As the WWE continues it’s push of DVD’s and books celebrating the history of wrestling’s Legends (their capitalization, not mine), the market for wrestling history that doesn’t have to be passed through a McMahon filter continues to grow. If you check my archive (a link is at the bottom of the screen), you’ll see more then a few autobiographies by people who, at one time or another, have stood outside of Vince McMahon’s sphere of influence. And, to go along with that, more then a couple of people have dared to explore the how’s and why’s of some of wrestling’s failures, most notably WCW and ECW. Some of these books have been successful, some have been less then, but all have aspired to the same goal: to examine the fallen promotions without the prejudice of the winners of the war holding the editor’s pen.
And, since last summer’s pair of ECW reunions (one organized by the WWE, one organized by Shane Douglas) and two equally popular if competing DVD’s (put together by the same two entities), no subject has become more of a hot property than the history of that “island of misfit toys”, ECW. Two DVD documentaries, Forever Hardcore and The Rise & Fall Of ECW and the Scott Williams book “Hardcore History” have attempted to chart the history of that beloved promotion from Philly … and all have left one contingent or another in the audience wanting (either due to the WWE product being “biased” towards the WWE, or the independent product being overtly contradictory against it). Even I opined the possibility of ever seeing a true, independent history of ECW in my review for “Hardcore History”.
Then, John Lister contacted me, and told me about a book he published late last year, “Turning The Tables: The Story Of Extreme Championship Wrestling”. He said that it would satisfy that yearning I had for both an amusing narrative and an unbiased history of ECW.
Like “Hardcore History”, “Turning The Tables” starts out looking at the true genesis of ECW, with Joel Goodhart’s Tri-State promotion, and how ECW rose like a phoenix from Tri-State’s ashes. The familiar path is traced, from Eddie Gilbert’s role as booker to Paul Heyman coming in whilst working a side-gig for a possibly resurgent Jim Crockett project called the World Wrestling Network. From there, the book goes through the other familiar steps: Heyman taking the helm, Heyman buying out Gordon, the “mole” incident, Mass Transit, PPV, TNN, talent raids, and finally, the quiet, almost forgettable death of the fed. You won’t find any surprises here if you’ve read the other book. That’s not a bad thing, just a fact; if someone else wrote a book about the rise and fall of WCW, it would chart the same territory Reynolds & Alvarez already did. It’s damned hard to write about a non-fiction topic and make it be fresh when other people have done it.
But it’s not a carbon copy of “Hardcore History” by any means. Lister makes a concerted effort to add new and heretofore unmentioned facts, or put existing facts in a different light. The NWA Title Tournament and the inextricable knot of rumor and innuendo and mystery between Tod Gordon, Paul Heyman, Shane Douglas and Dennis Coraluzzo and who knew what and if it was a work, shoot or a shwork; Lister doesn’t necessarily add new details to the argument, but his take on the situation adds new complexity and new speculation to exactly what in the hell happened (of course, he can’t solve it either, and to his credit, he doesn’t really try … he just recalls the evidence at his disposal). The Mass Transit incident gets a much more in-depth attack, with an examination of the footage that’s so broken down, you’d swear this was a breakdown of the Zapruder film and that Lister is in fact Jim Garrison (back, and to the left … back, and to the left …), putting the whole incident into a new perspective.
There’s also a few oddities in a pair of chapters: one highlights 10 particularly classic Joel Gertner nickname introductions, something old ECW fans will get a kick out of. The other chapter, though, is a mixed bag, a timeline of the entire Raven/Dreamer feud, going date by date, match by match, until Raven’s loss in their Loser Leaves ECW match in 1997. You don’t get a lot of the nuances when the material is broken down as:
April 14: this match
April 16: this match
April 18: and so on and so forth
But you do get a surprise concerning the very heart of the feud’s mythology. The truest of ECW mutants might already know it … but it ain’t my business to divulge. Send the man some dollars (or, since he’s British, some quid) and you can find out.
And closing the book is an impassioned and brilliant piece written by Lister, not as an author, but as a fan, about the nature of ECW and its legacy, the reason for its demise and the reason for its (limited) success. Like the “anti-PTC” rant at the end of Mick Foley’s “Foley Is Good” book, the final chapter isn’t necessary to the flow of the book … but it’s the most heartfelt piece of writing in the book, a fan’s denouement to the preceding pages that doesn’t let the demise of ECW go down so bitterly.
What you won’t get, though, is a lot of depth or emotion in this book. Emotion? Well, that may or may not be a loss … if the emotion is the bitter, derisive and myopic rantings of a Shane Douglas or an Ian Rotten, the book is so much better off as it is: a straight account of the facts, without political leanings or dirty laundry being aired about. It’s refreshing, especially in an industry as political as wrestling, to get something that isn’t strained through some emotional filter … but, paradoxically, there isn’t a lot of fanboy passion through the narrative, either. The Death Of WCW, even when lampooning and lamenting at the litany of mistakes made by the WCW braintrust, never hid the fact that the authors were first and foremost fans of WCW who were examining the ruins of their beloved promotion with a heavy heart. Turning The Tables doesn’t have that passion in it; there’s no beating heart, no sense of loss, just a journalistic examination. Maybe, with how ECW seems to inspire partisan opinions, that’s how any ECW book has to be … but I can’t believe that. Others have managed to find the balance.
As for the question of depth … at 196 pages, this clocks in even shorter then the Williams book. Chapters run 4-6 pages usually, so just as it seems you might be getting to the meat of a topic (Mass Transit, TNN, the NWA Tourney), you’ve hit chapter’s end. I can’t begin to speculate on why the book was kept short, but another 100 pages could’ve turned this book from a Spike Dudley-sized appetizer to a Rhino-sized buffet table.
When I got the book, I was nervous, even hesitant. I knew the author was proud of his work, and he believed it the solution to my woes for a real ECW history, without the BS. While he didn’t fail, I can’t say it’s the bullseye I was hoping for. The brevity of many of the chapters makes the book over before it should be, with such a subject as deep as ECW, and the cold, flat rendering of a lot of the material makes the book overly analytical. Of course, I could be off the mark and Mr. Lister may not have been aiming to make a passionate, fanboyish historical account; maybe he wanted to stick to the numbers and nothing but. But for my money, I crave a little more, and I think Joe Book-reader wants a little more then just the facts and nothing but. That’s not to say that the book is bad; even with the flaws, the book doesn’t succumb to many of the pitfalls the Williams book stumbled into. But make no mistake: just because it’s a better book doesn’t mean it’s a great book. It’s like Hank Aaron stepping up to the plate against a high school pitcher … and hitting a single; you just know it could be better.
Final score: 6.5.
Turning The Tables: The Story Of Extreme Championship Wrestling can be ordered through the official website for 8.99 in the UK and 15.99 in the States.