Ring warriors

America needs a straight-faced funny guy who cut his delicate teeth on Michael Moore’s "TV Nation" as much as it needs an in-depth investigation into the world of pro wrestling. At 8 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 1, it’ll get both. The cable channel Bravo airs the debut of the weekly BBC mockumentary show "Louis Theroux’s Weird Weekends," a look at "Nitro" (the televised blowout wrestling event), the World Championship Wrestling training center and a group of fans living dangerously close to their dreams.

Theroux is the son of the travel writer and novelist, Paul Theroux. In order to experience and profile the strange world of pro wrestling and its fans, the young TV journalist subjects himself to horrifying spectacles and even participates in the grueling tryouts at the WCW’s Power Plant in Florida.

As he arranges his visit to the training center, he stands nervously interviewing the head trainer, Sarge, asking him a series of pertinent questions about wrestling (e.g. what it really takes to make it in the business and how they decide who is going to win on a given night). At one point, Theroux looks Sarge dead in the eye and asks whether or not he has the potential to be a WCW wrestler. Theroux’s unabashed, daring approach seems to take Sarge off-guard. It does the same for Pistol Pez, another burly trainer who welcomes Theroux with a few painful arm-holds as soon as he arrives.

You don’t know whether to laugh at Theroux’s ridiculous lines or admire his willingness to participate in a day of what looks like basic training at Gold’s Gym. After all, this is no place for a man who refers to himself as "very delicate, indeed."

If anything can protect Theroux from his bouts with the bizarre, it’s keeping a cool head and chalking things up to experience – two skills he seems to have mastered. He’s genteel, but he’s no novice. Some of his other "Weird Weekend" exploits include a visit to the guard tower of a neo-Nazi compound in Idaho and cruising the set of a hard-core porn film in the San Fernando Valley.

We can only hope these experiences have prepared him well as he heads to North Carolina to meet a troupe of scary amateurs called the American Independent Wrestling Federation (AIWF), who appear to be much better at watching wrestling than they are at doing it. AIWF founders Rick Diesel and Brian Danzig dedicate life and limb to touring high school gyms all over the South with their bloodsport wrestling matches that amaze and horrify Theroux as much as they entertain the family audiences who come out to cheer them on. Danzig, who wears Goth makeup reminiscent of Sting, enjoys showing off the scars and fresh cuts carved into his forehead by broken razor blades and barbed wire.

Theroux’s reaction to the AIWF guys is a mix of profound fear and intrigue. Why do grown men climb into a ring at a high school gym and slam each other into coils of barbed wire until blood spills? Theroux describes it matter-of-factly during a live promotional spot on the radio where Diesel is talking about the evening’s show at the gym: "It’s so extreme that people will have blood gushing down their faces and their hair will be on fire, is that right?"

Even though he meets the AIWF on his way to tryouts at the Power Plant – Theroux’s big chance to see how far his skinny body can go in the ring – he seems more stumped by the brutal practices of the AIWF than the "real" TV stuff. The AIWF wrestlers stumble, bloody and punctured, out of the ring toward the local Waffle House for breakfast. Then they remind Theroux to come back for an upcoming Extreme Violence match where the wrestlers’ objective is to see how violent they can be. That means wrestling with arms and fists wrapped in barbed wire and with no rules of conduct in the ring. Didn’t anyone ever tell these guys not to try everything they see on TV at home?

By the time Theroux gets to the Power Plant where he meets his ex-Marine trainer, Sarge, he’s forgotten the bloody faces of the AIWF wrestlers and seems ready to take on the ultimate challenge of getting in the ring himself. Not surprisingly, he doesn’t perform very well. He throws up while running; he does leg exercises until he’s ready to collapse and tires, his voice screaming, "I’m a cockroach," to his trainer.

And he can’t even get vomiting right, let alone anything else, as Sarge booms the command, "Blow chunks!" while he heaves on the street.

Maybe the Power Plant is a little annoying, maybe the staff takes itself a little too seriously, always talking in their deepest, most intimidating wrestler voices and refusing to answer any of Theroux’s questions that will confirm that the matches are staged. But the bloodletting insanity of the AIWF makes the WCW look like good clean fun, maybe even the bastion of athletic ability it claims to be.

Theroux’s investigation offers some very funny moments while revealing that TV wrestling’s greatest danger isn’t under the spotlights, but in the mind of the spectator who, as Theroux puts it, loses his perspective.

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