Archive for July, 2009

Muchnick Book Club: QUEEN OF THE RING by Jeff Leen

I’m most of the way through a wonderful new book, The Queen of the Ring: Sex, Muscles, Diamonds, and the Making of an American Legend by Jeff Leen, assistant managing editor for investigations at The Washington Post.

This is a biography of Mildred Burke, who along with her husband, wrestler-turned-booker Billy Wolfe, took women’s wrestling out of carnivals and into arenas and onto TV screens from the 1930s through the 50s.

Back in 1990, when Frank Deford was editor of the short-lived sports daily newspaper The National and Dave Meltzer was the paper’s pro wrestling columnist, Deford wrote a story for Meltzer’s Wrestling Observer yearbook about Burke’s adventurous and tragic life. Her marriage to Wolfe was a loveless, abusive business arrangement; Burke actually took up with Wolfe’s son, her stepson, while the senior Wolfe built a harem of her wrestler-foils out of a hotel and gym in Columbus, Ohio, and exploited them sexually as well as financially.

In 1954 Burke lost wide recognition as the female champion in a terrifying Atlanta match against June Byers, Wolfe’s hand-picked successor. Wrestling has been “worked” (with predetermined outcomes) from the earliest days, and working supplanted “shooting” (real fights) pretty much across the board by the twenties at the latest. Occasional public “shoots” (rather than private gym shoots, the old way of settling both male and female championship disputes) persisted. But Meltzer and other historians identify Burke-Byers as the last true public professional wrestling shooting match in the United States.

After retirement Burke trained wrestlers. Movie buffs may recall All the Marbles (1981), starring Peter Falk as the manager of a ladies tag team called the California Dolls. Burke consulted on the wrestling scenes, training the mostly Japanese stunt doubles. A sequel called The California Dolls Go to Japan was contemplated, but scrapped after All the Marbles failed to do big enough box office.

With access to Burke’s archives and unpublished autobiography, author Leen has produced an authoritative and readable account of a great story that fills in important gaps in American cultural history. When it comes to serious books about wrestling, your humble blogger’s motto is, “Let a hundred flowers bloom.” Especially when they smell as good as this one.

My pleasure in touting The Queen of the Ring is doubled by learning that Jeff Leen is fellow St. Louis Mafia — he grew up watching my Uncle Sam’s Wrestling at the Chase on Channel 11 and as a fan of the St. Louis Wrestling Club shows at Kiel Auditorium. So I know he will forgive me if I deliver a couple of gentle “cupped chest licks.”

Leen writes that Mildred Burke “emerged during the depths of the Great Depression alongside two other hardscrabble underdogs, the spectacular colt Seabiscuit and the Cinderella Man, boxer James J. Braddock.” Please, Jeff, a little discretion! No need to walk around with a sandwich-board sign labeled, “Will sell movie rights for food.”

Second, sad to report, Leen more than once quotes … yes, Roland Barthes, on pro wrestling and mass symbolism. I believe we’re past the point where every goddamn baseball book has to quote Jacques Barzun (“Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball.” — if I got the quote wrong, I know I’ll be hearing about it.) And I think we’re also more than ready to retire Barthes from the new literature on “sports entertainment.”

As Dick the Bruiser used to say to Edouard Carpentier: “Come on, you frog, I’m willing.”

Congrats, Jeff.

Irv Muchnick

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Wrestling Babylon YouTube Channel Adds Classic Muchnick Interview Clips

The Wrestling Babylon channel at YouTube has added two classic clips of national television interviews by author Irvin Muchnick to promote magazine articles that were later collected in his book WRESTLING BABYLON: Piledriving Tales of Drugs, Sex, Death, and Scandal.

In June 1991, Muchnick was on ESPN’s “Up Close,” where he was interviewed by host Roy Firestone about the just-published Spy magazine cover story “Pimping Iron,” an account of the war between Joe Weider’s established International Federation of Body-Builders and Vince McMahon’s upstart World Bodybuilding Federation. Go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hSi03jGCvDs&feature=channel.

On September 8, 1988, Irvin Muchnick appeared on “Late Show” on the then new Fox television network, where he was interviewed by host Ross Shafer about his Penthouse magazine article on the Von Erich wrestling family of Texas. “Born-Again Bashing” was later selected for the anthology Best Magazine Articles: 1988. Go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tNaq_NBWhsk&feature=channel.

The Wrestling Babylon YouTube channel (http://youtube.com/WrestlingBabylon) also includes the following TV appearances by Muchnick:

* Confronting wrestling legend Bret Hart on CNN’s “Nancy Grace” in the aftermath of the Chris Benoit double-murder suicide

* Debating Bill O’Reilly on the implications of the Benoit tragedy on Fox News’ “O’Reilly Factor”

* Discussing pro wrestling’s culture of death on the French network Canal + news magazine program “L’Effet Papillon”

* Commenting on Benoit in the documentary “A Fight to the Death,” hosted by Bob McKeown on the Can­adian Broadcasting Corporation’s “the fifth estate”

Irvin Muchnick’s new book, CHRIS & NANCY: The True Story of the Benoit Murder-Suicide and Pro Wrestling’s Cocktail of Death, will be published in October by ECW Press. For pre-order and other information, visit http://benoitbook.com.

Chris Hedges’ New Jeremiad … And a Plague of Chrises

Chris Hedges has published a new book called Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle.

Hedges is an award-winning journalist and a bestselling author, and he’s intellectually double-jointed: one of his earlier books was I Don’t Believe in Atheists, and he has debated Christopher Hitchens, the scourge of religious crazies, while himself having a go at religious crazies.

Empire of Illusion is in the grand tradition of windbags decrying the decline of Western civilization. The windbags have a point, but they often try a little too hard to show off their cultural populism. Hedges goes boldly where few before have gone to deconstruct the lowbrow imagery of Jerry Springer (now there’s an up-to-minute junk TV icon) and … WWE. News flash from Hedges: pro wrestling no longer neatly divides into heroes and villains.

My other observation on Empire of Illusion is to wonder why there are so many Chrises in my life. Chris Hedges, Christopher Hitchens. Also Chris Benoit, Chris Jericho, Chris Masters, Chris Nowinski. Even Christopher Baynes, the prosecutor in the Albany DA’s office who helped bust Signature Pharmacy.

Supply your own punch line.

Irv Muchnick

Damien Steele Was 34

Touching up our earlier item, Julie Patterson tells me that Damien Dothard (“Damien Steele”) actually turned 34 on June 27.

The funeral in Georgia is now set for 2 p.m. Wednesday. The friends of Damien at Facebook note that, in lieu of flowers, donations are solicited for the support of the two young children he left behind.

Irv Muchnick

Damien Dothard (“Steele”) Cause of Death: Aneurysm

Here are full details on the death of Damien Dothard (“Damien Steele” in WWE developmental and for one televised WWE match, and in Deep South Wrestling).

According to Julie Patterson, who told me that she dated him on and off for nine years, Damien, 33, died of a brain aneurysm at his home in Smyrna, Georgia. He was a personal trainer at the Vinings Club, a social club in Atlanta with full health center facilities.

Other wrestlers have died of aneurysms, a byproduct of head trauma. Damien had not wrestled since 2006.

The funeral will be this Wednesday, July 29, at Pleasant Grove Missionary Baptist Church, Highway 5, Roopville, Georgia, at the corner of Highway 27 South and Highway 5 East. For the time oof the service, call the church directly at 770-854-8662.

His friends have put up a Facebook page, “In loving memory of Damien Dothard.”

Irv Muchnick

(Very Little) More on Dead Wrestler Damien Steele

I have just a few nuggets of new information, and no real hard information, on the death last week of independent wrestler Damien Steele.

As noted in my previous post, Steele died suddenly in Georgia. I still don’t know where exactly; presumably it was in the Atlanta area, where, according to LinkedIn, he worked as a personal trainer. Online journalist Aaron Glazer reports that Steele’s real name was Damien Dothard. Wikipedia reports that Steele was 33 years old and “passed away in his sleep on July 22, 2009 at his home. Steele had complained of feeling unwell the same evening.”

Glazer published an unverified post from a purported friend of Steele’s, who said: “D went to the doctor over a week before he passed away because he was sick with flu symptoms. I went to his house & hung out end of last week & other than his lower back hurting he seemed fine. He actually went out with one of his friends last Friday. On Saturday he was suppose to meet some friends from out of town, but he had a migraine. He spoke to a friend on Monday & said if his headache didn’t get better he was going to the hospital. That was the last time anyone could reach him. He leaves behind 2 young sons. One of their mother’s found him deceased in his livingroom Wednesday around noon. COD is TBD.”

Flu-like symptoms would suggest something like swine flu more than the usual wrestler drug-related death.

Some wrestling fan sites say vaguely that the authorities “removed property” from the home. Others say that an autopsy is being performed by the Georgia medical examiner. The involvement of that office is invoked by the Georgia Death Investigation Act, but I do not mean to imply that a state medical examiner autopsy is necessarily less routine than a county coroner autopsy.

Anyone with information is invited to email tips@muchnick.net.

Irv Muchnick

Another Dead Wrestler — Damien Steele

A wrestler on the Georgia independent circuit, Damien Steele, was found dead at home on Wednesday. The first reports don’t say where (probably Georgia) or his age (probably late 20’s or early 30’s) or (always of paramount interest when a young wrestler dies, especially in Georgia) a known cause.

Steele spent some time in WWE’s developmental troupe and even had one appearance on the SmackDown TV show, in 2006.

Irv Muchnick


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