by Brandon James Anderson
When I was about 11 years old, my parents took my brother and I to the Palace of Auburn Hills to see a WWE (then WWF) live event. One of the first matches on the card was a bout between Lex Luger and the British Bulldog and tag team champions Owen Hart and Yokozuna. During the match the Bulldog turned his back on Luger by refusing to be tagged in and thus “turning heel,” as they say.
What’s interesting about that match, now, is not the double-cross but the inherent sadness of the fate befallen its participants. Of those four men involved, three are dead: Hart fell to his death in a stunt gone wrong in 1999, Yoko died in a hotel room a year later, and the Bulldog followed suit in 2002. Though Luger is alive, he suffered a stroke that temporarily left him paralyzed.
Even those who don’t know a pile driver from a screwdriver surely have heard of Chris Benoit, who, in 2007, murdered his wife and young son before hanging himself in his in-home gym. While Benoit holds an infamous place in history as the wrestling world’s O.J. Simpson and Casey Anthony, his early death is far from unique.
It’s this phenomenon that is the focus of David Shoemaker’s new book The Squared Circle: Life, Death, and Professional Wrestling. Shoemaker’s allegorical, highbrow approach to the oft-viewed lowbrow world of pro wrestling is a staple of his work on Grantland where he (of course) writes under the pen name of ‘The Masked Man.’ That same style is present in his book which begins by chronicling the near-Civil War-era early days of pro wrestling.
In fact, The Squared Circle, feels very much like a history lesson filled with interesting anecdotes of the industry and its occasional brushes with cultural significance (the stars of the 1930’s, for instance, gave featured interviews to the New Yorker). About a quarter way in, however, one begins to see Shoemaker’s real thesis as the tragic pattern of wrestler after wrestler succumbing to an early demise becomes evident.
One of the nice things about the book is its accessibility. Shoemaker begins by covering specific eras of wrestling before eventually devoting chapters to specific dead wrestlers. The chapter dedicated to ‘Macho Man’ Randy Savage is particularly compelling with Shoemaker building the narrative that Savage seemed like the one star who would live out a happy and fulfilling retirement. This, naturally, would not be the case.
Interspersed throughout the book are sections dedicated to various black spots of the industry. The section on the wrestling’s portrayal of Native Americans is a stand-out, as is the chapter on the industry’s long-marred handling of race (an abridged, YouTube-heavy version appears on Grantland).
It should be noted that much of Shoemaker’s chapters seem to be rehashed from his work on the sports website Deadspin where he first rose to popularity with his ‘Dead Wrestler of the Week’ feature.
The Owen Hart chapter begins, and ends, with his tragic death, yet does little to add anything new to the knowledge base of those who were watching wrestling back in 1999. Instead, Shoemaker’s discussion mounts to little more than a Wikipedia entry (a footnote in the chapter mentions that Hart’s pranks on fellow wrestlers backstage are “the stuff of legend” without even describing one such instance).
While Shoemaker leaves a bit to be desired, he provides enough insight throughout the book’s 350-plus pages to hold the intrigue of anyone who has ever spent any part of their youth enjoying the scripted arts.