C. Nathan Hatton is author of the new book, Thrashing Seasons: Sporting Culture in Manitoba and the Genesis of Prairie Wrestling, which tells the story of wrestling in Manitoba from its earliest documented origins in the eighteenth century, to the Great Depression. In this list, he shares other essential books about the history of the sport in Canada.
Wrestling, particularly professional wrestling, has long been the domain of popular historians. Its colourful past is by-and-large chronicled by journalists, magazine publishers, avid fans, and the wrestlers themselves. Spurred on by the commercial success of Mick Foley’s groundbreaking Have a Nice Day (1999), the twenty-first century has seen an explosion, in particular, of autobiographies and biographies. As any trip to a bookstore will attest, tremendous public interest in professional wrestling exists. Yet, relative to the United States, only a small number of works have been written specifically on Canadian wrestling.
In general, academics have been far more tentative in embracing professional wrestling than the popular scribes. While sociologists and other scholars of contemporary culture have applied their critical gaze, few historians have joined them. Until Thrashing Seasons, none had done so in Canada.
In contrast to professional wrestling, neither popular nor academic historians have given amateur wrestling much attention. Book-length studies on professional wrestling history in Canada are small in number, but similar treatments of amateur wrestling are rare in the extreme. This is in spite of wrestling not only being one of the longest-standing sports in the Olympic games, but also one of the first sports where Canada garnered international success.
Though pared down from a small field relative to many other subjects, here is my list of three essential wrestling books:
Glynn Leyshon is Canada’s pioneer wrestling historian. Now over 30 years old, his book Of Mats and Men was the first book-length work dedicated to wrestling in Canada. To date, it remains one of only a tiny handful of academically-oriented works on the subject. Moreover, it is one of only two book-length work of significance to focus on amateur wrestling in Canada (the other, also written by Leyshon, is focused on high school wrestling in Ontario).
Many of the authors who have turned their attention to Canadian wrestling history, and all who are profiled in my essential reading list, came to the subject after first dedicating years of their life to the sport. Leyshon’s involvement is certainly the most extensive, having been an athlete, coach, and booster for amateur wrestling for more than half a century. Of Mats and Men, despite its purported focus on the amateurs, casts its gaze widely to look at folk wrestling styles practiced in Canada before the twentieth century, Indigenous wrestling, and the early professionals. Amateur wrestling’s development is charted by looking at key social institutions that have contributed their resources to the sport’s growth, among them the church, the YMCA, and schools. Of Mats and Men also provides a select number of biographies, focusing on athletes who have medalled in the Olympic games, and includes tables that list the results of important domestic amateur wrestling competitions. Those seeking an overview of Canadian amateur wrestling history must begin with Leyshon’s book. It was the first work I ever read on wrestling history, more than twenty years ago.
Wrestling in the Canadian West, by Vance Nevada
For anyone wishing to gain a broad-based appreciation of professional wrestling’s history in Western Canada, Nevada’s work is the necessary starting point. He correctly notes that, “Except for a few references to the Canadian wrestling institution Stu Hart and his fabled dungeon, most books which focus on wrestling in North America overlook the history of the sport in western Canada.” Nevada’s book surveys the sport’s history in the Prairie provinces and British Columbia from the beginning of the twentieth century through to the time of publication. Organized both chronologically and according to wrestling promotions, Nevada’s book is very much an “institutional history,” charting the development and denouement of literally scores of regionally-based wrestling promotions. With over a quarter century of heavy involvement in the professional wrestling business at the time of publication, Nevada was able to draw extensively on interviews and oral accounts in crafting a work that takes the reader “back stage” to look at the politics, personalities and challenges associated with the wrestling business. Given its format, it is unlikely that readers will pick up Wrestling in the Canadian West and consume it cover-to-cover (though they would be considerably enriched by doing so). It is not a monograph that presents a continuous narrative. Structured more in the manner of a reference work, it is something that readers can return to again and again when seeking information on specific periods, promotions, and people. Moreover, Nevada’s primary focus is on the years after 1930. Only a few pages are explicitly devoted to the pre-Great Depression era, so Thrashing Seasons and Nevada’s Wrestling in the Canadian West dovetail together chronologically in regards to wrestling in Manitoba.
Mad Dogs, Midgets and Screw Jobs: The Untold Story of How Montreal Shaped the World of Wrestling, by Pat Laprade and Bertrand Hebert
Without question, Laprade and Hebert are Quebec’s leading wrestling authors. Both have been very active in the regional scene for a number of years and maintain a highly visible presence on social media. Any significant writing projects on Quebec wrestling history that have been undertaken in the last decade, either in English or in French, invariably have one or both of their names attached to them. Mad Dogs, Midgets, and Screw Jobs argues, convincingly, that Montreal deserves recognition as one of, if notthemajor wrestling centres in North America. This is not only because of the sheer numbers of people that consistently flocked to venues to see the matches, but also because the city was the site for pivotal events, as well as many historical “firsts” that helped to shape the direction for the entire business during the twentieth century. Like Nevada, Laprade and Hebert build much of their examination around the important promotions that have come and gone throughout Montreal’s history. However, the tighter geographic focus lends itself to a more narrative style of storytelling throughout the book. Similar to both Leyshon and Nevada’s works, Mad Dogs, Midgets, and Screw Jobs is rich in statistics on wrestlers, venues and attendance number spanning a period of over a century.
About the book: For fifty years, old-time wrestling and the Kasaboski name went hand-in-hand in the Ottawa Valley. Especially Larry Kasaboski, who followed his older brother Alex into the ring during the Depression years of the 1930s, then turned his talents to promoting. In the decades after the war, Northland Wrestling Enterprises staged fights in arenas up and down the Valley and throughout Northern Ontario, pitting passions against loyalties for the likes of Benny Trudel, Bill Curry, Don "One-Man-Gang" Evans, the Parks Brothers, and Gorgeous George Grant. Author Gary Howard has been a life-long fan of the sport, and in this book, shares his enthusiasm for the early years of show wrestling. Richly illustrated with rare photos, posters, and other memorabilia.
Pain and Passion: The History of Stampede Wrestling, by Heath McCoy
About the book: Established in the 1940s by the legendary Stu Hart, Stampede Wrestling was a founding wrestling company that was highly influential. This dramatic account follows Stamped's blood-on-the-mat saga of more than 50 years, from its grassroots beginnings in Calgary to its rise and bitter fall. Despite hosting some of the biggest names in the sport and developing many modern day wrestling staples, such as ladder matches, the emergence in the 1980s of the wildly popular WWE ultimately doomed the Stampede league to closure. The Hart family crumbled along with the league, with son Owen dying in the ring and other members torn apart by begrudging feuds and internal strife. Full of violence, sex, and drugs, this is a gripping tale of the birth of professional wrestling.
The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: The Canadians, by Greg Oliver
About the book: Canada has sent more top performers into the wrestling ring than any other country, although this fact has often been hidden by promoters. The Canadian roots of wrestling are celebrated in this fact-filled volume, which details the role Canadians have played, from wrestling's hardscrabble early days to the celebrities of the pay-per-view era. Wrestling's darkest secrets are revealed, such as the homeland of Rowdy Roddy Piper (Saskatchewan, not Scotland) and the origin of Mad Dog Vachon (not Algeria, but Quebec). The famous fighting families such as the Harts, Cormiers, and Rougeaus are featured, along with fascinating stories, photos, and facts.
About Thrashing Seasons:
Horseback wrestling, catch-as-catch-can, glima; long before the advent of today’s WWE, forms of wrestling were practised by virtually every cultural group. C. Nathan Hatton’s Thrashing Seasons tells the story of wrestling in Manitoba from its earliest documented origins in the eighteenth century, to the Great Depression.
Wrestling was never merely a sport: residents of Manitoba found meaning beyond the simple act of two people struggling for physical advantage on a mat, in a ring, or on a grassy field. Frequently controversial and often divisive, wrestling was nevertheless a popular and resilient cultural practice that proved adaptable to the rapidly changing social conditions in western Canada during its early boom period.
In addition to chronicling the colourful exploits of the many athletes who shaped wrestling’s early years, Hatton explores wrestling as a social phenomenon intimately bound up with debates around respectability, ethnicity, race, class, and idealized conceptions of masculinity. In doing so, "Thrashing Seasons" illuminates wrestling as a complex and socially significant cultural activity, one that has been virtually unexamined by Canadian historians looking at the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
C. Nathan Hatton is the author of Thrashing Seasons: Sporting Culture in Manitoba and the Genesis of Prairie Wrestling. He teaches history at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ontario. In addition to writing and researching on the topic, he has been actively involved in the wrestling arts for much of is life. A purple belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, Hatton also instructs in the style and has served as an assistant high school wrestling coach. He was born in Tisdale, Saskatchewan and raised in the communities of Prairie River, Saskatchewan and White River, Ontario.
Sporting Culture in Manitoba and the Genesis of Prairie Wrestling
Horseback wrestling, catch-as-catch-can, glima; long before the advent of today’s WWE, forms of wrestling were practised by virtually every cultural group. C. Nathan Hatton’s "Thrashing Seasons" tells the story of wrestling in Manitoba from its earliest documented origins in the eighteenth century, to the Great Depression.
Wrestling was never me …
The Untold Story of how Montreal Shaped the World of Wrestling
A fascinating history of one of the hottest wrestling territories of all time
Montreal was the proving ground for some of the biggest names in wrestling, including Andre the Giant, Abdullah the Butcher, and the infamous Mad Dog Vachon; it was the site of the first midget battle ever; and made famous worldwide for the infamous Survivor Series screw …
The History of Stampede Wrestling
Calgary’s Stampede Wrestling spawned some of the biggest wrestling stars in history, from mat kings of the past like Gene Kiniski and Superstar Billy Graham to modern idols like Bret “Hitman” Hart, the British Bulldogs, and Chris Benoit. Pain and Passion tells how a small, family-run wrestling business profoundly influenced the world of prof …
Canada has sent more top performers into the wrestling ring than any other country, although this fact has often been hidden by promoters. The Canadian roots of wrestling are celebrated in this fact-filled volume, which details the role Canadians have played, from wrestling's hardscrabble early days to the celebrities of the pay-per-view era. Wrest …