Ringmaster: Vince McMahon and the Unmaking of America by Abraham Riesman

April 21, 2023

It would be unfair to call this half-assed, but a substantial chunk of this book is missing in action.

Marketed as a “definitive biography”, it suffers from the major shortcoming that it effectively ends in 1999 with the angle of the revelation of Vince McMahon as “Greater Power”. The subsequent 24 years of his life and career is covered in a whistlestop “coda” chapter where, for example, WWE becoming a public company and setting McMahon up as a billionaire gets a solitary paragraph.

It would have been disappointing if this had been a planned approach and fully flagged up in the blurb of the book, but this isn’t the case. Speaking to Slam Wrestling, Riesman explained:

There was just too much life to fit in there. I had a word count and we didn’t want to go over it because you don’t want a long wrestling book to try and market.

Frankly it’s baffling how the publisher considered this acceptable, let alone how the book was then promoted to potential buyers.

To make things worse, the abrupt ending will likely come as a shock to many given the book appears to be paced for 1999 to fall roughly in the middle. That’s because a full 48% of the length (in the Kindle version at least) is made up of acknowledgements, the index and a meticulous notes section with a citation for virtually every stated fact. Admirable as this is, it could easily have been published online, freeing up enough pages to complete the story.

Turning to what we do actually get, it’s a mixed bag that depends very much on what Riesman used as a source for a particular section. The early chapters on McMahon’s childhood are excellent, with Riesman having travelled to North Carolina to speak to family members and schoolfriends to put together the most detailed account yet of an upbringing that has remained shrouded in mystery. Most eyecatching is the real story of McMahon’s first ever participation in a match, decades before the Raw appearance that ended the Nitro 83 week streak.

There are also some intriguing revelations of trivia and tidbits such as the involvement of future presidential contender Rick Santorum in the efforts to remove athletic commission oversight by “revealing” wrestling was not a legitimate contest.

At the other extreme, some sections bring nothing new to the table, consisting either of lengthy transcripts and recaps of TV events (including a bafflingly extensive account of the first episode of Tuesday Night Titans) or extended extracts of wrestler autobiographies. These seem to be treated with little scepticism, even in cases of clearly unreliable witnesses such as Adnan Al-Kaissey.

The biggest shortcoming, beyond the timescale issue, is that it’s never quite clear what the focus of the book is meant to be. It meanders between a straight McMahon life story, a chronology of wrestling history and an extended essay on politics and culture (with a huge degree of personal opinion), not quite making the most of any format.

At times it feels like it’s trying to serve multiple audiences from the most hardcore of wrestling fan to somebody with no concept of what professional wrestling is, never quite finding the right approach to serve any particular section.

It would be unfair to say regular readers of wrestling books will get nothing from this: the early years in particular have some fresh insight into McMahon’s formative years and transition into WWF head honcho. But those expecting a comprehensive and complete biography will be hugely disappointed.

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  • FFTW May 2, 2023 at 10:50 pm

    Your review of Ole’s “Inside Out” book is repeated twice in the book list. Just a note :).

    • jnlisterwriting May 3, 2023 at 11:19 am

      Thanks for letting me know. Should be fixed now.