Everyone my age had an Ultimate Warrior action figure or a pillow shaped like Hulk Hogan. Even if you didn’t watch WWF every Saturday morning, you knew who “Rowdy” Roddy Piper was or you had a trading card of the Road Warriors in a pile of junk on your dresser (who knows how it got there). Even though I wasn’t really interested in it, wrestling was an inescapable part of the monoculture in the late ’80s and early ’90s. That’s the history that I brought to Netflix’s new 7-part docuseries Wrestlers, a vérité look at the current state of wrestling in the state of Kentucky.
Wrestlers comes from the filmmaker behind Netflix’s equally raw and real (and ultimately too raw and real) docuseries Cheer. And like Greg Whiteley’s previous Netflix hit, you don’t have to know much of anything about the subject matter going into it. Wrestlers is about the cast of characters assembled at Ohio Valley Wrestling, or OVW, the last remaining regional wrestling promotion — one that boasts a 20-year streak of weekly live TV broadcasts. OVW was known as the training ground for future wrestling — and Hollywood — superstars like John Cena and Dave Bautista. Now it’s hard for them to fill their modest, 400-ish-seat “arena” (a ring in a nice-sized warehouse). The first two episodes of Wrestlers fill you in quick on the characters, the conflicts, and the stakes, but it’s the third episode where things really click into place — where Wrestlers comes from outta nowhere and whacks your doubts about investing in a wrestling docuseries with a folding chair.
The opening montage of Episode 3, titled “Faces & Heels” after wrestling terms for heroes and villains, is Wrestlers in a microcosm. On a mission to bring a broader audience to Louisville’s own OVW, new co-owner — and, most importantly, non-wrestler — Matt Jones has booked a wrestling show at the annual Poke Sallet festival in Harlan County, KY (pop. 25,662 — which is down 1,000 from the year before). Poke Sallet, by the way, is a salad made using the poisonous pokeweed that grows in the region. Yes, the salad will kill you if you don’t cook it right, but that’s why they celebrate — because “our mama made it right.”
Look: I’m from Tennessee. I can acknowledge that this is bizarre, but am I one bit surprised? Absolutely not.
The Poke Sallet Festival, though, is the colorful backdrop for what has to be the most moving and emotional cold open of any show of 2023. First, here’s how OVW co-owner Matt Jones, a radio DJ and non-wrestler, explains his decision to drop a cadre of spandex-clad showboats into the middle of a poisonous weed celebration: “That’s why I’m attracted to something like OVW. I like the idea of people dismiss it but I’m gonna show you that it’s better than you think it is.”
Set to the rollicking and optimistic tune of REO Speedwagon’s 1978 hit “Roll with the Changes,” we get a montage of Harlanites bemoaning the loss of the coal industry, which once made the city a little metropolis, and an aerial shot of a tent village with signs proclaiming, “NO PAY WE STAY.” Harlan is one of the poorest counties in the country. There’s nothing to do and nowhere to go, except to a festival that honors a deadly mountain weed. But this year, that festival has wrestling. Contrast the empty buildings of main street with the packed parking lot of the festival, as people of all ages cheer these athletes as they put on a show. The excitement from the audience, especially the kids growing up in the county’s 400 square miles, is palpable. How often have the people of Harlan County seen a guy like Shera, a 6’4″ wrestler from India with the physique of an actual Avenger? The montage sells the awe.
But where the montage really gets me, particularly the Tennesseean in me, is when the footage cuts between Mahabali Shera’s match and archival footage of the coal miners that used to define this county. Then we get some old OVW footage tossed in too, all while REO Speedwagon’s anthem about perseverance plays on: “Keep on rollin’/Keep on rollin’/Now roll with the changes.” Shera smashes a face into a turnbuckle. Long dead miners emerge from below, covered in black. A retired wrestler drops a man through a folding table. The kids look on in wonder. “Now roll with the changes.”
What this montage accomplishes through all of this juxtaposition, which carries all the way to the title screen of “WRESTLERS” over modern footage of a coal miner going into the depths, is the sense that if Harlan County — if Kentucky — can’t be known for coal anymore, then maybe it can be known for this. And “this” means wrestling if you want it to mean wrestling, but I can’t help but think about what those kids are seeing happen in that parking lot.
The youngest generation is too young to know about the decline of coal or the declining population. All they know, right then and there, is that a diverse roster of colorful, larger-than-life beings have been transported to their backyard for the night, to blow their tiny little minds. It’s something they never even dreamed of being possible — and I know, because I grew up going to those same kinds of festivals across the border in Sumner County, Tennessee, never dreaming of seeing anything as dazzling as HollyHood Haley J and Leila Grey throwing down at dusk. The message I get from all of this is that anything is possible, the world is bigger than you think, and you can be braver than you ever imagined. What was it Matt Jones said earlier? “I like the idea of people dismiss it but I’m gonna show you that it’s better than you think it is.” He’s talking about wrestling, but also Harlan — and also the human experience.
Like I said: I don’t even like wrestling, but this one montage sold me on its power. And it wasn’t footage of a much-hyped pay-per-view or a charismatic promo of the WWE’s most charismatic star. What got me was a montage set to REO Speedwagon featuring a bunch of normal folks putting on a bunch of makeup and tights to put on the best show they can for a bunch of strangers at a carnival for a toxic salad. That’s the power of Wrestlers.