Desert Island Wrestling Books
By The Phantom of the Ring
Wrestling books – what a concept. It seems as though everyone and his brother is publishing a tome on the pro game these days, whether as an analyst, participant, or just plain spectator. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. In the not too distant past, serious books about the game or its stars were very few and very far in between.
Back then, the release of a wrestling book was an event for grappling fans, and they dutifully and eagerly trotted down to their local bookstore or newsstand to obtain a copy. Because there were so few titles, it was relatively easy to put together a wrestling library. In fact, a wrestling library was often a collection of magazines. Back in those halcyon days of kayfabe, it seemed that there were almost as many wrestling magazine titles as there were promotions.
For the wrestling fan who wanted more, he need look no further than the magazine’s fan club section, where he would discover that extra information could be had for but a few extra pennies more each month. For 50 cents or so a year, one could be assured of bi-monthly reports from distant places like San Francisco, New York City, Toronto, Calgary, Los Angeles, and Dallas. I myself couldn’t imagine a month passing by without receiving my copy of Tom Burke’s Global Wrestling in the mail. Looking through the clips and notes Tom carefully compiled, I would usually say to myself, “So that’s where Baron Von Stroh has gone!” I marveled at the gates and buzz being generated in places like Detroit and London, England.
Although Global Wrestling was my meat and potatoes fanzine back then, I also supplemented my wrestling diet with newsletters devoted to the Georgia, Florida, and Pacific Northwest territories, and the news and views of a 13-year-old budding journalist from the San Francisco area by the name of Dave Meltzer.
Did I think back then that Meltzer would become the influence is today? I would love to answer in the affirmative and set myself up as a prescient poobah, but the truth is that I didn’t have a clue. This had nothing to do with my estimation of young Mr. Meltzer’s talent. In those days, quality newsletters were born and died each month. They were often written by young adults, who hopefully moved on to bigger and better things when they hit college. With the technology of the time, it was easy to get started, but difficult to sustain an interest. As for making a profit, the price of stamps alone could be prohibitive, never mind the cost of copying. The fact that Meltzer is still going strong today is a testament to his talent and a sure indictment of this author’s pussyfooting powers of prognostication.
Despite the popularity of magazines and newsletters, and despite even the Hulk Hogan-led spike in wrestling interest and attendance by a whole new audience, the mainstream publishing industry was loath to cash in on the trend. The motion picture industry had already begun to take notice, if only on a minor scale. Still, these movies made money (even No Holds Barred) and only served as further confirmation that there was something, indeed, out there.
But was this vast potential audience attracted to reading enough to fuel a best-seller or two? Sure, they read their magazines and newsletters, but these were niche publications; a book represented more of an investment. Indeed, shortly before wrestling boiled to a fever pitch, Roberta Morgan’s Main Event: The World of Professional Wrestling failed to catch on. Published in 1979, it was a mix of pretty color photos and dopey kayfabed text that, I think, drove away potential buyers. A book should tell its reader something about its subject that is more in depth than the reader could get in a magazine or newsletter. If anything, this volume set the cause of wrestling books back a peg or two.
By the way, in 1974, during another one of wrestling’s boom periods, Joe Jares’s Whatever Happened to Gorgeous George? did give readers more information than they could find in wrestling magazines. The book provided an interesting and, for the time, different examination of wrestling history as Paul Boesch and the author’s father were the main sources of information. (The section on Pfeffer, however, was basically lifted from Marcus Griffin’s Fall Guys, which was by then out of print and mostly forgotten.) I was initially blown away when I first read Whatever Happened to Gorgeous George?, because it seemed to say there was more to wrestling than what we’re usually fed by the media. But in the end, Jares copped out when he said wrestling was real, because you couldn’t convince half of those egomaniacs to lose. Therefore it’s not going to my desert island.
I suppose we could say that publishers were definitely looking for something different, but sometimes I wonder if they knew themselves what it was. A case in point was an unpublished manuscript that Meltzer sent me in the mid-‘80s. He was blown away by its style and coverage of the subject matter and wanted to know what I thought. I had to agree with him. It was definitely near impossible to put down once I began reading and I came away from it with a much more expansive knowledge of the game and promoters than I had before. The manuscript was Sleeper Hold, written by a young man named Ray Tennenbaum. After reading it, I thought to myself that if this gem couldn’t find a publisher, just what in the hell were the publishers looking for in the first place?
Gerald W. Morton and George M. O'Brien’s 1985 opus, Wrestling to Rasslin': Ancient Sport to American Spectacle was the wrong answer. Penned by two academics and published by a university press, the book does have some important historical information – and some amazing blunders. The writing is inaccessible and the conclusions are largely off-base as the authors’ couldn’t see the wrestling forest through their academic trees. (My concerns about this effort can be read in my article “Et in Academia Ego.”)
Then, in 1988, Jim Freedman’s Drawing Heat hit the stands. An engaging tale of a Canadian independent promotion run by Dave "Wildman" McKigney, Drawing Heat enraptured a small group of wrestling fans. Despite being an academic, Freedman, for the most part, dispensed with the ivy tower babble and painted fascinating pictures of his subjects. While Drawing Heat became legendary in some wrestling circles, it was published by a small press when Hulkamania was at its peak, and much like McKigney’s promotion, couldn’t cut through the WWF’s promotional clutter. The book failed to break out of the box, and so wrestling’s literary drought continued.
Over the next decade, a few books popped up here and there such as Bruno Sammartino: An Autobiography of Wrestling's Living Legend -- a 1990 kayfabe account of Bruno’s life. (Bruno deserves much better and I would love to see Dave Skolnick sit down with Bruno and write a straight autobiography, especially concerning Bruno’s famous feud with Lou Thesz, wherein I believe Bruno’s account of the story.) Other efforts, like Pat Barrett’s Everybody Down Here Hates Me (a 1991 kayfabe autobiography), and Ted DiBiase’s Every Man Has His Price (a 1997 autobiography that focuses on Ted’s Christian faith) also appeared, but the stalemate between the wrestling and publishing industries basically lasted until 1999, when it was broken not by a journalist, academic, retired star, or promoter, but, a gently charismatic fuzzball who surprised everyone with his writing ability. Mick Foley, a.k.a. Mankind, wrote a memoir of his life and career entitled Have a Nice Day: A Tale of Blood and Sweatsocks, and somehow convinced Vince McMahon to push it for publication. This turned out to be one of the most astute decisions McMahon ever made, for not only did he publish a best-seller, he also opened the door for a flood of wrestling books that’s still overflowing to this day.
Foley turned out to be the right person at the right time for the right medium. The book may have been about him, but it was nicely balanced with stories of the ring, people he met along the way, and the cards life dealt him in various hands. If anything, Foley is even more charismatic in his book than he was in the ring. To pull this off requires a mental dexterity equivalent to the performers on the old Ed Sullivan Show who would set umpteen plates spinning and keep them all in motion for about 10 minutes. I say this because, in addition to providing the reader with the hitherto unknown facts about the life and legend of Mick Foley, Foley also had to keep it entertaining, not an easy task when your literary effort clocks in at about 750 pages.
Foley not only wrote a book, he started a trend. Have a Nice Day begat The Rock Says, which begat . . . and so on. Yes, for better or worse we can blame Foley for the proliferation of wrestling titles and for making publishers realize that there is money to be made publishing wrestling books. An ironic note, though: the surge of wrestling books seems to match the decline of wrestling magazines and newsletters.
Listed below are the wrestling books I would take with me to the proverbial desert island, the read in between episodes of Survivor. See if you agree. (Nearly all these books can be obtained via Amazon.com.)
Note: While just about every book on this list has its share of errors – some more so than others – remember this is wrestling, and thus the bigger picture is the big picture.
Hooker: An Authentic Wrestler's Adventures Inside the Bizarre World of Professional Wrestling. by Lou Thesz and Kit Bauman: Wow. This is certainly the best wrestling memoir ever written and a bay window into the earlier parts of the game. Thesz does fudge some of the facts, but remember, this is a memoir. A must-have if you want to know anything about the history of the NWA.
Fall Guys: The Barnums of Bounce by Marcus Griffin: Griffin was a self-described Broadway columnist (ie. Sportswriter), for the New York Enquirer. According to Lou Thesz, Griffin also did publicity for Jack Curley on the side, though no one has yet to actually document this claim. The first book exposé of the sport, it’s mired in controversy. Griffin’s depiction of Frank Gotch as a fraud and coward was based on the influence of Curley, who hated Gotch with a passion. Let me set the record straight – Gotch was neither a fraud nor a coward. He was a top-notch hooker and astute businessman with a sterling management team in Farmer Burns and Emil Klank. (I’ll examine the career of Gotch in an upcoming article.) His reporting on the escapades after the war are largely true, as he had access to many of the boys and promotion records – and everyone liked to talk. Two great rumors about the book are (1) Toots Mondt had his boys buy as many copies as they could and destroy them in order to keep the public from getting a hold of it; and (2) Mondt was the “Deep Throat” of the book, so to speak; helping Griffin with many of the details. Well, the book paints a highly unflattering portrait of Tootsie, so I doubt he would have helped in the writing, and as for the other rumor, Toots was way too cheap to spend the money needed for such an undertaking. Besides, the biz had been exposed time and time again in the papers before with no appreciable damage. Fall Guys was published by the small (now defunct) printing house Reilly & Lee in Chicago. I get the feeling the initial run was a small one. Reprints are currently available from Crowbarpress.
Sex, Lies, and Headlocks: The Real Story of Vince McMahon and World Wrestling Entertainment by Shawn Assell and Mike Mooneyham: If you are a wrestling fan and didn’t live through the early years of the WWF, or did live through those years, but have developed amnesia to keep yourself sane, this is the best book on the days when everything Vince McMahon touched turned to gold, or seemed to turn to gold. The book removes the cover from McMahon, showing him to be more than somewhat mortal, especially in his wrestling decisions, helped as they were by the fact Eric Bischoff parlayed a winning hand into less than nothing. So well written that you can down it in one sitting without being cognizant of the time, I recommend you read each chapter at a time and digest. This book is French cuisine in a fast-food world. A permanent keeper for a wrestling library, and I often wonder why Mike and Shawn didn’t do a follow-up on the rise and fall of WCW; it would have made the perfect companion to an already great book.
Gotch: An American Hero by Mike Chapman: An interesting panorama of the life and times of one Frank Gotch, distilled and fictionalized into as fine a novel as you will ever read. If there’s anything Chapman doesn’t know about Gotch, I’d sure like to see it. Beyond that, however, is the fact that while I expected the book to be well-researched, I didn’t expect such a well-written piece of fiction.
Chokehold: Pro Wrestling's Real Mayhem Outside the Ring by Jim Wilson and Weldon T. Johnson: A nice behind-the-scenes expose of a man who was pushed into the spotlight, then, when his usefulness was at an end, pushed right out of the game. Wilson’s story is that of a wrestler who believed both the lies of wrestling promoters and his own press clippings. Meanwhile, Johnson provides the first in-depth examination of the NWA’s monopolistic practices. Combined, it’s a fascinating read. Names the names, recalls the facts, and is enough so that Wilson will never be the Speaker of Ceremonies at next year’s Cauliflower Alley Club get-together.
National Wrestling Alliance: The Untold Story of the Monopoly that Strangled Pro Wrestling by Tim Hornbaker: An historical treatise that fills in many of the blanks created by Chokehold. This must read examination of the NWA and its antitrust practices is one of the most important wrestling history books ever penned.
Bodyslams!: Memoirs of a Wrestling Pitchman by Gary Michael Cappetta: Like Chokehold, a testament of the wrestling scene by someone who was actually there to witness it. Cappetta was one of the best loved and most remembered ring announcers who, after he left the WWF, resurfaced with WCW. His account of the famous Sid Vicious/Arn Anderson hotel and scissors fight is worth the price alone.
Terry Funk: More Than Just Hardcore by Terry Funk with Scott Williams: Aside from Hooker, I generally avoid autobiographies, unless written by someone who has retired. Funk will never truly retire, but tells one of the best stories I have yet to see in an autobiography. If you’ve already read it, you know what I mean. If you haven’t, by all means do so. Not your usual memoir.
Have A Nice Day: A Tale of Blood and Sweatsocks by Mick Foley: The book that started the renaissance. Intelligently written, lushly detailed, and to a large point, honest. As this book proves, Foley is the ultimate underdog. Also worth keeping in your library is the sequel, Foley is Good: And the Real World is Faker Than Wrestling. I don’t think much of sequels as a whole, but this, if anything, is the exception to the rule.
Tributes: Remembering Some of the World's Greatest Wrestlers and Tributes II: Remembering More of the World’s Greatest Wrestlers
by Dave Meltzer: Last, but certainly not least on this list is a book by an old friend. Back in the days when I wrote for Wrestling Eye, Tom Burke would often submit beautifully written obits on wrestlers who had recently passed away. Editor Mike Bellew immediately consigned them to the old circular file, stating that “all Tom Burke does is write about dead wrestlers.” Well, if Mike hadn’t already passed away himself, he certainly would have had an attack of apoplexy over this compilation of obits from the Wrestling Observer Newsletter. Meltzer’s obituaries have always been one of the great things about the Observer. For one thing, we learn much about a usually forgotten career and it also takes Dave away from pages upon pages of wondering what would happen if the next PPV scores a 1.4% or a 1.3% buy rate. There are two volumes of Tributes, each beautifully written (actually edited from the originals). They represent thumbnail sketches at their best.
Bill “Potshot” Kunkel Adds Some More Books For His Desert Island Trip
Pure Dynamite: The Price you Pay for Wrestling Stardom by Tom Billington and Alison Coleman: A classic bitter-and-twisted self-portrayal of life as a crippled, one-time state of the art wrestler. Billington, who was legendary even among wrestlers for his endless ribs, tops himself in the scene where he has Davey Boy – "Einstein" as he was known to his peers – Smith shooting milk believing it to be steroids. Of course, given the fate of all those wrestlers who "grew up wanting to be just like the Dynamite Kid," maybe Tom didn't end up so badly.
Drawing Heat by Jim Freedman: A compelling portrait of life in a cut rate, peripatetic wrestling company (complete with a wrestling bear) in the ‘80s. The story where Luis Martinez, who was half-blind without his specs, got turned around while brawling outside the ring and struggled forever to find his way back to the mat is hurt-your-sides funny.
Paul MacArthur Adds Another Book For His Desert Island Trip
Missy Hyatt, First Lady of Wrestling by Missy Hyatt with Charles Salzberg and Mark Goldblatt: You knew this was going on my list. Missy’s kiss, okay, a lot more than kiss, and tell book is fun, salacious, and actually insightful. Wrestling’s major sex symbol of the ‘80s doesn’t pull that many blows as she chronicles her roller coaster ride as a woman in the male dominated world of pro wrestling; though Missy still has a soft spot for her ex-husband, the late Eddie Gilbert. Missy Hyatt, First Lady of Wrestling received very little promotion when it was released and was an unexpected success to most everyone in the wrestling and publishing businesses. No surprise here. Missy’s intelligence, wrestling knowledge, and marketing acumen have been underrated for years. As the book only clocks in at only 176 pages -- and some of those pages are pictures, though significantly tamer than her Web site images -- Missy has much, much more to tell, and I, for one, eagerly await a second volume.
Posted Tuesday, July 10, 2007.
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