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ITR BOOK CLUB    
Wrestling with Literature, Chapter One 

April 28, 2006

by the Canadian Bulldog    
Exclusive to OnlineOnslaught.com

 

Welcome to the first installment of "Wrestling With Literature". I'm Canadian Bulldog. You may remember me from such columns as Inside The Ropes, Canadian Bulldog's True Wrestling Stories and The Obtuse Angle (okay, okay - that one isn't mine). 
 
What's my motivation for doing this? I'm starting to pack up my belongings in preparation for a move this summer, and I noticed that my "wrestling book" collection has grown to ridiculous proportions. There must be almost 50 of 'em here, ranging from the well-publicized WWE releases to some independently- published ones that

are a little more obscure.

Did you realize there are more than 130 books about professional wrestling on amazon.com right now? Everything from "unauthorized" biographies, to trivia books, to wrestlers' legal guides; it's an impressive collection for a genre that was virtually non-existent ten years ago. During a recent trip to The World's Biggest Bookstore (and no, that's not my proclamation; it's the actual name of a shop in Toronto), I came across several books I'd never seen before, such as one on the "Hardcore History" of ECW, which could become very relevant given recent news.

I will probably sell or otherwise dispose of some of my books over time, but I wanted to first talk a bit about my collection on a semi-regular basis.

Are all of these books great reads? Nah, but I have yet to find a genre where that's true. I've developed a ratings system for my books that should tell (in my opinion, anyways) whether these are worth tracking down:

The Best There Is, The Best There Was, The Best There Ever Will Be = Self-explanatory. This rating is reserved for my absolute favorites, ones that I could read through over and over again.

Oh Hell Yeah! = While not the top of the line, there's enough good stuff in here to make me want to recommend it.

Transitional Champion = Not an urgent read, by any means. If you're starting up a collection, or if you're a big fan on the subject matter, go for it.

Bowling-Shoe Ugly = More bad than good here. Hey, if you can pick it up for a few dollars at a used bookstore or borrow it off your friend, fine. But you've been warned.

You're FIRRRRRRRRRED! = Why on earth would any publisher approve this crap? What were they thinking? Only valuable if you're the type that likes reading total and complete train-wrecks.

With that out of the way, (Everyone else can have a normal ratings system, but oh no, but Bulldog. He has to be funny…) here are this week's selections:  

Pain and Passion: The History of Stampede Wrestling

 

Author: Heath McCoy
Pages: 320
Synopsis: A history of the Hart family and their Stampede Wrestling promotion.
 

I have to admit that, despite all of the praise it received over the years, I never watched Stampede Wrestling with any regularity. We got their television show here in Toronto during the late-1980's via The Sports Network (TSN) and by then, a lot of the more interesting performers had moved on to greener pastures. The matches I saw were mostly long, drawn-out affairs with tons of restholds featuring guys whose best days were clearly behind them (or those who would never get there). Also, the production values were terrible compared to the other wrestling programs I had access to.

Yet Stampede was one of the most influential territories in all of wrestling, developing dozens of top performers and incorporating a style that would be emulated by many, most notably the WWF. "Pain and Passion" does a great job of explaining that history in vivid detail.

McCoy, a longtime Canadian journalist whom I believe writes for the Calgary Herald, provides a comprehensive history about the rise and fall of Canada's first family of wrestling and their well-known Stampede promotion. Besides speaking to several Harts, McCoy also establishes contact with several hard-to-reach wrestlers, such as Bad News Brown and Dr. D. David Schultz (the latter of which responds to pre-arranged questions via e-mail, in a kayfabed and defensive manner).

We've all heard rumors about the turbulent Hart family, and this book helps to explain it. They're a dysfunctional family, to put it mildly, and some of the stories here are worse than I could have ever imagined. But unlike Diana Hart's short-lived "Under The Mat" book, these are fairly balanced accounts. What I like most is how impartial McCoy is in his storytelling. It would be easy enough to pick sides, or even knock WWE (as is often the case with these independent-of-WWE books). But he sticks to the facts, and the end result is a good one.

One small gripe: McCoy borrows liberally from Martha Hart and Dynamite Kid's biographies. This is done to include their sides of the story, but I've already read both of those and don't want to read word-for-word excerpts in another book. But as I said, it's a minor point, and if you hadn't read "Pure Dynamite" or "Broken Harts" already, it may even be a bonus.

Rating: The Best There Is, The Best There Was, The Best There Ever Will Be. No pun intended, I swear. This has quickly become one of my favorites, and even if you don't know a lot about Stampede, it’s a great retrospective for fans of Bret Hart, Owen Hart, The British Bulldogs, Chris Benoit and others.
 

The Complete Idiot's Guide To Pro Wrestling

 

Authors: Captain Lou Albano and Bert Randolph Sugar
Pages: 346
Synopsis: An unsuccessful attempt at explaining to the lowest common denominator the current (read: 1997) craze of professional wrestling.
 

And now we go from that… to this. The absolute best thing I can say about this book is that they're not false advertising the whole "Complete Idiots" thing.

Albano, the legendary manager and WWE Hall of Famer, really has seen and done it all in his career. He should have known better than to lend his name to this fiasco (hopefully he's not responsible for the research). And Sugar, a legendary boxing writer, apparently wrote for some of the newsstand wrestling magazines years and years ago -- probably in an era were fans weren't nearly as clued in as they are now to what goes on behind the curtain.

Albano and Sugar's "insider insights", usually taking the form of useless sidebars, are not only dangerously inaccurate; they don't add anything to one's appreciation or understanding of wrestling. At least when you pick up a "Complete Idiot's" guide to, say, open heart surgery (no joke - I was once given "The Complete Idiot's Guide To Fatherhood"), there's at least an outside chance that you'll learn something new. In this book, not so much.

If I were to be as concise as possible in my feelings about this book, the words "suck ass" would appear at least once. The subject matter ranges from insulting to just plain wrong. One chapter explains, in great detail, how YOU can become a wrestling fan. No need to enroll in some fancy school or take costly correspondence courses. Learn RIGHT NOW how you can get in on the action. Impress your friends! Amaze your neighbors! Or… you could skip reading this chapter and, um, turn on a television set or something. Either way…

The list of errors runs longer than a Triple H promo. My favorite, for some reason, is that The Rock's real name is Rocky Melvin. I could go up to a non-wrestling fan right now, and chances are good that they'd come up with a better answer than "Rocky Melvin".  The authors also admit that The Undertaker and Kane are really brothers. No, not in storylines. In real life.

Which is a whole other problem. During many of his (drunken?) tales, Albano seems to think that wrestling is real, which kind of cancels out the whole idea of an "insider's" guide to how the business works, no?

There's also a section on the wide-range of wrestling merchandise available to you, the newly-christened wrestling fan. Of course, you probably could get a better sense of what's for sale by reading the back cover of an old PWI. Also, the listing of "official" wrestler websites mostly leads you to some defunct Geocities sites which I'm pretty sure were already stale-dated by the time this stinker came out. Hey, here's a plus: Online Onslaught is mentioned in here! Not the most ringing of endorsements for our humble webmaster, but I guess that's gotta be worth something.

To sum up: If an alien landed on Earth and asked me to explain professional wrestling to him/her, and if I had handed them this particular book, they would think I was the complete idiot, simply for owning this crap. In my own defense, though, this was given to me as a gift. Apparently by someone who really, really hates me.

Rating: You're FIRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRED! This is the wrestling-book equivalent of "Plan 9 From Outer Space". The only reason you would want a copy of it would be to make other books look good by comparison.
 

It's Good to Be the King… Sometimes

 

Author: Jerry "The King" Lawler with Doug Asheville
Pages: 384
Synopsis: The autobiography of Jerry Lawler and his thirty-plus-year career in wrestling.
 

Of all the WWE-authorized biographies I've read since Mick Foley paved the way for wrestler-authors everywhere, this one is probably the most underappreciated. I say that because, in recent years, Lawler has become an oversexed caricature of his once-legendary self, and thus his book never saw the success some of his colleagues had.

Lawler has a fascinating story to tell, if you think about it. He never had any formal training, his physique (for the wrestling business) was always average-to-poor, and he was never given breaks solely because of who he knew or was related to. Yet he became a genuine icon (as opposed to some retired WWE guy who becomes a "legend") in Memphis, has faced many of wrestling's biggest names, and was largely responsible for one of the longest-running territories in recent memory

While I'm fully aware that a lot of these biographies are created by said performer talking into a tape recorder and having someone else (in this case, Doug Asheville) transcribe it, at least Lawler puts a lot of effort into his tales. He has some fantastic anecdotes to tell about his life and really, the entire wrestling business. Some of them are about the wild Memphis promotion he ran along with Jerry Jarrett, others detail his infamous womanizing. Yet Lawler approaches the subjects with a surprising level of wide-eyed innocence. Many wrestlers that have been around as long as he has tend to be bitter towards certain promoters, or wrestlers, or even aspects of the business. It's not evident here. 

Of course, Lawler goes into great detail about his career-defining feud with comedian Andy Kaufman (and the odd continuation of that, years later, with Jim Carrey). I remember CNN and other news outlets reporting right after this book was published that Lawler had finally admitted that the feud was fake, as if that was a surprise to anyone who had read Bob Zmuda's book on Kaufman. Or to anyone who'd seen the "Man on the Moon" movie. Or to anyone who's watched even two minutes of professional wrestling in their lifetime. 

One thing I didn't like was how much effort he puts into describing his divorce with Stacy Carter (The Cat). Yes, I feel tremendously sorry for the guy, and I understand from personal experience how awful infidelity can be. Yet his accounts just become pathetic after a while -- how much he misses her, how he gave up a plum career for her and how a Hollywood friend tried to help him find female "companions" to replace her. An editor really should have trimmed these chapters down a bit, if for no other reason than to preserve Lawler's dignity.

Rating: Oh Hell Yeah! I honestly became a bigger Jerry Lawler fan by reading this. True, it's not as gripping and dramatic a tale as, say, Flair and Foley's books are, but it's not without its charm. 
 

The Mouth of the South: The Jimmy Hart Story

 

Author: Jimmy "Mouth of the South" Hart
Pages: 179
Synopsis: The autobiography of WWE Hall of Famer Jimmy Hart.
 

Jimmy Hart was one of my favorite managers growing up. Really, when you think about it, he has to probably rank up there with Bobby Heenan, Paul Heyman and Jim Cornette in terms of the energy he brought to matches, name recognition and working with some of the biggest names of all time. From Hulk Hogan to Bret Hart to The Big Show to Jerry Lawler, Hart built quite an impressive family over the years. And how many old-school fans can remember Hart's high-pitched voice screaming "Come on, Hammer!" into the ever-present megaphone?

So I really thought I'd enjoy this book, but with all due respect, it's one of my least-favorite wrestling biographies that I've read so far. It was almost as if Hart was too busy with another project (perhaps a Hulk Hogan straight-to-video movie, or the XWF) to give this project the attention it needed.

The first thing that caught me was the timeline. It was published in 2004, yet he starts the biography sometime in 2000 when he was orchestrating those "DJ Challenges" in WCW. Thus, the demise of WCW and his XWF project are never discussed. So fine, I figure, perhaps he'd just been shopping this around for a long time and it hadn't been updated since. That's certainly an acceptable reason.
 

Yet, halfway through the book he refers to WWE (which didn't make its debut until 2002, I believe), and then he alternates with the name WWF repeatedly. The hell? He also mentions the deaths of Crash Holly and Curt Hennig, which happened in 2003. And in the photo section, he has pictures that were clearly taken at WrestleMania XX.

The other thing that bugs me is that there are SEVERAL spelling and factual errors. I accept that in most wrestling bios, there's at least one or two facts that aren't entirely correct. Maybe he didn't know how to spell "Arnold Skorlind" or "Sherri Martell". But certainly he should know that he DIDN'T manage Smash and Crush to the tag team championship (he may have been in the corner for a match against the Hart Foundation, but Demolition had already won the tag titles by then, and at that... it wasn't even the Smash and Crush version!). And that the song he wrote for Honky Tonk Man was NOT called "Hunka Hunka Honky Tonk Man". It's called a proofreader, Jimmy; get one.

I can't say there's a lot of new information in here. Lawler covered off a lot of the Memphis material in his book (which came out first), and a lot more descriptively. Maybe that's not Jimmy's fault -- I mean, they're his stories too -- but when that's a good 80 percent of your book, the stories should at least be slightly different.
 

I also wanted to know a bit about Jimmy Hart the person, not just the wrestling character, and that doesn't seem to come through. He mentions his family only in passing, and with less prestige or importance than he talks about, say, The Rougeau Brothers. That doesn't seem right to me. I mean, I remember reading about his son, Jimmy Hart Junior, participating in Operation Desert Storm or something. Yet the only mention of him in the book is a photo of him gawking at a Playboy Magazine with Torrie Wilson on the cover. Classy.

One redeeming quality -- he at least seems like a decent, dependable guy, and he doesn't needlessly knock people the way Flair, Piper or Hogan have done in their biographies. That part is refreshing, but not nearly enough to give a recommendation here.
 

Rating: Bowling-Shoe Ugly. If you're looking for a nostalgia pop from a classic WWF manager, try Bobby Heenan's "Bobby The Brain". There's really nothing to see here.
 

Pure Dynamite: The Price You Pay For Wrestling Stardom

 

Author: Tom Billington (a/k/a The Dynamite Kid)
Pages: 201
Synopsis: The rise and fall of Dynamite Kid, one half of The British Bulldogs, and a legitimate wrestling pioneer.
 

Ask Chris Benoit some time (provided you two are somehow on speaking terms) about how influential Dynamite Kid was to the wrestling business. Or, really, anyone who watched Stampede Wrestling during its glory years. He was one of the promotion's top stars. He bumped like a madman, fought stiffer than people twice his size,and was a shining example of someone who could tell a story in the ring.

However, his life was pretty seedy at times. Billington is quite candid with his tales of drugs and physical abuse, and how it literally destroyed his body and his life. For those of you who don't know, he's been confined to a wheelchair for years and is more or less destitute. 

Reading this book, it's evident that Billington lived hard, wrestled hard, and had a mean streak a mile long. His real-life feuds with Bruce Hart, the Rougeau Brothers and even his own cousin Davey Boy Smith become scary at points. Yet he makes no apologies for his actions. If someone pisses him off, in or out of the ring, they get beaten to a bloody pulp.

Even his ribs were violent in nature, putting him constantly at odds with Vince McMahon during his WWF stint. Ed "Brutus Beefcake" Leslie was about to get pummeled in a steel cage match as "payback" for not signing a friend's autograph book had Billington not been paralyzed in a match the previous evening, the author says. As a sidenote, I remember reading about that injury (during a house show in nearby Hamilton, Ontario) and thinking it was all a work. 

To be sure, there are faults in this book. Billington blurs the line between kayfabe and reality far too much for my liking. He claims to have changed finishes mid-match, while other matches turned into "shoots". I'm not sure I really believe it. Plus, Dynamite likes almost no one in the industry, save for Dan Spivey, the guy who almost drugged him to death. Strange.

But besides the factual question marks, this book is entertaining and gritty. Billington's real-life heel character is more compelling than anything WWE could create today (though that may speak more to the abilities of the Hollywood Writer Monkeys™), and watching his story play out is fascinating in a "watching a car crash" kind of way. 

Rating: Oh Hell Yeah! This was one of the first wrestling books I ever picked up, and I still skim through it from time to time. Worth tracking down.

E-MAIL THE BULLDOG    
BROWSE THE ITR ARCHIVES

Canadian Bulldog has written his own wrestling book, which is available here, and he also contributes to the following book review blog. He'd love to hear your suggestions for wrestling-related books to review at bulldog@onlineonslaught.com.


  
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