Pro Wrestling Books

Wrestling with words

Pro Wrestling Books - Wrestling with words

Crazy Like A Fox — The Definitive Chronicle of Brian Pillman, 20 Years Later by Liam O’Rourke

The saying that perception is reality applies to few industries more than professional wrestling, and none so more than the case of Brian Pillman. He was first a victim of the often baffling blurring between fact and fiction and then harnessed that confusion for his own advantage before his struggles to deal with physical reality ended in tragedy.

It’s a tale that is told expertly in Liam O’Rourke’s biography, a work that not only covers a subject that suits detailed examination but avoids many of the stumbling blocks of many similar books. At one extreme you have bios that are too light on detail, relying on broad strokes with little insight. At the other you have books where the author has clearly put immense work into research but lacked the self-discipline or self-awareness to edit down so that only relevant information is included – instead almost trying to prove they’ve put in the effort.

That’s not to say Crazy Like A Fox lacks research: quite the opposite. It’s packed with detail, with many revelations that were fresh even to this seasoned grappling obsessive (on the very first page we learn Pillman was half-Welsh), but every tidbit advances the story and illustrates a point.

As well as research on the details of matches, the book draws from a carefully selected batch of interviewees: enough to give a rounded insight to Pillman’s life and career but not so many that the reader loses track or that quotes are included for the sake of it. Perhaps surprisingly to some readers only two wrestlers (Raven and Shane Douglas) are among the interviewees, but the list includes figures who can speak with authority to Pillman’s dealings with the political nature of pro wrestling, notably ‘insider’ newsletter writer Dave Meltzer and NFL strength coach Kim Woods, both of whom acted as confidants and advisors for Pillman’s career choices.

For those unfamiliar with Pillman, or indeed with the wrestling business, the book fully explores his best-remembered period under the ‘Loose Cannon’ banner in the World Championship Wrestling. This involved Pillman secretly working with WCW chief Eric Bischoff to attempt to fool fans and colleagues alike that he was a performer out of control who would go off-script during live TV appearances. Pillman fully committed to the character, both at wrestling shows and in ‘real life’, becoming the talk of both the industry and a growing online community of fans who were as fascinated by behind-the-scenes machinations as the on-screen storylines.

The punchline was that Pillman was in fact playing Bischoff as much as his colleagues. The character – developed with Woods’ assistance – was designed to peak his notoriety just as his contract expired, the idea being to provoke a bidding war between WCW and the rival World Wrestling Federation. Indeed, at one stage Pillman even convinced Bischoff to order WCW’s human resource department to legitimately release him from his contract. While Bischoff believed this was simply a way to make the insider storyline more realistic, Pillman had in fact created an opportunity to begin negotiations with both sides on his own terms.

At the simplest level, Crazy Like A Fox explores these events in intricate detail. For example, it was already known that Pillman had planned to gain publicity for his ‘crazed’ character by chaining himself to the goalposts at the Super Bowl, giving up the idea only because he could not persuade contacts to lend him a pitch-side press pass. However, the book also reveals that he had tickets for a WWF event with the intention of attending in a mask and hitting the ring without authorization during the main event, unhooding to attract attention before the inevitable arrest, with only a family emergency foiling the plot.

More impressively, everything in the book sets the scene for this period of Pillman’s life and the context in which he pursued the character. We learn how football coaches could not overcome their perception of him as too small to succeed in his chosen position despite him performing impressively in real games. We also see how he learned the lesson that attracting attention and becoming a known figure in the locker room helped him politically in both football and wrestling.

We also discover how Pillman came to learn how perception is reality in the multi-layered world of pro wrestling. Promoters decided he was too bland or small to attract ticket-buying customers and TV viewers, selectively choosing their evidence and ignoring the occasions when Pillman proved he really could ‘get over’ with a crowd. Yet we also realise how the process works in reverse: by portraying Pillman as a loser in wrestling storylines, promoters were able to damage his standing with the audience and in turn hurt his market value. Indeed, the way in which wrestlers with large guaranteed contracts were promoted in prime position to justify the expenditure was a self-fulfilling prophecy that both frustrated and drove Pillman in his career choices.

That leads the book to its depressing final section in which Pillman is hit with the cruellest blow: just as he becomes the bidding war prize he hoped, he suffers a serious car wreck that destroys his ability to perform in the ring with advanced athleticism. Joining WWF just a couple of years before it exploded in popularity headed by his former partner Steve Austin, Pillman sinks into a cycle of painkiller dependency and personal life chaos. It’s sadly no spoiler to reveal that he died in 1997 of a cocaine-induced heart attack like exacerbated by damage caused from steroid use.

To try to pick out criticisms of the book is a difficult task. For British readers at least, a little more explanation of the college sports system might have made it easier to understand the progress Pillman made and the challenges he faced. There’s also an analogy to Hitler and Martin Luther King that comes across as a little heavy-handed. But these are petty niggles at worst.

While Crazy Like A Fox justifies its billing as ‘the definitive chronicle of Brian Pillman’, it is far more than the tale of one man’s life. Both Pillman’s journey and the way in which it is told here serve as a truly enlightening explanation of the physical and psychological stresses of a business that few people truly understand.

Brian Pillman was one of those people and one of the many tragedies of this story is that ultimately this didn’t make a difference.

(This review originally appeared on the Cinemazine site.)

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Wrestle Radio USA Grapplers Speak by Ed Symkus and Vinnie Carolan

Somewhat outdated in the Internet age, this is a collection of transcripts of radio interviews with wrestlers between 1993 and 1996.

There’s a combination of big names like Ric Flair and Rick Steamboat and future superstars in the early part of their career such as Triple H in his Jean Paul Levesque days.

For the most part the interviewees don’t explicitly break kayfabe, but neither do they insult anyone’s intelligence and it’s easy to read between the lines where necessary, while there’s plenty of behind the scenes talk.

The main drawback is that many of the interviews are relatively brief and there are plenty of one-line replies that don’t get followed up on. These are very much time-restricted radio segments rather than the type of in-depth talk that’s more commonplace in today’s shoot interview era.

It’s an interesting enough read and the anthology format keeps things moving, but the novelty of wrestlers being interviewed outside of a storyline setting is long gone, so this isn’t something to go out of your way to track down today.

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Steel Chair To The Head edited by Nicholas Sammond

There’s a lot of talk about the wrestling bubble and it’s always interesting to get the perspectives of people who don’t follow professional wrestling as a fan, but this collection of academic essays is often a case of missing the point.

As you’d expect if you’ve ever seen the references section of a college paper on wrestling, this starts with philosopher Roland Barthes’s 1957 essay “The World of Wrestling.” Respected as Barthes may be in his field, this doesn’t offer much depth or insight: even in the 1950s, it shouldn’t have come across as a stroke of genius to note that wrestling is a performance of good and evil and a morality tale rather than a pure sport. The problem is that there’s little if any acknowledgement that pro bouts are put on primarily to draw ticket-paying customers rather than as a moral and artistic cause in their own right.

Many of the essays are along similar lines, focusing on wrestling being a masculine melodrama, political allegory or even a sado-masochistic narrative, with many of the points somewhat undermined by reading levels of symbolism that were surely not intended by the performers involved.

Some parts are more intriguing though, including a look at the importance of the mask in Mexican culture, an exploration of Latino characters’ portrayal in the US, and studies of the changing fan base of the 1990s that became more aware of the dual reality of on-screen and backstage conflicts.

As a whole, it’s certainly worth a read, though possibly one to dip into rather than be overwhelmed with the academic and philosophical perspective in a single sitting.

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Dusty: Reflections of an American Dream by Dusty Rhodes with Howard Brody

It’s perhaps unfair to compare this to what might of been, but sadly this isn’t as good as you might imagine.

Rhodes’s death last year led to many reflecting on his stardom and career and how it far outweighed the lowpoints when he overpromoted himself in the dying days of the Crockett territory. He lived a hell of a life, but this book doesn’t really capture it.

The upside of NWA promoter Howard Brody ghostwriting the book is that the factual details of the wrestling content are generally accurate and credible. However, he appears to have been unwilling or unable to capture Rhodes’s unique voice. While that may have been a task beyond any writer — and wouldn’t necessarily have made for a coherent read — there’s a definite disconnect because it’s hard to imagine Rhodes speaking the words out loud as he tells his story.

The other main limitation was also perhaps inevitable, with Rhodes straddling the line between confidence and ego: in this book, nothing ever bad happened that was his fault and he even argues Crockett was mistaken to sell the territory in 1988 and that he could have turned things around.

The book has an unusual format, jumping from topic to topic rather than telling Rhodes’ life story chronologically. There’s also a series of contributions from other characters in the wrestling business, though the vast majority give little insight and simply put him over.

That’s not to say there aren’t many wildly entertaining stories in the book, particularly if you switch off the more skeptical part of your brain. The sections on his family and the effects of being on the road are also of interest. On the whole though, this is one that’s only really picking up at a bargain price and going into with low expectations.

Read on Kindle (Amazon.com)

Read on Kindle (Amazon.co.uk)

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The Encylopedia Of Professional Wrestling (2nd Edition) by Kristian Pope & Ray Whebbe Jr

Tencylopedia2his is by no means a lazy cash-in, but in 2016 it’s more one for collecting than reading.

The first 60% of this bulky book are made up of chapters interspersing wrestling history (vintage, 70s, 80s, Monday Night Wars) and logical subject groupings such as championships, babyfaces and heels, tag teams and women wrestlers. It’s designed more for readability than comprehensiveness and chapters will often wander off into a dedicated section of several pages on, for example, the Hart family of Paul Heyman.

The final 40% is where the “encyclopedia” lives up to its name with a series of 1,500 or so capsule bios. Each is only a matter of a few sentences so there’s no real depth but they are generally a fair summary in the available space. In a few cases the content seems a little suspect, such as the entry on Big Daddy which claims his persona was a take-off of Burl Ives (in reality, he simply took the name of Ive’s character in the film of Cat On A Hot Tin Roof) and that he had “almost a cult following overseas” which will be news to many.

The book’s strongest point, particularly in the early chapters, is the huge number of historical photos by Norman Keitzer.

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A Star Shattered: The Rise & Fall & Rise Of Wrestling Diva by Tammy “Sunny” Sytch

sunnyYou know what. It could have been worse.

If you’ve watched any of Sytch’s “shoot” interviews, it appears there’s little new here, but it’s an easy read if not always the most entertaining. There’s a good amount about her time in the wrestling business and her experiences learning about working the crowd.

The two big problems are that it’s hard to tell how true the content is (if nothing else, it very much comes across as somebody taking little or no personal responsibility for their life events) and a lot of incidents you might expect to see here are unmentioned. A seemingly trivial but perhaps telling example is the book gleefully celebrating a time Sable found excrement in her bag but saying nothing about an oft-cited incident in which Sunny herself was the victim of an even more unpleasant variation on this ‘rib’.

While the sleaze, booze and jail section of the book doesn’t overshadow the wrestling as it might have done, it’s still a depressing few chapters that are neither pleasurable nor informative for the reader. As for the ending, it’s unusual to say the least to have the happy conclusion of an autobiography being the shooting of an adult movie.

It’s sorely lacking an editor and factchecker, and it’s certainly impossible to recommend as a must-have, but if and when used copies start appearing it may be worth a quick read, if only for the sheer bizarrity of Sytch’s Montreal Screwjob conspiracy theory.

Read on Kindle (Amazon.com)

Read on Kindle (Amazon.co.uk)

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A Lion’s Tale: Around the World in Spandex by Chris Jericho

lionstaleBetween the subject matter and the style, there’ll be few books like this in the future, which is something of a shame.

Jericho was arguably the last wrestler to make it big in WWE having spent a serious amount of time working for both full-time US territories and international promotions. After leaving the Canadian independents, he spent time in CMLL, WAR, the German tournament scene, Smoky Mountain Wrestling, ECW and WCW, giving him one of the more diverse backgrounds of his generation.

This gives him a wealth of experience of very different styles and set-ups of pro wrestling which he describes here, whether it be being abandoned in the middle of nowhere in Mexico, the raucous nightlife of Hamburg (and the hellraising of the likes of Drew McDonalds), or the sheer confused disorganization of WCW.

It’s a striking contrast to his later volumes as there’s a real sense of the personal and professional journey he took to the point where he stood by the curtain for his WWE debut, which marks the book’s conclusion.

The style and tone is a difficult one to judge for anyone yet to read this book. As the first of Jericho’s books, it came across as refreshingly lighthearted. The same approach became a little repetitive in his later two volumes, but it’s hard to predict whether anyone who started with Undisputed or The Best in the World: At What I Have No Idea before tackling A Lion’s Tale.

Still, my experience was that I happily tore through this in one sitting on a transatlantic flight. The chances are that even people who’ve come to find Jericho overexposed in recent years will still enjoy this and, given the book is now available on the second-hand market for pennies, it’s a chance I’d certainly advise taking.

Read on Kindle (Amazon.com)

Read on Kindle (Amazon.co.uk)

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Pro Wrestling Through The Power Slam Years: 1994-2014 by Findlay Martin

powerslam(I must, of course, include a disclaimer here — I wrote for Power Slam over the course of around 30 issues in 1996-1998 and 2006-7.)

For those readers who were aggrieved at Power Slam being restricted to 40 pages — a subject addressed in this book — this will be more than compensation. At approximately 240,000 words, it’s a perfect example of a title that would only be viable as an e-book as a printed copy would have been unmanageably bulky and prohibitively expensive. For the book’s intended audience, it represents excellent value.

The book is made up of two interspersed sections. The first, which makes up the bulk of the content, is exactly what the title suggests: a truly comprehensive account of both the in-ring and business sides of wrestling over a two decade period. It’s largely in year-by-year sections, though the past five years or so are lumped together (partly because so much of the business was repetitive in this era.)

For each year, Martin recaps the main happenings in each of the major US promotions, then Japan as a whole and, where appropriate, those British promotions aiming at a more hardcore, Internet or travelling crowd. The level of detail is impressively pitched given how easy it would have been to fall into the trap of either skimming over events too quickly or elaborating in such detail as to make even an e-book painfully long.

The style of recapping will be familiar to Power Slam readers: it is unmistakably in Martin’s voice but, while there is plenty of opinion on offer, the line between factual recounting and personal comment is always clear.

The second element of the book is an account of Martin’s time running the magazine, from his initial work experience days in a printing firm right through to his decision to close the magazine. It’s remarkably open, including both a host of financial details and some frank assessments of the decisions Martin made that did or did not work out.

These sections are scattered throughout the book to fit the chronological account, something that might have been disjointed but in fact works well in adding context. For example, we learn how the rise of WCW in 1997 helped Power Slam sales to the point that Martin reversed plans to close the magazine, while there’s an insightful explanation of why the start-stop pushes in WWE in recent years made it so difficult to run profiles of potential new stars.

The balance between the wrestling and magazine accounts is such that the book may not be good value for those who are solely interested in the publishing side. On the other hand, this content is brief enough that it shouldn’t deter those who are primarily reading for the wrestling content.

Those readers who’ve been following wrestling closely for most or all of the Power Slam years may find they are too familiar with much of the events described to benefit from the book, though the format certainly helps put some elements such as the decline of WCW in context. Meanwhile anyone who disliked the opinionated style of Power Slam may not find the book to their tastes.

However, for most of the magazine’s readers, particularly the many who will have not followed the business through the entire period covered, this is an engaging historical account, with the publishing insight a welcome bonus.

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Wrestling’s 101 Strangest Matches by Oliver Hurley

101This is along the lines of similar books on unusual incidents in sports like football, cricket or golf, but being the outlandish world of pro wrestling there’s a lot more barbed wire and hypnotism.

The book is divided into loose sections covering the likes of doublecrosses, unusual locations, crazy stipulations and unpredictable events. Many, from the Funk-Lawler empty arena match to New Jack and Eric Kulas will be familiar to long-time fans, but you’d have to be a pretty dedicated fan to already know about every match covered here.

The pioneers section in particular doesn’t just cover the ‘obvious’ choices like Stecher and Lewis going five hours, but has some lesser-known incidents such as Gorgeous George escaping a ring in a rowing boat.

Pedantic readers might take issue with the occasionally stretched definition of “strange” with entries include Sid Vicious vs Nightstalker (listed solely for being awful) and Tom Magee vs Bret Hart (listed solely for appearing to be good) but these are interesting nonetheless.

In describing each bout in some detail, Hurley achieves a couple of impressive balances: adding levity without descending into snarkiness, and explaining things in a way that would illuminate even a non-wrestling fan without patronising a hardcore devotee.

The book is particularly well produced with creative use of photographs and graphics to brighten up what could otherwise be a repetitive set of one or two-page chapters.

How much you’ll learn form this book may vary, but it should prove entertaining revisiting even those incidents with which you are already familiar.

Disclaimer: I have known the author since the heyday of the British fanzine scene in the mid 1990s.

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More Than Just Hardcore by Terry Funk

Any serious wrestling fan would likely love a chance to spend a few hours to Terry Funk telling stories. This is the closest thing to doing so.

Ghost writer Scott Williams does a great job of capturing Funk’s distinctive tone of voice while still making for a clear flow of sentences. It comes across very much as a collection of anecdotes that have been shaped into a relatively logical order.

It most definitely is not a comprehensive chronological account of Funk’s entire career. It’s not quite as brief as the 242-page count might seem — the text is relatively small with no visual padding — but it could never begin to come close to a complete history. If you’re hoping to dip into it to find Funk’s recollections of a specific incident, you may be out of luck, but he covers most of the key moments.

Instead the real treats come when the story goes off track and Funk shares his insight into a particular wrestler, booking style or tricks of the trade. That gives it a very personable feel, helped by the fact that Funk is almost relentlessly positive and doesn’t give the impression of wanting to settle scores.

While this isn’t quite in the tier of must-have books, it’s a pleasurable read and the somewhat rambling style arguably makes it better than a more traditional, firmly focused chronology might have been.

Read on Kindle (Amazon.com)

Read on Kindle (Amazon.co.uk)

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