How The Iron Claw highlights the realities of professional wrestling

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“…Isn’t it all just fake?”

That line from Lily James’ character Pam in The Iron Claw will have made any wrestling fan wince. This question tends to haunt conversations with those who don’t watch wrestling, with it often being asked with the smug sense of gotcha, as though viewers don’t understand that what they are watching is predetermined. Zach Efron’s Kevin Von Erich replies offers a dignified response: “FAKE? No. Nothing is fake about what we do.” Though wrestling matches have pre-determined outcomes, every time a performer takes a hit on the wooden canvas, known as a “bump”, they hit the mat for real. The Iron Claw explores the impact of each and every one of those bumps,

This scene between James and Efron is one of the most purposeful in the film. It sets up the relationship between Pam and Kevin, which becomes one of the most satisfying emotional elements of the film (and the only one that doesn’t involve tragedy), and gives us a clear insight into Kevin’s adoration of his brothers, even when he is away from the intense atmosphere of the family ranch. Pam in this scene takes on the role of the audience, asking the questions that those who aren’t in the know about how pro wrestling works will have burning on their mind. For those who don’t watch wrestling, it shows that the film isn’t completely caught up in its own world, and understands the inherent strangeness of the industry. However, by highlighting wrestling’s place as a piece of fiction, it also makes the real impact the industry has on the Von Erich family all the more tragic.

Like many sports movies, the wrestling in the film is mainly there to act as a vehicle for the events of the rest of the film to unfold, with the emotional beats of the film focusing more on the bond between the various brothers and their father Fritz Von Erich. However, much of the tragedy in the film comes about from the impacts wrestling has, and they are issues that have long plagued the industry. Wrestling is a gruelling industry, with performers turning out to land on the hard wooden mat (which is likened to the impact felt in a car crash) multiple times a week, every week, all year. The big promotions like AEW and WWE don’t have ‘offseasons’, airing shows every week of the year. This is combined with a constant “the show must go on” attitude throughout the industry, driven in part by the hyper-masculine culture that dominated the industry for decades along with the fear that perceptions in the eyes of fans (as well as the bookers, the ones who choose who wins and who loses) resulted in wrestlers rarely wanting to take time off for injuries. This, in turn, caused steroids and painkillers to become rampant throughout the industry. The film depicts David succumbing to the results of this attitude, but there are dozens of other examples of this attitude contributing to the early deaths of beloved stars such as Curt Hennig (known as Mr. Perfect) and Eddie Guerrero at the ages of 44 and 38 respectively. A 2014 study found that 38% of wrestler deaths were cardiovascular-related, a common impact of steroid usage.

The grim reality of professional wrestling has come even further into the forefront in the last couple of years. In 2022, World Wrestling Entertainment’s (WWE) long-time chairman and CEO Vince McMahon announced his retirement, something many predicted he would never do, in the wake of an internal company investigation into his payment of “hush money” towards alleged victims of sexual misconduct. Mr McMahon would force his way back into the company Succession-style in early 2023, after which he led the merger of the company with the UFC under the new company TKO, of which Mr McMahon became executive chairman. However, in January 2024, Mr McMahon, along with WWE and its former executive vice president of talent relations John Laurinaitis were sued by former WWE employee Janel Grant. The suit claimed Ms Grant was “the victim of physical and emotional abuse, sexual assault and trafficking at WWE,” and went into excruciating detail about the alleged misconduct of Mr McMahon and Laurinaitis. Mr McMahon promptly resigned from his role and has denied the allegations.

A 2014 study found that 38% of wrestler deaths were cardiovascular-related, a common impact of steroid usage.

However, the lawsuit has raised extensive questions about the atmosphere of WWE and the culture which allowed Mr McMahon to act the way he did. The suit specifically accused the company of negligence for its failure to protect Ms Grant, raising questions about who within the company knew what about Mr McMahon’s actions, particularly as the suit alleges that Mr McMahon shared explicit images of Ms Grant with multiple other company employees. One of these employees was a “former UFC Heavyweight Champion” whom Mr McMahon was trying to sign to a new contract, which the Wall Street Journal reported was Brock Lesnar. Since this report, Lesnar has not appeared on any WWE programming and was removed from the special edition cover of WWE 2K24.

The pro wrestling scene of today is moulded in the image created by Mr McMahon. The Iron Claw shows the old territory system in which pro wrestling operated at its height, in which promotions agreed to keep shows to their own few states and didn’t try to take the market share of others. Mr McMahon decimated that system in the mid-80s, buying out other promotions and their tv timeslots to monopolise wrestling on TV in the States, culminating in Black Saturday on 14th July 1984, where he briefly controlled all nationally broadcast wrestling. Since then, he has turned WWE into the global monolith it is today, holding an effective monopoly on the industry since 2001 when he bought out his biggest rival World Championship Wrestling. That monopoly has been dented somewhat in recent years thanks to the rise of All Elite Wrestling, but the fact remains that since the 1980s, wrestling has been dominated by the whims of Mr McMahon.

In its retelling of the tragedy of the Von Erich family, The Iron Claw shines a light onto wrestling when it arguably needs it more than ever. Through the personal story of the four brothers, it emphasises that underneath all of the pageantry and showmanship exists a dark underbelly which should not be ignored, by both those who care about who walks out of WrestleMania every year as champion and those who don’t.

Image: Unknown Author via Wikimedia Commons

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