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

[Editor's note: A correction ran concerning this story; see end of article.]

Jumpin' Jim Brunzell has taken his share of life's knocks. Well, not knocks, actually, but vicious beatings. One year ago, I sat at a Perkins Restaurant in Shoreview with Brunzell, a former professional wrestler with Verne Gagne's American Wrestling Association and the World Wrestling Federation. At the time, I was collecting stories from several wrestlers who lived in town, trying to get a grasp on what some of the old-schoolers thought of the current state of the biz.

Pro wrestling had suddenly kicked into a high-stakes golden age, a moment when a century-old attraction became the billion-dollar industry Vince McMahon had envisioned when he bought the then-regional WWF from his father more than 20 years ago. The WWF and its rival, the Time Warner-owned World Championship Wrestling, have since parlayed a dizzying combination of big TV ratings, merchandising revenue, countless magazine covers, and relentless barnstorming into a sports-entertainment empire. The industry registers annual grosses of more than $1 billion--about the same as the global take on Titanic, the highest-grossing movie of all time.

But Brunzell, now age 51, was looking at pro wrestling from the bottom up. He spoke frankly about the drug use that plagued pro wrestling during his era in the late Seventies and Eighties--about how pot, cocaine, and alcohol would help a wrestler "get up" before or "come down" after a match, and about how steroids became so widespread, not necessarily to build better physiques, but to help injuries heal faster. Brunzell, who noted that he'd lived cleaner than most, was really talking about a labor issue.

"There is a schedule that consists of 60 days without a day off, and if you're injured or tired, you can't miss a card or you'll be dropped," the still-buff wrestler explained. "I tried to get the guys on top of the AWA and WWF to unionize and give us guaranteed contracts and have insurance that pays for surgeries. But the big-money guys like Hulk Hogan, and certainly McMahon, would never go for that sort of thing. They just want you to wrestle at all costs, and for most guys, that's brutal."

A year later, pro wrestling now merits a feature-length, wide-release documentary that illuminates these same struggles in the industry, engaging even those viewers who couldn't tell a sleeper hold from a figure-four leg lock. Beyond the Mat does its job in stripping away the thin veneer of the sport's current gloss, showing, as the narrator says, that while pro wrestling may be fake, "the result of the violence is very real."

Beyond the Mat is directed and narrated by Barry W. Blaustein, an L.A. scriptwriter best known for Coming to America, Police Academy 2, and the remake of The Nutty Professor. This unthreatening CV no doubt helped him win the cooperation of the image-savvy WWF and overcome the secrecy and skepticism common among wrestlers and promoters. Unfortunately, Blaustein often lives up to this toothless image, throwing himself into the narrative Wonder Years-style from the very beginning of the film by gushing about his childhood passion for the sport.

Had Blaustein offered investigative material instead of (faux?) naive encomiums, a more compelling tale might have emerged. Much of the WWF's past, which is littered with lawsuits, drug abuse, and rumblings of sexual harassment, seems to demand attention. Yet Blaustein never addresses any of this, as if the mere mention might have threatened his access. Nevertheless, enough unfavorable material surfaces that the WWF has distanced itself from the finished product, forcing the removal of copyrighted names from any promotion of the film.

While the WWF may embrace an image of extreme entertainment, the theme of grisly self-sacrifice that eventually emerges from Beyond the Mat is truly harrowing. A former Denver Bronco who can vomit on command "auditions" into a wastebasket for McMahon in the middle of the WWF's shiny corporate offices. "Puke is good," McMahon says earnestly, stumbling upon his new moniker for the wrestler. Moments later, we see "Puke" call his mama and tell her how proud she will be to hear about his new character.

In retrospect, though, this vignette is chilling. The wrestler, Darren Drozdov, eventually did a stint in the WWF as "The Droz" until he was paralyzed from the waist down during a match this fall in Uniondale, New York. (This latest chapter in Drozdov's career isn't in the film; it occurred after the documentary was completed.)

There are similar revelations sprinkled throughout Beyond the Mat about the fall from grace inherent in pro wrestling. Terry Funk, a 53-year-old legend from Amarillo, Texas, makes a grand entrance by struggling to get his war-torn body upright and out of bed in the morning. It's a startlingly intimate moment, edited with footage of a younger, bloodied Funk yelling like Rocky Balboa to a crowd, "Terry Funk forever, forever, forever!" after a particularly gory match. Funk eventually announces his retirement match--his "final" retirement match, that is--in early 1997. Afterward, he is seen staggering alone, melancholy, in an empty dressing room. Blaustein notes that Funk returned to the ring in less than three months, ignoring a doctor's orders to stay away.

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."

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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