Published on June 10th, 2017 | by Bobby Mathews0
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 DustyRhodes, 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.
The Top 5
Lou Thesz broke kayfabe. Let me repeat that: Lou Thesz broke kayfabe. To understand how big a deal that was in the late 1990s when Hooker was first published, you need to know something about the man. Thesz was the old-school guy who was there before the old school was even built. The six-time NWA world champion was, very simply, the man, and you can tell it by how people respected him. They may not have liked him, but Thesz–a legitimate wrestler adept at ‘hooking’ his opponents–commanded the respect of the fans and the locker room. The problem with the first edition of the book is that it wasn’t very good. Scott Teal’s Crowbar Press has reissued the book, along with tons of new material, and Hooker is all the better for it. It’s a look at a man who took wrestling seriously, and was disappointed as the more showbiz-related aspects of the business began to take precedent over the actual wrestling, but who adapted and continued to headline shows around the world. It’s an incredibly important historical account of the wrestling business.
For the millions of Jerichoholics out there, Y2J’s first book is perfection. It follows Jericho’s career from Winnipeg, you idiot, Canada all the way to Mexico and Japan, to the hills of Kentucky and Tennessee in Smoky Mountain Wrestling prior to his work in WCW and the WWE. He leaves no stone unturned, talking about the frustrations of working in WCW’s mid-card and working a program with Goldberg that Goldberg wasn’t even involved in for the most part. All four–holy shit, there are three more volumes–of Jericho’s books are great, but the first one is probably the best. All of them remain relevant as Jericho continues to evolve and engage wrestling audiences into the twilight of his career.
Who’s the greatest wrestling performer of all time? A lot of people will say Ric Flair. Others favor Shawn Michaels. But Hulk Hogan and Ric Flair have both gone on record: It’s Bobby “The Brain” Heenan. Nobody ever did it better. No one else has ever excelled in the way that Heenan did. As a wrestler, he was a great seller and bump-taker. Great promo? You better believe it. He’s widely regarded as the greatest manager of all time, and then he became the best color commentator–excuse me, broadcast journalist–wrestling had ever seen. And then he tells his story, just like you’d think Heenan would: candid, humorous, and always entertaining. Heenan’s first book–that’s right, he wrote another one, too–is an absolute must-read, from his start in the Midwest, to his trips through the Georgia territory, back to the AWA, and then to the WWE. You’ll walk away realizing that any professional wrestling hall of fame ought to have a Bobby Heenan wing.
You may have noticed that we like Gary Hart’s book. I assure you it’s not just that both the site owner, JP, and I sport shaved heads. Well, mostly. A lot of the articles we’ve published here at Pro Wrestling Stories use his book as a base to start with, but by the time Hart got around to penning his memoir, he was out of the business completely and seemingly had no axe to grind. Except maybe with Jerry Jarrett. Hart’s book would be important anyway, for no other reason than it chronicles the plane crash in which “the King” Bobby Shane died, and Hart, Buddy Colt, and Austin Idol were all badly injured. Along the way, you’ll also read about the Australia’s World Championship Wrestling, the Great Muta’s foray into the NWA, and the seminal time in World Class Championship Wrestling, where Hart set the table for the Von Erichs-Freebirds feud, as well as Hart’s philosophy on creating, developing, and maintaining a wrestling superstar’s image. The book is out of print, and Hart’s co-author has resisted overtures from Court Bauer to re-issue it. The linked PDF is only a first draft, but trust me when I tell you that it’s absolutely worth the read.
Mrs. Foley’s baby boy wrote the best book about a wrestling career, hands down. Its insider’s view from the last days of the territories (World Class, Continental, and the USWA) to WCW and eventually to the WWE championship was unprecedented at the time. Also of note: Foley’s bloody forays into Japan, where he would be named King of the Deathmatch. We’re also treated to an in-depth description of how he lost his ear in a match against Vader, WCW’s idiotic booking decisions, and the real story of how he lost his front teeth. (Spoiler: It wasn’t in a wrestling match.) Mick’s first book remains the gold standard among wrestling memoirs, and his follow-up, Foley is Good, ain’t bad, either.
Now let’s look at the worst of the worst…
The 5 Worst
Not entertaining and bordering on unreadable, bro. That’s Vince Russo to a T. Without a filter like Vince McMahon to run his ideas through, Russo is allowed to run wild, and the results are predictable. If you read this book, it’ll become very clear why many people blame the implosion of WCW on him. It’s all over the place, an undisciplined effort, and simply not worth reading.
Unlike the rest of the books on the ‘worst of’ list, Angle’s autobiography isn’t a waste of time. In fact, it’s a very good book. Here’s why it makes the list, though: It’s incomplete. The book was written prior to the news of his drug problem, release from the WWE, and subsequent career and legal troubles in TNA, to say nothing of his resurrection in WWE as commissioner of Raw. It’s odd to think that Kurt Angle, for all of his success in WWE, has spent the majority of his career in TNA. He’s back in WWE, and not wrestling. It remains to be seen if he can pass a physical, but a rematch with Brock Lesnar could be money down the road. Sadly, Angle’s book, no matter how well written, is not money–because it was published too soon.
I don’t want to speak ill of the dead, but if I’ve got to review this book, I’m going to need some bourbon. Badly written and superficial, this book confirms some of the worst criticisms of professional wrestling. The fact that Chyna fell as far and as fast as she did after being released from the WWE is a tragedy. She fell victim to her demons, and that’s beyond sad. Joanie Laurer broke a lot of boundaries in her career and should be remembered more fondly than she is–and she absolutely deserves to be in the WWE Hall of Fame. It’s too bad she doesn’t have a better literary legacy.
Long on self-promotion and short on substance, the Rock’s memoir just isn’t very good. It doesn’t help that he shifts into and out of third-person throughout the book, making it tiresome for the reader. When it was published in January of 2000, there was a lot of backlash against the book due to its poor writing. There are lots of good things in the book, including The Rock’s personal struggles and family history, not to mention the breakdown of his first Wrestlemania match against Stone Cold Steve Austin. But it’s just not enough to overcome its slapdash structure and lazy execution. The WWE was in the midst of capitalizing on wrestling memoirs at this point, and this book seems to have been put together just to get Dwayne Johnson labeled a”New York Times Bestselling Author.”
And now, the very worst: No. 1– Hollywood Hulk Hogan by Hulk Hogan
Do you like being lied to? Do you enjoy reading demonstrably false statements that are easily debunked by multiple witnesses and documentation? Then hey, Hulk Hogan’s memoir is for you, brother. Many people respect and like Hulk Hogan, because he made them a lot of money–piles of it, in fact–and that’s understandable. Hogan’s place in wrestling history is assured. He’s a giant in the industry, the linchpin of the 1980s wrestling boom. But in this book, he comes off as the kind of guy who would rather climb a tree and lie to you than stand on the ground and tell you the truth. In other words, it’s the perfect book for today’s political climate.
That’s the list. Did I get something wrong? Leave off your favorite book? You can always take it up with me on Twitter: @BamaWriter