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Grantland and Deadspin correspondent presents a breakthrough examination of the professional wrestling, its history, its fans, and its wider cultural impact that does for the sport what Chuck Klosterman did for heavy metal.
The Squared Circle grows out of David Shoemaker’s writing for Deadspin, where he started the column “Dead Wrestler of the Week” (which boasts over 1 million page views) -- a feature on the many wrestling superstars who died too young because of the abuse they subject their bodies to -- and his writing for Grantland, where he covers the pro wrestling world, and its place in the pop culture mainstream. Shoemaker’s sportswriting has since struck a nerve with generations of wrestling fans who—like him—grew up worshipping a sport often derided as “fake” in the wider culture. To them, these professional wrestling superstars are not just heroes but an emotional outlet and the lens through which they learned to see the world.
Starting in the early 1900s and exploring the path of pro wrestling in America through the present day, The Squared Circle is the first book to acknowledge both the sport’s broader significance and wrestling fans’ keen intellect and sense of irony. Divided into eras, each section offers a snapshot of the wrestling world, profiles some of the period’s preeminent wrestlers, and the sport’s influence on our broader culture. Through the brawling, bombast, and bloodletting, Shoemaker argues that pro wrestling can teach us about the nature of performance, audience, and, yes, art.
Full of unknown history, humor, and self-deprecating reminiscence—but also offering a compelling look at the sport’s rightful place in pop culture—The Squared Circle is the book that legions of wrestling fans have been waiting for. In it, Shoemaker teaches us to look past the spandex and body slams to see an art form that can explain the world.
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David Shoemaker has been writing about wrestling since 2009. He is a former book editor and is currently a book designer at Henry Holt and Company. Shoemaker lives in Brooklyn.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
In modern professional wrestling, the really compelling shows start with what they call a “cold open”—they skip the theme song, skip the formality, and get right to the meat. So let me try to do that here:
This is a book about dead wrestlers.
It was supposed to be, anyway. But along the way, it became a history of professional wrestling told through the stories of people who made the myths and who thereafter died. It’s the story of a mythology populated not by gods but by real men, fallible mortals who served as vessels for a larger truth, men who lived the lives of kings and who suffered to be our idols. This is the ultimate fakery of wrestling—that the emperor has no clothes, that the gods are mortals. But in reliving their lives, what became clear is that the mythology is what matters the most. We make our own gods for our own purposes. And we love them, and that’s the whole point.
Dad took me to a wrestling show in 1987 at Freedom Hall in Louisville, Kentucky. Dad was no wrestling fan himself, but he knew how much it meant to me to see Hulk Hogan square off against the nefarious Killer Khan. My only concrete memory of the night was that the Hogan-Khan “main event” went on halfway through the card. When Hogan dispatched the Mongolian monster, I felt for a moment like it was time to leave; that was the main event, after all. It was a bit off-putting until my dad suggested that they must have done it that way because Hogan had a flight to catch. Even as a nine-year-old, I knew that this made sense, that there were perfectly good real-life situations that took precedence over wrestling “reality”; even as we were screaming along to the matches as we were supposed to, as the WWF matchmakers choreographed the night for us to, everybody in the arena knew this. Which is to say, we were in on the joke.
That’s the first thing most people get wrong about wrestling fans. We can whoop for the good guys, hiss at the heel antics, and still know that the show is, well, a show. It was a year prior to that Hogan-Khan match when I was first awakened to the complexities of pro wrestling, when a group of good-guy wrestlers showed up in the WWF calling themselves the Machines. There were two of them at first: a burly, nondescript guy called Super Machine (I was too young at the time to recognize him as Bill Eadie, who would later go on to great fame as Ax of the tag team Demolition—his moniker here was a play off of his previous gimmick as the Masked Superstar, a headliner in the Mid-Atlantic territory), and an enormous, stoop-necked monolith called Giant Machine. Even as a child I could see that Giant Machine was Andre the Giant.
Andre had been suspended earlier that year when he failed to show up for a match with two wrestlers from wicked manager Bobby “The Brain” Heenan’s troupe. Now he was back, in disguise, and ready to resume his feud with the Heenan Family. As a kid, this was delicious comeuppance for Heenan, who had used every trick in the book to try to steer his wrestlers to victory over the good guys I idolized. Despite Heenan’s loud insistence that Giant Machine was Andre, there was nothing the WWF officials could do, the mask being sacred territory in the wrestling world. (Almost every time a masked wrestler has wrestled, his opponents have tried to unmask him. That’s the law of the jungle, though—opposing wrestlers can prove their point by unmasking him in the course of a match, but that’s the only way it will happen.) Eventually the Machines (and their manager, Captain Lou Albano) were joined by other teammates. First came Big Machine (who was really Blackjack Mulligan, but to me he was another generic behemoth), then later Animal Machine (indisputably George “The Animal” Steele), then Hulk Machine (Hulk Hogan, he of the most identifiable copper-tanned physique in the business), and later Piper Machine (who was so intent on being identified as “Rowdy” Roddy Piper that he was wearing a kilt). With every new partner, I cheered and laughed at the Heenan Family’s misfortune.
Of course, the whole point was that we could see what Heenan could see, but nobody else—not the announcers, not the referees, not the WWF front office—could tell. The entire joke was that we were in on the joke.
My grandfather used to tell a story about a wrestling show in small-town North Carolina. A reporter from the local newspaper was assigned to cover the event, but he had someplace else to be on the night of the event, so he went by the arena the day of, watched the guys warming up, took some notes, and then asked the promoter who was going to win each match so that he could file his story ahead of time. He did. But, the story goes, there was a terrible storm that night, and the show was canceled. When the newspaper came out the next day with all the results listed, the townsfolk were infuriated and, in my grandfather’s words, just about ran the reporter out of town with pitchforks and torches.
Note that the townsfolk didn’t run the wrestlers out of town; they went after the journalist. They knew full well what the reality of wrestling was—they were in on the joke. They just expected that the journalist would stay complicit in the enterprise. That a writer writing about wrestling would be a fan first and a critic second. Anyway, that’s where I’m coming from.
A quick note about “facts.” Not long after the Machines storyline, Andre turned to the dark side and was set against Hulk Hogan in a battle for the centuries. He beat Hogan on a dire episode of The Main Event that I watched with my whole family on my parents’ bed. I really have no idea why we were all watching; nobody else was a wrestling fan, and that was the only time it happened. But that night, with my parents and my sister bearing witness, the “Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase—Andre’s partner in crime—stole the WWF title away from Hogan by furtively putting Earl Hebner in as the referee in place of his brother, Dave, who was the referee of record. The story goes that he paid for Earl to have plastic surgery to look just like Dave, so the two were indistinguishable except for their morals and motives. (In reality, the two were identical twins, and Earl—himself a longtime WWF ref—had only briefly been removed from television prior to the Main Event match in hope fans would forget about him.)
As a young fan, I was irate. The lesson, though, was the same as it had been with the Machines: Nothing in the world of pro wrestling is what it seems to be, and to assume that it is is to watch at your heart’s own peril.
In researching this book, the main thing I realized about pro wrestling is that the offscreen world is almost as fantastical as the one on-screen. “History” is mostly quartered to the realm of wrestler reminiscence, which would be factually problematic on its own, but couple that with the industry’s desire to mythologize everything and to keep up the facade of fakery that undergirds the sport and you end up with a lot of facts that contradict each other. What follows is my best effort to sift through them, organize them, break them down, and put them back together in something approaching truth. If all that follows isn’t true in the plainest sense of the word, it’s an honest effort at it. And at a minimum it’s a look at reality through the distorted lens of pro wrestling unreality. It’s the truth about a century of misdirection and lies.
(The world wants to be deceived, so let it be deceived.)
It’s a life that leaves you lopsided.
Wrestling was a bastard art form from the start. You can trace its history back to “catch wrestling,”* a mutt form of organized grappling that incorporated aspects of Greco-Roman wrestling, Irish collar-and-elbow, Indian styles, and the famously violent brand of English fighting called Lancashire wrestling.* As the catch wrestling fad took hold in America, in New York and in traveling carnivals that toured the growing nation in the late nineteenth century, it continued to evolve with an increased emphasis on submission holds—“hooking,” they called it—as well as combative techniques from every corner of the country—and every corner of the world, really, since masses of new immigrants populated the audiences.
Like all the other sideshow acts, these carnival wrestling acts were a fully interactive sham. Here’s a description of the setup, recounted in 1935 in Collier’s:
“Easy money, boys,” the barker shrills. “Step up and get it, boys. You get a dollar for every minute you stay with one of these rasslers. You get a dollar, a clammo, a buckeroo, boys, for even one minute. You get fifty—yes, fifty—large dollars, boys—if you can throw any of these wrestlers. Who’ll try his strength and skill for fifty dollars, a half hundred—enough to buy a plow, a horse or a winter coat for the little woman?”
From the outskirts of the crowd a cabbage-eared, dough-nosed shill raises a hand and starts to elbow his way forward. The act calls for him to go up and throw one of the wrestlers, a maneuver calculated to give confidence to those who might want to try.
The wrestlers were mostly legitimate fighters, but the exhibition was imbued with shtick from the start for entertainment purposes. There are any number of stories of how the troupe would guard against defeat from particularly stout locals. It was one reason why wrestlers became well versed in hooking—there’s nothing like a nice toehold to bring a tough guy to his knees—but more duplicitous means were also developed. The earliest days are full of legends about how the wrestler, when he began to feel overmatched, would wrangle his opponent back against the curtain abutting the back of the stage, whereupon an accomplice hidden behind it would clock the local through the curtain with a blackjack, unnoticed by the audience. The local guy would stagger to the ground, and the wrestler would pin him “fairly.” And on to the next contestant, and the next town.
The counterparts to the sideshow acts were the big-time matches that pitted top grapplers against one another, in large venues with larger crowds. This brand of “professional wrestling,” as it came to be known, was more or less real, although of course the outcomes of bouts were sometimes fixed—which is to say that wrestling was real in those early days exactly to the extent that boxing was real. Wrestling and boxing existed in a sort of symbiosis for much of the twentieth century; oftentimes their respective popularity would rise and fall in inverse proportion. Wrestling was often the respite for disaffected boxing fans and vice versa, though over the decades the sports shared venues, management, and sometimes even athletes. So, yes, like boxing, wrestling started off as a legitimate sport. It just wasn’t a very entertaining one.
Those early championship matches were frequently multihour slogs wherein the combatants rarely stood up off the mat or even moved enough for an audience member past the eighth row to notice. Sure, wrestling drew crowds, but it was not the sort of immersive spectacle that boxing was; it’s true that in those days boxing bouts would often last hours as well, but if given the option, the average sports fan will choose the punch over the waist-lock ninety-nine times out of one hundred.
In the wrestling mainstream of those early days, though, even when one did not find rigged fights and predetermined endings, the industry was nonetheless marked by misdirection and mythology. Take the story of Frank Gotch, the sport’s first iconic champion. It’s said that in June 1899, a young Gotch agreed to wrestle a furniture salesman from the next town on a racetrack. Gotch lost, but as the fight dragged out to nearly two hours, it was clear that both men were grapplers of the highest order. As the furniture salesman left, he gave Gotch his card, revealing himself only then to be Dan McLeod, the Canadian-born American Heavyweight Champion of the wrestling world.*
The motif of gods and heroes coming to earth disguised as average peasants has a footing in Greek mythology—see Zeus and Hermes taking shelter with Baucis and Philemon, Odysseus as the beggar, Odysseus as “Noman,” and so on—and it’s the central metaphor of the Christian faith today. When a historian encounters a scene such as the one told of Gotch above, his eyebrows instinctively rise. Even if there is historical reality to that racetrack match, the metaphorical reality—the reason why the story persisted in popular memory—is more significant: that Gotch was visited by a demigod in the rags of the masses who conveyed upon Gotch the imprimatur through which he himself would ascend to the level of the immortals.
The son of German immigrants settled in Iowa, Gotch was paradigmatic right out of the gate: Wrestling would be the sport of choice for all variety of new immigrants through much of the rest of the century, and Iowa would come to be a hotbed for collegiate wrestling to this day. That latter fact, it should be said, was largely due to the influence of Martin “Farmer” Burns, a world-famous wrestler* and himself an American champion, who founded wrestling schools in Omaha, Nebraska, and Rock Island, Illinois, and trained a generation of future grapplers, including Earl Caddock,* future game-changer Joseph “Toots” Mondt, and Rudy Dusek of the Dusek Riot Squad, a mob of four brothers that took over the wrestling scene in the Midwest and then New York City.
When Gotch defeated the “Russian Lion” George Hackenschmidt in Chicago’s Dexter Park in 1908 in an epic two-hour battle, wrestling reached its first real national prominence. In most matches in those days, you had to beat your opponent in two out of three falls—usually by “tossing” him to the mat after a lengthy period of grappling for dominant position—but that day in Chicago, the first fall lasted two hours, and then it only ended because Hackenschmidt surrendered the fall; he didn’t return to the ring thereafter, forfeiting the title to Gotch. Hackenschmidt is reported to have withdrawn graciously—“[Gotch] is the king of the class, the greatest man by far I ever met,” he was quoted as saying in the American press—but two days later, to the London Daily Mail, his story changed: “The tactics by which I was defeated on American soil would not have been tolerated in England. Gotch’s body was literally soaked in oil to prevent my holding him. All the world knows this to be unfair and against the rules of wrestling. He dug his nails into my face, tried to pull my ear off, and poke his thumb into my eye.”*
It wasn’t necessarily an issue of Hack changing his mind; the discrepancy is as likely to be because one—or both—of the quotes was created by someone other than the Russian Lion. Such was sometimes the nature of the sports writing world in those days; wrestling immediately evinced itself as the perfect vessel for such fictional storylines. It’s notable that both Gotch and Hackenschmidt were performers as much as they were fighters; Gotch appeared in stage plays over the years, and Hack was a vaudeville strongman. In their fight, they played the roles of opposing national heroes, and though the ending was not predetermined, it was left in such ...
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