“The Squared Circle: Life, Death, and Professional Wrestling” by David Shoemaker (2013)
As a host of the captivating and often hilarious Cheap Heat podcast and previously as a Grantland writer, David Shoemaker has wowed me with his unique insight into the messy and tricky world of professional wrestling for a while now. Once I saw he had written a book a little while back, a trip to the Kindle store happened almost instantaneously. Shoemaker doesn’t come across as a guy willing to settle for recounting events or jumping on bandwagons; he’s the antithesis of what most people probably think when they hear the term “wrestling fan,” and he proves himself a natural fit for translating his more abbreviated work into literary form.
“The Squared Circle” is, at its core, a history of professional wrestling interspersed with specific and detailed accounts of wrestlers who both made an impact on the sport and died far too young. Shoemaker starts around the turn of the century, chronicling sideshow matches that lasted hours involving guys with names like “Strangler” Lewis. Wrestling was more or less real in its results at the time, although it became clear very quickly that unruly matches with a whole lot of fruitless grappling weren’t going to enrapture paying audiences over the long haul.
The book continues to bring its readers up through the eras of wrestling, from its humble multi-promotion days to the territorial era to the era of Wrestlemania’s creation and later to present day. Shoemaker is thorough in his research, elaborating on how and why we got to a point where WWE rules the wrestling landscape without ever devolving into puddles of jargon. I found the historical aspect of the book fascinating, as the motivations of individual men so often molded the wrestling world in irrevocable ways.
And that’s where “The Squared Circle” shines the most, in its deeply personal chapters. As Shoemaker unfolds his stories of eras past, the weird unwritten rules of wrestling become apparent. Promoters and wrestlers alike often let their personal biases and adherence to “how things have been” get the best of them as innovators find ways to change the game. More specifically, the chapters delving fully into the lives of individual wrestlers as an absolute joy to read. Understanding the careers and lives of people like Andre the Giant, Brian Pillman, and the Von Erich family helps in translating where things eventually went awry. There were pressures, ambitions, and temptations. But above all, there were real human beings just trying to put two and two together.
Shoemaker frequently makes the material beautiful as he matter-of-factly describes a wrestler’s career, life, and death. Along the way he is able to paint the picture of massive, mythological beings beyond our understanding while then engaging in careful and thoughtful dissections that reveal these luminaries to be just like the rest of us. These men and women worried about their careers, their livelihoods, and their families much as we all do. Some of them turned to substances when times got tough, and some of them simply mentally fractured.
It’s also enlightening to get a glimpse of the personalities involved in wrestling. Many wrestlers simply wanted to go out there and put on a great match, while others had the out-sized personalities needed to put on an equally great show when handed a microphone. Some men mentioned in the book were passionate about getting in the ring their entire lives, while others picked up the trade as a result of need or bloodline. All of them, however, competed and worked and bled in front of us and on camera, ensuring that their efforts would be on record until the end of time.
“The Squared Circle” would have been well worth my time merely as a fleshed-out timeline of a long-popular pastime. I’m thankful that Shoemaker took the time and love to make it even more endearing, clearly pouring his love and boundless wrestling knowledge into his work. The way he waxes poetic about names from the wrestling world past, I’m sure he just wanted to make the same effort to entertain that they did, and that’s quite admirable. I can honestly recommend this book not only to ardent wrestling fans, but to anyone with even a passing interest in the sport’s history, mythology, and backstage lore. Honestly? If you like good non-fiction and have never seen a wrestling match, you’d be right at home in these pages as well.