USA Wrestling Book Review: Wrestli...

Book Review: Wrestling With Angels is a great read, about addiction, redemption, wrestling and more

By Gary Abbott, USA Wrestling | June 29, 2020, 11:55 a.m. (ET)

Images courtesy of John Hanrahan. (Book cover, modeling photo, personal trainer photo)

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I had the opportunity last week to read a new book written by a life-long wrestler, NCAA All-American and Veterans World champion John Hanrahan, entitled Wrestling With Angels. I recommend this book to anyone involved in the sport of wrestling, as well as anyone who has an open mind to learn more about some of life’s most difficult challenges.

While it is an excellent book, it is not an easy read. What I mean is a lot of books about wrestlers and other sports heroes only tell about all of the athlete’s successes and the positive qualities of their lives. Hanrahan’s book is not that story. He tells his wrestling story very well. But the book also gives a completely honest look at the dark parts of his life, including his addiction to drugs which plagued his life and completely shaped the way he lived, how he interacted with others and how he perceived the world. Without giving away the story line, there is one specific and intense incident which completely changed the course of John Hanrahan’s life and makes this story both inspiring and unforgettable.

Let’s start with the wrestling parts of the book. I can 100% relate to the way that John describes his life in wrestling. He and I were born the same year, graduated high school the same year, competed at the same Junior Nationals event, and finished Div. I college wrestling the same year. He did an absolutely fantastic job describing what it was like to be a high school and college wrestler in the 1970’s and 1980’s.

Let me explain. We were at the end of the baby boom, and when I graduated high school, there were more wrestlers in high school in 1978 than any other year ever. In addition, there were over 150 NCAA Div. I programs, and as many as 700 college wrestling teams. Wrestlers cut too much weight in that era, always choosing to drop down and use unsafe cutting practices. College wrestlers, even on the best teams, were true student athletes. Most didn’t wrestle all year, but went home in the summer and took local summer jobs. We had to keep our grades up without help. Many of us didn’t have much pocket money. We wrestled because we loved the sport, and for many, it was a path to a college education and a successful life afterwards.

The only way we knew about college wrestling on a national level was reading Amateur Wrestling News every two weeks, and an occasional VHS copy of Iowa Public TV shows and/or the Lehigh matches on PBS Yet, we still followed our sport as closely as we could. As a winning wrestler on the Div. I level who never qualified for the NCAA Championships, I for sure knew who John “The Hammer” Hanrahan of Penn State was. He was absolutely a great wrestler.

He not only described what the sport was like then, he also captured the cultural experience of being a young person during that era. This was a time when the drinking age was 18, when rock-and-roll and disco were in competition for your attention, when men had long hair and some wore thick high-heel shoes. The Vietnam War had ended while we were in middle school, and the nation was at peace. Not every wrestler, or every young person, during this time became a cocaine addict like John did. But we for sure were exposed to that lifestyle, especially on the college campuses of that time. When he explains what he did, the way he lived his life and made his decisions, it really sounds like something familiar. We all knew somebody like John Hanrahan.

There is wrestling woven into almost every part of this book, because John Hanrahan is a wrestler to the core, and a person I would call a wrestling “lifer.” I know so many of the people in wrestling that he mentioned, and actually was there in person for many of the wrestling events that he described.

What I really enjoyed learning about was John’s life outside of wrestling. He became a world-class model, a culture that was entirely different than anything I had ever experienced. He travelled the world and lived and worked alongside the beautiful and powerful people in that sub-culture. His next profession, as a personal trainer for the stars, is also an intriguing look at a different group of people who most of us never get to meet. Just like his career in wrestling, John was one of the best at what he did in modeling and personal training. It was amazing that he could excel so much, while his personal life was such a mess and a challenge. In this book, he explains how he was thinking then, often admitting that he did not feel like he was honest with others or authentic in his interactions.

John’s experience as an addict plays an important role later on, as his family was also impacted by addiction. He could no longer keep his personal story to himself, sharing it as a way to help save the lives of those he loves.

Through my job at USA Wrestling, I have gotten to know John Hanrahan. I enjoyed reading about how important winning the Veterans World title meant to him, for a variety of reasons I did not know about. It made me smile and appreciate John’s love of the sport, and love for his family.

Read the book. You won’t put it down. I haven’t finished a book this quickly in a long, long time. Be prepared to deal with some very intense situations, which will make you uncomfortable and cause you to think a little deeper. You will understand a little better about what it means to overcome life’s challenges.

Order Wrestling With Angels on Amazon