August 19, 2002 12:00 PM

By Shaun Assael and Mike Mooneyham

This just in: What you see on pro wrestling is not 100 percent genuine. Don’t tell your favorite hyperactive 12-year-old that this book pulls back the curtain on the wizardry of Vince McMahon, the trailer-park-reared showman who turned the World Wrestling Federation into a $725 million publicly traded empire. A masterly marketer who brought us, among others, Hulk Hogan and The Rock, McMahon comes across as his own biggest creation. The authors skillfully chronicle how he built his business despite criminal prosecution for steroid distribution (he was acquitted), jeers from the mainstream sports press and cultural watchdogs, well-financed competitors (like his arch nemesis Ted Turner) and the controversial deaths of several of his wrestlers, including Owen Hart, who perished in 1999 after falling 80 feet from the rafters at an event in Kansas City. McMahon emerges as a shoot-from-the-hip populist whose genius is in knowing what the pile-driving set want and delivering on those desires no matter the cost.

Tracing wrestling from its ragtag VFW-hall beginnings to the extreme extravaganzas of today, the authors suggest the “sport” has lost its soul. For those less interested in history than in the trajectory of folding chairs and the grip used for the hammer-lock, though, there are colorful anecdotes about Andre the Giant drinking 100 bottles of beer at a sitting, Stone Cold Steve Austin lifting his famous “Austin 3:16” catchphrase from a recovering crack-addicted wrestler who later “found Jesus” and how wrestlers are encouraged to cut their foreheads with razor blades during matches. (Crown, $24)

Bottom Line: Lands a body blow but doesn’t win the belt

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