Baseball has long held the title of America’s pastime. The NBA and NFL have respectable followings of their own. However there is also the world of sports entertainment that has been made famous by the phenomenon of professional wrestling. My father has always called it “rassling” and when I walked around the house doing my best impersonations of the stars of what was then called the World Wrestling Federation (“WWF”), he always shook his head in laughter. In spite of the wisdom he possessed about the spectacle I was obsessed with, not once did he ever try to dissuade me from watching the heroes that I came to believe in. And when he and my uncle took my brother and I to Madison Square Garden to see Hulk Hogan live in person, it was if we had been transported to wrestling heaven. As I aged, my view of wrestling changed and so did the characters I found to be standouts. Among them, was Bret Hart, known as the Hitman and leader of the Hart Foundation, the heel group that had an enormous following of fans. When he retired not long after suffering a devastating concussion in the ring, I and many fans looked back on the many matches he took part in with sadness knowing he would never set foot in the ring again. I always wondered what really went on behind the scenes and when I saw that he had written this autobiography, I knew that I had to read it. And I am happy to report that the book did not let me down and it is one of the best books about the wrestling industry that I have ever read.
Those of us who are wrestling fans accept some of the truths about it, mainly that it is entertainment. But every wrestler will tell you in person that there are some parts of the industry that are very real and lives are affected. The life of a pro-wrestler is a crazy one, based on traveling over three hundred days per year, nagging injuries, backstage politics, fame, success and attempts at maintaining a “home life” while mostly away from home. The fans rarely see the sacrifices the stars make to bring joy and excitement to the millions of wrestling fans around the world. And when the show is over, some stars ride off into the sunset while others struggle to survive after stepping out of the squared circle. For Bret Hart, it is a mix of both but in ways that no one could have expected when he first started out in what he calls the cartoon world of wrestling.
As to be expected, the story begins in Canada at the Hart family home where patriarch Stu Hart (1915-2003) and Helen Hart (1924-2001) raised Bret and his eleven siblings. He takes us back in time behind closed doors to witness that daily events in the Hart household. From the beginning, he makes it clear that the Hart siblings have some serious dysfunctional relationships. Their father is a wrestling promoter and the family struggled with the highs and lows of the business. Hart is open about the times of poverty the family endured and the other times when money flowed in. Some of the Hart children sought to make their own careers but the family was a wrestling dynasty and before long, Bret himself laced up the boots and began a career that was nothing short of extraordinary.
The book is captivating from the start and Hart has no shortage of anecdotes about growing up in a large family under a man feared by anyone who dared to get close enough to Stu’s dungeon. The story flows very well and we begin to see Hart’s life taking shape. The story takes the biggest turn when Vince McMahon, Jr. enters the story. It is at this point that life is never the same from Bret or professional wrestling. McMahon realized early on that in order to pull ahead, regional wrestling promotions would have to fold and to achieve this, he purchased a number of them, guaranteeing an iron grip on the East Coast. Bret soon faced the decision that many wrestlers of his time had to make and decided to take a chance and go to work for the WWF. The book picks up speed here and the things we learn about backstage production will more than satisfy wrestling buffs. All of the big names are in the book but sadly many of them are no longer with us. But through Bret’s stories, we can revisit the era ruled by stars such as Andre The Giant (1946-1993), Bobby Heenan (1944-2017), Adrian Adonis (1953-1988) and Chief Wahoo McDaniel (1938-2002). Throughout the book, Hart never loses focus even in the midst of so many larger than life characters. In the land of the giants, he rises to the top and eventually becomes the WWF champion. His ascension was by no means easy and his relationship with Vince is examined in detail. Hart pulls no punches and thoroughly explains his view of the Montreal Screwjob, his brother Owen’s death and how McMahon handled each situation. Those two moments in the book might change the way many view the minds behind the business. Wrestling fans will be familiar with both events but it is worth reading what Hart has to say.
The successes in the ring are offset by the events in his personal life which he discusses frankly. Professional wrestling is filled with many demons and Hart was not immune, Performance enhancing drugs, pain killers, infidelity, alcohol and acts of aggression are the devil’s brew that can dismantle the life of even the strongest of the strong. Hart discusses each one and in the process reveals the many struggles that can serve as the downfall of a wrestling star. The stories are sad and in some cases tragic. One that stands out in the book is that of Tom Billington (1958-2018) known by fans as the Dynamite Kid. His story is one of the most tragic that I have come across from the crazy world of wrestling. There is more to his life that Hart could not cover but Billington’s story can easily be found on the internet. Hart was one of the lucky ones and as friends died, he lived and counted his blessings. But two events happened that forced him out of the ring and changed his life in ways he could have never imagined.
During a routine match with superstar Bill Goldberg, Hart suffered a career ending concussion. I remember the match and it was clear that Hart had been seriously injured. However, no one watching that night knew just how serious the injury was but that would soon change. Hart recalls the profound changes in his life and the excruciating effects it inflicted up his body. His life became a daily struggle to do the most mundane tasks and when things seemed to be stable, he suffered another medical emergency that completely changed his future. For fans of the Hitman, this part of the book will be tough to get through. But I can say that throughout it all, he never stops being the Hitman and the story does have its shining moments. This autobiography is a treasure trove of information about the business and it is nothing short of seductive. I literally could not get enough of the stories about the older wrestling stars. They lived wild lives but also made their names as legends in the squared circle. Bret Hart is among those that have managed to survive but he carries with him many scars, both physically and mentally from his time in the business. This is his story, one of success, fame, love, heartbreak, tragedy and redemption. And I am sure that it will leave you at times speechless and at others, cheering Hart along in support. Wrestling fans will love this book.
He was arguably the greatest villain in the history of professional wrestling. His trademark shirt with the word “Hot Rod” and the red kilt he wore, made him stand out in an industry overrun with colorful character. To his family he was known as Roderick Toombs and Dad, but to the world, he was known as Rowdy Roddy Piper. You would be hard pressed to find any wrestling fan who does not know his name or story. He truly was one of the greats of the industry who’s ribbing of other wrestlers and shenanigans during his famous show Pipers Pit, cemented his legacy as a legend. When he died on July 31, 2015, the world was in a state of shock. I simply could not believe the news reports. At sixty-one, he was far too young to depart this earth and after a hard life in the wrestling business, it seemed as if his glory days were ahead of him. His shocking death still causes fans to shake their heads in disbelief that a man so loved was taken so soon. In all of the interviews I have watched or read with stars who knew him, not one had bad word to say about him. He is remembered as a kind soul backstage and a man possessed with genuine and undeniable talent that helped make Vince McMahon, Jr., the legend that he is in the wrestling business. But just who was the real Roddy Piper? And how did the world of Roderick Toombs, father and husband coincide with the public image he worked forty years to build? His daughter Ariel and son Colt took what remained of the second book Piper was writing about himself and decided to complete a biography of their father. The result? One of the best biographies I have read about a wrestling superstar.
Piper’s story begins on April 17, 1954 in Saskatoon, Canada when Roderick George Toombs was welcomed into the world by Stanley and Eileen Toombs. An unruly child, no one could have predicted that he would one day become a celebrity with millions of adoring fans. Because the book is written by his children and also based off his own words, there is an intimacy to the book that would be hard to duplicate by an independent biography. What we have here is the family story and it certainly is one for the ages. To understand Piper, it is necessary to understand his background and it is laid out here by those who knew him best. By his mid-teens, the young Piper knew the corporate world was not his calling and his decision to make his own life and not relocate one last time with his parents, set him on the long and brutal path that would take him to stardom. And it is at this point in the book that his life picks up as he descends deeper into the crazy world of professional wrestling.
The anecdotes from his early days in the business are nothing short of hilarious. I do not think a scriptwriter could have penned better narratives. Professional wrestling, sometimes called sports entertainment, is an often unorthodox business. Yes, ground rules and unwritten rules do exist, but spontaneity and creative geniuses are what keep the business alive. At times when I was reading the book, I was shocked and also on the verge of laughing out loud, even while on the subway. His fight with Victor Bear is literally a story for the ages. And just when you think the book cannot get any more outrageous, there is yet another story of Piper’s adventures. From start to finish, I could not put the book down, eagerly waiting to see what where the story would go next. It took many turns and revealed many facts that some fans may have never been aware of. And as Piper moves through the industry, gaining fame and fortune, he also accumulates demons along the way which he was never able to completely shake.
There is one part in the book that stood out not for the length of text but because it is key in understanding Piper’s grief as friends in the business died young reminding others of their own mortality. On July 4 , 1988, Keith A. Franke, Jr., was traveling with several other wrestlers when their van swerved to avoid a moose in its path. The vehicle descended down an embankment before coming to a complete stop. Franke died several hours later and his death sent shock waves through the industry. No one could believe that the man called Adrian Adonis was gone. Piper said that was the last funeral he went to. He never got over Adonis’ death. Their friendship and the haunting that Piper endured were the focus an episode of Celebrity Ghost Stories that aired in 2012 during Season 8. In the episode, Piper reveals that his house has been haunted by Adonis’ ghost since his untimely death and that he was the person who told Piper to buy that particular house. The show itself is chilling and we see a man carrying a life long supply of grief and torment that he is alive and so many of his friends have died in the business. He carried that grief and torment with him until his own death three years later.
No book about Piper would be complete without the Wrestlemania stories with Mr. T, his feuds with Hulk Hogan and Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka or his time in Hollywood where he became a cult icon as the character Nada in John Carpenters They Live. The dark side of the wrestling business is also discussed and Piper never holds anything back. His injuries, car accidents, substance abuse and mental state are all on display showing the reader the agony in his life off-camera. In the last few years of his life as his body breaks down from forty years of abuse, the realities of his life style come crashing home. Nonetheless he did not stop doing what he loved, living up to the name “Hot Rod”. If you are or were a fan of professional wrestling and have fond memories of the era when wrestling giants ruled the industry and the names Hogan and Piper were household items, then this is the book for you.