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Champion of the World

4.11  ·  Rating details ·  304 ratings  ·  57 reviews
A Boston Globe Best Book of the Year

In this stunning historical fiction debut set in the world of wrestling in the 1920s, a husband and wife are set adrift in a place where everyone has something to hide and not even the fights can be taken at face value.

Late summer, 1921: Disgraced former lightweight champion Pepper Van Dean has spent the past two years on the carnival
Paperback, 496 pages
Published December 10th 2019 by G.P. Putnam's Sons (first published July 12th 2016)
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Average rating 4.11  · 
Rating details
 ·  304 ratings  ·  57 reviews

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Dan Schwent
Disgraced former lightweight champion Pepper Van Dean has just parted ways with the carnival in a violent fashion when he's approached by Fritz Mundt, another former wrestler. Mundt's offer, training Garfield Taft for a shot at the world champion, Strangler Lesko, is too hard to pass up. Can Pepper claw his way back to the big time as Garfield Taft's trainer?

As I've said in other reviews, I've been a fan of pro wrestling off and on for most of my life. When a coworker recommended this, I
switterbug (Betsey)
Jun 29, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: prizeworthy
I see less and less novels these days written in the third person POV and in linear order; in fact, I now relish the contemporary books with original construction. However, Dundas’s debut novel is a classic testament to the omniscient point-of-view novel with a direct, successive storyline. It adds background and backstory with fluent ease, gathering suspense and character development along the way.

Taking place mostly in rural Montana in the early 1920s--the age of the Volsted Act-- the story
Jun 16, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: best-of-2016
Champion of the World invites its readers to navigate the world of gangsters, bootlegging and fixed wresting competition in the 1920s. None of these topics particularly appeal.

Yet here I am, saying: Read it. Read it anyway. Read it because this is a page-turning narrative that is tragic, hopeful and authentic. Read it because the prose is confident, assured, and muscular. (The first line reads: “The clowns came to get him when it was time for the hanging.”) Most of all, read it because at its
Roger Brunyate
A Good Story—just not for me

Imagine you're going to a movie (in the dark ages before multiplexes). The show you want is not on, so you try the one that has replaced it. Immediately, you know it is good—colorful, strong characters, well directed, lots of action. Clearly, it is a box-office hit. But it is not in a genre that you particularly enjoy, and you are not really invested in the story. So, thinking of the long drive home, so you cut out after forty minutes or so.

It is the same with this
Oct 08, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I'm a sucker for a sports story, so when I saw this title on the shelf at the library, I grabbed it, checked it out, and opened it up without reading any book jacket blurbs, reviews, nothing. And what a surprise! A just-barely fictionalized story about the humble beginnings of what we now call professional wrestling. The twists and turns of the story and of the lead characters, Mr. and Mrs. Van Dean (he is a carnival wrestler/stage artist and she is a card dealer/gambler) works beautifully. ...more
Markus Molina
Aug 01, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I really loved the entire book! I hadn't finished a book in a while and failed really getting through some other books. This one by Chad Dundas, mma journalist and podcast extraordinaire, is a great piece of sports fiction. Hit the right sport at exactly the right time. Thanks Dundas!
Jul 14, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Those who know me know my penchant for wrestling. There's something I find absolutely fascinating about the manner in which combat is used as a pretext to tell a story of contrasting personalities clashing inside the squared circle. So when I read the plot description for CHAMPION OF THE WORLD, by journalist Chad Dundas, I was instantly hooked. And boooy, did this book ever deliver.
Set in the infancy days of professional wrestling as we know it today, this historical novel tells the gripping
Marco Bucci
Nov 03, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Near this book's end, one of its pivotal characters asks the question: "What's left for me anywhere, I wonder?"
Having read - I think - every piece of published fiction by Chad Dundas, that question is like the negative space in his work. The thing everything hinges on. The theme, I guess. All of his characters seem to grapple with it (pun unavoidable) to some degree.
But it's never boring, never repetitive. That's because Chad Dundas is a damn good writer who's got a firm grip on what makes
Oct 09, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The intense beauty and drama of boxing is immediate and visceral -- anyone can grasp the consequences of trading blows. Grappling is different. Its complexity and grind mean that it generally appeals only to practitioners and lifelong fans. Hence, the disparity between boxing's and grappling's artistic bodies.

With Champion of the World, Dundas starts to bridge the gap. A real page-turner, Champion of the World brings the reader into of the hustle of the old-school wrestler, wringing from it some
Oct 12, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: recent-reads
In this corner, we have former lightweight champion of the world, Pepper Van Dean. After throwing a fight, he has fallen on hard times. He and his wife, Moirs, work for Markham, a ruthless man that exploits Van Dean's wrestling talent in a circus.

And in this corner, we have Garfield Taft. He is training to become the first African-American heavyweight wrestling champion. Van Dean moves to Montana to train Garfield, but is met with much resistance.

Dundas does well to build all of the characters
Luc-Etienne Lafond
Chad Dundas is a great journalist and it is now clear his talents transfer very well to novel writing too. The great achievement of Champion of the world is to engage the reader emotionnaly on the fates of all the caracter in the books, from the main one to the lesser, from the good to the bad guys. Even wrestling as a sport and prohibition as an historical event are treated as caracters, making us wonder what will happen to them even tough history already told us. The story is riveting yet ...more
In a motorized 1920s circus show, Pepper Van Dean, an ex-wrestling champion is being hung every night only to live by the sheer bulk of his neck while his wife, Moira wheels and deals the rubes. Hired on to train Cincinnati Smoke ex-con/ex-wrestler in isolated Montana, Pepper and Moira are immersed in Prohibition schemes, fixed games and the very human desire to succeed. Dundas delivers true rough and tumble prose and characters rich in personality. I think I found my new yearly read. Keep ...more
Jul 18, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
It's rare for me to rate any book (or frankly anything else) 5 stars. This was an incredible book. Tightly written, with realistic characters and historical verisimilitude. No literary pyrotechnics here, just writing which takes you beyond the words and into a real world. You don't have to be a professional wrestling fan or someone who is fascinated by the early days of Prohibition to enjoy this book. Highly recommended.
Jul 22, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Dundas’ book Champion of the World is honestly one of the best novels I have read in the past couple of years. The fact it is his first novel makes that all the more impressive. The characters are well flushed out, and their motivations and back stories unfold at just the right speed. A definite page turner that anyone (regardless of whether they are a sports fan or not) would enjoy. Highly, highly recommended.
Aug 16, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Great debut novel filled with lovely odd period detail, and unforseen plot zags. Written by a guy that is not a ponderous gasbag. Features card sharps, scientific wrestling, bootleggers, carnies, VD, loggers, and pickles wrapped in ham. If you don't want to read a book with that stuff in it, then fuck you.
Sep 27, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Simply stated: One of the best books I have read in many years. So, so satisfied in every way.
Confession #1: I've been staring at this book for months, thinking I should read it, but not quite able to because I thought I wouldn't like it.
Confession #2: I finally started reading it, but told myself I'd only stay with it for 30 pages or so, maybe 50 if I was really feeling generous, before calling it quits and writing my review.
Confession #3: I actually kind of liked it. The story (from what I read...) was interesting. I read more than I intended to before I even realized it. However, it
Jul 01, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Moving, very well written novel is a heavy weight wrestler and his wife trying to pick up their lives again after tumbling from the top tier of wrestling to bouts in circus tents. They fall in line with some bootleggers in Montana who plan to smuggle liquor in from Canada and distribute it to large cities in the Midwest and East. Of particular fascination to the couple is a rival black wrestler and his white wife. He spent time in prison for trumped up charges the couple allege but he came back ...more
Tania Mason
Jun 27, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Such a fun book to read. It was a double crossing gangster wrestling/ bootlegger book with great character development and lots of surprising plot twists. I'm not a wrestling fan, but if you are you will love the history presented. It also had fascinating angle on bootlegging via Montana. I'm a Jack Johnson fan, and he was referenced as well, and the Taft story parallels some of Johnson's story. It needs to be a movie!
Rob Delwo
Jul 20, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2017
Great story with rich character development that really brings you into the novel. It truly encapsulates a time in history that is so fascinating, pre-industrial revolution when being a tough-guy was a means of survival, also touches on bootlegging and circus tours. Once I started reading I couldn't put this one down. Highly recommended.
Sep 06, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Very interesting period piece that explored the history of boxing and other organized wresting/fighting through a historical fiction lens, providing a lot plot twists and excitement. This book ended up taking a turn away from typical historical fiction with some crime stories intertwined. A great read if you enjoy the time period or history of sports!
Tony Blanco
Feb 06, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I really enjoyed this! Good sense of history and place. Chad has a natural sense of grizzled hardboiled language and he deploys it sparingly and very well. I love the characters and the story cooks.
Sep 14, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The first line lands like an open-handed slap to the chest and Dundas takes you through a course of events that features the ebb and flow, momentum and reversals of a classic prizefight. A fun ride for anyone with even a passing interest in early 20th century America and physical culture.
Brett Wallach
Jul 07, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The vivid writing delves headlong into the worlds of sports, race, corruption, and class in 1920's America. Really well done, except for the pace-slowing backstories and flashbacks that make the book way too long and slow.
Bobbi Dunham
Apr 08, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Good book, interesting and entertaining.
Aug 28, 2017 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
I don't have the patience any more for a good story told too slowly. "It's me, not you."
Barry Mann
Interesting enough to finish but not to recommend
Schuyler Wallace

“Champion of the World” is an intriguing look at wrestling when it was a legitimate sport filled with proud fighters and sharp promoters that existed prior to the staged contests that eventually spoiled it. It’s Chad Dundras’ debut novel and it’s filled with good writing, insightful observations, and strong characters. As the author points out in his interesting notes about wrestling at the conclusion of the book, no one really knows when the sport evolved into the phony contests that eventually
Mary Drew
I like Pepper Van Dean and Moira. Even as they keep their secrets, they are constantly impacted by the secrets of others.
The atmosphere of mystery and isolation that the wilderness around Butte evokes is huge in this novel. Next time I drove through Butte I couldn't help but wonder where they were....
Nov 06, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This novel combines two elements that I love: underdog stories and historical novels centered around little known fields of endeavor. In this case, that field is the early days of professional wrestling.

Dundas creates a world of great characters: Pepper Van Dean was a lightweight champion before injury and scandal destroyed his career. Now he works for a traveling circus doing dangerous stunts while his wife Moira works the side show as a card sharp. They're going nowhere fast, so when Pepper
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