Published on June 10th, 2017 | by Bobby Mathews6
The Top 10 Wrestling Books
(and 5 you should skip)
On a couple of occasions, other wrestling writers or media folks have referred to me “a wrestling encyclopedia,” due to the depth of my knowledge of the business. Now, that’s a great compliment, but I always respond that I’m more like Wikipedia–fueled by rumor, innuendo and booze–or, more likely, that copy of Encarta you got on your first Gateway computer back in 1995: I know a little about a lot of things, but there are sometimes huge gaps in my knowledge.
Want to find someone who really is a wrestling encyclopedia? Look at guys like Jim Cornette, Jim Ross, Bruce Prichard. Those guys were not only fans of the business before they got into it, they made their living from the squared circle and remain relevant, interested, and engaged with the way professional wrestling works. Compared to those guys? I don’t know a damned thing. A lot of what I do know comes from years of watching old territory wrestling. I was lucky enough to grow up on Southeastern/Continental, but also caught Georgia, Florida, World Class, and Mid-South thanks to an old satellite system back in the mid-1980s, so my grounding in the Southern wrestling tradition is pretty strong.
But I also read–a lot. I’m almost never without a book (finishing up The Persuader by Lee Child right now, as a matter of fact), and since there’s no longer a thing called kayfabe in the wrestling business, a lot of wrestlers, managers, and assorted hangers-on have written books about the business, and reading through those books offers up a treasure trove of information and opinion. Reading those books is a tremendous education, but each one comes with a caveat: especially when dealing with autobiographies, the reader has to understand that the author is relaying the facts as he sees them, so it’s often good to read multiple accounts of the same incident, if you can. That way, you gain a better understanding of what really happened.
Here’s a great example: Bobby “the Brain” Heenan had no respect for Bruiser Brody, and said so in his first book. He saw Brody as a guy who didn’t care about the territory he worked in (other than World Class in Texas), because he was so independent. Brody would take $300 (nearly $750 in today’s money) to work a show, and then be gone on to the next town. But the guys who were underneath in that territory would be the ones hurt by Brody occasionally no-showing or no-selling/refusing to do the job for his opponent, or even pulling ribs like slinging a puke-soaked mop around through the crowd of ringside fans. Now, Heenan’s opinion is a minority viewpoint, for sure. Many fans absolutely loved Brody, and that adoration has only increased since he was murdered. Gary Hart thought the world of Brody, and acted as his booking agent and sometimes as his manager, and he had nothing but good things to say about the man.
But Heenan’s viewpoint gives us another glimpse of the complicated man Bruiser Brody was, and that’s important, too. So when you read pro wrestling-related books, it’s a good idea to read critically and ask yourself if the writer may have an axe to grind against another wrestler or promoter, or if they might be simply trying to improve their own legacy by putting themselves over. So with all of that in mind, let’s take a look at the top 10 wrestling books you should read (and five you can feel free to skip).
The Best Around
Len Denton’s book is a fantastic read through the territory days of professional wrestling, and he’s not shy about his personal failures, either. He talks about headlining Mid-South as the North American champion and working the Superdome against Dusty Rhodes and Andre the Giant as a young man only in the business for a couple of years to being humbled in Georgia Championship Wrestling by Ole Anderson. There are forays through Denton’s native Texas, through Memphis and the beginning of his association with Tony Anthony, as well as a look at the waning days of the Pacific Northwest territory. And one of the best parts of the book has very little to do with wrestling. Instead, it’s a detailing of Denton’s friendship with “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, and how Piper treated him with respect and dignity, partnering together in business ventures and growing close on the road.
If there’s one knock on Bret Hart, it’s that he takes himself far too seriously. His famous hubris is on full display in this book, and it comes off as written by a man with a very large ego who is concerned that his rightful place in wrestling history won’t be recognized. In many ways, the book is a cautionary example of the mental and emotional wreckage a more than 20-year wrestling career will leave on a person’s psyche. With that said, there are a ton of reasons to actually like the book. If you’re a fan of workrate, Hart goes into detail about how matches were put together and talks about his real-life rivalry with Shawn Michaels, which resulted, finally, in the Montreal Screwjob. He also talks about Stampede, the Canadian wrestling territory owned by his father, Stu, the death of his brother, Owen, and the career-ending concussion at the hands of Goldberg. The book is fascinating on many levels, not the least of which is the borderline paranoia of its author.
Stan Hansen is probably the biggest gaijin star in Japanese wrestling not named Funk. His hard-hitting style was a perfect complement to All-Japan’s “King’s Road” style of wrestling. There probably aren’t a whole lot of stories in here that a dedicated fan hasn’t heard at least secondhand, but it’s a treat to read the stories from Hansen’s point of view. (Related: Terry Funk’s memoir can and should be read as a companion piece.) Stan doesn’t shy away from the AWA world title controversy, and he also talks about his tag team with Bruiser Brody and his time in the then-WWWF as a young man wrestling perennial world champion, Bruno Sammartino. Co-author Scott Teal does a good job of allowing Hansen to explain the reasoning and thought process to his in-ring work, and reading about Hansen’s handshake agreement with Giant Baba will leave you liking and respecting the Japanese promoter a great deal–and it’ll help you understand why Hansen remained so dedicated to All-Japan.
7. The King of New Orleans: How the Junkyard Dog Became Professional Wrestling’s First Black Superhero by Greg Klein
The only problem with Greg Klein’s book about Sylvester Ritter is that it unintentionally marginalizes at least two major black wrestlers who paved the way for the Junkyard Dog. Bobo Brazil was headlining Cobo Hall in Detroit long before Sylvester Ritter ever broke into the business, and had in fact wrestled in the first-ever racially integrated tag team match in Atlanta history. And Bearcat Wright deserves a mention, certainly as a precursor to Ritter. Wright may have, in fact, been the first African-American world champion, defeating “Classy” Freddie Blassie for the WWA world title in Los Angeles. While the WWA world title was never recognized as a “real” world title alongside the likes of the NWA or AWA, it was a major championship due to the LA media market. But JYD is little-remembered these days, and when people do talk about him, they talk more about his charisma than anything he did in the ring. But Klein’s book details an enormously successful period in the Mid-South territory and calls attention to the incredible career and life of the Junkyard Dog, and is very much worth the read.
The best autobiographies are confessional, and the Nature Boy’s book certainly fits the bill from the jump, opening with Flair sharing that he’d been born an orphan and fortunately adopted into the Fleihr family. From there, the book just gets better. Flair details his time breaking into the business in Verne Gagne’s training camp and trailing along with the Texas Outlaws, Dick Murdoch and Dusy Rhodes, during the early part of his career. Flair’s book is never less than interesting, with Ric detailing his triumphs and his tribulations with equal rigor. There is a simultaneous joy and sadness in Flair’s book as the reader realizes that the Nature Boy isn’t a gimmick. It’s how Ric Flair lived his life, and the string of broken relationships, bankruptcies, and bad business deals is just a part of the package when it comes to Ric Flair.