Published on February 14th, 2014 | by Heath McCoy0
The Squared Circle – David Shoemaker
The world of pro wrestling is overrun with more than its share of historians, documentarians, biographers, and all manner of bargain bin mythmakers. On the other hand, from an academic side, one can only imagine all the painfully pedantic scrolls that have been dedicated to the mat game in the name of cultural studies. But, until David Shoemaker (a.k.a. ‘The Masked Man’) emerged, writing his columns for such websites as Grantland and Deadspin, there hadn’t really been a significant, pop culture essayist dedicated to the wrestling world and its enduring impact.
In his first book, The Squared Circle: Life, Death, and Professional Wrestling, Shoemaker does for wrestling, roughly, what Chuck Klosterman did for hair metal in the book Fargo Rock City. Like Klosterman, Shoemaker takes an intellectual dumpster dive into a form of entertainment most commonly written off as trash. In doing so, he gives his low brow subject matter the sort of witty, critical analysis that it’s seldom had, putting professional wrestling into its larger cultural context.
Narrowing his focus on dead wrestlers — with plenty of telling tangents in between the casualties — Shoemaker gets to the heart of the cultural resonance of some of wrestling’s greatest stars. All the while, he tracks the rise of this bizarre sports-entertainment hybrid, from carnival tent strongman exhibitions to the multi-million dollar arena-ready spectacles of today.
Among the fallen are Gorgeous George, wrestling’s original television super star, who, in the 1940s and 50s, first brought the game its showbiz sensibility with his crowd-baiting, villainous ring persona of the vain, effeminate, glamour boy — an archetype still very much in play.
Then there’s the seemingly cursed Von Erich clan, hailed as gods in Texas but proven all too mortal in the end; Bruiser Brody, who epitomized wrestling’s ‘hardcore’ side, feeding the bloodthirstiness of the fans, and ultimately murdered, stabbed to death in a dressing room dispute; and the iconic Andre the Giant, whose legendarily freakish size, strength, and excesses harkened back to wrestling’s sideshow roots.
As we descend on the ‘Wrestlemania era’ of the 1980s, the spectacle becomes a mainstream cartoon with the ascent of Hulk Hogan and a brief fling with a young MTV, via Cyndi Lauper and her video ‘dad,’ Captain Lou Albano. The stars in this period are higher profile and more larger-than-life than ever, and from a mortality standpoint we see the death toll rising. The ghosts include Randy ‘Macho Man’ Savage, fueled by jealousies and insecurities both in the ring and behind the scenes, in relationships with his wife and ‘manager’ the lovely Miss Elizabeth, and also his sometimes partner, oft-times rival Hulk Hogan.
Remember ‘Ravishing’ Rick Rude? His narcissistic sex-god shtick, Shoemaker argues, subversively taunted the fans with the homoerotic aspect of the game. As for ‘British Bulldog’ Davey Boy Smith, he emerged as the biggest international star of his era, yet he could never escape the shadow of his smaller, tougher, and more innovative tag team partner and cousin, ‘Dynamite Kid’ Tom Billington — this despite the fact that Billington, always a man of frightening extremes, flamed out more than a decade earlier. (Billington is confined to a wheelchair today).
The Ultimate Warrior gets a chapter too, because, even though he didn’t die, there was an urban legend that he did, and, in his heyday he was touted as the sport’s next iconic star after Hulk Hogan. Like Hogan, the Warrior appealed to a young fan base looking for super heroic role models. But, if Hogan was wrestling’s Billy Graham, preaching the virtues of prayers and vitamins to his “little Hulksters” then Warrior was, according to Shoemaker, the sport’s Jim Jones figure, with his demented ravings. Ultimately, his impact didn’t come close to matching Hulkamania.
At times, The Squared Circle’s death toll motif feels tedious, but, with stars dropping like flies in the modern era, it also hits home just how ugly the wrestling game has become as bigger budgets and flashier productions led to the murderous grind of steroids, injuries, and painkiller cocktails.
Breaking up the monotony of the graveyard game are a series of sidebars throughout the book, dedicated to such topics as the gleeful exploitation and hyper inflation of cultural, racial, and geopolitical stereotypes in the wrestling ring. Refreshingly, the book also pays due to some of wrestling’s ‘jobbers,’ the largely forgotten worker bees who exist to get ‘squashed’ by the chosen stars, thus establishing the scripted godhood of the latter in the ongoing, sluggo soap opera of the ring.
A strength of The Squared Circle is Shoemaker’s obsession with the lines between fantasy and reality in wrestling, and the moments in which those borders have been blurred or blatantly crossed. This is particularly fascinating in chapters about Brian Pillman and Owen Hart.
Pillman, a loose cannon of the highest order, made his mark by breaking, or, as Shoemaker puts it, “assaulting the fourth wall” that separates the fiction in the ring from the audience. He directly alluded to the goings on and matchmaking behind the scenes, which the fans are never meant to be privy to. This gave the impression that Pillman had truly gone off the rails and that the fans were indeed witnessing an intrusion of reality into their gladiator fantasy. In fact, much (but not all) of Pillman’s insolence in this respect was scripted, which was, in retrospect, what made it so inspired.
As for Owen, his storyline fatally crashed to the harshness of reality when a flashy ring entrance went array and he plummeted to his death from the rafters of a Kansas City arena, during a pay per view event in 1999. At the time of the tragedy Hart was donning the mask of the Blue Blazer, a pious heel (he who the crowd boos) who was disgusted with the WWE’s raunchy ‘Attitude era,’ which kicked off in the late ‘90s. This was meant as a spoof of the WWE’s own PG-past in the Hulkamania years, but it was also somewhat true to Hart’s actual distaste for the direction the business was going in. In this instance, reality and fantasy couldn’t have collided more horribly.
Perhaps that horror was matched in one other instance. The death of Chris Benoit — who murdered his wife and child before taking his own life in 2007 — is positioned as the book’s apex tragedy. Benoit’s story is paired with that of his best friend and fellow casualty Eddie Guerrero. Both were underdogs — small men relatively speaking, in a world dominated by giants — and each was a case of ritual suicide, destroyed by a single-minded devotion to the wrestling business at the expense of their health. In Benoit’s case, it would seem a lifetime of steroids, concussions, and pain medication, coupled with depression over the loss of his best friend Guerrero, had driven him over the edge. Of course, Guerrero, who died like so many of the fallen in The Squared Circle, when his heart gave out, has been canonized, while Benoit, the circumstances of his death so repulsive, has been effectively written out of history by the revisionist WWE machine.
But despite its grim premise and overflowing cup of tragedies, The Squared Circle really is a celebration of the wrestling business which Shoemaker clearly cherishes, and it’s a fine tribute to the colorful bruisers that gave their life to that blue collar ballet in the ring.