I’ll be the first to admit that, compared to most, I’m a newer wrestling fan. I only came to the sport about a decade ago and I’ve spent the last ten years catching up, watching old standout matches and staying up to date with what’s happening now. But in all my time spent learning, I’ve never come across the name June Byers.
Thankfully, in John Cosper’s engaging new book The Great and Inimitable June Byers, a wrestling giant is immortalized and her legacy is rightly told.
We shouldn’t be able to talk about women’s wrestling without mentioning June Byers in the same breath. Her impact on the sport is undeniable; she is one of the powerhouse wrestlers who left a clear path for women to join the ring. At her height, she was a household name. She was a heel in the ring and hated across the country. Cosper captures this reality right from the start of his book, launching us into a captivating dramatization of her time spent on gameshow What’s My Line? In this opening chapter, Cosper illustrates the scene, both of June on the show but also of audience reactions to seeing her on their television screens.
Cosper’s dramatizations of events is partly what makes this book sing. The history he writes about isn’t caught stagnant on the page – we feel like we’re part of the action. Told somewhat linearly with short chapters that often end on a cliffhanger, the book flows easily and was a relatively quick read. I felt like I was a part of the action, immersed within June’s story.
Though the focus is on Byers, there’s a roster of other personalities who come into play. The story of Mildred Burke, another trailblazing woman’s champion, becomes inexplicably intertwined with Byers’ as they both strive to take on title of woman’s champion throughout the course of their careers – and lives. We also meet key wrestlers like Elvira Snodgrass, Nell Stewart, and Mae Young as well as men who controlled the money – most notably Billy Wolfe, a promoter whose personal life mimics a dramatic storyline right out of wrestling itself. Cosper fleshes out the world effectively, providing us with insight into these key players without losing sight of the focal point of our story: Byers.
Cosper humanizes the people he writes about, bringing forth the good, the bad and the ugly. He writes without frill, delivering facts that are void of judgement. Parts of the book could feel a bit redundant at times, with histories and backstories being underlined for effect; as an example, we hear about June’s obsession with diamonds more than a few times. But there’s enough drama, intrigue and action packed into this book to make up for any moments that felt repetitive.
Before I read this book, I reached out to my community of pro wrestling fans to ask if they had heard of June Byers. All of them responded with an overwhelming No. Why is her name not immortalized in the mainstream? Cosper’s book makes sure that Byers history isn’t forgotten and that a whole history of women’s wrestling is brought to the forefront. (She was just announced as a part of the Class of 2024 for the Women’s Wrestling Hall of Fame.)
June Byers was indeed great – and inimitable. If you already know of her, you’ll find this book, The Great and Inimitable June Byers, to be a robust history of her life and career. And if you don’t know of her, you’ll find reason to cheer for the great and inimitable woman that she is, and learn part of wrestling history that should never be forgotten.