Book Review: "The Final Bell" by Mike Mooneyham
Larger than life. Huge personalities. Famous in every corner of the globe. All of these things and more can be said about celebrities in general, but when it comes to professional wrestlers the clichés are more true than ever. Their job, after all, is to create a character that connects with the audience in a visceral way and makes them suspend that disbelief. The great pro wrestlers pull you into the moment with raw heart, emotion, and feats of toughness and strength that defy description.
One of the hardest things to do with these gods of the squared circle is to humanize them. That may not be true today, when every wrestler has a touted corporate Twitter handle and kayfabe is a word that virtually no one under the age of 30 or so even understands. Today’s sports entertainer is a creature born in the spotlight who exposes every personal detail in the Age of Information. The greats of yesteryear were shrouded in secrecy, with their characters and their real lives firmly separated.
Perhaps that’s why it’s so perfect that Mike Mooneyham, THE preeminent old-school wrestling journalist, is the one to properly eulogize these giants of the industry.
As a Clemson Tiger growing up in the Lowcountry of the great and sovereign state of South Carolina, Mike Mooneyham was my original “dirt sheet”. He was the inside scoop. I didn’t need the WCW hotline or the insider exposé on the latest Coliseum Home Video for WWF- all I needed to do was pick up a Sunday paper and read his latest column. He was inside the business and treated it with the same reverence that I watched it with. There’s a reason he’s so loved and trusted in the wrestling community. That reason is respect.
“The Final Bell” (2019, Evening Post Books) is a collection of Mike’s best eulogies for the biggest names in the business upon their passing. It’s equal parts emotionally raw, revelatory, amusing, and borderline shocking. Mike has a unique position in the business of truly being on the inside. He was personal friends with many of those he writes about (or was at least professionally acquainted with them). The authenticity that comes from that connection makes the work as a whole extremely important to the history of the business. Furthermore, the brave and genuine love he puts into each work comes through in every word. It’s rare to get the real deal anymore in journalism, but Mooneyham has given wrestling fans a real treat.
There are some major names in “The Final Bell”- Rowdy Roddy Piper, Dusty Rhodes, Eddie Guerrero, “Macho Man” Randy Savage, Chyna, “Classy” Freddie Blassie, Bruno Sammartino, Bobby “The Brain” Heenan, & The Fabulous Moolah. More importantly, many of the pillars on which the sport stands are also there- Johnny Weaver (my Papa’s favorite grappler), Jack Brisco, Swede Hanson, Killer Kowalski, Johnny Valentine, & Mae Young. Hell, I even found a few I’d never heard of that blew me away- Sputnik Monroe, George and Sandy Scott, Penny Banner (she dated Elvis!!), & Bronco Lubich.
Mooneyham’s work is a history lesson and masterclass in not only how the wrestling business worked in the old days but also an eye-opener on how different it all used to be. All of these old heels (bad guys) talking about the times they were stabbed and attacked! Can you imagine? The chapter on Freddie Blassie alone knocked me right on my ass; I literally read it and then immediately read it aloud to my stunned wife. It’s that good. Likewise, the story of Sputnik Monroe is a thing of beauty- a white man who refused to obey the racial barriers put in place by society and made lasting change on not only how black wrestlers were booked but how black society was treated in the South. Incredible.
The tragic ones will hit you where it hurts while warming your heart to see the love Mooneyham has for those tormented legends. His stories about Eddie Guerrero had me wiping my cheeks, as did the eulogy for one of my all-time favorites, Joanie “Chyna” Laurer. When I call them tough reads I mean that in the most complimentary way possible.
The section entitled “MID ATLANTIC MAINSTAYS AND STARS” is enlightening in its insights and through in its coverage. These are the stars that my elders grew up on and talked to me about all the time, wrestlers like Johnny Weaver, Burrhead Jones, Jay Youngblood, Rip Hawk, & Nelson Royal. I was too young to appreciate these men who were the stars of “my territory”, but I knew them nonetheless through my Dad, uncles, and my Papa. It’s a love letter to the importance of that territory in the culture of the Carolinas and Virginia.
With “The Final Bell”, Mike Mooneyham has given us a work that’s not only a collection of serious journalism covering America’s most misunderstood sport but a love letter to the business and a deeply touching farewell to the larger than life giants who were, after all, everyday folks just like you and me. It’s a legitimate must for the collection of every wrestling fan.
Evening Post purchase link: https://evepostbooks.com/product/final-bell-by-mike-mooneyham/