This Is Wrestling: The Joey Ryan Story
Nashville Film Festival Coverage via Jason Sparks, Our Man in Nashville
The first few scenes of This Is Wrestling: The Joey Ryan Story consist of director James Agiesta conducting a survey—asking random people if they follow wrestling at all. We see the ones who say no, and as such, are unfamiliar with Joey Ryan, as I was. The director then produces a laptop computer, its screen turned away from the camera, and shows the non-followers a clip of Joey Ryan and his signature move. The reaction is usually surprise, shock, intense amusement, and, from male viewers, pain.
That’s because Joey Ryan’s signature move, that which makes him unique in the wrestling world, is called…The Dick Hold. Which is, much like the Never-Nude movement from Arrested Development, exactly what it sounds like. We learn, in the course of the film, that it usually plays out like this: Ryan, already a cartoonish take on masculinity in his Hawaiian-print Speedo and 70s porn-star sunglasses (and matching mustache), takes to the ring, covers himself in baby oil while his theme song (Rupert Holmes’ Escape: The Pina Colada Song, so help me God) plays. The match begins, there are the usual pile-drivers, body-slams, and so forth. Eventually, to the delight of the crowd, Ryan somehow manipulates the contender into attempting to bring him to the mat by grabbing what our Yiddish-speaking friends would call his schvantz. While Ryan stands proudly, his pelvis thrust out, the contender, with great dramatic intensity and purpose, grabs Ryan’s schvantz, the idea being that it will serve, for Ryan, the same function a handle serves on a briefcase. Inevitably, and to their cartoonish horror, all contenders find said schvantz to be an immovable object and, in defiance of most physics and reality as we all know it, it is the opposing wrestler who falls, while Ryan remains standing, his member serving as the fulcrum in a ridiculous lever. It’s insane. It’s unbelievable. Crowds eat it up.
We are told, via archival footage and interviews, a straightforward life story of Ryan, who grew up wrestling his brothers and has never really sought any career other than wrestling. Much as musicians can only become massively successful by signing with one of the major labels, wrestlers have only one inroad to the heights of fame and fortune enjoyed by Messrs. Johnson, Hogan, Piper, et alia—the almighty WWE, essentially the Disney of wrestling, only less subtle about their greed. Ryan auditions for the WWE, and is in fact hired surprisingly quickly. For reasons never made wholly clear to Ryan, he is fired surprisingly quickly as well, and worries (understandably) that his lifetime goal has already ended.
However, much as there are “indie” record labels and movie studios, there are also “indie” wrestling circuits, which, while not as moneyed as the WWE, also offer a career on the mat. We see him involve himself with several indies—National Wrestling Alliance, Ring Of Honor, Total Nonstop Action—and while they don’t bring him the status that the WWE can offer, they do allow him to continue to have a career in wrestling, and an opportunity to be more creative—to wrestle outside the box, if you will. During his time on the indie circuits, he adds an absurd touch to his stage machismo—filling his Speedo with candy, including a sucker which he consumes while baby-oiling himself (he isn’t old enough to remember Kojak, oddly enough.) In the indie circuits, he finds a heightened level of interest in showmanship, in invention; in one memorable bout, Ryan throws a handful of Lego bricks onto the mat, then slams his opponent into same—any parent of a Lego builder (or former builder, or current builder) knows the unique sensation of trodding barefoot upon the nigh-indestructible bricks, and is immediately amused.
Then comes his fateful bout in Japan in 2015. It is at this match that his opponent, Tomomitsu Matsunaga, makes a suggestion to Ryan: wouldn’t the crowd lose it if Matsugana tried, and failed, to make Ryan fall by grabbing his junk? (Why Matsugana would suggest this but then allow himself to be the…ahem, victim…is beyond me.) Ryan decides to try it out. Most of the core of the “dick move” is already there: Matsugana, his eyes glowing with manic glee, grabs Ryan. No sooner has he grabbed Ryan than his facial expression changes to the kind of horror one usually has to open the Ark of the Covenant to experience. His entire body trembles with effort, while Ryan remains stoic…and at long last, Matsugana goes from thrower to thrown. His instinct, and Ryan’s decision to go along with that instinct, was correct. The move slays the audience.
What happens next is a moment unique to our age—video of the move goes globally viral, and as such, Ryan returns stateside to new notoriety. We then watch as Ryan wisely parlays his newfound fame into a resurgence of his wrestling career, but increasingly on his own terms. Not that he hadn’t already started to do so; we also get a look at a league called Pro Wrestling Guerrilla, a league he and six other wrestlers started in 2003, interest in which skyrockets with Ryan’s newfound fame. We also see him start a league known simply as Bar Wrestling—again, exactly what it sounds like–in which Ryan and company stage wrestling matches in bars and lodge halls. Not that Ryan is limited to small venues. His PWG crew eventually books a match at San Francisco’s legendary Cow Palace, not only a major concert venue, but, as Ryan informs us, a major wrestling venue; it’s been a site for big-card matches since the sixties, and has also been the venue for canonical WWE events. Ryan’s glee as he recounts this is infectious, reminiscent of the old trope about vaudevillians aspiring to “play The Palace.”
One major spoiler about The Joey Ryan Story, or rather a spoiler about wrestling revealed therein, is this: yes, Virginia, professional wrestling is hokum. It’s staged, even rehearsed, and we see Ryan and his colleagues rehearsing it; we learn, after all, that Ryan’s claim to fame was invented prior to the match. That does not, however, cause us to lose any respect for the wrestlers; if anything, everyone on screen is appreciably human, and we see them the way we see entertainers in any documentary about them (any good one, anyway)–people who live to put on a show, and are rewarded for their passion. Ryan comes off as personable and self-deprecating, ditto his longtime partner and wife (until very recently, sad to say), Laura James, with whom Ryan introduces intergender wrestling to the PWG and Bar circuits. There is even an appearance from one of the bigger celebrities of the wrestling world, as Mick “Mankind” Foley (he of the sock puppets) joins Ryan on a wrestling tour of the UK, and seems genuinely honored to join the list of wrestlers “felled” by Ryan (well, part of Ryan). It’s actually a touching moment, watching the old pro give his blessings to the new kid.
At first, it felt positively surreal, at a tony, hip, chic film festival, to attend a documentary about a wrestler, let alone one with Ryan’s particular claim to fame. Film festival films are highbrow, and wrestling is lowbrow, right? That’s another debate for another time. I’ve said before and will say again that a good documentary is a window into someone else’s very real world, and Joey Ryan serves as just such a window.