Book Review of The Doc's WrestleMania Era: The Book of Sports Entertainment
By Shane Combs
Jan 8, 2014 - 9:30:37 PM
To the Moon and Back: A Trip through Wrestling History in Doc’s WrestleMania Era
The first thing to be sure of when it comes to “The Doc” Chad Matthews’ new book The WrestleMania Era: The Book of Sports Entertainment is this: it’s not really a book. I mean, at nearly 600 pages, it is a book. It even has the word book in the title. But it’s not really a book. No, not for the wrestling fan and not for the author of this endeavor.
If not a book, what is it?
Doc doesn’t set the bar low in explaining. In the prologue he tells us of NBA writer Bill Simmons who wrote the “ultimate fan account of pro basketball history” and that he, Doc, “[i]nspired, [set] out to write the modern pro wrestling equivalent”. These 590 pages, sprawling forward and back throughout the lore and legacy of the WrestleMania Era, are more journey than book. More open than closed. Active, alive, ready for debate: Doc shapes the last 30-plus years in the form of a ranking of the 90 top performers in the WrestleMania Era. On this journey we travel from the NWA to WCW, from ECW to TNA, from the WWF to WWE, and yes, literally from earth to the moon and back.
For me, a sometimes-wrestling columnist and twenty-two year fan of the business, reading The WrestleMania Era: The Book of Sports Entertainment felt like a trip back to where I grew up. In the pages of Doc’s account, I experienced memories I had long forgotten, memories I will never forget, and passages of time that once seemed far off brought close again. Indeed, instead of a book, this is what Doc’s endeavor is capable of becoming: a pro wrestling refresher course to those who have forgotten, an intro course for those who didn’t witness, a history of eras, of wrestlers, and a ranking that Doc himself calls “objective subjectivism”. In these pages lie the potential for remembering, for argument and debate, for happiness, sadness, and the chance to do what all wrestling fans love to do most, get mad.
And this is why: it is written by a wrestling fan. A wrestling columnist and a damn good one, sure, but a wrestling fan as well. It is this duality of analysis and fandom, living together, lurking together on the pages, that best defines what Chad Matthews brings to this collection. He gives us, fittingly, the two things we most hope for from a doctor: care and precision. And it may take wrestling fans, who understand that “fake” can often be more real than real life, to understand how analysis (precision) and fandom (care) can live together on the page, uplift a work, and with little to no contradiction.
To illustrate, I will use examples from Doc’s section on the man who came in at number 20 in this great list—my first, former favorite wrestler, “The Total Package” Lex Luger. As a guy who spent over a decade of his life defending the merits of the career of Lex Luger, I know the rise and fall, the good and bad, the ins and outs, and the ups and downs of the career of Lex Luger as well as anyone alive today.
Doc not only treats Lex Luger with as much care as I would, but, in dealing with Luger’s departure from WCW in 1992, he uses surgical-level precision to remake wrestling history and divide eras in a way that is not only true but in a way I, in all my trying, never thought to do.
Doc begins the section by understanding his wrestling audience and telling us: “Do not make the mistake of underestimating the contributions that Lex Luger made to the wrestling industry.” He then goes on, with care, to walk us through the sections of Luger’s career: Chasing Flair, Becoming WCW Champion, Jumping to WWF, The Return to WCW. Each section is treated with so much care that my older brother, who I read excerpts to from a majority of the wrestlers in this book, said the very thing I had already written on paper the day before: Doc treats every wrestler in this book as if that wrestler is the only wrestler he is writing about.
Then, precision: Doc tells us the thing I referenced earlier, something I had always thought in my gut but never articulated: “Many would suggest that Flair leaving WCW in 1991 was the end of an era, but I would counter that it was Luger leaving in 1992 that truly ended said era.”
(When first reading that quote, I screamed that—out loud.)
It never made sense to me that Lex Luger didn’t go over Flair in the 80s or that Sting, who was always more successful chasing the belt than carrying it, would be given priority over Luger. It also didn’t make sense to me that Lex Luger would be turned heel in finally winning the belt in 1991.
All of those were truths I knew but never put together for articulation.
He demonstrates a world where WCW could have put together an era where Sting and Luger both carry the ball and where a feud between the two is treated with intelligence and proper delivery. Again: this is why this is more than a book and more than history. Doc had me chasing the paths of what might have been and what could have been.
Now, reader, consider your favorite wrestlers and your favorite eras. What does Doc have to say about them? Where does your favorite wrestler rank? What insight and debate awaits you in the nearly 600 pages of Doc’s account?
It was over Christmas where I saw my older brother, who was a massive wrestling fan in the 1990s. I had Doc’s book and, sitting across the room, I would read a few sentences from each section, and my brother would guess which wrestler Doc was writing about. We meant to do only the top ten but my brother was such a fan of Doc’s prose that he ended up having me read from all 90 entries!
It was only in getting to the top ten where my brother and I departed greatly from Doc’s choices. It wasn’t, for the most part, about who was in the top ten, but where. Now, I posit that each wrestling columnist and fan could probably do this top 90 and end up with a different top ten and each list be credible. I also posit that Doc’s top choices will be the top choice of some others. I also recognize that some of these choices are, in part, due to what I praise in Doc earlier: his fandom. (It is anybody’s guess, when getting into the top ten, which goes first for Doc: objective or subjective.)
For me, it’s not just about one wrestler in the top ten. It is about some of the combinations and the school of thought they represent. Namely, current schools of thought. That would be my biggest criticism. With so much history and so much time traveled in this book, I would hate to think that some of the top choices represent, rather than a totality and even-handed ranking of the years gone by, a school of thought imprisoned by the moment. I think there was an opportunity to subvert some of the current thinking and make a greater statement, and I wonder if that might have been lost on some of the top choices.
Now: My view is also very subjective. And each reader who buys the book will bring a completely different outlook on it. But, for me, this book is worth the purchase first for the love and care shown each wrestler (there are sections I haven’t read because I want to use them as a companion while watching the matches Doc covers in writing about select wrestlers). Second is the ranking. It is detailed and extensive and it will allow each reader the opportunity and difficulty of trying to rank these wrestlers themselves.
After picking up your copy of the book, if you agree or disagree with Doc, I’m sure you can send him an e-mail. Or you can do what I plan to do:
Wait until 2087 and debate Doc at WrestleMania, on the moon.
From his section on Andre the Giant:
“In 2087, when the WWE is celebrating the 100th Anniversary of Andre vs. Hulk and holding WrestleMania on the moon, I will likely have been dead and gone for at least a decade. If I do, somehow, make it to 103 years old, you can rest assured that I will be watching, in part, to pay tribute to the Giant one last time.”
This is a book that every wrestling fan should make a priority purchase. It is a book that every wrestling fan has imagined writing. It is a book that every wrestling fan has wanted to see written.
Doc did it.
I would say that The WrestleMania Era: The Book of Sports Entertainment belongs on the shelf of every true wrestling fan, but with 600 pages and all the opportunity for engaging this book (reading, reconstructing, discussing, debating, watching matches mentioned), I will say it like this:
Forget the shelf—this book belongs in the hands of every wrestling fan.
Purchase: The WrestleMania Era: The Book of Sports Entertainment.