They know. They’ve always known, the same way you’ve always known that Bryan Cranston isn’t actually a chemistry teacher–turned–meth cook, or Claire Danes a bipolar — but occasionally brilliant — CIA agent.
Yes, the outcomes (along with nearly everything else) are scripted, but the superhuman athleticism that’s required, and the crippling injuries that result, are all too real. Not that you care, but wrestlers don’t have a union, and they don’t get an off-season. Many spend 300+ days a year on the road, grinding their bones, muscles, and organs into oblivion for their passion.
In hindsight, it shouldn’t have surprised us, given the brain trauma and “demons” (drugs) that haunt the sport, but a seemingly endless rash of wrestling deaths in the 1990s and 2000s left fans shaken, bummed, and finally numb. Most of the deceased were in their 30s or 40s, some younger. The cause of death given was often cryptic to the point of black comedy, but most boiled down to flatline-by-clothesline: either an overdose of pills (some accidental, some not) or a heart felled by years of abuse. As David Shoemaker put it, “Eddie Guerrero didn’t die doing what he loved. He killed himself doing what he loved.”
In early 2010, David Shoemaker began writing the “Dead Wrestler of the Week” (DWOTW) series for Deadspin. Going by the name “The Masked Man,” initially his column was to be coauthored with friend and fellow writer Bryan Curtis; Shoemaker says the air of mystery surrounding his identity sparked conversation and was “a really lucky accident.” Equal parts obituary, tribute, and probing essay, the column caught on and eventually landed Shoemaker a regular gig as Grantland’s resident wrestling writer.
Shoemaker’s new book, The Squared Circle: Life, Death, and Professional Wrestling, compiles his (revised) DWOTW pieces, organizes them by era, and prefaces each section with a bigger-picture look at the time period, starting way back at the turn of the 20th century. It’s a fan’s history as seen through the bony binoculars of the Grim Reaper.
I met Shoemaker at a café in Brooklyn. He fidgeted with his knit cap relentlessly.
Evan Allgood: The book is dedicated to your parents for letting you “watch this junk.” How did they feel about you watching wrestling as a kid, and how do they feel about you writing about it now?
David Shoemaker: They were never dismissive of wrestling in and of itself. My dad took me to a couple wrestling shows when I was growing up. No one in my family was a huge wrestling fan — I was the oddity in that sense — but I had a lot of friends whose parents were against it. It would always involve some story of violence on the child’s part, like someone hit their sister with a stick in the backyard, and now they can’t watch wrestling ever again.
EA: I thought you were going to say a chair.
DS: That might actually be warranted. But my parents didn’t think wrestling was stupid; they didn’t make me stop watching because it was going to make me crazy or violent. They just let me watch a lot of junk, which I think, in this pop culture–saturated world we live in, was probably a good thing overall. At the time, they probably thought they were doing me a disservice. They think it’s hilarious now that I do it; they’re both super supportive and proud of me. My mom watches more wrestling than most wrestling fans I know because she likes to be able to read my columns and tweets, and have some frame of reference for them. My dad will call me sometimes when something’s on. The last time NBC replayed Wrestlemania, he was texting me throughout the whole thing. So that’s great. Part of the joy of writing about wrestling is that it’s so easily understandable. It’s just modern mythology: There are good guys and bad guys and they’re punching. The simplicity at its core is the greatest beauty of it.
EA: What was the hardest part of writing the book?
DS: One thing that made it really hard was writing about wrestlers who I loved who are dead. The first few times that I wrote for Deadspin, they were way-back guys, and I wasn’t writing that in-depth. The first time I wrote about a guy who had died immediately prior was Chris Kanyon. I’m not a Chris Kanyon fan at all. I never felt a particular kinship with him, but when I wrote about him the day after he died, it destroyed me. And then getting into this book and writing about guys who were loved so deeply who died, even if not so recently — you spend a whole lot of time with death and it’s not a very fun thing to do. I wrote the last chapter, on Chris Benoit and Eddie Guerrero, last, and that was incredibly difficult.
EA: Benoit’s is so brutal.
DS: Chris Benoit’s is so brutal that it’s hard to even do it justice in any form, and you don’t want to be exploitive with any of this stuff, but with that in particular. But Eddie was the most tragic figure in the entire book in a lot of ways, because his was just a few years before the industry started healing itself. He was more of an old school lunatic in terms of self-abuse and working through pain than anybody else that I ever wrote about. I mean, he was wrestling without feeling in his body, without feeling in his arms and legs. It’s just mind-boggling.
EA: Does it frustrate you that the health and concussion issues in wrestling don’t get nearly the press that they do in football?
DS: A lot of people in the wrestling industry complain that the only time SportsCenter covers pro wrestling is when somebody dies.
EA: Even then it’s usually just a blip — with the exception of Benoit.
DS: But why not a blip for him too? I understand that it’s gruesome and it’s a tragedy, but the way he killed his family didn’t make him more of a professional athlete. We all know why it got covered, and it’s totally legitimate that they would want to capitalize on that. This is not to argue that wrestling should be covered on SportsCenter every night, but it’s a weird fine line that wrestling walks — it’s not a sport and not not a sport. You can find studies that say that wrestling is like playing a game of football on the offensive line, which is insane because they do it four or five nights a week.
WWE got in the concussion research game about the same time as the NFL, but they embraced it much more quickly. They’re a smaller company, and they’re more agile that way, and they did what I think is exactly the right thing, which is to pretend they’d been on the right side all along. They did the best possible thing for themselves, which was embracing it in a very pro-WWE way, and now people are healthier. They have to take time off when they get concussed, and the WWE is really serious about making people adhere to that. WWE now provides free rehab to every current or former employee, ever, even if it’s stuff that they got into after their time with WWE. They’ve been a really, really conscientious organization over the past several years, in a lot of ways. As many objections as I might have to various parts of their business practice, they are a major success story for the benevolence of capitalism unbridled. They’ve proven that it’s possible for a company that’s not subject to anybody, except to some minor extent to their shareholders, to be successful by doing good. If they want to continue doing that, then they’re going to have to address issues like the off-season.
I actually wrote an article calling for an off-season for Grantland. The short version of it is that there’s never going to be an off-season in wrestling — a literal off-season — because they’re too dependent on the 52-week-a-year programming. My suggestion is that every wrestler be mandated to take three months off every year, and you can stagger it so you’re never without all of your stars at one time.
EA: Do you think wrestlers have to unionize to make the off-season happen?
DS: I think, as Darren Aronofsky said several years ago, it’s insane that these guys aren’t in either the Screen Actors Guild or the Stuntman’s Guild. It’s not even for what they do on the road; they’re on TV every week. They read more lines on TV than most actors ever will. I wish they were unionized, and there are so many good reasons to do it that you shouldn’t need some arm-twisting. There are benefits to it. But it’s Vince McMahon making the final calls, and he’s been doing it the same way for a long time, and he’s very set in his ways. He’s the sort of guy that’ll look at the script for a night and say, “This isn’t quite there yet. Let’s call in John Cena even though he broke his leg two weeks ago and have him do something.” It’s always about getting the biggest reaction that night. The biggest obstacle is going to be getting past the point where it seems okay to let Daniel Bryan sit at home when he could be helping you get better ratings.
I was talking to Daniel Bryan earlier this week, and the schedule is so galling: Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday night, every single week. He said he was on the road for something like 250 days, and wrestled 215 of those days last year. Even if it’s like playing a game of football as a third-string H-back or something, that’s an incredible amount of damage to your body. And the mental exhaustion of never being home, living in a fantasy world for that much of your life? I mean, CM Punk is talking about retiring next year. Next year! He got famous two years ago. He’s 35. He had a vacation this past April — he was supposed to get time off after Wrestlemania — and who knows what the real story is, but the rumors were that he was going to be out for three months, and he got called back in a matter of weeks. That sort of thing happens all the time.
EA: When you interviewed Triple H for Grantland, did you ask him about the off-season?
DS: That’s the only thing we didn’t do. Simmons came to me after and said, “Do you know what we didn’t ask him?” I said, “the off-season.” We hadn’t talked about it before. It was a weird thing; I got in that room and all the questions I had written down basically went out the window. You get a guy in front of you and he starts telling you stories and you’re really into it; him talking about going to the Laundromat is more interesting on some level than answering most of the questions that I had, that are either too meta or high-brow or wrestling nerd–specific, bits of minutiae. I knew that he was giving us great material, and we were really happy to steer him along, but there was definitely more steering than there was stopping and restarting and redirecting the argument. I was half-worried that he was going to realize what he was saying and stop talking altogether.
EA: How do you think things are going to change when Triple H takes over from Vince?
DS: From talking to Triple H, it didn’t seem like he had a mad desire to do what Vince is doing. Vince famously sleeps like one hour a night and wants to control everything. I think Triple H has a really good mind for the business, and I got the idea that he was really committed to making the business work, and was also just happy to be there, which is what the industry needs. It needs that sort of passion and commitment and excitement to be there. Who knows if he or Stephanie or whoever are going to wind up being a visionary? The biggest difficulty they’ve had since they started is the ability to find competing voices to Vince’s that actually get heard. Their best periods were arguably: the Rock ‘n’ Wrestling Era of the 1980s, when, near as I can discern from legend, Vince and Pat Patterson were coming up with stories backstage before the shows came on; and the Attitude Era with Vince Russo, who went on to great infamy with WCW. When there’s a competing voice, they seem to do really well. It’s really hard, when one of the competing voices is the owner and chairman of the company, for that kind of equality to ever last. But the answer to your question is: I don’t know what’s going to happen, and a lot of it’s going to come down to how open they are to having competing voices, which sometimes means dissenting voices, and dissenting voices don’t have to get fired.
EA: What was the most surprising thing you discovered in researching the book?
DS: I was shocked when I read that Grantland Rice, in the 1930s, said that he tried to write a wrestling column 15 years before and was told by the sports editors not to put that wrestling junk in the sports page. He’s talking about 1915, 1920, when sports editors were saying, “We all know that’s fake.” I have faith in wrestling fans that they were in on the joke for the vast majority of wrestling history, but most people think Vince McMahon dragged this sport into the sunlight kicking and screaming when he started calling it sports entertainment in the 1980s, so we’re talking about 70 years of difference. It’s an incredible amount of time. Every article you read in the mainstream publications from the 1930s all the way into the 1980s, the writer who — God bless him — is trying to do this sport a good turn by putting it in The New Yorker or Collier’s or whatever, every single time says, “There’s always this question as to whether or not it’s on the level.” Really? Is it still really a question? Because someone in this same periodical asked this question 20 years ago. It’s always coming from this point of view: I don’t want to ruin it for the rubes.
But no one thinks it’s real. I mean, a lot of people think it’s real in the sense that everybody has a grandmother that talks about soap opera characters as if they’re real. We all interact with those people. She knows it’s not real at the end of the day. Part of it is the joy of interacting with fiction as if it’s reality. That’s what’s so central to the sport, and the interaction with the crowd as you go back over the years, which makes it different from almost any form, and really defines it. That interaction doesn’t work if you treat your fans like idiots, and I don’t think wrestling ever truly did that. I spent a lot of time going through those rabbit holes, and realizing that the history of the sport, the long-ago history of the sport is so wrapped up in the question of whether or not it was on the level, it was real, and to what extent it was honest about it. It was never very honest about it in a straightforward sense, but on some level, it was being honest all along.
Evan Allgood is a Brooklyn-based author and playwright. He is deputy editor of Trop.