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13220410_originalWhat’s the difference between a work and a shoot?

On the surface level, the difference between a work and a shoot is simple. In the parlance of the professional wrestling industry, a shoot is something that is real. A work describes any time the fix is in. Initially these terms were used to describe the matches, to distinguish between real contests and wrestling shenanigans — but from the very beginning wrestling was crooked as a snake. Shoots all but disappeared from the sport in the ring very early on. But language is flexible. Soon enough it was a term used to describe anything real. Truthful comments, a fight in a bar, any comments prefaced by “Let me be honest…” These were all “shoots.” It’s a term that has to make anyone associated with the wrestling industry smile if they stop and think about it for a minute. Only in wrestling would you need a word to let people know that, just this once, you are telling them the truth and not spinning a tale.

Give us a quick history of tough men, carny and the roots of wrestling and MMA.  Is it true that Abe Lincoln was once the NWA champion?

That’s an interesting question and one that kind of nails the culture head on. Wrestling doesn’t really have a history. It has a mythology. There are grains of truth in even the tallest wrestling tales. Abe Lincoln’s wrestling exploits were magnified and built up as the years passed being  just one example of that penchant for storytelling at the expense of truth.  Lincoln was certainly a local wrestling standout in his native Illinois, able to throw “any man in Sangamon County.” But he was no champion. In fact, pointing out wrestling’s true champions is a thankless and daunting endeavor. From the late 1800′s forward, wrestling was very much a business and not a sport. And that’s being kind.  What wrestling really was, at its heart, was a con. Traveling athletic carnivals were a mechanism for savvy wrestlers to part fools from their money. They would often send a member of their troupe ahead of the show, allowing him time to establish himself as a top grappler with unsuspecting locals. When the pros showed up weeks later, this new local stud would try his hand at the established stars. Bets were made, cash exchanged hands, with no one aware that their local hero was really just part of the show.

 

In your opinion, the five toughest men of the last 100 years.

Originally Shooters was going to have a list of the twenty toughest men in the history of professional wrestling. It turned out to be quite a challenge. How do you measure athletes across time? How do you factor in the size and strength that are a product of modern training regiments? It’s likely that someone like former NCAA All American and UFC champion Brock Lesnar would have smashed Tom Jenkins, a turn of the century wrestler he outweighed by up to 100 pounds. Jenkins was the toughest of tough guys, a former steel worker when he was just a teen who plucked out his glass eye before wrestling matches. But size matters and, as a people, we are simply bigger than we’ve ever been. In the end, we scrapped the rankings because it inevitably devolved into pure fantasy. A fantasy I’m more than happy to indulge in:

 

5. Brock Lesnar: UFC champion and mammoth man.
4. Frank Gotch: mean spirited submission master.
3. John Pesek: a trouble shooter brought in when other wrestlers weren’t playing nicely with promoters.
2. Kazushi Sakuraba: an MMA fighter who often beat fighters 20 pounds heavier.
1. Danny Hodge: an unstoppable wrestler who became a Golden Gloves boxing standout.
dannyhodge

Was Hulk Hogan tough?  In his prime, how would he fare with a current MMA fighter? Could either of them have beaten Iron Mike Tyson at his most insane? 

Rocky-III-1982-hulk-hogan-thunderlips-fight
Hulk Hogan was the bane of old school wrestlers. The famous line about Hogan, repeated by many traditional pro wrestlers, was “he wouldn’t know a wristlock from a wrist watch.” Hogan was likely as tough as any man who stood six and a half feet and weighed 350 pounds. Would you want to test him in a bar? I wouldn’t. But would he last five minutes with a real skilled wrestler? No. Boxing versus wrestling is the age old debate, one that preceded the UFC by more than a century. At one point there were even serious talks about a mixed fight between boxing great Jack Dempsey and wrestling stalwart Ed “Strangler” Lewis. Those talks stalled, likely for the same reason we’ve never seen Tyson or any other big name boxer step into the cage to fight a UFC star. While the boxer has the puncher’s chance to end the fight quickly with one blow, he’s virtually defenseless once on his back. For one example, see a washed up James Toney make a fool of himself against washed up former UFC champion Randy Couture.

 

Okay, so wrestling has pretty much always been scripted, we’ve heard the rumors that boxing is fixed — what about UFC and the sort?   How much of MMA is a work? 

There have been some whispers of work in mixed martial arts. In Japan, of course, the sport is so closely connected to pro wrestling that works are almost inevitable. In the U.S., they’ve been few and far between, mostly connected to teammates involved in early UFC tournaments looking for an edge. At this point, a UFC fight is as on the level as any major sporting event. Take that as you will. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a certain kind of work in MMA. The fights aren’t fixed by any means, but savvy fighters have discovered the value of creating coherent characters for public consumption. The best MMA character is Chael Sonnen.  A journeyman for a decade, Sonnen reinvented himself as a trash talking dynamo, literally stealing pro wrestling interviews from the 1970′s and lighting up opponents to the delight of the crowd. In real life, Sonnen is soft spoken and thoughtful, nothing at all like his pugnacious character. That, friends, is work.

 

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snowden_crop_150x150Jonathan Snowden is the best-selling author of Total MMA, The MMA Encyclopedia, and Shooters: The Toughest Men in Professional Wrestling. He’s a former radio DJ and television producer who worked for the White House Communications Agency in Washington, D.C.  He currently works for the Department of Defense.  Ironically, despite being an Army vet, Jonathan is scared of physical confrontations of any kind.

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