Pro Wrestling Books

Wrestling with words

Pro Wrestling Books - Wrestling with words

Death of the Territories by Tim Hornbaker

After previous books exploring the history of the NWA and wrestling in the New York region, Tim Hornbaker covers the collision between the two. Death of the Territories covers the period between Vincent Kennedy McMahon taking control of the World Wrestling Federation in 1982 and the sale of Jim Crockett Promotions to Ted Turner in 1988.

At times, the book offers fascinating insights, either revealing incidents through Hornbaker’s characteristic research skills, or highlighting seemingly small nuggets of information that prove significant with hindsight. Unfortunately the book doesn’t keep up this momentum and instead loses focus.

While the basics of McMahon breaching traditional territorial boundaries and being first in an inevitable race as cable TV exposed stars nationwide are well known, Death of the Territories certainly covers angles usually left out of the story. For example, accounts often point to the way Georgia’s TBS going nationwide as the original ‘Superstation’ meant its stars had fans beyond its territorial border, but Hornbaker highlights that the New York-based WOR station – which carried McMahon’s flagship show – also went across the country as cable and satellite television grew.

Similarly the story of Georgia Championship Wrestling promoting in Ohio as an early expansion comes with some additional detail and context. There’s a great story about the promotion booking a disputed finish and openly inviting letters of protest simply as a market research exercise to find out where viewers lived. Hornbaker also notes how the surprising level of interest in Columbus, Ohio wasn’t so much that it was an inherently wrestling-friendly city, rather than structural issues meant it had a disproportionately high level of homes with cable television.

Indeed, perhaps the biggest strength of the book is how it stresses that McMahon was by no means the only promoter who tried to compete on a national scale – simply the one who did it most effectively.

In another example of joining the dots, it’s commonly recounted that WWF drew attention in the weeks before WrestleMania with mainstream appearances on shows such as Late Night with David Letterman, SportsWorld and Saturday Night Live. However, Hornbaker notes the likely lack of coincidence that all three shows – along with Mr T in The A-Team – all aired on NBC, the same network that would begin airing Saturday Night’s Main Event just a couple of months later, suggesting particularly strong relations.

The real shame of the book is that these early pieces of insight are later lost as the book descends into extended periods of summing up the in-ring events of the various territories with little context or narrative significance. For several paragraphs at a time, the book simply lists wrestlers who worked in a particular territory and who held the titles, with little relation to the bigger picture of McMahon’s expansion and each territory’s fate.

This feels a lot more of a problem as the book nears its conclusion, with one example being a short section on SuperClash III, arguably the last real attempt of the surviving regional promoters to work together. Readers are told the pay-per-view buyrate was “0.5” but given no indication what this means, how it compared to other shows of the era, or why it proved a financial failure. That’s particularly problematic in 2018 when the very concept of PPV revenue being a significant measure of business is now several years out of date.

Despite its flaws, the book certainly has something for everyone, and is more readable than both of Hornbaker’s previous titles. Fans who know the story of the 80s wars will enjoy many new tidbits, while those exploring the topic for the first time will find this a useful primer. But the best historical books combine fresh facts and insight with a strong and compelling storyline, and after a strong start, this sadly drifts away from both goals in the latter stages.

(This review originally appeared in Fighting Spirit Magazine.)

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I’m Sorry I Love You by Jim Smallman

Imagine a Scott Keith book. Now imagine it was funny. And then imagine it was largely accurate. It wouldn’t be a Scott Keith book any more, but it might be a bit like this.

PROGRESS promoter and stand-up comedian Smallman has put together what is carefully labeled as “a” rather than “the” history of professional wrestling, and in the big picture it does a good job of such a daunting task. It aims to cover all aspects and time periods, and while there’s a natural tendency towards the (comparatively) more recent times, the book is a third of the way through before getting to WrestleMania III.

It’s a general overview of the themes and events of the wrestling business over time, with the WWF expansion, the death of the territories and the Monday Night War era having a particularly coherent narrative. It’s told in a casual style with plenty of commentary and asides, largely as you might expect from a stand-up and wrestling promotion front man who is writing in his natural voice.

Whether it’s the subject matter or simply the writing process, the strengths and weaknesses of the book do seem to fall into three sections. In the earlier chapters, while the historical content is very good, the comic asides are relentless, at some points seeing virtually every paragraph end in a punchline. If you’re not a fan of this style it may seem overbearing and some tighter editing would have helped the stronger gags have more impact.

The sweet spot is the aforementioned middle section where the asides are more selective and are more about adding personality to the narrative. In several cases they enhance the story being told rather than simply being comedy for the sake of it, such as an apt footballing analogy for the match quality of Hogan and Andre.

The format does drop off a little in the last few chapters covering the post-WCW era. The quality of the writing and content isn’t diminished, but it’s not quite as tightly focused, jumping from topic to topic more often. There’s also a lot more of Smallman’s personal perspective on (and even involvement in) the events, which works better in some cases than others.

While the book does have several factual errors, they aren’t glaring (in many cases being a case of taking promotional claims of sellouts or big figures as accurate). There’s enough of them to be noticeable by more dedicated readers but they never affect the big picture narratives.

Judging the book as a whole depends on the audience. For long-term fans who’ve read a lot of wrestling history, there might not be enough new here to make it a must-read. For more casual fans or those who’ve got into wrestling in recent years, it’s an excellent starting point to learn the history of American wrestling, particularly given the lack of serious books out there tackling such a wide topic.

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Raw: The First 25 Years

Between WrestleMania, Raw and Smackdown, WWE has plenty of experience in anniversary/history books and this is much in line with recent instalments.

It’s a simple format of six pages for each year of Raw (expanding to eight pages from 2006) with a paragraph of two about each of the most notable events of the year, along with the occasional mention what happened on a pay-per-view where it significantly affected the Raw storylines. There’s also the occasional “Introducing…” box when a major figure makes their Raw debut.

For the most part it’s accurate enough, with a good attention to detail such as naming both people in a match, even when it’s a squash. The most significant error is listing the debut episode of Nitro as the first time Raw and Nitro went head to head, when in fact Raw did not air that week.

As always in such books, the handling of Chris Benoit is noteworthy. Here he gets just a single mention (as one of the names of the Radicals on their debut) with some creative writing elsewhere to avoid using the name.

The understandable policy does mean that the Benoit/Jericho vs HHH/Austin match is ignored, which is probably one of the two most memorable moments omitted from the book, alongside the Katie Vick skits.

Other points of nitpicking would be an inconsistency in whether to acknowledge wrestlers who changed gimmicks: Johnny Polo is listed as the future Raven, but Lord Tensai is said to have never won a singles title. It’s also slightly curious to see multiple mentions of Donald Trump’s involvement without mentioning his current position.

Overall it’s a fun enough read which may be more of interest for newer fans, but will undoubtedly bring back some forgotten memories even for long-time viewers.

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The Wrestling Journeyman: Life and Times of an Indy Wrestler

There’s nothing wrong with this book. It’s just… there.

While Wolfe is perhaps best known for his “enhancement” work for WWF, he’s put the miles in, catching the final years of the territory system, working opening matches on WWF house show swings, experiencing the Texan indy scene of the 1990s and 2000s, going on foreign tours and, perhaps inevitably, joining the scores of wrestlers on hand at WCW’s Orlando tapings.

It’s all covered here, so you certainly don’t get shortchanged. The problem is that many of the stories and recollections are on repeated themes: young guys don’t know how to work; smarks killed the business; most promoters are shady; driving in foreign countries is scary.

It’s not to say none of the stories here are entertaining: there’s a great revelation about life on the road with Zeus from No Holds Barred and a subsequent Bobby Heenan zinger. However, with the greatest of respect, this isn’t a book that needed to be so comprehensive.

It’s not a bad read as such, it’s just that you’ll be dedicating a lot of time to fairly routine stuff among the gems. If it’s on on offer on the Kindle it might be worth a look, but the inevitable price implications of a 350-page self-published print book means the paperback is probably worth passing on.

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Canvas Countdown by Paul Meehan

Following on from my recent review of The WWE Book of Top 10s, this independently produced alternative is a mixed bag with some worthwhile elements.

It’s a similar format of 100 lists of 10 entries, almost all with a brief explanatory paragraph. As you’d expect, the big difference is the absence of photos: how important that is depends on the reader.

Other differences are that the book covers a much wider range of promotions and that the lists are for the most part in no specific order. This can occasionally be a little jarring when something seems to be obviously in a “wrong” position and in a second volume it might be worthwhile putting the entries in alphabetical order to reinforce the point that the items aren’t ranked.

One of the strong points is the diversity of subjects covered with examples including amusing real middle names of wrestlers, PWI Rookies of the Year that proved a wise choice, and wrestlers whose ring name involved a family relationship.

Perhaps surprisingly, some of the more intriguing lists are the purely objective stats-based ones. I certainly wouldn’t have picked out which wrestler has an 0-16 record at the Royal Rumble or who has the most wrestling pay-per-view appearances, while on a non-wrestling note it’s something of a surprise to see how many more people follow WWE stars on Instagram than Twitter.

It’s not a 100% hit rate: a couple of the lists feel overly smarky while others feel a bit like a clickbait listicle. But overall it’s got enough worthwhile content to justify it as something to read in small chunks, particularly at the Kindle price.

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(Disclaimer: The author provided a review copy.)

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Tough Guys: The Birth Of An American Sport by Bill Viola Jr & Dr Fred Adams

This history of the original MMA promotion is unfortunately a classic case of ignoring the policy of “show, don’t tell.”

It’s the tale of CV Promotions which, in 1979 and 1980, ran several combat events in Pennsylvania under the Tough Guys banner. They appear to have been the first formalized shows that combined multiple martial arts into a single sport. While the events are described as the forerunner to UFC, their setup — complete with weight divisions, extensive list of banned moves, and a 10-point must scoring system — is a lot closer to UFC as we know it today than the free-for-alls of the mid-1990s.

(From a pro wrestling perspective, this isn’t purely a book with crossover appeal: there are also a few direct references such as on athletic commission regulation or Bruno Sammartino being included among debates over the true toughest guy around.)

The gist of the book is covering the promotion’s struggle with athletic regulators before an eventual ban, and highlighting the lack of attention paid to it when people give an account of MMA’s history that starts with UFC. Unfortunately the balance of the content is very much for the benefit of the writer rather than the reader.

The actual descriptions of the planning of the promotion and the events themselves are engaging but too short. It then feels like almost the final third of the book is solely dedicated to reiterating the point about the media ignoring the company and painting UFC as the originators of mixed martial arts.

While it’s perfectly understandable that the writers — one of whom is the son of a Tough Guys promoter — want to right this historical wrong, but it soon becomes a tedious read. There’s also not enough use of the original source material to which the writers had access, in particular only a segment of the original rules being included and being almost illegible on the Kindle edition.

(Note: This is a re-release of a book originally titled Godfathers of MMA with the new title being to match a Showtime documentary on Tough Guys.)

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Wrestling The Hulk by Linda Hogan

Perhaps the politest way to review this book would be to note that wrestling fans may not be its primary target audience.

It’s only 236 pages of very large type (and even some padding out with recipes) but still feels a long-winded route to effectively say “I met and married Hulk Hogan but he turned out to be a shagger so we got divorced.”)

There’s virtually no wrestling content and what little there is seems somewhat shaky. For example, not only do we learn how Vince McMahon took wrestling out of “small, dingy, dimly lit no-name arenas with fifty to one hundred people in the audience” but Linda claims the first time she went to one of Hogan’s matches he wrestled Nick Bockwinkel for the AWA title in front of barely 300 people.

There’s no acknowledgement of a ghostwriter and if somebody did work on the project, they may have gone too far in making the writing authentic. Because it’s filled with lame puns! And exclamation marks everywhere! It also seems light on editing, with several cases of the book contradicting itself.

All that said, it’s hard to criticise too much as the content certainly matches the book’s premise of being one party’s side of the story. The problem is that while it’s certainly nowhere near as bad as Chyna’s autobiography, it’s a similar scenario by which the writer will have gotten far more benefit from the process than the reader will.

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The WWE Book Of Top 10s

Another “get it for Christmas, read it once” title, the content here is more plausible than you might imagine.

The format is exactly as you might imagine: 100 or so lists with around 50 words explanation for each entry. There’s a good variety of topic matters, broadly divided into wrestlers, matches and championships, including a few purely objective rankings (shortest title reigns, youngest champions etc.)

Aside from a little inconsistency over whether non-WWE content is included, the rankings themselves are generally credible enough that while you might not agree with them, they aren’t ridiculous. It’s certainly not a modern-day whitewash: for example, in a ranking of title belts (or rather “championship titles” in WWE-speak), the current WWE belt is ranked behind both ‘Big Gold’ and the Winged Eagle WWF title.

Indeed, the lists are reasonable enough that the few exceptions for modern storylines are particularly jarring, a notable example being Roman Reigns included in the top 10 crossover stars from other sports based on playing one season in Canadian football. There’s also a few stretched definitions such as the Hardys and Steiners being listed as among the top wrestling “families”.

There’s also a couple of questionable entries such as Raven being listed as a long-time ECW fan favourite and an apparent confusion of the ECW and WCW TV title concepts. Again, it’s more a credit to the book as a whole that these really stand out.

The only real downside apart from the lack of re-readability is that because the rankings are so reasonable, there’s not much in the way of surprises. In many cases you’ll be able to guess the top three to five, even if you don’t get the precise order.

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WWE Official Book Of Rules (And How To Break Them)

If you don’t mind the fact you’ll probably never read this twice, it’s an amusing enough diversion.

It’s written under the pretext that, like the British constitution, the WWE rulebook is made up of a variety of official and unofficial documents that are never collated in one place. Covering both the in-ring ‘rules’ and the company policies, it’s effectively a cover for a barrage of in-jokes for wrestling fans including references to incidents and characters of the past.

The problem is that the execution rarely strikes the right balance. In some cases the gag is overplayed, such as a supposed memo from Vince McMahon to WWF referees dated 9 November 1997 pointing out that the chairman’s instructions are final. Left at that it would be mildly amusing, but instead we get a series of handwritten additions to the memo that spell out the reference and joke in full detail, killing any humour.

At the other end, some pages are breathakingly lazy. The final page is literally a print of a tax return defaced with the words “PAY YOUR TAXES! IRWIN R SCHYSTER”.

The book does have some genuinely neat insider references. There’s the first ‘canon’ acknowledgement of the rule that tag teams are allowed only one save in a match, something that wrestlers and referees have been told to follow for real, but yet is bizarrely never mentioned by announcers. There’s also a section of pages apparently torn out, leaving just enough legible to hint at a series of offences that would earn Vince McMahon’s ire.

While that’s a nice production trick, the book itself is produced to give the effect of a bunch of papers tied together. Artistic effect aside, it doesn’t fill you with confidence that it would stand up to multiple read-throughs, though as mentioned, that’s unlikely to be an issue.

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WWE Greatest 100 Matches by Dean Miller

It’s hard to tell if this book is a success because it’s unclear what it’s trying to do.

From a literal perspective, it fits the bill: it has 100 matches presented in a random order rather than ranking, with each getting a two-page spread with a brief background piece, a detailed description of the bout itself, and then a short paragraph on what happened next.

Perhaps anticipating the inevitable criticism of the choices, the authors give no explanation of the selection process or the criteria, other than that a handful of bouts are noted as being the top choice of a particular group (WWE wrestlers, WWE Magazine and so on.)

For the most part it’s a combination of the generally regarded best in-ring matches and those with some form of historical significance (the latter being the only explanation for including 2011’s 40-man Royal Rumble.) In some cases the reader is left to figure this out somewhat: for example, the only thing notable about Team Piper vs Team Flair at Survivor Series 1991 is that it was Flair’s WWF pay-per-view debut, but this isn’t really hammered home. Similarly the description of Shawn Michaels vs John Cena at the 02 Arena in London makes no mention of the match going (on TV at least) almost an hour.

There’s also a tendency to favour stipulation bouts, with a key example being the Bret Hart-Owen Hart SummerSlam 1994 steel cage match included but the pair’s WrestleMania X match left out. That’s probably the most obvious exclusion from an in-ring perspective, while Ivan Koloff ending Bruno Sammartino’s eight year title reign is likely the biggest historial oversight.

The list is more spread out chronologically that you might imagine, though a few of the more questionable choices seem to be the beneficiaries of recency bias such as Daniel Bryan vs Dolph Ziggler at Bragging Rights 2010, a match I still don’t remember even after reading the description.

For those wondering, there’s one Chris Benoit match included (the 2001 Royal Rumble ladder match with Chris Jericho), with the pictures carefully chosen to not show Benoit’s face. It’s very hard to criticise either the inclusion of this or the omission of the WrestleMania XX match which, while no doubt top-notch in the ring, loses much of its context and appeal given what later happened.

As a general rule the historical sections are accurately written, though the book does perpetuate a few myths such as Bruno Sammartino having “nearly 200 sellouts” at Madison Square Garden.

It’s a decent enough historical primer or nostalgia piece depending on your age, but having neither criteria nor rankings does leave it feeling a little flat.

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