The wrestling business was experiencing a tremendous boom period with promoters making money hand over fist. Wrestling commanded a mainstream audience and was prominently featured in the media. Then, the bottom dropped out and promoters couldn’t draw a dime. Pundits proclaimed that wrestling was dead. Like other fads, it had its heyday and then fizzled. It was nice while it lasted but nothing was going to bring it back. Sound familiar? What if we told you we were talking about wrestling from the middle of the 20th century? Tim Hornbaker’s book Capitol Revolution: The Rise of the McMahon Wrestling Empire (Capitol) show wrestling's cycles of boom and bust leading to the creation of Vince McMahon's wrestling dynasty.
Most of us have heard George Santayana’s saying, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." However after reading Tim Hornbaker’s book Capitol Revolution: The Rise of the McMahon Wrestling Empire (Capitol), I’m more inclined to go with Voltaire who said that “History never repeats itself. Man always does”. I was shocked to discover how many times wrestling has hit an apex, crashed, and burned, only to come back like the legendary phoenix.
After writing an authoritative book on the history of the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) National Wrestling Alliance: The Untold Story of the Monopoly that Strangled Professional Wrestling, Tim Hornbaker turns his attention to the roots of today’s undisputed leader in professional wrestling, World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), examining how the company passed through three generations of McMahon’s on its way to the top. The book covers a long stretch of history, examining the origins of Capitol Wrestling, the promotional outfit that would launch the World Wide Wrestling Federation (WWWF) and eventually the World Wrestling Federation (WWF). Unfortunately the book doesn’t spend enough time on the WWWF and WWF, instead examining what led up to the great northeast territory that would ultimately become a national organization.
Reading Capitol, I couldn’t marvel at many things that wrestling experienced in the 80’s and 90’s happened many times before whether it was wrestler’s activities leading to a promotion almost losing their license to promote, promoters’ fearing that rival promoters airing “name” matches for free on TV would harm arena ticket sales, or promoters dealing with a lack of big name stars like they had had in the past. We definitely see that Solomon was right in Ecclesiastes 1:9 when he said, “there is no new thing under the sun.” Promoters have been struggling with the same issues for decades whether it was rowdy wrestlers, bored fans, or promotional wars.
Capitol does an excellent job of detailing the intrigue that occurred in and out of the professional wrestling ring. One practice was for promoters create copycat wrestlers to imitate top stars. “Lou Kesz” appeared to confuse fans about Lou Thesz. The French Angel found a twin when rival promoters created “the Swedish Angel” (Although the book doesn’t cover it, one of my all-time favorites was the wrestler “Dirty Rhodes”, a take-off on Dusty Rhodes who claimed to be his cousin). Another tactic was the time-honored but dangerous ploy of sending a challenger in against a champion and double-crossing him in the ring and taking the title. As dangerous as this might seem, rival promoters tried it which made it a must that a champion be able to defend himself in the ring. Capitol really does a good job of showing how seedy the world of professional wrestling could be.
Hornbaker takes us all the way back to the McMahon family’s arrival in America during the 19th century. First-generation American Roderick (“Jess”) McMahon would take to promoting a variety of sports including boxing, baseball, basketball, and eventually wrestling. Capitol really starts to take off when it explores the career of Vincent Jesse McMahon, showing how he was innovative in promoting wrestling (just as his son would go on to be), succeeding both in feast and famine eras.
While the book is about the birth and growth of Capitol Wrestling, the author spends considerable time discussing the various wrestling promotions operating during this time. Given the fact that the McMahons were by no means the only game in town, it’s important to see how other businesses affected them and vice versa. The McMahons had to navigate a dangerous landscape as they sought to grow their business and deal with the politics of both promoters and the government. Unlike today, professional wrestling was regulated by the government and promoters had to be careful of drawing the government’s wrath or they could lose their ability to promote wrestling.
One such example is the story of the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA.) and how the U.S. government nearly shut it down. The promoters of various territories created the NWA. syndicate with which they maintained a stranglehold over professional wrestling in the United States and Canada. Promoters agreed on an NWA World Heavyweight Champion and who would get to book him. More importantly, the NWA officials carved out exclusive territories for one another. Anyone going into another promoter’s territory faced the wrath of the NWA as a whole. It really is amazing how a group of promoters were able to monopolize the wrestling industry for decades. Even more amazing is how they were able to continue their monopoly after a federal investigation. Vince McMahon’s Capitol Wrestling would become a member of the NWA, creating business opportunities but also creating headaches when McMahon decided to do things his way.
Capitol covers a lot of historical ground, documenting wrestling’s ups and downs, the impact of two World Wars on business, and the unbelievable effect that television had on business. When television executives looked for low-cost programming to fill the airwaves, they found that professional wrestling fit the bill and more importantly, it provided terrific ratings. Before long, wrestling was all over the airwaves and promoters found their stars getting much-desired exposure, sometimes even at the national level.
Arguably the biggest event covered in the book is when Vincent Jesse McMahon decided to launch an independent promotion; the WWWF, complete with its own champion. As the book explains, McMahon was more than happy to go out on his own, even if it meant leaving the NWA behind. The WWWF and NWA would eventually reconcile, with McMahon recognizing the champions of the NWA and American Wrestling Association (AWA), featuring them on his shows at MSG.
Unfortunately the author seems to lose focus in concentrating on Capitol Wrestling’s rivals as much as the company itself. Hornbaker spends nearly as much time discussing Verne Gagne’s creation of the American Wrestling Association (AWA) as he does on the development of the WWWF. We learn a lot about NWA World Champions Lou Thesz and “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers, two important figures in wrestling. However Mr. Hornbaker spends comparatively less time on Bruno Sammartino, the man who was the WWWF in the 1960’s and continued to be a top star in the 1970’s both before and after his second WWWF title reign.
The book focuses on the promoting careers of Roderick “Jess” McMahon and Vincent Jesse McMahon. While Vincent Kennedy McMahon is discussed, it is largely about his role in his father’s company before he purchased it. As Capitol shows, the McMahons were not afraid to take chances which helped them expand their empire. They experienced ups and downs in the business but successfully weathered the storm.
The book is definitely worth checking out if you are a student of wrestling history. The book does an excellent job in describing the wrestling world of the twentieth century up until the early 1980’s as well as the key promoters and wrestlers of that time. I don’t want to call the title disingenuous but make no mistake about it, this book discusses the McMahons up until Vincent Kennedy McMahon’s acquisition of the company and then fades to black. There is no discussion of the WWF once Hulk Hogan becomes its champion. Perhaps Mr. Hornbaker is waiting to discuss this fascinating era in another book.
The book has two flaws which I believe are beyond the author’s control. First, the book is fairly short at 246 pages, hardly enough to cover such a broad range of history. Second, although Hornbaker claims to have conducted extensive research on the book (which I have no doubt that he did), there is no list of sources in the book. ECW Press tends to publish shorter books and to omit an author’s sources. There have been exceptions where the author cited his sources (such as the excellent book Pain and Passion: The History of Stampede Wrestling) and this book definitely would have been better if readers had a clear idea of what was relied upon in researching this book.
Regardless of these shortcomings, the book is a fun read. You will certainly learn a lot about the business environment and the people involved in wrestling during the twentieth century (at least up until 1984). It is intriguing to see how promoters coped with challenges to the business ranging from apathetic fans to government intrusion and of course, to the ever-present shenanigans of rival promoters. Given the book’s length, it’s more of a survey of wrestling history but it’s well written and will certainly appeal to any student of wrestling history.