Re-Viewing The Book: Wrestling’s One Ring Circus

(Obviously, this is not Re-Writing The Book. I promised RTB: InVasion Month 3, and I will deliver. Later today. I swear on my Flair DVD. In the meantime, I present to you this review of Scott Keith’s third book, Wrestling’s One Ring Circus. And, if you feel like a good laugh, might I suggest a trip over to my blog and read the hilarity that is my second-ever You’re A Moron [trademark Eric]. It’d be funny, if it weren’t so f*cking sad.)

When I presented the idea of reviewing the “Death Of WCW” book to the IP brass, I got a counter-offer: review Scott Keith’s “Wrestling’s One Ring Circus: The Death Of The World Wrestling Federation” with it, as a compare/contrast companion piece. Two thoughts struck me instantly:

1: Sounds logical. Similar subject matter, similar readership. No problem. Heart filled with excitement.
2: Oh shit. Excitement removed and replaced with fear and uncertainty.

Why “oh shit”? Well, in case you’re the type who’s unobservant, Scott is a fellow IP writer (and to be that unobservant, you’d have to be the type who walks into walls frequently). This presented a massive, multi-faceted problem: with Scott and I being contemporaries, how could I review the book properly? I was assured that, as long I didn’t flame the poor guy, I had the journalistic run of the place … but still … what if I loathed the book? How could I write a scathing review about my fellow IP writer without pissing him off, or make it seem like I wasn’t over-compensating for the supposed conflict of interest? Or, what if I REALLY, REALLY liked it … would my journalistic integrity be assumed to be compromised, and the review perceived as little more then an unpaid advertisement instead of merely a positive review? Caught in a trap, was I (write like Yoda, I suddenly do).

I plunged ahead anyway, obtained a copy of the book, and read it (in two days, no less). And then, I set about writing a review … but the review … well, it reflected my personal feelings on the book, but I realized that, to obtain true objectivity and provide a clear, concise and correct review of the book, I couldn’t do it strictly from my point of view like I had the WCW book; WCW’s book was a strictly historical account of the downfall of a company, with little-to-no personal opinions. In other words, it had something for everyone: wistful nostalgia for the WCW likers, misery and suffering for the WCW haters, knowledge for the uninitiated, and plenty of laughter for everyone. Keith is a polarizing figure in the IWC; people either love him or hate him, and there is very little in-between, and a book by him is likely to fan the flames on either side. To accomodate for that, I would have to review it from the point of view of the three potential audiences Scott Keith’s book might attract, plus my own personal thoughts:

1: Those who follow the word Scott Keith
2: Those who know of Scott Keith and disagree
3: Those who’ve never heard of Scott Keith

So … with that being said, we can now get down to business. Well, 1/3 of us anyway. If you’re not a Keith fan, skip down to your applicable category.

Reviewing the book … for Keith believers:

If you’re a Keith fan, you know his writing style and his personal feelings. So it won’t come as any surprise that the trademark Keith attitude begins at page 1, when he warns the reader that the book is in no way intended as a history book, and it is filled with his thoughts and prejudices. After a quick introduction, where he tears apart the major players in the saga, it’s off to the races with the narrative.

The book follows the painful downfall of the World Wrestling Federation following the abortion known as the WWF vs. Alliance angle that dominated the summer/autumn of 2001. A quick recap of the InVasion makes up chapter 1, complete with a step-by-step breakdown of the problems with the angle, filtered through Keith’s recognizable wit, including a comparison to the only notable successful “invasion” angle in North American wrestling history, the nWo.

From there, Keith continues the timeline through 16 chapters, covering the missteps and bombs that the WWF continued to lay as the months rolled by. There’s the millionth iteration of “battling figureheads”, this time between Vince McMahon and Ric Flair, the new storyline co-owner of the WWF (showing a rare moment of storyline continuity, referring back to Shane & Stephanie’s sale of their share of the WWF). This leads to the introduction of the nWo as Vince “poison” to kill off the company, an angle that fell apart both due to the fans welcoming back Hulk Hogan with a wave of nostalgia, and the chronic crappiness of Scott Hall and Kevin Nash as participants. This, in turn, brings about the recurrant problems with Steve Austin, as he first cancels the ending to his WrestleMania 18 match with Hall (and, thusly, the angle that would’ve given motive for the Brand Extension), and thusly brings about his walkout a couple months later.

Running concurrent with that are explorations of the machinations of Triple H and The Undertaker, holding down virtually everyone under the sun that isn’t each other. Chris Jericho, Rob Van Dam, Kane, and even the company’s handpicked superstar Brock Lesnar and the former WCW phenom Goldberg are all victims of the duo’s political trickery and deceits. And because of the crimes, Triple H and ‘Taker are also victims of Keith’s printed skewers. Haters of these two (and fans of Keith) will love seeing their exploits torn to ribbons and exposed as contributions to the downward spiral the company found itself stuck in.

The chronicle continues through the company’s loss of the lawsuit against the World Wildlife Fund, which resulted in the company rechristening itself WWE (hence, the “death of the World Wrestling Federation”), culminating at WrestleMania 19, with Austin’s brief wrestling comeback and the anti-climactic Austin vs. Rock III, and Triple H’s obliteration of Booker T as a viable main eventer in their World Title match. Along the way, all the notable missteps are covered, from the Katie Vick saga to the Al Wilson/Torrie Wilson/Dawn Marie triangle and more. Sprinkled into the text are tiny blurbs of goofy information and extra facts (like how Mark Jindrak was hyped up to be a member of Evolution, then shunted into a tag team with Garrison Cade without explanation), but they never distract or intrude on the flow of the narrative; they are more like seasoning.

And of course, no Scott Keith book would be complete without a few of his trademark match reviews; the reviews have been updated, and the star ratings adjusted where applicable. But lest you think you’re getting a compilation of rehashed Rants, fear not; chapters average only 1 Rant apiece, and only cover matches of extreme importance. Of 170+ pages, less then 20, I’d hazard to guess, are dedicated to old Rants. Plus, in case you’re curious, the tail end of the book has PPV results and buyrates from November 2001 through 2004, and title histories covering the same period.

If you happen to be a Scott Keith fan, the book reads like an extremely extended version of his King Lear/Lazarus Rants, with match reviews sprinkled liberally within. Keith’s writing is sharp and easy to become engrossed in, and he obviously knows his topic well. There’s plenty of laughs to be had and plenty of material guaranteed to inspire thought and debate, which, for a book of this type, is the goal, isn’t it? For the Keith fan, this is the culmination of a lot of hard work and decent writing (and a lot of shameless self-promotion), and well worth the purchase.

Reviewing the book … for those who don’t like Scott Keith

Keith haters come in two flavors: those who don’t like Keith’s extreme cynicism and negativity, and fans of people who Keith hates (Undertaker, Triple H & Austin). Nothing about this book is designed at convincing these people to give Keith a chance, and nothing in the book would likely make a Keith hater do so.

Remember how I said Keith says right off the bat that the book is not intended as a historical tome, and is filled with his opinions and prejudices? Yeah. That’s the first problem right there. Any hope that Keith was turning over a more purely journalistic leaf is dashed on page 1, and it is something Keith is not apologetic about in the slightest. There is almost, in fact, a sense that he’s reveling in the fact that he’s thumbing WWE in the eye.

The material doesn’t get any better as it moves into the main body of the book. For people who like Keith’s most-hated, the book will be a long, dark, dreary manuscript of cheap shots and endless harassment of these (love ’em or hate ’em) wrestling icons. There isn’t a page where Keith’s rampant hatred and venom isn’t oozing off the page; for Keith fans, this may be just fine, but for fans of Triple H or Undertaker, it’ll read like the world’s longest imitation of the stereotypical IWC “WWE sux and heres why:” column.

And for those who just plum don’t like Keith’s negativity or writing style, well, my friend, you’re barking up the wrong tree. You know the old adage about how wrestler’s gimmicks are their real-life personalities with the volume turned up? Keith’s book is just that: Keith, with no space limitations, and the volume turned up. Every minor tic or annoyance you might have with him is now given ample room to run and becomes a major irritant quickly. By the first chapter’s end (which has a condensed reprint of his Rant on how how/why the nWo worked so well), the Keith detractors will likely have tested the book’s aerodynamic properties, as it is replete with the same traits and opinions his Rants have … only 170 pages worth. If that isn’t bad enough for the Keith hater … this time, YOU PAID MONEY FOR IT.

Equally irritating for this camp is that the viewpoint of Keith seems terribly myopic; everything, everything boils down to the fault of Triple H, Austin or Undertaker. Brock Lesnar’s first Championship reign was a failure? Undertaker refused to job in their first match. Jericho’s title reign was an abortion? Triple H and Austin cut his legs out from underneath him. The only thing that is put on the shoulders of someone else (read: Creative) is the sequence of events that led to Austin’s walkouts in 2002 … but even then, the blame STILL comes back to Austin, as he refused to job to this person or changed the booking of that match to keep himself strong, thus putting Creative in a logistical corner. With the way Keith portrays it, Austin, Triple H & ‘Taker have the writers virtually under their thumbs, as well as the McMahons. It hardly gives Vince McMahon (who, like him or not, did manage to create a multi-billion dollar global franchise) any more credit for intelligence then, say, a potato, and assumes he’s a human doormat who lets these employees run willy-nilly and drain his coffers dry solely because of loyalty and friendship. I know if my best friend bled me dry and drove my company into the shitter, his ass would be unemployed lickety-split … but in the scenario posed in this book, Vince McMahon is seemingly incapable of such decisions. It is that type of attitude that makes Keith haters hate him with the conviction they do, and with 170 pages of that flag flying at full mast, it’s not gonna change any minds whatsoever.

Reviewing the book … for marks & people who’ve never read Keith

It’s probably best if you read a couple Keith Rants to get the gist of his style and state of mind. Here, I’ll even provide you a link. Come back when you’re done. I specifically recommend the King Lear Rant, the Lazarus Rant, a few live events (pick a few good event, like Great American Bash 89 or WrestleMania 17, a few no-so-good events, like WCW’s New Blood Rising, or WrestleMania 9/13/15/2000, and a few HORRIBLE events, like anything by XPW) and one very special review: the DVD review of WWE’s Monday Night Wars set.

Welcome back. Now get comfy, because we got some issues to discuss.

If you haven’t actually seen the Monday Night Wars DVD, the Rant was spot-on about it’s content. While a good DVD for reference purposes, the “facts” it contains are heavily distorted and slanted. In essence, while a lot of what is said is true, it’s only true coming from the WWE’s point of view (or, as Keith puts it, “Well, they do say history is written by the winners.”). Why do I mention this? Because, for those new to the game or those who just don’t know about Keith, the comparison between the DVD and Keith’s book is apt: Keith’s book is history as he sees it. Plenty of the events he mentioned did occur, but the bulk of the story is colored by his opinion, and his opinion is so overwhelming, it bends and distorts a lot the information present in this book. That leaves you, the newbie, with the daunting task of sifting through the book and plucking out what hasn’t gotten painted with the (patent pending) Keith Opinion Brush and what has … and, of what has, to what degree.

And as your reviewer for this, I gotta tell ya, it ain’t gonna be easy. Keith is a loud-and-proud smark. Hell, he even had a website called “The Smarks”, so that should tell you right there. So, when writing a book about his beloved topic, that means the text is bound to lean towards fellow smarks. But the problem lies in that damned introduction that I keep coming back to. See, not only does he introduce the main people to appear in the book (complete with biased “biographies”), but he has a glossary of industry terminology that appears in the narrative. Helpful, right? Well, it’s quickly undermined when you get into the narrative itself, thanks to Keith using insider knowledge, but without giving it the proper context. A great example comes early on, when discussing that, after being dumped by Triple H, Chyna hooks up with Sean Waltman, and makes an off-handed comment about how low she has stooped by doing so; Keith never bothers to mention who Sean Waltman is (he refers to Chyna as Chyna, but Waltman as Waltman), or why this such a step down. The WCW book was guilty of the same smarkish writing patterns, but the problem here is that while Keith’s giving the beginners all the info they need to sound like part of the in-crowd, he then leaves them out in the cold with smark knowledge dropped ever so cryptically. It’s a dangerous assumption at best, and the results serve only to either confound or irritate the marks in the crowd.

Another issue the beginner will find is, well, the whole purpose of the book. In that oft-mentioned introduction, Keith goes out of his way to mention that this isn’t meant as a historical document. Okay. Fine; at least he’s honest. Yet, for 170 pages, he goes on, month by month, to break down the seemingly endless downward spiral that the WWF/E fell into post-Survivor Series 2001. Not to mention, right on the cover in fairly large and bright letters, is printed the subtitle: “THE DEATH OF THE WORLD WRESTLING FEDERATION”. So, if he’s dealing with historical occurrences, and chronicling them in a chronological manner (which he does), then how is it not a historical book? And if it isn’t, as Keith insists, then what is it? A glossy, coffee table-sized, super-extended op-ed piece? A highly opinionated stab at a company that doesn’t even acknowledge the presence of the net (a theory that gains a lot of ground when Keith admits he no longer enjoys covering wrestling and considers it a job)? Without a clear identity for the book, the newbies and uninitiated are going to have a bitch of a time making heads or tails of what this book should be treated as. Certainly, it’s not in the same vein as The Death Of WCW … but, given that, it doesn’t leave much purpose for the book to exist on the shelves of newbies and Keith virgins. It is, like I said before, similar to the Monday Night Wars DVD: entertaining, but the informational value is weak at best.

So, what are your thoughts, Jed?

That’s not so easy to quantify. I do read Keith … in a sense. I usually skim his Rants, looking at match results and star ratings. Very rarely do I read an entire match recap. That’s not my thing. But nevertheless, I appreciate his humor, and recognize his skills as a writer; he is pretty good, no question. But, reading it for the purposes of reviewing it made me look at it from all points of view, and, unlike the approach taken towards the WCW book, Keith’s approach is purely personal, and renders the book a tough sell depending on the audience. It even rendered it a tough sell on me; I enjoyed the humor and insight, but I can’t help but thinking of it from the other points of view, and being very frustrated that Keith allowed his personal feelings from delivering a truly landmark book. If this book was meant to illustrate the year-long hellhole the company fell into, a lot of stuff fell by the wayside in favor of another 5 pages dedicated to bashing Austin/HHH/UT; the bizarre push for Lance Storm that had him dancing and paid off with him being well-endowed was relegated to a caption for a photo in the book. Likewise, Test’s victory in the Immunity Battle Royal, which should have afforded him a massive push and didn’t, is all but ignored, which is doubly odd since Test is on the cover. Sure, these stories of the midcard don’t make or break the narrative, and may not be crucial in comparison to Austin’s or Triple H’s political games, but it is symbolic of the overriding theme of the book: grinding an axe against Steve Austin, Triple H and The Undertaker. For haters of those three guys, and fans of Keith, this may be well and good; but for those who might disagree, find the rampant negativity tiresome and boring, or those who might be arriving late to the game and assuming this is a historical book, it’s a huge problem, one that Mr. Keith seems unwilling to even try to change. This limits his audience unnecessarily where, with a simple change in approach to the material, he could have presented a fantastic expose of one of the most fallow periods in WWE history.

The Final Word … er, Words

Since this got three point-of-view reviews, this only deserves three Final Words.

If you happen to fall into the “never read Keith/don’t know who he is/new to wrestling” category, the book will be an entertaining read … provided you don’t come into it with a preconceived notion that you’re getting a biographical tome. If you expect education and enlightenment, it’s going to be a small serving; this book just ain’t geared to that.

If you’re a Keith fan, well, you’re in luck. This is Keith at his venomous best, lashing out at the shit that the WWE shoveled up on us fans in 2002. It’s everything you’ve come to expect from his Rants and his previous two books. A worthy purchase.

And if you’re a Keith hater, spend your money elsewhere, because this is not to change your mind about him. Not one damned bit.

So … to use a Keith-ism … thumbs up … and in the middle … and down. Depending on who you are.

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