Wrestling is fake, insofar as its soap-opera narratives are scripted and its outcomes are predetermined. Yet as Viceland’s Dark Side of the Ring elucidates, reality and fantasy often collide in and out of the squared circle—with disastrous consequences.
Tackling some of the industry’s most infamous incidents, Jason Eisener’s six-part documentary series (premiering Wednesday, April 10) is a behind-the-curtain peek that reveals the havoc caused when wrestlers fail to maintain stable boundaries between their public personas and private lives. Equal parts nostalgia trip, investigative inquiry and tabloidy exposé, it revisits stories and stars that are defined by their notoriety. In doing so, it affords a fascinating glimpse at the unique dynamics that make wresting so popular.
And, also, so ideally suited for tragedy.
Death hovers over Dark Side of the Ring, as four of its installments concern untimely demises due to some combination of drugs, murder and unfathomable misfortune. Eisener sets his tone with his debut episode, “The Match Made in Heaven,” about the tumultuous relationship between Randy “Macho Man” Savage and Miss Elizabeth (i.e. Elizabeth Ann Hulette), who worked together for years as grappler and manager (respectively), and also lived, unbeknownst to fans, as husband and wife. Randy and Elizabeth’s on-screen 1980s love affair was one of the defining elements of Vince McMahon’s World Wresting Federation (now known as World Wresting Entertainment)—he the “paranoid schizophrenic” beast and she the demure, loyal beauty. At their peak, they weren’t just stars; they were foundational icons upon which a skyrocketing business was built.
It’s long been public record that the couple eventually split, and that Elizabeth died of a drug overdose (while involved with WCW headliner Lex Luger) in 2003, while Savage perished in a car accident (after a heart attack behind the wheel) in 2011. Dark Side of the Ring uses tons of superb archival footage and new interviews with Jake “The Snake” Roberts, Jim Cornette, Scott Hall, Bruce Prichard (aka Brother Love) and other wrestling luminaries to underline how, in their case, art imitated life, which then imitated art, resulting in doom. Naturally protective of his wife, Savage made his character egomaniacally jealous of Ms. Elizabeth—only to find his fictional storylines about betrayal (specifically with Hulk Hogan) echoed in his real marriage. With lines blurring, catastrophe was just about inevitable.
Narrated by Dutch Mantel (save for one episode handled by Mick Foley), the show benefits not only from copious clips and photos, but from staged recreations—using top-notch lookalikes—that are shrouded in shadow, the better to impart a sense of mythic charisma and impending calamity. The latter comes in a variety of forms in Dark Side of the Ring, though usually via loss of life. “The Killing of Bruiser Brody” details the untimely fate of the late-‘70s/early-‘80s wild man, who was fatally stabbed in a Puerto Rico locker room shortly before an event. “The Mysterious Death of Gorgeous Gino,” meanwhile, reopens the case of the early-‘80s heel (i.e. villain), whose body was found under puzzling circumstances in his apartment. In the former, Brody’s crazy-barbarian reputation (and vicious feud with rival José González) seems to have contributed to his slaying. In the latter, Gino’s desire to live the life of his cocky-cokehead-playboy alter ego turned out to be a lethal mistake.
The suggestion forwarded throughout Dark Side of the Ring is clear: striving for authenticity in art can be a double-edged sword, and losing sight of what’s legitimate and what’s make-believe is rarely a recipe for happiness or longevity. As depicted in “The Last of the Von Erichs,” attempting to live up to a wholesome-religious-Texan image—and a famous family legacy—destroyed four of Kevin Von Erich’s wrestler brothers (this after a fifth died in adolescence). Now a gaunt man enjoying a peaceful existence in Kauai, Hawaii, Kevin remains shaken by his siblings’ passing, which came about at least partly because they couldn’t reconcile who they were with who they wanted to be.
If there’s a weak link here, it’s the concluding “The Fabulous Moolah.” Eisener addresses charges that the female wrestling legend was a bully who pimped out her protégés for cash, as well as screwed them out of money and championships—just what you’d expect from someone with her nasty in-ring reputation. Yet it never settles on a coherent viewpoint; like the Gorgeous Gino installment, it offers ominous suggestions and unconvincing “conclusions” in place of definitive answers. Nonetheless, even those episodes are bolstered by entertainingly candid and profane interviewees who don’t hold back when discussing the cutthroat business, their backstabbing compatriots, and their own expertise.
In that regard, Dark Side of the Ring peaks with “The Montreal Screwjob.” Arguably the most controversial moment in modern wrestling history, Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels’ 1997 SummerSlam title bout was marked by treachery, when the former—refusing, on the eve of his departure to rival WCW, to lose his belt to the hated Michaels—was blindsided by a three count ordered by WWE owner Vince McMahon. “Say what you want about wrestling—that was real. I really screwed that guy,” crows Cornette, who continues to feud with writer Vince Russo over credit for devising the ruse. Regardless of responsibility, Hart claims in a new chat that “the innocence of wrestling changed,” and everyone more or less agrees, because the ensuing fallout exposed the boardroom machinations behind the spectacle. The illusion of reality (known in wrestling lingo as the code of “kayfabe”) was forever shattered.
Fueled by bitter grudges and corporate competition, “The Montreal Screwjob” highlighted the chaotic downside to blending the personal and the professional, and it ultimately did change fans’ perception of wrestling. Ironically, however, that change wasn’t a death knell for the industry; on the contrary, it gave birth to an era of popular self-referential storylines in which Vince McMahon exploited his newfound villainous status to become the evil “Mr. McMahon” (“If you could cross a genius with P.T. Barnum and Donald Trump, you would get the love child that would be Vince McMahon,” smiles Cornette). There’s no doubt that, in trying to create characters and conflicts that resonated as believable, many wrestlers lost control of their careers, and lives. But for proof that wrestling’s appeal hinges on the push-pull between truth and invention, one need look no further than Dark Side of the Ring itself.