(This originally ran as a “critical analysis” piece in the Pro Wrestling Press newsletter.)
When Wrestling Observer editor Dave Meltzer praises a book as “the best researched book on pro wrestling ever written”, it’s a safe bet it may be worth a read. But when an administrator on the historical-based Wrestling Classics site describes the book’s author as “a curtain jerker who made zero impression on anybody except for some people having vague memories of his being abysmally bad… his claims of how much money he was making and what he was ‘promised’ because of what a big football star he was have always seemed like the ravings of a lunatic to me”, it’s clear there is more to the book than meets the eye.
Chokehold is the work of former All-American college footballer and Georgia-based pro wrestler Jim Wilson. The 538 page book is a combination of autobiography, history of the business since the 1940s, and a campaigning piece to ‘clean up’ the wrestling business. At the heart of the book is a simple message: the way professional wrestling is treated as a joke by mainstream society has allowed it to escape the scrutiny faced by ‘legitimate’ industries.
The book starts with an account of a 1985 incident when ABC’s investigative news show 20-20 covered the pro wrestling business, a matter of weeks before the first WrestleMania. Guests Jim Wilson and Eddie Mansfield had spoken to reporters in the hope they would cover what they saw as an abusive industry; one where promoters held all the power and wrestlers followed orders or faced black-balling. Instead the show concentrated on the (shock horror) revelation that wrestling matches were fixed. Indeed, the broadcast was later remembered solely for the incident where WWF star David Schultz assaulted journalist John Stossel when he “dared to ask the tough question whether it was all fake”. It’s ironic that nearly 20 years on, Vince McMahon now uses ‘openness’ on this largely irrelevant issue to distract from his lies about issues that truly matter. Or as he calls it, WWE Confidential.
The book’s then covers four main topics. The first is Wilson’s own experiences, leaving football to work as a wrestler and then move to Georgia. Eventually, according to his account, he turned down sexual advances from promoter Jim Barnett in Australia and found himself sent back to the United States and unable to get work in any NWA territory. Barnett’s counter-claim is that Wilson caused an embarrassing public incident with a married stewardess. Other wrestlers of the time claim Wilson’s ‘black-balling’ was more to do with his refusal to lose matches. Wilson replies that he only refused to do the job when asked to do so in a deliberate attempt to damage his marketability. Whatever the truth (and in most cases it turns out to be a little of everything), Wilson’s own story shows that a wrestler who got on the wrong side of the NWA cartel was looking at a far less successful career.
The second strand of the book is the infamous ‘Battle for Atlanta’ when NWA promoter Ray Gunkel’s widow Ann was edged out of control of the Georgia territory and began running opposition shows. The NWA’s response began with a conference call with NWA promoters Paul Jones and Lester Welch (Georgia), Eddie Graham (Florida), Sam Muchnick (St. Louis), Fritz Von Erich (Dallas), Mike LeBell (Los Angeles), LeRoy McGuirk (Oklahoma, Louisiana and Mississippi) and Vince McMahon Sr (WWWF). It took in methods from the perfectly legal (running shows in opposition; bringing Gordon Solie in for commentary) to the ethically dubious (banning wrestlers in every NWA territory from working for Gunkel; persuading big stars to take bookings for Gunkel solely so they could cause an embarrassing no-show) to the flat-out illegal (vandalising the car of a local promoter who supported Gunkel; bribing arena staff to refuse to rent buildings to non-NWA promoters). And it ended with Gunkel defeated and the NWA monopoly restored.
From here the book expands to look at the long history of the NWA, from its formation, through the 1956 legal decree where the NWA members promised the U.S. Justice Department that they would cease all attempts to exercise monopoly power, through the countless times the organisation simply ignored this promise (and the countless government investigations of this abuse that mysteriously ran out of steam), right through to the NWA’s collapse when Vince McMahon beat them at their own game. This section of the book benefits from extensive research, including transcripts of several major legal cases between the NWA and ‘outlaw’ promoters that Wilson obtained under Freedom of Information regulations.
The final section of the book looks at more recent issues in the business, from the long list of drug-related deaths, to the steroid scandals of the mid-90s to the numerous sexual abuse allegations. It also looks at the ridiculous system by which wrestlers are considered ‘independent contractors’ by promoters, despite the fact that, for example, a WWE contract gives the company complete control over where a wrestler works, under what name, in what circumstances, on what dates, and even what they are paid. The simple fact is that if a WWE wrestler is not allowed to take independent bookings (which applies to virtually every contracted talent), they are an employee. But to admit this would leave the company liable for healthcare benefits, pension funds, sick pay during injury layoffs and, perhaps worst of all for the corporation, they would have to pay the United States equivalent of National Insurance taxes.
While the book as a whole is an absolute must-read, with some uncomfortable truths about the way the business has truly operated, it does have some weaknesses. Most notable is the gross disparity between Wilson’s assessment of his own skills and potential, and that of those who saw him in action. Wilson believes he was a genuinely strong candidate for the NWA title, a view shared by virtually nobody else. It’s particularly ironic that Wilson seems to have fallen victim to the very same pattern he so readily recognises in others: a wrestler stays within the system (or as Jack Brisco puts it in a conversation with Wilson, “goes with the program”) blinded by promises of fame and glory and a headliner slot; promises that a promoter is in fact making to everybody in sight. While it is perhaps little more than comical to read of WWF jobber Barry ‘O’ honestly believing he was a future world champion, how many modern-day interviews with disillusioned WWF departees tell of an initial meeting with Vince McMahon where they were ‘promised’ an eventual main event slot? This lack of perspective on Wilson’s part is a particular shame as it gives ammunition to those who attack the messenger rather than take issue with the message.
The people responding in this way can also point to Wilson’s recounting of a popular story that Tommy Rich received an NWA title run after acceding to Jim Barnett’s sexual demands. Virtually nobody of note believes this to be true, but the title reign’s background remains unclear and Wilson may have unintentionally stumbled across a previously unspoken explanation. As the book explains, Barnett’s NWA colleagues were suspicious about his control of the Georgia group’s national cable TV slot on TBS and it was hardly the first time he had been suspected on plotting a national expansion. So it is certainly plausible that Barnett (who controlled the NWA title) booked the title changes from Harley Race to Rich, back to Race and on to Dusty Rhodes with the intention of boosting his local business at the expense of the other territories; for a title that changed hands rarely to suddenly see three title switches in two months, and all in the same state, does certainly raise questions
The more recent material is weaker than the NWA stories, partly because Wilson had largely stopped following the business and partly because the book was originally written in the 1980s but failed to find an audience. The major problem with this section is that it tends to simply list every allegation going without taking a truly objective look at their validity. While, for example, the list of early deaths is indisputable (and makes chilling reading), the outcome of the WWF steroid trial is grossly misrepresented. Wilson claims the jury was conned by Vince McMahon into dismissing the charges simply because wrestling was fake and thus irrelevant; in reality the trial demonstrated a strong culture within the company of encouraging steroid abuse, but the prosecution case was so inept that the specific charges laid before the court ranged from unproven to logically impossible.
The book similarly falls into an oversimplified ‘good guys vs the evil business’ trap when it deals with Owen Hart’s death, highlighting Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura’s call for a wrestlers union in the days after the tragedy, but failing to mention his sudden silence when, just three months later, he took a refereeing gig for the company. One of the striking points that becomes clear reading the book is that, ultimately, virtually every wrestler who goes against ‘the system’ winds up back on the inside. Indeed, one of the cases mentioned in the book has had such an outcome since its writing. Sable, who sued the WWF for $140 million in a sexual harassment case, is now back in the company playing a character who apparently sleeps with the chairman. Can you seriously picture this happening in any other business traded on Wall Street?
But despite its faults, the book makes a powerful case that the wrestling business falls far short of the basic standards that are commonplace in any ‘legitimate’ industry. Wilson makes three specific suggestions for changes he feels are needed to ‘clean up’ the business.
1) Basic health and safety standards. Because there is no national equivalent of our NHS, people in the United States generally have a health insurance policy. In virtually every industry, this policy is paid for by the employer as a standard benefit of working for the company. Yet in wrestling, where performers are ‘independent contractors’, there is a long-standing tradition of injuries and health being ‘your problem, not ours’. Not only do wrestlers have to pay their own hefty medical bills (NWA-TNA has just become the first major promotion to offer health insurance), but they face lost earnings if they miss matches, even though they suffered the injury at work. Of course, none of this matters in the real world, because we all know nobody gets hurt in these phony matches…
2) A union for wrestlers. Whatever the make-up of the wrestling industry, wrestlers have always been disposable if they are seen as troublemakers. In the territorial days, there were always new stars to bring in from other areas. Today, there are far more qualified wrestlers than there are slots available on the WWE roster. It has always been a case of ‘like it or lump it’. According to the book, the share of WWF/WWE revenue that has gone to wrestlers in salaries has constantly hovered around 12 to 15 per cent. To put this into perspective, Nationwide League football clubs in England were recently ordered to limit players’ salaries to 60 per cent of the club’s revenue. But in reality, a union will likely never happen. The hierarchy of wrestlers payoffs will always mean that the main event stars who would give a union true power in the event of a strike are the very people who make the most money and have the least personal interest in getting a fair deal for everybody.
3) A return to state athletic commission regulation of the business. Over the years, athletic commissions have played many roles in the wrestling business, from ‘those people you bribe to recognise your choice of champion after a double-cross in the ring’, to ‘those people you bribe to make sure nobody else can hire your favourite building’, to ‘the people who paid for a drug-dealing doctor to attend the shows’, to ‘those people we shouldn’t have to pay taxes to because we’re not a real sport’. The role of ‘those people who make sure the business operates in a decent and legitimate manner where everyone gets a fair shake’ is one that athletic commissions may never play. If nothing else, a credible commission system could end the problem of WWE stars being released when their personal problems get out of hand only to be snapped up by independent groups and continuing to wrestle rather than deal with their issues.
Writing on the Wrestling Classics site, Jody Hamilton (who wrestled as the Assassin, helped book in WCW and is the father of referee Nick Patrick), gave a particularly frank opinion on both sides to the book’s arguments:
“Some of the conditions described by Wilson really did exist, and had existed long before Jim Wilson ever attempted to become a pro wrestler.
“Everyone starting in the business knew up front there was no insurance, no pension plan, only a very select few had a money guarantee, and some of the equipment we had to work on sometimes was very poorly maintained. There were promoters that fell far short of an accurate accounting of the gate receipts. ‘If you didn’t like it don’t get in it’ was more or less the accepted attitude.
“Now I would be the last person in the world to condemn anyone for attempting to improve themselves or their working conditions. As a singles wrestler and as a tag team wrestler I had more than my share of run-ins with promoters about payoffs, finishes, poorly maintained equipment, and generally poor working conditions.
“Yet I was never ‘blackballed’ or ‘blacklisted.’ Why didn’t this happen? Because I had a reputation for drawing big money wherever I went. Promoters all over the country hated Buddy Rogers, but when they would find out he was available they all jumped at the chance to book him, because he always drew money.
“The real reason promoters quit booking Wilson is because he was an egotistical, glory happy, didn’t want to do business, never wanted to lose pain in the butt whose performance in the ring left a lot to be desired. However, if Wilson had ever proven himself as a bona fide attraction capable of drawing money, promoters would have used him regardless of what he did.”
Ultimately, the truth about Chokehold is that much of what it says about attitudes to professional wrestling will be demonstrated with cruel irony. The book will make no difference to the way the business operates.
Promoters will dismiss it by attacking the author, not his message, and they’ll continue to protect and abuse their powers.
Wrestlers will continue to chase illusory dreams and think they will be the exception to the grim rule that the book describes.
Fans will largely ignore the book, having been educated to a culture where all that matters is the next pay-per-view, with history not even an afterthought.
And the book won’t even register a blip on the radar screen of the ‘real world’.
Because wrestling is fake, don’t you know?