Finding the truth in professional wrestling is like trying to find, if you'll excuse the cliché, a needle in a haystack.
"It's impossible," says author David Shoemaker, who offers a high-brow examination of the popular sports entertainment in his new book "The Squared Circle: Life, Death, and Professional Wrestling."
"The wrestlers and promoters themselves spend so much time in this kayfabe world -- that's keeping up the big lie -- when they're interviewed by people outside of wrestling, they have a hard time separating fact from fiction."
Kayfabe, by the way, is an old term in the pro wrestling industry -- with the truth of the word's origin also hard to pin down -- that means the suspension of disbelief that lets you believe two grown men are really engaged in a feud.
Real or not, profeesional wresting is popular, and if you want to catch some action in the ring this holiday, the WWE Live Holiday Tour is hitting Madison Square Garden on Dec. 26, with matches featuring Kane, Big Show, Randy Orton and John Cena.
"What I do in the book is I take as many viewpoints as I can, throw them all together," Shoemaker explains. "In a lot of ways, the truth is pretty obvious. [But] look at the Andre the Giant chapter. I say in there, straight forwardly, everything that anyone knows about Andre is a myth. His entire life story is inflated to fit the mythology of the real world monster and I would rather it be that way than the truth. It just makes everything so much more interesting."
Shoemaker's wrestling writing began at the website Deadspin.com, where he writes -- under the moniker of "The Masked Man" -- "Dead Wrestler of the Week," which would become the core of "The Squared Circle." He also writes for Grantland.com, Bill Simmons' smart sports blog under the ESPN blanket, covering wrestling, including everything from interviewing indie grapplers to covering what happened on "WWE Monday Night Raw."
Shoemaker got started writing about dead wrestlers because "people are going to pay attention to that."
"It's pretty offensive," he says. "What's interesting about the deaths is the juxtaposition of these super heroes on TV -- the gods of our modern mythology -- and the sad humanity of their lives outside of the ring. It's hard to wrap your mind around the death. On some level, a character who you're used to seeing on TV was written off the show."
And it is a show. Inevitably, any fan of professional wrestling has encountered someone telling them, "You know that's fake, right?"
"When people have any inclination to dismiss wrestling that way, I think it's clear that they're just misunderstanding it," Shoemaker says. "They're missing the point. I don't want to beat anyone over the head with the, but, you know, yeah, it's silly, but we're in this world now where super mainstream blogs are recapping 'The Real Housewives of Orange County' and treating it as seriously as the New Yorker treats 'Breaking Bad.'""
These days, while Shoemaker points to CM Punk as his favorite current wrestler, he adds that he's not as invested as when he was kid.
"You do get invested in their storylines and their careers as it happens," he says. "Daniel Bryan right now has everybody tied up in knots a they can possibly be? it's this crazy thing that I write about a lot for Grantland where there's all these storylines -- there's this huge staff of writers -- but the only storyline that really matters for fans like you and me is the perception of how their career arc is going."
Shoemaker does have an all-time favorite wrestler, however, that he's very much invested in: "Macho Man" Randy Savage.
"I loved him as a kid, but writing about him for the book (Savage died in 2011), re-watching everything on YouTube, all the matches, and particularly, the interviews, you realize that he was working on a higher level than anybody else," he says. "The sad thing is that he was just as crazy off camera as he was on."