David Shoemaker rose to prominence with his weekly Deadspin column, “Dead Wrestler of the Week”. At first glance, the column’s title seems unnecessarily harsh but Shoemaker writes with a real passion for those who entertained us during their sometimes short lived career. At some point, he decided to adapt this into a book about the history of pro wrestling and those who’ve passed before their time. Cramming over one hundred years of history into a tight four hundred pages isn’t an easy task but Shoemaker does a surprisingly comprehensive job.
For someone who has read countless wrestling biographies and viewed dozens of documentaries on the subject, this book may not be a necessary read. Shoemaker covers ground that many have in the past with extensive write-ups on the collapse of the NWA (National Wrestling Alliance), the poaching of top territory stars by Vince McMahon in his ambitious attempt to bring the WWF to a national audience as well as the Monday Night War between WWF and WCW and the era-defining moment of the Montreal Screwjob. Of course, no attempt to tell the history of pro wrestling should be without these subjects but there’s only so much to say about it before it sounds repetitive.
That being said, while I’m sure I’m aware of ninety percent of what Shoemaker is writing, I still found it to be an engaging and entertaining read. One thing worth noting is his exhaustive research into the days before professional wrestling was a performance art and still maintained a certain sense of legitimacy. Prior to its move to a more entertainment based spectacle, matches could last hours with one in fact lasting nearly five and a half hours before one for the participants just gave up due to exhaustion! Shoemaker traced the evolution of the sport back to legendary promoter Toots Mondt who is basically responsible for the scripted style that we enjoy today.
The format is a little strange with the timeline of major events broken up by what could be considered obituaries for wrestlers who have since passed on and what they had meant to the industry. There’s some great write-ups for such legendary performers as Randy Savage, Junkyard Dog, Owen Hart, Gorgeous George, The Fabulous Moolah and even low level talents like Ray “The Big Bossman” Traylor. While they’re very comprehensive for their length, they often break up the flow of the text and seem inserted randomly with no real timeline or reason for their positioning.
What we’re left with at the end of the day is a pretty extensive look at pro wrestling’s history. It’s not the best that I’ve read on the subject – there are better books that focus on a very specific time or promotion (Heath McCoy’s book about Stampede Wrestling is a great example) but as an overall history of the “sport”, Shoemaker gives us a solid read.