By Jake Shannon
Reviewed by Joe Babinsack
Jake Shannon is known to the world of wrestling, through his videos, interactions with world class wrestlers and historical preference for the old styles of wrestling, sometimes known as hooking, sometimes called (in a loose manner) freestyle wrestling, but in essence the traditional efforts of what would truly be called professional wrestling in the turn of the previous century, arguably up through the days of Jim Londos and the 1930’s.
I’ll not provide a recap of the history of this sort of wrestling, as Shannon does it in the book, does it well enough, and while some of his references go from making me cringe to raising my eyebrow, it provides a solid introduction for a book worthy of MMA fans, a professional wrestling audience of today’s variety, and most notably those ‘grappling’ enthusiasts who can look and see their styles in either of the more mainstream avenues – and laugh, acknowledge or learn as appropriate to their skill level.
The historical aspect of the book is interesting enough.
For me, it was the weakest of the three sections, but quick, never outlandish and solid enough in terms of framing what was to come.
I had some reservations after those first twenty pages, and also had some qualms about some of the phrases, name references and assumptions about the worlds of MMA or pro wrestling, but to be completely honest, I tore through the book like my weekly reading of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter – getting the eyeball from my wife, oblivious to other projects, nodding in affirmation & understanding, and a few times shaking my head for various reasons.
Despite the lack of depth in the historical part, and the often unnerving format of the interview section in the middle – which ranged from quizzical to awesome, and could have benefitted by a closer editing, I was engrossed by the subject matter and the SME’s – the subject matter experts.
Some were short but relevant – Josh Barnett as the truest MMA guy, Yoshiaki Fujiwara as the most modern of the pro resu types – with interesting commentary, insight and analysis of the grappling style.
Some were of names that many of the mainstream fans may not know: Billy Robinson (whom most readers of this site should at least identify, Billy Wicks, Erik Paulson & Mark Fleming. These guys provided their informative commentary via interviews, provided a depth that increased the value of the book, and shared stories and techniques and training that would be invaluable as a primer to anyone who wants to know more about the aspects of ‘shooting’ throughout the past 120 years of grappling history.
But three interviews put this book over the top.
“Judo” Gene LeBell, also touted as the “Godfather of Grappling” is a legend in many circles, and while he spells out succinctly his heelish attitude, he then plows forward in a way that I can only describe as “in character” but along the way delivers a wealth of sheer knowledge.
For the pro wrestling fan interested in stories and references, there are references about Lou Thesz, and a vastly entertaining look at the win Roddy Piper gained over LeBell, with the dreaded purple puke.
Read the book for those details!
LeBell name drops like a legend, and there’s grand amusement in the casual mention of Bruce Lee, but for entertainment purposes, this is a must-read, and of course the concepts of Catch-As-Catch-Can and thread of a more real aspects of real wrestling. But LeBell is a practitioner of the more modern sense of working and provides a great deal of insight. His story about how Vic Christy worked him is priceless.
And being the referee for the infamous Inoki- Ali “fight” gave him a perspective perfect for this book, as he not only understood the work versus shoot aspects, but also is positioned perfectly to make the statement that he would have loved to challenge each in turn, having seen first-hand how they handled that fight.
The second great interview is Dick Cardinal.
The eighty-some year old expert is no stranger to Jake Shannon’s efforts to revitalize his favored style of wrestling, and I’m not sure if anyone has the encyclopedic knowledge of Cardinal. He speaks with reverence to the age of Farmer Burns and Tom Jenkins, through the eras when worked matches became an entertainment but profitable business, and his knowledge of greats from Karl Gotch to Bud Anderson, his perspective on psychology, the ability of Lou Thesz and a world of depth about the carnival side (the At Shows, the book touts) to the always powerful underpinnings of the hooking and shooters of various ages really drives home the themes of the book.
The third great interview subject is Frankie Cain.
Shannon calls him a “fascinating figure in the history of professional wrestling” and that statement is understated by miles. Cain grew up in the old school world of wrestling around Columbus Ohio, and knew of Ed “Strangler” Lewis and the carnival circuits well. (By the way, Lewis & Gotch are difficult references in regards to these stories of grappling…. Two different guys with each name….)
But Cain has a flamboyant side, having wrestled as the Great Mephisto, wearing a mask and having been involved with the creation of the Infernos. Wow, Luchador references as well!
From Cain’s peculiar knowledge of hooking to his story about meeting Anton LeVey, there’s more than enough material to capture the attention of any level of wrestling fan. But Cain was the real deal even in his version of sports entertainment, and there’s little doubt that he could have been a force in this day and age.
As would most of the interview subjects in the book.
The final section of the book delves into techniques.
I’m not the greatest fan of two page spreads explaining and visualizing grappling concepts, but we’re getting the information by an expert, who has first-hand knowledge from getting stretched by some of the all-time greats, so it’s no disaster at all.
But more valuable is the opening pages of this section, talking in-depth and in details about the approaches to learning, and the postscript which makes use of a little known Farmer Burns (you know, the guy who could do a six foot hangman drop due to his 20 inch neck on his five seven frame) and some awesome insight into how to learn the moves and how to become an experience grappler.
Well, I’ve seen Jake Shannon’s videos, his guest-stars and have just read his book resplendent with the input of all-time greats and the cross-section of knowledge that can only be gained from working with and talking to the legends of his subject. I came out of it with a better understanding of both professional wrestling and MMA, let alone the themes of grappling or hook ‘n shoot or whatever you want to call pure wrestling these days, which is more of a style that dominated between seventy and 120 years ago, but as I just learned, there’s a lot of dangerous and effective techniques that should have more of a presence today in the UFC.
Say Uncle may not be the greatest book on the subject, but it’s well-rounded and well worth the price and well worth the read.