From time to time I’ll get a request to review a self-published book and to post that review on JerseySmarts.com. I’m always mixed about what to do with these requests. On the one hand, I’ve not really been impressed with any of the self-published books that I’ve read. I even have two self-published books sitting in my NOOK HD+ that I’ve been trying to read for the last year or so. They’re just so poorly written that I can’t manage more than a page or two before I have to take a break. Yet on the other hand, I’m a nut for literature and the professor in me enjoys reading other people’s work – especially when they willingly ask me to offer an opinion on what they’ve written!
However, the latest self-published review request that I received was actually an easy decision for me to make. The request was from a group called Rasslin’ Books and the book that they asked if I was interested in reviewing was called When Wrestling Was Rasslin’ by Peter Birkholz. My response to being asked to review a book about the early, regional days of professional wrestling? Of course!
The early territorial days of professional wrestling have always fascinated me as a topic of discussion. No, I’m not talking about the “regions” of WWE and WCW or today’s breakdown of WWE and TNA. And I’m not even talking about WWE in the 1980s versus the fragile coalition of the National Wrestling Alliance during that time. I’m talking about going back – way back – to the 1920s and 1930s. I’ve always been fascinated about learning the inside story of what really went on in the territories back when professional wrestling was like the Wild West!
For better or for worse, Birkholz’s book is not that story. The book’s cover suggests that this is the “inside story of the legendary Houston Wrestling promotion.” That’s true enough. However, if you’re a fan of what professional wrestling has become today, then this is not the “inside story” that you think you’re buying. This isn’t the story of why a certain performer was chosen to be a champion over someone else. This isn’t the real story of why a certain wrestler was run out of town. This isn’t the story about wrestlers (or promoters in this case) traveling the roads and filling the pages with story after story of unbelievable moments.
When Wrestling Was Rasslin’ is none of those things.
Instead, this is a story about professional wrestling. No, it’s not about the new millennium where one global behemoth company dominates the sports entertainment landscape. And no, this isn’t about the cable television war during the 1990s or the unique attitude that came along with it. In fact, this story isn’t even about the big time 1980s and the pop life prominence that wrestling first enjoyed during that decade. This is a story about a wrestling landscape that goes back further – back to the beginning of professional wrestling in the Houston, Texas area. To his credit, Birkholz does a very good job of detailing the formative years of the Houston Wrestling promotion and talking about how it survived as a business over its initial decades (and ultimately its final years). In some ways, Birkholz has written the story that people have been waiting for Paul Heyman to write about the original ECW, but I digress.
A point of contention for some readers may be that the book reads like you’re sitting down with your grandfather, uncle, or another older relative and listening to them tell stories about days gone by. This is likely a point of contention for some readers because let’s face it – younger generations today are just rude and disrespectful of the art of storytelling that so many older generations relish in. Yet, I believe the methodical pace that the book is presented in is the exact style that Birkholz is attempting to achieve and he does so masterfully.
If you’re okay with the fact that this book reads like you’re listening to a storyteller from an older generation, then one criticism of the story is that it is easy for your mind to wander to other things. For example, I usually read my books with a television on near-mute (to provide some background noise) and with the windows open so natural light and fresh air can come in. Well, it was easy to be distracted while reading this book because if you’ve ever been caught by an older relative who wants to tell you stories, you know that your mind begins to wander after a while. This isn’t a criticism of the book’s content, but it is a recommendation to read the book in short spurts of 15 – 20 pages at a time in order to get the most out of it.
One of the reasons that your mind can wander while reading this book is because it’s less of an actual story and more of a yearbook (ideally, the book would have been titled, “The Houston Wrestling Yearbook”). The methodical pace of writing that I referenced above really refers to the structure of the unofficial “chapters” in the book (there is no Table of Contents, so I assumed each of the new headings creates a new chapter). Each of these “chapters” is broken into a decade where Birkholz writes about every one of the ten years of that decade. He draws much of his material from reading match listings and recalling a memory or two of having sat through those events. This pace is interesting at first, but ultimately becomes irritating when you realize that the entire book is written in this formula. By the time I reached the “chapter” on the 1970s, I was exhausted with this format. Thankfully, I had four several hour-long train rides in the last few weeks which allowed me the time and patience I needed to make it through the book, regardless of its format.
On the flip side, once you get towards the end of the book it really becomes an interesting story about the shift in power that occurred during the 1980s. The story of how the ownership of Houston Wrestling was split up and then ultimately how Vince McMahon came in, gave Houston a shot, backed out, and then was brought back to the table is one that I would have loved to read much more about – and from more perspectives. Birkholz does an admirable job of covering that period of time and I would recommend that any wrestling fan who can get their hands on this book read through those pages because it really is an interesting part of the story.
A general criticism I would offer is that at times Birkholz the storyteller/former promoter over-sensationalizes the matches and performers that he writes about each year. Sensationalizing matches and performers is not an uncommon trait for professional wrestling promoters and announcers, so I’m already preconditioned to know how to digest this type of hype. Although, when I was some 50 pages into the book I did begin to grow weary of reading about how this guy was arguably the “greatest performer ever” and that his opponent was probably the “best wrestler in the world” and this event was the “biggest event in wrestling history” and the other event was the “most talked about event in years.” You get the point. That went on for the entire book in seemingly every paragraph. That type of hyperbole may be more true than false during the moment and more right than wrong, but it’s also tiresome for a reader to follow along over an entire book.
Also, at times it would have been nice to learn more about the behind-the-scenes discussions that accompany any wrestling promotion. Birkholz tells the early story of professional wrestling in Houston more from a long-time fan’s perspective than from what is commonly thought of as an “insider” perspective. There’s nothing wrong with his fan’s perspective, but if you think you’re going to learn about the backstage discussions that led to, for example, Verne Gagne not becoming the undisputed NWA World Heavyweight Championship in the 1950s, then you’re not going to get that here. And, frankly, that’s okay.
If you’re a wrestling fan, you should not let the lack of backstage “insider” discussion from 60 years ago prevent you from getting your hands on this book. For this wrestling fan, it was a fun read and a very colorful trip down sports entertainment’s memory lane.