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Sex, Lies, and Headlocks: The Real Story of Vince McMahon and the World Wrestling Federation
by Digable James Cobo

Consider film.

In 1914, one year before D.W. Griffith's landmark Birth of a Nation, film was by-and-large considered to be a novelty, a slightly more evolved form of the picture postcard. It wasn't true, of course; the canon doesn't lack titles from before 1915. It's just that Birth redefined the way in which film was viewed, something that all the Great Train Robberys and Corner in Wheats only hinted at. The difference wasn't in the content, although Birth was certainly revolutionary (and abhorrent) in that regard as well; it was in the presentation. Birth used film as a pulpit instead of a page in a book; it wrung all the dramatic potential out of every single shot by using all the techniques then known in film and a few others (like the close-up and the wide shot) that were barely on the radar. It's almost universally credited with legitimizing film as a viable form of expression in America simply because of what it did - remove the boundaries forcefully.

Sex, Lies, and Headlocks (SLH) is an entertaining read - a very entertaining one - but as seemingly with all books written on wrestling, it doesn't do its subject justice. Its big selling point is its outsider status; the book makes a very big point in the credits toward the end about how Vince McMahon denied authors Shaun Assael and Mike Mooneyham sources from the WWF as if to bulk up its you-should-not-be-here breaking of kayfabe. And in that one respect, SLH succeeds; in terms of dishing out dirt, this book is second to none.

It's just that it's not anything particularly special. Structurally, tonally, and stylistically, SLH is so similar to all the other outsider texts on the marketplace today that it barely warrants a reading. The only conceivable reasons to pick it up are the pleasure of reading and the heretofore untold information and again, I feel obligated to point out that it succeeds on both counts. The problem is that it sacrifices authority for audience, and given the weight of the subject mater, it feels like a wasted opportunity.

The centerpiece of the book is, of course, the steroid trials. Assael and Mooneyham devote multiple chapters to Dr. George Zahorian and the actual trial and the subpoena process and how it affected the business, which is all well and good. Unfortunately, they pose it anecdotally, occasionally even parenthetically, as they do when they reveal how close the defense came to being charged with obstruction of justice. Now granted, I'm not one to argue against a focused narrative, but at the same time, it's a really isolationist approach to take. And of all the approaches they could have taken, that's pretty much the worst one.

Wrestling lends itself to a closed mind very easily because of how self-contained it purports to be; everything that happens in the ring is ostensibly derived strictly from the wrestling programming. It's escapism, pure and simple; when you watch a wrestling match, ideally you shouldn't have to worry about anything else. Not surprisingly, pretty much all the books mirror this structure; the autobiographies limit their authority to one insider viewpoint while the outsider books attempt to contextualize wrestling within its own storyline strictures. It's a great way to go; not particularly challenging, but effective and reliable.

The problem is that eventually, the books start to fall into easily defined patterns. I remember after I read Mick Foley's Have A Nice Day, I never felt particularly motivated to check out any of the other WWF autobiographies, nor do I feel like reading any of the other non-WWF ones today (the lone exception being Pure Dynamite, and that's more because Tom Billington came up a totally different way than most other American wrestlers). All I need to validate this disinterest is to pick up one of the other books; I've done it, and they all essentially read the same. SLH is no different. It's very much in the mold of Scott Keith's The Buzz on Professional Wrestling - the history of North American wrestling told in a dry anecdotal style. And simply because SLH is better-written and better-researched doesn't necessarily make it easier to shake the notion that you're just reading this year's update.

What made Birth such a landmark film is the way it contextualized its medium. Other films which preceded it - indeed, other Griffith films which preceded it - were content to let the mediumbe; Griffith's own A Corner in Wheat used many of the same techniques as Birth, but only on the basis of their narrative expediency. Birth was arguably the first film to use the camera to supersede the narrative. For the first time, the camera didn't simply lay out the narrative and expect the audience to pick up the clues and follow; more than any film before it, the camera gave insight into the relationships between the characters, the setting, and the medium itself. It underscored the possibilities of film rather than just laying them all out there and saying "here".

You can see, then, why I'm so frustrated by SLH. Wrestling is fascinating in part because of how self-contained it is and what the wrestlers do, but it's equally - if not more - fascinating because of its contextuality. The rise of the antihero as the New Hero in wrestling, for instance, is certainly chronicled in SLH, but it's robbed of its full potential simply because all Assael and Mooneyham do is say "Then the antihero archetype got popular". That's not enough - not nearly enough. A proper discussion of the antihero would cite its presence in other forms of media, current events, and in the shifting of pro wrestling's demographic (among many, many other things). Assael and Mooneyham - as they do in varying degrees throughout the book - just shrug it off as an incident. It's doubly frustrating because they clearly did their reasearch when it came down to the actual wrestling history. There's so much stuff, so much picky, minute stuff, in SLH that it's almost worth buying it just for that. But I can go home and check out The Book of Lists from the Durham Public Library if I want that. Wrestling history is just that - history, and to reduce history, even wrestling history, to the level of trivia is infuriating.

This is probably an unfair burden with which to saddle Assael and Mooneyham; it's clear from the cover art and rarefied subject matter - both of which only present Vince McMahon - that their aim was pop culture rather than high culture. I don't care. They squandered a big opportunity here. Assael's writing style is fluid and exceptionally readable; Mooneyham brings both journalistic credibility (as the writer of the longest-running wrestling column in America) and access to insider information; and they're just tackling SUCH a story. I always forget how deeply lurid and trashy and appealing wrestling history is until I read it, and then when I do I always immediately start writing a movie script in my head. But even armed with all of this, they elect to pander instead of explore. They give us the best possible version of more of the same.

And the things that they gloss over aren't insignificant either. By and large, SLH glosses over everything that didn't have to do with story of the business of wrestling - style, booking determinants, really even the actual wrestling. And really, that's when the red flags go up in my mind; SLH shows its true colors to be commerce, not context. Hell, it even operates on the same premise as most wrestling companies these days - protect the business by exposing it to a curious audience. It doesn't make this any less entertaining, but if you want something substantiative, why not go straight to the source? Why read this book instead of watching actual wrestling?

I hate to be so negative about this book, because I can't underemphasize how engaging it was. (I actually read the whole thing in one four-hour go - it's that good.) It's just that this could have been a major step forward in the perception of wrestling. Perception of credibility comes from establishing a canon and establishing a context, and this book squanders the opportunity to make a fair run at both. The worst part of it all is that Sex, Lies, and Headlocks is, in all likelihood, the best reference book for modern wrestling. What does it say about the product when the central critical text is basically just PR?

Digably Yours,
Digable James Cobo
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