If you think you know the history of wrestling, think again.|
Sex, Lies, and Headlocks: The Real Story of Vince McMahon and World Wrestling Entertainment
by Shaun Assael and Mike Mooneyham
Review by Mike Rickard II
In an industry built on illusion, a cursory opinion might be whatís the point of exploring the history of a make-believe sport? However a look at some of tell all books of Hollywood makes it obvious that thereís magic in make believe whether itís the creators who develop fictional tales or the performers who act them out. The rich tableau of personalities in the wrestling business is a goldmine waiting for the right reporter to dig into.
Unfortunately no one has really challenged themselves and taken an in-depth look at professional wrestling. An easy 95% of wrestling books are either autobiographies or in-house biographies which mean the content could be all bullshit and no oneís the wiser since only a handful of people challenge the stories spun inside these supposed tell-alls (Sadder still, true wrestling journalists like Dave Meltzer are so below the radar of the general public that they might as well be writing on cave walls with the readership they have). The mainstream media seems oblivious to the existence of professional wrestling and I challenge anyone to show me anything the mainstream press has published about professional wrestling that isnít filler or a rehash of every wrestling urban legend thatís been told so many times that lazy reporters accept it as gospel.
A good writer can make a humdrum subject compelling. Iíve read five hundred page books on the history of Coca-Cola (Constance Haysí The Real Thing : Truth and Power at the Coca-Cola Company) that were fascinating because the writer knew how to keep things interesting. Imagine what someone could do with an industry full of colorful characters and personalities. Publishers and journalists continue to ignore a serious exploration of professional wrestling and thereís no excuse for it. Even if you believe that wrestling is a cult phenomenon, it wouldnít be the first cult classic to be subjected to a tell-all book. The truth is that wrestling has been extremely popular and notorious, either trait making it a good subject to write about.
The only plausible excuse for not writing a well-researched book about professional wrestling is that itís not an easy subject to find facts on. Until the advent of the Internet, wrestling history was not easy to look up nor did its operators often want to make it so. While a trip to the local library could help you find out which teams competed in the 1932 Stanley Cup Finals, it would be a completely different story were you to try and look up the bracket for the tournament in Rio de Janeiro where Pat Patterson supposedly won the first Inter-Continental Championship. Still, there are sources to be found. Dave Meltzer has covered the sport quite well over the last twenty years and while heís the best, heís not the only source of wrestling news. Besides, good reporters have uncovered much more secretive subjects than what goes on in wrestling locker rooms. Anyone remember a little book called All the Presidentís Men about the two reporters who uncovered Watergate?
People have praised books like Chokehold and Meltzerís Tributes and rightly so. However I canít recall any book thatís presented such a great history of the business as Sex, Lies, and Headlocks does. The book proves that wrestling books can be informative and entertaining. I consider the book to be a challenge to academics and journalists everywhere that itís time for some true historical scholarship in the world of professional wrestling.
Donít let the subtitle of Sex, Lies, and Headlocks fool you, this book is about much more than the story of Vince McMahon and World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), itís about the evolution of professional wrestling from the regional stage to the national (and even global) stage. Itís a great overview of the entire industry because as the authors chronicle the WWEís rise to supremacy, they also examine the competitors that Vince McMahon battled. Itís a thirty year journey that the authors manage to capture fairly well in just 262 pages (the book is all type and small type at that. This is no WWE Books production with more filler than a coloring book).
The book begins with the events leading up to the tragic death of Owen Hart and the World Wrestling Federationís (WWF) response to it. It then steps back fifty one years to the birth of the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) and a quick overview of their major competition- the American Wrestling Association (AWA) and World-Wide Wrestling Federation (WWWF). Right away you know youíre reading a well written book. In thirteen pages the authors explain the way the wrestling business was initially split up into regional fiefdoms, touch upon the lives of legends such as Ed ďStranglerĒ Lewis, ďGorgeousĒ George, and Verne Gagne, and tease you about a young upstart named Vinnie who was determined to remake the wrestling industry.
As you read about Vince Kennedy McMahonís childhood, you start to appreciate where he gets his unique worldview from. The term dysfunctional family has been overused but in Vince Jrís case, it seems appropriate. His father was absent from his life until Vince Srís new wife forced him to bring his son back into the fold. Looking at the way that Vince Sr. treated his son, Vince may have been better off without his father, at least from the point of his emotional development. Then again, life with his mother does not appear to have been any walk down the primrose path either as Vince has hinted at physical or sexual abuse by his mother in recent interviews. The book adds to this with remarks from confidantes of McMahon who report he talked about his childhood being so bad that he contemplated suicide.
Sex, Lies, and Headlocks demonstrates that the road to success was not a quick or easy path for Vince Jr.. While McMahon thought outside the box, his innovations did not pay off at first. Before he bought the WWWF from his father, Vince McMahon promoted pay-per views on closed circuit television of Evel Kneivelís failed jump over Snake River Canyon and the infamous Muhammad Ali/Antonio Inoki bout as well as owning a minor league hockey team. Despite his failures, Vince continued to try and get the big pay-off. Finally, in 1983, the combination of major loans and the financial help of WWWF mainstays Gorilla Monsoon, Arnold Skaaland, and Vinceís friend and treasurer Phil Zacko afforded McMahon the cash he needed to buy the WWWF from his father.
One has to have a certain amount of respect for the drive that fueled Vince McMahonís rise to the top. Despite a troubled childhood and some spectacular flops, he persevered until he was able to cash in on his first big break-the acquisition of Hulk Hogan. From there, the wrestling world was McMahonís for the taking. The book documents how he ruthlessly destroyed rival promotions by stealing their top stars, booking wrestling shows the night before competitorís shows (so the fans would be burnt out and have no desire to see the second show), and sabotaging the pay per views. In a move of sheer genius, Vince McMahon destroyed rival Jim Crockett Promotionís major pay-per view Starcade by telling pay per view companies that if they wanted to air Survivor Series (and any other WWF pay-per-views for that matter) they couldnít air any competitorís pay-per-views that night. Based on the phenomenal success of Wrestlemania, cable companies dropped Starcade in order to air Survivor Series (and more importantly get Wrestlemania). McMahonís PPV coup was a turning point in his battle with Jim Crockett Promotions over which national wrestling promotion would be number one.
Despite his bold business strategies (and perhaps in part due to them), McMahon faced major setbacks as well as victories. The book documents McMahonís setbacks such as the multiple federal indictments filed against him in the early 1990ís, his failed World Bodybuilding Federation (WBF), the renewed competition from Ted Turnerís purchase of the struggling Jim Crockett Promotions and its transformation into arch-rival World Championship Wrestling (WCW), the defection of Hulk Hogan to said rival WCW, the Monday Night Wars which drove the WWF to the brink of bankruptcy, and the Extreme Football League (XFL) which made him the laughingstock of professional sports.
The exploration of Vinceís climb to the top of the mountain provides life lessons as well as entertainment. Whether itís what goes around comes around (Vince McMahon destroying rival promotions by buying up their talent only to fall to the same practices when Eric Bischoff rebuilt WCW with former WWF superstars) or donít count your chickens until theyíre hatched (Eric Bischoffís failed prediction that the WWF was six months from bankruptcy while he failed to see his overspending was sending WCW into serious financial setbacks).
While Iím no wrestling historian, I think even the most knowledgeable wrestling fan will learn more about the sportís history by reading this book. Obviously the amazing story of how Vince McMahon succeeded in putting his competition out of business is the centerpiece of this book. However you will also find a fascinating backdrop including the history of wrestling on Superstation TBS and the rise and fall of major promotions like the AWA and NWA as well as cult favorites like UWF and ECW.
Sex, Lies, and Headlocks doesnít pull any punches. It doesnít hold back in its scathing exposure of the seedy side of wrestling. While Vince McMahon was vocal about his effort to get rid of wrestlingís ďsmoke filled arenaĒ image, far worse things went on behind the scenes such as sexual abuse and rampant illegal drug use. The book presents a balanced look at scandals like Dr. Zahorian, the accusations of ring boys being sexually abused, and the rape allegations made against Vince McMahon. It also explores drug and alcohol related deaths of many wrestlers and in my opinion, lays to rest any doubts about the true cause of Brian Pillmanís death.
The only thing that would improve this book would be if it used real footnotes to document where it derived its information from. If any wrestling book is going to be subject to true scrutiny, it will have to provide the sources for its information. Anyone can suggest that a wrestlerís world title reign was derived from sexual favors but until writers start documenting their research, itís all just speculation.
Right now there are some really good wrestling books to choose from. Dave Meltzerís Tributes, Ric Flairís To Be The Man, Mick Foleyís Have A Nice Day and Bobby Heenanís Bobby the Brain: Wrestlingís Bad Boy Tells All immediately come to mind as books that would entertain both fans and non-fans. However Sex, Lies, and Headlocks has to be your first choice if you really want an understanding of where the industry was and the journey to where it is today. Youíll get some amusing behind the scenes stories but more importantly, youíll gain a genuine knowledge of the business and the men and women who built it.
Copyright © 2005 Derek Burgan. All rights reserved.