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Charleston Post & Courier. . . a fascinating look at a rogue industry operating in a dark corner of a larger world of entertainment. . .
— October 20, 2003
The storyteller is "Big Jim" Wilson, All-American football player and survivor of seven years in the NFL, who was promised wealth and the world championship as pro wrestler. Instead, Jim Wilson found a surprisingly lucrative sports entertainment ...
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The storyteller is "Big Jim" Wilson, All-American football player and survivor of seven years in the NFL, who was promised wealth and the world championship as pro wrestler. Instead, Jim Wilson found a surprisingly lucrative sports entertainment industry built on a pyramid of secrets that included abusive control of its performers and a long history of illegal business practices and corruption of politicians and state athletic commissions. Chokehold describes and documents the abuses that Jim Wilson witnessed and endured – blacklisting, strong-arm tactics, homosexual blackmail, defiance of the U.S. Justice Department and bribery of TV executives and arena managers. Chokehold is an explosive indictment of the pro wrestling industry’s business practices as well as a thoughtful proposal for pro wrestling’s reform.
This book is not a conventional exposé of pro wrestling’s orchestrated stunts, gimmicks and blade jobs. Instead, it is an unprecedented examination of pro wrestling’s less visible cons outside the ring -- its hidden manipulation of wrestlers with broken promises and broken bones and a backstage power of the pencil that writes scripts for wrestler stardom or extinction. Chokehold describes a secret slice of the wrestling life where traveling troupes of heels and babyfaces understand how they got into the game, but cannot find a way up or out. This is the story of why and how the big guys almost always lose.
Chokehold is part autobiography and part pro wrestling history. Written in wrestlespeak (the industry’s insider argot), it is dedicated to the memory of "the older boys whose broken bodies and shattered lives should have taught us something." In addition to Jim Wilson’s experiences in The Business, this book reviews significant but forgotten episodes in the wrestling industry’s long history of gangland tactics. The industry’s infamous blacklist is revisited by revealing the dozens of wrestlers from the past whose names were on it. The industry’s history of predatory promotional wars in California, Georgia, Texas and Virginia is told with FBI reports obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. From court documents, this book names compromised state athletic commissions, TV station managers and local politicians – from wrestling’s viewpoint, the best that money could buy.
There are many famous wrestling names in this book --Gorgeous George, Lou Thesz, Jack Brisco, the Funk brothers, Dusty Rhodes, Bruiser Brody, Bill Watts and others. Another is The Sheik (Eddie Farhat), who says: "There ain’t no nice guys in this business. There ain’t no people – there’s dollars!" Another is Jim Wilson’s tag team partner Thunderbolt Patterson who warned Jim, "The wrestling business takes advantage of anybody who has any notoriety or ability. You got to understand that wrestlers are worse than whores. They are pimped. They use you as long as they possibly can or as long as you don’t complain. When you complain, they get rid of you."
Another is Jim Wilson’s friend The Magnificent Zulu (Ron Pope) who summarizes his career this way: "It’s such a crooked business. The guys [wrestlers] are a bunch of crooks. They steal from the marks and the promoters steal from them. The guys [wrestlers] want to be stars! They’ll do anything – they’ll cut throats for it. Actually, wrestlers don’t have to be paid. All they need is a couple of six packs of beer a night and a nice looking ring rat with a good body. Or, drugs and a ring rat. It’s not the money. It’s being a star! It’s the glory and the pussy!"
This book confronts the wrestling industry’s traditional practice of punishing wrestlers who refuse to lose with hired hitmen to break bones. Like wrestler Ronnie Garvin, who testified in court proceedings before he became National Wrestling Alliance World Champion: "If you do not do what they [promoters] tell you to do . . . he’ll send somebody out there and try to hurt me because he’ll have somebody. They all do. It sort of keeps the wrestlers in line." One wrestling hitman confesses in these pages: "I was told to go out and I was told to stretch them, which is a fairly ambiguous term. It was to me at the time . . . I was very naive about it because I was trying to be what a good wrestler is, a showman, rather than a strong-arm man," says wrestler Bob Roop.
Chokehold explains why wrestlers don’t complain about their mistreatment, citing former world champion Bruno Sammartino ("You don’t go to authorities if you want to eat because you’re dead. You’re finished, kaput, blackballed . . . there’s no union, there’s no protection for the wrestler") and Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura ("Wrestlers have never been allowed to unionize. There’s no pension, no health benefits . . . You’re a piece of meat. Wrestling evolved from the carnivals. They’ve tried to keep us back in those carnival days. It doesn’t behoove promoters to have wrestlers who know what their rights are"). And why wrestling promoters get rich at wrestlers’ expense – why Eddie Einhorn said, "I like a lotta things about wrestling – There is no union, and if one of those blonde superstars gets hurt or retires, you can create another one."
This book also describes pro wrestling’s drug problem and wrestlers’ early death rate and shows why wrestling journalist Dave Meltzer concluded, "The human costs have escalated totally out of control. The rehab visits, the near fatal car crashes, the overdoses and the flukes are way out of hand . . . the wrestlers, more than ever before, are pawns of an ugly system with no insurance, no collective bargaining and unsafe working conditions."
Chokehold proposes solutions to pro wrestling’s abuses, answering former wrestling champion Ric Flair’s observation, "This is the most insensitive business in the world and it will continue to be until somebody does something about it. We don’t have the type of backing, be it union-wise or health insurance-wise and the reason is because under the current system, everybody has to look out after themselves." The book documents Rowdy Roddy Piper’s assertion that "Wrestling is a huge industry now, and the industry needs to take care of its own. Wrestlers do not have many friends."
Finally, Chokehold challenges today’s wrestlers to find the courage to buck the wrestling establishment and fight for what is right outside the ring -- " to get our most important act organized."
Chapter 2: Requiem for an All-American traces Jim’s entry into wrestling after a football career at the University of Georgia and seven years in the NFL with the San Francisco 49ers, Atlanta Falcons and Los Angeles Rams. Jim recounts how the wrestling industry exploited his name and reputation to attract attention and legitimate pro wrestling’s claims to sports status.
Chapter 3: Care and Feeding of a Babyfacetells of Jim Wilson’s first years in pro wrestling, an off-season diversion from pro football. Jim recounts his introduction to The Business, its memorable heels and babyfaces who were instructed to lose to Jim, and describes the wrestling cast’s nomadic and peculiar lifestyle.
Chapter 4: Power of the Pencil reveals that because pro wrestling is not based on ability or skill, wrestlers are routinely required to suspend ego and dignity by agreeing to be defeated. Jim recounts the experiences of recalcitrant wrestlers who argued with either the script or their payoffs and were fired and blacklisted or stretched and in at least one case, murdered in the locker room.
Chapter 5: Blackmail and Blackball tells why Jim Wilson was ultimately forced out of the wrestling business. After refusing to accept a gay wrestling official’s sexual invitation, Jim was instructed to lose his matches and juice (bleed) to get paid. He was then fired and blacklisted, and not even his best friend, the world wrestling champion, could salvage his career.
Chapter 6: Battle For Atlanta describes one of the wrestling industry’s bloodiest intramural turf wars, occasioned by the death of the Georgia wrestling promoter who was Jim’s mentor. Drawing on previously undisclosed court documents, Jim reveals the behind-the-scenes wheeling and dealing to capture the lucrative Georgia wrestling territory and the illegal tactics employed to control wrestlers, arena managers and TV stations.
Chapter 7: Unmasking the Conspiracy uncovers the dark infrastructure of the wrestling industry and how its illegal practices resulted in a U.S. Justice Department investigation and judgement against it in the 1950s. This chapter is the first public disclosure of the Government’s investigation of blacklisting and other illegal business practices and how the wrestling business managed to survive criminal indictment and jail.
Chapter 8: Shooting Matches tells of the wrestling industry’s legal troubles in the 1970s when Justice Department investigators recommended criminal indictments and the industry became entangled in six major lawsuits. Jim Wilson recounts his and others’ legal fights with the industry’s predatory tactics, including his own unsuccessful attempt to establish an independent promotion which led to his financial and family ruin.
Chapter 9: Political Sleeperholds reviews Jim Wilson’s crusade to clean up pro wrestling and the national attention it attracted. Beginning as a witness in Georgia and New York legislative investigations, Jim watches politicians stall amidst pressure to leave wrestling alone. Jim traces a surprising line of political clout from wealthy wrestling promoters and TV executives to local and state politicians and ultimately to Jimmy Carter’s White House.
Chapter 10: Heavyweight Heist describes pro wrestling’s renaissance in the 1980s and its two central figures, promoter Vince McMahon and TV magnate Ted Turner. This chapter analyzes the hardball business tactics that changed the industry from a territorially organized monopoly to a national circuit of TV and arena shows in which merchandising revenue and TV receipts drive wrestling’s new economy.
Chapter 11: Scandal is the Main Event focuses on the worst scandal in pro wrestling history and how the industry survived two criminal trials on charges of illegal steroid trafficking against Dr. George Zahorian and promoter Vince McMahon. And how wrestling’s drug scandal led to a wrestling sex scandal involving allegations by wrestlers, referees and underage ringboys of pedophile harassment and homosexual blackmail.
Chapter 12: The Business Exposed argues that pro wrestling’s ultimate exposé involved revelations of the industry’s abusive and chaotic working conditions in the late 1990s. Several wrestler lawsuits exposed the industry’s huge profits and disgraceful compensation practices, and the deaths of two dozen young wrestlers exposed the industry’s primitive working conditions.
In the book’s Epilogue, Jim Wilson reviews the pro wrestling industry’s human costs measured by the plight of older, retired wrestlers, the mistreatment of injured wrestlers who cannot afford time off for medical treatment, the industry’s history of racial stereotyping and sexual exploitation and pro wrestlers’ shocking mortality statistics. The nation’s sports and entertainment media are accused of ignoring the industry’s abuses and recent wrestling books are criticized for not telling the full truth about The Business. Jim ends his book by recommending a bill of rights for wrestlers that includes health and safety standards, a wrestlers’ union or guild and reform and restoration of state athletic commissions.
And unlike any other wrestling book you’ve seen, this one includes extensive documentation of source material and elaborated commentary in extensive chapter notes. Equally rare in the wrestling book genre, this volume provides an extensive index.