Pro Wrestling Books

Wrestling with words

Pro Wrestling Books - Wrestling with words

Kendo Nagasaki and the Man Behind The Mask

I would say this book was worth the wait, but frankly nobody ever expected to see it in the first place.

Nagasaki/Thornley had arguably protected his character more than any other wrestler in the English-speaking world with the possible exception of The Undertaker. He’s finally broken that silence and gone beyond the character, reasoning it was best to tell his story properly in a book designed as a fundraiser for a charity in the memory of British soldier Lee Rigby.

At just short of 500 pages, it’s a comprehensive autobiography covering both his career and personal life. It’s not merely offering Thornley’s thoughts on known career events, but covers subjects that were previously somewhere between uncertain and mystery such as his childhood, his time at the Snake Pit, and his few appearances under a different name and without the mask. (There’s still a few mysteries however: the precise details of how he lost his finger and the process of acquiring a tattoo on his skull are both glossed over.)

The book also includes extracts from an unpublished autobiography on manager George Gillette (including colourful accounts of the celebrities on the London gay scene of the 60s and 70s) and some first-hand passages from Nagasaki’s assistant Roz MacDonald.

One aspect of the book that’s easy to overlook is the balance. Plenty of non-wrestling topics such as Thornley’s music management career, his outside business interests, his sexuality, and his spiritual education and teachings are covered, giving a well-rounded account of his life, but none take up an excessive space. In particular, he talks about meditation and faith healing without it feeling ‘preachy’.

Either way, there’s plenty here for wrestling fans, with most of the major moments of Nagasaki’s career covered. The book is written with Thornley telling the story in the first person while referring to Kendo Nagasaki (in the ring) in the third person. This may feel a little jarring, but the book does convey how keeping this mental separation was clearly important to Thornley.

Given the protection of the Nagasaki character over the years, it’s understandable many may have been sceptical or wary about this book before publication, but the finished product is a strong recommendation for anyone with an interest in this period of British wrestling.

Read on Kindle (Amazon.com)

Read on Kindle (Amazon.co.uk)

(Disclaimer: The publishers provided a review copy.)

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Self Help by Al Snow

This isn’t quite as billed, but it’s all the better from it.

Both the title and blurb imply the focus here is on life lessons and philosphy, supported by events from Snow’s career. It’s a format that worked well with Bobby Heenan’s second books, Chairshots and Other Obstacles, but realistically this is a straight autobiography. It has the occasional “life lesson” but it’s usually just an unnecessary line reiterating the preceding story.

As an autobiography this is a winner, however, with a bit of everything. The early years have plenty of fun tales about struggling to break into the business, with Snow’s tryout with the Andersons a story that never gets less jawdropping even for those who’ve heard it before.

The WWF and ECW years are told in detail with lots of behind the scenes insight, including the relative lack of creative process for those lower on the card, with Tough Enough also getting a fair bit of attention.

The book then ends with some brief accounts of life as a trainer in OVW and TNA (the latter feeling somewhat abrupt) and some entertaining tales from returning to the independent scene incorporating tasers and midgets.

Written with Ross Owen Williams, who also worked on the Bob Holly autobiography, Self Help does a good job of telling Snow’s side of the story and reviewing his career with the perspective of hindsight.

One notable element is that although Snow makes a repeated point of not complaining or being overly critical, it does occasionally feel he goes over the top in stressing that a particular incident or unsuccessful storyline was not his fault.

For the most part all the subjects you’d expect to be covered are checked off. However, I’d have liked to have seen a little more detail on the Bob Holly-Matt Capotelli incident on Tough Enough. Snow has discussed in previous interviews how it should never have happened, but that he opted against intervening as a wrestler who really was assaulted in such a way during a match would have to figure out how to deal with it. It’s an interesting and nuanced stance that isn’t really conveyed in the book.

Overall it’s an easy and engaging read and certainly worth checking out.

Pre-order on Kindle (Amazon.com)

Pre-order on Kindle (Amazon.co.uk)

(Disclaimer: The publisher provided a review copy.)

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Wrestling Noir: Real In Memphis by Stevie Pearson

A bombastic, high-energy story, this novel’s writing doesn’t quite rise up to the level of its plot.

As with several pieces of wrestling fiction, most notably the Blood Red, Dollar Green series, this is based on the often shady underworld of the territorial era of wrestling. While it’s set in 1979 Memphis, it’s more of an archetype than a direct homage to its real-life equivalent promotion. For example, one common theme is the territory adjusting to the national expansion of a New York promotion with a more entertainment-based product and approach to kayfabe.

The story is certainly never dull, with all manner of outlandish characters double-crossing one another, the plot taking full advantage of the questionable ethics and reality of a world that straddles fiction and business. Some of the themes are explicitly adult and it’s certainly an example of a world that works for the benefit of an eventful plot, even if a promotion that had this level of extra-curricular activity among its roster would likely struggle to put together a line-up week after week.

Unfortunately the writing lets down the plot at times, with inconsistent punctuation and a particular problem of every sentence of dialogue being on a new line regardless of the speaker, making it hard to keep track of what’s happening in the many passages of extended conversation. More generally, there are several cases where ‘tell’ is preferred to ‘show’, with key plot developments and twists explicitly referenced in a way that takes the reader out of the immersion.

Hopefully this will be addressed in future instalments as there’s plenty of scope for finding out what happens next to this rogues’ gallery of characters — at least those who survive…

(Disclosure: The author provided a review copy.)

Read on Kindle: Amazon.com

Read on Kindle: Amazon.co.uk

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Eggshells: Pro Wrestling In The Tokyo Dome by Chris Charlton

Writing a good wrestling book isn’t just about having a knowledgeable and skilled writer picking an engaging topic. That topic has to be of the right size and scope to neatly fit the format of a book, something that’s certainly the case for Chris Charlton’s latest project.

In a previous review of James Dixon’s All or Nothing, we noted that 1PW was one of the few promotions for which it would be possible (and interesting) to write a blow-by-blow account of every single show and backstage happening: a smaller, shorter-lived group would not justify the attention, while anything with more of a history would be impractical to cover in such a format.

Similarly, few buildings other than the Tokyo Dome would work for a book like Eggshells. Somewhere used less often would not have the heritage and prestige to be worthy of coverage, while venues such as Budokan Hall or Madison Square Garden have been used too often to allow coverage with this depth.

For each of the shows at the venue, Charlton provides the full results along with detailed reports on the most notable matches. It’s not merely a blow-by-blow however: instead, every match is put into context so we know why it mattered, where the relevant wrestlers were in their career, and what difference the outcome made to their story.

The book also provides context on the show itself and the state of the relevant promotion, meaning we learn how and why it came to be running the Tokyo Dome. The result is that as well as covering the shows in detail, the book provides an overview of the past 30 years of Japanese wrestling history.

That’s particularly the case with New Japan, which has ran at least one show a year in the Dome since 1989. This means the background sections taken together tell the complete story of the promotion’s glorious 90s, the debacles as Antonio Inoki’s obsessions with MMA crossovers almost brought the company to its knees, and the slow rebuilding in the eras of Tanahashi, Okada and now Omega that have brought it to arguably its highest point since losing strong network television exposure.

It’s not just New Japan however. The book covers shows from other promotions, some of which you may remember such as the series of All Japan events or the SWS shows with WWF talent, and others that are more obscure including cards from shoot group PWF-G and all-female promotion Jd’ Star. The trivia notes keep on coming with potential pub quiz answers including Kenta Kobashi tangling with Tito Santana, a post-WCW Curt Hennig working for All Japan, and Hiroshi Tanahashi facing Sean O’Haire.

The book is meticulously researched with pages of footnotes, while Charlton has interviewed numerous wrestlers, announcers and journalists with first-hand insights into the events covered in the book. While the occasional direct quotes don’t always sparkle, it’s clear that the information these talks uncovered was as useful if not more so than the specific words the subjects provided.

While those on a budget will no doubt gravitate to the e-book edition, the print version is certainly worth considering. The electronic version’s formatting is functional but occasionally throws the reader for a loop when it switches from Charlton’s writing to a direct quote, a transition that’s not always clear.

Meanwhile the print edition does far better justice to the excellent artwork from Shining Wizard Designs with dozens of ink drawings of the events and performers covered in the book.

Eggshells really does have something for everyone who has even the slightest interest in Japanese wrestling. The long-time or dedicated follower will learn behind-the-scenes details that put their memories in a fresh light as well as being reminded of some long-forgotten historical oddities. Meanwhile more recent converts to Puroresu will get an enjoyable introduction to the story of how wrestling in the company has developed in the modern era.

(This review originally appeared in Fighting Spirit Magazine.)

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Read on Kindle (Amazon.co.uk)

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Inside the Lion’s Den by Ken Shamrock and Richard Hanner

Inside The Lion’s Den, released in 1998, is written in two sections. The first 123 pages are a look at Ken Shamrock’s life and no-holds barred career, while the remaining 78 sides give instruction in the Lion’s Den fighting techniques.

To the pro wrestling audience, it is the former section that will prove more interesting. In September 1993, Richard Hanner, a Stockton, California newspaper reporter, was sent to cover local submission fighter Ken Shamrock’s participation in the first Ultimate Fighting Championship. He found the assignment so captivating that he went on to follow Shamrock from match to match, while researching his background. The result is the biographical portion of Inside The Lion’s Den.

The book describes Shamrock’s upbringing, including his days on the street, living in abandoned cars, spells in prison, and his adoption by Bob Shamrock It then follows his no-holds barred fighting, including the creation of Pancrase, and the success of UFC, along with its controversies. There’s even a brief account on Shamrock’s little known spell as a table-top dancer.

Of particular interest to pro wrestling fans will be the brief account of his days in the South Atlantic Pro Wrestling group as Vince Torelli, along with the infamous hotel room sneak attack by the Nasty Boys (who are not named).

The pace of the biography makes for entertaining and engrossing reading, following a chronological account, but breaking away for a chapter at a time to take a look at a particular aspect of Shamrock’s life, be it his relationship with his family, or a look at the no-prisoners-taken attitude in tryouts for the Lion’s Den.

The use of description is also extremely effective, making for a fascinating look at the development of the UFC.

Shamrock’s own contribution is perhaps of more practical use to the martial arts enthusiast, but does give a comprehensive insight into his training methods, nutrition and fighting techniques.

This section (as with the rest of the book) is illustrated in detail, and all but a couple of the manoeuvres shown can be easily followed. The training manual also demonstrates how submission fighting systems need to constantly develop, with Shamrock readily admitting that he has made mistakes in fights, pointing to the need to learn from his errors. The UFC I loss to Royce Gracie is one such case, with Shamrock later adjusting his fighting methods to account for opponents wearing a gi. Of course, looking back 18 years later, it’s clear how much the MMA game has changed in the meantime.

Read on Kindle (Amazon.com)

Read on Kindle (Amazon.co.uk)

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Pro Wrestling: A Comprehensive Wrestling Guide by Lew Freeman

It’s unfair to review a book having only read the free Kindle sample. But then it’s also unfair to produce something this bad and charge $94 for it.

You’ll often see academic books with ludicrous prices such as this, mainly because nobody is buying them with their own cash. You’ll often see wrestling books with as many factual errors, though admittedly usually in eBook-only titles that cost a dollar or two. But you’ll rarely see the two combined in this manner.

It starts out reasonably enough with a very simplified history of wrestling in America, albeit with a slightly odd jump from Evan Lewis, the original ‘Strangler’ of the late 19th, to the post-war territorial era. But within a few pages it goes to pot and the flurry of often-baffling errors begins.

We learn that shortly after 1983, Vince McMahon signed a deal to have wrestling shown five nights a week on TNT. We learn how the 1980s begin with the WWF overwhelming WCW and ECW.  We learn that Andre the Giant’s run as Giant Machine was a failed attempt to fool the fans. We learn how ECW was originally East Coast Wrestling.

It’s just a shame we don’t learn how this book got made or why it costs so much. But the fact that author Lew Freedman has more than 120 books listed on Amazon might be a clue.

Read on Kindle (Amazon.co.uk)

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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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Read on Kindle (Amazon.com.uk)

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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.

Read on Kindle (Amazon.com)

Read on Kindle (Amazon.co.uk)

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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.

Read on Kindle (Amazon.com)

Read on Kindle (Amazon.co.uk)

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