I want to start this review by saying The Squared Circle: Life, Death, and Professional Wrestling by David “The Masked Man” Shoemaker is a good book. It’s wonderfully written and although there are a few historical errors for the most part, there is nothing glaring that takes away from its smoothness as a read.
If you are a super-casual wrestling fan or you were a fan either in the Rock N’ Wrestling WWF-era of the 1980s or a huge Attitude Era WWF fan, this is a book you’ll enjoy. Moreover, if you’re not a fan at all, you’ll likely enjoy it as well. It’s a perfectly well written quick history on the major stories and players in professional wrestling.
If you aren’t one of those two fans, I’m not sure The Squared Circle has much for you. Certainly, the reader-base of Voices of Wrestling will find Shoemaker’s debut entirely irrelevant. You won’t learn anything you didn’t already know from this book and to me, that’s a problem when the book is touted as a “breakthrough examination of the (sic) professional wrestling, its history, its fans, and its wider cultural impact.”
I didn’t find any of that in this book.
What I found was a cursory glance-over of various eras in professional wrestling history (these were great) followed by an onslaught of dead wrestler biographies, some of which were lifted directly from Shoemaker’s “Dead Wrestler of the Week” column on Deadspin. Yes, if you were an avid Deadspin reader when Shoemaker was honing his craft by way of those great columns, you’ve probably read a majority of this book already.
The glance-overs on various eras, as mentioned, are great. They don’t go into details hardcore fans don’t already know but it was good to get an overall context of the wrestling world at the time. The earlier recaps were my favorite as I’m still learning about the early era of professional wrestling so it was good to reinforce some facts and details, including the carny beginnings of the sport, many of the early “worked-shoot” angles performed before promoters, and wrestlers fully grasped professional wrestling. I’ve never tire of Gotch-Hackenschmidt discussions, Ed “Strangler” Lewis tales or discussions on television’s impact on creating a star in Gorgeous George.
As we got closer to the current era, Shoemakers bias toward World Wrestling Federation/World Wrestling Entertainment becomes apparent. Little to no mention is given to Jim Crockett Promotions, National Wrestling Alliance, World Championship Wrestling or any of the various territories that populated the United States until the mid to late 80s. The book contains very few mentions of the Portland territory, Memphis or Mid-South. There’s a decent amount relating to St. Louis but that is about the only one that received proper treatment.
Instead, we get a retread on the creation of Rock N’ Wrestling or a discussion of “Stone Cold” Steve Austin’s “Austin 3:16” promo. Which are obviously important stories in the history of professional wrestling, but for a book that touts itself as a “breakthrough” examination, it is sorely lacking in examination instead opting to be low-risk Wikipedia entry.
My biggest gripe with the book is the obsession on dead wrestlers; sure, the book title says “Death” and Shoemaker rose to fame through the “Dead Wrestler of the Week” pieces on Deadspin but many of these biographies seemed tremendously forced. The very fact that Brian “Crush” Adams received 5-6 pages in a book that made scant mentions of wrestling existing outside of the United States is troubling. Lucha Libre is not mentioned but once or twice but nearly 10 pages are devoted to Junkyard Dog. If you’re going to tout a discussion of professional wrestling history, you may want to include the longest running promotion (CMLL) in the world.
This could be personal bias, or inflated expectations for the book but it really troubled me that in this landmark, mainstream wrestling book done by a non-wrestler, we didn’t really advance the medium. What we have is, as mentioned, detailed and well-constructed Wikipedia entries on WWF wrestlers who passed on.
Telling the story of professional wrestling through the wrestlers that have passed on makes sense for the early stages of the book but when we get into the 80s, 90s and 00s and we’re focusing on the Ray “Big Boss Man” Traylor’s of the world simply because they’ve passed on seems to lack the “breakthrough” the book promises.
I do want to reiterate that if you’re looking for biographies on some of the most famous wrestlers to pass on, this book is great, it’s wonderful and it’s the best you’ll get since Dave Meltzer’s 2004 hardcover Tributes II: Remembering More of the World’s Greatest Professional Wrestlers.
If you’re looking for a true examination into the professional wrestling world and you’d consider yourself above a casual fan, you’re going to be left disappointed, just as I was.
More than anything, I was disappointed that Shoemaker, who could do so much more with the voice he’s given, doesn’t seem to progress the medium whatsoever. The old “I’m not mad at you, I’m just disappointed”.
This is the first mainstream wrestling book (Gotham Press) in quite some time. Due to his connections with ESPN and his standing on Bill Simmons’ Grantland website, Shoemaker is the premiere voice in professional wrestling right now. Yet, he tends to be nothing more than a WWE blogger. I understand why he chooses to cover the most popular and biggest wrestling promotion in the world for Grantland, but for a book that touts itself as a recap on the history of professional wrestling to make scant references to other organizations, it’s tremendously disappointing.
The Amazon description claims “The Squared Circle is the first book to acknowledge both the sport’s broader significance and wrestling fans’ keen intellect and sense of irony,” I don’t want to say that’s overstating what’s accomplished in this book but holy shit is that overstating what’s accomplished in this book.
That description is all kinds of demeaning, as if Shoemaker is the first person to every put pen to paper on anything intelligent about professional wrestling which is just not true in any world. Recent examples such as The Death of WCW, Sex, Lies and Headlocks, A Lion’s Tale, Pain and Passion, Wrestlers Are Like Seagulls, Wrestling at the Chase and the ultimate example Mick Foley’s 2000 book Have A Nice Day all presented superiorly intelligent looks at professional wrestling.
A few of those notably Sex, Lies and Headlocks were written by non-wrestlers and attempted to rationalize the scope of professional wrestling (well, mostly WWE) on the greater pop culture psyche. Shoemaker’s book is certainly not the first book to do anything it claims. Does it do a better job than Wrestling for Dummies? Absolutely. Does it blow the doors off the medium like Have A Nice Day did? Certainly not.
I have a tough time being too excited about a book about the pop culture relevance of professional wrestling that ignores Andy Kaufman in Memphis. If we’re talking pop culture and wrestling, that has to be mentioned, it just has to. Kaufman, Jerry Lawler and Jimmy Hart literally had the television and movie world fixated on a relatively small territory in Tennessee.
“The Masked Man” makes no mention of the relevance Lucha Libre stars have on Mexican pop culture, movies and television, which far outweighs anything any American wrestler could even strive towards. Antonio Inoki was elected to public office in Japan exclusively on the merits of his professional wrestling background. These are important examinations of wrestling’s impact on pop culture, Road Warrior Hawk isn’t.
That’s not to say it doesn’t have a place on a wrestling fan’s shelf. It’s a well-written book and follows a structured (albeit confusing) format.
If you’re on the outside looking in and don’t understand why millions of people watch this stuff, it’s a good place to start. If you stopped watching in 2001 because the Invasion angle pissed you off and you recently wondered, “Hey whatever happened to those Legion of Doom guys?” this is a great book for you.
If you’re a hardcore wrestling fan, Wrestling Observer subscriber and someone who has read most of the professional wrestling books published and you were hoping for a book that examined professional wrestling over its history both in-ring and out like never before, you’re going to have to look elsewhere.