Many fans who are interested in a kind of scholarly analysis of pro wrestling, its status as an art form and place in both history and culture, are probably already familiar with the work of David Shoemaker. Writing under the name "The Masked Man" he first came to internet fame as the writer of the "Dead Wrestler of the Week" feature on Deadspin.
More recently, he's been delivering both commentary on the current WWE product and occasional history lessons over at Bill Simmons' ESPN-affiliated sports and pop culture site, Grantland. Shoemaker's most famous work for that site is probably the wide-ranging, in and out of kayfabe interview he and Simmons did with Paul "HHH" Levesque just before SummerSlam, Triple H's heel turn and the birth of The Authority angle that is still dominating pro wrestling today.
Some of the reason that "The Masked Man" wasn't cranking out as much historical content recently was probably because he was saving those efforts for his new book, The Squared Circle: Life, Death and Professional Wrestling.
I'm an avid Shoemaker reader and, while I haven't read the book yet, I will be reading it as soon as my schedule clears and will share some thoughts on it with you Cagesiders. In the meantime, my curiosity piqued when the missus texted me from work this Saturday with "There's some wrestling thing on NPR this morning".
Part of the reason that I enjoy his work is that he's a smart, talented writer. Another, probably equally if not more important, reason is that he's on the front line of the "most wrestling fans breathe through their mouth and sleep with their cousins" stereotype fight. So, Shoemaker hawking his wares and waving the "it's a valid art form, damnit" flag on liberal elite media? I was there, brother.
In good ways and bad, it's exactly what you would expect. Interviewer Don Gonyea tries to not sound too condescending, at least as non-condescending as you can after doing what every respectable journalist feels the need to do before talking about sports entertainment - establish that it is indeed "fake" and mention a wrestler he remembers from his childhood (thereby insinuating that he outgrew watching wrestling, like a normal person).
From there, Shoemaker is largely given free rein to outline his book and his message. After touching briefly on the form's turn-of-the-20th century roots, Gorgeous George's impact on his and other sports and pop culture at large is discussed. The territory system is covered as segue into Vince McMahon creating WWE and embracing pro grappling's role as an over-the-top entertainment. And he closes by stating that his goal is to take it "sort of seriously" and present wrestling as an American form with a place in sports and entertainment history.
I can't blame a guy who has probably had this kind of interview a million times in the past few weeks for soft-shoeing it with an outlet like NPR. Especially when dealing with reviews like Publishers Weekly's, which kicks off by describing him as "a devoted Wrestlemania fan determined to keep the sport respectable".
But in this age of social media and reality shows, where many wrestling fans' favorite pastime in playing "work or shoot" and even the manliest of us have clicked to read a news story about what John Cena said to Nikki Bella on Total Divas last night, I wish Shoemaker had hit on his favorite topic of wrestling's unreality a little harder. He briefly referred to it when discussing Owen Hart's death:
Part of the hardest thing to wrestle with - no pun intended - in this whole world is the line between reality and unreality. It's sort of the most delicious part of the enterprise. But it's also the most confounding part, not just for outsiders but for fans, because when something real intervenes in this unreal world, you're left to wonder at what point the unreality and the reality converge.
I believe that, if you can get a wrestling-hater or non-fan to not make a joke about your living in your parents' basement, this is a presentation of the modern day product that a lot of people don't consider and would find more interesting.
Or, I could just be kind of excited that a story about pro wresting was on smart people radio in between news of the Middle East and the importance of diet for newborns. And, overly sensitive about my love of a "fake" sport.