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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Category: Review, Territories
  • Greg Cameron says:

    I think that in Death of the Territories, Tim Hornbaker lays claim to being the major historian of this oft-confusing business. I naturally tend to compare it with the first history of the Wrestling Wars I ever read in Dave Meltzer’s Wrestling Observer, the first yearbook I ever received of the same. Tim Hornbaker’s strength is that he documents everything fully in a more formal sort of way. Dave Meltzer’s strength is that he captures the mood and feel of the moment – the what-the-hell’s-going-on? frame of mind in everyone in the business as McMahon made his first moves. Meltzer is better at capturing the confusion and the mystery of the moment. Hornbaker is better at simply documenting and presenting the facts. Some more contextualization and more (as it were) humanization of the principal characters involved would have been helpful in Hornbaker’s book. Structure and (if you will) flow were problems in his previous writing and continue to be somewhat problematic here. Still, Hornbaker’s book is far and away the best factual examination of this turbulent period of pro wrestling history. Some individual judgements by Hornbaker might seem questionable – Hornbaker, for example, is higher on the talents of Mike Von Erich, whom many in the Wrestling Observer thought was not really an athlete at all and didn’t belong in the business. Hornbaker and the Wrestling Observer differ over the financial viability and ‘health’ of particular promotions. Also Tim Hornbaker cuts Dusty Rhodes-era WCW too much slack – the WCW TV show of that era is easily the worst show of any kind I’ve ever seen. Simply dreadful. And Dusty made some bad decisions in this period, which could use some more examination. But these are matters of interpretation. Dave Meltzer is better at capturing the mood of these times. Tim Hornbaker is better at the facts qua facts. The range of Hornbaker’s research here really is very impressive. I recommend it strongly – nothing better is being done in this regard at the moment. Until a better analysis comes along, this will remain a high point of professional wrestling research.

    January 19, 2019 at 6:37 pm

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