I became a wrestling fan when I was a kid back in the 1970s – the years known for Bruno, Brisco, and Bruiser. There were no books by wrestlers at the time, just a few tomes with some wrestling content, none of which got inside the business or the brains of the wrestlers. In the early 1990s, books like the seminal Drawing Heat by Jim Freedman emerged. There were other books by academics, but wrestling, unlike other sports, lacked “as told to” autobiographies. This was not just because of kayfabe that unspoken rule that wrestlers should stay in character during the show and public appearances in order to maintain a feeling of reality among the fans. There also was the belief that pro wrestling fans would not buy books. But once the kayfabe wall was breached, the stories began coming non-stop, from top stars to job guys and every slot in between, as well as from announcers and referees. Mick Foley’s Have A Nice Day was to wrestling autobiography what Jim Bouton’s Ball Four was to baseball books in 1970: groundbreaking and best-selling because it was honest, daring, and funny.
So how do I judge a wrestling autobiography? It should tell an authentic, entertaining, yet realistic story about an interesting life. With that bar, several books by big names won’t make this list. Hulk Hogan’s biographies read more like fiction because of his loose command of facts, while Arn Anderson’s book portrays works as shoots. The author/wrestler needs to have a career worth talking about: Goldberg, Rock, and even Edge’s books were great, but they came too early in their careers. A great autobiography possesses an authentic voice, not just an “as told to” dry listing of match rundowns. It has to present a real glimpse into the author, yet maintain a focus on wrestling, not rock bands, roller coasters, or religion.
Finally, I need to have read it. If not, how can I rank it? This encompasses almost all autobiographies from professional publishers, but only a time few that were self-published. Part of that is access. I get most of my books from libraries, not Amazon – and then there’s my old-fashioned attitude about self-publishing and/or vanity publishing. There’s nothing wrong with it, but that the book couldn’t find a publisher often speaks to its quality. So, with those stipulations – which number almost as many as a TNA main event – here are the top 15.
15. I Was a Teenage Professional Wrestler by Ted Lewin
Pre-Foley and intended for kids, Lewin’s look at wrestling in the 1950s is all about smoke-filled arenas and rose-tinted nostalgia glasses. Lewin, an award-winning artist-illustrator of books for kids, augments his memories with paintings of wrestlers from his time. While never really breaking kayfabe outright, Lewin focuses on the wrestling fraternity, particularly the larger-than-life personalities he encountered. It’s really a book about interesting humans, not high spots but like most great wrestling bios, it adds grit with details of the matches.
14. Booker T: My Rise to Wrestling Royalty by Booker T Huffman and Andrew William Wright
The five-time world champ tells the rest of the story in this follow-up to his 2012 tome Booker T: From Prison to Promise. This book focuses on Booker T’s wrestling rather than his life as a criminal. It follows his career, from humble beginnings in Texas to a bungled WCW debut (yeah, let’s put the black tag teams in chains) to success in the ring in WCW, WWE, and less so in TNA. While some of the book, in particular match recaps, lack passion, the opposite is true as Booker T writes about life outside the ring like his flawed relationship with his son. While lacking the humor that he often displayed on the mic, Booker T’s spin on his career is solid gold.
13. Ric Flair: To Be the Man by Ric Flair with Keith Elliot Greenberg. Edited by Mark Madden
It is hard to know how much of the nature boy’s story is natural. While he’s known to live the gimmick, the Flair in these pages seems anything but histrionic, except when laying in chops to Foley, Bischoff, and a few others. Tracing his career, including the plane crash that almost ended it, the greatest wrestler of all shares with readers his disappointments, which amazingly includes the night he won the NWA title for the first time. Published under the WWE banner, the book has nothing but great things to say about the McMahons for saving Natch’s professional career and restoring his confidence. A good book, but given Flair’s wild life and times, it seems lacking in his trademark styling and profiling.
12. Hooker by Lou Thesz with Kit Bauman
Okay, one basically self-published one. I actually owned an autographed version of this as a print book, so it’s great to see that Hooker has new life in the Kindle format. Thesz is wrestling history but his prose, like his work, isn’t flashy. He pulls no punches as he derides almost all gimmick guys, most promoters, and anyone who ever said anything bad about his hero, Strangler Lewis. Yet, Thesz tells great stories. With a unique historical perspective that comes from spending decades on the top of the card, Thesz looks across (and often down) at the business he loves and the people he hates.
11. The Stone Cold Truth by Steve Austin with Jim Ross as told to Dennis Brent
Similar to the Flair book, there’s something lacking (mainly lots and lots of profanity) in Austin’s “as told to” book. Yet, there’s still enough of the rattlesnake’s personality, great road stories, and his honest-to-goodness head-butts with authority figures to make this an enjoyable read. Brent, a former WCW magazine writer, weaves together the pieces of Austin’s story, but oddly there’s little focus on those WCW and less on his ECW days, other than the often-told tale of his firing. Austin comes off as a flawed person but an almost flawless entertainer.
10. Bobby the Brain: Wrestling’s Bad Boy Tells All by Bobby Heenan with Steve Anderson
Except for Foley’s books, Heenan’s first effort ranks highest on the hilarity chart. A born stand-up comedian turned bump artist turned “sports journalist” turned WCW color man afterthought, Heenan has 30-plus years of stories to tell. The early days working for Dick the Bruiser then Verne Gagne are the funniest, while the ones in the dying days of WCW are the saddest. His time on top at WWF highlights his story with one punchline after another, although the end of the book, where Heenan writes about his battle with cancer, is a solid shot to the heart of the reader.
9. The Legends of Wrestling: “Classy” Freddie Blassie: Listen, You Pencil Neck Geeks by Fred Blassie with Keith Elliot Greenberg
Greenberg captures more of Blassie’s over-the-top personality than he did in the Flair book. Blassie admits in the book he’s a mark for his own gimmick. While some of the interview insults he delivered in the 1960s seem tame in 2015, Blassie makes it clear how his mouth got him in trouble and rolling in green. His tales of his Japan trips, where he met his wife, and his long-time main event status in California, where he became King of Men, serve as his story’s center. Like the Flair book, he’s got nothing but good things to say about the McMahons while taking shots at wrestlers working stiff and more so at promoters stiffing him. The main complaint is that for a career as long as Blassie’s, the book is so short.
8. Foley Is Good: And the Real World Is Faker Than Wrestling by Mick Foley
The irony begins early with an anecdote of Foley being told that unlike most authors, he has the ability to be objective about his work. Sadly, for all the good stuff here – and there’s plenty of it as Foley realizes his body is broken and his career is over – there’s way too much filler, such as various lists of his favorite non-wrestling jaunts. If you read the first (hint on where you’ll find it on the list), then you know all about his obsessions; they were charming the first time, less so in the second book. His defense of the WWE doesn’t work and chapters on making a TV commercial plus another on a TV guest appearance don’t add much. But if there’s that much wrong, why is the book so high on this list? Because for all those bumps, the rest of it zings with great stories, amazing insight into the business, and a real look into Foley the father as opposed to the hard-core legend. Foley is Good is very good, yet falls short of greatness.
8T. Undisputed: How to Become the World Champion in 1,372 Easy Steps by Chris Jericho with Peter Thomas Fornatale
Unencumbered by releasing his book under the banner of the WWE, Jericho gets a few shots at HHH and the McMahon family in a book which focuses mostly on his WWE career. There’s also a great deal in the book about meeting celebs, his band, and other non-wrestling content. Like a great match, the book features a babyface comeback story asJericho recounts how, after a huge debut doing mic work against The Rock, he was jobbing on B TV shows just weeks later. Yet from that low point, he went on to become the first undisputed world champion. Funny, honest, but mostly joyous about the wrestling business, this book is indisputably entertaining.
6. Controversy Creates Cash by Eric Bischoff with Jeremy Roberts
With Bischoff’s recent two-part interview on the WWE network (and the critical take on that interview in the Wrestling Observer newsletter), this book is worth another look despite the limitation of coming out under the WWE banner. Of all the books, Bischoff’s story would have been best served (and his career worst served) by an independent book. While some time is spend on non-Nitro life, Bischoff’s book is almost more of a memoir of his time running (or ruining, depending) WCW in its glory days. Like almost all these titles, this one is self-serving and defensive, but Bischoff owns up to his mistakes and comes off as a person of intelligence and vision in an industry often lacking those attributes.
5. Yes!: My Improbable Journey to the Main Event of WrestleMania By Daniel Bryan with Craig Tello
Like a wrestler burdened with a bad gimmick, this title’s first-person account of Bryan’s life mixed with third-person POV of events during WrestleMania week doesn’t work. But that’s about the only thing in Bryan’s story that doesn’t. For a career as long and varied as Bryan’s pre-WWE, there’s a fair amount of his ROH and indy days. That’s important because as a modern era wrestler, Bryan came through the independents, not the dying, territories like Jericho and Foley. There’s some glimpse into his personal life but the focus is on his unlikely spot at WM XXX. If Bryan never returns to the ring, he left a fine testament to his career as well as to his improbable and inspired trip to the top.
4. Hitman: My Real Life in the Cartoon World of Wrestling by Bret Hart
The charter member of the Bret Hart Fan Club tells his life story. There’s a lot not to like about this book (such as shameless bragging acts of serial adultery) and some of the stories (like Vince taking bumps in a bar) just don’t ring true. Still, there’s so much good here, in particular tales from the frozen tundra of the Stampede Wrestling territory. The Hart family stories, with Stu as the star in most, fill the book with humor and heartbreak. As Bret chronicles the rise of his career, he also starts smacking down on enemies such as Hogan, Flair, and HHH. The feud with Shawn Michaels is an unpleasant subplot that must have been fun/healing to write/vent, but it’s painful to read. While the book isn’t the best there ever was, the wrestling stories are excellent and help it rise above the far from admirable real life story being retold.
3. A Lion’s Tale: Around the World in Spandex by Chris Jericho with Peter Thomas Fornatale
From wrestling in small venues in western Canada to huge events in Japan and Mexico, Jericho’s first autobiography is almost part travelogue. With lots of humor, most of it – such as the Jericho curse of terrible first matches in a new program — directed at himself, Jericho’s hard not to like. More than anything, this is the stuff of any great autobiography from any endeavor: someone following a dream, suffering disappointments, but through hard work, finally achieving his goal — or something close to it. The voice is authentic, the stories are entertaining, and the match descriptions are outstanding.
2. King of the Ring: The Harley Race story by Harley Race with Gerry Tritz
Much like the Lou Thesz book, by writing his life story, Race also is telling the story of wrestling during the last four decades of the 20th century. From working in the AWA, to his time as NWA champ, to his WWF run, and ending with his days as a manager in WCW, Race hits all the high points. But more than a wrestler, Race – who dropped out of high school – is a student of the business who became a successful promoter. As Race recalls his career, it’s easy to understand why he’s so respected. Almost every other wrestler who writes a book shares a Race story in it and cites his admiration for Race’s strength of body and mind. There’s not a lot of laughs, but a serious look at a tough business by the best wrestler on God’s green earth.
1. Have a Nice Day: A Tale of Blood and Sweatsocks by Mick Foley
It is hard to imagine that anyone reading this list of books has not read (and reread) Foley’s book, which made the rest of these possible. Yes, there were a few wrestling autobiographies before Foley’s, just like there were fantasy novels for kids before Harry Potter, but Have a Nice Day broke the barrier by showing that wrestling fans know how to read. With his book filled with story after story, Foley comes across not as a larger-than-life superstar, but as a regular guy who made incredible sacrifices to achieve success. Best of all, the book doesn’t have a co-author; it’s not told to anyone but the readers. And that’s the real reason for his success, commercial and critical. His story is inspiring, yet not amazing. He comes across, like Jim Bouton did in Ball Four, as a fan who never lost his enthusiasm for his profession, and his passion jumps off the page.
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