The Wrestler is being lauded as the definitive portrayal of pro wrestling, but I submit that’s only because no one has asked a real wrestling champion about it—until now. In the movie, Randy “The Ram” Robinson was a main-eventer who sold out Madison Square Garden. So was I. The movie opens with a montage of clippings and event posters eerily similar to the ones in my personal collection. I lived that life for real. I liked the movie, and I’m disturbed by it.
In director Darren Aronofsky’s astutely layered vision there are glimpses into a shrouded world considered fake by all but those who live in it—for them, it’s the only reality they know. Nuggets of truth make the story believable. Mickey Rourke’s clairvoyant performance makes it compelling.
The film isn’t so much an exposé of the wrestling business as it really is; rather, it shows us what a lot of people outside the business think it is. With this dark misinterpretation presented in such a plausible and dramatic way, many wrestlers who’ve sacrificed so much to entertain their fans—their bodies, their families—now feel embarrassed by the film’s unbalanced portrayal in which there’s no respect for our art or our dignity. I’m uncomfortable that audiences will unconsciously assume every wrestling has-been comes to a tragic end.
Traditional sports have an off-season but me and the boys were on the road 300 days a year. As a former WWF (now WWE) champion I travelled the world for 23 years straight, 1978 to 2000, wrestling every night, sometimes more than once, plus promotional appearances and working out. It takes over your life 24/7 and, especially before cellphones and email, no matter how hard I tried, it was impossible not to become distant from my family, my kids. Most, maybe all, the boys suffered the same isolation, and soon strangers became family and family became strangers. Almost all who escaped came back, having no clue how to make it on the outside.
Pro wrestlers don’t have medical benefits, a pension plan, or a union. I’m not complaining. Wrestling has been very good to me, despite heart-wrenching disappointments, betrayals, and too many deaths to want to count any more—including my youngest brother, Owen, who fell to his demise from the rafters of an arena on a WWF pay-per- view during an ill-conceived stunt.
I was retired from the ring by an errant kick to the head, on live pay-per-view, which resulted in a concussion so brutal my doctor used the word hamburger to describe the back of my brain. That was followed by a stroke that paralyzed the entire left side of my body. Battling back was the toughest fight of my life by far, and, although I’m left with permanent effects, I’m grateful that when people meet me I can still measure up to their memory of the hero I’d long pretended to be. I still sign autographs all over the world and my fans still come out in droves. I’m humbled when they tell me, time and again, that my wrestling character inspired them in some way to make positive changes in their lives.
Wrestling has given me a great life and for that I thank Vince McMahon. Vince and I have had major differences, but I’ve not minced words and my autobiography (Hitman) is a testament to that. When evaluating the impact of The Wrestler on the wrestling business it’s only fair I give the devil his due, because it’s Vince who succeeded in taking pro wrestling out of back alleys and dingy halls like those in the movie and made it marketable, mainstream and just plain fun to watch. He couldn’t have done it without a talented roster of wrestlers. To go out there and tell a credible and dramatic story with no retakes, in front of a live audience, with nothing but your body, your opponent, and a 20- by 20-foot ring, is an art form that takes dedicated training, physical and mental stamina, athletic agility, charisma and ring psychology to create what I always thought of as mini-movies. Those who perform this art old-school take pride in creating the illusion of realism without actually hurting our opponents.
We don’t know what wrong turn brought Randy the Ram to subsist in desperation on the lowest fringes of some perverted putrefaction that barely resembles the wrestling business I know. Although the film speaks superbly to the speed bumps all pro wrestlers navigate, I’m happy to report most of us don’t swerve off the road quite so severely.
Bret Hart is the author of Hitman: My Real Life in the Cartoon World of Wrestling