IT'S TEMPTING to believe that the preening athlete—we're looking at you, Ocho Cinco—is a product of modern times, another barometer of how far sports and pop culture have fallen. But as John Capouya entertainingly demonstrates in Gorgeous George, today's peacocks owe a debt of gratitude to a doughy Nebraskan who dominated pro wrestling more than half a century ago. George Wagner started out as a regular Speedo-clad ring act, but by the mid-1940s he had morphed into a gender-bending, trash-talking spectacle who strutted into the ring in makeup and pink satin: part Hulk Hogan, part David Bowie. Audiences ate him up, and Muhammad Ali, James Brown and Bob Dylan cited him as an inspiration. Capouya's biography vividly re-creates Gorgeous George's antics and the world in which he had more shock value than a numerically named wideout could hope for today.

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