New Wrestling Doc "350 Days" Examines Sport's Mental & Physical Toll

By Paul Gaita 03/22/19

"The fact that it's shown as cartoonish on TV doesn't mean that those bumps don't hurt or cripple or ultimately result in pain pill addictions or other drug dependency issues."

Ric Flair and Greg Valentine's careers are examined in 350 Days
Ric Flair and Greg Valentine photo courtesy of Evan Ginzburg

Professional wrestling remains one of the world's most popular sport entertainments, and a lucrative industry for its promoters. For the wrestlers themselves, there's fame and adoration, and even the chance for stardom outside the ring, as exemplified by Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson and John Cena.

In recent years, several documentaries—including Beyond the MatThe Sheik, and The Resurrection of Jake the Snakehave peeled away the superhuman veneer of wrestling and looked at the real physical and emotional impact of a professional wrestling career.

A new documentary, 350 Days, looks at the reality of wrestlers' lives through conversations with legends like Greg Valentine, "Superstar" Billy Graham and the late Jimmy "Superfly" Snuka, who detail in both humorous and heartfelt terms the punishing conditions under which they rose to fame in the ring.

The title of the film—which debuts on iTunes on April 2—refers to the number of days per year many wrestlers spend on the road and in the ring. The wear and tear of such a schedule has left many Hall of Famers and newcomers alike with debilitating physical injuries as well as mental health, emotional and drug dependency issues.

The film's co-producer Evan Ginzburg—who also served as associate producer on the Oscar-nominated drama The Wrestler, with Mickey Rourke—tells The Fix that addiction is "a prevalent issue" in professional wrestling.

"The fact that it's shown as cartoonish on TV doesn't mean that those bumps don't hurt or cripple or ultimately result in pain pill addictions or other drug dependency issues," he says. "Wrestlers hate the word 'fake,' but they'll say, 'My hip replacement, my knee replacement, my bad back—those aren't fake.' Or, 'Those three divorces aren't fake. My kids not talking to me isn't fake.' And many—not all—will develop drug dependencies because of it. It's just stating the facts."

Photo courtesy of Evan Ginzburg

As Ginzburg notes, pain—physical, emotional and mental—is part and parcel of a wrestling career. "I was at a wrestling show with a chiropractor friend, and he said, 'These [moves] are like mini-whiplashes. You can't imagine what this is doing to their bodies,'" he explains. "That a couple of bumps in one show. Imagine the cumulative effect of all that." The physical requirements of the job, combined with the potential for what Ginzburg calls "horrific" injuries, and a schedule that takes them away from their families for nearly an entire year, all take tolls, as do accompanying psychological stressors. 

Photo courtesy of Evan Ginzburg

"You're told you need to be bigger, to look a certain way," says Ginzburg. "What's also addressed in the film is that they'll wrestle injured, because they're scared to lose their spot [on a bout card]. There's always a younger guy, a new guy willing to take their place. So these guys keep going until the human body can't go any more, and you see Abdullah the Butcher, the Iron Sheik in a wheelchair. And it's not a secret how many guys have died from pain pills and steroids."

Photo courtesy of Evan Ginzburg

Ginzburg says that major promoters like the WWE have attempted to resolve these issues by providing treatment to wrestlers who request it. "They go into rehab and World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) pays for it," he says. "How much came from public pressure, that may be a different issue." But only a fundamental change to the structure of the industry is going to prevent the physical injury, the associate dependencies and the deaths that can occur as part of the job.

Photo courtesy of Evan Ginzburg

"A top promotion like WWE now goes from 350 days to 250 days a year," he says. "That's a good start, but wrestlers are still working 250 nights. WWE has so much talent that you forget some of them are actually there. How about taking the guys and women who are underutilized and putting them on during the holiday season—Thanksgiving through January 2—and giving the others time for their bodies to heal?"

Photo courtesy of Evan Ginzburg

Ginzburg hopes that viewers will learn some core truths about wrestling from 350 Days.

"They sacrifice for the fans, and they're not cartoon characters," he says. "They are real people with bones that break and muscles that rip. It's a brutal sport, and more has to be done for them."

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.