This is definitely a genre book. It is for people who want to know more about the history of American professional wrestling. Specifically, it is for people who crave more information about wrestling in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Even more specifically, the book is about wrestling in the Mid South wrestling promotion (a.k.a. territory). Mid South was the territory run by Bill Watts (an icon in American professional wrestling). In the late ‘70s, Watts turned Sylvester Ritter into the first undisputed African-American wrestling superstar: The Junk Yard Dog, a.k.a. JYD. Klein wrote this book to ensure that Ritter’s legacy as the first big name African-American professional wrestler was not lost. Klein makes an easy case to follow and provides an interesting story along the way, although the author’s thesis is perhaps overreaching.
The book starts by offering a brief history of some of the more prominent wrestling territories. Since the machinations of wrestling territories in the mid to late 20th century were convoluted at best, Klein is wise to gloss over them, touching only on the fact that numerous territories existed and that there were battles for fans and profits among them. Klein also puts his story into context with respect to some of the most famous and infamous wrestlers of the period including Verne Gagne, Hulk Hogan, Ernie Ladd, and Andre the Giant.
The most compelling element of Klein’s narrative history is that the Junkyard Dog’s success was prescient in terms of the rise of African-Americans in the professional wrestling industry, as well as their integration into this form of entertainment. JYD had fans of all ages and races which Klein feels was his legacy, at least within Mid South. In the author’s words, “although the Junk Yard Dog was King of New Orleans for the length of his run [1979-1984], it was the decision to base the entire territory around him that really broke barriers.” In this way, Klein suggests JYD’s role as wrestling superstar had overarching civil rights consequences. At the same time, any civil rights stance was unintended, as the territory promoters were motivated by greed, not skin color: JYD was a good draw, and that translated into profits. Klein does note that “wrestling does, in fact, exploit nationality and ethnic stereotypes to create drama,” and JYD’s entire career was directly tied to that reality.
Klein’s writing is straightforward, perhaps reflective of his journalist background. He’s retelling this story to make sure it is preserved. Interestingly, Ritter is almost tangential to the book. Klein focuses on the decision makers and JYD rarely had a say in his in-ring persona. I have the impression he was told where, when, and whom to wrestle. Ritter’s personal life is barely touched upon.
Klein’s The King of New Orleans is a history of Mid South Wrestling and the Junkyard Dog. His story continues into JYD’s more well-known time as a national performer with the World Wrestling Federation, however, Klein notes that by then JYD’s personal and professional lives were unraveling. Fans of professional wrestling who did not watch during the 1980s might learn a thing or two reading this book. However, since i- depth analysis is not something that needs to be vigorously applied to wrestling, one should read for the story, not for the insight.
Check the WRL catalog for The King of New Orleans