Book review: The Squared Circle, by David Shoemaker
"This is a book about dead wrestlers but along the way, it became a history of professional wrestling."
It's a great opening hook, but also a disingenuous one, because surely, Shoemaker - the wrestling expert who writes on the industry for popular website Grantland - knew well beforehand that there was no way he could have written a book about dead wrestlers without covering the history of wrestling, or vice versa. Death and pro wrestling go, sadly, hand in hand.
That's ironic, because pro wrestling is considered somewhat of a joke to the world. It's a fake sport, featuring overly muscled men in tights play-fighting, goes the common perception. Yet more wrestlers die young, and die on the job, than any other sport in the world. Sixty-five wrestlers under the age of 45 died between 1997 and 2004.
Shoemaker's 390-pager tells that story, about the evolution of wrestling from a carnival sideshow in early 19th-century North America to an almost billion-dollar industry, and all the famous wrestlers who have died.
Some died from in-ring accidents, others from heart failure due to years of painkiller addiction. (Although the outcomes of the matches are predetermined, there really is no faking falling flat on your back 30 times a night for 250-plus nights a year.)
If death forms the skeletal frame of the book, then the meat is the many interesting anecdotes that make up the wrestlers' lives. There are backstage pranks, money disputes and real-life fights. This is, after all, an industry made up of testosterone-filled star entertainers.
Interspersed between the deaths are sections focusing on Vince McMahon, owner of World Wrestling Entertainment, the biggest wrestling promoter in the world, and his cutthroat yet visionary business tactics in the 1980s - he poached other promoters' talents and started airing shows on pay-per-view instead of free television - that drove his company to the top.
McMahon transformed his company from a small territorial outfit into a national enterprise that travels the world on a gruelling, non-stop schedule (pro wrestling has no off-season).
His ambitious plans, along with his love of larger-than-life muscle-bound wrestlers (who turned to steroids to achieve the look), make for a great entrepreneurial story, but at the cost of more than a few lives.