In recent months, as WWE has inched closer to mainstream acceptance, it’s found few partners more willing than ESPN; the network is where Brock Lesnar announced his new contract, and Roman Reigns and Paul Heyman hyped the WrestleMania main event. The relationship has raised both eyebrows and criticisms, though it appears both parties have chosen to ignore the latter – “Best for business” isn’t just the Authority’s mantra, after all.
Now comes the next step in the promotional partnership: Behind the Curtain, an hour-long doc produced by E:60 Pictures. The film – which premieres Tuesday night at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN – tells the stories of the men (in this case, it’s only men) toiling away at NXT, with hopes of making it to the big stage: WWE primetime programming. As its title implies, Behind the Curtain takes viewers out of the ring, up the ramp and past gorilla…though if you don’t know what any of those terms mean, there’s a pretty good chance you won’t be watching anyway.
And therein lies the inherent challenge: ESPN is tasked with creating a product that, in theory at least, is meant to appeal to both the “This is fake” set and the folks who definitely marked-out at Sami Zayn’s appearance on Monday’s episode of Raw, but probably still wished he did it as El Generico. It’s a difficult balancing act, and for the most part, they pull it off; the skeptic can watch and be blown away by the sacrifice and struggle required to make it to the top, while the smark (if that’s still a thing) will leave with a newfound understanding of the business. Or at least a new definition of the term “making it.”
Because the three subjects of the film – Ray Leppan, currently working as Adam Rose, Austin “Xavier Woods” Watson and Matt “Corey Graves” Polinsky – each go through varying degrees of struggle. In Leppan’s case, it’s his transition from the moribund Leo Kruger character to the flamboyant Rose, a change played out against his story of immense personal and familial pressures. He’s been withering on the vine down at WWE’s developmental program, NXT, while at the same time caring for his young son, who was born with medical problems. In no uncertain terms, Rose needs to resonate with fans – otherwise he’ll likely be released from his contract. It makes for compelling television, no matter what side of the pro-wrestling divide you’re on.
Watson and Polinksky’s stories are less make-or-break, though both reveal how far each man is willing to go in pursuit of their dreams. Watson – currently tearing it up on the WWE roster as one-third of ascendant tag-team champs the New Day – comes across as a charismatic, supremely driven star in the making; his biggest issue is whether or not he’s too crazy for the big leagues. Polinsky, who also has a young family to worry about, is eternally shelved by concussions, though his talents as a commentator are undeniable. Watson’s Raw debut is shown as a triumph, and after finally finding his footing on the main roster, it’s hard to argue otherwise. Polinsky has also become a standout on the microphone – and the scene in Behind the Curtain when NXT mastermind Triple H rewards him with a two-year announcer’s contract is genuinely emotional.
Moments like that will likely satisfy sports entertainment naysayers, but they also point toward a larger truth, one that should resonate with wrestling’s sizeable Internet fanbase: None of these three men will likely ever hold the WWE World Heavyweight Championship, yet none of them will deny that they’ve “made it.” If one is to believe that WWE is the wrestling equivalent of the NFL (a point Triple H makes during the film), then merely being featured on a primetime telecast – let alone securing a recurring role – is the dream to end all dreams. Especially with the pressures of providing for a family.
Polinksy will likely never wrestle in a WWE ring, but as a commentator, he’s found a way to fulfill his life’s ambition and secure his family’s financial future (“This could be a 20 year gig,” he says in the film. “I couldn’t have wrestled for another 20 years.”) In the cases of Watson and Leppan, they’ve both found steady work in the bigs, though most wrestling fans will likely roll their eyes at that notion given the way the Adam Rose character has played out in WWE. Still, all three men have found ways to make it in a business where the failure rate is astronomically high.
And that’s perhaps the most compelling aspect of Behind the Curtain. Above all else, it is about the business of WWE. We see vets like William Regal and Bill DeMott working in-ring with formative superstars (Tyler Breeze, Enzo Amore and Big Cass, etc), watch Triple H manage every aspect of their development, from microphone work to spotlight placement, and helm production meetings where futures are determined. WWE’s Wellness Program is touted as being “way ahead of the NFL” when it comes to concussion protocol, though it’s worth noting that it’s CEO Vince McMahon doing the touting.
It’s not clear how much (if any) of this was vetted by WWE itself, though as a fan, one can’t help but view the film somewhat critically. In recent months, former wrestlers have filed suit against the company, alleging “egregious mistreatment”, and though the departure of head NXT trainer DeMott is mentioned at the end of the film, for much of it, he is depicted as a tough-love, plain-talking mentor at worst (and maybe he was). And no matter how many times Triple H asserts that charisma is what makes a superstar, or tells the assembled NXT hopefuls “Your future is what you make it,” the smart fan isn’t going to believe it; especially when there is always evidence to the contrary.
But those are minor details in a big picture, small bumps on the drive to a larger narrative. If anything, Behind the Curtain leaves viewers with a newfound appreciation for the business of professional wrestling, the surreptitious climb to the top (or at least the top of the midcard) and the workers who are willing to do the job. And if you don’t know what that term means, well, chances are you probably won’t be watching anyway.