Wednesday, July 29, 2009
This is a biography of Mildred Burke, who along with her husband, wrestler-turned-booker Billy Wolfe, took women's wrestling out of carnivals and into arenas and onto TV screens from the 1930s through the 50s.
Back in 1990, when he was editor of the short-lived sports daily newspaper The National and Dave Meltzer was the paper's pro wrestling columnist, Frank Deford wrote a story for Meltzer's Wrestling Observer yearbook about Burke's adventurous and tragic life. Her marriage to Wolfe was a loveless, abusive business arrangement; Burke actually took up with Wolfe's son, her stepson, while the senior Wolfe built a harem of her wrestler-foils out of a hotel and gym in Columbus, Ohio, and exploited them sexually as well as financially.
In 1954 Burke lost wide recognition as the female champion in a terrifying Atlanta match against June Byers, Wolfe's hand-picked successor. Wrestling has been "worked" (with predetermined outcomes) from the earliest days, and working supplanted "shooting" (real fights) pretty much across the board by the twenties at the latest. Occasional public "shoots" (rather than private gym shoots, the old way of settling both male and female championship disputes) persisted. But Meltzer and other historians identify Burke-Byers as the last true public professional wrestling shooting match in the United States.
After retirement Burke trained wrestlers. Movie buffs may recall All the Marbles (1981), starring Peter Falk as the manager of a ladies tag team called the California Dolls. Burke consulted on the wrestling scenes, training the mostly Japanese stunt doubles. A sequel called The California Dolls Go to Japan was contemplated, but scrapped after All the Marbles failed to do big enough box office.
With access to Burke's archives and unpublished autobiography, author Leen has produced an authoritative and readable account of a great story that fills in important gaps in American cultural history. When it comes to serious books about wrestling, your humble blogger's motto is, "Let a hundred flowers bloom." Especially when they smell as good as this one.
My pleasure in touting The Queen of the Ring is doubled by learning that Jeff Leen is fellow St. Louis Mafia -- he grew up watching my Uncle Sam's Wrestling at the Chase on Channel 11 and as a fan of the St. Louis Wrestling Club shows at Kiel Auditorium. So I know he will forgive me if I deliver a couple of gentle "cupped chest licks."
Leen writes that Mildred Burke "emerged during the depths of the Great Depression alongside two other hardscrabble underdogs, the spectacular colt Seabiscuit and the Cinderella Man, boxer James J. Braddock." Please, Jeff, a little discretion! No need to walk around with a sandwich-board sign labeled, "Will sell movie rights for food."
Second, sad to report, Leen more than once quotes ... yes, Roland Barthes, on pro wrestling and mass symbolism. I believe we're past the point where every goddamn baseball book has to quote Jacques Barzun ("Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball." -- if I got the quote wrong, I know I'll be hearing about it.) And I think we're also more than ready to retire Barthes from the new literature on "sports entertainment."
As Dick the Bruiser used to say to Edouard Carpentier: "Come on, you frog, I'm willing."
Tuesday, July 28, 2009
The Wrestling Babylon channel at YouTube has added two classic clips of national television interviews by author Irvin Muchnick to promote magazine articles that were later collected in his book WRESTLING BABYLON: Piledriving Tales of Drugs, Sex, Death, and Scandal.
In June 1991, Muchnick was on ESPN's "Up Close," where he was interviewed by host Roy Firestone about the just-published Spy magazine cover story "Pimping Iron," an account of the war between Joe Weider's established International Federation of Body-Builders and Vince McMahon's upstart World Bodybuilding Federation. Go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hSi03jGCvDs&feature=channel.
On September 8, 1988, Irvin Muchnick appeared on "Late Show" on the then new Fox television network, where he was interviewed by host Ross Shafer about his Penthouse magazine article on the Von Erich wrestling family of Texas. "Born-Again Bashing" was later selected for the anthology Best Magazine Articles: 1988. Go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tNaq_NBWhsk&feature=channel.
The Wrestling Babylon YouTube channel (http://youtube.com/WrestlingBabylon) also includes the following TV appearances by Muchnick:
* Confronting wrestling legend Bret Hart on CNN's "Nancy Grace" in the aftermath of the Chris Benoit double-murder suicide
* Debating Bill O'Reilly on the implications of the Benoit tragedy on Fox News' "O'Reilly Factor"
* Discussing pro wrestling's culture of death on the French network Canal + news magazine program "L'Effet Papillon"
* Commenting on Benoit in the documentary "A Fight to the Death," hosted by Bob McKeown on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's "the fifth estate"
Irvin Muchnick's new book, CHRIS & NANCY: The True Story of the Benoit Murder-Suicide and Pro Wrestling's Cocktail of Death, will be published in October by ECW Press. For pre-order and other information, visit http://benoitbook.com.
Monday, July 27, 2009
Chris Hedges has published a new book called Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle.
Hedges is an award-winning journalist and a bestselling author, and he’s intellectually double-jointed: one of his earlier books was I Don’t Believe in Atheists, and he has debated Christopher Hitchens, the scourge of religious crazies, while himself having a go at religious crazies.
Empire of Illusion is in the grand tradition of windbags decrying the decline of Western civilization. The windbags have a point, but they often try a little too hard to show off their cultural populism. Hedges goes boldly where few before have gone to deconstruct the lowbrow imagery of Jerry Springer (now there’s an up-to-minute junk TV icon) and … WWE. News flash from Hedges: pro wrestling no longer neatly divides into heroes and villains.
My other observation on Empire of Illusion is to wonder why there are so many Chrises in my life. Chris Hedges, Christopher Hitchens. Also Chris Benoit, Chris Jericho, Chris Masters, Chris Nowinski. Even Christopher Baynes, the prosecutor in the Albany DA’s office who helped bust Signature Pharmacy.
Supply your own punch line.
Touching up our earlier item, Julie Patterson tells me that Damien Dothard (”Damien Steele”) actually turned 34 on June 27.
The funeral in Georgia is now set for 2 p.m. Wednesday. The friends of Damien at Facebook note that, in lieu of flowers, donations are solicited for the support of the two young children he left behind.
Sunday, July 26, 2009
Here are full details on the death of Damien Dothard ("Damien Steele" in WWE developmental and for one televised WWE match, and in Deep South Wrestling).
According to Julie Patterson, who told me that she dated him on and off for nine years, Damien, 33, died of a brain aneurysm at his home in Smyrna, Georgia. He was a personal trainer at the Vinings Club, a social club in Atlanta with full health center facilities.
Other wrestlers have died of aneurysms, a byproduct of head trauma. Damien had not wrestled since 2006.
The funeral will be this Wednesday, July 29, at Pleasant Grove Missionary Baptist Church, Highway 5, Roopville, Georgia, at the corner of Highway 27 South and Highway 5 East. For the time oof the service, call the church directly at 770-854-8662.
His friends have put up a Facebook page, "In loving memory of Damien Dothard."
I have just a few nuggets of new information, and no real hard information, on the death last week of independent wrestler Damien Steele.
As noted in my previous post, Steele died suddenly in Georgia. I still don’t know where exactly; presumably it was in the Atlanta area, where, according to LinkedIn, he worked as a personal trainer. Online journalist Aaron Glazer reports that Steele’s real name was Damien Dothard. Wikipedia reports that Steele was 33 years old and “passed away in his sleep on July 22, 2009 at his home. Steele had complained of feeling unwell the same evening.”
Glazer published an unverified post from a purported friend of Steele’s, who said: “D went to the doctor over a week before he passed away because he was sick with flu symptoms. I went to his house & hung out end of last week & other than his lower back hurting he seemed fine. He actually went out with one of his friends last Friday. On Saturday he was suppose to meet some friends from out of town, but he had a migraine. He spoke to a friend on Monday & said if his headache didn’t get better he was going to the hospital. That was the last time anyone could reach him. He leaves behind 2 young sons. One of their mother’s found him deceased in his livingroom Wednesday around noon. COD is TBD.”
Flu-like symptoms would suggest something like swine flu more than the usual wrestler drug-related death.
Some wrestling fan sites say vaguely that the authorities “removed property” from the home. Others say that an autopsy is being performed by the Georgia medical examiner. The involvement of that office is invoked by the Georgia Death Investigation Act, but I do not mean to imply that a state medical examiner autopsy is necessarily less routine than a county coroner autopsy.
Anyone with information is invited to email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Friday, July 24, 2009
Steele spent some time in WWE's developmental troupe and even had one appearance on the SmackDown TV show, in 2006.
Friday, July 17, 2009
Frank Deford has called Dave Meltzer, publisher of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter, “the most accomplished reporter in sports journalism.” With the right subject in the right context, Meltzer has strong commentary chops, too, and everyone can read them in his latest column for Yahoo Sports, for which he covers mixed martial arts.
I highly recommend “Lesnar backlash brims with double standards,” http://sports.yahoo.com/mma/news;_ylt=AqJCauAAB_xH_84zhbTKH.49Eo14?slug=dm-lesnar071709&prov=yhoo&type=lgns.
Some of the controversy surrounding Lesnar involves his dissing after Saturday’s fight of UFC sponsor Bud Light. But the intellectual contradictions of a pro wrestler making it big in a new hybrid legit sport — scrambling our conventional notions of smart self-promotion and sportsmanship — most remind me of something else: the Lite Beer from Miller campaign from the 1970s.
You know. The one with the fierce argument between the respective advocates of “Great taste!” and “Less filling!”
Who do you love? Who do you hate? What if you don’t know what you want to call it, and what if it doesn’t matter?
Deng Xiaoping famously said, “It doesn’t matter if it’s black cat or white cat — as long as it can catch rat.”
And the color of money is neither black nor white. It’s green.
[originally published at Beyond Chron on July 14, http://www.beyondchron.org/news/index.php?itemid=7131]
By Irvin Muchnick
They used to say that the day before the major league baseball all-star game (Monday of this week) and the day after (Wednesday) were the only two on the calendar in which not a single major sports event was held. How obsolete that notion has become.
It’s obsolete, first of all, because the all-star game itself requires some serious grading on the curve in order to regard Tuesday as a major sports day. That extravaganza is the latest joke shoved down the throats of fans by the lords of baseball. It manages to combine disparate and self-canceling farces: bloated player rosters and an illogical selection system that trivialize the concept of an all-star; lack of effort in every area, save that of cross-promotion by the Fox television network; and, to give the meaningless a last perverse twist, the gimmick of tying the game’s outcome to the winning league’s home-field advantage in the World Series. I stopped tuning in years ago, and I won’t bother to watch this one even though it emanates from my hometown of St. Louis.
But there’s a second and more interesting reason why the post-July 4 Monday-and-Wednesday sports hiatus no longer applies: In America today, there are no such things as major sports and minor sports. There are only high-revenue sports and wannabe high-revenue sports. All have been reduced to spectacles of varying degrees of athletic probity.
Take UFC 100, last Saturday’s stunningly successful pay-per-view from the Mandalay Bay casino in Las Vegas, staged by the hottest promotion in the upstart sport of mixed martial arts. In an improbable sequence with one foot in modern marketing and the other in the 19th century carnival tent, UFC has, in a mere year and half, manufactured a superstar for our times by the name of Brock Lesnar.
Lesnar, the UFC heavyweight champion (he weighs in at 265 and further beefs up in the 24 hours before the bell), avenged the only loss of his still-fledgling MMA career with a two-round destruction of Frank Mir. The show, which almost certainly will prove to have topped a million pay-per-view buys at $45 a pop, featured other marquee UFC names, but none with the potential crossover clout of Lesnar. He is a freakishly quick big man — an NCAA heavyweight wrestling champion with limitless prospects as a World Wrestling Entertainment cartoon creature. He didn’t like the WWE grind, however, and after an abortive National Football League tryout, he found his home in UFC.
As if further legitimizing his carny bloodlines, Lesnar also married Rena Mero, the ex-wife of a pro wrestler, one of the original WWE “divas,” and the first to pose for Playboy. What a country!
I’m no John McCain, who labeled MMA “human cockfighting.” (McCain has close ties to the traditional boxing industry. He’s also a heavy gambler, and the Las Vegas and Atlantic City interests are just now catching up to the tastes of the 20- and 30-somethings who put MMA on the map.) This is a sport requiring technique, multidisciplinary technique at that. Even the gifted Lesnar discovered as much in his first bout with Mir, who, though overpowered, won by catching him in a leg submission hold.
Like many of my generation, I do have problems with a real combat sport that is, literally, predicated on hitting your opponent when he is down. Full-contact bareknuckles striking is actually safer than modern boxing; the padded glove protects the hand, releasing it to administer uninhibited brain damage. But the ground-and-pound element of MMA ensures gratuitous head trauma (as was most graphically illustrated Saturday in Dan Henderson’s brutal KO of Michael Bisping).
My opinion doesn’t matter. If a million-plus from an identifiable demographic with holes in their pockets — egged on by Spike TV and by UFC head honcho Dana White’s video blog F-bombs — want to shell out monthly big bucks to ogle gladiators, accompanied by girls with implants stuffed into wild bikinis, then the panem et circenses promoters of our contemporary jockocracy will find a way to accommodate them. Appropriately, Brock Lesnar showed off his pro wrestling “attitude” chops throughout UFC 100 hype week, as well as immediately after his fight. He came off as a mildly scary asshole — which is exactly what White wants and needs.
In case anyone still cares to argue the point, “real” fighting and “fake” fighting aren’t as different as they seemed before Lesnar came along to straighten us out. Nor is authenticity any more a cultural premium. Observing UFC 100 and the baseball all-star game within 72 hours of each other, would George Orwell himself have been able to say with authority which one was pig and which man?
Irvin Muchnick’s CHRIS & NANCY: The True Story of the Benoit Murder-Suicide and Pro Wrestling’s Cocktail of Death wiil be published in October. For info, see http://benoitbook.com. Follow Irv at http://twitter.com/irvmuch.
Tuesday, July 14, 2009
“Brock Lesnar: Fusion Sports Star”
by Irvin Muchnick
Thursday, July 9, 2009
Buddy Rogers: Most Influential Wrestler of the 20th Century (full text from Wrestling Observer online)
[originally published on July 7 at Wrestling Observer online]
Buddy Rogers: Most Influential Wrestler of the 20th Century
By Irvin Muchnick
Bruno Sammartino’s recent interview with Meltzer and Alvarez on Wrestling Observer radio dripped with juicy new historical information. For this listener, the most important insight flowed from the elaborate back story of how Bruno came to be blackballed by major offices in the U.S., before getting his big break with Frank Tunney in Toronto and proceeding to make the most of it.
I never knew this in such detail, but it turns out that Sammartino left the Northeast the first time on bitter terms after refusing to go along with programs designed for the exclusive enhancement of the newly invading Buddy Rogers.
And that clinches it for me: Rogers was, hands down, the most internally influential pro wrestler of the last century. Probably all time. He was at the epicenter of just about every scenario, trend, and tipping point of the industry as it took the shape it has today.
Let me qualify this assertion. By most influential, I don’t mean the most symbolic in the public eye. Nor do I mean the best or the most impressive — though Rogers, to be sure, boasted excellent credentials in all these areas.
Gorgeous George was more symbolic – he tailored an innovative and prototypical gimmick to the new medium of television in the late 1940s.
Lou Thesz, I’m told, was the best wrestler. As a native St. Louisan, I want to believe this as axiomatic fact. But I will only accept that I have been told it, because of the only-their-hairdressers-know reality of an activity that is a work-vs.-shoot mind game more than it is a sport. An honest view of the existing YouTube clips of Thesz suggests a patterned repertoire of a handful of moves and finishes — the same career strategy which the old “hooker,” a canny curator of his own legend, relentlessly criticized in others.
As for Bruno, I have come to appreciate everything he meant to the business. Perhaps more importantly, I appreciate that how he conducted himself throughout his life mattered to him on a deeply personal level, business be damned.
The only wrestler rivaling Rogers for sheer influence, however, was Hulk Hogan. In my mind, Buddy gets the nod over Hulk, who definitely maxed out on his talent, had charisma to burn, and could draw with the best of them for big shows. But Hogan was a pure vessel of his times, plopped down in the middle of an epochal dynamic wrought by cable TV and generational turnover.
Rogers did something more formidable: he embodied generational turnover, through force of will, non-stop backstage politics, and a gift for drawing sellouts almost anywhere at almost any time.
I once asked my late uncle, Sam Muchnick, who he felt, across six decades of putting together wrestling shows, were the most reliable names to install on the marquee. “There were three,” Sam said without hesitation. “Jim Londos, Andre the Giant, and Buddy Rogers.”
Londos worked in an era, the 1920s and 30s, that simply doesn’t translate today. Andre, while undeniably huge at the box office, was a novelty act. Of the troika, only Rogers’ fortunes resonated in the context of every key territorial fight in modern wrestling. And that’s what I mean by internally influential.
Sam Muchnick understood all this as well as anyone. When he began running opposition to Tom Packs in St. Louis right after World War II, Sam struggled; if not for the help of Jack Pfeffer, the early Muchnick promotion would have had a hard time scraping together talent. Attendance was not good. It was the Buddy Rogers-Don Eagle sellout in 1949 that set the stage for St. Louis as an international wrestling capital for a quarter of a century. Without Rogers, there’s no Muchnick legend, and without Muchnick, the National Wrestling Alliance, if it had existed at all, would not have been nearly as cohesive or rational.
Rogers himself didn’t get tapped for the NWA championship until 1961, replacing the smooth but universally unmarketable Pat O’Connor. And it was during that period that the original Nature Boy’s role as the industry’s ubiquitous hub-and-spoke of controversy and change got cemented. What completes that picture is the news from the Sammartino interview of last week that it was Buddy and his entourage who effectively drove Bruno from New York to Northern California to Omaha and then, broke and broken, briefly back to a construction gang in Pittsburgh.
There’s an irony in the championship reign of Rogers, a common one in wrestling, boxing, and MMA: he actually got the honors past his peak as a performer, and he flamed out a lot quicker than he should have. Still, I can remember him packing Kiel Auditorium with Johnny Valentine, John Paul Henning, and others. There was still magic. Simply put, Rogers wrote the book on classic heeldom, which he executed not with his mouth, not with his eyes, but with moves and mannerisms. These included, but were not limited to, his strut. Trust me when I say that if others had shared Rogers’ intuitive genius for controlling a crowd, they would have similarly flaunted it.
The rest of my argument is familiar history. When Vincent J. McMahon’s New York group wouldn’t release Rogers for enough dates for his NWA champion commitments, and when he kept missing bookings due to outside-the-ring injuries (including the broken hand when Karl Gotch and Bill Miller jumped him in the dressing room in Columbus), Muchnick summoned Thesz back for an emergency sixth title run. The World Wide Wrestling Federation was born, with Rogers winning “a tournament in Rio de Janeiro.” And Sammartino returned from Canadian exile to become an American ethnic icon and a wrestling living legend.
Inside the ring, Rogers doesn’t come off too well in these stories. Thesz warned him, before the Toronto NWA title change, that they could do it “the easy way or the hard way.” In the Meltzer-Alvarez interview, Sammartino recalled that, before the famous 48-second Madison Square Garden match, Rogers was set up for a double-cross that Bruno had too much integrity to follow through on; instead, at the referee’s too-quick bell for a backbreaker submission, Bruno brusquely whispered to Buddy, “Sell it!”
But there’s a world of difference between being the best wrestler ever and the most influential. Who else in the history of this crazy industry could ever have found himself in the position of doing two tectonic-shifting jobs, within months of each other, that together and forevermore relined the wrestling map?
Only Buddy Rogers.
Irvin Muchnick (http://muchnick.net; http://twitter.com/irvmuch) is author of the forthcoming CHRIS & NANCY: The True Story of the Benoit Murder-Suicide and Pro Wrestling’s Cocktail of Death.
Tuesday, July 7, 2009
Wednesday, July 1, 2009
Phil Mushnick Writes Foreword
To Irvin Muchnick’s CHRIS & NANCY,
Story of Benoit Murder-Suicide
JULY 1, 2009—Both Phil Mushnick, the award-winning New York Post columnist, and author Irvin Muchnick would be “Top 10” if Vince McMahon and World Wrestling Entertainment kept an “enemies list,” Mushnick writes in the Foreword of Muchnick’s forthcoming book, CHRIS & NANCY: The True Story of the Benoit Murder-Suicide and Pro Wrestling’s Cocktail of Death.
Columnist Mushnick – who is not related to book author Muchnick – says the case of WWE star Chris Benoit, one of the most sensational crime stories of 2007, “cried out for the scrutiny of someone with a longer attention span and more intellectual integrity than the local authorities, the media, and Congress brought to bear on it. If you can read what Irv has dug up and continue to turn your head, then your powers of denial exceed mine.”
CHRIS & NANCY, published by ECW Press, is expected to be in stores around September 15. Phil Mushnick’s Foreword can be viewed at http://muchnick.net/benoitbookforeword.pdf.
The cover and blurb copy of CHRIS & NANCY can be viewed at http://muchnick.net/benoitbookcover.pdf.
Complete pre-order information, including international links to Amazon.com, is at http://benoitbook.com.
To reserve an autographed copy of CHRIS & NANCY direct from the author via PayPal, send $19.95 to email@example.com. You also can send $19.95 via postal mail (money order or check, U.S. funds only) to:
P.O. Box 9629
Berkeley, CA 94709
All U.S. orders of autographed copies direct from the author will be at the American retail price of $19.95, with free standard shipping to U.S. addresses. Prices for Canadian and other foreign orders will be published at a later date.
Irvin Muchnick is author of WRESTLING BABYLON: Piledriving Tales of Drugs, Sex, Death, and Scandal, and co-author of BENOIT: Wrestling with the Horror That Destroyed a Family and Crippled a Sport (both ECW Press, 2007). Blog: http://wrestlingbabylon.wordpress.com. Twitter: http://twitter.com/irvmuch.