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Women in the squared circle – ‘The Other Side of the Ring’

May 24, 2021
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Like a lot of people, I went through a pro wrestling phase. From the mid-1980s up into the early ‘90s, I watched and enjoyed the sports entertainment stylings of WWF and WCW titans. After that, my direct attention tapered off, but my indirect awareness of the sport never really went away – I had friends who remained engaged and my general pop culture consumption meant that I was always at least tangentially up on the scene.

My affection for pro wrestling remained, though it did evolve over time, eventually morphing into an appreciation of it as one of the last true bastions of American melodrama (alongside the soap opera) as well as a repository for physically impressive feats of undeniable athleticism.

Too often, the personal stories of these wrestlers devolve into sadness and/or mayhem – there’s a whole cottage industry of documentary reckonings with the behind-the-scenes tragedies that accompanied the successes of some of wrestling’s most iconic figures.

Jeremy Norrie’s new documentary “The Other Side of the Ring” is different. This film isn’t about digging into the bleak seediness beneath the over-the-top glitz; instead, it’s about spending time with wrestlers from varying levels and discussing how they got here and why they’ve stayed.

Oh, and they’re all women.

Norrie sits down with a handful of women who have invested their blood, sweat and tears into the wrestling world. They come from all levels of the sport, from the top of the mountain that is WWE to the down-and-dirty indie scene, but the one thing they all share is a passion for the sport that they love – a passion that is brought forward through a collection of interviews.

Now, there’s not as much actual in-ring action as you might expect for a wrestling documentary – the realities of filming during COVID meant that Norrie was forced to largely rely on preexisting footage and some of the promotions that his interviewees worked with didn’t necessarily have a lot in the way of video. While this lack does undercut the film’s effectiveness somewhat, there’s no denying the compelling nature of the stories these women tell.

The four women we follow – Sarah-Jean Graves, Keta Meggett, Katarina Leigh Waters and Shelly Martinez – have taken disparate paths in their respective wrestling journeys. They have all achieved a degree of success along the way, but they have also been sidetracked by circumstances largely beyond their control. Yet still they push onward, connected to the sport that they love.

We learn about how each woman fell in love with wrestling. Maybe it was an instant connection to the pageantry of it all. Maybe it was being impressed by the physicality and athleticism on display. Maybe it was a familial connection. Or maybe it was a combination of multiple factors. Regardless, we’re given insight as to what drew these women to this world.

There’s also a good deal of time spent on the how – specifically, how does one break into professional wrestling. Each of these women talk about their efforts to learn about the sport, to train themselves into the roles. You’ve got Graves (she of the exceptional character name Delilah Doom) talking about going to shows and asking anyone who would listen about finding a school at which to train. On the other hand, you’ve got Meggett, who wound up here almost by accident, an actress going to an audition for what she thought was a scripted drama and turned out to be a wrestling show.

(There’s some good stuff here as far as character creation. As you might imagine, coming up with a workable gimmick is difficult, but doing so as a woman exponentially more so – particularly in those days not so long ago when for many of those both watching and running these shows, skimpy clothing and sex appeal were considered all the character a woman needed. Still, it’s interesting to see in what ways these women were able to subvert those expectations and create what they wanted within that restrictive context.)

Plenty of time is spent on the conversation about what it is like to be a woman in what has traditionally been a male-dominated industry. Yes, women have become more prominent in recent years, but for these women, they’ve long since grown accustomed to their status as an extreme minority in this particular sphere.

We also get breakdowns with regard to everyone’s feelings on the “real versus fake” question, one that is somehow still being asked even though we’ve all long been aware that it’s a question with a complicated answer. The women talk about that gray area – the fact that the storylines are made up and match outcomes are predetermined, but the athletic prowess and potential for injury is very real.

Again – melodrama. Over-the-top spectacle, in terms of both narrative and physicality.

The central figure of the film – as much as there is one – is probably Martinez, who is the one of the four who made the widest splash in the wrestling realm and the one with the most lingering resentment toward the industry (though she’s clearly made her peace with most of it). She’s also the only one of the four who is no longer active; the other three are still making their way through the business. Waters is working a lot in Europe. Graves has been dealing with recent injuries, but is still in training. And Meggett has become a major player in the burgeoning promotion WOW (Women of Wrestling).

“The Other Side of the Ring” is an interesting document. On the one hand, it gets a bit more granular than the non- or casual fan might be looking for. On the other, it doesn’t delve quite as deeply as a hardcore fan might want. That middle ground might make it tough for this film to find an audience, which is too bad, because there’s some fascinating stuff here. Still, if you have any interest in what it might be like to work one’s way up the wrestling ranks as a woman, then you’d be well-served to check this one out.

[2.5 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 24 May 2021 11:35

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