Monday, January 17, 2022

Review of "Blood and Fire"

Every now and then, I get asked to review books on professional wrestling.  Now whether one considers it "sport" or "entertainment" can be up for debate, but there is no debate when I am asked - I always enjoy reading about the industry.  This is another good book on a legend in the business, the Sheik.  Here is my review of "Blood and Fire."

Title/Author: “Blood and Fire: The Unbelievable Real-Life Story of Wrestling’s Original Sheik” by Brian R. Solomon

Rating: 5 of 5 stars (excellent)

Review: In the heyday of televised professional wrestling in the 1950s and 1960s, one of the biggest draws was in the Detroit territory was the Sheik whose real life name was Ed Farhat.  His outlandish and brutal wrestling style combined with his promotional company Big Time Wrestling made him a huge success in Detroit as well as a few other territories.  This book by Brian R. Solomon tells of the Sheik’s interest in wrestling, his rise to success and his ultimate downfall.  It should be noted early that this Sheik is not to be confused with the Iron Sheik who was part of the rise in popularity of WWF (now WWE) entertainment in the 1980’s.

The book is not only a well-researched and well documented description of the Sheik’s life both in an out of the ring, but it is a nice illustration of the wrestling industry at the time territorial companies were ruling the day.  Stories of how the Sheik would pilfer talent from other well-known wrestlers who were running their own organizations such as Dick “The Bruiser” (who was Farhat’s main competition in Detroit) and Vern Gagne whose AWA enterprise was also enjoying success in the Midwest.  This was my favorite part of the book as a reader will learn much about the business in those days before the bigger corporate entities like today’s WWE became the only show in town.

The Sheik’s wrestling style is also well chronicled, as he was one of the first wrestlers to use outlandish tricks and special effects.  His fireballs became as much of a trademark as his pointed boots.  While this was proving to be very successful for Farhat on his way to the top, it also contributed to his downfall.  Between his refusal to allow any other wrestler, heel or babyface, to defeat him in his matches, much of the talent he sought to keep ended up going to other territories or eventually signed with WWE or their main competition in the 1980’s and 1990’s, WCW.  It led to the demise of Big Time Wrestling in the US, but the Sheik was able to become a draw for a few years in Japan.  Of note, Farhat was one of the managers for Antonio Inoki when he had his infamous wrestler-boxer match against Muhammad Ali in 1976.

Farhat’s personal life is not forgotten in the book, as his marriage to his wife Joyce had a lot of turbulence but stayed intact for 42 years.  His many trips to Japan, infidelity and substance abuse led to many of these issues.  It was nice to see, however, that he was able to have a positive accomplishment near the end of his involvement with wrestling when he was trained two successful wrestlers in the ECW company (that eventually was bought out by WWE) – Sabo (who was his nephew) and Rob Van Dam.  He eventually succumbed to cancer in 2003 and while at first he was shunned by most in the industry, WWE gave him a fitting and well deserved place in their Hall of Fame.

A complete book on the life and career of one of the most successful wrestlers and promoters during the territorial era, this is a book that any wrestling fan should read, whether a fan of that era, during the boom in the 1980’s when wrestling became a part of pop culture, or even the current version which bears some resemblance to the Sheik’s more outlandish schemes.

I wish to thank ECW Press for providing a copy of the book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Link: https://ecwpress.com/products/blood-and-fire
 

Thursday, January 13, 2022

Review of "The War"

As a fan of boxing, especially in the 1980's and all the great fights and fighters of that time, one fight always stands out in my mind.  Finding a book about that fight and the boxers was a very pleasant surprise - here is my review of that book simply titled "The War"


 Title: "The War: Hagler-Hearns and Three Rounds For the Ages" by Don Stradley

Rating: 5 of 5 stars (Outstanding)

Review: The decade of the 1980’s is considered by many to be the best decade for boxing. Two of the sport’s stars in that decade, Marvelous Marvin Hagler and Thomas Hearns, fought in 1985 in a frenzied brutal bout that is still talked about more than 35 years later. That includes this excellent book by Don Stradley.


The bout itself was not long, as the title infers as Hagler knocked out Hearns late in the third round. But the action before the punch that felled Hearns, especially in the first round, was back and forth between both fighters and even was stopped by referee Richard Steele as he was concerned about a cut suffered by Hagler. Stradley interviews many journalists who were working at the fight and their recollections make for compelling reading. This is especially noteworthy when most of them share what they saw live that just couldn’t be capturers by the viewers of the fight on television or in the theaters and arenas showing the fight via closed circuit broadcasts, which were the main way to view a fight at the time.


The writing of the build-up of the fight was excellent as well. The promoters, most notably Bob Arum, felt a large media blitz was needed considering that this was not a heavyweight championship fight, nor did it include Sugar Ray Leonard, who had recently announced his retirement.


This is especially important as without his retirement, “The War” may never have happened as Hagler wanted a fight with Leonard and without that chance now, he was angry. Hearn, working his own goals of winning the championship in multiple weight divisions, saw this as his chance to do so. When the fight finally occurred, no one was disappointed save for Hearns.


As someone who sat in a hockey arena on April 15, 1985 and saw this fight, every over the top accolade written about this fight has merit. Stradley’s account of the eight minutes of boxing was not only bringing back memories of that night, but I also found my pulse quickening when recounting that first round when both fighters hurt the other one. Anyone who has any interest in this legendary bout should read this book.
 

Saturday, January 8, 2022

Review of "Bare Knuckle"

 Finding books on sports that I have never heard about is always a treat, and this one on underground bare knuckle fighting is one of those.  I had never heard of the sport or of one of the greats in the genre, Bobby Gunn.  His story is told in an excellent book - here is my review of "Bare Knuckle."


Title/Author: “Bare Knuckle: Bobby Gunn, 71-0, Undefeated, a Dad, a Dream.  A Fight Like You’ve Never Seen” by Stayton Bonner

Rating: 5 of 5 stars (outstanding)

Review: Brutal as they may be, fighting sports have long been popular not only for spectators but also participants of all races, sizes and socioeconomic statuses.  While boxing and mixed martial arts are the more well-known organized fighting sports, bare knuckle fighting has a life of its own.  It is popular and lucrative – and underground as it is illegal in most places and is often tied with organized crime.  One of the most successful bare knuckle fighters is Bobby Gunn, who never lost a match – at least by the unofficial records kept – and is a completely different person when not fighting.  His story is told in this excellent book by Stayton Bonner.

Gunn came from a family of fighters, most notably his father, a successful professional wrestler, who trained him originally to be a boxer.  While Bobby had some success in boxing, even winning a cruiserweight championship, his greatest success and fame came in the bare knuckle circuit.  Bonner does a terrific job of not only giving the reader the story of Gunn, but also a up-close look at the underground world of bare knuckle fighting.  These include the quick-cash bouts that can make a good fighter like Gunn become flush with money quickly, the training ground and fight sights that double as organized crime hangouts, and the sheer brutalness of the sport.  The sections that describe some of the fights, especially those stories shared by Gunn, are not for the squeamish as there are many serious injuries suffered by fighters of all skills.  It should also be noted that many of these fights are very short.  A five-minute brawl between combatants would be considered a very long bout in this world.

As for Gunn himself, his story is as complex as his chosen athletic endeavor.  He would hustle for construction jobs, mainly laying down asphalt for driveways and parking lots, in many locations.  This is consistent with his upbringing as an Irish Traveler.  The Traveler lifestyle, complete with the marginalization and fierce loyalty to their groups separated by ethnicity or religion, is a hard, nomadic one and Bonner brings this lifestyle to the reader just as well as he describes the bare knuckle fighting world.  While Gunn eventually settles down (mostly) in New Jersey with his wife and two children for work, he maintains his presence in the fighting world for both underground bare knuckle and in boxing.  For the latter, he not only tried an unsuccessful comeback in middle age but he also trained his son as well.

Gunn’s story about his family and personal life is touching. This is especially true when he talks about his daughter and what he will do for her, which was the main reason he kept fighting.  Given the world where he earns that kind of money so he can take her to Disney World or to provide her with a good education, it also seems like a contradiction.  But then, nothing ever came easy to any Gunn family member and this book is one that describes his life and his professional in a complete and wonderful manner.  Even if a reader is not a fan of fighting or combat sports, it is one that most will enjoy for the family bonding.  Even if that family is connected with a brutal, mostly illegal sport.

I wish to thank Blackstone Publishing for providing a copy of the book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Link: Amazon.com: Bare Knuckle: Bobby Gunn, 71–0 Undefeated. A Dad. A Dream. A Fight like You’ve Never Seen. eBook : Bonner, Stayton: Kindle Store


Wednesday, January 5, 2022

Review of "The Chalmers Race"

A new year usually means organizing and looking to see what to keep and what has been just laying around - including books.  This is a book I had been provided by the publisher some time ago, so it became my first piece in my organizing for 2022.  Here is my review of the 2014 book "The Chalmers Race"


 

Title/Author: "The Chalmers Race: Ty Cobb, Napoleon Lajoie and the Controversial 1910 Batting Title That Became a National Obsession" by Rick Huhn

Rating: 4 of 5 stars (good)

Review: One of the closest, and most controversial, baseball batting titles took place in 1910 when two future Hall of Fame hitters, Ty Cobb of the Detroit Tigers and Napoleon Lajoie of the Cleveland Naps (later Indians, now Guardians) battled for the title down to the last day of the season when Lajoie, thanks to some help by the St. Louis Browns, collected eight hits in a double header to edge out Cobb for the title – or so it appeared.  The stories of these two men as well as others and the craziness of the entire episode is captured in this well-researched and detailed book by Rick Hahn.

The title is so stated because 1910 was the first year in which the hitting leader in each major league would be awarded a new automobile from the Chalmers Motor Company, a generous offer by Hugh Chalmers who saw the tremendous advertising potential by donating a car to the winner.  The book starts off with short biographies of Chalmers, Cobb and Lajoie, followed by how both of the players fared for most of the 1910 season.  This part of the book is informative and very detailed, requiring careful reading to fully understand the complexities of all three men.

Once the final week of the 1910 season comes, which is about a third of the way through the book, that is when things get more interesting and Hahn's attention to detail really assist the reader in gaining a clear picture of not only what happened on the field, especially in that St. Louis-Cleveland doubleheader but also why Cobb really took the last two days off instead of playing.  He was accused of doing so in order to not lose the title to Lajoie, but that was not what he or anyone else was stating.  While that was part of the interest and controversy, that was minor compared to Lajoie.

Hahn here does his best work in the book, taking the reader to the field that day when the Browns let Lajoie bunt down the third base line as the rookie third baseman played deep on each at bat so that Lajoie would easily reach base on a base hit.  Immediately it was questioned if Lajoie, the Browns players or their manager Jack O'Connor, were part of a plan to make sure that Lajoie won the Chalmers.  There was also some bad history between O'Connor and Cobb (something both men denied) that fueled this speculation. 

More good writing is done when the final determination after gathering all official scorekeeper sheets is done when American League President Ban Johnson, who at the time was considered the most powerful man in baseball, declared Cobb the winner of the title.  That didn't end the controversy, however, and it lasted well into 1912, when O'Connor sued the Browns over his dismissal following the 1910 season when he contended that his contract stated he would have the job in 1911 as well. Some felt he was fired because of the Cobb-Lajoie batting race controversy, and the court case did nothing to dispel that even though the judge ruled in O'Connor's favor. 

Hahn finishes the book by showing that this was not the only time at batting title ended in controversy, most notably the 1976 American League title won by George Brett of Kansas City over teammate Hal McRae, who claimed that racism played a factor in that title.  There was also a study in 1981 by the Sporting News that questioned some of the calculations and concluded that Lajoie was indeed the batting title champion.  However, this again was never fully concluded and today, more than a century later, the 1910 American League batting championship is still cloudy.  Also, it should be noted that thanks to the generosity of Hugh Chalmers and his wish to put any controversy aside that would tarnish his or his company's name, both players received automobiles.

A book that illustrates not only the batting title but the state of baseball in the early twentieth century, this is a book that requires careful reading but will leave the reader much more knowledgeable about the entire controversy.

I wish to thank University of Nebraska Press for providing a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

Links: The Chalmers Race : Nebraska Press (unl.edu)

Saturday, January 1, 2022

Review of "We Want 'Bama!" - first review of 2022

Happy New Year!  It is only fitting that the first review of 2022 is on a team that was a major performer on the last day of the old year, the Alabama Crimson Tide.  This book on their 2020 championship is much more important for reading that just the football success.  Here is my review.


Title/Author: "We Want 'Bama!  Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide's Decade of Dominance" by Joe Goodman

Rating: 3 ½ of 5 stars (good)

Review: Just like everything else, the year 2020 saw major disruptions in college football.  However, one thing that didn't change was the dominance of the Alabama Crimson Tide and another national championship for them and coach Nick Saban.  This book by Joe Goodman on that squad is quite different than any other book written about a particular team or season – which I guess would be quite fitting for anything about 2020.

This book does have some review of the games and highlights of that season for the Crimson Tide, but that is not how this book is structured – indeed, it seems to jump all over the place, but underlying that is one central theme that was that, to the author and after reading this book to this reviewer as well, the Alabama football team's march and other means of communication about racial injustice made a much louder impression than anything they accomplished on the football field.  Goodman made this point in several different ways – through highlighting the activism of players like Chris Owen Najee Harris and Alex Leatherwood, who wrote a powerful song/poem that was recorded by him and many teammates.  It was quite moving to just read it and see how a college football team would come together during this summer of unrest in 2020.

While most of the book has a serious message, whether football or racial equality, Johnson throws in plenty of humor and sarcasm as well as uncomfortable truth in this book.  This is especially true when he talks about how important Alabama football is to the students, the university and the bank accounts of the university.  He will often end sections about these topics with the phrase "Roll Tide!", the cheer for the football team yelled by fans.  I thought that was a nice touch to illustrate his message.

While this book did seem to jump around on topics and at times, I had to re-read passages to figure out whether Goodman was being serious or sarcastic, it is one that really should be read by those who are unfamiliar with the history of racial injustice in Alabama as well as those who are either Alabama fans or wish to understand just how important the Crimson Tide football team is to the state.  It is also a great look into the detail of Nick Saban and his recruiting success that is the ultimate reason for Alabama's continuing success.

I wish to thank Grand Central Publishing for providing a copy of the book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Links: We Want Bama: A Season of Hope and the Making of Nick Saban's "Ultimate Team": Goodman, Joseph: 9781538716298: Amazon.com: Books