Sherri Martel gave up everything to make it as a star in professional wrestling –- her friends, her family, her body, her sanity and, as heart-wrenchingly portrayed on Dark Side of the Ring, her only child.

On-screen, Martel was showcased as a cut-throat, cunning and evil woman who would do whatever it took to win. But away from the bright lights and big crowds was someone who severely struggled with addiction, could not accept the responsibility of being a mother and ultimately succumbed to her demons at just 49 years old.

The show opened with a caller to a radio show asking Martel if wrestling is fake. Her response was to go on a rant about all the dangerous things she’s done in pro wrestling and the risks she had to take.

That opening call was a theme that this episode continued to return to, which was that women in the 1980s and 1990s had to do more to both be taken seriously by the fans and be accepted by the boys in the back. Everyone who was interviewed on the episode believed that Martel had achieved that status, but it came at a tremendous cost to her mentally, physically and emotionally.

It was explained that Martel never knew her father and was introduced to wrestling when her mother decided to bring her to the matches. It was there that she met a young Jake “The Snake” Roberts, who was very close in age to Martel. The two eventually dated on and off for about five years, but seemed to travel similar paths in wrestling with many challenging personal battles.

Martel herself explained that she loved the atmosphere at the matches and she had a rebellious streak in her that she thought would work in the business. The then 16-year-old Martel asked to be trained by Roberts’ father Grizzly Smith at Mid-South Wrestling, but he told her to come back when she was 21.

She later moved to New Orleans and began work as a stripper. She went on to meet Leroy Gonzales during a chance encounter at a restaurant. They hit it off and eventually she moved in with him and he popped the question. Gonzales noted that even in those days that Martel had issues with drugs.

The pair would have a child, Jarred Gonzales, in 1978, but Martel quickly decided that being a mother wasn’t for her. She left when the baby was just three months old and moved to Memphis because the dream of being a pro wrestler was too strong.

The Memphis territory allowed her to gain valuable wrestling experience and she then returned to Grizzly Smith and worked in the territory where he booked. Smith connected her with The Fabulous Moolah to get even more training, but that pairing didn’t work out. Moolah claimed that Martel partied too much and was asked to leave.

But the severing of ties with Moolah proved to work out for Martel. She found more work with Mid-South, traveled to Japan and also got on with the Minnesota-based AWA.

Meanwhile, Gonzales hired a private investigator to locate his wife and there were major struggles at home raising Jarred. Gonzales said he was at a bank late one night and was approached by three big men who told him to leave Martel and that she belongs to us [wrestling]. Gonzales decided to leave her alone after that encounter, but Martel would get back in the picture later.

Madusa Miceli worked with Martel in the AWA and explained that Martel was a success in the business but the issues with her son put a black cloud under her at times.

“She knew the business; her psychology and timing were great and I looked up to her,” Madusa said. “But she was caving inside.”

Madusa said Martel would reference her son as always not home when they would hang out. She noted that her son was not in the forefront of her life because of her career.

I thought Madusa and Robin Smith both came across well throughout this episode and helped the viewer understand the difficulty of maintaining stardom in pro wrestling as a woman in the era they were in. Both women indicated that it was likely impossible for a woman in that time to be a star and also be a mother and Martel ultimately chose the former.

Jarred Gonzales was then introduced on the show and from the first time he speaks it is apparent the man has serious health issues. It’s believed that he has many health issues stemming from cancer and is unable to speak clearly because a part of his tongue had to be removed due to cancer.

Despite his speech problems, Jarred was a compelling and sad figure in the show.

He stated that he doesn’t judge his mother for the decisions she made and he was always taken care of. His step-mom Pat Gonzales is introduced and she is given credit as essentially raising Jarred from the age of three on. Personally, I wish we had heard more from Pat.

Jarred said he has few early memories of his mom, noting a Japanese wrestling magazine was the first thing he can recall about her.

Leroy stated that they would arrange visits for Jarred to see Martel for a week, but he would be frequently be sent home after only a few days.

Jim Cornette was another strong presence on the show, as he had footage of when he and Martel debuted together back in 1982. She was the first talent he ever managed. Cornette had a great deal of respect for Sherri, but never minced words in the episode.

Cornette said that Jesse Ventura and Bobby Heenan put in a good word for Martel and she was hired by the WWF in 1987.

Martel was booked to take the WWF women’s title off of Moolah shortly after her arrival in what had to be a satisfying twist for her. Cornette believed that the title run, along with her matches with Robin Smith were the peak of her in-ring career.

The point again was made that Smith and Martel would put their bodies through a lot of punishment in matches that were often seven days a week. As a result, Martel turned to painkillers and prescription drugs to ease her pain. It was a spiral she would never recover from.

Robin stated that Martel could drink or snort any of the male wrestlers under the table and she did everything to the max. Robin recalled a match with Martel when she believed that Martel was high or not all there. Martel kicked Robin extremely hard in the throat and for a few moments Robin could not breathe. When they got to the back Martel hugged her and apologized profusely.

Around 1989 the women’s division was mostly phased out of the WWF, with Vince McMahon allegedly feeling that women’s wrestling was not of interest to fans. However, McMahon decided to keep Martel and use her as a manager.

She went on to manage stars like Randy Savage, Ted DiBiase, Shawn Michaels and others. Unfortunately, very little of that was discussed on this show.

During the WWF run she became closer to Jarred and would bring him on road trips. However, Jarred said that he was never allowed to discuss what happened when they were together or he wouldn’t be able to see her. Jarred sadly stated that he’s not sure he ever saw his mom sober during this time.

The drugs and alcohol abuse continued to be a problem for Martel and she was eventually fired from the WWF in 1993 for repeatedly failing drug tests.

Martel worked for Cornette at Smoky Mountain Wrestling before catching on with WCW in 1994. I would have liked to see her brief time in ECW discussed, but that was not mentioned.

Eric Bischoff doesn’t come off great in the episode, as he chose not to ask why she was let go by the WWF and stated that he hired her because she was a great talent.

Her work with Harlem Heat in WCW was discussed, but did not go into great detail. Jarred remembered this time period was very tough and that she would beg him for forgiveness, but he would say that’s not needed.
Kathy Fitzpatrick, identified as Martel’s best friend, was another person who doesn’t come off great and seemed to be somewhat naïve to Martel’s problems. She believed that Martel was in a lot of back pain and only used drugs to alleviate those issues. That opinion flies in the face of her family and co-workers who realized the serious problems Martel had.

Cornette believed she was over-medicating a lot and Sherri herself admitted she was self-destructive and thought the pills helped her perform better.

Madusa said that Martel seemed lost during her time in WCW and Bischoff fired her in 1997 for showing up under the influence and not being good on camera.

Madusa didn’t disagree that Martel had problems, but noted that there were many men on the WCW roster who had similar problems and never received that type of treatment from Bischoff.

Martel was then out of options in the wrestling world and re-married another man who Jarred said tried to put a wedge into her family. Jarred said the last night he saw his mom was at the 2006 WWE Hall of Fame.
Robin stated that for many, the HOF is a great honor, but for Sherri it wasn’t a great thing because it meant it was the end of her wrestling career and all she knew was wrestling.

Fitzpatrick then shared that about a year after the HOF, Martel told her that the WWE was going to bring her back, pay for her surgery and hire her as a trainer. The story seems fairly unlikely, but Fitzpatrick seemed to believe it.

The very next day Martel died of an accidental overdose.

Madusa shared that the funeral was sad, with a number of drugged out wrestlers in attendance. Roberts backs up that statement by saying he has very little memory of the event because he was very high during the ceremony.

The show closed with the Gonzales family remembering Martel. Jarred said he still has all the letters she sent him over the years and that he doesn’t hate her for the decisions she made.

Leroy said he had nothing against her, but he didn’t respect that she left. Pat was emotional and said Martel chose her career.

However, Jarred said his dad was a great provider and Sherri may have been his mom but Pat was his tag team partner. The show closed with Martel saying she sacrificed so much and that she made a lot of mistakes. She hopes people can learn from them.

I felt it was a powerful but extremely sad episode of DSOTR.

Martel gave up everything to pursue a career in wrestling and, at the end of the day, it doesn’t feel like it was worth it. She abandoned her child, ravaged her body with drugs and alcohol and died an early death.

Her life is truly a cautionary tale. The positive is that women have many more options and a lot more flexibility with what they can do in the wrestling world.

Martel was one of the pioneers to spark a change for women in wrestling, but at what cost?

She will be remembered as a legendary performer, but her life outside the ring was significantly more tragic than any wrestling storyline could ever be.

TOP PHOTO: Left, Sherri Martel, courtesy Dark Side of the Ring; right, Shawn Michaels and Scary Sherri in London, Ontario, photo by Terry Dart.



EDITOR’S NOTE: Post-publication, a photo of Jarred Gonzales was removed at his request.