VICE TV’s signature documentary series gives pro wrestling its due
The third season of VICE’s Dark Side of the Ring starts tonight, and you should be excited. If you’re not excited, it’s probably because you either A. hate wrestling or B. know nothing about the show, because the second season of the show is some of the best documentary television since the third season of 30 For 30.
Let’s start with the best episode of the second season of VICE’s Dark Side of the Ring, which is the one titled “Cocaine and Cowboy Boots: The Herb Abrams Story.” Herb Abrams started the United Wrestling Foundation in 1990 and challenged the grip WWE head Vince McMahon had on professional wrestling. He made an impact, but his love of cocaine and prostitutes held him back. His drug and prostitute consumption was almost constant: wrestlers told stories of meeting with Abrams in his hotel room, and the UWF owner was naked except for cowboy boots, surrounded by piles of booger sugar and high priced escorts. His wrestling league only lasted a few years. In 1996 Abrams died naked, covered in baby oil and in police custody after cocaine psychosis inspired him to smash up his office.
The Dark Side of the Ring is the VICE channel’s most popular show. From episodes like this, you can see why. Yet for a VICE show, a story like Abrams’s is almost too on brand; it’s an entire channel focused on drug use and dangerous situations. If you’re taking bets, I’d throw $100 on Abrams’s demise being the same way Gavin McInnes goes in a few years.
But the Abrams episode is a remarkably insane highlight in a documentary series that mostly has a sympathetic view of professional wrestling. For every Abrams-like take of wrestling craziness, there’s an episode like the second season’s finale, which focuses on the tragic death of Owen Hart during a pay-per-view event. While the Abrams episode had quotes like “he died doing what he loved, cocaine and hookers,” Hart’s had his son tearfully telling the moment he learned his father died.
The title Dark Side of the Ring evokes a seedy atmosphere, like everyone in wrestling who isn’t McMahon is a sleazy mob boss. That’s what the show certainly focused on in the first season, which included episodes about the mysterious murder of Bruiser Brody and the rumors of the world’s longest living female wrestler, the Fabulous Moolah, forcing her underlings to prostitute themselves.
The tragedy of Chris Benoit
The second season took on much heavier topics, kicking off with the tale of Chris Benoit. To put it bluntly, Benoit’s story is the most horrific tale ever to come out of professional wrestling. In 2007, Benoit killed himself after suffocating his wife and his seven-year-old son. Even worse is that the WWE memorialized the once promising star with a three-hour special before learning what he had done, which sent the league scrambling to distance itself from his disgusting actions.
Dark Side of the Ring tells Benoit’s story in two parts, the first being about his life, the second about the fallout from his death. The episodes show Benoit’s life being pleasant in the beginning, his childhood dreams of becoming a famous wrestler within his reach after just a few years of working in Canada and Japan. Along the way he met his wife, Nancy Sullivan, who divorced her wrestling promoter husband after she met Benoit. They fell in love and had a son not long after they married.
What Benoit couldn’t see was that wrestling, which brought him so much joy, was destroying his life. For one, Benoit took “enormous amounts of steroids,” which made him violent, and the WWE never had an issue with it, despite requiring drug tests. On top of that, Benoit’s signature move was a flying head butt. He spent decades of his career jumping off the top turnbuckle head first. After Benoit died, the top neurosurgeon at West Virginia University examined him and concluded his “brain was so severely damaged it resembled the brain of an 85-year-old Alzheimer’s patient.”
Benoit’s story seems perfect for ESPN’s 30 For 30, yet it’s VICE that ran with it. Admittedly VICE stepped up years ago with its HBO show to cover stories that the mainstream news media wasn’t focusing on, but it’s unexpected to see their cable channel basically monopolize wrestling history.
That being said, VICE also takes on the stories that 30 For 30 wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot pole. The best example of this from this season is the episode about New Jack, a black heel with a penchant for cocaine and extreme violence. He stoked racial tensions and endangered other wrestlers’ lives–he once brought a real knife into a match and stabbed his opponent 16 times–and he has no regrets about any of his actions. I can’t see ESPN running an interview where a professional athlete expresses his desire to keep snorting cocaine until he’s old and frail, so thanks for being there, VICE!
Professional Wrestling is a strange phenomenon anyway. It’s an awkward mix of ballet, boxing and soap opera that’s managed to become the most American sport/entertainment ever. But it’s newsworthy. It’s much more dangerous than the news media wants to admit. Studies show that wrestling is much more dangerous than football, with the show saying wrestlers are 20 times more likely to die before the age of 45 than professional football players. Watch matches like the Undertaker versus Mankind Hell in the Cell and the tag team championship of Wrestlemania 17, and you’ll see what I’m talking about.
If you hate pro wrestling, I understand. It looks like swole dudes doing their best Nicolas Cage impressions before viciously beating up others with martial arts and tumbling. But it matters. It continues to be a billion-dollar industry. So no matter your opinions on the sport, or WWE or VICE, it’s nice to see somebody take wrestling seriously.