Friday, November 23, 2007
BOOK REVIEW - PAIN AND PASSION: THE HISTORY OF STAMPEDE WRESTLING
To get directly to the point, the title says it all and this book delivers. Author Heath McCoy, a pop culture writer for The Calgary Herald newspaper and a young man that grew up watching the Stampede Wrestling promotion as a fan, presents an affectionate and fair-minded look at both the Hart family and the company they operated for decades. McCoy’s take on the Stampede Wrestling circuit places the reader directly inside any one of Stu Hart’s old vans as the boys hit the road on a seemingly endless number of challenging (some would say brutal) tours.
On the plus side, the book is much more than a collection of amusing anecdotes. Rather than taking the lazy man’s approach by simply gathering and retelling old stories from the road, the author has done an excellent job of capturing the essence of what made Stampede Wrestling singularly exceptional in the grappling world. Of course, the story begins and ends with the promoter, along with his special and unique family.
As a child, Stu Hart grew up under the harshest conditions imaginable. Given his background, it’s not difficult to understand how the youngest member in a family of five would become a hard-nosed wrestler, then a promoter. When he was a child, Stu’s father stubbornly consigned himself, his wife and their three children to live in tents on the prairies through several harsh Canadian winters, thanks to a property dispute. How Stu would eventually raise his own family and run his wrestling business makes for a fascinating read. (Naturally, he took a very different approach from his old man, although there were hardships during some lean years). It’s fair to say that even those that are familiar with the tale will find more than enough rich detail, all of which serves to flesh out the picture.
But just what was it that made Stampede Wrestling so meaningful to so many wrestlers and fans? Different people will come to different conclusions, and none will necessarily be off base. It all began with Stu Hart’s vision of the sport. To him, professional wrestling had to appear as a competition. Having been trained by Jack Taylor, a legendary shooter in the business, Stu became a highly respected practitioner of his craft everywhere he went.
The author goes into this aspect of Stu’s early life in wrestling in a way that draws vivid word pictures without overstatement. Every bit as vital as the story of Stu’s travels within the business, his meeting and marriage to the beautiful Helen Smith is touching. Cynics that don’t know otherwise might proclaim their personal story as little more than a romantic fantasy. While they’d be wrong to dismiss the couple’s partnership in such general terms, in a sense it can be rightly said that Stu and Helen enjoyed a tender relationship amidst a world of brutality, ersatz or otherwise.
The stories that comprise the bulk of the book focus on the years of successes and occasional failures on the circuit Stu came to shape into Stampede Wrestling. They are sometimes shocking, frequently funny and unfailingly entertaining. As well as producing a viable wrestling product, Stu and Helen also believed in the maxim to be fruitful and multiply. The result was 12 healthy and beautiful children, 8 boys and 4 girls, and every one of them became involved in the world of pro wrestling through direct participation or marriage.
But it’s the wrestling lore and the well-documented narrative that invites the reader to join in, to become involved and share in the triumphs and defeats, the joys and the tragedies that comprise the Stampede Wrestling story. In its strongest years, the circuit typically featured outstanding, even breathtaking wrestling, thanks to an influx of talent from around the world. Just as well remembered are the never-ending series of pranks, some of which went beyond the pale to border on near-criminal acts. It’s all recounted on these pages with no punches pulled.
If it wasn’t obvious going in, it becomes abundantly clear that the rough humor which is invariably a part of the wrestling trade was a key element in the fabric that made Stampede Wrestling what it was. In fact, one comes away with the distinct impression that the Calgary company was Swerve Central. Once, two of the Hart brothers, Bruce and Owen, conspired to pull off a beauty on Brian Pillman. Brian had recently graduated from the Hart training camp and was now appearing with Bruce as one-half of Badd Company, the North American tag team champions. Lodging for the night in a sparse hotel in a small town, Brian met up with a lady acquaintance after the matches.
Having little else to do and feeling frisky, the Hart boys found a mangy stray dog and decided to feed the animal, then dress it up in Pillman’s Badd Company outfit (which included such accoutrements as sunglasses, leather jacket and bandana). Struck by a shared sense of inspired lunacy, they placed the dog under the sheets in Brian’s bed, where it promptly fell asleep. Before leaving the room, the duo put the finishing touches on the prank by removing all of the light bulbs, guaranteeing the shock effect would be heightened at such time as when Brian returned.
Pillman finally arrived in the early hours of the morning. The ensuing howls from both the surprised wrestler and the newly ordained Badd Company pooch awakened everybody on the floor. A mad dash followed, as Brian tried to escape down the hallway from what must have appeared to him as a crazed and rabid fan-dog. The mutt, no doubt having been startled by an unknown assailant, ran after the wrestler. Others stuck their heads out of their rooms to see what all the fuss was about and some of them too joined in the chase, forming something of an informal line of dog and running athletes.
But amidst all of the rough humor and great athleticism that characterized Stampede Wrestling, there is an all-pervasive sense of sadness and tragedy that is very much a part of the chronicle. The passing of those who died far too young figures into the account; fortunately, Heath McCoy relates this without descending into morbidity. The facts are discussed in an honest but sympathetic manner, especially the tragic death of the youngest member of the Hart family. As wrestling fans are more than aware, Owen fell to his death during a WWE show while performing a stunt he hadn’t wanted to do. The sobering story and its aftermath is not glossed over in the telling, nor should it be.
There are small quibbles to be had with some of the portrayals and perceptions found in the book. Most are of the trivial and unimportant variety. It’s to be expected in any endeavor where many different people are involved in relating their version of events, and personal accounts will undoubtedly vary. Nevertheless, “Pain and Passion: The History of Stampede Wrestling” by Heath McCoy and published by ECW Press, is a well-researched book that invites anyone, be they a confirmed wrestling fan or not, to gain an understanding of the people in the business on a very personal level. The reading experience is engrossing and rewarding. It’s fair to state that this entry is far more substantive and provides greater depth … and heart, no matter how you spell it ... than many similar attempts in the field of wrestling journalism.
Richard Berger is a freelance writer and editor with an extensive background in professional wrestling. His career includes media production for Stampede Wrestling, ring announcing, regular columns for WOW Magazine and IGN.com, and special feature work for other publications. Between June, 2007 and June, 2008, he wrote a weekly column for The Fight Network and Live Audio Wrestling. To discuss Richard’s articles or just about anything else, contact him at: WriterGuy1A@hotmail.com.
The small sampling of his work found here was originally published at The Fight Network and Live Audio Wrestling. The majority will appear in a soon-to-be-released book along with new material. Stay tuned for information as it becomes available!