), their bodies are slammed around in a way that might alarm a football player."
In the end, the documentary proclaims that wrestlers "are just like you and me, except that they’re really different." The film is still considered one of the best wrestling documentaries available. Even after 20 years since its release, it’s a must-watch for any wrestling fan, and it still feels fresh and ageless.
These three wrestling documentaries had creators with different goals and aspirations when they embarked into the world of wrestling. We fans are lucky to have access to these compelling works about the form of entertainment we love so much.
Another early documentary worth your time is the fantastic Portland Wrestling: The PBS Documentary from the mid-’70s. Jesse Ventura, Dutch Savage, Apache "Bull" Ramos, Iron Sheik, Jerry Oates, Jimmy Snuka. The interactions between the fans and the wrestlers are worth the viewing alone. You can watch the 24-minute movie here.
Enjoy this piece and want more? Here are three more wrestling documentaries that hit the mark:
- 350 Days Documentary: The Story of Sex, Drugs, and Rock n Roll
- Legends Live on in "Wrestling Then & Now" Documentary
- Andre the Giant Documentary – 12 Things Learned (And Facts Left Out!)
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