In the documentary, The Last of McGuinness, lifelong wrestling fan Mike Kane finds affirmation “that we are not alone on the winding roads of doubt and dreams.”
I have loved watching professional wrestling since I was about seven years old. I was a wrestling nerd, watching and reading about the Von Erichs, the Freebirds, Randy Savage, Jerry Lawler, and Dusty Rhodes. One of my brother’s friends was a Ric Flair fan, but for me, that was an acquired taste. As I got older, my enjoyment of wrestling did not fade, even as my schedule got busier with other things. This passion did not get me any dates or much social cache, but, hey, I loved the stories, the action, and the personalities. Still, by the time I was a teenager, I did not think that I was athletic enough to become a professional wrestler.
The Last of McGuinness is a documentary made by a young man who believed that he could become a professional wrestling star. He pursued this goal around the world for nearly two decades in search of fame, fortune, and a career with a major international wrestling promoter. These did not arrive in the way he had hoped. Facing his mid-30’s, the man who calls himself Nigel McGuinness decides to retire after one last tour. With this backdrop, the film centers on a journey that brings him across the U.S and Canada, as well as back to his native England. The tour footage features honest and sometimes difficult conversations between McGuinness and his fellow wrestlers, as well as talks with promoters, trainers, mentors, and friends, most of whom also work on small, lower-paying shows in what is known as the “independent circuit.” At every stop, McGuinness says goodbye not only to fans and colleagues, but also to a life he has given his youth.
Though the documentary centers on a wrestling life, it is told so that non-wrestling fans see McGuinness’ inner conflict. Please put away preconceived ideas of pro wrestling, pro wrestlers, and pro wrestling fans. The people featured in this film come from a variety of national, ethnic, socioeconomic, and educational backgrounds, and appear respectful, kind, and a lot of fun. McGuinness’ parents are charming, smart, and supportive. His sister is energetic and engaging. His loyal fans genuinely seek to bond with him, and are willing to drive hours out of their way to see him. His colleagues and mentors offer perspective, compassion, and laughter, as well as needed ribbing. The men and women of wrestling each view their careers in their own way, with very individual standards of success. Some have families and other careers that dovetail nicely with independent wrestling. Others are still chasing the big time, in a variety of ways.
McGuinness’ reflections and these informal chats give insight into how people view the connection between effort, suffering, and success. These discussions raise other questions. What do we deserve for pursuing our dreams diligently? Even if we make art for art’s sake, how do we judge material success or failure? Are these questions fair to ourselves and the people we love?
An important theme in the film is pain. While outcomes in professional wrestling are predetermined, gravity and impact are real. Injuries to arms, necks, legs, hips, and spines are common. Even if you don’t like pro wrestling, watch the footage closely to see what the men and women in the ring are attempting to do, and appreciate the craftsmanship and the risks. Furthermore, too many of McGuinness’ peers have died too young, bringing home the depth of these sacrifices. McGuinness’ deepest pain, however, has more to do with finding his place than fixing anything bodily. Depression plays a role in this film, and is presented without machismo or denial.
McGuinness lets the viewer see him being grateful, professional, and engaged, but also shows us his unflattering moments of self-pity and anger. He puts both sides before the viewer. Unless your life is either a perfect triumph or a complete surrender to tragedy, you too have questioned from time to time the value of your professional commitments and personal sacrifices, as they have rarely led to 100% of the fulfillment you have sought. We have all wondered why love is rarely mutual, why great artists often die poor, and why chance plays such a big role in all that we do. We have also all found victory where we have lost, and sought purpose in our imperfect struggles.
For all of its difficult moments, it is hard to deny the feelings of excitement and transcendence that these wrestlers experience when they have succeeded in energizing an audience and are performing well. It is harder still to not relate to their passion and struggle. This film struggles to weave many messy threads, and this is as it should be. It shows an individual journey and its non-linear progress. It has a narrator, but many perspectives are heard. The film comes to a sort of peace, but does not pretend to have all the answers for one man, let alone others. In many ways, its highest value is that it affirms that we are not alone on the winding roads of doubt and dreams, and that we can find meaning in the walk. As I approach my 33rd birthday, wondering what the future has to offer a liberal arts grad, this companionship is appreciated.
Photo: AP Images