Grantland and Deadspin correspondent presents a breakthrough examination of the professional wrestling, its history, its fans, and its wider cultural impact that does for the sport what Chuck Klosterman did for heavy metal.
The Squared Circle grows out of David Shoemaker’s writing for Deadspin, where he started the column “Dead Wrestler of the Week” (which boasts over 1 million page views) -- a feature on the many wrestling superstars who died too young because of the abuse they subject their bodies to -- and his writing for Grantland, where he covers the pro wrestling world, and its place in the pop culture mainstream. Shoemaker’s sportswriting has since struck a nerve with generations of wrestling fans who—like him—grew up worshipping a sport often derided as “fake” in the wider culture. To them, these professional wrestling superstars are not just heroes but an emotional outlet and the lens through which they learned to see the world.
Starting in the early 1900s and exploring the path of pro wrestling in America through the present day, The Squared Circle is the first book to acknowledge both the sport’s broader significance and wrestling fans’ keen intellect and sense of irony. Divided into eras, each section offers a snapshot of the wrestling world, profiles some of the period’s preeminent wrestlers, and the sport’s influence on our broader culture. Through the brawling, bombast, and bloodletting, Shoemaker argues that pro wrestling can teach us about the nature of performance, audience, and, yes, art.
Full of unknown history, humor, and self-deprecating reminiscence—but also offering a compelling look at the sport’s rightful place in pop culture—The Squared Circle is the book that legions of wrestling fans have been waiting for. In it, Shoemaker teaches us to look past the spandex and body slams to see an art form that can explain the world.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
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|Age Range:||18 Years|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
In modern professional wrestling, the really compelling shows start with what they call a “cold open”—they skip the theme song, skip the formality, and get right to the meat. So let me try to do that here:
This is a book about dead wrestlers.
It was supposed to be, anyway. But along the way, it became a history of professional wrestling told through the stories of people who made the myths and who thereafter died. It’s the story of a mythology populated not by gods but by real men, fallible mortals who served as vessels for a larger truth, men who lived the lives of kings and who suffered to be our idols. This is the ultimate fakery of wrestling—that the emperor has no clothes, that the gods are mortals. But in reliving their lives, what became clear is that the mythology is what matters the most. We make our own gods for our own purposes. And we love them, and that’s the whole point.
Dad took me to a wrestling show in 1987 at Freedom Hall in Louisville, Kentucky. Dad was no wrestling fan himself, but he knew how much it meant to me to see Hulk Hogan square off against the nefarious Killer Khan. My only concrete memory of the night was that the Hogan-Khan “main event” went on halfway through the card. When Hogan dispatched the Mongolian monster, I felt for a moment like it was time to leave; that was the main event, after all. It was a bit off-putting until my dad suggested that they must have done it that way because Hogan had a flight to catch. Even as a nine-year-old, I knew that this made sense, that there were perfectly good real-life situations that took precedence over wrestling “reality”; even as we were screaming along to the matches as we were supposed to, as the WWF matchmakers choreographed the night for us to, everybody in the arena knew this. Which is to say, we were in on the joke.
That’s the first thing most people get wrong about wrestling fans. We can whoop for the good guys, hiss at the heel antics, and still know that the show is, well, a show. It was a year prior to that Hogan-Khan match when I was first awakened to the complexities of pro wrestling, when a group of good-guy wrestlers showed up in the WWF calling themselves the Machines. There were two of them at first: a burly, nondescript guy called Super Machine (I was too young at the time to recognize him as Bill Eadie, who would later go on to great fame as Ax of the tag team Demolition—his moniker here was a play off of his previous gimmick as the Masked Superstar, a headliner in the Mid-Atlantic territory), and an enormous, stoop-necked monolith called Giant Machine. Even as a child I could see that Giant Machine was Andre the Giant.
Andre had been suspended earlier that year when he failed to show up for a match with two wrestlers from wicked manager Bobby “The Brain” Heenan’s troupe. Now he was back, in disguise, and ready to resume his feud with the Heenan Family. As a kid, this was delicious comeuppance for Heenan, who had used every trick in the book to try to steer his wrestlers to victory over the good guys I idolized. Despite Heenan’s loud insistence that Giant Machine was Andre, there was nothing the WWF officials could do, the mask being sacred territory in the wrestling world. (Almost every time a masked wrestler has wrestled, his opponents have tried to unmask him. That’s the law of the jungle, though—opposing wrestlers can prove their point by unmasking him in the course of a match, but that’s the only way it will happen.) Eventually the Machines (and their manager, Captain Lou Albano) were joined by other teammates. First came Big Machine (who was really Blackjack Mulligan, but to me he was another generic behemoth), then later Animal Machine (indisputably George “The Animal” Steele), then Hulk Machine (Hulk Hogan, he of the most identifiable copper-tanned physique in the business), and later Piper Machine (who was so intent on being identified as “Rowdy” Roddy Piper that he was wearing a kilt). With every new partner, I cheered and laughed at the Heenan Family’s misfortune.
Of course, the whole point was that we could see what Heenan could see, but nobody else—not the announcers, not the referees, not the WWF front office—could tell. The entire joke was that we were in on the joke.
My grandfather used to tell a story about a wrestling show in small-town North Carolina. A reporter from the local newspaper was assigned to cover the event, but he had someplace else to be on the night of the event, so he went by the arena the day of, watched the guys warming up, took some notes, and then asked the promoter who was going to win each match so that he could file his story ahead of time. He did. But, the story goes, there was a terrible storm that night, and the show was canceled. When the newspaper came out the next day with all the results listed, the townsfolk were infuriated and, in my grandfather’s words, just about ran the reporter out of town with pitchforks and torches.
Note that the townsfolk didn’t run the wrestlers out of town; they went after the journalist. They knew full well what the reality of wrestling was—they were in on the joke. They just expected that the journalist would stay complicit in the enterprise. That a writer writing about wrestling would be a fan first and a critic second. Anyway, that’s where I’m coming from.
A quick note about “facts.” Not long after the Machines storyline, Andre turned to the dark side and was set against Hulk Hogan in a battle for the centuries. He beat Hogan on a dire episode of The Main Event that I watched with my whole family on my parents’ bed. I really have no idea why we were all watching; nobody else was a wrestling fan, and that was the only time it happened. But that night, with my parents and my sister bearing witness, the “Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase—Andre’s partner in crime—stole the WWF title away from Hogan by furtively putting Earl Hebner in as the referee in place of his brother, Dave, who was the referee of record. The story goes that he paid for Earl to have plastic surgery to look just like Dave, so the two were indistinguishable except for their morals and motives. (In reality, the two were identical twins, and Earl—himself a longtime WWF ref—had only briefly been removed from television prior to the Main Event match in hope fans would forget about him.)
As a young fan, I was irate. The lesson, though, was the same as it had been with the Machines: Nothing in the world of pro wrestling is what it seems to be, and to assume that it is is to watch at your heart’s own peril.
In researching this book, the main thing I realized about pro wrestling is that the offscreen world is almost as fantastical as the one on-screen. “History” is mostly quartered to the realm of wrestler reminiscence, which would be factually problematic on its own, but couple that with the industry’s desire to mythologize everything and to keep up the facade of fakery that undergirds the sport and you end up with a lot of facts that contradict each other. What follows is my best effort to sift through them, organize them, break them down, and put them back together in something approaching truth. If all that follows isn’t true in the plainest sense of the word, it’s an honest effort at it. And at a minimum it’s a look at reality through the distorted lens of pro wrestling unreality. It’s the truth about a century of misdirection and lies.
(The world wants to be deceived, so let it be deceived.)
It’s a life that leaves you lopsided.
Wrestling was a bastard art form from the start. You can trace its history back to “catch wrestling,”* a mutt form of organized grappling that incorporated aspects of Greco-Roman wrestling, Irish collar-and-elbow, Indian styles, and the famously violent brand of English fighting called Lancashire wrestling.* As the catch wrestling fad took hold in America, in New York and in traveling carnivals that toured the growing nation in the late nineteenth century, it continued to evolve with an increased emphasis on submission holds—“hooking,” they called it—as well as combative techniques from every corner of the country—and every corner of the world, really, since masses of new immigrants populated the audiences.
Like all the other sideshow acts, these carnival wrestling acts were a fully interactive sham. Here’s a description of the setup, recounted in 1935 in Collier’s:
“Easy money, boys,” the barker shrills. “Step up and get it, boys. You get a dollar for every minute you stay with one of these rasslers. You get a dollar, a clammo, a buckeroo, boys, for even one minute. You get fifty—yes, fifty—large dollars, boys—if you can throw any of these wrestlers. Who’ll try his strength and skill for fifty dollars, a half hundred—enough to buy a plow, a horse or a winter coat for the little woman?”
From the outskirts of the crowd a cabbage-eared, dough-nosed shill raises a hand and starts to elbow his way forward. The act calls for him to go up and throw one of the wrestlers, a maneuver calculated to give confidence to those who might want to try.
The wrestlers were mostly legitimate fighters, but the exhibition was imbued with shtick from the start for entertainment purposes. There are any number of stories of how the troupe would guard against defeat from particularly stout locals. It was one reason why wrestlers became well versed in hooking—there’s nothing like a nice toehold to bring a tough guy to his knees—but more duplicitous means were also developed. The earliest days are full of legends about how the wrestler, when he began to feel overmatched, would wrangle his opponent back against the curtain abutting the back of the stage, whereupon an accomplice hidden behind it would clock the local through the curtain with a blackjack, unnoticed by the audience. The local guy would stagger to the ground, and the wrestler would pin him “fairly.” And on to the next contestant, and the next town.
The counterparts to the sideshow acts were the big-time matches that pitted top grapplers against one another, in large venues with larger crowds. This brand of “professional wrestling,” as it came to be known, was more or less real, although of course the outcomes of bouts were sometimes fixed—which is to say that wrestling was real in those early days exactly to the extent that boxing was real. Wrestling and boxing existed in a sort of symbiosis for much of the twentieth century; oftentimes their respective popularity would rise and fall in inverse proportion. Wrestling was often the respite for disaffected boxing fans and vice versa, though over the decades the sports shared venues, management, and sometimes even athletes. So, yes, like boxing, wrestling started off as a legitimate sport. It just wasn’t a very entertaining one.
Those early championship matches were frequently multihour slogs wherein the combatants rarely stood up off the mat or even moved enough for an audience member past the eighth row to notice. Sure, wrestling drew crowds, but it was not the sort of immersive spectacle that boxing was; it’s true that in those days boxing bouts would often last hours as well, but if given the option, the average sports fan will choose the punch over the waist-lock ninety-nine times out of one hundred.
In the wrestling mainstream of those early days, though, even when one did not find rigged fights and predetermined endings, the industry was nonetheless marked by misdirection and mythology. Take the story of Frank Gotch, the sport’s first iconic champion. It’s said that in June 1899, a young Gotch agreed to wrestle a furniture salesman from the next town on a racetrack. Gotch lost, but as the fight dragged out to nearly two hours, it was clear that both men were grapplers of the highest order. As the furniture salesman left, he gave Gotch his card, revealing himself only then to be Dan McLeod, the Canadian-born American Heavyweight Champion of the wrestling world.*
The motif of gods and heroes coming to earth disguised as average peasants has a footing in Greek mythology—see Zeus and Hermes taking shelter with Baucis and Philemon, Odysseus as the beggar, Odysseus as “Noman,” and so on—and it’s the central metaphor of the Christian faith today. When a historian encounters a scene such as the one told of Gotch above, his eyebrows instinctively rise. Even if there is historical reality to that racetrack match, the metaphorical reality—the reason why the story persisted in popular memory—is more significant: that Gotch was visited by a demigod in the rags of the masses who conveyed upon Gotch the imprimatur through which he himself would ascend to the level of the immortals.
The son of German immigrants settled in Iowa, Gotch was paradigmatic right out of the gate: Wrestling would be the sport of choice for all variety of new immigrants through much of the rest of the century, and Iowa would come to be a hotbed for collegiate wrestling to this day. That latter fact, it should be said, was largely due to the influence of Martin “Farmer” Burns, a world-famous wrestler* and himself an American champion, who founded wrestling schools in Omaha, Nebraska, and Rock Island, Illinois, and trained a generation of future grapplers, including Earl Caddock,* future game-changer Joseph “Toots” Mondt, and Rudy Dusek of the Dusek Riot Squad, a mob of four brothers that took over the wrestling scene in the Midwest and then New York City.
When Gotch defeated the “Russian Lion” George Hackenschmidt in Chicago’s Dexter Park in 1908 in an epic two-hour battle, wrestling reached its first real national prominence. In most matches in those days, you had to beat your opponent in two out of three falls—usually by “tossing” him to the mat after a lengthy period of grappling for dominant position—but that day in Chicago, the first fall lasted two hours, and then it only ended because Hackenschmidt surrendered the fall; he didn’t return to the ring thereafter, forfeiting the title to Gotch. Hackenschmidt is reported to have withdrawn graciously—“[Gotch] is the king of the class, the greatest man by far I ever met,” he was quoted as saying in the American press—but two days later, to the London Daily Mail, his story changed: “The tactics by which I was defeated on American soil would not have been tolerated in England. Gotch’s body was literally soaked in oil to prevent my holding him. All the world knows this to be unfair and against the rules of wrestling. He dug his nails into my face, tried to pull my ear off, and poke his thumb into my eye.”*
It wasn’t necessarily an issue of Hack changing his mind; the discrepancy is as likely to be because one—or both—of the quotes was created by someone other than the Russian Lion. Such was sometimes the nature of the sports writing world in those days; wrestling immediately evinced itself as the perfect vessel for such fictional storylines. It’s notable that both Gotch and Hackenschmidt were performers as much as they were fighters; Gotch appeared in stage plays over the years, and Hack was a vaudeville strongman. In their fight, they played the roles of opposing national heroes, and though the ending was not predetermined, it was left in such a way so as to give credence to each wrestler’s constituency. In a sense, even in these comparatively pure days of pro wrestling, it didn’t even matter who won. When two fighters come to blows, each representing a different continent, it’s not surprising that the perception of the ending will be different depending on what side of the world you’re on. Gotch vs. Hackenschmidt may have been a genuine wrestling match—Gotch’s suspect tactics aside—but its story would be legend.*
When Gotch and Hackenschmidt met for their rematch at Comiskey Park three years later, Gotch was the undisputed world champion and the sport’s biggest star, and 30,000 people attended, which was the biggest crowd any athletic event had ever attracted in America. But the match was a dud. Hackenschmidt was injured going in, and Gotch took him down in short order. Rumors abounded that Gotch had paid one of Hack’s training partners to “accidentally” injure him before the match, and indeed latter-day champ Lou Thesz long claimed that the infamous hooker Ad Santel told him that he had been paid $5,000 to do the deed. Nobody other than Santel himself puts Santel in Hack’s training company, though, and the Hackenschmidt camp always maintained that Dr. Roller* caused the knee injury, and that it was actually an accident. Nevertheless, the media of the day picked up on the more scandalous version of the story. “Their return match carried too many phony and lopsided features,” recalled Grantland Rice in 1931. “The result was one of the loudest and longest squawks in sport and the doom of wrestling in most of the big cities.” Whether the fans were dissatisfied with the perceived shenanigans or simply peeved at the anticlimactic match is probably a fair question. Regardless, the wrestling industry was thereafter thrown into widespread disrespect for the first time.
It was just as well that they get used to it. There would be a lot more of that to come over the decades.
For a while it was back to the small venues and sideshows for the grapplers. The New York scene, run by Jack Curley and his posse of heavyweights, remained as the center of the American wrestling universe. But for much of the rest of the country, the touring carnivals were the primary source of wrestling in particular and entertainment in general in those days before cities grew up enough to host their own full-time means of spectacle. The carnivals were a natural fit for wrestling, and as wrestling evolved over the decades, it would never leave behind the insider vocabulary of the sideshow circuit: terms like mark, work, schmozz, kayfabe—this is the slang of the carny, not the professional athlete. Many men who would go on to be nationwide stars of the ring, wrestling for championship titles in big cities, came out of those small-time beginnings: guys like Farmer Burns; William Muldoon, who dressed as a Roman gladiator (and was canonized in song as “Muldoon the Solid Man” by composer Ed Harrigan, and later in fiction by Theodore Dreiser as “Culhane, the Solid Man”); and a future icon named Ed “Strangler” Lewis.
“The wrestling game became the smelliest sport in the world,” said Marcus Griffin in his excellent 1937 history of the wrestling world, Fall Guys. After the Gotch-Hackenschmidt debacle, the sport passed out of vogue—and, moreover, into laughingstock territory. If the matches were exciting, they seemed fixed (even when they weren’t), and if they were boring, well, they were interminable. Here’s The New Yorker: “[The wrestlers] would go to the mat and stay there for hours and hours, a mass of mute meat. Matches lasted sometimes as long as a third of a day. As practiced by the old school, wrestling was one of the most unexciting spectacles a person could pay money to see: a race between two century plants.”
A BRIEF GLOSSARY OF WRESTLING LINGO
As with any microcosmic world, a wrestling language developed over the years to mark the insiders from the outsiders. What separates wrestling lingo from some other similar industry dialects is how the insider terms have become widespread terms of art with the emergence of the Internet era. Some of the words are derived from carny back-speak or pig Latin, while others grew from the early days of the Territorial Era, with terms moving freely around the country as wrestlers traveled.
A few that come up over the course of the book:
babyface (often shortened to “face”): A good-guy wrestler.
booker: The backstage head writer and decision-maker.
bump: A planned fall after a hit.
gimmick: The character a wrestler portrays, or the storyline in which one is taking part.
heat: A reaction from the crowd, usually negative, that measures the success of an act.
heel: A bad-guy wrestler.
kayfabe: The wrestlers’ adherence to the big lie, the insistence that the unreal is real—the rule that you have to play your character all the time, even outside the ring, to make sure you don’t ruin it for anyone. For decades, this was the abiding dogma of the pro wrestling industry. The term is thought to be an old carny term—perhaps a slangy, bastardized form of “be fake”—borrowed in wrestling’s embryonic stages on the sideshow.
mark: A wrestling fan not clued in to the sham of the enterprise.
over: Popular with the fans. (To put someone over is to make one’s opponent look good in the ring.)
pop: A big cheer; a positive response from a crowd.
promo: An interview or monologue given by a wrestler.
rib: A prank between wrestlers, usually backstage.
schmozz: A match that ends in chaos rather than in a decisive finish, or as Roland Barthes described the art: “Some fights, among the most successful kind, are crowned by a final charivari, a sort of unrestrained fantasia where the rules, the laws of the genre, the referee’s censuring and the limits of the ring are abolished, swept away by a triumphant disorder which overflows into the hall and carries off pell-mell wrestlers, seconds, referee and spectators.”
shoot: An instance of reality in wrestling, be it in a “shoot fight” or in a “shoot interview.”
smart: Having intimate backstage knowledge of the wrestling world.
stiff (also “working stiff”): Using actual force in a wrestling match rather than the standard, more pantomimed technique; as in “a stiff punch.”
swerve: A shocking left turn in a storyline.
work: The act of the wrestling world. As a noun, it’s usually the opposite of “shoot”—as in, “I know it looked real, but that match was a work”—and as a verb, it’s usually a measure of fooling fans—as in, “He was working the crowd.”
Even as the carnival men started settling down into offices in the bigger cities, from where they organized loose troupes of mastodons, the wrestling world didn’t get much respect in the wider sporting world; with failed boxing managers and former sideshow barkers now acting as the “promoters” of the sport, it’s little wonder.
Those wrestling promoters on the East Coast had little use for Robert Friedrich, a teenager from Wisconsin who was going around under the rather presumptuous name Ed “Strangler” Lewis—a moniker given him by a sportswriter who thought he resembled Evan “Strangler” Lewis, the first American Heavyweight Champion. Even though this new Lewis had achieved success on the carnival racket and toured the world honing techniques, like his signature stranglehold (also borrowed from the original “Strangler”), that weren’t legal in the “mainstream” American wrestling world (the carnival circuit had fewer rules and more of an emphasis on thrilling the crowd, both aspects that would eventually be taken up by the mainstream as it evolved into its modern form), he was given no warm welcome by the New York promoters—or, rather, he was unwelcome precisely because of his skill. The last thing those increasingly theatrical promoters needed around was a guy who could actually win any match he wanted to win. It wasn’t that the matches were all predetermined; it was that a wrestler that good could take the title, take over the territory, and, if he were so inclined, cut the promoters out of the take.
Unemployable in the wrestling mecca, Lewis* headed back toward home and settled down in the Midwest. One night, the legend has it, a manager named Billy Sandow threw a wrestling event in Louisville, Kentucky, on the night before the Kentucky Derby. He hired Lewis to take on the “Terrible Turk” Yussif Hussane.* It was a fixed bout, and Lewis was booked to lose; and as both a man in need of a paycheck and a product of an increasingly fabricated wrestling world, he was fine with it. The breaking point came when Sandow told him to lose in twenty minutes so that he and the Turk could catch the last train out of town. Lewis declined. Sandow said it hardly mattered, that the Turk could beat him in well under twenty minutes if he wanted to, and Lewis said he was happy for him to try. Of course, this being a part of the fabric of wrestling mythology, the two men supposedly then had a legitimate match and Lewis won handily.
Three days later, Sandow* was back in Chicago with a new protégé he intended to set loose on the world of wrestling: the very Ed “Strangler” Lewis. They teamed up with Toots Mondt,* who was recommended to Sandow by Farmer Burns and who would become the group’s enforcer and, more important, the wrestling visionary. Sandow handled the money, Mondt handled the staging—at first in combat style, and later in match choreography—and Lewis handled the wrestling. Over the years they came to be known as the Gold Dust Trio, likely for both their moneymaking ability and the seeming magic that they were able to orchestrate in the ring.
That period of wrestling in the 1920s—the higher-profile championship-level matches in particular—had its share of fixed bouts, sure, but they were in the service of a more fascinating reality. Mondt was hired by Sandow to be Lewis’s sparring partner and enforcer. He would take on opponents before they got in the ring with Lewis to make sure they were “worthy” foes, but in reality, Mondt—sometimes regarded as a better pure grappler than Lewis—would soften them up for his colleague. Perhaps it was the fatigue from this role as the heavy lifter in the outfit that led to him rethinking the whole thing, or maybe he was purely a futurist, which is how he’s usually painted. Regardless, Mondt could see what nobody else could, that the sports fans weren’t just tired of wrestling—they were oblivious to it. They couldn’t appreciate the minute maneuvers that made up a marathon heavyweight match. So Mondt conceived of a new style of wrestling that would combine classical Greco-Roman and freestyle catch wrestling with boxing and the sort of brawling that was popular on lumberyard campsites to birth a new hybrid that was wholly entertaining and, as such, the direct antecedent of what we know today as professional wrestling. Mondt created submission holds—some seemingly from thin air, many of which are still used today—that were meant to project out to an audience member thirty rows back. Moves, in other words, that were meant as much to impress onlookers as to inflict agony on opponents. He also conceived of the idea of a touring show, in which a stable of wrestlers would travel together from town to town, mixing and matching opponents or just repeating matchups, night after night. This would allow the promoters full control over the card and cut out the need for local fighters to be hired and wages negotiated at every venue. It would allow managers to set prices more definitively. And it would allow wrestlers the relative luxury of sparring with comfortable partners, in bouts with predictable endings.
An implicit part of this new method was the fixed match. In order to appeal to the fans’ sense of drama and spectacle, the matches had to build powerfully to the endings, and the endings had to be fulfilling.*
Wrestlers were brought in to the Gold Dust confederacy to face Lewis or to fight on the undercard of the shows they were now promoting nationwide. If they went off the script, as some purists were wont to do in the early days, they would soon find themselves facing the enforcer Mondt (or later John Pesek), who would beat the logic of the new system into them. The plan was to keep Lewis on top, and to dramatize his reign as much as possible.
The trio quickly realized, however, that a single champ with a never-ending reign was bad for business; to keep things fresh (and believable), they had to supply Lewis with some legitimate competitors, and to legitimize them, Lewis was going to have to lose to them. So began the process of trading wins: You win this match, I’ll win the next one. Lewis was the proverbial ace card in this new system. He was widely considered to be the actual best and toughest wrestler in the world—with the occasional dissenter claiming it was Mondt, who allowed his considerable talents to take a backseat to Lewis’s and, moreover, to the larger conquest of the trio—so there was little fear that an opponent would be able to abscond with the belt since Lewis could win it back at will. This new system doubled down on the contract with the audience that Mondt’s new wrestling vision had signed: The promise of perfectly honed entertainment could now be spread over weeks and months instead of just across the span of one match.*
Winning and losing mattered, of course, insomuch as everyone wanted to be on top. The significant fact was that winning and losing—even in that era of perceived legitimacy of the sport, and in a world of rough fellows who were all supremely protective of their own reputations—was subjugated for the greater good of entertainment. When Lewis did occasionally wrestle real “shoot” matches, he confirmed the potency of the Mondt model. “The Strangler once wrestled Joe Stecher in what the boys in the trade call a ‘shooting match,’” wrote Arthur Daley in The New York Times. “They started at 4 o’clock in the afternoon and Lewis was the winner at 9:30 that night. It wasn’t exciting but it was the best brand of wrestling anyone would want to witness.” That Lewis could win this sort of drudging bout—that he was a legitimate combatant—was necessary for this transformation to occur. If he hadn’t been a legitimate tough guy, it would have been impossible to remake the industry. His authenticity married with Mondt’s artificiality confirmed that the best brand of wrestling is the exciting brand. What mattered now wasn’t who won but how they won, and how the crowd would respond. What mattered was how one match would get the fans to pay money for the next one.
Within a few years, the Gold Dust Trio was in control of almost all the wrestling in the United States. Their cartel—really, that’s the word, as they were employing almost all of the high-profile wrestlers in North America—spanned multiple houses the country over on multiple nights a week. If it wasn’t exactly a majestic sport on par with boxing, it was still a big draw.
One of the regional promoters who aligned himself with the Gold Dust Trio in the early 1900s was a Boston-based man named Paul Bowser. Bowser was a central figure in the dissolution of reality in the sport—not because he had a hand in reimagining it like Mondt, but because he presided over some of the last “real” fights in the field. Some of the last ones, anyway, that were supposed to be fake and ended up real. He supposedly told John Pesek to go off script and defeat Nat Pendleton, who was managed by the New York City promoter Jack Curley, who had formed a sort of guerilla operation along with old-school grappler Joe Stecher that ran in opposition to the Gold Dust regime. Curley got his revenge when he paid off Stanislaus Zbyszko (who had previously achieved fame on the Gold Dust circuit) to shoot and upend Gold Dust–approved champ Wayne Munn on April 15, 1925.
These were the death throes of the legitimacy movement in the wrestling world. Even the athletes like Stecher who claimed to be interested in the sport’s authenticity were eventually motivated more by fame and profit than purely by victory. When so much uncertainty was set against the potential for money to be made, it was only a matter of time before the dinosaurs died off and the capitalists reigned.
Perhaps the most significant thing that happened under Paul Bowser’s watch was the introduction of Gus Sonnenberg. Sonnenberg was a collegiate and professional football player of some renown in the Northeast, so he was a perfect fit for the hero role, despite his lack of wrestling background. What Sonnenberg didn’t have in technique, he made up in flair, integrating a repertoire of football-style moves into the wrestling playbook—the flying tackle, most notably, which brought wrestling off the mat and into the air.* The crowds were dazzled by this new style and started coming to wrestling events in multitudes, despite its patent artificiality. (In fact, the outlandishness of the new moves actually helped their credibility. “Obviously this type of wrestling could not be rehearsed,” as Grantland Rice put it, “since no opposing human body could stand such punishment oftener than once a month.”) But the fans wanted action, not reality.
It took the fall of boxing in the second decade of the twentieth century for wrestling to regain its place as the country’s chief pugilistic pastime. “The revival of a sport that was in the doldrums, and particularly its acceptance by the select, is due chiefly to the decline of boxing,” Morris Markey put it in The New Yorker. “Boxing has gone completely to pieces because the current crop of boxers is so extremely bad. . . . [W]hen it collapsed from within it left a great many people bereft of the sporting evening, a ceremony to which they have become devoted.” To wrestling they turned. The blue-collar fans—the immigrant populations of the Northeast in particular—had never abandoned wrestling, but with the return of a more affluent fanbase, pro wrestling’s influence began to escalate.
The newspapers still weren’t treating it as a proper sport, nor should they have, but the distinction is striking in context. As The New Yorker pointed out in 1932, “The World Almanac for 1931, which faithfully recorded the champions for the previous year in such sports as archery, handball, and the racing of sled dogs, found space for no word on wrestling.” (Oddly, it was largely left to the more highbrow national magazines, like The New Yorker and Collier’s, to serve as the record of the sport.)
By the time that the Greek heartthrob Jim Londos—he had the “appeal of a Dempsey for the multitudes,” said The New Yorker—was selling out shows in New York and Danno O’Mahoney—an Irishman imported by Bowser to entice the region’s immigrant population—was reigning in Boston, the artifice was the art. Sure, many fans still took it to be “real,” but there were just as many who didn’t. The ambiguity mattered far less in those days than it may today. As Rice quoted a fan in ’31: “As far as I know the shows are honest. But even if they’re not I get a big kick out of them, for they are full of action and all the outward signs of hostile competition. It is either honest competition or fine acting and in either case I get a real show.”
When Londos won the world championship from Dick Shikat in 1930, “no New York newspaper gave the event more than a few lines in its sports section the next day; for professional wrestling had already been exposed more times than Santa Claus.” Within a year, Londos would be performing to sellout houses in Madison Square Garden, a feat that was unheard of even in the boxing world at its heights. But despite the attention from the highbrow magazines, the sports journalism establishment hardly cared. Perhaps they realized that pro wrestling made them expendable: The wrestling matches mythologized the athletes and wrote the stories themselves. The audiences need only watch the shows to see the symbolism. The promoters were putting on morality plays filtered through the lens of nationalism, with heroes constructed specifically to appeal to the ethnic origins of the fans. For years, Londos ruled in New York in repetitive fashion:
A Foreign Menace, in most cases a real wrestler, would be imported. He would meet all the challengers for the title whom Londos had defeated in any city larger than New Haven, and beat them. After that, he and Londos would wrestle for the world’s championship in Madison Square Garden. The Foreign Menace would oppress Londos unmercifully for about forty minutes, and then Londos would pick him up for the airplane spin, which is like the climactic movement of an adagio dance or a hammer throw. Skeptics have pointed out that this movement requires cooperation from the adagio projectile. . . . Londos would whirl the current Menace around his head and dash him to the mat three times, no more and no less, and the match would end in time for suburbanites to get the trains they caught on theatre nights.
For O’Mahoney’s part, he “said he’d heard a lot of talk about fixed matches but was sure wrestling was entirely on the level. ‘I win every time out,’ he said in justification of his faith, ‘and I’ve never been asked to lay down.’” Of course he hadn’t: Danno was a lousy grappler, but Bowser decided that he wouldn’t lose until he took on Londos—some fifty matches into his career—and O’Mahoney won that one too. “Unforgettable was the ‘winning’ of the championship by Danno O’Mahoney,” groaned The New York Times in 1952. “His ignorance of the sport was monumental enough to have filled the Irish Sea. But Danno meant packed houses in Boston where the sport was going big and so the Trust elected him the champion.” (O’Mahoney eventually lost to Shikat, a perpetually aggrieved fighter who went off script and injured the underskilled O’Mahoney to prove a point.)
The fix was in, and the crowds were pouring in to see the wrestling cards nonetheless. In a world absent any viable alternative, the discussion turned not to ethics but to entertainment. Every year or two, some magazine would do a piece on the sport and slyly allude to its insincerity, but bizarrely a consensus never seemed to be reached on the subject. It’s as if every journalist approached the industry as does a young child first exposed to wrestling’s Technicolor morality plays: first to believe, unquestioning, and then, slowly, to doubt:
“The veteran wrestling fans recall, with copious tears, how the hippodrome flourished in the land. It became a nice question for experts in entertainment to differentiate between a wrestling bout and the living statuary acts then in vogue.”
—John B. Kennedy, “Pillars of Sport,” Collier’s, September 19, 1931
“Not the least interesting of all the minor phenomena produced by the current fashion of wrestling is the universal discussion as to the honesty of the matches. And certainly the most interesting phase of this discussion is the unanimous agreement: ‘Who cares if they’re fixed or not—the show is good.’”
—Morris Markey, “Catch as Catch Can,” The New Yorker, April 18, 1931
“If this be play-acting, then it is play-acting of the highest order and comes close to being the best entertainment in town. To cavil at it for being play-acting is to cavil at a Booth or a Barrymore for getting up off the floor and putting on his street clothes after the final curtain has been lowered on ‘Hamlet.’”
—Joel Sayre, “The Pullman Theseus,” The New Yorker, March 5, 1932
I quote these periodicals here at length for a reason. There’s a general feeling that wrestling’s artifice has only recently been exposed, that the facade began to crumble roughly around 1984, when John Stossel covered the sport on 20/20 and got smacked by “Dr. D” David Schultz. In this telling of wrestling’s modern history, the jig was only fully up by the time reality shows in the early 2000s started acknowledging their production chicanery. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Fans have been in on wrestling’s ruse for a century—since the ruse began, more or less—and over the past eighty years there has been a steady procession of “exposés,” each received with the same feigned surprise and then immediate-onset amnesia. But equivocations of the above sort have been repeated over the years almost verbatim. “Some of the fans know they are watching a show and feel certain of it when they witness the hokum and byplay between mat clowns,” said sportswriter Joe Jares in his 1974 book Whatever Happened to Gorgeous George?, “but when the going is rough and exciting they are less doubtful.”
It’s precisely this equivocation that defines wrestling’s fandom and disquiets its detractors. For non–wrestling fans, revelations about the sport’s authenticity are compelling because they smugly assume the fans are dupes; for wrestling fans, each revelation is met with a relative yawn. Since the earliest days of pro wrestling, the sport’s otherworldliness has been its calling card. And since the first moment that it was exposed to be a “fake” sport, the industry has adapted and thrived.
It was a Polish impresario named Jack Pfefer who dragged professional wrestling, kicking and screaming, into the sunlight. Pfefer—a man of diverse interests with a deep love for opera, a comically malapropos usage of English, and the sublime nickname of the “Halitosis Kid”—had been a semimajor player in the backstage dealings of the wrestling biz in New York until a realignment of power left him unaffiliated and out of work. New York bigwig Jack Curley had a falling-out with top star Jim Londos, who decamped to Tom Packs’s St. Louis domain, and Pfefer took Londos’s side in the spat. When Curley and Londos made amends—as part of a new multiregional wrestling mafia that included Packs, Boston’s Paul Bowser, Philly’s Ray Fabiani, and others—Pfefer was left out. So Pfefer did what any scorned lover would do and dragged his former cohorts’ names through the mud. He found encouragement from Dan Parker, the sports editor from the New York Daily Mirror, and set about announcing to the world in a series of articles from December 1933 through 1934 that the Curley-Londos regime had been fixing matches.*
Two qualifiers: (1) This was not exactly a revelation, and (2) insomuch as it was, it wasn’t a full-throated one. People had known—or suspected—wrestling was largely fake for at least a decade. In 1931, Grantland Rice recounted how when he wrote a snippet about wrestling for his syndicated column fifteen years prior, a number of his editors around the country wrote back telling him that they had no interest in printing anything about such a nonsport. What’s significant reading back through the Daily Mirror archives is precisely that willful neglect of the wrestling world, even as it filled up houses in the Big Apple. With the exception of a few very brief asides about business-side trends like new venues or managerial realignments, Parker functionally ignored the wrestling game. When he was compelled to comment, he would address his target with snide precision, sarcastically throw in a “Now, I am the last person in the world to suspect that wrestling is not on the level,” and then give his audience every reason to suspect just that. If he was confined by anything, it seemed to be his assumption that readers weren’t as savvy to the shtick as he was.
Ever the gadfly to what he saw as an unbecoming spectacle, Parker was probably gleeful to give Pfefer his platform. Throughout his career, Pfefer always fell on the entertainment end of the “sports entertainment”* continuum—favoring midgets, giants, and lady wrestlers—and had little time for the pretenses of legitimacy. (“An honest man can sell a fake diamond if he says it is a fake diamond, ain’t it?” he once said to A. J. Liebling.) But his admissions in the Daily Mirror were oddly trifling: They were accusations of match-fixing to get the marketable Londos to the title, not a full exposé of a dramaturgical enterprise. (Maybe Parker’s sensitivity again played a hand in this slow reveal.)
Nevertheless, it’s indisputable that, at the very least, the subject of wrestling’s legitimacy was finally broached, and moving forward, journalists—and fans—could approach the sport with something approaching ironic distance, no matter how invested they were in the proceedings.
Traditionalists like Curley were peeved, insistent on protecting the realism of the sport above all else. And through the next fifty-five years or so—more or less until Vince McMahon began admitting to the WWF’s illegitimacy to get around state athletic commission fees in the late ’80s—they were able to keep up the facade to some extent because the marks were always willing to accept the violence at face value, and the people who were clued in were happy to play along to further their enjoyment.
After Pfefer’s revelation in 1933, maintaining the appearance of validity was a losing quest, though Curley and the other promoters tried. The new New York State Athletic Commission intervened, insisting that pro wrestling label its bouts “exhibitions” rather than “matches”—a then-significant distinction that’s often lost on the modern audience.* At the time, it should have been a big deal: It was a label announcing the wrestling product was counterfeit. To the fans, it didn’t matter—the distinction was either insignificant or easy enough to ignore.
By 1938 Pfefer had reclaimed his career and he alone was ruling the wrestling world, largely by being the one who embraced the unreality of the sport. Though he had certainly been motivated by spite as much as anything, his accusations were sort of a beautiful gambit in retrospect: He got revenge on his erstwhile cohorts by accusing everyone of fixing matches, and then, once the hierarchy had been toppled, he assumed the throne by basically admitting that he was fixing matches. “It isn’t a sport; it’s show business. I’m not an athletic promoter; I’m a theatrical man,” he told Collier’s that year. “I don’t tell people my wrestling shows are on the level; I guarantee them they’re not. I’ve never seen an honest wrestling bout in my twenty years in the game. Maybe there was one, but I wasn’t there. And I’d hate to see one; it’d be an awful thing!” As Liebling put it in ’39: “The trouble, according to [Pfefer], is that the moneyed clientele has ceased to believe in wrestling as a sport and has not yet learned to appreciate it as a pure art form, like opera or classical dancing.”
A search for the moment at which wrestling became “fake” is a futile one; like many other such incidents of great significance through time, the moment does not exist so much as it is imagined back into history. To be sure, embedded in this quandary are two separate questions: (1) When did wrestlers start fixing matches for entertainment’s sake? And (2) When did fans realize that the sport was counterfeit?
Both answers are more than a little ambiguous, but here goes: (1) From the very beginning, and (2) it doesn’t matter.
Wrestling didn’t become fake in any sort of active way. It could have diverged toward legitimacy like boxing did, but it did not, and it shouldn’t ever be judged on those terms. It was once a purer sport, sure—a sport full of fixed matches and exploitative put-ons. But just as much as it was a sport, it was a sideshow—a carny act that eventually made it to Broadway.
So the next time you hear somebody say, “You know wrestling is fake, right?” you can tell him that yes, you know. That’s exactly the point.
A quick postscript to this long story. Frank Gotch, the “Peerless Champion,” walked away from the sport in 1913 at the top of his game. He retired to his Iowa farm but eventually returned to the road, wrestling all comers for a traveling circus. While pondering a comeback in 1917, he fell ill, and the greatest wrestler America ever produced died at the age of thirty-nine of uremic poisoning.* Gotch would be a trailblazer not just in his life but also in his death. In the century that follows, wrestler after wrestler would die before his time.
In a way, it’s fitting that this demigod of the mat world went before he got too old, when his legend was still vital. It makes it easier to forget his humanity.
HACKENSCHMIDT: THE FIRST HEEL TURN?
Though it’s unclear when the trend started of turning friends against one another to create new villains (and, conversely, turning one villain against another to create a new hero), it was almost certainly a matter of Territorial Era expediency when faced with a small available cast and limited room at the top for long-term fan favorites. The biggest turns of the ’80s were some of the most galling moments in wrestling history at the time: Larry Zbyszko turned on his legendary mentor Bruno Sammartino, icon of the WWWF, during a supposedly friendly exhibition match in 1980, smashing him over the head with a wooden chair and cutting him open—and making Zbyszko into the most hated man in the Northeast. In 1982, in Championship Wrestling from Florida, golden-boy tough guy Kevin Sullivan turned on his pal Barry Windham and embraced a bizarre, semisatanic gimmick (while carefully eluding the actual embrace of the Devil) that made him the most shocking and reviled heel in the region for years—a character he returned to multiple times in other areas in his career. In the Crockett territory in ’85, Pez Whatley notoriously turned on Jimmy Valiant after the perceived slight of Valiant calling him “the best black athlete in professional wrestling.”
In the early days of the twentieth century, though, before the roles of good and evil within the squared circle were defined, it probably came as something of a shock to George Hackenschmidt that he had been booked into a heel turn. After years on the vaudeville strongman circuit and some renown as one of the first famous bodybuilders, the Russian Lion was famous the world over, in all strata of society. (Teddy Roosevelt was once quoted as saying, “If I wasn’t president of the United States, I would like to be George Hackenschmidt.”) But after he won the world championship from Tom Jenkins and was positioned to take on Gotch, suddenly the international exemplar was cast contra the American hero Gotch as the bout’s villain, whether he liked it or not.
Newspapers told the tales of Hack’s insouciance: He arrived in Chicago for the match out of shape; he refused to engage in the public workouts that the promoter had arranged; he went on long, fugue-like walks around Lake Michigan. When he complained about Gotch’s underhanded tactics in their match, Hack was accused of whining, of making excuses, and, in the end, of being a quitter. Sayeth the referee: “I say, that as the referee of that match, I thought that the ‘Russian Lion’ quit.”
It was not a treatment befitting an idol of his esteem, but it laid the template for many wrestling villains that followed: the evildoer as weak, as deplorable know-it-all, as egotistical narcissist, as selfish coward. Most would agree that that wasn’t who Hackenschmidt really was, but for American fans of 1905, it was the role he was born to play.
As wrestling’s popularity grew in the first half of the twentieth century, there was sufficient stability in many larger regional markets to support their own local federations. Many of these started out as proxies for the Gold Dust Trio; at first it was a practical means of having a business-side infrastructure in place for Sandow and Lewis and Mondt when their troupe came through, but soon cities like St. Louis and Chicago were importing wrestlers from all over the country to fill up local houses on a regular basis. Before long, many of these regional promoters were industry power brokers unto themselves. They were putting on fully independent pro wrestling shows, developing local talent, and, above all, making good money.
With their newfound independence, many of the regions appointed their own “world champions,” and while the appearance of finality was helpful in establishing independent legitimacy, eventually the credulity of the audience was strained. It was no secret to many a fan that the “world champion” in, say, Minneapolis wasn’t recognized as such in Boston. The National Wrestling Association—note the last word there because it’s important—was a national group, a spin-off of the National Boxing Association, that took it upon itself to anoint Lou Thesz as the national champ, but he rarely toured to the majority of wrestling towns, and in his absence, competing “world champions” proliferated.
And so on July 18, 1948 in Waterloo, Iowa, a meeting of the pro wrestling dons was called in which the first iteration of the National Wrestling Alliance was formed. Under the NWA banner, the major promoters from each region would cooperate, “share” a universally recognized world champion,* swap wrestling talent, and work together to keep upstart promotions from taking root.
That last part of the agreement was no small thing. The NWA was, from its start, functionally a cartel, and a lot of capable promoters were left out. Now, if any of them tried to run shows in an NWA fiefdom, the partners in other regions would send in their top stars to run a show on the same night and guarantee failure for the upstart.* The original six members of the NWA—Paul “Pinkie” George, Al Haft, Anton (Tony) Stecher, Harry Light, Orville Brown, and Sam Muchnick—were soon joined in their racket by other promotions from every reach of the United States, formally locking down the wrestling industry in the country.* There were fifteen major groups at the start; by 1956, as some of the larger territories fragmented and new areas opened up, there were thirty-eight NWA member groups, some operating through several contiguous states, while some states, like Texas, were split up into several parcels. The most influential promotions—Stecher’s Minneapolis territory, Leroy McGuirk’s NWA Tri-State Wrestling, Georgia Championship Wrestling, Jim Crockett Sr.’s Mid-Atlantic Wrestling, Bob Geigel’s Central States Wrestling, Sam Muchnick’s St. Louis office, Championship Wrestling of Florida, Pacific Northwest Wrestling, and the Central Wrestling Association out of Memphis, to name a few—were joined to the north by Stampede in Calgary and Maple Leaf Wrestling in Toronto, and of course promotions in Minneapolis, Dallas, and the Northeast would eventually make some noise on their own. The wrestlers themselves made out well in the deal because they could now venture from territory to territory to keep their acts—and their feuds—fresh, with considerably less risk. There would always be the hometown heroes who stayed in one city for much of their careers, but since no promotion had the wherewithal to employ a vast army of wrestlers, the rest of the roster was mutable. Now a villain could disappear from St. Louis and go to California, a new villain would show up in St. Louis, and the cycle would begin anew. As long as you were working within the confines of the NWA, everybody was happy.
Founder Orville Brown was the first world champion, and the aforementioned Lou Thesz, who would define the NWA through much of its period of dominance, was the second. (When he claimed the mantle, the National Wrestling Association ceded control of the sport to the National Wrestling Alliance, and the former basically ceased to exist.) Thesz, who learned the grappling art of “hooking” from “Strangler” Lewis himself, would be the champion on and off for a combined period of ten years, and would be the man on whose back wrestling was made into a national enterprise, as he fought, sometimes off script, to ensure the unification of the various titles around the country.
The system worked well for all parties involved, and terribly for those not invited to the party. One man’s gentleman’s cooperative is another man’s mafia, after all. The member groups fended off the competition, helped one another out financially when necessary, and together brought an air of positivity to the sport; if they weren’t ushering in legitimacy, exactly, they were signaling a sort of organization that afforded them the sheen of propriety.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, this coalition of disparate businessmen was not without its internal politics. Their champion was chosen by a quorum in the owner meetings, but such democracy didn’t leave everyone happy. This was especially so because, while the titleholder traveled regularly from territory to territory to defend the NWA crown, he would naturally be perceived as beholden to the promoter with whom he had made it big—not to mention that each regional manager was predisposed to feel neglected during the vast majority of the time when the champ wasn’t there. And so with Thesz’s ascendance in 1949, the power shifted toward his home turf, Muchnick’s St. Louis Wrestling Club.
Table of Contents
The Golden Era 7
A Brief Glossary of Wrestling Lingo 15
Hackenschmidt: The First Heel Turn? 30
The Territorial Era 33
Gorgeous George 49
The Fabulous Moolah 55
The Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling 63
The Von Erich Family 65
A Brief History of Nepotism in Wrestling 71
The Legendary Venues of Wrestling 80
Terry Gordy, of the Fabulous Freebirds 83
Bruiser Brody 91
The Chiefs: Wahoo McDaniel and Jay Strongbow 99
The Spoiler: Anatomy of a Character Actor 109
The Wrestlemania Era 113
S.D. Jones 125
Race in Wrestling 131
The Junkyard Dog (Sylvester Ritter) 143
A Brief History of Royalty in Wrestling 151
Andre the Giant 155
Captain Lou Albano 165
"Macho Man" Randy Savage 177
The Wrestler as Pitchman 190
Miss Elizabeth 193
Weddings in Wrestling 198
Hawk, of the Road Warriors 201
The Fabulous Kangaroos: The First Great Tag Team 213
"Ravishing" Rick Rude 217
The "British Bulldog" Davey Boy Smith 227
"Mr. Perfect" Curt Hennig 237
Interlude: The Ultimate Warrior 247
The Modern Era 257
The Attitude Era: A Digression 274
Brian "Crush" Adams 281
Geopolitics in Wrestling 289
The Big Boss Man (Ray Traylor) 297
Owen Hart 305
Maiming and Killing Their Way to Stardom 315
Ludvig Borga: Last Days of the Foreign Menace 327
Brian Pillman 329
Chris Kanyon 339
Unions in Wrestling 345
Chris Benoit and Eddie Guerrero 349
Partial Bibliography and Works Cited 375
What People are Saying About This
"Ambitious and elegant, clear-eyed and soulful, The Squared Circle is a fine addition to the canon of literary sports writing."
—The Wall Street Journal
"Acid, engaging prose...Shoemaker ensures that the most unsavory aspects of wrestling have their due and that the spectacle's victims won't be forgotten."
—Los Angeles Times
"Wonderfully written…A thoughtful chronicle. . . . Whether you're a wrestling fan or just a fan of good writing and stories, The Squared Circle: Life, Death, and Professional Wrestling delivers."
—The Memphis Flyer
"The most erudite book that I have ever read about...the world of professional wrestling."
—Good Times Magazine
"Adventurous readers, indifferent to wrestling though they may be, will find this a fun look inside an alternate universe. Fans, of course, will be whacking each other over the head with fake metal folding chairs to get their mitts on a copy."
"Shoemaker is at his best when telling comic anecdotes about the colorful characters of the sport. . . . [a] lively, informed survey.”
"Few people write about anything as well as David Shoemaker writes about pro wrestling. And if you're the type who dismisses it as a 'fake' sport, just know that this awesome book contains real characters, real betrayals, and very, very real death. That's great reading."
—Drew Magary, author of Someone Could Get Hurt and The Postmortal
"If you believe that pro wrestling is not a sport, then you've never read David Shoemaker. No one else so ably demonstrates the real-life drama and competition that takes place between the lines of the scripted action. No one else shows how true this fake world can become for the fans, promoters, and yes, pro wrestlers, who practice the trade. If you are a fan of sports and entertainment, or the murky world in between, you will devour this riveting book. And if you believe pro wrestling can't produce top-shelf sports writing, then, yes, you've never read David Shoemaker. He's the CM Punk of the genre, aka 'The Best in the World'."
—Dave Zirin, author of Game Over: How Politics Has Turned the Sports World Upside Down
"This is the undoubtedly the best book about professional wrestling I've ever read. And I hate to admit this, but I've read many books about professional wrestling."
—Mark Titus, author of Don't Put Me In, Coach
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Professional wrestling is often derided by its critics as fake and staged. Ironically, many of these same people will readily plunk down money at a movie theater to see a story played out before them and not bat an eye at the hypocrisy. Wrestling has existed as an entertainment medium that is part myth, part morality play in a literal theater of the absurd. It is an arena where an athletic competition exists yet the viewer is asked to suspend his disbelief. Commentating on this peculiar world is Deadspin "Dead Wrestler of the Week" writer David Shoemaker. While he is a wrestling fan, his writings on the passing of various wrestling personalities read more like eulogies. Yet, he takes the time to place their career within context of the times in which they wrestled and opining on the fans and their reactions to what they see. Fortunately, the run of tragic passings of wrestling personages has slowed way down from when DWotW was a regular feature on Deadspin. (Ironically, this review comes not two days after the death of Nelson Frazier, Jr - aka Mabel, aka Viscera, aka Big Daddy V.) Shoemaker begins with the dawn of the sport, starting in the carnivals and working his way through the period of legitimate competition before it finally settles into its current mode of script. This initial era is treated quickly but does not leave out essential details. Having read Tim Hornbaker's history on the NWA, that early period can get quite tedious (and confusing), a mistake that Shoemaker does not make. The majority of the rest of the book is dedicated to his profiles of deceased wrestlers repackaged from his Deadspin column. (The exception to this is a brief interlude on the Ultimate Warrior.) The careers of the wrestlers are retraced with no punches pulled as to what made them great or what held them back. Shoemaker discusses each wrestler's pop culture context; while I didn't agree with a couple of them (notably Rick Rude's), his arguments are sound and makes his cases. At least for me, there were holes in some wrestler's careers that were filled in because of reading this book. In addition, there are features of various aspects of wrestling. Wrestling topics such as the portrayal of minorities and foreigners, marriage, geopolitics, maiming and killing, are covered very well. They give the smart fan more knowledge of what happens behind the curtain. Overall, this book is not written for the "It's still real to me, dammit!" wrestling fan. That fan does not want to have the magic ruined for him; the wise friend of said fan will not recommend this book to them. On the other hand, a book like this for the smart fan will be helpful as a resource, and as a way to remember those the wrestling community has lost. BOTTOM LINE: This is a book for the smart fan that he will not be able to put down.