‘Dark Side of the Ring’ is required viewing

Bruiser Brody, subject of a ‘Dark Side of the Ring’ episode

Despite the PG-era mandate of making everything fun and happy in today’s WWE, things are not always as positive as they seem. That less-than-rosy side is what Vice, along with producers Jason Eisener and Evan Husney, are examining in the six-episode first season of “Dark Side of the Ring.” Premiering each Wednesday at 9 p.m., the hour-long show (really 45 minutes since they don’t have commercials) tackles one seedier aspect of the wrestling business each week.

Early reviews have been positive. Jim Cornette is treating it like a triple cheeseburger from Wendy’s — he can’t get enough of it. The Rock took a break from shilling tequila to talk about how much he loved the show. And a veritable who’s who of wrestling royalty (and Vince Russo) have enjoyed this unique presentation.

If you haven’t checked out the series yet, it is well worth going out of your way to do so. Three episodes have been released so far — looking at Bruiser Brody, Macho Man & Elizabeth, and Montreal — and are available on Viceland dot com, with the Brody episode also being released on the show’s official YouTube channel.

The show is produced for a mainstream audience, but it’s made with the “smart” audience in mind as well. It doesn’t insult our intelligence, but there is a bit of explaining in each episode for those who might not understand the inner workings of the industry. It’s produced in the mode of a true-crime drama on the Discovery channel — narration, interviews, and re-enactments of various events. But, the re-enactments aren’t cheesy and over-the-top; they really help piece together some of the backstage encounters and fill in the blanks.

I will say, though, my biggest issue with the series might catch me the scorn of old-school wrestling fans — I am not a fan of Dutch Mantell as the narrator. He is wonderful when he’s standing next to Jack Swagger in the ring doing a faux right wing commentator, he’s intriguing when he’s sitting next to Sean Oliver during a shoot interview, and he’s insightful in his books and commentary. But, for some reason this just doesn’t do it for me — he doesn’t add to the program, and really just comes across as an old man very obviously reading a script.

We’ll take a look at the three episodes that have been released so far, and give a preview of the remaining three.

Bruiser Brody

Technically, this is the third episode and premiered Wednesday, April 24, but it was the preview episode that was put on YouTube before the series premiered. This is one of the all-time sad stories in professional wrestling — Frank “Bruiser Brody” Goodish was stabbed to death in a locker room in Puerto Rico. The assailant, Jose “Invader 1” Gonzales, got off by claiming self defense.

According to two people there that day — Dutch Mantell and Tony Atlas — it was not self defense. Mantell wasn’t witness to the attack, and arrived shortly thereafter, but Atlas was in the room when it happened, albeit not in direct view.

For this episode, since Mantell is a major contributor as a talking head, Mick Foley is the narrator. Really, the entire series would have been better with Foley providing the narration — he is so much more eloquent and also more recognizable to a mainstream audience than Mantell.

It’s also good to see Atlas presented in a serious manner. His artwork is shown, and one of his last conversations with Brody was about drawing a portrait of Brody’s son, Geoff. For the most part, Atlas has — willingly, to an extent — become more known for his foot fetish exploits, so it’s refreshing to see that he is presented in a more respectable light.

Brody’s wife and son do a great job in this episode humanizing the wild man, showing the husband and father who led a civilized life outside the ring. There’s also unearthed footage of Brody calmly talking to a reporter about leaving football and getting started in wrestling. Upon realizing they were filming, he asked that none of it make the air, as he doesn’t want fans of Bruiser Brody to know Frank Goodish.

Macho Man & Miss. Elizabeth

Hopefully the main takeaway from this episode is that all of the old-time wrestlers who think they can do a good Macho Man impersonation realize that they actually can’t. The season premiere told the wrestling equivalent of Romeo and Juliet, the good, bad, and ugly of the relationship between Randy Poffo and Elizabeth Hulette.

This is a prime example of one of the episodes that is primarily for the mainstream audience who mostly remembers Randy Savage as a crazy character, and not the hardcore fans. Probably 95 percent of the story is old news to people who consider themselves “smart” fans.

The most interesting part of this episode was the addition of Linda Hogan. She had old photos from back in the day — including a cringeworthy shot of Vince McMahon in a bright red speedo — that helped tell the story of how close everybody was. Linda also gives more details on how Elizabeth wound up leaving Randy, as she was the person Elizabeth called when it went down.

The reuniting of the two in WCW in the mid ’90s is sort of glossed over. It’s said by Lanny Poffo and Eric Bischoff that Randy helped get her the deal, and they both saw it as him “looking out for her,” but overall it doesn’t get too deep into their relationship in those years.

One relationship that does get a lot of attention is the one between Lex Luger (who declined to be interviewed for the episode) and Elizabeth. Linda reveals that Lex was married at the time, while Bischoff and Scott Hall go into detail about how bad the drug issues between the couple was getting toward the end of WCW.

The infamous Luger 911 call is played, and the end of Elizabeth’s life is given attention. The show doesn’t mention where the interview is from, mostly because they probably didn’t want to draw attention to Savage’s ill-fated rap career, but while promoting his album, a clip of Savage expressing sorrow over Liz’s recent death is played. Then, it goes to the end of Savage’s life.

Hulk Hogan tweeted his issues with the show having Linda give only one side of the story, and he was perfectly owned by the Dark Side of the Ring twitter account, when they pointed out that he had declined their request to speak on camera.

The Montreal Screwjob

This episode promised a major plot point to the infamous 1997 match between Shawn Michaels and Bret Hart that had never before been revealed. No spoilers here for those who still haven’t watched yet, but the prevailing thought after hearing the reveal was a letdown — “Really? That’s it? Whatever.”

Bruce Pritchard and Cornette are great in this episode explaining the history of wrestling from the earliest days, and why a screwjob was often a necessary evil of the wrestling business (In fact, Cornette showed off his copy of the 1937 book “Fall Guys: The Barnums of Bounce,” which was the first known instance of a publication describing wrestling as a work. It is out of print, but I spent $3.99 on the Kindle-exclusive e-book and am a couple chapters into it).

Michaels is not interviewed in this episode, but Hart is. The rise of both men from the late ’80s and into the ’90s is recounted for those unfamiliar with their career trajectory. And it is explained how their feud comes to a head — both backstage during their infamous locker room fight, and at Survivor Series 1997.

Earl Hebner gets choked up a few times when talking about his role in the double cross, and he talks about how his relationship with Hart still hasn’t fully healed.

The highlight of this episode really is the inclusion of Vince Russo, just so we can get the rebuttal of his points from Cornette. If you’ve never listened to any of Cornette’s infamous anti-Russo rants, this episode is a good start.

So far, now we have had Michaels claim that Triple H came up with the idea for a double cross, Russo claims in his autobiography and this episode that it was his idea, and we get a brand new person claiming it was his idea in this episode. Will we ever know for sure? And, of course, there are still the people — represented in this episode by Scott Hall — who thinks the entire thing was a work.

Other episodes

A look at the tragic downfall of the Von Erich family is slated to air this season. Of the famous wrestling family, only Kevin Von Erich remains, and the rest died under a cloud of drug use, suicide, and mysterious circumstances.

Last year, there was a public outrage when the women’s battle royal at WrestleMania was named in tribute of the Fabulous Moolah. WWE did nothing about it until Snickers, the sponsor of the show, learned about the complaints and added their voice to that side. Moolah, the trainer of the majority of female talent during the ’60s through the ’80s, has been accused of taking advantage of those women both monetarily and sexually.

Gino Hernandez is a true “What could have been?” story. A rising star in the Texas wrestling scene in the early and mid ’80s, Hernandez died in 1986 at the age of only 28. The circumstances around his death are murky. Overdose? Suicide? Dramatic pause… Murder?

Final Analysis

This is a great show, and anybody who considers themselves a fan of professional wrestling needs to check it out. The general arc of the story might be very familiar to you, but there’s enough new content in each episode that you’ll be guaranteed an “Oh wow!” moment with each viewing.

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