We've all seen fans of professional wrestling: They board airplanes in flip-flops, enter court wearing tank tops, ask barbers for "mudflaps," brain boyfriends with hubcaps, enjoy smoking Luckys and eating at Stuckey's, have the IQ's of larva and new wives named Darva, and multiple exes raising kids named for Texas ( Houston, Austin, Tyler, Taylor, Kirby, Kyle and Angelina).
One such family of fans appears in Beyond the Mat, a riveting pro-wrestling documentary that opens in theaters in 50 cities on March 17. (It already has been showing in Charlotte and Memphis.) The husband, with his hockey hair and prescription Blue-blockers, is the Unabomber police sketch come to life. His wife has wrestling slogans Magic Markered across her chest, while the couple's adolescent daughter has similarly adorned her own bare midriff. All three are at ringside in North Platte, Neb., hoping to catch the jaundiced eye of the famous wrestler and crack addict Jake (the Snake) Roberts.
"She's gonna live here the rest of her life and have seven kids and seven husbands," says Roberts, with a world-weary prescience, after meeting the girl. "My god, I could be mayor next week.... They'd execute the one they got and put me in power. I'd be dictator-mayor. And they'd love it. That's what really scares you." Soon after the interview, Jesse Ventura was elected governor of Minnesota.
But whereas Ventura wore feather boas in the ring, the Snake wears actual boas. To call this man's life a train wreck would do a disservice to the railroad industry. He's an Amtrak catastrophe, the Hindenburg calamity and the Valdez atrocity rolled into one potbellied fiftysomething. Roberts was conceived, he says, when his father—former pro wrestler Grizzly Smith, who also appears on camera—raped a 13-year-old girl. Roberts's sister was apparently murdered. Their kindly stepfather was accidentally electrocuted in his own attic. No wonder Roberts, who was once the top drawing card of the World Wrestling Federation but now performs "independently," unwinds with rock cocaine in Ramada after Ramada. "My whole life is one gruesome, horrible thing after another," Roberts concedes in the film, while giving the impression that things could be fractionally worse: He could be a wrestling fan.
Mat was made by an unabashed pro-wrestling enthusiast, screenwriter Barry Blaustein (Coming to America). But besides him, we're left to wonder: Who exactly are pro wresting fans? They're certainly legion: Three of the top 10-rated programs on cable television are wrestling shows, and WWF superstars The Rock and Mick (Mankind) Foley have two of the top 10 books on The New York Times best-seller list. Of course Celine Dion has sold 100 million albums, and I don't know a soul who owns one of them. Wresting poses a similar paradox.
"I could care less who wins, I could care less who loses," Jim Ross, the WWF's senior vice president of talent, tells Blaustein on camera. "As long as we got an ass every 18 inches, I'm a happy guy."
You do get one of those every 18 inches in Mat. There's Roberts's former employer Vince McMahon, the oiled, orange-tanned overlord of the wildly popular WWF, which has petulantly barred advertising for Mat from its TV programs. ( McMahon is shown in his office, commanding an aspiring wrestler to vomit on cue into his wastebasket.) There's promoter Roland Alexander, who, when questioned about reneging on payments to wrestlers, explains, "You have to be a prick in this business." Everywhere is Roberts, whose simultaneous addictions to pharmaceuticals and group sex have left him with an inexhaustible wealth of untoppable anecdotes.
There is much more to recommend in Mat—midgets milling about in tights, men bum-rushed into barbed-wire fencing, wrestler Jerome (New Jack) Young talking of his four (four!) justifiable homicides—but it's Roberts who leaves the viewer slack-jawed and staring. Unlike a wrestling referee, you'll be unable to look away.