Wrestling with Satan DVD Review: Putting Beelzebub in a Sleeper Hold

Directed by Paul Aldridge and Tom Borden, the 2009 documentary Wrestling with Satan explores the Christian Wrestling Federation over the course of about six years. This is one of those low budget operations, comprised almost entirely of interviews and footage from the CWF’s wrestling matches. The latter usually take place in front of a crowds of perhaps 100 or so people.

There isn’t a lot of criticism or stoutness to Wrestling with Satan and Borden and Aldridge don’t have much to offer when it comes to the theology behind the CWF. The good news is that there is a major shift about halfway through the documentary that reveals that perhaps not all is divine in the squared circle of the federation.

Wrestling with Satan loosely details how the Christian Wrestling Federation got its start, with Rob Vaughn as the originator of the organization. Little is said about how wrestlers actually joined the CWF beyond the arcane “call of Christ,” but soon there’s a decent roster and the group starts putting on shows they compare to tent revivals.

There’s a spiritual advisor, John Ernst, and a number of wrestlers of varying talent levels. There are hints of trouble, like how certain wrestlers still have to hold down full-time jobs and how they’re paid inconsistently while Vaughn and his wife Anisa live in a monstrous home. At one point, two wrestlers take a gig in a secular organization and are booted from the hallowed CWF.

Guy Fieri lookalike Vaughn cuts an interesting figure and should be familiar to anyone ill-fated enough to find themselves in the inner sanctum of certain evangelical “ministries.” These sorts of groups are a dime a dozen and can take the form of anything from a wrestling organization to a knitting group. The set-up is familiar and the resultant car crash is akin to Hell House’s ghastly “evangelism.”

Ernst is another compelling soul. His self-confident faith will be seen as admirable by some and terrifying by others, with his oblivious remarks about other religions breezing by uncontested. In a curious moment, the camera lingers after he finishes a canonical rant and takes a raucous sip of his beverage. When more complicated matters arise, Ernst reminds wrestlers to shut up and get it done for Christ.

There are other matters, like how a wrestler is kicked out of the organization for living with a woman he wasn’t married to. Here, Vaughn’s wife explains that sacking the man was a matter of “protecting the reputation of Christ.” This shouldn’t surprise anyone considering how fervently the preaching flows at the average CWF event.

Another wrestler explains how his wife left him after a serious injury. He asks if this was what God wanted and then seems to blame his “bad choice” of joining a secular organization as the cause of his Job-like troubles.

These dynamics lie at the core of what pile-drives the men of CWF. The bad things in life are allied with Satan and “being tested.” The good things are gifts from the Almighty and are the results of “being blessed.” The wrestlers spurt these common ministry-related inanities with precision and their lines are as accomplished and as eschatologically-focused as their body slams.

Along with holding down the “right side” in the grand cosmic gambit, Wrestling with Satan reveals how the CWF views itself as a bible-thumping ransom for Christ. One absurd moment finds a wrestler hammering the wrestling mat and comparing the bumps they take to the ultimate bump taken by Christ on the cross. It’s all sacrifice, all for the greater good of winning souls for the Kingdom.

Wrestling with Satan is a conspicuous documentary in its examination of some pretty outlandish people. Its most laughable (and dreadful) revelation involves Vaughn faking a heart attack behind the wheel and blaming a swirl of “issues” for his actions. It’s clear these men are flawed, without question, and examining them on a perfunctory level is enjoyable enough.

There’s certainly ample room for criticism in the face of these mawkish, cliché-ridden grapplers, but Wrestling with Satan focuses on an accepting view. There’s something commendable about that, but there’s also something to be said for taking Vaughn and Co. to the mat in a way that truly tests their mettle outside of the ham-fisted, corrosive theology they grapple for.

The DVD also features five wrestling matches from CWF, most of which feature a more mainstream name for interest’s sake. Three matches include AJ Styles, while the other two feature the great Dr. Death.

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Critical curmudgeon

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