‘Sex, Lies, and Headlocks: The Real Story of Vince McMahon and World Wrestling Entertainment’ by Shaun Assael and Mike Mooneyham (2004)

I loved WWF (as it then was) as a kid, staying up all night to watch the Royal Rumble, refusing to fully accept it was scripted and staging highly dangerous wrestling matches with friends.  I don’t think I’ve seen 5 minutes of wrestling in the last 10 years or more.

When starting this blog I started hunting for books on sports stories I wanted to know more about.  Near the top of the search list was a biography of Vince McMahon, the legendary owner of World Wresting Entertainment.  The one book I could find that promised to cover McMahon’s life in any detail was Sex, Lies, and Headlocks from 2004.  I’ve enjoyed (and reviewed here and here) Assael’s other books and was looking forward to this trip down nostalgia lane.

Sex, Lies, and Headlocks gives a historical overview of the business of wrestling.  It’s very much about the business – the tv deals, the corporate takeovers, the court cases.  At its heart it’s the story of how wrestling became a billion dollar commodity.  A big focus is put on the various television networks and the role they played in the development of wrestling.  I have to admit, I would’ve enjoyed a bit more focus on some of the wrestlers personal stories.

The book also serves as a biography of Vince McMahon.  It covers his expansion of WWF after buying out his father, the controversy around steroids and sexual assault allegations and, in particular, the Monday Night Wars between WWF and rival WCW to be the dominant wrestling brand in the USA.

It is not a flattering portrayal of McMahon.  It’s clear that the McMahon family did not engage with the authors and it’s likely that those who were willing to speak were among the many who bore grudges against Vince.

Vince McMahon is a fascinating character.  He clearly has a keen sense of what sells and an absolute willingness to cross any boundary necessary to ensure his business is successful.  I always thought his decision to insert himself as the bad guy character in the show was utter genius – the blending of fact and fiction helping fans willfully suspend their disbelief and buy fully into the story-lines.  There are plenty of frankly bizarre anecdotes in the book which paint a picture of a slightly unhinged man with a genius for marketing and a love of risk taking.

There’s a good section on the XFL and McMahon’s ultimately doomed attempt to launch his own American Football league.  It’s particularly interesting given that XFL is now due to return in 2020.  I’m very interested in how XFL version 2 will fare, especially having recently read Jeff Pearlman’s excellent ‘Football for a Buck: The Crazy Rise and Crazier Demise of the USFL’ which captures the challenges and possibilities of a spring football league.

The book is definitely aimed at readers who may have been casual wrestling fans rather than at hardcore fans who will be well familiar with the stories told in the book.

I enjoyed the book a lot.  It’s well written, interesting and entertaining.  Vince McMahon is a fascinating character and I’d love to read a book updating on what has happened in the last 15 years!

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(I can’t write about Vince McMahon with expressing my childhood frustration with how the name McMahon is pronounced in the USA – it’s an Irish name and in the Irish pronunciation the H is not silent. –  it’s pronounced with three syllables- MAC-MA-HON, not MAC-MANN)

 

 

‘Steroid Nation: Juiced Home Run Totals, Anti-aging Miracles, and a Hercules in Every High School: The Secret History of America’s True Drug Addiction’ by Shaun Assael (2007)

Steroid Nation sets out to tell the story of how steroids and steroid use became a significant part of sporting life in the USA.  Assael paints a broad canvas that stretches from the mavericks that started an underground steroid movement to the very highest levels of professional sport.  The book follows a chronological timeline from Gold’s gym in LA in the 80’s right up to the BALCO case in 2007.

This is the second of Assael’s books I have read, and like ‘The Murder of Sonny Liston’ it contains a cast of characters that at times seem too unbelievable to be true.   The book is at it’s best when it tells the untold story of the likes of Dan Duchaine and the underground bodybuilding scene of the 1970’s and 80’s.  At times these chapters reminded me of movies like Blow that focus on the emergence of a drug empire from a largely unexpected source.   Assael paints an intoxicating picture of excess, greed, muscles and risk – young men embarking on a journey with a self-righteousness that left them blind to the inevitable tragedies that would befall them.

Some of the other material deserves (and has received) full length books of their own and Assael can understandably only scratch the surface of Ben Johnson, Mark McGwire and BALCO for example.  What it does do brilliantly is tie the various streams together and paint the wider cultural issue of steroids-  it’s a problem at every level of sport – from gym users, to high school to the major leagues and Olympics. The political background of how supplements/steroids became (badly) regulated in the US is also really interesting.    Overall, the book is a brilliant introduction to the world of sports doping and would send a curious reader towards other really good books like The Dirtiest Race in History or League of Denial 

Assael also shines a light on the crusading drug enforcement officials – if anything the focus on the likes of Travis Taggart has gotten even brighter since this book was published. The book paints the origins of the USDA’s move to start to ban people on the basis of documentary evidence rather than relying on a failed test – the approach that ultimately led to Lance Armstrong confessing.  These parts of the book flow less smoothly or quickly than the rest – I found them very interesting though and it’s clear that Assael has enormous respect for those law enforcement officers who dedicated their careers to this fight. It’s slightly depressing reading about these guys at a time when WADA is being discredited for its favourable treatment of Russia and an apparent lack of objectivity.

I really enjoyed Steroid Nation. I’m conscious that I’ve just read this book 10 years after it first came out.  It feels like a sequel (or a revised and updated edition) would be a similarly fascinating read with Lance Armstrong now exposed, the Russian doping scandal and plenty of additional material available.  If anything, I would suspect that the term Steroid Nation remains as apt and relevant to describe sporting culture as it did a decade ago.

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