Shining a Spotlight 1.04.13: Heroes and Icons
Posted by Michael Weyer on 01.04.2013
Reviewing a fantastic new book offering a detailed look at some of the best heroes the wrestling business has known throughout the decades.
One of the major reasons I miss Border's bookstores is that they were one of the few chains out there to stock a healthy number of wrestling books. The fact is that wrestling is still looked a bit down on by publishers despite its popularity, many sniffing at it as something not worth writing about. It doesn't help that wrestling is full of a lot of "facts" fans think they know but are actually wrong (such as the long-standing belief Eric Bischoff was booking the AWA, among many more). But when you get some dedicated guys out there, you can get a major new volume and my local library just got a big one.
The Wrestling Hall of Fame: Heroes and Icons (ECW Press, $24.95) is the latest volume in the series by Steven Johnson and Greg Oliver. The two have done entries on Canadians, tag teams and heels, the latter of which was published in 2007. The five-year gap between new entries is understandable however, given the sheer volume here. The book clocks in at 547 pages, the photos adding a bit more to it but the book is notable for its sheer detail. The great thing about Johnson and Oliver is that they don't just talk about names fans would easily know but delve deep into wrestling back in the 1930's and '40's, guys even the more experienced fan would have difficulty knowing about.
The introduction gives us the point of the book, discussing the role of a hero in wrestling. The business remains "good guy vs bad guy" still, despite all the changes over the decades and thus needs people to cheer on. They point out early that with very few exceptions (Ricky Steamboat for example), just about every guy in the book had been a heel for at least a short time in their career and thus avoid "babyfaces" as that doesn't quite fit the likes of Steve Austin or Dick the Bruiser. It brings up history with how the territorial days allowed guys to figure out what worked and what didn't but today, guys in WWE and TNA are thrust into the spotlight with little trial or effort. It's also brought up how a big change came in the ‘60's and ‘70's with owners like Verne Gagne pushing themselves at the top so heroes had to shift their acts to get more attention. While the fan attraction to a clean-cut babyface may have shifted, fans still want their heroes and the book is dedicated to that.
The book starts off proper with a ranking of the 20 best heroes/icons. Naturally, such rankings are always open for debate. Bret Hart infamously called out Oliver at a dinner to complain about being ranked 14th on a list of best Canadian wrestlers (in Bret's defense, that is pretty ridiculous) and some might argue over these as well. However, the two men deserve credit for not going for the obvious choices but to really delve deep into wrestling history to rank these guys.
That's proven by their number one pick: Jim Londos, a man most today have never heard of but was one of the most influential ever. He helped keep the business alive during the Depression and one of the first to sell out 100,000-seat stadiums and fans couldn't help cheering this scrappy five-foot-eight Greek immigrant who took on all comers. Reading about his journey is fascinating and sets the tone for the rest of the list.
Hogan, Sammartino and Dusty Rhodes are no surprise of course. The book is good giving each their due, noting that despite the problems of their egos and booking (especially Dusty), they all did massive business with huge fan adulation and thus should be remembered for it. Ric Flair gives Dusty huge props for being far better than most gave him credit for in the ring, able to go for 60-minute matches night after night. Andre the Giant delves a bit into his harsh life with his huge size but still how huge an icon he was for fans. Steve Austin is notable for how he changed everything, an anti-hero whose harsh attitude fans ate up in droves while Ricky Steamboat was a clean-cut face for his entire career, earning huge respect for his battles and brilliant selling. But we also get entries on some lesser knowns like Steve Casey and Bob Ellis to go along with these superstars along with surprises like Dory Funk Jr, not the guy you think of when it comes to "heroes." A "The Next Five" section includes the massive adulation for Junkyard Dog while also giving Mil Mascaras his due as a true icon in Mexico despite complaints of fellow workers over being lazy a lot. Mr. Wrestling II was huge in Atlanta, helping that entire promotion get over and a favorite of Jimmy Carter (Tim Woods had to decline seeing Carter's Presidential inauguration due to the Secret Service wanting him to show up unmasked) although he didn't do as well outside the state and Wahoo McDaniel actually had as much time as a heel as a face. However, each man does deserve consideration for such a list as, despite being from different eras, they rank among the biggest icons of the business and each helping to forget it as a success.
For wrestling historians, this book is a delight with its next two big chapters. Orville Brown was a major contender for the NWA title while Jack Claybourne pretended to be a dark-skinned Latino at first rather than reveal he was fully black but tragically put so much of himself in wrestling that when his high-flying career ended, he committed suicide. Such a sad fate was also in store for Pet Brown, a Texas idol who was killed by police while trying to solve a worker dispute. Man Mountain Dean seemed a failure at forty until he hit upon the gimmick of a hefty hillbilly that instantly made him a hit with promoters. Everette Marshall famously wrestled a bear while Bruno Nagurski is still revered for his toughness and Joe Tonti remembered for his bizarre habit of walking on his hands around the ring. Sandor Szabo promised he'd sing on television if he lost a match only to break a thumb for real and lose, but his singing spot made him a star.
The chapter on African Americans is quite interesting, showing how these men had to fight for respect in the 1960's and ‘70's as well as put up with the rather racist backstage attitudes of co-workers. Tiger Conway Sr was a trailblazer, breaking out big and becoming a major successful businessman in Houston while Rufus R. Jones was the "King" of the South long before Jerry Lawler beloved by co-workers not just because of his ring work but also his fantastic cooking skills with regular barbecues for heels and faces alike to mingle. Rocky Johnson is naturally mentioned with his classic shuffling due to having to give veteran workers time to get up from his dropkick. While racial politics kept Luther Lindsay from a world title, he still carved a path for many to follow, desegregating wrestling in Texas with Lou Thesz stating that "his place in history is not because he was black; it is in spite of the fact he was black." Some of them had to toe the line although Thunderbolt Patterson was outspoken to such a degree that he was blackballed from the business but still revered by Detroit fans. This is a great look at men who struggled more than anyone to make it and win over fans of all colors.
We move onto the post-WWII Territorial Era, beginning with Bob Backlund, that living embodiment of All-American good guy who reigned for six years as WWF champion. Billy Darnell was a long-time veteran who eventually became a chiropractor to help others. Don Leo Jonathan was often booked a heel until becoming a face to help others, clashing often with Killer Kowalski. Mark Lewin was noted for being able to shift from a 280-pound brawler to a lean 220-pound technician. Chief Peter Maivia brought his native island act home while the Mighty Igor played a simple-minded tough guy to a tee. Sonny Myers had one of the most infamous injuries in the business, a stabbing by a crazed fan that required 100 stitches along his mid-section as well as trying to sue the NWA in an anti-trust action. Some names are famous like Pat O'Connor, Billy Robinson and Verne Gagne but others are lesser known like Johnny Powers, Sweet Daddy Siki (who still refuses to divulge his real name), Ricki Starr (who worked dance into wrestling, something you're surprised no one else has done) and others, all given great prominence.
Ethnic heroes are covered like Dory Dixon who deserted Jamaica's weight-lifting team at the 1955 Pan-American Games but became so popular that he received a hero's welcome upon his return in 1963. Pepper Gomez would demonstrate his toughness by having trucks drive over his stomach but when Ray Stevens tried to jump on it, he accidentally hit Gomez in the throat, setting off a massive feud. The Guerreros are naturally mentioned along with Jose Lothario and Pedro Morales, all huge stars although Ricky Romero was so hot in the Funk family's New Mexico territory that he never worked anywhere else. The chapter also mentions how Bruno Sammartino would regularly use his Italian friends as a gauntlet for challengers to run through. Tito Santana and Enrique Torres were massive Mexican stars who gave their companies a great popularity with Latino fans.
"Hometown Heroes" covers the guys who were huge in their local territories, helping keep many on their backs. Bob Armstrong, Leo Burke, Eddie Graham, Jerry Lawler, Johnny Weaver, they're all rather well known. But others were just as big stars in their own places like Whitey Caldwell, master seller Larry Chene and Ilio Dipaolo, who was so popular in Buffalo that his funeral was a two-day visitation attended by 6000 people. Tom Drake's list of accolades includes coaching with Bear Bryant, serving nine terms in the Atlanta state legislature and even meeting the Pope which made him a true man of the people. Lee Fields was a standout in the South, going from wrestling to running the Mobile International Speedway. Nelson Royal was an Englishman who got over as a cowboy for the Mid-Atlantic area and Shag Thomas was another outstanding black pioneer. "Cowboys and Indians" are noted with how each side fastened onto a gimmick fans could get behind easily but with touches. Don Eagle blazed that trail, his Mohawk soon popular with kids while Chief Little Wolf was huge in Australia. Tex McKenzie is described as perhaps one of the absolute worst workers to be a huge draw in history thanks to his act and of course, Chief Jay Strongbow was one of the most famous of them all.
The chapter on the modern era starts with John Cena, stating that you "don't call him a babyface.," bringing up how he doesn't hold to such distinctions. It's fascinating reading about these guys from the ‘80's like Magnum T.A (who is rightly said to possibly have been as big as Hogan if not for his career-ending car accident)., Kerry Von Erich and Jimmy Valient and how times have changed a lot. Sting is noted with a little-known incident when WCW tried to turn him heel in 1995 but the fans still went nuts for him so it was immediately dropped. It notes the rough stuff like Valient's drug problems but also things like how Kerry would show up announced at the kids' ward of a hospital to visit young fans. A good highlight on Tommy Rich shows how a man with a small place in a territory blossomed to major stardom but never fulfilled it as big as others, making it more impressive how other guys can do it.
We finish up with a chapter on anti-heroes, led off, of course, by Bruiser Brody. Still revered today as a fantastic brutal worker who could draw almost anywhere, Brody set a path for others by not being an open face but still ready to be cheered. The Crusher and Dick the Bruiser are still legends in Milwaukee, standouts for the AWA, tearing it up just as well outside the ring as inside it as they reigned as multiple champions and both fantastic on the mic. This leads to a great bit on how CM Punk is so unlike these trailblazers with his non-smoking/drinking/drugs attitude but still wins over fans due to his outspokenness on the mic and amazing charisma. Charisma, of course, is something the Rock had to spare to elevate him while Undertaker's success is due to the wide respect he has of the locker room with his ability to keep his gimmick going so long while main-eventing so many matches.
Like its predecessors, the book is a must-have for any wrestling fan. The stunning detail of each entry is amazing as guys you'd never heard of before suddenly become as familiar as any of today's stars. Yes, it notes the rough part of lives but puts the emphasis on why these guys became stars and how they brought fans to their feet so often in and out of the ring. It brings up how times may have changed with fans knowing more of the business but stars still are able to rise and use their own given gifts of charisma to sway the fans to their side and become huge. Whether or not you enjoy certain guys, you admire the flair Oliver and Johnson present their lives with and the stories of these men who loved the business and more than ready to get that love back from the fans.