(Larry Matysik; 464 pages; ECW PRESS; 2013)
A lot of you may not recognize Larry Matysik’s name but, in Saint Louis wrestling circles, he looms large as an elder-statesman of the business. Larry started his career at the age of sixteen, working with legendary promoter (as well as president of the National Wrestling Alliance), Sam Muchnick and learning the ropes (so to speak) and the inner workings of the wrestling game. By his 22nd birthday, he was THE announcer in Saint Louis, calling the play-by-play on the influential WRESTLING AT THE CHASE, acting as ring announcer for the bi-weekly house matches at the Keil Auditorium (and, later, the Saint Louis Arena/Checkerdome), and holding his own in interviews with some of the top names in the business, including Harley Race, Jack Briscoe, Ted DiBiase (before he was worth a million), Dick the Bruiser, Baron Von Raschke, Ox Baker, Dick Murdoch (an absolutely hilarious interviewee who once chased Larry around the ring) and – whoooo! – that limousine ridin’, jet flyin’, kiss stealin’, wheelin’, dealin’ son of a gun, the Nature Boy, Ric Flair. To say that it was an honor to sit down with the man for a few minutes and pick his brain regarding the industry that gave me a closeness with my father that few of my generation ever knew is an understatement of epic proportions. Larry and I talked about and debated the greats, near greats and never weres, the state of the game today and, of course, his latest book, THE 50 GREATEST PROFESSIONAL WRESTLERS OF ALL TIME: THE DEFINITIVE SHOOT.
This was originally intended to be an interview piece with Larry, but we did the Q and A session before and during the breaks at a house show for a small, independent promotion and, well… it was LOUD! When the time came for me to transcribe the tape, I was getting maybe about a third of what was said. So, since the gist of the interview was the book, I decided to turn the piece into a fairly standard review, with a few of the pearls that I could salvage (or remember) from the interview. Thus, without further ado…
I don’t agree that some of these wrestlers are, indeed, among the all time greats; I don’t agree with the placement of several of the performers listed. But, then, that’s the fun of a book like this, isn’t it? Mister Matysik, however, took painstaking measures in his choices and their positions. In fact, the first 106 pages of the book outlines the criteria he implemented in compiling this list. Most of my likes and dislikes and disagreements with those choices are personal, generally fueled by a visceral dislike for a certain “rassler” or the company they worked (or work) for. For instance, I can fully understand why Terry (Hulk Hogan) Bollea is on the list: He became the most recognizable face of the World Wrestling Federation (now known as the WWE) and the industry, catapulting the WWF to the top of the promotional heap, actually going “world wide” at a time when territorial promotions were the norm; Hulk literally changed the industry, making wrestling far more marketable than just a weekly local television show and a monthly house show. However, in my humble opinion, he ruined the wrestling game for fans like me and, as such, there is no way that he deserves to be listed above Harley Race; always loved Race (the greatest ever in my eyes) and truly hated what Vince McMahon (Junior) did to him when he signed on with the then WWF; likewise, I always loathed the Hulkster, a poor worker with minimal ability who would be beaten mercilessly for ten minutes, bug his eyes out and point a menacing finger at his opponent who, naturally, would cower in fear and succumb to the Herculean effects of Hogan’s finishing move, the giant leg drop, in less than a minute. But, again, that’s just me; Larry, after all, is the expert and lays out the pros and cons of every member of this elite conglomeration in a studious and – above all – entertaining fashion. And, as one of the pros happens to be marketability (as well as the ability to bring in a big payday for the promoter), Hulk Hogan has his place near the top of the heap.
Matysik is a scholar of the game and is quite jealous when someone berates it, especially when they call it “fake.” He worked with and befriended many of these athletes (yes… I said athletes; they may be “entertainers” but what they do requires great athletic ability), even becoming business partners with one, Frank (King Kong/Bruiser Brody) Goodish. Larry brings his encyclopedic knowledge of the professional wrestling business to this book, drawing from every era and every promotion to compile his 50 greatest list. Out of curiosity, I asked him about some of my favorites (and not so favorites) over the years. Guys like Baron Von Raschke, Lord Alfred Hayes, Bulldog Bob Brown, Ken Patera, Dick Murdoch, Paul Orndorff and so many others. Most he knew personally, others he knew by reputation only, all he had an opinion on. So, were any of these guys considered for the list? Yes they were. Every professional wrestler who ever stepped into the squared circle was considered for a spot on Larry’s list. Some were great at drawing heat as a heel (a bad guy) and were real gentlemen out of the spotlight but, for whatever reason, never reached the upper echelons of the business, which precluded their garnering a spot on the list. Another thing to consider is, “How would a particular performer fair in any other era outside his own?” Taking all of Matysik’s criteria and applying them to that question eliminated a good number of candidates, including some dominating names from certain periods of wrestling history.
As an interesting sidebar, we also discussed the business side of the industry, in particular, the type of business practices utilized by one Vincent Kennedy McMahon (or VKM, as Larry calls him). While we both agree that VKM’s take-no-prisoner approach has manifestly harmed not only the game as a whole, but his brand, as well, we also recognize that he elevated public interest in a dying industry that – even some 30 years later – it still enjoys, though the WWE brand has more recently been responsible for continuing diminishing numbers on television and at house shows. McMahon is also notorious for “scorched earth” tactics that virtually guarantee that, eventually, every major star at rival promotions must sign with him or find another line of work. He then buries them in mid-card matches or stooges them out (like he did it with Harley Race and so many others), simply because they had the nerve to work for a competitor. If he sees a performer who becomes more popular than VKM’s chosen, he puts them in not only ridiculous, but untenable situations; the most recent example being Phil Brooks, better known as CM Punk who, rather than playing the game, chose to retire. Larry alluded to the fact that Punk was definitely in the running for this list and probably would have made the cut had he not walked away, citing a dearth of ring time (which, we are assuming he would have had if he hadn’t retired) as the primary reason that he didn’t get the nod. As the only truly viable alternative to Vince’s WWE currently is Total Nonstop Action (TNA), the discussion eventually turned to the problems within that promotion; even though he thinks that president Dixie Carter and her creative team are making a bad situation worse, Larry hopes to see the ship righted. At the time of the interview, rumors were rampant that McMahon had already or was going to initiate a hostile takeover of TNA (as he did with WCW and ECW); Matysik agrees that such a move would, ultimately, do more harm than good, stifling a healthy, competitive corporate atmosphere and further muddying WWE’s already murky talent pool. Several months removed from our talk, rumors abound that TNA’s ship is sinking faster than ever and, apparently, the hull is so badly damaged that even McMahon has no interest in acquiring the brand. He’s content to just sit in his WWE lifeboat and drag anyone he deems worthy of saving aboard… as long they’re willing to bow to his mastery.
As you can see, Larry certainly doesn’t pull any punches, making this book a must have for any true wrestling fan. Since we will all have our opinion as to who should be on the list and who shouldn’t and why, this could definitely serve as a starting point for spirited debates among the kindred (maybe even a headlock, a diving headbutt or – at the very least – a hip-toss takedown for the truly vociferous patron of the art). Each entry has a great black and white picture of the wrestler and a five to ten page overview of his career and why Larry chose him for the list (and why he placed him, numerically, where he did). And, while most of today’s fans know only the likes of John Cena, the Undertaker, Brock Lesner or Kurt Angle (all on the list, by the way… for better or worse), THE 50 GREATEST PROFESSIONAL WRESTLERS OF ALL TIME is a fantastic history lesson for them and a wonderful look back for us geezers who remember the National Wrestling Alliance, the American Wrestling Association, World Class Championship Wrestling or any of the other regional promotions. The names are legendary: Edouard Carpentier, Classy Freddie Blassie, Pat O’Connor, Fritz Von Erich (father of the ill-fated Von Erich wrestling clan), Nick Bockwinkel, Lou Thesz and, of course – whoooo! – that limousine ridin’, jet flyin’, kiss stealin’, wheelin’, dealin’ son of a gun, the Nature Boy, Ric Flair. See what I did there? I just brought this whole review back to the beginning!
Uh… yeah… so, anyway, you’re gonna have to pick up your very own copy of the book to see just where your favorites place; it’s available at most book stores, through Amazon online and, of course, directly from www.ecwpress.com, as are Larry’s other books, including BRODY: THE TRIUMPH AND TRAGEDY OF WRESTLING’S REBEL and WRESTLING AT THE CHASE: THE INSIDE STORY OF SAM MUCHNICK AND THE LEGENDS OF PROFESSIONAL WRESTLING.