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A&E's 'Biography: WWE Legends' never pins down the truth about professional wrestling

The league has always been great creating a narrative but less good at maintaining it, preferring to hope fans will ignore its many contradictions.
Image: \"Stone Cold\" Steve Austin
"Stone Cold" Steve Austin.Courtesy WWE

Understanding American pro wrestling has always been a little bit like Kremlinology: Sometimes the loudest things are those unspoken. True fans understand this and have learned to read between the lines — to notice which people no longer appear in photos or who gets more interview time — to determine how the people backstage are altering the fates of those in front of the cameras.

But for the more casual viewers of wrestling, the A&E's "Biography" series take on WWE legends might require a bit more of a cheat sheet.

After all, WWE wrestles very little with itself and doesn't want to.

Despite award-winning producers and directors signing up for the "Biography: WWE Legends" series — Joe Lavine, George Roy, Billy Corben and Alfred Spellman, all veterans of ESPN's "30 for 30" and HBO's sports documentaries, among others — each profile feels like a more sophisticated version of WWE's own bio packages. (True fans might suspect this is because ring footage was augmented with interviews and "unprecedented access" to the WWE archive.) Each follows a similar narrative: An oddball follows a passion, gets well beaten and poorly paid, finally makes money, is consumed by the life, overcomes trauma and then his body commences total orthopedic collapse.

The filmmakers, then, are left to slip the truth past all the unprecedented access they got.

Over each of the next eight Sundays, "Biography" will roll out two-hour episodes, each dedicated to a different WWE Superstar: "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, "Rowdy" Roddy Piper, "Macho Man" Randy Savage, Booker T, Shawn Michaels, Mick Foley, Ultimate Warrior and Bret "the Hitman" Hart.

Like wrestling itself, the series works on a couple of levels. For those still clinging to the myth that it's all fake, the profiles illuminate a serious craft designed to look deceptively simple and humanizes people often dismissed as cartoons. After all, even WWE talking heads in the series refer to wrestling's everyday demands as "physical abuse." But, for the most hardcore fans, it's a rich nostalgia trip with enough archival treats to sugarcoat even the worst self-congratulatory aspects of the WWE.

WWE has never been able to get out of the way of its own hagiography; it prefers to hope the audience ignores the contradictions. It's the greatest company in wrestling, yet it produced such abysmal programming in the 1990s that it had to be dragged to its own rescue by the same performers it structurally undervalued when it wasn't bungling their opportunities or pushing them aside for an evil dentist, a parody of Ted Turner or a succession of clowns.

The filmmakers, then, are left to slip the truth past all the unprecedented access they got.

WWE wrestles very little with itself and doesn't want to.

What the smart fan knows — and what each "Biography" in the series taken together shows — is that what trauma each and every one of the people had to overcome wasn't some dark streak of character. What happened to all these men was professional wrestling.

Long before Shawn Michaels popped his first oxycodone or Macho Man's dad first shot him up with Deca-Durabolin, someone decided to make the business they're in as relentless as possible in its disregard for a person's ability to remain whole.

It is a testament both to Bret the Hitman Hart's status in the wrestling world (and WWE's inability to mask just how totally it strip-mines human beings) that Roddy Piper's "Biography" features the Hitman commenting flatly on injury: "If you can't do it, they'd replace you a few minutes later with somebody else. You learned to be your own doctors. That's kind of the sad thing, is you're your own doctor."

WWE's stab at operatic biographical branding can't quite drown out its tragic leitmotifs.

The Corben- and Spellman-produced "Biography" of Randy Savage comes closest to overtly impeaching that WWE-sanctioned narrative, by allowing WWE performer and Chairman Vince McMahon to essentially skewer himself. McMahon's self-satisfaction at mentioning how Savage had to pay out of pocket for his own costumes quietly underlines the kind of conditions that led the WWE's "independent contractors" to consider eating Vicodin like Altoids as a cost-effective alternative to taking a day off to pay for a doctor to tell them to take even more days off.

It's not all gloom, of course. Mick Foley, who is also profiled, not only penned a wonderful memoir in 2000 — "Have A Nice Day: A Tale of Blood and Sweatsocks" — but went on to become a fundraiser and spokesperson for the sexual abuse survivors charity RAINN. He also spent the peak of his career in the league being between something (his words) "a human pincushion" and (a peer's words) "a human Muppet."

And it is impossible to watch the "Biography" of Booker T for any significant length of time without smiling because Booker T radiates joy.

But these stories inspire because they are ultimately the successes, the exceptions and the things that WWE chooses to remember. It chooses to remember that Booker T, an African American wrestler, overcame the racism of the industry to become a Grand Slam champion and two-time Hall of Fame inductee — without remembering that part of the racism he had to overcome were ideas McMahon and company trotted out for decade upon decade.

What happened to all these men was professional wrestling.

WWE's stab at operatic biographical branding can't quite drown out the tragic leitmotifs raised by revisiting this same formula: Men who succeeded by being consumed by their jobs, in conditions where their business never stopped feeding on them.

Another example of the tragedy comes just 15 minutes into the first "Biography," that of WWE legend Stone Cold Steve Austin, and it's haunting for older fans. In it, "Stunning" Steve Austin, before he was Stone Cold and then a member of the Hollywood Blonds, stands on the top of the cage, slashes his thumb across his throat in a gesture made famous by the wrestler "Canadian Crippler" Chris Benoit, and then launches into a frog splash, the high-flying finisher made famous by Eddie Guerrero.

All three men were born within three years of one another; all three went on to become World Champions. At age 56, Austin is the only one who isn't dead. Guerrero died of heart failure at 38, thought to have been exacerbated by steroid use. Benoit killed himself at age 40 after first killing his wife and 7-year-old son and was later found to have advanced dementia from chronic concussions.

As "Big Sexy" Kevin Nash, who spoke to "Biography" about the death of Randy Savage — who died of a heart attack at 58, which he suffered while driving — said, "There are so many of these guys who were so tormented, then you hear that they died — it's like the life of a kamikaze pilot."

As WWE's talking heads reiterate, wrestling's greatest characters augment something real about the performer himself. And the combination of personalities taken to an extreme and bodies in extremis create the sport's blend of reality and opera, of sacrifice and betrayal.

When Shawn Michaels mouths "I love you" before delivering the sweet chin music kick that ends his heroes' career, what brings tears to your eyes should be the agony of seeing a soul you've known for 20 years broken by its own love and ambition. What WWE hopes is that it's just pretty enough you don't think too hard about everything else broken along the way.