wrestling / Columns

Shining a Spotlight 8.28.08: The Ultimate Wrestling Library Part III

August 28, 2008 | Posted by Michael Weyer

Somewhat ironic I did that big article on wrestlers jumping promotions and next thing you know, Gail Kim is leaving TNA. It’s a major surprise to me as she’s been the focus of the Knockouts division since it started and I would have thought TNA would do more to keep her around. But if she’s going to WWE, it’d be a great shot for their women’s division too.
Well, time to wrap up my little “wrestling library” collection with an actual library collection of sorts. It’s ironic that wrestling doesn’t have that many books written about it but that’s due to the fact that publishers were long under the impression wrestling fans couldn’t read. I’ve written about this before but it’s always annoyed me that the mainstream media assumes you have to be less than intelligent to enjoy wrestling. I know it doesn’t make sense but it’s how it is. There has been a nice increase in the last few years but there’s still so many great subjects in wrestling to cover.

Now, cutting it down to the best is a bit troublesome. A problem is that many books are less than neutral when it comes to the business. Scott Keith is a major culprit as his books are full of not only his usual sarcasm and sardonic wit but will also present his own personal opinions as fact and act like he’s speaking for the vast majority of the fan base. Another example is Hardcore History which is somewhat good at presenting a history of ECW but will too often take swipes at WWE and Paul Heyman. That’s not to mention the baffling moves like pretty much skipping over Austin and Foley’s time in ECW while devoting an eight-page chapter to Brian Pillman. Also, I’ve heard the Bret Hart bio is a terrific read and a great wrestling book but haven’t actually read it personally myself in order to judge right so leaving that off the list for now.

Still, there are some good volumes out there for wrestling fans so in no particular order, here’s some of the best:
Have a Nice Day! and Foley is Good (And the Real World is Faker Than Wrestling by Mick Foley: We owe it to good old Mick Foley for breaking down the doors and put out a bestseller that showed publishers people would indeed read about wrestling. The veteran’s life is perfect for a book as Foley relates his growing up on Long Island, how he became a fan at an early age, his training, his breaking into the business and all the ups and downs of his journeys from WCW to ECW to WWF and in between. This was one of the first books to shed light on the backstage goings-on, the politics and egos and problems of the business. More importantly, the listing of Foley’s massive injuries over the years helped dissuade the notion that wrestling is totally fake. What also helps is Foley’s wonderful gift for turning a phrase and filling his volumes with wonderful wit and insight that carries over both books. For any fan of wrestling, great stories, family life and Al Snow bashing, this is a must have pairing.

Sex, Lies & Headlocks: The Real Story of Vince McMahon and World Wrestling Entertainment by Shaun Assaell and Mike Mooneyham: While clocking in at just under 260 pages, this is a very well-detailed focus on both WWF/E and WCW, relating the rise of Vince and his battles with Crockett and Turner that led him to his ultimate monopoly on the business. It doesn’t just focus on Vince but also discusses Bill Watts and the rise of Eric Bischoff along with highlights of the Monday Night War. It does delve into darker stuff like the steroid and sex scandals of the early ‘90’s and the backstage goings-on that helped destroy WCW. But the authors do a very good job distilling so much information in a concise way for the non-wrestling fan although fans will enjoy the great stories of times old and recent. While some of it is a bit out of date (like the “doom and gloom” ending written during the dark times of 2002), it’s still a fine history of how McMahon got to be in power.

Tributes I & II by Dave Meltzer: It’s more than a bit jarring to realize that Meltzer could probably do at least two more volumes off the guys who have died just in the time since the last book was published. Each is a wonderful hardback highlighting late legends with great bios of late greats. Freddie Blassie, Owen Hart, the Von Erichs, Andre the Giant, Buddy Rogers, Stu Hart and so many more, all presented in a nice style that does mention their various personal problems but focuses more on their in-ring achievements. Meltzer may get a rap from some as judgmental but he avoids it here to do justice to these late workers.

Wrestlecrap: The Very Worst of Pro Wrestling and The Wrestlecrap Book of Lists by RD Reynolds and Randy Baer and RD Reynolds & Blade Braxton: It’s amazing that in eight years, RD Reynolds has yet to chronicle all the unbelievably horrible angles, gimmicks and moments wrestling has had to offer. But after spending years detailing them on his website, Reynolds has finally gotten around to chronicling them in book form. The first one doesn’t go by an item-by-item listing but bunches them together in nice chapters relating wrestling history. We get the cartoonish late ‘80’s-early ‘90’s WWF, Hulk Hogan’s film “career,” the insanity of the Ultimate Warrior and the wild goings-on of WCW, all with hysterical writing that often makes you laugh out loud (“You can talk seedy all you want but unless you’ve got a one-eyed midget named Cheatum, you’re just talking out of your ass.”) The second book collects various lists of crap from worst names to worst named moves to crazy stuff like jobs for the Boogeyman, proof DX was gay, worst excuses for not doing a job and much more, culminating in a countdown of the 25 worst gimmicks ever. While funny, the books also nicely illustrate how the business works as Reynolds constantly reminds us that, incredible as it sounds, every one of these ideas was thought up by a rational person to try and make money. He even gives the logic by pointing out how some stuff that seems dumb (like Undertaker) goes on to draw huge, illustrating once again how it’s still the fans who make and break the business despite what promoters will try out. But damn if most of it’s not hilarious to read.

The Death of WCW by RD Reynolds and Bryan Alvarez: Having touched on WCW’s fall in the Wrestlecrap book, it made sense for Reynolds to expand upon it. Even now, it’s amazing to realize just how far WCW fell from the very top of the industry to being bought out by Vince but the authors do their best to explain it. I spotlighted this last year but it remains a great read, plenty of amazing wit but backed by terrific numbers and details that show the business side of things collapsing just as the in-ring product went haywire. The book wonderfully details how WCW hit gold with the NWO but the refusal to give new stars a push and bad angles helped drive off their fan base. It’s wonderful seeing them recount such disasters as the Fingerpoke of Doom, Arquette as world champion, Jay Leno and much more. I do have issues with them saying it was one guy at the end who really killed the company given all that has been written but any fan of the industry needs to see how a company that had so much going for it could fall apart so quickly and in a hell of a good read as well.

World Wrestling Insanity: The Decline and Fall of a Family Empire by James Guttman: It may seem an odd pick as a lot of the book has sardonic comments that make Scott Keith look neutral and lots of photo-shopped images. However, what on the surface looks like just bashing of Vince and WWE the last few years actually has some good points to make. Guttman does seem to have some respect for Vince and all he’s done for the business while acknowledging his failings. His chapter detailing HHH’s dominance on RAW from 2002-05 may seem bashing with all the talk on HHH refusing to give guys the rub but he does point out how HHH is a big star and hard to knock him for turning in great matches all the time. The book also has some nice stuff like Guttman’s observations on a wrestling union as he accurately points out it won’t happen because for every wrestler willing to go on strike, a dozen more will take his place. He also has fun stuff like putting together a logical history of Kane and the stereotypes wrestling will often fall into. So it may be sardonic but some good points to make on how the business is.

Mysteries of Wrestling Solved by Adam Kleinberg and Adam Nudelman: The hosts of the long-running “Get In the Ring” radio show always have good chemistry and it works well here. The book is mostly various questions that they’ll attempt to answer, backed by numerous quotes from wrestling guests over the years. The chapters are pretty good with stuff on the toughest guy in wrestling, if the Kliq were truly in control, why Austin hates Jeff Jarrett and more. It’s interesting hearing stuff on “Has the Internet ruined wrestling” with Erik Watts asking why he’s such a whipping boy for the IWC and if there’s really any life for wrestlers when they finally hang up their boots. The comments of the authors are funny but getting actual wrestlers to back up their debates gives the book a more informed air than others and shows an inside view of the business like few books do well.

Between the Ropes: Wrestling’s Greatest Triumphs and Failures by Brian Fritz and Christopher Murray: Another radio show presentation as the broadcasters of “Between the Ropes” do a nice overview of the business over the last 15 years. Now, it’s true much of it is very familiar ground covered by other authors as it examines WWF/E, WCW and ECW over the time. The real draw is the first in-depth look at the history of TNA and how it formed and grew. It’s backed by interview excerpts that detail things and it’s refreshing that the authors manage to write it all out in unvarnished terms, not resorting to name-calling or sarcasm to illustrate the rough parts of these promotions. While more for casual fans, it’s a great read that manages to avoid bias while relating how things have changed so greatly in the last several years.

To Be the Man by Ric Flair: We should have known Flair would do a great biography but it’s stunning how in-depth to his problems and how he got tied in to his character in his height. Putting in comments from others nicely adds to things (like Ricky Steamboat’s surprise at how quickly his ’89 program with Flair ended) and the chaos of WCW. But it’s the personal stuff that gets you, the man who wants to be a good man and father but his addiction to the business and emotional problems getting in the way. It just makes you respect Flair more for his sacrifices and the journey and a reason why he’s held in such high regard.

Pain and Passion: The History of Stampede Wrestling by Heath McCoy: I spotlighted this one last year and it deserves it as this is the finest history of the Canadian promotion. McCoy did his research, interviewing practically every Stampede name he could from the Harts to Ed Whalen to Bad News Allen and more to bring a concise and excellently written look at how Stampede grew. You can tell the love and respect McCoy had for these heroes and villains even as he details the harsh road trips and wild pranks. But McCoy does not shy away from the problems of Dynamite Kid’s brutality and Bruce Hart’s ego. It gets more dramatic as he discusses the Harts tearing apart after Owen’s death, showing both viewpoints fairly. It’s sad seeing this great promotion collapsing and sadder still to see the family who built it rended asunder while so many of its stars die out (with a mention of Benoit’s end as well) but McCoy still manages to prove why Stampede is so well remembered today.

National Wrestling Alliance: The Untold Story of the Monopoly That Strangled Pro Wrestling by Tim Hornbaker: There are researched wrestling books and then there’s this. This massive 360 page tome is loaded with unbelievable detail as Hornbaker gives a terrific history of the NWA and its politics. Hornbaker’s text shows that the “good old days” were filled with multiple double and triple-crosses while these promoters sunk to depths of control and power that make Vince McMahon look like a saint. The stories of the legal battles with the federal government and the wars with each other, not to mention how promoters first used TV to keep the business going make for mesmerizing reading. A nice list of bios for every NWA champion is the icing on the cake while it’s interesting to see how the alliance collapsed, less due to Vince and more to the fact it was always doomed in its attempt for men of power to try and work together. More than anything, this amazing book shows how “the good old days” of wrestling had a less than golden shine and McMahon is less a ruthless bastard than merely following in large footsteps.

The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: The Tag Teams and the Heels by Greg Oliver and Steve Johnson: These two books may not count as real HOF but are still terrific reads. It’s less about who’s ranked in the top 25 of each category and more the lush detail bios of all the teams and heels over the years. The authors deserve credit for going through all wrestling history to dig up names, many long-forgotten but still huge stars in their times who made impacts in their various ways. It’s a great look back at how the territorial days worked and interesting to watch the evolution of tag team wrestling while seeing how old-time heels could literally cause riots wherever they went. Many of the subjects offer interviews that help flesh out the bios and plenty of pictures, all of which bring this earlier period of wrestling history to life for younger fans to appreciate. For fans of the old school days, these are both must-haves.

Turning the Tables: The Story of Extreme Championship Wrestling by John Lister: While only194 pages, this is the best publication to show the history of ECW in a balanced way. The detail is great as Lister offers stuff like a literal blow-by-blow of Mass Transit and the aftermath, a timeline of the Raven-Tommy Dreamer feud, rundowns of the best programs and more. Better yet is how he delves into the dollars and cents of the company with all the guys Heyman owed money to in the end. Lister’s crisp writing style helps the story along as he doesn’t resort to making snide remarks or judgments but lets the fascinating story of ECW speak for itself. In that regard, he does a wonderful job showing why and how this company managed to change the business forever.

Pure Dynamite: The Price You Pay For Wrestling Stardom by Tommy Billington: Bret Hart accurately described the Dynamite Kid as the Ty Cobb of wrestling: A brilliant athlete deserving of respect for his ring work but who was also one of the most self-centered brutal bastards the business has ever known. That makes for a truly fascinating read as you get insight to how Dynamite’s mind works and the risks he took. He doesn’t shy from the mistakes he’s made, the addictions that ruined his marriage and the stunts that rendered his body nearly useless. He speaks quite a bit on wrestlers, giving props to guys who take the business as seriously as he did and not holding back anything when it comes to those he didn’t like. While he’s clearly a bitter man, it’s mixed with pride at his work and despite all he did, he says he wouldn’t change a thing and would get in the ring tomorrow if he could. Whether you approach it as an insider look or a cautionary tale, it’s an amazing journey through one of the most complicated personalities wrestling has ever known.

I know, lots more out there but these are the ones I consider the best. Feel free to comment on any I might have missed.

Also around 411mania:

Julian Counts down the Top 50 matches.

Chin talks the Importance of the Dungeon of Doom.

The Shimmy imagines the next Mania.

The Wrestling Doctor plays scrabble.

Scripted Through Sin looks at repetition.

Scripted Through Sin looks at repetition.

Tim does his Take on his favorite wrestling periods.

Pieces of My Mind gives his list of favorite performers.

Piledriver Report and Brooklyn Brawlin both talk about Cena’s injury.

Thoughts From the Top Rope discusses ECW.

Don’t Forget Column of Honor, Triple Threat, 3 R’s, Fact or Fiction, Ask 411 and the rest.

For this week, the spotlight is off.

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Michael Weyer