Book review: Tonight… in This Very Ring! A Fan’s History of Professional Wrestling.
By: Scott Keith. (True story: back when Keith was first getting into publishing his own books, after The Buzz on Professional Wrestling, I somehow ended up receiving a link to request a review copy of this book, which I did, and somehow ended up getting one to review. At the time I was kind of just eh, whatever with Keith, but honestly, of the wrestling writers out there, the only ones I regularly care about reading anything from are Keith and Brandon Stroud, and I admire their work for entirely different reasons. I have my issues with both of them, obviously, but they’ve both been stand-up guys whenever I’ve talked to them, and they both generally write things I enjoy reading, so I’ll probably keep putting money into their pockets however I can until they retire or some shit.)
I’ve been meaning to review this book for, oh, four, five months now… and I’ve just never gotten around to it. Part of me feels as though I just can’t do the book justice… but another part of me basically just didn’t know where to start, to be honest. The book is quite a read, and it’s very entertaining… but it isn’t what you expect, and it might not be what you’re looking for. (Yeah, as much as I still like the book, it’s… different.)
First things first: Mr. Keith works for 411Mania.com, where I’ve dropped video game reviews from time to time. (When Widro made good on his intention to split away from 411, Keith, Hyatte, Eric S and a bunch of other people left along with him to form Inside Pulse, which is where DHGF is hosted now. It’s basically only Keith and Alex who remain as a part of the IP family anymore, while 411 is kind of a shitshow these days.) He writes tape reviews, RAW and Smackdown! recaps, and rants on various things, from WCW to WWE to ECW, and so on. He’s quite a controversial writer, and he has a lot of talent, despite the beliefs of others. (There are, to this day, entire communities who exist to basically make fun of Scott, and while I assume some of it comes down to personal interactions and not liking the person he is, and some of it is just differences in opinion, I suspect that a fair bit of it is trolling for the sake of trolling, like he’d give a shit. I kind of wonder what it’s like to be that notable, but in the same way, I mostly don’t.)
That said, I can sum this book up quite simply: If you’re looking for a fun read about the history of the WWE, then go pick this up. If you’re looking for a historical book, or a book about all pro wrestling, however, you’re best off to look elsewhere, as the book not only contains factual inaccuracies, (Both at the time and several more Scott discovered after the fact, but to be fair, wrestling is full of fucking liars so.) but also only briefly touches on WCW and ECW on the whole. This is a WWE book, through and through, and while that’s hardly a bad thing, it’s not for everyone. (He had intended to write a WCW book but couldn’t sell his publisher on it, and RD Reynolds kind of covered that ground well enough anyway. While that one has its share of inaccuracies, a lot of its issues begin and end with “the people involved say it wasn’t that way and make excuses without providing facts,” so it’s at least likely to be accurate.)
The book starts off with him acknowledging his various supporters (although, ironically, not 411… but then, at the time that he joined 411, the book was in final approval, so it may not have been possible to work around that), (He was running his own site, The Smarks, at the time and had just joined 411, though I don’t think he had any thanks to offer in later books either, so maybe Ashish is just that much of a dick, Iunno.) and a brief introduction to the writer and his perspective on the book as a whole. Essentially, he defines wrestling as something you’re better off not knowing the truth about; “a scummy business, and you have to be stupid to get involved in it, given the inherent risks of being a wrestler, and the miniscule chance of breaking into the only major promotion left”. (That’s honestly about right; while TNA kind of still does stuff, it’s mostly all WWE anymore, and given their rate of return on performers and how many of them ended up, your best bet would be to be cheap as hell during your run, retire with whatever money you can make when you leave, and go do something else afterward.) He then goes on to say that so long as he thinks viscerally, it’s still fun to watch, so long as you don’t take reality into consideration. (Which is basically my take on it as well.)
He then spends the rest of the book telling us about the realities of wrestling, thus letting us know about something he told us we shouldn’t know about. (Well, more or less.)
And thus, the book begins.
After giving us a definition of various wrestling/Keith related terms, and a cast of characters for the book, we start off on the first thirty years of the WWE, or, back then, the WWWF. He lets us in on a few things, like the true historical significance of wrestlers like Bruno Sammartino, Billy Graham, and Bob Backlund, as well as certain events like the Rock and Wrestling Connection, Vince McMahon’s rise to power, and the WWF’s overall development as a company. It’s informative in the “I wasn’t alive at that point in my life, so I wasn’t really aware of this” kind of way, though I was curious about the Rio de Janero title changes for a while before this book. (This was before the days of Wikipedia knowing fucking everything about wrestling, so you didn’t know who accomplished what or what events were faked to get shit over with at the time. These days you can know almost anything about the past if you search hard enough. Damn kids.)
After the history lesson, we move into the “King Lear” chapter, which, for those that follow Keith, is actually his King Lear and Lazarus rants cobbled together into one chapter. (Back in the early days of internet wrestling fandom, Keith basically became internet famous for a combination of two wrestling rants: King Lear, which detailed how the WWF fell into its darkest hour in 95-96, and Lazarus, which detailed how they came back from it. The former is named for the Shakespeare play of the same name, and compares the events in the WWF at the time to the play, while the latter is named for the biblical character, and quotes the relevant passages from the bible as needed. While the writing isn’t great anymore, relatively speaking, they were absolutely awesome at the time, and it’s no wonder dude got a book deal if he was using shit like that to make it happen.) Needless to say, I read it before, but enjoyed reading it again. It talks about the steroid trials of the early 90’s that McMahon was involved in, the rise to power of the Clique, and the fall that occurred when Nash and Hall left. More importantly, it details the events surrounding the rise of one Stone Cold Steve Austin. It’s all old hat to me, but for a history lesson of that period, backstage and on-screen, it’s quite good. (Keith actually did a 2012 commentary update of the original King Lear rant, which is here if you’re curious. He updates the factually inaccurate parts, and fills in a good amount of useful data that he didn’t have at the time. Also he made me legit laugh out loud at least twice with his 2012 perspectives, especially with his “You boo him because he’s a dick,” line.)
We then move onto the “Lazarus” Chapter, which is part of the Lazarus rant combined with the events of 1997 on the whole. Discussed herein: More of the SCSA rise, the neck injury, (Austin actually ended up suffering a broken neck in a match with Owen Hart that nearly changed history for the worse, but Austin basically worked extremely few dates while injured and mostly just beat up authority figures until he gave the Stunner to Vince McMahon, and thus cemented his legacy right around the time he was ready to work again. God, can you imagine how things would’ve gone if they’d done something like that with one of their current stars? He’d be the most over guy in the company. Instead we get fairy tales.) Attitude, The Montreal Screwjob, (I addressed that a while back.) and the Evil Vince character. He also briefly brings up ECW, for what it’s worth. (About a million bucks if I remember the settlement numbers right.)
From there, it’s onto “Austin v. McMahon”, and we move into one of the greatest storylines the WWE/F has ever told, period. (Overall, not in the week-to-week breakdown, because some of that shit was not at all good.) We also discuss other goings on in the year, such as Shawn Michaels’ retirement, (He took a bad bump on the edge of a casket, because wrestling, and ended up fucking up his back so bad he had to retire for almost a decade, and missed the entire Attitude era he helped to pioneer. Karma is a bitch.) the return of Sean Waltman (X-Pac) to WWF, (Eric Bischoff fired him because he was injured a lot and Eric didn’t think letting Waltman go would matter; Waltman then showed up on Raw pretty much immediately, called out Bischoff, and became a part of the new DX, which helped kick Bischoff’s ass.) the beefing up of the WWF midcard, and Mankind v. Undertaker Hell in the Cell (regarded as one of the best matches ever by many). (Not Keith, though, and I totally understand why: two stuntman bumps does not a “good” match make, especially when one was unplanned and could’ve killed the man who took it. I still respect the hell out of Foley for taking that bump though.)
On to 1999, and “The Russofication”. Here, we discuss the impact Vince Russo had on the WWF in general during this time period, and his eventual departure. (Specifically his penchant for fairly controversial, and often gross, subject matter, objectification of women, and strong characterization of midcard talent. It wasn’t all bad under Russo.) Also of note: HHH’s push to the moon, and the death of Owen Hart. (Note: For the record, 1999 was one of the worst years, conceptually, that the WWF has ever had, for those exact three reasons.) (Minus the death of Owen, it sure beats the shit out of what we’re going through now at least. They had an actual plan at that point, and that plan wasn’t “Cena/Roman wins lol.”)
We move to 2000, “The McMahon-Helmsley Era”, which is not only poor English, but also the main storyline that went on through most of that year. (It was also a pretty rad story, mostly because they had a specific guy to push to the top of the card in The Rock, and he was super over.) Also: The origin of the gay tag-team gimmick, and the beginning of the downturn for the WWF.
From there, we move to 2001, “There Goes the Neighborhood”, where the WWE basically began to collapse in on itself. Also noted: The demise of the WCW and ECW, the XFL, HHH and his political power (and his torn quad), and the fucked-up InVasion. (Ah, the InVasion. This is almost certainly the point where the WWE fucked themselves six ways from Sunday and created the piss-poor situation, creatively, we’re in now.)
And finally, “Afterword”, where Scott talks about that had been going on in 2002 up until the point where the book was published, more or less. Also, he brings up many points about why the WWE is in the state it’s in now, all of which are quite valid. (tl;dr, it sucked.) We also get an Appendix for various title-holdings and such, if you’re into that sort of thing.
Now, as a book based on the concept of entertainment, the book is one of the best wrestling books you can find. It’s funny and entertaining, and reasonably well written, making it a good read for the fan who wants to read an alternate opinion of the product.
As a history book, however, it’s more fucked up than a football bat. (The best part is that works on multiple levels, because even if you’re British they use bats in Cricket.) There are inaccuracies in some of the facts, (Which compounded significantly when the internet became a much bigger deal and we realized that a lot of the people either archiving or telling the history we were working from were lying their fucking asses off. Such is wrestling in a nutshell.) entirely too many personal opinions presented above hard evidence, (Not that McMahon is going to talk to anyone about this sort of thing honestly, let alone an internet wrestling writer.) and, of course, historical stories and anecdotes from the eyes and ears of the “fan”, not someone who was actually involved, like one of the wrestlers. (Not that this would in any way improve the factual accuracy of the story, because wrestlers exist in a world where lying is their bread and butter, so of course most of them are going to lie to better themselves, even if it doesn’t mean anything.)
In addition, several match reviews were included in the book, which may or may not appeal to you, depending on your expectation of the book itself. (Keith did that again in his third book, Wrestling’s One Ring Circus, but mostly eschewed it in his fourth book, Wrestling’s Made Men, save for putting in two whole PPV recaps as their own chapters. His fifth, and so far final, published book, Dungeon of Death, mostly focuses on specific wrestlers rather than a broad history of wrestling, so it’s its own animal.) While they do keep the reader informed on what was going on, ring-wise, at the time, I wasn’t all that big on reading a recap of the action, since, in some cases, I had already seen the match myself anyway. (These days I’ll read recaps online even after watching a show just to see how my impressions of a match meshed with someone else’s, so I’d probably be fine with that sort of book format, honestly.)
So, in the end, it all comes down to this: If you’re looking for an entertaining read about the WWE, with various bits of on-screen and backstage information in the book for reference, then by all means buy this book. If you’re looking for some behind-the-scenes info about the WWE, to understand what was going on at the time, then the book may be for you, but it may not be as factual as you’d like. And if you’re looking for a history lesson, well, the book is still worth checking out, but it’s not going to give you too much to work with here.
In the end, though, I still give it a thumbs up for overall quality and workrate. (Sorry, Scott.) (Honestly, in retrospect, it’s still a fun book if you’re interested in a general view of the Attitude era from the perspective of someone with more information than the average fan, but something like Titan Sinking is probably a little more useful for establishing historical perspectives, or perhaps something like the Kayfabe Commentaries’ Timeline series. This is a fun and interesting book, and it fills in a lot of basic information, but it’s better as a supplement rather than as a core source.)