Cover Image: Follow the Buzzards

Follow the Buzzards

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Member Reviews

Well written book, but if you lived though the pandemic and was a wrestling fan, it doesn't break any new ground

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My thanks to both NetGalley and the publisher ECW Press for an advanced copy of this portrait of professional wrestling in a time of uncertainty, confusion, and fear.

Professional Wrestling in the year 2019 was finally after years of declining interest from both long time fans and younger audiences as finally getting a little bit of heat, thought it was more cheap heat in wrestler parlance. A new promotion was getting shaking off the ring rust, signing some big names, wrestlers were making appearances in major motion pictures, and podcasts. Maybe the long stagnation was finally going to end. Maybe another attitude era, a period of high growth and interest was coming around the corner. And then people began coughing. And dying. And the world began to go really wrong in a lot of ways. Follow the Buzzards: Pro Wrestling in the Age of COVID-19 by Keith Elliot Greenberg is a history and an examination of professional wrestling in a time where everything seemed to be going wrong, and the only thing real seemed to happen in the square circle.

The book begins with an overview of what was going on in the wrestling world, and mention of the author's previous book also on wrestling. The book then becomes an almost month- by- month examination, a journal of a plague, and how wrestlers, fans and promotions dealt with information that changed depending on who was giving it, or what time of the day. The sudden stopping of live shows, the sudden absence of live crowds, leaving wrestlers to practice their art without the most critical component of every wrestling match, the audience. Empty arena matches, where even there events could change depending on what wrestlers could travel, or could be medically cleared to wrestle. The rise of Cinematic matches, where special effects and reshots could give matches that epic feel of a superhero movie, something I never really got into. The Thunderdome where LED monitors would let fans zoom in and give a semblance of a crowd. Independent shows still happened, outside, with masks, and every attempt to keep people and wrestlers safe, with burner phones sometimes announcing matches hours before the show. Wrestlers became sick, some died, or had to leave the profession. A very interesting account of a a very odd time.

The book is set up chronologically, and gives a really complete account of what was going on from the biggest promotion to the larger promotions, down to the indy shows. Sometimes the information can be a little scattershot, but I think that is more because of the times being written about, and the fact that author wanted to tell so much. The only problem I really had was the discussion about certain wrestlers being called out for the sexual creepiness. I don't think that was discussed enough on why they were being accused, and it seemed more a defense then reporting. I understand being worried about access with friends of those named, but you don't just start discussing Joey Ryan and his gimmick, and kind of just move on. That's a pretty big omission, and probably a book in itself.

Reading this was like reading history in school. It seemed long ago and far away, but it's not that much better today. The book reads like an oral history, with plenty of information and is perfect for fans of wrestling, those who have gone away, those that are new, and those that stayed faithful. And now with the retirement of Vince McMahon, All Elite Wrestling doing whatever it is doing, and a WWE maybe resurgence, I am sure that Greenberg is very busy writing away for his next book. Or maybe enjoying a fun indy show. I kind of hope it is the latter, he deserves it.

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Overall a good book if you're super interested in the subject. Also, this is one of my favorite covers for a wrestling book ever, super cool.

Note: I received an advanced copy of this book from Netgalley.

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As a wrestling fan, 2020 started like just about any other year. I recall attending my very first All Elite Wrestling show in February, during the lead up to the AEW Revolution pay-per-view, and thinking that this was probably one of the best times to be wrestling fan in years. There was more than one BIG company out there, and largely everyone was doing well on TV. Storylines were great and even smaller feds like Impact Wrestling were at a creative upswing. I wasn’t oblivious to the outside world going into that show, there were numerous videos going around from Wuhan China that showed people dropping in the streets, people welding doors shut to trap infected people inside, and dystopian scenes of men in white smocks spraying everything down with backpack mounted sprayers, but at that time all I cared about was watching Jon Moxley kick Chris Jericho’s teeth out in the lead up to their main event match. And just like that, everything changed.

No more than two weeks later, if I recall correctly, professional wrestling entered what is now being coined “The COVID Era”, a time that pushed some companies to their creative limit and pushed others into near desperation or worse. This was a time when I got acquainted with independent wrestling far more than I had been in years, and utterly dropped WWE from my watchlist largely due to some of the actions taken by company leadership during the pandemic. Follow the Buzzards, a new book released by ECW Press, takes a look at this turbulent time in history and sheds some light on exactly how weird it was being a wrestling fan during that time. Almost every other sport ended for a while, but not wrestling. Wrestling is eternal, and wrestling never stops.

This book is as much a look at politics leading into the now infamous 2020 United States Presidential Election and the history of COVID-19 itself as a book on professional wrestling. That may come across as weird to some people, but it’s really hard to look at pretty much anything during the year 2020 without considering both the pandemic and politics. I think that’s why that was a particularly rough time for a lot of people, because it was hard to just lay back and not get bombarded with pure DOOM coming from every direction in regard to political nonsense and media fearmongering in regard to the pandemic. For me, wrestling did stay an escape, while one could argue that those very same political issues leaked into it from time to time. If you recall this was also the same time that The United States was tipping on the brink of a racially charged war against the populace and the police do to questions of law enforcement’s handling of petty crimes that became deadly seemingly every time a person with too much melanin in their skin did something. One of the many things this book reminded me about was that one of the major reasons that I stopped watching WWE was an honest attempt at turning both the Black Lives Matter protests and ANTIFA into a misguided storyline obviously created by a geriatric man that had no idea what the real world is like.

For some people, reading about a time in near history that most people are frantically trying to get away from might be distressing, but for me it was really interesting to see Keith Elliot Greenberg take all of these world events and arrange them in a chronological history throughout the year. He leaves no stone unturned and does a great job of pointing out the absurdity of some of the crazy stuff that was going on at the time. Whether it be an over reliance on cinematic matches or wrestling in front of hundreds of gigantic plasma screen TV’s, there really wasn’t ever a time like the pandemic era ever in the past and hopefully never in the future.

At times this book can come across as a bit disorganized, almost as if this was in fact a couple of different books merged together, but that’s just the nature of the beast when it comes to something written in the scope of what the author was going for here. I feel that the author never really loses a grasp on the overall topic of explaining the events of 2020 and 2021 in terms of professional wrestling and its fans, which is a good thing because there were ample opportunities for this book to veer into weird directions that were thankfully reigned back in. I can imagine that some people are not going to be fans of the political message in the book, as a certain administration does not come across in the most spectacular of ways, but I generally agree with a lot of the authors opinions on what was going on during the time.

Overall, this is definitely an interesting topic for a professional wrestling book – it’s not really something you see in a market that is largely biographical in nature. In many ways this kind of reminded me of numerous books that were coming out during the pandemic from philosophers, writers such as Slavoj Zizek, that chronicled the absurdities of the pandemic while it was happening. Professional wrestling fans will definitely get an appreciation for all the good and bad that came out of this era as there was some really good stuff despite the circumstances surrounding it, and just like that there was some astoundingly bad decisions made by a lot of companies as well.

I have not read the authors previous work, Too Sweet, which chronicled the unlikely rise of independent wrestling leading up to what could be considered the greatest independent wrestling super show ever – All In (the show that basically birthed All Elite Wrestling), but I really should seek that out as I enjoyed how this is written and the overall tone of the book. Reliving 2020 via the pages of wrestling book has been rough, not going to lie, but if there’s anything this book does well, it is showing that there can be hope in the unlikeliest of places sometimes. When everything is going bad in the world around you sometimes you need that escapism that is often criticized by people that seemingly don’t like to have fun, and professional wrestling has been my rock in a lot of dark times, and I’m sure it was for others.

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I didn't realize what an interesting experience it would be to read history/present day I'd lived until this one. Given the nature of the last two years of history, there are also things I'd just forgotten about and was reminded of through this read. This book explores the last two years of pro wrestling specifically how the industry reacted and adapted to COVID. It does a really good job of explaining how the pivots happened on a larger scale and also focuses on specific stories of individual wrestlers. I would note the past few weeks have brought some additional big shifts in the industry, so it was interesting to read this "in ink" knowing the story is changing/ever-changing. Throughout the story is connected to the news/happenings of the time, and sometimes those almost felt like tangents. I understand that it was to position the story of wrestling with the story of the times, but it wasn't seamless. I do think that could be a product of living through the times discussed. Regardless, this was a very well-done retrospective of what the last two years have been. Thanks to NetGalley and ECW Press for the early look at this October 2022 release.

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At times this feels like three books in one and unfortunately that’s not a benefit.

Following Greenberg’s Too Sweet, which chronicled the rise of independent wrestling to the All In show, this covers the period from the emergence of COVID-19 in January 2020 to the return of full crowds at AEW show in Summer 2021.

I noted of Too Sweet that it’s early section “often feels a little scattergun, skipping from topic to topic and relaying a string of information about each but without really telling a story or making a clear point. In particular, several sections will have multiple short quotes from different wrestlers and personalities that don’t really add up to an overall insight.”

Not only does that approach continue here, but the bigger picture’s focus is unclear. It switches between a chronological account of wrestling in the period, a thematic examination of the effects of the pandemic on the business, and an overview of the pandemic itself and political events.

The transitions between these often feel abrupt (there’s a particularly audacious move from wrestler deaths to the election campaign via James ‘Kamala’ Harris and the future vice-president), while some sections of historical events such as Brexit negotiations seem completely out of place.

As with Too Sweet, the highlights are the first-hand accounts of Greenberg visiting independent shows as promoters and wrestlers grappled with returning to business while remaining safe, or observing the bizarre situation of WrestleMania 37 having more cardboard cut-out fans than human spectators.

There’s also a surprising tale of the National Wrasslin’ League, a little known promotion that offered full-time contracts and health insurance, albeit a story that took place several years before the pandemic.

While it’s not always fair to criticise a book for what it isn’t, rather than what it is, I’d really have liked to see much more about the effects of COVID on wrestling, with more insights from wrestlers about adjusting to performing before empty arenas, virtual audiences and restricted crowds. While the book is largely US-focused, it also seems a minor oversight to have nothing on Choco Pro, one of the only groups that ran consistently throughout lockdowns, with YouTube shows that made the empty-arena status an integral part of the presentation.

It’s well-written and conversational, but at this stage, when so much of the content covers events still fresh in our minds, it’s hard to call it a must-read.

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Following the success of his book, Too Sweet: Inside the Indie Wrestling Revolution, author Keith Elliot Greenberg already had a sequel in mind. Having covered the movement that had set the table for Tony Khan's All Elite Wrestling in his last book, Greenberg wanted to write about what was to be one of the most transformative years for the wrestling industry in decades in 2020.

Like many others, what he didn't expect was the arrival of a global pandemic that would all but halt the entertainment world. Would there even be a wrestling industry to cover? Surely, a form of entertainment that required athletes to breathe, sweat and roll around in close proximity would be off the table? Looking back, at the time, nothing could stop Vince McMahon, so it's not surprising that WWE continued producing new content. For a young, upstart company in AEW, it's unlikely they could have survived had they not pushed forward. So on they went with programming and the fulfillment of lucrative television contracts.

It would be almost impossible to cover wrestling in 2020 without also covering everything else that went down that year. Greenberg recounts the political turmoil that gripped the United States as well as the rise of social justice movements like Black Lives Matter; instances that had a direct impact on the industry. Whether it be polarizing opinions on the murder of George Floyd or controversial beliefs surrounding COVID vaccines, all aspects of 2020 would find their way into the industry.

Before Greenberg gets on the road traveling to indie shows again in the summer of 2020, he writes about the difficulties WWE had in creating an enjoyable atmosphere for their television audience. With the company's flagship show WrestleMania restricted to essentially personnel only, the viewer had to get over the deafening silence that plagued the action in the ring. In an attempt to fix that, they tried a distanced and masked audience, but were unable to control outbreaks. On the other channel, AEW filled its stands with wrestlers who helped to create a more lively atmosphere. With WWE eventually settling on an environment full of virtual fans on video boards complete with piped in audio, was AEW's direction the right way to go? It's hard to say, but I personally feel the minimal live crowd was the more palatable experience.

I found the most interesting parts of the book dealt with Greenberg's travels to indie promotions that tried to run shows in a pandemic world. They didn't have the huge budgets that the bigger companies carried which allowed for increased testing and therefore had to look at other options. One of the first out of the gate was GCW, who staged outdoor performances with strict distancing and masked requirements. Greenberg also traveled to Illinois to take in a show by Warrior Wrestling, another outdoor venture.

Putting aside the fan experience for a moment, Greenberg also looked at the wrestler's job. How do you adjust from performing a purely spectator sport with no spectators? You're trained to feed off the crowd and the energy in the building. In speaking with Trey Miguel, Greenberg noted that Trey had to "retrain himself". Miguel noted that the performers had to give each other pep talks and "feeding to the camera like you'd feed to the crowd."

Likely the lasting legacy of the pandemic will be the advent of the "cinematic match". Having more in common with a Hollywood fight scene than a wrestling match itself, performers would be filmed fighting in a variety of locations such as old warehouses, empty football stadiums, graveyards, swamps and even wrestling rings. While some were more creative than others (the Firefly Funhouse match comes to mind), there are others that were downright confusing and sloppy. In a match that took place inside WWE headquarters, one wrestler would seemingly murder his opponents by throwing them off the seven-story office building. Greenberg notes that concerned fans had called the police believing they had just seen two men die.

You're also asking these performers - human beings - to go out there and put themselves in harm's way. Greenberg notes of a specific instance where WWE performer Kevin Owens took a sabbatical following the death of his wife's grandfather from Covid. He did not want to put his family further at risk. When Vince McMahon was trying to figure out a way to curb outbreaks, it was Owens who would give Vince the idea to mandate masks with those who did not follow the mandate receiving a hefty fine.

To be honest, when I first heard that this book was being released, I thought that maybe it was too soon. Although we've taken steps as a society to try and live with the disease, we're still very much within the pandemic. Having just recovered from it myself, it is no joke. But having read the book, there is so much I didn't know despite the constant deluge of news that seemed to flow out of the wrestling world during this period. Like Greenberg's 2020 release, TOO SWEET, he has produced another fascinating look at a business that has had to adapt over and over again over the years, with 2020 being no exception. Greenberg notes, "on this, most industry observers agree: 2020 was supposed to be the best year to be a wrestling fan in a very long time. To be honest, I'm still not sure it wasn't."

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If the theme of Greenberg's prior book "Too Sweet: Inside the Indie Wrestling Revolution" was "there's something special happening here", the theme of Follow the Buzzards might be accurately described as "what the hell is happening here." In this book, Greenberg covers the wildly varying responses that wrestling companies had to COVID-19, from those who cancelled shows that would have sold out football stadiums, to those issuing secret radio messages to attendees to help avoid police attention while running shows in the middle of a lockdown. My favorite thing about the book is it's not just a book about how WWE and AEW handled COVID. It covers many promotions, from countries all over the world, sometimes infused with Greenberg's experiences as a live attendee.

While the wide range is helpful, COVID is really only used as a loose through-line to tie the book together. A lot of this narrative is better described as "stuff that happened in wrestling from 2020 to 2021", rather than being specifically related to the pandemic. COVID itself remains a tricky subject to write about, as attitudes about it are continuously changing, and what wrestling companies should have done is still not always clear. I would have been interested to see Greenberg try to play judge a little bit more on this though, and read with the benefit of some hindsight what he thinks was right and wrong. He rarely offers much of a take.

Another challenging topic that Greenberg broaches is the Speaking Out movement, a series of sexual assault allegations against dozens, if not hundreds, of wrestlers. In his coverage, he lays out the ground rule he won't name victims or pass judgments on who's guilty or not. This is all fine, but he ends up spilling a lot of ink reprinting the defenses of many wrestlers, some of whom should be shunned from the wrestling industry forever in my opinion. By devoting so much space to the accused assaulter's defenses it creates a bit of an imbalanced picture.

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Follow the Buzzards by Keith Elliot Greenberg, was received directly from the publisher and I chose to review it. I read this publisher's book often and wilcontinue to do so. This author and this book caused me angst on the Star scoring. The reason being, he is very smart with being a professional wrestling insider, with the big names and not so big names. What annoyed me about him was, for no real reasoning, he threw politics into the mix at times. He also threwsketchy details about the covid vaccines into the book, neither of these needed to be in a book about wrestling. However, if you, or someone you buy gifts for is a professional wrestling fan, buy this book. It will give you details about wrestling over the last two years that the fan would like to know.

3.5 stars

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As a newbie to wrestling, who had never watched 1 second of it before the stay-at-home order in March 2020, this was the perfect title to revisit my first year and a bit of wrestling fandom.

Suffice to say, I picked a very...turbulent time to get into wrestling, but I'm pleased I did when legitimate opposition to the WWE appeared (AEW!). It was interesting seeing the timeline of just how much stuff happened in the year and a half of the "main" pandemic, it's such an interesting lens to view the world through. So much is mimiced in the wrestling world, and seeing how they innovated and changed with the times was really cool to be a part of as a fan.

I found some parts a little dull, too much political talk, but I know it was relevant to the bigger picture. Will look up some more of Greenberg's titles!

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