by Heath McCoy
ECW Press, 2007; 333 pp.; $22.95
Back in the early 80s, when I was about eleven or twelve, I remember gathering with my pre-adolescent friends on Saturday afternoons in Brad Johnston’s parent’s basement. There in the wood-panelled room hung with cheap oil paintings depicting scenes that looked like they were taken from a Louis L’Amour novel, we would watch Stampede Wrestling. Despite the cheap production values, the action was always over the top and predictably violent. But even at out tender age we suspected that the painful submission holds and body-slams administered by the likes of Bad News Allen and the Cuban Assassin were a fiction. In our vocabulary back then we’d shout at the screen, “Oh that’s sooo fake,” and roll our eyes.
In Pain and Passion: The History of Stampede Wrestling, journalist Heath McCoy seems to acknowledge our former youthful suspicions by writing about “professional” wrestling primarily as staged entertainment. At the same time, however, he writes with a sentimental attachment that praises the sheer athleticism and, indeed, pain and suffering that went into creating the gloriously absurd spectacle that was Stampede Wrestling.
Written mostly in a sensational journalistic style, Pain and Passion comes across more as a series of outrageous anecdotes and less of a historical account. Indeed, the book has a slapdash feel to it, but this seems to be more a reflection of the subject matter than anything else. As anyone who has watched mainstream wrestling will know (well, maybe not everyone), there is a contrived recklessness to the “sport” that is part and parcel of its charm—such as it is.
Regardless of its lowbrow status, McCoy has gone to great lengths to put together an intensely detailed history of a genuine Canadian “cultural” institution. But rather than be attracted to Pain and Passion as a historical account by itself, readers may be more drawn to the lurid, and seemingly endless, tales of life on the road and in the ring as a Stampede wrestler.
Certainly McCoy writes with serious praise about the athletic requirements of wrestling: “wrestling, for all of its theatrics, should be an athletic exhibition first and foremost, not some circus of depravity.” But it is always the depravity of wrestling to which audiences are drawn; likewise, it is the depraved spectacle of wrestling to which McCoy’s book constantly returns. Whether it is the vague homoeroticism inherent in two men wearing briefs and leather knee-high lace-up boots grappling with one another, or watching a “heel” (bad guy) like Abdullah the Butcher purposely cut himself or his opponent with a hidden razor and bleed all over the ring, wrestling is nothing if not a depraved spectacle.
For all of its exaggerated violence and melodrama, professional wrestling can perhaps best be thought of as storytelling, as basic and visceral as it is. As 70s Stampede Wrestling mainstay “Cowboy” Dan Krofatt says, “Why do soap operas on TV last for years and years?...They’re propelled not through violence but through storytelling.” As we suspected when we were kids, there seems to be more fiction than fact in the ridiculous extravaganza of wrestling. But like anyone who likes a good story, we stuck around for the blood. And there’s plenty of blood and good storytelling in Pain and Passion.From issue #48