WWE Encyclopedia co-author and lifelong wrestling junkie Brian Shields will be hosting a History of WWE presentation Sunday at the Farmingdale Public Library on 116 Merritts Road.
Shields, who grew up in Rockville Centre, recently sat down with Newsday’s Alfonso Castillo to talk about the event, the challenges of putting together the definitive guide to WWE, and the best place to rent a wrestling tape.
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What’s the most obscure piece of information a reader could find in the WWE Encyclopedia?
"One of them that people may not know is that during his career Andre the Giant was actually offered a contract to play football in the NFL by the Washington Redskins. He turned it down. Another thing that people enjoy learning is that the WWE Chairman himself, Vince McMahon, was a huge fan of professional wrestling and his favorite wrestler was Dr. Jerry Graham. He would actually drive around in his car dressed in robes imitating the Grahams when he was a teenager.
How about some very obscure wrestlers?
Phantasio was a cross between someone who looked like a magician and someone who came off the set of Phantom of the Opera. It was actually kind of cool, because during his matches he would use the skill of illusion on his opponent. So he would whip his opponent into the ropes, do a leap frog, and then cast a web like Spider Man as his opponent was running back to him. I always like talking about Battle Kat. What a lot of people may not remember or don’t know is that the character of Battle Kat was actually inspired by New Japan Pro Wrestling’s Tiger Mask. Battle Kat had some great matches on Wrestling Challenge and Superstars of Wrestling, and if you can find those matches, the commentary from Gorilla Monsoon, as usual, was nothing short of phenomenal.
What was the most difficult entry to research?
I would say one of the most challenging and one of the entries I’m most proud of is Vince McMahon Sr. -- an incredible entrepreneur, an incredible visionary and one of the few impresarios in the country at the time that did not have a fear of television like so many promoters did in the 1950s and '60s. Besides the fact that I wanted to make sure I got that entry right and did it justice, the industry was very guarded back then, so I was really dependent on the wonderful array of information resources that WWE has. I’m talking about magazines, newspapers, newspaper reels, some old videos. I always was quadruple checking that any of the information I was receiving from outside the WWE was credible.
How did you decide whether or not to include in the WWE Encyclopedia some legendary wrestling names that weren’t closely associated with WWE, like Lou Thesz?
The vision of this project was always a WWE Encyclopedia. So, right away, that framed our work. Everything that is in there is within the realm of WWE. Lou Thesz has about a quarter of a page entry. He had two in-ring appearances in WWE. He won a legends battle royal at the Meadowlands in 1987. And about 10 years later, the WWE honored the great champions of the NWA, and Lou Thesz was obviously a big part of that. So that’s a great example that if you appeared on air for the WWE in some way, you were put on the entry list for the book. If you did not, or have not, then you will not have your own entry. But if something happened in the NWA or Canada or Japan, it’s acknowledged in the book. They might not have their own entries because they didn’t appear in WWE, but you’ll find some names within the entries of other known stars.
How about some more controversial figures, like Chris Benoit?
There wasn’t much of a discussion strictly about whether a person should be included or not. As it’s widely known, there have been different individuals over the years who maybe have not been on the best of terms with WWE. Chris Benoit is a different story. That wasn’t a business disagreement. It was an incredible human tragedy. But there was never a conversation that I was brought into or made aware of where the question was, “Should he be in?” I wrote Chris Benoit’s entry. He also has about a quarter-page. And I think one of the reasons people have enjoyed the book is because everyone is given their due within the realm of WWE. Chris had a very long career in this industry. But he was in the WWE less than half of that time. So the entry reflects that. As far as writing it, just for me as a person and writer and a huge fan of his work, I did my best to just write it very carefully as far as being sensitive. I feel I did a good job with that.
How do some younger fans who attend your "History of WWE" presentations looking to hear about John Cena and CM Punk react when you go in depth about names from the past such as Buddy Rogers and Bruno Sammartino?
I think there are people who are definitely surprised, but I think the way that it’s done in terms of a multimedia style where I’m speaking to photos and video footage is very entertaining. Like WWE programming has always had, these "History of WWE" events have something for everybody. If you were a fan in the 60s and 70s, or you’re a kid from the 80s, or you were into the Attitude Era, or you’re a huge John Cena fan, there’s something there for everybody. WWE has always been a great form of family entertainment. To me my favorite part of these "History of WWE" events that I host is that families come, and someone who has brought their grandchild or their child is asking me about when they were kids and they saw Bruno Sammartino fight Bill Watts. And two minutes later somebody is asking me if Daniel Bryan is OK after getting an RKO from Randy Orton on Smackdown.
What was your favorite place to rent Coliseum Video releases in the 1980s and 90s?
My spot was Video Vision on Long Beach Road on Rockville Centre, almost on the corner of Lakeview Avenue. I still remember to this day our membership number was 64483. Any time there was a Coliseum Video, it was on. Everybody in the store knew me. They had a reserve system, and I would call them, trying to be clever as a 10-year-old kid, and trying to change my voice. I just wanted to know if it was in. “You have the Best of WWF Volume 8, but where’s 7? How do you have 8 but not 7?” It got to a point, I think it was for SummerSlam '89, when the person over the phone said, “We know it’s you. No one else wants it.”
The free event starts at 2 p.m. For ticket information, call 516-249-9090.