Carnage, Inc.

A new documentary grapples with the real violence behind the most fabricated of sports--pro wrestling

There is still more grit in the film courtesy of wily antihero Jake "The Snake" Roberts, an unspectacular athlete who gained worldwide fame in the 1980s for his mastery of crowd psychology. Yet Roberts had completely disappeared by the early Nineties. Shockingly puffy and hoarse, he surfaces on a card in a North Platte, Nebraska, auditorium. After bringing a local girl up to the ring after a victory, the man announcer Mean Gene Okerlund often compared to Longfellow waxes poetic in his hotel room: "That kind little thing," Roberts says, "she'll probably be here all her life, have seven kids, have seven husbands, and wind up being a truck driver who cross-dresses or something. But she'll always remember tonight."

It's moving, because the trajectory of the Snake's own life has been no rosier: Over the course of his career, the wrestler picked up a crack addiction and abandoned his family--a sordid track record that Roberts blames on his devotion to his craft. In an attempt at reconciliation, Roberts desperately tries to explain his absenteeism to his adult daughter. "If I had taken three months off, I would have been fired," he says tearfully. "Working for McMahon, I would have to wrestle every day."

The next time Roberts surfaces, he's high on crack in a hotel room. There he expounds upon the lifestyle that Brunzell also described. "You're wrestling 26, 27 days a month, twice on Saturday and Sunday, on eight or nine planes a week," Roberts says, periodically spacing out. "It's basically a necessity, just to continue--pills to go to sleep, pills to cure pain, cocaine to get up so you could perform, drink to go to sleep, sleeping pills to go to sleep. Cocaine speeds me up so fast, I can't think about my past."

The snake's out of the bag: Hard-living wrassler Jake "The Snake"  Roberts
The snake's out of the bag: Hard-living wrassler Jake "The Snake" Roberts

Not everyone ends up trapped like Roberts, but tales of redemption are rare in Beyond the Mat. Blaustein offers glimpses of other wrestlers and families that are funny, entertaining, and even, well, normal. (Wry family man Mick "Mankind" Foley stands out in this regard.) But the film's undercurrent of thwarted aspirations, faded accolades, and the obsessive struggles to keep wrestling make for a gutsy pathos.

This is the grind that Brunzell witnessed, the kind of lifestyle of brutality that is the end game for many pro wrestlers. Roberts sums it up with characteristically bleak eloquence: "What I hoped for was a Walt Disney ending--and not this Old Yeller kind, either."


Correction published 3/22/2000:
In the original review of Behind the Mat, the name of wrestler Jim Brunzell was misspelled. One of Brunzell's official publicity photographs from the 1980s contained a mistake, which has been occasionally replicated since. The above version of the story reflects the corrected text. City Pages regrets the error.

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