Wrestling isn’t just for grandmas anymore. (My grandma was really, really into pro-wrestling when I was a kid. I assume that is the norm.)
The United States has at least six major wrestling promotions (that’s what they are called, though you’ve probably also heard them referred to as “federations”). There are something like a dozen weekly pro wrestling shows running at any given time. What’s more, you don’t even have to be into wrestling to be kinda into wrestling: stars like John Cena, Dwayne “Formerly the Rock” Johnson, and Dave Bautista are everywhere, and prestige dramas like GLOW and Heels blend wrestling action with strong writing and compelling characters.
In fact, there has been a proliferation of such wrestling-adjacent shows, most of which can be enjoyed by fans but which will also serve as gateways to the uninitiated. And there are more on the way: Disney’s luchador action-comedy Ultra Violet & Blue Demon is arriving next year. Until then, here’s a bit of what’s out there right now for existing fans who want more, and for curious fans-to-be.
GLOW (2017 — 2019)
GLOW is wrestling as prestige television, a combination that would have never been possible back in the day. But even as the rise of streamers has opened TV up to niche audiences, pro wrestling has moved to the forefront of pop culture, and put its slightly (gloriously) disreputable past behind it. Inspired by the real life ‘80s sensation the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, the Netflix show follows a struggling actress, a soap opera star, a stuntwoman, and other down-on-their-luck outcasts who find themselves in the high drama, high camp world of ‘80s pro wrestling. It’s a hilariously dark comedy with plenty of action and a great cast. Unfortunately, a planned fourth season was scrapped amid the pandemic, but the three seasons we did get are top-notch entertainment.
Heels (2021 — )
Arrow’s Stephen Amell is losing his tights for… even tighter tights, playing a heel (industry speak for a villainous character) running the Duffy Wrestling League, a scrappy family business in Georgia. It’s a family drama with impressive credentials, but it doesn’t skimp on the wrestling, either, and even takes a bit of time in the pilot to catch-up newbies on some of the intricacies of the sport. It’s just started, but it’s gotten impressive reviews and already seen some real-life wrestlers stop by to guest star (CM Punk pops up in the third episode).
Heroes of Lucha Libre (2017)
It’s probably not surprising that pro wrestling’s hold on pop culture has grown in tandem with that of superheroes — they’re two sides of the same coin in many ways, and that blurring of fantasy and reality is even more prominent in lucha libre, where the sport’s inherent theatricality is amped up well beyond what we see in more typically American wrestling. This series has some fun with that idea: it’s a wrestling show with actual matches that builds a Mortal Kombat-esque narrative about a conflict involving the powers of Earth, Wind, Fire, and Water, with which the luchadores can claim the Sacred Belt of Xarunca, which will, in turn, make them masters of the universe. In short, it takes the typical wrestling storylines several steps beyond in all the best ways.
Dark Side of the Ring (2019 — )
The title gives away the game for this Vice docu-series, part of the network’s slate of criminal-investigation shows: it’s about the crimes, scandals, and tragedies of the wrestling world, with episodes focusing on Owen Hart’s death, the Benoit family, and the murder of Bruiser Brody. It’s definitely geared toward fans (and the true crime curious) who don’t mind taking a deep dive into the darkest corners of the sport.
Tiger Mask W (2016 — 2017)
A sequel to the original Tiger Mask, but still fairly standalone, the show is one of several wrestling-related anime. It’s a bit more serious and tightly focused on the sport than some of the others of its ilk, with some impressively conceived bouts that blend wrestling action and shonen storytelling tropes and style. The show also has a bit of extra cred in that it’s based around New Japan Pro-Wrestling and features animated versions of some real-life NJPW stars.
Young Rock (2021 — )
It sounds like an entirely disposable vanity project, suitable for Rock fans and nobody else. Turns out it’s actually pretty good, which shouldn’t be that surprising given the trajectory of Dwayne Johnson’s career. Narrating from the near future, Johnson relates stories from his life over three different parts of his childhood, beginning in Hawaii and centered around his family. His wrestling connections go all the way back: his father, Rocky, was half of the very first Black WWE champion tag team, and his mother came from the Samoan Anoa’i wrestling family. Wrestling is as much in the DNA of the show as it is of the wrestler once known as the Rock.
The Wrestlers (2018 — 2019)
Damian Abraham (the vocalist for Fucked Up) hosts this wrestling docu-series about how the sport looks around the world. Each episode focuses on a different subculture, and they’re all pretty fascinating: black magic wrestlers in the Congo, First Nations fighters in remote Canada, queer Exotocios in Mexica, and many more — it’s a neat look at a universe of wrestling that goes way beyond Monday Night Raw.
Where to stream: Vice TV (or digital rental)
It’s a slightly dorky, old-school family sitcom about a wrestler (Big Show plays himself, sorta) who welcomes his oldest daughter from a previous marriage into his home and new family. It’s better than it has any right to be, in true TGIF style. (If you get really into it, there’s a related podcast called “The Big Show Show Show.”)
Kemono Michi: Rise Up (2013)
Among wrestling-themed anime, this has a very different style than something like the comparatively realistic Tiger Mask W. In this one, famous wrestler Genzō Shibata (who fights as Animal Mask) is transported to a fantasy world by a princess on the night of the world championship. She’s hoping he can be the champion who will kill the beasts that are threatening her kingdom — but the animal loving wrestler instead gives her a suplex and sets out to befriend the local fauna and help them find forever homes.
Total Bellas (2016 — 2021)
If reality TV (with a heaping side of wrestling) is your thing, you can absolutely binge your life away on the mini-empire of shows that began with the nine (!) seasons of Total Divas. This spin-off narrows the focus to pro wrestlers Brie and Nikki Bella and their families, which include Brie’s husband; AEW wrestler Daniel Bryan; and Nikki’s ex, John Cena. If the cumulative 15 seasons of Divas and Bellas isn’t enough, the third spin-off, Miz & Mrs., is entering its third season.
The Monday Night War (2014)
The 20-part series is, ostensibly, about the rivalry between competing promotions WCW and WWE, staring around 1995. Given the popularity and prominence of the two companies in American pro wrestling, it’s equally a document of nearly all the major events in the sport over the years, starting when WCW was in the ascendant, before it was absorbed into its rival.
Mongo Wrestling Alliance (2011)
This show is probably about as far as Adult Swim ever went in pushing boundaries, and it didn’t last long as a result. The story of a rookie wrestler on the make is ultra-violent and wildly trashy — it doesn’t always (or often?) work, but it absolutely gets points for going as far as it does. Like much of Adult Swim’s output, it’s best watched late at night (and possibly while high). The voice cast is top-tier: Pamela Adlon, Will Sasso, Billy West, and (believe it or not) Harry Dean Stanton.
Table for 3 (2015 — )
On each episode, three personalities from every corner of the business (or, at least, from the corner that includes the WWE) sit down for dinner and discuss their lives and careers. It’s as simple as that, but the format allows for a variety of configurations: sometimes it’s three legends reminiscing, sometimes it’s recent stars discussing the business. Old friends or old adversaries occasionally hash things out over a meal. It’s also a great document of WWE history: the first episode from late 2015 featured Roddy Piper, Gene Okerlund and Paul Orndorff — the last time such a gathering would ever be possible.
Zack & Curt Figure It Out (2018 — 2019)
These are short, and there are only a handful of episodes, but it’s a fun show for toy fans. WWE (usually) tag team Curt Hawkins and Zack Ryder, each of them legitimate collectors, turned their popular podcast into a series about their hunt for rare figures to bulk up their already significant collections. If nothing else, it’s entertaining to watch other people spend money on enviable toys.
Ruthless Aggression (2020 — )
The early 2000s saw pro wrestling at a crossroads, and WWE in a particularly interesting point in its history. Other major brands had collapsed or contracted, and WWE might have been next. Instead, the years from 2002 to 2008 saw new faces like John Cena, Brock Lesnar, and Dave Bautista step into the spotlight, and the company take on a new brand strategy that included a split between its Raw and SmackDown franchises; succeeding by competing against itself. This docu-series takes a close look at those pivotal years. A second season was announced last year, but seems to have been delayed.