Back in graduate school, I was friends with a guy named Roy who had grown up in a working-class family in Kansas City. Roy was the first in his family to go to college. After graduation, he decided to learn something about the arts scene in K.C., something that he’d never had the chance to do.
Over the next few months, Roy went to “the usual places” on the arts circuit – the symphony, plays, art museums, and other highbrow events. He enjoyed doing something different.
Then he saw an ad for a pro wrestling show that was coming to Kansas City. He decided to go. Roy told me that during the wrestling he found himself thinking, “This is MUCH better than anything else I’ve done the last few months.”
Pro wrestling is sort like your “fun uncle” – you might not brag about the time you spend with him, but it’s an awful lot of fun. Last weekend, I was in the Big Fish Thrift Store over in Foley, Alabama, and I saw Scott Williams’ Hardcore History on sale for 50 cents. Reasoning that you can’t go too far wrong for 50 cents, I bought it. While I enjoyed reading it, I can’t give it more than 5.5 out of 10.
The last couple of weeks were killers for me at work. By Thursday night, I needed a light book that wouldn’t tax my brain. I finished Hardcore History’s 261 pages by the time I went to bed Friday night. The book is a blow-by-blow chronology of Extreme Championship Wrestling’s brief life from the early 1990s to 2001.
The book begins with some of its strongest material – an account of ECW’s low-rent beginnings. In the early-1990s, ECW was one of many regional wrestling federations operating in the shadow of the much-larger WWF and WCW. However, largely through the ability of Paul Heyman, ECW succeeded by adding an edge to its matches and also by capitalizing on the 1990s youth culture. The result was a much-beloved challenger to the big boys.
When Hardcore History is good, it’s very good. Williams has gathered some fantastic old war stories from ECW’s people. Some of the best include –
- Brian Pillman, a former Cincinnati Bengals player and largely-unsuccessful wrestler, who conned the various wrestling leagues into bidding for his services.
- Beulah McGillicuddy, a former Penthouse model, who used her connection to pro baseball’s Ron Gant as a way to meet the ECW’s Raven. Subsequently, Beulah became one of the ECW’s biggest female stars (though Williams does not seem to have gotten an interview with her).
- There are some excellent stories of the wrestlers’ many injuries and their rampant abuse of prescription painkillers. Williams was prescient with his focus on wrestlers’ health in his 2006 book, as just a few years later the mainstream press would pick up on the prevalence of injuries among athletes.
- Perhaps my favorite anecdotes involved the low-rent lifestyle of most of the wrestlers around the ECW. Williams tells of wrestlers sleeping fifteen to a motel room and enjoying their time with “ring rats” (wrestling groupies).
So, why doesn’t Hardcore History rate any higher? The biggest problem is “flow” – the book is choppy – the chronology is difficult to follow. Too often, the tale bogs down into a series of “Wrestler A beat Wrestler B, then – 8 days later, Wrestler C beat Wrestler B, only to be beaten…”. The text just makes your head spin.
The book needs a center, a main figure through whom Williams can tell the ECW’s story. That person existed in Paul Heyman, who was to the ECW what Colonel Tom Parker was to Elvis Presley – promoter extraordinaire.
The problem seems to be that Heyman didn’t participate in the book. The flaw is severe because so much of Williams’ story centers on Heyman.
A lesser issue is Williams’ refusal to analyze the ECW on a deeper level. The ECW’s appeal was based on the fact that it was indeed extreme. For instance, during matches, the ECW permitted male wrestlers to attack female wrestlers – this was not allowed in the larger WCW and WWF.
Similarly, in one of the ECW’s more-infamous incidents, one of its wrestlers (New Jack) severely injured a minor who had lied about his age to get into an ECW match. Williams should have offered some thoughts on whether ECW’s “extreme” philosophy encouraged such incidents likely.
The “heavy” throughout the book is Vince McMahon and his family who run the stronger WWF (now WWE). It’s clear that Williams despises McMahon. But, McMahon was the unquestioned victor in the wars between the wrestling federations. Williams owes his reader some analysis of why the WWE outfoxed all of its rivals.
Williams Still Got Me
One thing I gotta give Williams – he got me thinking about seeing some pro wrestling. According to the ‘Net, the WWE may be coming to Mobile in August – and I just might have to get a ticket.
At the same time, Hardcore History is a middling read. I’m glad that I read it, but I walk away thinking that – with a stronger narrative based on a few more interviews – it could have been so much better.