Vince McMahon and Barry Blaustein are ready to rumble. And an unlikely matchup it is: soft-spoken, gray-haired screenwriter (

Boomerang, The Nutty Professor) Blaustein vs. professionally pugnacious McMahon. The beef: Blaustein's directing debut, Beyond the Mat, a frank but unwaveringly affectionate peek behind the scenes of professional wrestling; it opens March 17 and features WWF superstar Mick Foley ("Mankind"), '70s heel Terry Funk and Jake "the Snake" Roberts, a former ring star laid low by drugs and personal demons.

"That's funny," you may be thinking ? "where were the Beyond the Mat ads during recent WWF broadcasts on USA and UPN?" You didn't miss them because they weren't there! The networks were pressured not to carry any advertising for Blaustein's picture ? not only during WWF broadcasts but during any programming. The official line: Beyond the Mat competes with the WWF's own product.

A fan since childhood when his mom tossed away his wrestling magazines and vainly bemoaned the sport's violence and sweaty, wild shenanigans, Blaustein kept his wrestlemania largely to himself. Five years ago, his wife threw him a surprise wrestling-themed birthday party; simultaneously touched and embarrassed ? his friends now knew all ? Blaustein decided it was time to make that wrestling documentary he'd always talked about. He got $500,000 from Brian Grazer and Ron Howard's Imagine Films ? "I think they said, 'Well, we've known him a long time, he's done a lot of work for us, let's go ahead,' " Blaustein says — and started shooting.

The end result: a wrestling film you don't have to be a fan to enjoy. "Look," says Blaustein, "at one point I said to Vince, 'I want to make people look at wrestlers as human beings, real people in a very hard business who deserve respect because they have to make a lot of sacrifices to succeed.' And Vince's reply was, 'I could [not] care less. That's not what I'm selling.' It's sad that a guy who's made his money in wrestling should have less respect for the people in it than some of the fans do."