Sleeper Hold: How Professional Wrestling Worked


(November 14, 2018) Thanks, Jon Langmead, for exhuming me for Slam! Magically all these old cassette tapes with interviews of wrestlers and promoters from the mid-1980s moldering in my basement have been transformed from sad junk into golden artifacts. Someday I’ll get around to digitizing them.


Sleeper Hold: The Dream

In high school I started sending items into the New Yorker, and after many form rejections, began getting encouraging letters from real, live editors shortly after college. Early in 1985 after a year and a half as a cub reporter at Newsday Sports taking school game results over the phone with occasional reporting assignments, I decided to try my luck, and my half a dozen clips got me an interview at the magazine's old offices on W. 43rd St. "We don't have any jobs," Tony Gibbs said, then catching me off-guard, "but if you'd like to try writing something for us, we'd be interested." "How about pro wrestling?" I blurted. Gibbs nodded.

I dove into the wrestling world and held my breath for a year and a half. It felt dangerous and infantile, a kindergarten Mafia, threats and anger and phony blood. I knew better than to try to get any of the wrestlers to dish, though a few of them -- Titan boys, naturally -- feigned treachery, acting as though they would tell me secrets they would have reported to Vince. I had no axe to grind but felt genuine admiration for the great ones, plus a sincere regard for just how hard a life it was. The whole thing was just such crazy, insane, American fun, having anything to do with it, even writing an investigation, was a panic. I saw my role as a curious wrestling fan, except instead of Wrestling's Main Event Magazine or TV Sports Magazine I was writing for The New Yorker.

Why they rejected Sleeper Hold I can only speculate. Right before Vince McMahon threw me out of the Titan Sports office in Connecticut -– ostensibly as punishment for asking a question about Toots Mondt -- a brief, not-very-cordial chat with a paranoid Jim Barnett had left me with a sense of foreboding, since Barnett was profoundly well-connected, particularly in the TV business, and at the time they were knee-deep into negotiations over Saturday Night's Main Event. Did NBC play a part in quashing it? I'll probably never know for sure.

At the time, I still thought I could find a book publisher, but the prevailing wisdom was, as one editor said, "Wrestling fans don't read, and the ones that do, won't buy your book." A couple things nearly came of it: for a month or two I worked on a screenplay with Eddie Mansfield, until he called me up and started threatening me, why I can't remember; and a cokehead book packager tried to get me to write a low-rent coffee-table fan book.

It broke me, but weirdly enough, I would do it all again. Painful as my wrestling experience wound up being, it could have been worse -- after John Stossel took a beating from Dave Shultz, he turned into a neocon anti-consumer affairs reporter.

There's no end of falsehood in the wrestling business -- every time you think you've gotten to the truth it turns out to be just another fabrication. But two people were especially generous with their time and expertise, and in a business essentially built on lies, they shone out: Dave Meltzer, the intrepid, devoted, phenomenally knowledgeable chronicle of the squared circle, talked with me nearly every day for a year. His expertise was matched not just by his intelligence, but yes, taste; and Roy Shire answered my questions with great-humored candor and forthrightness.

On the other hand, what he lacked in candor Buddy Rogers made up for in spontaneity and force of personality. At one point in the interview, when we were talking about Don Muraco, I started to get a little fed up with the kayfabe malarkey, and just to see how he'd react, I mentioned how I thought Mr. Fuji, Muraco's manager at the time, was really helping him become more evil. "Muraco don't need Fuji," said Rogers, turning a fearsome look of scorn on me, "any more than I need a wart hangin' off my eye."

Sleeper Hold

  1. Sleeper Hold, Part 1

    Washington's Birthday, 1985: The World Wrestling Federation's "War to Settle the Score" helps kick off the excitement. Following a look at the WWF's media coverage -- including a detailed account of the beating administered to ABC reporter John Stossel by the WWF's "Dr. Death," Dave Schultz -- we examine the history of pro wrestling in this century.

  2. Sleeper Hold, Part 2

    More on wrestling's history, featuring comments by outspoken former grappler and promoter "Professor" Roy Shire and many others.

  3. Sleeper Hold, Part 3

    Back in the ring: the close of the Washington's Birthday card, capped with an extensive interview with "Nature Boy" Buddy Rogers.

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