In Netflix’s ‘Wrestlers,’ Emotional Healing is the Main Event

Three decades have passed since Al Snow rose to wrestling prominence. In the 1990s, a time known better to wrestling fans as “The Attitude Era” at WWE, Snow introduced a memorable gimmick to fans: “Head,” his inanimate mannequin head partner, which he swung around overhead to the unbridled joy of audiences everywhere. The schtick encompassed the unhinged nature of the period.

Three decades later, the former wrestling superstar owns Ohio Valley Wrestling School (OVW, for short). The renowned wrestling establishment has launched the careers of performers like John Cena, Bautista, Brock Lesnar, and CM Punk.

We stopped in Louisville, Kentucky, for a quick visit, just in time for Netflix's docuseries Wrestlers to premiere. Snow and “Head,” who sits on his desk amid a varied collection of Al Snow memorabilia, stare intently.

Getting A Head

Al Snow
Image Credit: Netflix.

“My job is to compete for the most valuable resource on Earth, and that is your attention,” Al explains to Wealth of Geeks. “I have to get it, and I have to keep it. That's not easy, especially these days. So, to make a living and do what I love, I've got to be able to do that.”

The seven-episode series from Greg Whiteley, the Emmy-winning creator of Cheer and Last Chance U, comes at a time of heavy transition for OVW.

Shrinking budgets, outdated equipment, and a non-existent marketing strategy left OVW struggling to remain solvent as a business and relevant as a brand. The hope and passion of those who call the school home and perform in the squared circle have kept the OVW dream alive.

In fact, for nearly everyone we spoke to during our tour of the school, wrestling, they say, saved their lives.

Ca$h Flo
Image Credit: Netflix.

“I know what professional wrestling does to me and that it makes it worth doing,” explains a teary Mike Walden. Better known by his stage name Ca$h Flo, Walden has performed in the ring for nearly three decades. For him, wrestling has become a way of life.

“You can either work in a factory and waste 10 to 12 hours a day, seven days a week,” he leans in close to us, smiling. “Or you can come and be that one person for thousands of other people to give you their energy, and it fills you up. It fills whatever empty spaces that you might have in your life. And it makes you whole.”

For Ca$h, professional wrestling offers a creative outlet that keeps him spiritually whole in his personal life. But for Hollywood Haley J. (real name Haley Evans) and her mother Marie (who fights under the name The Amazing Maria), battling in the OVW ring has kept them alive and out of jail.

“I was in trouble a lot,” Marie explains, arms crossed. She has told this story too many times to count. She lived a life of crime before discovering her purpose in the squared circle. Selling drugs, abandoning her family, and regularly getting into fights could've led her down a different path. Without wrestling, she confides matter-of-factly Marie probably wouldn't be alive. 

“I think the last count I had for assault charges was eight,” she continues, with a steely-eyed stare. “I've always loved wrestling, and then once I got into it, it was a place for me to put all that energy and all that anger in to work out my issues.”

Rising From Tragedy

The Amazing Maria and Hollywood Haley J.
Image Credit: Netflix.

Haley J. made her professional wrestling debut in 2020 after escaping physical and emotional abuse at home. She carries a pent-up rage in her that stems back to her rocky childhood. That volatile energy, mixed with her enigmatic stage presence, have made her a fan favorite at OVW. Wrestlers follows her rocky relationship with Marie, both professionally and personally, and culminates in a surprising fight in the ring. But, through all the bumps and bruises, their bond remains strong.

“Wrestling brought us closer, in general, because it gave me more respect for her,” Haley says. Dressed in her hot pink performance gear and boots, there's a marriage of glamour and grit in her style. Matching her mother's energy, she shrugs and continues: “And then I could have the conversation about our outside life sh*t in the ring.”

On a fundamental level, Wrestlers isn't about wrestling at all. The Netflix series peels back the curtain on a highly misunderstood sport to show how the proverbial sausage is made and explore each performer's journey in pursuing their dreams. Well, OK, these dreams involve body slams, chairs to the head, and an enduring drive that can be tough to sustain.

Snow wears his age and experience with pride. Leaning back in his chair, a thick set of eyeglasses making his eye line difficult to register, he continues: “This is a show that saying, ‘You've got a dream? Well, here's the reality of what you've got to do to achieve it.' Do you want to live a life that others don't live? You can. Are you willing to do things others don't do to live that life? Most aren't.”

The Power of the Ring

Mahabali Shera
Image Credit: Netflix.

Mahabali Shera accomplished his professional wrestling dreams early, achieving superstar status in India's wrestling project “Ring Ka King.” He moved to America soon after and became a big fish in an even bigger pond. After a brief stint at WWE in 2018, Shera made a new home at OVW. As he explained through tears and a smile to Wealth of Geeks, the love of his family back home fuels his drive for success: the memory and legacy of his late father, and the goal of inspiring young people much like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson did for him.

Professional wrestling is silly and fake: That perspective does the sport and everyone involved a disservice. Wrestling isn't just a sport, it's a form of storytelling – a collection of good vs. evil battles in the ring that will hopefully bring a visceral sense of escape for the performer and their audience.

Creating a narrative informing the beats the wrestlers need to hit in the ring poses a major challenge. Every week, as his talent prepares for their matches, storylines evolve in Al Snow's head that will–hopefully–make for powerful moments that everyone in the room will feel when things go down.

“Everything that I do, even if I'm wrestling in a match, is I'm working towards a moment,” he says. His conversational tone shifts. Al Snow, the teacher, has entered the building.

“Just a moment that's only going to live in that moment,” he muses. “And you'll only get this experience in that moment. These stories that go on for months, a year, or even longer are all heading to just a moment, but I need smaller moments along the way to create that moment. These are moments of experiences that, if they hit the way you want it to hit, the audience will go home affected.”

Storytelling detail, emotional beats, and a memorable climax – professional wrestling also qualifies as a live theater experience. The power of it all resides in the shared moments that can resonate with those in the squared circle and the fans shouting from the sidelines for days, months, and years to follow. When firing on all cylinders, it's a magical thing to behold.

Beyond the Game

Craig Greenberg and Matt Jones
Image Credit: Netflix.

Kentucky Sports Radio host Matt Jones, who joined the management team with Craig Greenberg, the mayor of Louisville, in 2020, points to self-worth as the North Star every wrestler pursues at OVW.

“For some of these wrestlers, be it their backgrounds, be it family situation, just be it the fact that they're struggling to get by, it is very hard to feel like they matter,” he says from behind his desk. Unlike Snow's office, which he adorned with various wrestling accouterments, Jones's space lacks flair. An outsider in the Netflix series, there's a feeling that he has yet to fully win over the wrestlers and staff bustling about outside his door. 

“When they walk out of that curtain, for however long they're out there, to however many people are out there, they have everybody's attention,” he continues, smiling big. “They're either cheering them or they're booing them. And during that time, they matter. For 10 minutes, they're the most important person in the building. And I think that is really special.”

Live theater will hit the mark only sometimes, though. For Snow, failure is just one more lesson necessary to push anyone towards future success. Through his quick wit and self-deprecation, he regularly draws on his professional setbacks as examples to teach the wrestlers on OVW's roster today.

“I was in a Royal Rumble event at Madison Square Garden,” he reveals, doling out an anecdotal lesson mid-conversation. “I had been with The Rock; we had been doing a story. Nobody's near me. I hear his music, and I literally stop what I'm doing. I'm waiting for him to get into the ring like I'm gonna take it to him. And then he slid under the ropes, I heard him say something under his breath, and I thought, ‘Oh, I'm probably scr*wing some beat that he's playing with somebody else.' Instead of going after it, I turned around with somebody else. And that was the dumbest mistake on the biggest stage I could have ever made it on. Nobody would have known if I f**ked up whatever he was planning on doing. Nobody would have known but me and him.”

The lesson? “Be in the moment and never cut yourself off in life,” he nods and leans forward. “You're gonna do something? Just do it. If it's the wrong thing to do, keep doing it until somebody cuts you off. Don't cut yourself off.”

For Al Snow, that flawed moment keeps him on the path to finding the next hot moment that lights up wrestlers and fans alike. At OVW, he's not just the school's owner but also the master storyteller, the lead salesman, the mentor everyone looks up to, and more.

Healing the Break

Ohio Valley Wrestling talent
Image Credit: Netflix.

“Every one of these insane, emotionally broken, unstable people that are high, narcissistic, neurotic, insecure, and literally riddled with inferiority complexes are sandwiches that I gotta sell,” he laughs.

It sounds like a lot to handle because it is. So, why does he stay? “Because I'm the same thing,” he answers, removing his glasses momentarily. “Clearly, I'm just as broken.”

Wrestlers premieres Wednesday, September 13, on Netflix.