Saturday, October 3, 2015

Mad Dogs, Midgets and Screw Jobs by Pat Laprade and Bertrand Hebert

Why I Read It: A continuing fascination with the history of professional wrestling.

Summary: "The Untold Story of How Montreal Shaped the World of Wrestling" - also the subtitle.

My Thoughts: There's a belief out there (a cheap way of saying that I don't remember where I read it or heard it first, but I know I didn't make it up) that says that in whatever age you became a fan of a particular sport, you consider that the "golden age" of that sport. For instance, if you were a Yankees fan in the '50s, in the '70s you looked back with wistful reverence at Mantle, DiMaggio and the gang. You probably don't like the designated hitter rule, free agency, etc.

I used to think that I was stuck that way as well, but I think my broad perspective as a historian has steered me clear of such pitfalls. But, in a weird way I long for the old days that happened before what should have been my golden ages.

Let me explain.

I was 12 when Hulk Hogan ran over the Iron Sheik and took the WWF title.I witnessed the beginning of the end, when professional wrestling's territorial system broke down and Vince McMahon's monopolistic machine ran roughshod over North America. One day I was in my living room watching the Grand Wizard lead Sgt. Slaughter down to a little television studio ring in Connecticut to put the cobra clutch on Salvatore Bellomo and the next I was tuned in to Wrestlemania with millions of other people.

But get this - I miss what happened before those days. And this book just fuels that fire.

In those pre-Hulkamania days, wrestling was local. We had the northeast, Stamford, Connecticut, based territory, which was, incidentally, the old WWF. We also received broadcasts from Dallas, Texas, but the worlds were one hundred percent separate. There was no way in hell that Kerry Von Erich would ever wrestle "Superfly" Jimmy Snuka. No way, no how, never, ever. Neither organization admitted the other existed, at least not on the air. In those days, pre-cable, pre-internet, you could do that. And so, in that way, Montreal was a territory unto itself.

It was a beautiful thing. You could build a storyline without having to rely on facts. A wrestler could come in from the outside and start fresh, or with a backstory of having terrorized some other part of the world, and barely anybody would care to check; you suspended your disbelief, whether you thought it was all real or not. Wrestlers changed names, gimmicks, gear and nobody ran reports to expose who they were in former lives.

But the amazing thing about the wrestling world is its transitory nature. Wrestlers did move, from territory to territory as storylines or drawing power ran out. And because so many of them had long careers, coming in and out of "retirement" into their 70s, for some, they bumped into each other all over the continent and the globe. As such, any singular territory was a crossing ground. Montreal was such a place. The best wrestlers in the world moved through, or stayed permanently: Andre the Giant, Abdullah the Butcher, Hulk Hogan and more.

Montreal, too, was a proving ground. Many of the world's best known wrestlers of the '50s through the '80s were born and bred in the area, men like the Vachons, the Martels and the Rougeaus. This book shows how they started local, made their marks elsewhere and returned to continue the long legacy of professional wrestling in the province of Quebec. In short, while this book is about wrestling in Montreal, it is full of familiar names. If you watched the WWF in the late 1970s, you will now get the rest of the story of who Dino Bravo was before he headed south for Connecticut, and learn that Rick Martel had a brother who wrestled, too. Moreover, you will learn that the Rougeaus, who we in the '80s knew as Jacques and Raymond, were, and are, just one generation of Montreal's dynastic wrestling family.

Wrestling has more or less come and gone for Montreal. Its heyday is definitely over, though there are still points of pride, like Kevin Steen, now known as Kevin Owens, the current WWE Intercontinental champion, born in Saint-Jean-sur Richelieu, and there will always be the start-up indy organization that can never compete with the WWE. But it has a glorious past, one that I miss, even though I wasn't there.

The authors bring the book forward through time and fill each chapter with mini biographies of the many wrestlers, Quebec-born and non-Quebecers, who made the scene great. There are comical moments, like when the Chicago area promoters first get a glimpse of Jean Ferre, and immediately change his name. "In Montreal you're calling him Giant Fairy?" And so, Andre the Giant was reborn. The format lends itself to repetition of information, but it's worth it once one is engrossed. It reinforces the melting pot history of the territory, and of professional wrestling in general.

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