Hot Shots and High Spots
George Napolitano’s Amazing Pictorial History of Wrestling’s Greatest Stars
By George Napolitano
$22.95 US/$25.95 CDN
Reviewed by Joe Babinsack
George Napolitano is one of the few, great names associated with pro wrestling photography over the years, and anyone who’s followed the industry has seen his work, his name and his impact on the sport, through magazines, various publications and a few books.
I know I have an oversized book with his name on it, sitting on a pile on one of my bookcases.
Napolitano has that level of talent that, on first look, the picture is interesting, but as you study it, you see the depth of the composition, some little thing in the background, some sense of contrast or some aspect that jumps out at you.
With 300 plus pages of pictures, the book provides a ton of studying.
The subject matter spans the decades since the early 1970’s, when George Napolitano started out as a professional photographer, working for J.F. Sanchez-Acosta’s Ring Wrestling magazine. Napolitano also credits The Grand Wizard, notes that Arnold Skaaland welcomed him to ringside, and that Jimmy Valiant his first wrestler to be photographed.
Wrestling was already well known to Napolitano in the 1960’s, and he was, like most of the fans of the Northeast, a big Bruno Sammartino fan. Ironically, the book is filled more with images of Hulk Hogan and Ric Flair, which I find particularly amusing, knowing Bruno’s take on those two.
I loved seeing guys as they progressed through the ages.
Randy Savage is seen in the mid-70’s, skinny as a TV jobber, but we see him time and again, in the 80’s with Liz, in the 90’s all jacked up. Randy Orton gets the treatment as well, from WWE generic look of their prospects morphing into his Viper look. There’s even a few shots of Kurt Angle looking determined, not so cut-up and not so beaten up by the sport. There’s a striking pose by Jean-Paul Levesque looking like Flair and chatting with Killer Kowalski
There’s not a lot of reading throughout, but enough to keep the book unified. Of course, a picture tells a thousand words, and there’s over 300,000 if you’re counting that way, but the interludes bring out the man behind the camera, and Napolitano shows a distinct intimacy with the wrestling stars, with interesting pics of his wife and kids posing, playing around, showing rare sides of some famous people. There’s a pic of Napolitano’s wife being lofted in the air by Andre the Giant, and one of his kids draped under that humungous, cape-like headpiece of Abdullah the Butcher – one on each side of the madman from Sudan.
The book has all the iconic images of the past few decades: Hogan, on the cover, playing air-guitar with the WCW belt (and is that Roddy Piper lying prone on the mate?); Mick Foley’s face a crimson mask; the NWO with the clique signs, this time backstage; Austin drinking and spewing beer; Flair styling and profiling; a classy shot of Bruno and Joe DiMaggio; various shots of various ECW originals; and quite a few pictures of the WWE braintrust (well, a lot of Vince and HHH, that’s for sure!)
There are gratuitous pictures of Hogan, of Flair, of HHH and quite a few of Vince as well.
But the pictures are diverse in terms of promotions, include forays into Japan and of Japanese wrestlers, including Tiger Mask – the original, and a post match glimpse of the aftermath of a particularly brutal women’s match between Megumi Kudo and Combat Toyoda in FMW. When Onita and Hayabusa look on, concerned, you know that was a war.
From ECW to TNA, and before that the UWF to various incarnations in and around Memphis, this book isn’t just all the big names of the sport over forty years, it also includes the big names of various regions, from Hot Stuff International (Hey, there’s Missy Hyatt!) to Austin Idol, The Fabulous Ones and that Tennessee Icon, The King, Jerry Lawler.
About the only complaint is a nitpick, but there’s no morbid nature to this book, unless you’re cognisant of the realities that there are way too many people in these pictures that are no longer with us. There is a particularly troubling picture of the Von Erichs. There is a poignant picture of Owen Hart. There are more than a few of Randy Savage.
Chapters surround some big names: Andre the Giant, Ric Flair, Hulk Hogan and from various reflections that can only be called Old School to the inclusion of TNA.
There are a surprising array of ECW stars, including quite a few extreme ones, filled with blood, beer (Sandman!) and one particularly vulgar display of Francine splayed out for a Tommy Dreamer piledriver.
But the blood isn’t all owned by ECW. There’s Flair and Dusty Rhodes in a typical bloodbath in the 1980’s. There’s Foley again and again, and FMW and Old School and post-modern.
Napolitano gets the action shots, the quiet moments, the backstage faces and the working shoes.
If you want Champions, there’s the Funks, Sammartino, The Rock, The Ultimate Warrior and The Sheik.
If you want celebrities, there’s Debbie Harry, Andy Kaufman, Cyndi Lauper, Arnold Schwarzenegger and more, all posing with pro wrestling greats.
If you want historic moments, there’s everything from Muhammad Ali being airplane spun by Gorilla Monsoon to Valentine/Piper to the Age in a Cage between Hogan and Piper.
If you want High Flyers, there’s everyone from Mil Mascaras to AJ Styles to Rey Mysterio Jr.
But really, it’s all about names and nostalgia, and whether you’re a fan of the WWWF or Puerto Rico, WWE or TNA, and whether or not you know or appreciate the celebrity status of Lou Albano and Freddie Blassie and The Grand Wizard, well, there are things to learn and memories to stoke and realizations of what wrestling has looked like over the past five decades and it’s all done to perfection through the amazing camera work of one of the most famous pro wrestling photographers.