Cucch’s Book Review: “National Wrestling Alliance: The Untold Story of the Monopoly That Strangled Pro Wrestling.”

Most wrestling fans today, be it casual or hardcore, consider American wrestling a one horse race. Ever since WCW, the only modern competitor to WWE, was run into the ground and bought for pennies on the dollar by Vince McMahon, wrestling has essentially been limited to one big dog and a few feral cats. Ring of Honor was a much celebrated independent, almost in the same vein as ECW. That organization has fallen on tough times and is not longer for this world. (From my source who worked for the company, he says everything bad you read about ROH right now is true). TNA was a novel, if terribly named, idea that seems to be reaching its wits end at this stage of the game. If these two organizations were to go belly-up, it would leave WWE and a bunch of no name independents.

But inside that opening paragraph some astute readers (or critics…I got plenty of those) will say “Well, wasn’t TNA once NWA-TNA?” Yes, it was. Before Vince McMahon Junior was out of diapers, before John Cena could say poopy, before Mae Young….hit menopause, there was one monopoly that dominated the industry and provided the very best in grappling and the very worst in politics: The National Wrestling Alliance.

For a generation of fans, the NWA was the promotion to watch. Whereas the WWF was “Sports Entertainment”, a phrase many longtime fans have come to deride and hate, the NWA, in the 1980’s was the true wrestling promotion. There have been a couple of books that have documented the history of the WWF and its head honcho Vincent Kennedy McMahon (“Sex, Lies and Headlocks” springs to mind), but those books are generally pretty thin on content considering the long history of the WWF. Tim Hornbaker has authored, quite possibly, the most definitive account on an organization a wrestling fan can find. You see, if one is to believe WWE revisionist history, and I implore you to go back and watch Jim Ross’ commentary in introducing and hyping the WrestleMania 20 Main Event, to see just how deluded WWE’s history of wrestling has become. He listed the “World” Championship” as the same title that was defended by Hackenschmidt and Gotch. Not true, not by a long shot. The truth is, the NWA we most associate with was born in Iowa, in a town, fittingly, called Waterloo, in 1948.

Hornbaker’s study on the NWA is just stunning. The man has uncovered every nook and cranny of what the NWA was, and I am not one who is going to describe the whole book, for fear you will not read it. Suffice to say he nails this shit right on the head.

A quick synopsis:

After Ed “Strangler” Lewis and the Goldust trio help mainstream wrestling through fixing fights to bring the biggest buck possible to the promoters, chicanery abounds as Jack Curley and some other jilted promoters start leaking secrets of the sport, as well as results, to newspaper promoters. The 1920’s feature some amazing double crosses that make Bret-Shawn look like a walk in the park. Basically putting it, the 20’s were good for the world of pro wrestling, but promoter collusion made it untenable for most of the 30’s and 40’s. The era was dominated by Joe Stetcher, Jim Londos, Stanislaus Zybysko, and the man who would carry the torch into the new era, Ed “Strangler” Lewis.

Wrestling was in a rut as the 40’s began. War had broken out all over the globe. The best grapplers, much like baseball stars and boxing stars, had been stretched all over the Pacific Theater as well as throughout Europe. Once the Second Big War ended, it seemed the “Trusts”, as wrestling promoters had called certain alliances between territories in order to maximize profits, had disintegrated. In a meeting in Waterloo, Iowa in 1948, the biggest wrestling promoters (shylocks) in the industry met and set a new set of guidelines in order to better ensure and organize the wrestling industry in America. That organization begat the National Wrestling Alliance (Prior to that, the NWA that was of name value was the National Wrestling Association).

As the war ended, a St. Louis native, Lou Thesz, was chosen as the standard bearer. Trained by Strangler Lewis himself and the merciless Ad Santel, Thesz was a force to be reckoned with. Thesz more or less held the NWA crown for the next 15 years, and for good reason: he was tougher than, as Jim Ross may say, a two dollar steak. No one fucked with Thesz, because Thesz in a blink of an eye or snap of a finger could transfer from work to shoot. And you did now want Lou Thesz shooting on you. Thesz became the standard bearer for the organization, and all was good.

Not. Quite.

Certain promoters felt left out by the NWA, whose President was Sam Muschnick. Muschnick was the NWA’s best president, but members insisted on putting forth their own agenda first. So certain territories got iced out, and this left the US Department of Justice to hold hearings against the NWA. One was filed by a California promoter, one by a Iowa promoter, and one by Sonny Myers. The NWA did not win, but did not lose in any of these. Yet, the power they had wielded in the 1950’s was greatly diminished by the time the 1960’s and 70’s hit.

The book features early histories of the organization, from Pinkie George, the father of the NWA, to Sam Muschnick, to the forerunners of the NWA like Lewis and Londos and Toots Mondt. It also describes the splits of members from the NWA. The major one described in the book is the establishment of Capitol Wrestling by a man named Vincent James McMahon. Personally, as a resident of New England, that was the chapter that most spoke to me. No one author has quite written the full story of the history of the WWF/WWE, and I anxiously look forward to that. This book remains the best as far as the build up to when Vinnie Mac took over. That alone makes it worth the read.

After the descriptions of the early years of the organization, after all the antitrust lawsuits, after all the political backbiting, after all accounts by opposition that the NWA was, more or less, a cabal, do some of us more modern fans get some gratification. The book describes all NWA Champions. The book is written in 2007, so you get Brisco, Flair, Race, even Dan Severn. This is an amazing all encompassing book. You want Thesz? You get him. Billy Watson? He is there. Hell, Ronnie Garvin, Dusty Rhodes, Sting? All there.

To wit, this is probably the most researched, well written book ever on pro wrestling. I would implore you to seek it out and digest it. I had a hard time personally reading it the first time, but after a few layers, the thing becomes absolutely delicious. Seek it out, as it may be the best book on pro wrestling ever written.