Friday, October 21, 2011

Book Review: Hot Shots and High Spots

The name George Napolitano may or may not ring bells with some wrestling fans. While the man has been affiliated with professional wrestling for more than 40 years, he is not someone instantly recognizable as a known television performer or personality.

Breaking into the business as a photographer when it was comprised of smaller, frequently self-contained territories, Napolitano’s extensive career includes authoring and co-authoring nearly a dozen books on the subject. In the grappling industry, he has long been regarded as THE premier professional shutterbug. And I’m here to say that any doubts of that lofty designation are quickly dismissed with the release of Napolitano’s latest effort, Hot Shots and High Spots, available this month online and in bookstores.

The book is large, over-sized as it is with photographic tributes, lovingly presented and identified to unabashed wrestling fans, covering every decade since the 1960s. Limited in text, an abundance of words are not necessary to convey the emotions that go far beyond the ordinary. (That noted, there are also some lengthier passages that enhance the accompanying photography). Both the posed photos and those taken at the height of in-ring action are identified and beautifully rendered without compromise. It’s not difficult to state that any wrestling fan with a true love for the art of pro wrestling will be enthralled with the turn of every page.

Mind you, while most every sumptuous picture will likely cause the reader to experience a reaction, be it a large or small one, the difference mainly depends on where said reader’s wrestling frame of reference is centered. In the case of this reviewer, who discovered the uniquely American art form in 1958, that time period would be the 1960s through the 1980s. As such, there is a wealth of material to capture the eye. Without exaggeration, taking the time to study an image can give one something of the “emotional feel” that oozes from just about all of the images found in this boundless collection.

Divided into 17 chapters, each focusing on a specific individual or topic, the presentation is very well organized. If one prefers to go from, say, Classic Hogan to Hardcore to Tag Teams, the Table of Contents makes it easy to move accordingly. There are a handful of photos that include Napolitano and members of his family, often with brief descriptions of the occasion.

As such, I give this voluminous production the highest recommendation possible. ECW Press, the publisher, has a well-deserved reputation as producers of some of the most complete and professional books on the subject of wrestling. Their long string of successes continues here.

As someone who has been a pro wrestling fan for 53 years (and has been participating in one form or another for 21), I’m occasionally given to grouse about the current state of the business. Hot Shots and High Spots has effectively worked its magic on me. While my opinions haven’t been altered, my feelings of admiration and respect for most of the pictured participants have been greatly heightened. Through this effort, George Napolitano has succeeded in reminding me all of the reasons why I became a fan the very first time I saw professional wrestling. I can think of no greater gift an author can give his readership.

Friday, January 14, 2011


And so, two years and one month after the Ring of Honor promotion debuted on HDNet, the door will close. Come April 4th, the final episode in "the only weekly national wrestling show worth watching" will signal the end of its television contract.

I, for one, am sincerely sorry to see this program go. Since it hit the air in March of 2009, my enthusiasm for the ROH product has fluctuated somewhat. Oh, it never faltered to the point where I couldn't be bothered tuning in. But, as in the case of most weekly fare of any kind, there were some good shows and some that can best be described with a mild 'meh.' Fortunately, there were also some truly excellent offerings that filled the viewer with hope for the future.

It's true; in some ways, the presentation could have been more captivating, a la Bill Watts' old UWF promotion of the '80s. What made that promotion so compelling was in the very structure of the company and its philosophy; there was a method behind the madness, so to speak. With the conclusion of most every week's episode, the UWF succeeded in creating a sense of 'I've gotta make sure to see what happens next week.' The intelligent wrestling fan anxiously awaited to see how the logic (yes, logic! Relentless logic, even!) would continue to develop.

The ROH program hasn't been as consistently compelling as that. But to give credit where it's due, the beauty of ROH on HDNet has been in the athleticism of the product. With only a few exceptions, the roster is made up of well-schooled wrestlers who know how to actually ply their trade. Every now and again, the TV show gives off the feel of an old-time territorial promotion, at least to one degree or another. Naturally, the more modern aspects, such as lucha acrobatics, have become staples as well.

So, while the TV program has been far from perfect, their Internet PPVs have been amazing in their intensity. Not restricted to the weekly 53-minute time frame, matches are allowed to fully develop and tell complete stories. While the last such PPV (Final Battle, December 2010) gave us two matches that were light years beyond anything I'd seen in a North American company for a very long time, the fact is that the entire card was strong. Now, had THAT been aired on HDNet over a two-to-three-week period (the undercard alone would have been just dandy), I have little doubt that there would have been a healthy buzz coursing through the wrestling community.

BTW, the two matches I mentioned were the final two of the PPV show. First came the title bout between champion Roderick Strong and challenger Davey Richards. No BS ... the fans were aching for Richards to take the strap. The bout kept building in intensity until the unfortunate accident that forced them to go home quickly. (Richards sustained a ruptured eardrum and Level 2 concussion in a bad fall; his vacant eyes and the blood coming out of his right ear made it obvious that he was in trouble).

Following that was the 'non-sanctioned' blow-off to the year-long feud between long-standing partners El Generico and Kevin Steen. The tit-for-tat violence reached the apex that night, with Generico putting up his mask and Steen agreeing to end his ROH career, should he lose. See, what ROH does that WWE and TNA fail to understand, is to create a credible (or at least semi-credible) situation that continues to build until it's finally time to render a conclusion.

Sometimes, the finish comes sooner than at others; the smart matchmaker will keep several top-to-middle storylines moving along seamlessly. As a general rule, one tends to be just a wee bit hotter than the others for a brief period; still, they all are given enough time to take the focal lead.

Done correctly, the results should keep the concepts fresh in the viewer's mind. I'm not suggesting over-the-top nonsense either, but issues that are worthy of our emotional investment. (Again, I refer to Bill Watts' UWF promotion as THE prime example of memorable television. Stampede Wrestling, from the late '70s through 1984, was another).

Anyway, the point is a simple one; there should always be a couple of soon-to-debut stories just bubbling beneath the surface. You don't want to rush anything, but you keep the speed moving as reality would have it. Which means that some will advance faster than others, like the ebb and flow of the tides.

The backstory behind this particular ROH feud was a fairly standard one: Steen, a large and powerful man, had long since been teaming with the masked El Generico. By wrestling standards, Kevin's hooded partner was noticeably smaller and thinner. Together over the years, they'd had some classic matches with the Briscoe Brothers and others of equal ability. The year before, at Final Battle 2009, Steen suddenly turned on his teammate without so much as a warning, attacking and finishing El Generico off with a nasty-ass chair shot to the masked man's face/head.

Insofar as these two were concerned, 2010 was devoted to building up the ongoing hatred between them in such a way that most any fan following the developments couldn't help but become hooked. Sometimes hotter than hell, it occasionally seemed to cool down, simmering in the background but always within a hair of re-igniting. It often did, of course, with Kevin resorting to one fiendish scheme after another, causing 'severe physical and mental anguish' to his former friend.

No kidding ... the back-and-forth stuff all year (with Steen retaining the upper hand more often than not) had to come to a head, and the 'match to end it all' arrived exactly twelve months after the initial breach. The resulting bout at Final Battle 2010 was unbelievably brutal which is, given all that had transpired, what it needed to be.

When the conclusive moment came, a bloodied and weakened Kevin Steen had fallen to his knees in the middle of the ring. His hands clasped together as he begged the equally blood-soaked Generico not to hit him with the chair he was holding so menacingly. The masked generic luchadore paused. He looked directly at the crowd. Slowly lowering the weapon, he appeared to be considering the option of putting it down in an act of mercy. Steen continued to make his plea, as he seemed to be imploring El Generico to 'find his humanity.'

Again, Generico looked to the fans, who screamed for him to gain the tantalizing revenge that had been so long in coming. And then ... El Generico came to a decision. Without any further hesitation, he raised the chair and smashed Steen in the face/head, virtually duplicating the same dangerous form of humiliation he himself had suffered 12 months before. The feud had come full circle, concluding with the same act of brutality and violence that had started it. El Generico had finally avenged his personal debasement, and in the process sent Kevin Steen packing.

Now, please don't be misled. While I've certainly emphasized the more savage aspects of ROH, most of the wrestlers are capable of exchanging holds and counter-holds with the best of 'em. Many bouts held over the years have been top heavy with brilliant back-and-forth chain-wrestling exhibitions that made perfect sense. It was a silent assertion (with complete conviction) that the image was indeed one of a legitimate competition.

So again, without ROH on HDNET to anticipate every week, our pro wrestling television options have shrunk to nil. Well, at least mine have. Sure, The Fight Network here in Canada still offers old school programs from the territorial days, for which I'm eternally grateful. But as far as the modern product is concerned, there's very little on TV that causes this old fool to look forward with any real enthusiasm.

At this time, fingers and other body parts are crossed that ROH will find a home on another channel. As well, they must continue to hold onto a philosophy that pushes the athletic skills of the wrestlers in tandem with some (usually) well-considered booking decisions. And it certainly wouldn't hurt them to look into improving their television product ... maybe see if Les Thatcher, for one, is willing to add his valuable input.

I feel compelled to conclude by posing this question: Why does it feel like I ask too much from what once was so easy to enjoy?