'Wrestler' throws a lifeline to the men in Spandex

Mickey Rourke's comeback movie has revived the fortunes of a sport, despite its less than rose-tinted portrayal

Guy Adams
Sunday 01 February 2009 01:00

First it resurrected Mickey Rourke's career. Then Rourke and his co-star, Marisa Tomei, received Oscar nominations. Now, The Wrestler is reversing the fortunes of another American institution that saw its best days in the 1980s: professional wrestling.

The hit film, in which Rourke plays a washed-up fighter, Randy "the Ram" Robinson, has reignited public interest in the practice of muscle-bound men in Spandex pants pretending to throw each other around a ring. Sales of tickets for bouts have trebled since The Wrestler opened in the US, according to the ticket exchange website Viagogo, sending pay-per-view audiences soaring and lifting the price of ringside seats to as much as $300 (£200).

The surge in interest has thrown a lifeline to the faux sport's grassroots circuit, in which thousands of mostly part-time fighters perform in front of tiny crowds at venues across small-town America.

"Every time the circuit gets a bigger profile, I look at it as a windfall for us," says Marc Letzmann of Pro Wrestling Guerrilla, which promotes small events in southern California. "This film is no different. At our level of the game, we're not out there all that much, and people need to seek us out a bit. So when Mickey Rourke gets nominated for an Oscar, or something else draws attention to what we do, it can only help bring in new fans."

For Letzmann, who fights under the stage name "Excalibur", Rourke's comeback film has arrived at a critical time for professional wrestling – the formal name given to the mixture of sport, pantomime and performance art. Since its heyday, in the era of Hulk Hogan and "Macho Man" Randy Savage, its profile has been on the wane. Many local events now resemble the brutal, parochial world of The Wrestler.

"I've done shows where your payoff is basically a taco and a can of Coke," says Letzmann. "The film was depressingly realistic. In fact, a few scenes were so accurate that they made me feel uncomfortable. One shows a meet-the-fans event, where one of the fighters signing autographs has a colostomy bag. That kind of thing really happens."

Rourke's film, produced for $6m and directed by Darren Aronofsky, made waves on the festival circuit before being picked up by Fox Searchlight last summer. Since then, it has taken nearly $14m at the box office, despite being on limited release.

Its portrayal of the sport is hardly rose-tinted: Robinson injects steroids, has heart problems and a dreadful personal life, and describes himself as "an old, broken-down piece of meat". But it has drawn approving reviews across the wrestling world. Perhaps the ultimate accolade for Rourke came last week when it was announced that he had been invited to appear on stage (but not fight) at the next Wrestlemania, organised by the WWE, the sport's biggest franchise.

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