Book Review: David Shoemaker's The Squared Circle

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The Squared Circle By David Shoemaker (aka The Masked Man)
Gotham Books, 390 pages

As anyone who follows sports, ESPN, and hardcore analytics of sports would know, Grantland is an assemblage of talented writers, spearheaded by Bill Simmons, which tends to approach the sports world from perspectives not normally encountered in any of the various facets of mainstream sports journalism outlets. On Grantland, there is a guy who actually truly writes about professional wrestling these days...even if professional wrestling mostly means the WWE these days.

David Shoemaker is that guy, and he goes by the nom de plume of The Masked Man. I can’t say I’m a huge fan, but I’m aware of his stuff, mostly when seeing pieces listed while reading Bill Barnwell, whose analytical approach to football is amazing, compelling and masterful. Shoemaker reminds me of Alex Marvez, but more insightful, a little less journalistic, and definitely less mainstream.

I always get that Shoemaker is looking past the obvious and gets a lot more out of the interview subjects than the average internet writer, and more than the average journalist slumming in our favorite sports/entertainment industry. (I don’t mean Marvez, but those horrible pieces that appear from time to time in most newspapers, which are cringeworthy at best, scream eliciting at worse, and usually get me writing letters).

Aside from this weekend’s puff piece with Simmons, which in and of itself is horrifically fanboyish about the WWE Network, I rarely got the sense that Shoemaker didn’t take the professional wrestling industry, its talent or its history at anything other than a seriousness that it deserved. This is why I looked forward to getting a review copy.

Like any book I’ve read on the subject, I jumped in with an open mind, mindful of the history of the sport as I’ve lived, read and researched it. Sure, I’ve got tendencies and biases like any other internet smark, like any other professional wrestling fan (Hogan vs Flair vs Sammartino), and like any other historian, journalist or pretender. Sure, I have a perspective on the business honed by countless hours of watching (and countless hours of NOT watching), tons of hours of discussion, way too many issues of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter, and more than a thousand columns/reviews/opinion pieces across the internet, this site and several real, paying columnist jobs.

The one thing I point out about Shoemaker’s efforts is the rewriting of professional wrestling history by someone with a journalistic mind, a ton of research, but ultimately a perspective focused on explaining this peculiar industry. Whether or not Shoemaker fails in his endeavor is merely opinion, but he fails in capturing my attention. Perhaps it is because I’ve read the histories of professional wrestling by more knowledgeable writers, by writers with more depth to their understanding, and with books by or about wrestlers with their incessant re-writing of the history of the business (even if not completely relevant to their stories). I applaud The Masked Man’s endeavor, but not so much his perspective.

From the outset, the book is all about retelling tales, providing a spin on those tales, and creating an overarching logic about professional wrestling that is interesting, but altogether superficial to this fan. Perhaps I’m spoiled, having spent many, many hours discussing this sport with Sammartino, having learned depth and details from Dave Meltzer, having studied the industry from books, tapes and viewing. Perhaps I’m not exactly the target audience. Perhaps I’m too much smart, too much mark, but the book just lost me quickly.

I really am interested in the Golden Age of professional wrestling, but not about being lectured about things like the evolution of the sport (hey, highly trained wrestlers who are professional and elite are very boring, just ask the UFC about Ben Askren), about how champions are made (I know someone who lectures me about that); and I really, really, really don’t want to read about the four letter word beginning with F, and ends in A-K-E. Because it is asinine saying that professional wrestling is not real.

There’s a point to saying that there are pre-arrangements involved, but fully scripted matches are few and far between, and even if there’s a reality to laying things out beyond what I’d like to believe, there’s a physicality involved that made top notch boxers show respect (those who refereed in the 50’s and 60’s, and ask Mike Tyson about it) and that made professional football players proclaim the action more difficult than their own sport (Lawrence Taylor). I’ve heard the stories of the toughest of the tough in professional wrestling, and the sad tales of how crippled up these guys are in older age, how debilitated they are from their …. fakery? Sorry, that’s a sore point.

But beyond that is a superficial nature to the stories. I’m reading chapter after chapter about some of the biggest names, some of the most mainstream stars, and realities of professional wrestling that just don’t dig very deep. For example, I’m reading about Lou Albano and his mainstream boisterousness and a quick take on his career … but that is nothing after learning about Albano by the guy who got him his manager role, bailed him out countless times, and can tell tales about him being both a “good” guy and yet a character beyond belief. Not to mention I’ve read more about Albano, Andre and others from a guy who has put together more in-depth retrospectives about this industry than anyone should be burdened with.

I don’t question Shoemaker’s earnestness, but I question his perspective. When he writes that “Every star of the ‘80’s WWF represented a start ethnic or geographical group”, I know I’m not exactly on the same page. Having lived through that era, I just don’t agree. Having very little respect for the WWF in the 1980’s, and its circus-like mentality, I still don’t agree. Was Bruno great because he was Italian? If so, why wasn’t the All-American a bigger draw? If Pedro Morales wasn’t quite the draw, then can we analyze the differences? Sammartino, Backlund and Morales are still alive, and apparently out of bounds for Shoemaker.

If he made the effort, he would know that the Sammartino/Morales (both being babyfaces) was nearly one of the biggest wrestling events around, if not for bad weather. But we learn, from the book, that those kind of matches aren’t booked, don’t draw and are impossible. And so it goes, and so I got disillusioned.

Ray Traylor, Andre the Giant, Gorgeous George and many others are highlighted. There’s more of a sense that Shoemaker is more interested in the dead than the living, even though the book’s first subtitle word is “Life”. Maybe he fell for the Ultimate Warrior’s ill-rumored demise/replacement, but there’s something to be said about overfocusing on the tragedies, especially when there is so much to those tragedies that deserves more insight.

I’ve had my battles with Irv Muchnick, and many agreements. What I can say about Irv is that his tenacity and journalistic skills didn’t stop at reading magazines and writing stories about mere opinions. His books and articles (which reference Jimmy Snuka, Chris Benoit and Eddie Guerrero) are compelling, damning and very uncomfortable, but then again Muchnick isn’t one to drop a name like Darren Drozdov, ignore some painfully problematic realities, and move on to talk, anachronistically, about the Fabulous Kangaroos.

And then, there’s his comment about March 14, 2004, and a chapter where The Masked Man simply doesn’t get professional wrestling, because if he did, he would understand the underlying triumph of that date, despite the tragedies of what happened to Eddie, and what befell family, sport and fans with Benoit. There are so many layers to March 14, 2004 that it would take a book to detail it all, but more than anything, a light went on in my head, realizing that the Daniel Bryan thing unfortunately has resonance to the McMahons and HHH beyond just an undersized, fan favorite trying desperately to earn his spot at the top, overcoming the “vanilla midget” label, overcoming the overfocus on big lugs, overcoming once again the concept that talent trumps that stereotype.

But Bryan also not going about it the same way, which Shoemaker steadfastly avoids detailing in the story he writes that surrounds that date and those names, a half-assed concoction of how the internet worshipped those two, and glossing over the details that got them to that “pyrrhic victory”. That’s Shoemaker’s term, not mine. By the way, I seldom have any sense of sympathy for the devil, and Bryan is in no way a poster child for drugs, PEDs and that wrestling lifestyle that appears genocidal in retrospect, culminating tragically with those two names, but wow, do I now start to realize that the WWE wanting to avoid this connection may be another layer to the Bryan situation that explains their intransigence.

In reviewing The Squared Circle, I realize once again that the “reality” of professional wrestling is lighty ears beyond the ability of most to comprehend, and as always, I am definitely in awe of the industry, and the fans who support it, and the talent that makes it happen. Professional wrestling is a sport of ignominy, of illegitimacy, of problematic pasts, of dastardly politics, of stereotypes and a thousand other tragedies. Pointing those out can be interesting. Merely brushing the surface of the sport seems so trivial. Professional wrestling is a sport when viewed from the perspective of the efforts and physicality of the athletes who call it a profession; a transformative social and cultural endeavor; and a fascinatingly odd mixture of charisma, psychological manipulations and out-right entertainment.

Professional wrestling also an artform. I would expect, after reading a history of the sport, to be able to debate the merits of Hogan, Flair or Sammartino as they performed their sport in the ring, how they differed, why they differed, and perhaps a glimpse into what it takes to be a professional wrestler. Otherwise, what about analysis, numbers, measurement of talent and a healthy debate of the sport?

Professional wrestling is all about audience participation (even if modern promotions ignore it), all about stretching envelopes of technology (from TV to PPV to the Internet) and acceptability (the sport did a lot more to erase racial divides than can be seen from much of its often stereotypical caricatures in the ring). Putting together a pastiche of mainstream references, modern era remembrances and a paint-by-number approach to professional wrestling really doesn’t do this industry justice, either in terms of damning the bad (steroids, a generation lost with early deaths, other health concerns) praising the good (yeah, I’m stepping into something by saying that) or providing an in-depth picture of it all.

Sorry, but my expectations on a book professional wrestling are not met by The Squared Circle.

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