Book Review: National Wrestling Alliance

National Wrestling Alliance

The Untold Story of the Monopoly That Strangled Pro Wrestling

By Tim Hornbaker

This is now the 7th book on professional wrestling I have read.  The list is now- 3 Mick Foley books, Tom Billington AKA Dynamite Kid’s autobiography Pure Dynamite and a Gorgeous George Biography.  I’ve watched several documentaries on pro-wrestling and I’m a regular reader of David Shoemaker’s column at Grantland.  I don’t actually watch pro-wrestling on TV because I don’t have cable, or at this point, any broadcast television.  I’ve tried to drag friends to go see WWE when they’re in town, but so far no one has been willing to go.

I watched wrestling when I was a kid, but had very little interest in it until, like probably most people, I saw The Wrestler.  That movie got my attention.  What is pro-wrestling and why would anyone want to do it?

The idea that it’s fake is something that doesn’t bother me in the slightest.  I grew up skateboarding, a sport in which top-tier professionals don’t even necessarily bother to enter contests.  The entire sport of skateboarding is based around two things- who does the coolest stuff and who looks coolest while doing it.

Professional wrestling is very similar.  Wrestlers are trying to come up with the most incredible characters, and then seeing what kind of crazy stunts they can do.  Add in some acting elements and there you have it.

Where professional wrestling takes it to an even more interesting level is that the people who, in the real world, are competing with each other for jobs and status actually have to help each other.  The worst thing a pro-wrestler can do to another pro-wrestler is no-sell, i.e. not pretend to be hurt by an opponent’s moves.  No-selling is a sign of extreme disrespect, and likely to result in actual violence.  Wrestlers help each other, and one of the highest compliments a wrestler can give another is that they can make a bad opponent look like a good one.  It’s like if a figure skater had to do a routine with an opposing team member.  I still don’t get how that could actually work in practice.

On to the book review-

I did not enjoy this book.  I learned some things from it, but I did not have fun reading it.  I hate to say this, because the author put an incredible amount of work into it, and he clearly loves what he does.  The back cover says:

TIM HORNBAKER has been a professional wrestling researcher for the past 10 years.  His research has taken him across the United States, and includes detailed correspondence with historical societies in a dozen countries.

I believe it.  The depth of the research that went into this book is astounding.  He’s got dollar amounts for how much money was made at specific wrestling matches in the 1920’s.  He’s put together detailed bios for almost everyone who appears in the book, some of them born in the 19th century.  It’s great, but then it’s not.

I don’t need to know the back story of obscure promoters.  I have no idea how much money was worth 80 years ago, so quoting me attendance and gate receipts doesn’t really do much for me.  I don’t need him to reprint entire letters between NWA members, I would have been happy with just summaries.  But there are two big problems with this book:

1.  The writing is AWKWARD.  Start with the title of the book:  National Wrestling Alliance- The Untold Story of the Monopoly That Strangled Pro Wrestling.  It strangled wrestling?  Is that a pun that we’re supposed to laugh at?  It may have strangled wrestling, but since we all know that wrestling still exists, the NWA clearly didn’t finish the job.  Maybe he should have said the Monopoly That was Strangling Pro Wrestling for a Few Decades in the Mid-20th Century.

A small sample from page 275:

Haft was a tenacious promoter, and his passion helped create a premier wrestling city.  But using athleticism as his selling point, Haft kept a band of tough shooters on his payroll.   He also pushed the performance aspects though characters like Buddy Rogers.

I don’t know my grammatical terms as well as I should, but I know awkward when I see it and this awkward writing.  The whole book is like this. It was a slog.  I started this book a year ago, and just now finished it.  And I read the whole thing, minus a few bios of promoters near the end that I just could be bothered with.  Which brings me to the other problem:

2.  It’s about promoters.  Sure, it’s got some stuff about the wrestlers themselves, but at heart it’s about the alliance- a group of promoters who got together to act as a governing body for the sport.  Or a strangling monopoly if you agree with Tim.  It’s better than alternatives I can think of- a book about football coaches or baseball managers, because there are some interesting characters, but still, it’s never going to be as entertaining as a book about the wrestlers themselves.

There were a few interesting characters- Jack Pfeffer, the Halitosis Kid to his enemies (and he had many); “Baron” Michele Leone; Toots Mondt.  There is some focus on a few wrestlers- Lou Thesz, Buddy Rogers.  But it’s mostly about the inner workings of the alliance, and who controls what territories and who is double-crossing who.  There’s some FBI investigations, some court-room drama (one particularly memorable passage about a judge who is mocking Sonny Myers, who is suing the NWA for blackballing him), some threatening letters back and forth.  It’s interesting, but it’s not arranged well and I just never felt invested in it.  It read kind of like a textbook.

I put a lot of time and effort into reading the book and it did give a good overview of the history of pro-wrestling from its beginning to about the mid 1970’s.  I suppose it was worth the effort.  But I really wish Mr Hornbaker had done the research for a more competent writer.


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