Oliver Hurley’s Wrestling’s 101 Strangest Matches is one of the most interesting books on Professional Wrestling in quite some time. Far from being a simple listing of odd bouts, the book provides in-depth background and context on each of the matches featured, revealing details that are both historically significant and genuinely entertaining. Comments from the wrestlers themselves reveal the little known details behind many of these infamous battles. We spoke to the veteran journalist about the book, his process for developing it, and his undying love for the sport that, admittedly, can be somewhat strange at times. Enjoy!
How long have you been writing about pro wrestling? What is it about the sport that you love?
I first wrote about wrestling in anow long-forgotten UK fanzine called Crunch, which I launched in the summer of 1995 on the back of an independent show in London featuring Sabu – the first UK show explicitly aimed at ‘hardcore’ fans. Crunch only lasted for a few issues but people quite seemed to like it, I think largely because it was a bit irreverent. In a roundabout way, that eventually led on to me writing for Power Slam, the UK’s best-selling wrestling mag, which I’ve been working for on a freelance basis since 2001.
As for what I love about wrestling, can anyone really answer that question? I just started watching it on TV when I was young, somehow got hooked, started going to live shows and that was it. As Thomas Aquinas put it, “To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possible.” Although I’m not sure he was necessarily talking about wrestling at the time, given that he was a 13th-century Italian Dominican priest. But there you go.
Why did you decide to write this book?
I’d been wanting to write a wrestling book for a while – something that covered a wide variety of performers and eras, rather than yet another wrestling biography – but couldn’t quite come up with the right idea. I toyed with the notion of something on wrestling’s greatest matches but that seemed a bit vague. In the end, I came across a book called Boxing’s Strangest Fights and nicked the idea from that. As a concept, it just seemed to lend itself perfectly to wrestling, while allowing me to write about everyone from Strangler Lewis to Stalker Ichikawa.
How did you go about researching and narrowing down what to include?
While I was pitching the book to publishers, I spent quite a long time – probably about a year – working on a long-list of matches. That ended up consisting of just under 200 bouts, each with quite detailed notes on where footage of each match was available (if it even existed), references to the bouts in books or articles, old newsletter stories, interviews and so on. When it came to writing the book, in addition to as much reference material as I could get my hands on, I also conducted my own interviews with some of the wrestlers involved.
Coming up with the final 101 matches was based on having a pretty good idea of which ones would be the most entertaining to write about, while trying to ensure that I had a range of different wrestlers and promotions. It was a bit of a balancing act but I think it works – and I can’t think of any other wrestling book that would include both Lou Thesz and an inflatable sex doll.
What facts or matches did you discover that were surprising to you?
Almost every day I was working on the book brought surprises. For instance, I vaguely knew about Ric Flair’s supposed NWA title loss to Jack Veneno in the Dominican Republic in the early 1980s but didn’t know the full details until researching the match for the book. It’s incredible to think that Flair was forced to call an audible and tell Veneno to pin him as he feared a riot if he beat the local hero, as planned. You just can’t imagine an audience believing so deeply in what they’re witnessing these days.
Or reading up on Wilbur Finran – who wrestled in the 1930s as monocle-wearing British nobleman Lord Patrick Lansdowne Finnegan – was fascinating. Most fans have never heard of him but he directly influenced Gorgeous George who, in turn, was the template of flamboyant heels such as Buddy Rogers. And researching the barmier end of Japanese wrestling was always full of surprises, from those ludicrously over-the-top deathmatches to a bout between a ladder and an electric heater.
What are some interesting matches that didn’t make the cut?
How long have you got? Here’s a few at random. Messiah hanging John Zandig by hooks in his back at the culmination of a CZW show in 2003. Mikey Whipwreck setting Paul Travell on fire. Tank Abbott versus Big Al in a ‘leather jacket on a pole’ match in WCW. The Tri-State Wrestling Alliance’s reverse cage battle royal in 1990. Bolivian women’s wrestling.
Andre the Giant falling asleep during a match with John Studd (I’m guessing most of the audience would have fallen asleep during that too). Extreme Air Wrestling and its two rings, one of which is twice the height of the other. Giant Baba accidentally blading Fritz Von Erich’s hand in the middle of a match. The classic Kenny Omega vs Mike Eagles ‘king of anywhere’ match. And whatever’s going on here.
The design of the book itself is quite unique. Did you come up with the concept for it as a full-color faux wrestling scrapbook?
No, the credit for that goes entirely to the book’s designer, Luke Jefford. I love how the scrapbook feel helps to tie everything together, plus it gives the book a really strong visual identity that a lot of wrestling books lack.
The book has a foreword by notable deathmatch wrestler Thumbtack Jack. Why did you decide he was the person to introduce your work?
Deathmatches are the one area of wrestling that a lot of fans simply don’t get: they don’t understand why wrestlers would put themselves through it and they don’t understand the appeal of watching that sort of extreme violence. I’m not really sure I understand it myself. So I thought it would be interesting to have one of the genre’s most notorious exponents talking about why, for instance, he allowed himself to be thrown through burning panes of glass. Plus, he was a journalism student, so – unlike a lot of wrestlers – he could actually write well.
Have you gotten feedback from any of the wrestlers featured in it?
Not really. Although I know Magic Man was thrilled to be included in the book – largely, I think, because he was amazed that anyone remembered who he was. And Curry Man read from the book during one of Colt Cabana’s Art of Wrestling podcasts, which was fairly surreal.
Your book features a lot of extreme and one-off examples of oddities in the sport, but what’s something in wrestling that you feel is highly peculiar but so common that it generally goes unnoticed?
It’s got to be running the ropes, which always struck me as really odd. The audience is meant to believe that a grappler is racing into the ropes at such speed that he is then propelled by them back towards the centre of the ring at such velocity that he simply can’t stop running. There’s just no logical explanation for it whatsoever but you just have to go with it and not analyse it too much. Either that or you’d be reduced to watching Pancrase all the time – and where’s the fun in that?
What’s one thing from your book that you hope is never, ever done again?
For everyone’s sake, I really hope that no wrestler ever shits on another wrestler in the middle of a match ever again.
If you were to write about another 101 things in wrestling, what would you choose?
I like the idea of doing a book called 101 Things You Always Wanted To Know About Wrestling (But Were Afraid to Ask). It would answer such quandaries as why wrestlers keep dying young, why WCW went out of business and – the one thing about wrestling that’s a complete mystery to everyone – why the Brooklyn Brawler keeps making appearances on WWE DVDs. It would be like a cross between a wrestling encyclopaedia and a miscellany of really stupid trivia.
Finally, what would you tell wrestling fans they’ll learn from reading the book? Likewise, what do you hope people who aren’t regular followers of the sport will get out of it?
It’s sort of like an alternative history of wrestling, from early pioneers such as Joe Stecher to the evolution of garbage wrestling in Japan, via El Santo, Bruno Sammartino, Andre the Giant, midgets, bears and a wrestling robot. As for non-fans, I’d hope it’d give them an appreciation of how there’s much more to pro wrestling than just WWE or TNA, and how simply dismissing it all as ‘fake’ entirely misses the point.
But the main thing is that, however much or however little you know (or even care) about wrestling, I’d hope people would find the book really fun and entertaining. After all, how can you not enjoy a book that starts with someone getting their foot pulled off and ends with Abdullah the Butcher seemingly being fried in an electric chair?
Where can people find you and your work?
The book’s available in all good bookstores (and some bad ones) and online at amazon.com. I still write regularly for Power Slam – usually DVD reviews plus the occasional interview and feature. You can follow me on Twitter at @wrestling101 and you can find out more about my non-wrestling journalism at oliverhurley.com.