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Book review – Shooters: The Toughest Men in Professional Wrestling

By Zach Arnold | July 2, 2012

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Shooters: The Toughest Men in Professional Wrestling is a hell of a book if you are looking for a conversational piece of literature to launch a million different topical discussions from.

At 300 pages in length, the book is meticulously written and laid out in a very easy-to-read presentation with a smooth flow from era-to-era, topic-to-topic. I received a copy of the book from ECW Press and was very glad that I had a chance to read the book in its entirety. I should stress that this is not a book that I would recommend skimming. It’s a book that is very detailed and requires some focus in order to absorb the stories being told. It’s the kind of book that immediately got me to grab a pen and sheet of paper to write down some annotations for further research & discussion.

Remember, some of the angles touched upon in this book is not necessarily for beginners. We reviewed Jake Shannon’s book on Catch Wrestling a while back and thought he did a great job for an introductory book to the topic. Shooters touches upon a lot of detailed history about catch wrestling, including many newspaper clippings talking about some sensitive & delicate subjects. I thought Shooters did as good of a job covering a naturally complicated topic by weaving in many stories, feuds, and pictures together.

For example, there’s a lot of discussion about characters such as William Muldoon, John L. Sullivan (and his 44 round vomit-inducing fight), Ed “Stranger” Lewis, Farmer Burns (and his neck-hanging-from-a-noose exploits), Frank Gotch, and many others. The historical documentation of the transfer of Catch-As-Catch-Can wrestling from continent to continent is laid out. In discussing Farmer Burns, the issue of ‘crossroading’ is explained as far as traveling the circuit and working over people for cash. There are profiles on individuals like Tom Jenkins (the man missing his left eye), Dan MacLeod, “The Russian Lion” George Hackenschmidt, Farmer Burns disciple Fred Beell, and promoter Jack Curley. A lot of the history surrounding the Frank Gotch/George Hackenschmidt bout from Comiskey Park in 1911 is covered, including the angle regarding a man named Dr. Benjamin Roller and how seriously he may or may not have hurt Hackenschmidt five days before the Chicago bout. Throughout the discussion of Gotch and Hackenschmidt, there’s a lot of frank talk about whether or not this time period was entirely a work or how much of it was actual a real display of combat. For example, were some of the fights so long in duration because of gambling amongst members in the audience who were prop-betting on how long certain individuals, like Joe Stecher, could last in a fight? This was initiated by discussion regarding a Stecher/Stranger Lewis fight that lasted several hours.

There is a section of the book dedicated to Mitsuyo Maeda & Rikidozan. The Maeda chapter is interesting because of the angle that the book takes — was everything that the Gracie family said about Maeda in regards to what he did or didn’t learn from them fake or real? How much of the history recounting Maeda’s background is legitimate?

Admittedly, my favorite part of the book are all of the stories about Ad Santel & Lou Thesz. Despite the boring label attached to Thesz, I’ve always found the history surrounding his business dealings & philosophies about jobbing to be highly entertaining.

Shooters also talks about the Gold Dust Trio, which were wrestlers who acted as ‘policemen’ to help out promoters or to settle disputes amongst promoters & wrestlers. “Tigerman” John Pesek is a featured profile in the book. The profile includes some attention on his exploits in New York where he allegedly blinded his opponent by going after the eyes, resulting in a banishment from the state. This transitioned into discussion about Curley, promoting in the Northeast, and bouts that were promoted at Fenway Park in Boston.

The book section on Lou Thesz quickly leads into discussion about the National Wrestling Alliance and when the TV age for professional wrestling came into fruition with the DuMont Network.

The part about why Verne Gagne was revered and coveted by promoters is quite interesting given how we saw his career play out. For most people under the age of 50, Verne Gagne was the crazy old man who badly sang Wrestle Rock Rumble on ESPN and kept putting himself & his son (Greg) over in matches no matter what the circumstances were.

There is some Danny Hodge talk in Shooters, primarily focused on why he became such a big star in the Midwest and how his stardom wouldn’t have been portable in other markets due to the nature of his character and his physical attributes. The one regret I have about this section of the book is that there isn’t more discussion about Hiro Matsuda. I know that Matsuda was a private man but he played such an incredible role as a ‘policeman’ for promoter Eddie Graham in Florida, along with training Hulk Hogan & Lex Luger (what a bizarre combo of protégés for a tough bastard like Hiro).

He also fit into the free-wheeling lifestyle like a hand in a glove. He was a ribber, playing jokes on his fellow wrestlers, mostly involving his enormous grip strength. Hodge would go into the locker room and rip off all the hot water handles in the showers, leaving the boys to freeze. Fans who tried to get cute were also in for a rude awakening. Hodge would offer to diffuse any tension with a handshake. When the fan would try to impress him with a hand-crushing grip, Hodge would turn up the pressure, driving the man to his knees, literally making him beg for mercy with a simple handshake.

He also took matches that others might consider an indignity and turned them into a challenge. One night, Hodge and (Cowboy Bill) Watts ended up booked to wrestle a real live bear. A staple of the southern wrestling scene, matches with a bear could leave you permanently scarred if you weren’t careful. Watts had a plan for an easy night with the bear, then a match to send the crowd home. Hodge, in turn, wanted to see if he could actually beat the bear.

“Danny was so strong and agile that he was making the bear nervous,” wrote Watts. “The bear came to the center of the ring, stood up, and came forward to wrestle, just like a human on two legs. Danny got behind the bear, put a scissors hold on and squeezed hard. The bear squealed and was getting scared and angry.”

There is also plenty of talk about Billy Riley and the Snake Pit Gym in Wigan, which naturally lead to a transition to talk about Karl Gotch & Billy Robinson. Included in this discussion is the infamous Billy Robinson/Peter Maivia fight story and what was real versus what wasn’t as far as details are concerned. The timeline of how Gotch was shunned by American promoters in order to become “The God of Wrestling” in Japan is also outlined. Gotch was not a fan of the defensive nature of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.

“Karl could be very rude,” says Malenko. “His social skills were not the best. For somebody who had been in the limelight like he had, he was somewhat socially inept. He felt awkward around people to begin with. And if you were a person who was anything less than respectful and understanding of his skill level, you didn’t stand a cahnce with him. You probably wouldn’t even end up on the mat with him — or if you did you’d end up leaving quickly of your own accord. Or on a stretcher. He did not suffer fools gladly.”

“Karl used to go over to [pro wrestler Boris] Malenko’s and some poor pro wrestler that wanted to learn to shoot would ask Karl to show some holds,” Gotch protege Tom Puckett wrote. “At that point he would run through about 250 submissions in about 10 minutes, then get up and say, ‘So now you got it?’ The poor bastard would then say, ‘Yeah I think so’ to which Gotch would go, ‘No you don’t, you’ve seen it.'”

Gotch’s philosophy created a very aggressive brand of submission fighter. He didn’t believe in defensive positions like the guard, describing the jiu-jitsu artists who used it as ‘old whores waiting for a customer.’ Students of Gotch’s, instead, continued to attack until the match was over.

Then there’s the book section on Judo Gene LeBell, including the funny story about his encounter/altercation with Steven Seagal. There are sections about Bad News Allen (Coage), Antonio Inoki, Jack Brisco, the start of the first UWF in the early 80s after an Inoki money scandal with New Japan, and Pancrase. The Pancrase section focuses a lot about how many of the bouts were works, what was real, and Bas Rutten’s thoughts about RINGS, Masakatsu Funaki, and Minoru Suzuki.

When UWF International started after the demise of the second UWF, the group recruited big names like Danny Hodge and Lou Thesz to give the promoter their stamp of approval and give some legitimacy to their championship title.

Thesz was just one of the wrestling legends the group used to bolster their legitimacy. Billy Robinson and Danny Hodge, both noted shooters themselves, were UWF-Inter commissioners and their names still carried great weight in Japanese wrestling. It was important to the promotion, despite doing what were obviously worked matches, to present a legitimate face to the public.

“Anybody they used in their promotion was a shooter,” UWF-Inter wrestler Mark Fleming said. “Iron Sheik, he was a shooter even though he was old and beat up. Gary Albright. Dan Severn. Dennis Koslowski, an Olympic silver medalist. Billy Robinson, who they brought over to help train us. We had to go to that dojo every day man, and we trained there five hours a day… Lou said, ‘Go out there, pummel with them, tie them up and throw them.’ He said, ‘Hurt the sons of bitches. Hurt them, man.’ I’d go out there and throw them but them guys were good. They were smaller but tough guys. And very dedicated.”

There are book sections on the roots of both UFC & PRIDE. If you’re a lifelong fan, you know most of the material. If you are a newer MMA fan, then it’s a requisite for you to read. There’s even a chapter on Kazushi Sakuraba, talking about his childhood fandom of Tiger Mask. The part of Shooters that made me laugh quite a bit is the juxtaposition of the chapters about UWF-Inter, PRIDE, and UFC. These chapters focused on the details of how seriously wrestlers took their craft and made sure to protect one another. The next chapter in the book? Brawl for All, the insane debacle that WWE pushed where Jim Ross thought “Dr. Death” Steve Williams would beat up the other wrestlers in shoots. Instead, Bart Gunn (Mike Barton) beat him up and then Gunn proceeded to get walloped by Eric “Butterbean” Esch. It was as big of a train wreck as you could possibly imagine.

The book closes out with chapters on Kurt Angle & Brock Lesnar. With Angle, I always think more about ‘what could have been’ as opposed to what he’s actually accomplished. The same with Brock Lesnar, although Brock actually did real fights as opposed to how much Kurt has talked over the years about wanting to do a real fight. Shooters closes out with a chapter about the future of shooters in pro-wrestling.

Overall, the book is a must-have if you are a hardcore fight fan or if you are a student of history. I don’t know how much appeal it has for casual fans of pro-wrestling or fighting in general, but the layout is such that it’s the kind of book that you want to read and have internet access handy in case you want to look up a reference real quick. There is an eBook version for free from ECW Press if you provide proof of purchase of the dead tree version.

Topics: Media, Pro-Wrestling, Zach Arnold | 24 Comments » | Permalink | Trackback |

24 Responses to “Book review – Shooters: The Toughest Men in Professional Wrestling”

  1. Jonathan Snowden says:

    thanks for this very thorough and professional review Zach. We’ve disagreed on some TRT stuff, but you doing this anyway speaks highly of your personal and professional integrity.

    Thanks again. I really worked hard on this and it dominated my life at some points over the last couple of years. I am happy with the end product.

  2. Tomer says:

    I’m interested to know if for the old-time history (and particularly for the Gold Dust Trio) if Snowden worked with the research that guys like Steve Yohe have done on the topic…

    • Jonathan Snowden says:

      I received lots of help from JM Kenyon, Yohe, Mark Hewitt, John Nash, and many others. Much of the book is based on material those guys shared as well as my own time in the library.

      Once we get to an era where most of the principals are alive, my research was supplemented with a bunch of interviews.

      • Tomer says:

        Did some research work for Mark a few years ago (Baltimore area) and helped transcribe one of the record books (I think Giant Baba’s) for Steve, so that’s cool. Did you get to reference Steve’s Ed Lewis biography that he ended up releasing on the internet? It was pretty intriguing and had a good deal of “Was this shooting/hooking legit or was it BS?” in there.

  3. kobashi says:

    out in the UK on the 12th!

    great review zach. wish there was a kindle version alongside paperback.

  4. Jonathan says:

    I’ve never thought that Kurt Angle REALLY wanted to do a legit MMA match. If he really did, he would have already done so.

    What do you guys think?

    • Chuck says:

      True, but the better question is……would he have passed his physicals? The history of head injuries probably would have came up during his physicals. That could have also been a reason why he never pursued it. Along with his his age (even then). The dude was 29 when he made his pro wrestling debut, so he was well in his late thirties when he was (still is) in TNA and was talking about doing MMA. The dude has always been a hell of a self promoter.

      Even sillier? When Batista was talking about doing mma. He was actually closer to doing it than Angle. But he stopped pursuing it because Zuffa bought out Strikeforce. He was going to fight in SF.

  5. liger05 says:

    Sounds dope!!

  6. J-Rock says:

    It would have been funnier if Snowden had come on here and bashed the book, as he usually bashes content on this site.

  7. Safari_Punch says:

    Pesek is my mother’s maiden name and I don’t believe it is a very common last name amongst the Czech people. I’ve always wondered if I was related to that shooter guy…

  8. Zack says:

    Jonathan…did you actually interview Sakuraba for your book or did you quote older stuff?

  9. Jonathan Snowden says:

    I talked briefly with Sakuraba, but it wasn’t a productive interview. Mostly we worked with translations we had done of his biographies and interviews in Japanese MMA magazines.

    • Super Crab says:

      Hi did you get a chance to talk or interview any of the old UWF or UWFI wrestlers i.e Nobuhiko Takada, Akira Maeda, Kiyoshi Tamura??????

      What did Billy Robinson think of Nobuhiko Takada or UWFI ????

      • Jonathan Snowden says:

        I didn’t get to talk to any of the Japanese wrestlers you mentioned. I did talk to several English speaking wrestlers who worked UWFi and Pancrase, as well as the English speaking executives.

        As for opinions on Takada, you have to take them with a grain of salt, as they are now all informed by his great failures. In other words, it’s easy to say you don’t think Takada rated now, because we’ve all seen him fight.

  10. liger05 says:

    Wasnt it it the case that Takada in the gym and could roll with anyone?

    • Jonathan says:

      The truth is…what does that even mean?

      • Chuck says:

        I think what liger means is that Takada is a great grappler in a gym/sparring/randori setting, but not a good striker.

        Takada was an awesome pro wrestler, but he was no fighter.

        • Super Crab says:

          What are your guys opinion about the Rickson Takada Fights??? So what was the backstory of Takada challenging Rickson??? Takada must of thought he had a chance to beat Rickson?? Was it hype?? Did takada feel he had legit skills to beat him or was it somebody else pushing him to fight him???

  11. BuddyRowe says:

    Money made Takada fight, me thinks.

  12. Black Dog says:

    Great review; I think I must get this.

    Actually, re: Hackenschmidt, Lou Thesz said in a documentary that Ad Santel was paid $5000 (in 1911 money) by Frank Gotch to injure Hackenschmidt during a workout. Santel wrecked’s Hackenschmidt’s knee; I do not know about the doctor you mentioned, but I’d not be surprised if he was in on the deal as well.

  13. superlyger says:

    Takada was legit in his day. He could beat most fighters he faced in an era when the New Japan Dojo was open for challanges. The Takada of PRIDE was not the TAKADA in his
    prime. It was no longer the 80s and he was semi-retired due to injuries. The Yakuza who were big marks, and benefactors
    of the UWFi,persuaded him out of retirement with a lot of money and a one shot extravaganza called PRIDE FC. The TAKADA who came out of retirement was injured and broken from over 15 years of Pro-wrestling. Which has a very grueling schedule. Had he not lost to Rickson there would not be another PRIDE FC or Sakuraba in PRIDE.

  14. […] if it is a lay out issue of chronology or if it’s history that requires an extensive look like Jonathan Snowden did with The Shooters, but I came away feeling that the momentum had stalled after the first […]

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