A new documentary explores what it's like to be a pro wrestler pinned down for the count only for Jesus to tag in and make the save.
Released earlier this year, "Wrestling for Jesus" is a film sharing the trials and tribulations of Timothy "T-Money" Blackmon, a pro wrestler who forms an evangelical wrestling league in North Augusta, S.C. As Blackmon and his roster of wrestlers deliver prayers and piledrivers in the ring, his home life disintegrates into divorce and a struggle for Christ's forgiveness.
"There's a lot more depth to this movie than just wrestling," Blackmon said. "My life fell apart. It documents that and coming back from the other side. The Lord was protecting me and taking care of me even when I didn't want him to."
Blackmon said his league (also called "Wrestling for Jesus" or WFJ for short) was born because of a love for pro wrestling he shared with his father Albert. Opening the organization to evangelize his neighbors, he soon faced backlash for mixing his faith with a sport where the only crucifixes are powerbomb variations.
"What we were doing wasn't typical for Southern Bible Belt ministry," said Blackmon, who put WFJ on hiatus before filming for the movie finished in 2010. "I hated having to defend it to the Christian community and constantly be under a microscope."
The group's unorthodox ministry attracted Nathan Clarke, a documentarian who encountered WFJ on a message board and began filming their shows in 2007. Initially drawn by WFJ's novel take on sharing the Gospel, he said he stuck with the project after seeing the wrestlers' passion for preaching.
"Their wrestling was an interesting extension of their faith," Clarke said of the WFJ grapplers. "What I was most interested in is why someone like Timothy would do this. Why would he risk his health and family life to put on spandex and wrestle?"
The league's shows got off to a strong start by mixing wrestling matches with sermons on life lessons involving its storylines. It suffered a huge blow, Blackmon said, when Albert committed suicide after its start. Thus started a downward spiral, he said, culminating in his friend Gary Rucker breaking two vertebrae in a match and a trying divorce with his wife.
"The last thing my dad told me was that he was proud of me and wanted me to keep doing what I was doing," Blackmon said. "Nate and I started joking during filming that he was my best therapist. He'd just turn on the camera and listen. I really like the movie, but it's one some people couldn't do."
Taking a beating, Blackmon added, is simply part of the pro wrestling business. The grappler said before hanging up his boots, he had broken multiple ribs and toes as well as gotten several concussions. Battering his body was worthwhile for ministry purposes, Blackmon added, until the strain of his personal life made him tap out.
"Wrestling is scripted but the outcome is real," Clarke said. "In some ways, these guys are living their lives just like their matches. They're following a script and when it veers from that they don't know how to deal with it. That's a reality we all deal with."
Blackmon said his wrestling ordeal left him down but not out. Now remarried and reunited with his three daughters, he said he would return to the ring when the time is right. After all, he added, the world is still ripe for ministry, even if it takes clotheslines to reach others with Christ's love.
"There are so many avenues of ministry," Blackmon said. "We wanted to do something good with wrestling rather than something negative. Hopefully we've planted seeds that will develop later."