One Ring Circus by Brian Howell
Review / August 16, 2019

If photo books are your cup of tea, this is one of the better wrestling options. It’s based around a tight theme, specifically the small ECCW promotion in British Columbia. Given the subject, it’s an appropriately low-fi presentation: a black and white photo on the right hand side of each spread, with an accompanying extended caption on the left-hand side. These add useful background detail and context, and can sometimes be wonderfully dry as in: Cheechuk was exhausted, breathing heavily, and bleeding from the forehead. He stopped for me to take this picture and then took a pull from his can of root beer, walked outside into the pouring rain, and vomited over a railing. Honky Tonk Man and Christopher Daniels aside, you probably won’t recognise too many of the wrestlers in this book, but the themes will be familiar to anyone who has experienced low-level indy wrestling. Howell makes sure to also cover the other people in and around the shows, from the referee to the regulars in the crowd, a personal famous being an elderly man who sells smoked salmon from a plastic beneath his ringside seat. This most definitely doesn’t have the luxurious feel that makes a “coffee table…

Physical Chess by Billy Robinson with Jake Shannon
Review / August 15, 2019

A brief read, this still manages to convey a life and career that was fuller and more widely influential than many wrestlers can dream of. There are few wrestling tales that take you from the Snake Pit in Wigan (described in all its unglamorous reality) to the US territorial scene to both the glory days of New Japan’s TV era and the growth of the shoot-style promotions (and in events obviously not covered here, to WWE’s cruiserweight show via trainee Jack Gallagher). Robinson tells a story that encompasses his skills and accomplishments without ever seeming arrogant. In particular, the moment he defeats Billy Joyce in a legitimate gym bout (which Joyce made a prerequisite for dropping the British heavyweight title in a public worked match), he is quick to point out it was more a question of ageing vs athletic prime than superior talent. There’s also a great balance of including the technical detail of Robinson’s grappling skills without confusing the reader. One key example is when Robinson explains how legitimate catch wrestling, which allows both pins and submissions, was able to work as a contest: while at first glance these might seem two completely contrasting aims, Robinson tells of…

Pain and Passion: The History of Stampede Wrestling by Heath McCoy
Review / August 14, 2019

This is about as a close to a must-read wrestling book as is possible in something dealing with a niche topic. Most wrestling histories fall into one of two traps: they have solid research delivered in a dry, academic manner; or they are full of engaging stories but don’t give a complete picture and context. McCoy is one of the rare authors who manages to pull off a book that tells a story in a comprehensive, authoritative and highly readable manner. Based on more than sixty interviews in addition to secondary sources, the book sticks close to the narrative of the history of the Stampede promotion but doesn’t ignore its wider effects on wrestling history as a whole. It pulls off the right balance of dealing with the way the story of Stampede is so closely intertwined with the personal triumphs and tragedies of the Hart family, as well as addressing the final days of Chris Benoit in an appropriate level of detail. Another impressive element is that McCoy’s writing style uses literary flourish to add flavor and humanity to the storytelling, keeping it from being a dry recollection of facts, but without losing the book’s sense of authority. The…

Professional Wrestling: Sport and Spectacle by Sharon Mazer
Review / August 13, 2019

In the days when wrestling books were a relative rarity, this was a reasonable buy. Today it will be of little interest to most fans. Part of a “Performance Studies” series, this is two for two on the “wrestling academia” checklist: it quotes Roland Barthes’ essay on wrestling, and it devotes little or not attention to the fact that people promote professional wrestling events as a business. Indeed, most of the book continues along the usual lines: wrestling is a drama, not a sport; there’s a lot of emphasis on masculinity despite men in tight underwear rolling around with one another; the portrayal of women is very simplistic. A couple of chapters do offer new takes, at least within the context of the academic wrestling essay. One sees Mazer spend time at Johnny Rodz’s gym watching trainees go through their paces, contrasting their training with that of boxers in the same gym who are solely there to learn legitimate combat. Another looks at the growth of the ‘smart fan’ as wrestling became more popular online, and the way some fans refuse to believe anything they see on TV for fear of being ‘worked.’ All in all though, fans of wrestling won’t…

Pro Wrestling Through The Power Slam Years: 1994-2014
Review / August 12, 2019

(I must, of course, include a disclaimer here — I wrote for Power Slam over the course of around 30 issues in 1996-1998 and 2006-7.) For those readers who were aggrieved at Power Slam being restricted to 40 pages — a subject addressed in this book — this will be more than compensation. At approximately 240,000 words, it’s a perfect example of a title that would only be viable as an e-book as a printed copy would have been unmanageably bulky and prohibitively expensive. For the book’s intended audience, it represents excellent value. The book is made up of two interspersed sections. The first, which makes up the bulk of the content, is exactly what the title suggests: a truly comprehensive account of both the in-ring and business sides of wrestling over a two decade period. It’s largely in year-by-year sections, though the past five years or so are lumped together (partly because so much of the business was repetitive in this era.) For each year, Martin recaps the main happenings in each of the major US promotions, then Japan as a whole and, where appropriate, those British promotions aiming at a more hardcore, Internet or travelling crowd. The level…

Richmond 9-5171 by Jeff Walton
Review / August 9, 2019

If you recognise the title, you’ll get a lot from this book. If not, it’s still an interesting read, but in neither case is it worth paying silly money for. The title is of course the phone number of the box office at the Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles, a number which was not only repeated on air throughout the show but also appeared prominently in the building itself. Walton worked for the LA territory both as manager Tux Newman and behind the scenes with the LeBell family which promoted the area. The book is a mixture of autobiography and a history of the territory, particularly its main venue. Rather than a straight chronology it covers a different topic in each chapter such as the female wrestlers, Andre the Giant  and backstage humour. As you’d expect, the highlight covers the Fred Blassie-John Tolos feud that was arguably the high point of the territory, leading to a blowoff at the outdoors LA Coliseum. While there’s a little on the final years of the territory, it’s not overly analytical and there’s not much about how cable expansion hit the territorial model, nor indeed the more outlandish gimmicks the promotion tried in its dying…

Pure Dynamite by Tom Billington
Review / August 8, 2019

1999 is something of a year zero in wrestling books thanks to the stunning success of Mick Foley’s Have A Nice Day proving to the publishing industry that wrestling fans could indeed read. But it also marked the publication of the autobiography of the Dynamite Kid, a book that remains among the small selection of genuine must-reads. Originally published in a limited print run by the company behind the UK’s Power Slam magazine (which had published a rare interview with Billington), the book was later reprinted and made more widely available under the Wrestling Observer banner, a promotional tie-in rather than any editorial involvement. The book stands out for its sheer uncompromising honesty, with Billington not sparing anyone’s feelings. Just as with Bob Holly’s book years later, whether you agree with what Billington says or not, you are in no doubt he genuinely believes it. It has to be said that Billington comes across as, to use his insult of choice, a bit of a prick. He makes no secret of his failures as a husband and father, nor his reputation for pulling cruel pranks or being eager to get into fights. It’s his wrestling career that’s most of interest of course,…

Ropes and Glory: The Emotional Rise of British Wrestling by Greg Lambert
Review / August 7, 2019

A sequel to Holy Grail: The True Story of British Wrestling’s Revival, this is a worthy book, if perhaps not what readers might assume. While the book does cover the stunning boom in British independent wrestling since the last volume ended a decade ago with the closure of the original XWA, it’s not quite a comprehensive history. Instead, as with the original, it’s more of a first-hand account based around Lambert’s continuing experiences, most notably with his own promoting work in Morecambe, his involvement with the brief revival of the FWA and the blossoming Futureshock group, and his commentary and creative work at Preston City Wrestling. Concentrating on the first-person view means that coverage of some of the most notable players in that boom such as ICW and PROGRESS is largely limited to accounts from a couple of shows Lambert attended, albeit including the Fear & Loathing show that sold out the SECC in Glasgow. Lambert’s experiences are certainly enough to give a good flavour of the scene’s revival however, and it’s certainly engaging to be able to look back at that decade and see the events in context, particularly the increasing mainstream media attention and the first series of TNA’s…

Sex, Lies and Headlocks by Shaun Assael and Mike Mooneyham
Review / August 6, 2019

The semi-biography of Vince McMahon is a case of a book having value despite numerous flaws. While Mooneyham is a regular columnist on pro wrestling, Assael is a sportswriter from ESPN and approaches the subject from an outsider perspective. It’s arguably the most perceptive such work from somebody not already involved in or interested by the wrestling business, though that approach brings a risk of errors that is certainly realised. The book comes across as if there was a little confusion about its intended focus and scope, possibly because as a 2002 publication its writing came at a tumultuous period in the wrestling business. It straddles the line between a biography of McMahon and a history of the WWF’s expansion and the war with WCW. The big picture story is on the money and for a new fan it certainly makes for a more accurate overview of the Monday Night War than the WWE Network documentary of the same name will provide. The devil is in the detail however. The book is rife with two distinct types of error. The first is simple factual mistakes, many of which appear to be the result of Assael getting bogus information direct from…

Second Nature: The Legacy of Ric Flair and the Rise of Charlotte by Ric Flair and Charlotte Flair
Review / August 2, 2019

Buy on Amazon While a creative concept for a WWE book, this is less than the sum of its parts. Second Nature effectively combines two autobiographies – covering Ric Flair’s final run in WWE and retirement and Charlotte’s entry into the business – neither of which would provide enough material for a full-length book in themselves. They join together almost too seamlessly, drawing attention to the way that the ghostwriting doesn’t really feel like the natural, individual voice of either wrestler. Indeed, WWE speak plagues the book, with some particularly awkward mentions of “championship” that make no contextual sense when describing the physical belt. There’s also a jarring reference to “WWE” not being an NWA member. The strong points of the book certainly work well, with Ric detailing the adjustment to being out of the business, including some surprisingly positive mentions of how he was treated in TNA. Charlotte gives a heart-breaking account of her close relationship with brother Reid and the tragedy of bereavement. There’s also some surprising revelations about professional jealousy between Charlotte and Sasha Banks, while her recollection of an abusive relationship with a former husband provides the emotional meat of the book. The problem is that…