Thanks to his past hit Netflix series, Whiteley has risen to prominence as a devout chronicler of underdogs. That impulse is alive and well in this riveting seven-part documentary which made its debut on the streaming service Wednesday. The series observes the many, many triumphs and challenges unfolding within the Louisville, Kentucky-based Ohio Valley Wrestling—which has given us legends like John Cena and Dave Bautista.
Run by former WWE legend Al Snow, OVW is part of America’s crumbling regional wrestling infrastructure, and as such, it’s also chronically underfunded. In 2021, Snow sold a majority stake to Lexington, Kentucky attorney and radio host Matt Jones and his business partner Craig Greenberg. As seen in Wrestlers, the three men’s temperaments and interpersonal styles are quite different, and the wrestlers within OVW are understandably leery of their new, collared-shirt-wearing overlord.
In keeping with his prior projects, Whiteley declines to judge any of his subjects or to frame any of them in a two-dimensional light. His characters are rich, idiosyncratic, and often bewitchingly charismatic even in spite of their shortcomings. In other words, they’re human.
Wrestlers weaves a rich tapestry of distinct personalities. The scrappy upstart “HollyHood Haley J” is a firecracker of ambition and talent whose meteoric rise frustrates some of her slower-simmering colleagues like her on-again, off-again partner Eric Darkstorm. Haley and her mother, fellow wrestler Amazing Maria, spend the series playing up the rough aspects of their relationship for the crowd—a gambit that dares the audience to guess where the fiction ends and the reality begins. Other big players in the locker room include the even-keeled father figure Cash Flo and the determined one-time WWE wrestler Mahabali Shera.
In its early episodes, Wrestlers takes great pains to educate even its most oblivious viewers. In truth, however, you don’t need to know much (or anything) about wrestling for this series to capture your attention for hours on end; the show’s compelling characters and knotty relationships will do that all on their own. So, too, does the broader framework within which they all operate: More than a story about wrestling, it’s a story about heart in the face of economic devastation, both within OVW and the area it calls home.
In this light, the conflict between Snow and Jones becomes more fascinating. Their tension clearly comes not from a place of personal malice but more likely from the imbalance in their relationship: Jones has the money that Snow needs, and as such, he has leverage that Snow and his crew—those who’ve been in the business for years—seem to ambiently resent.
Jones might just be one of the show’s most complicated characters: In moments when he’s leaning into lead commentator Bryan Kennison to bring in enough viewership to pay for his own job, he’s not exactly a hero. In other moments, however, he expresses regret for how he handled his early days with OVW. Had he communicated more openly and less authoritatively, he concedes, the dynamic might have been a little smoother.
But it’s the perpetual “heel,” Haley, who runs away with the show in her hot pink boots. The bleachy-haired, long-lashed second-generation wrestler is, in some ways, the show’s aching emotional core. Whiteley’s cameras follow her through contemplative car rides and quiet moments smoking on stairs, as she ruminates on her fraught relationship with her mother, the rape she experienced as a young girl, and the part of herself that’s always in “survival mode.” In spite of the pair's spotty history, Maria is determined to help her daughter succeed.
The wins and losses in wrestling might be pre-determined, and the moves might be rehearsed, but Wrestlers demonstrates how real the blood and tears viewers see in the ring really are. Al Snow’s dedication to narrative, and to showing the audience something they’ve never seen before, also seems to stem from a desire to find some truth in the stories he and OVW are telling. With any luck, Netflix audiences will really hear them—and, perhaps, help these determined athletes achieve all the glory (and economic stability) they so deeply crave.
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