Tuesday, July 5, 2011

I, Champion

This is a story about a professional wrestling match. I wrote it a few years ago. It stars me and my old friend Bob Bingaman who died this week due to complications from surgery. Even though I haven't talked to him in a few years, I'll miss him. I hope that makes sense.  Though I won this one, Bob won 90 percent of the time, and as we all know, back then wrestling was real.

How I Tell the Story

My friends sometimes wonder why a thirty-four year old man, working on a PhD in English, still watches professional wrestling at least three times a week (more if I can afford any of the monthly pay per views). My stock response is usually, I just like it. But that never seems to satisfy anyone. So instead, I say it’s one of the few things my father and I bonded over, and there is some truth in that. My dad never read much, and once, in a fairly rare misstep called Shakespeare a fag after I had decided to read Hamlet even though it hadn’t been assigned in a class. I think he knew that one hurt, because he was never anything but encouraging afterward.

My dad was a lead miner, a job he loved, and a part time mechanic. That in itself, doesn’t mean he wouldn’t be interested in many of the things I was interested in—books, super heroes, comics, Weird Al songs—he just wasn’t. But he was interested in wrestling, which had all of the elements of the stuff I liked.

Saturday Nights were a pretty big deal for the entire family. Me, my dad, my brother, my dad’s best friend Keith, my mother, sister, her husband (Keith’s son, Brian) and my cousin Chuck would gather around the television at 10pm to watch wrestling (my grandmother would be properly in bed, resting up for church). It wasn’t just the wrestling we loved. It was the cheering, the booing, bull shitting about stuff that had nothing to do with wrestling. It was a gathering.

When I was a kid, we seldom got soda. Most of the lead mines had closed, my dad was laid off, and he was finding it impossible to get a job without a high school diploma. He considered soda, rightfully so, wasteful. However, we all managed get one, and sometimes a candy bar as well, on wrestling night. This was before Vince McMahon broke kayfabe (the refusal to admit that wrestling is scripted) and started referring to professional wrestling as sports entertainment. We all still thought it was real, and even if the adults had their doubts, they never voiced them; they liked the illusion.

We took this ritual so seriously that once, during a particularly nasty ice storm, my brother-in-law left for the store to get the sodas, and his truck slid off into the rather large ditch that ran beside our driveway. He spent forty five minutes getting it out with a come along wench, backed the rest of the way out the driveway, and came back with sodas and candy bars for everyone about a half an hour later. To this day, I drink way more soda than is healthy—and our Saturday nights probably had a lot more to do with that than my continued love for professional wrestling.

Don’t get me wrong, I always smile when I look back on those times with my father. But, it’s not necessarily the reason I still watch wrestling. Dad and I bonded over plenty of other stuff—a love for early rock music like Fats Domino and Jerry Lee Lewis, Outlaw country like Hank Williams, and in our later years, camping. It didn’t matter to me that my dad never picked up a book, I still learned plenty from him, and it never seemed to bother him that I had no interest in helping him put together a Volkswagen engine. He was just as happy to sit at the kitchen table over coffee (I was drinking the stuff in kindergarten) and entertain me with tales of him an my mom, early in their marriage, driving up to St. Louis to see Crusher Blackwell, Dick the Bruiser, and Harley Race among others. He’d recount the matches for me blow by blow in such detail that I could see them.

A live wrestling match was something we always promised we do with each other. We never did.

Back in the seventies and eighties, of course, wrestling wasn’t the one (two if you count TNA) juggernaut entity that WWE is now. Instead, wrestling organizations were broken up into territories. On Saturday nights we watched AWA (American Wrestling Association) and one of the NWA branches, I can’t remember which. AWA promoted matches out of Minneapolis and surrounding areas. NWA was a governing body that overlooked most of the territories, especially in the south. Each territory had their own champion, like the Texas Champion or the Georgia State Champion, but they shared a World Champion. The owners of each branch sat on a board that determined the world champ, but otherwise they were basically autonomous.

For most of my childhood and on through my teens, Ric Flair was the NWA champion. He would drop the belt here and there, but he always managed to get it back, usually in some underhanded but spectacular way. He was also my favorite wrestler. Most of my friends hated him because he was heel (bad guy), but he stayed champion because he was the best wrestler of his time, and possibly of all time. Although my mother called him “old horse head” even she recognized that he was the most entertaining wrestling on the mic, as well as the most technically gifted (it’s not easy to make those matches look good) and she was never as happy on those Saturday nights as she was when she had Flair to root against.

As good as he is, Flair is known for several stock moves. First, he blades (cuts himself with a razor blade as to appear that he has been cut open during the course of the match), a lot—the proverbial crimson mask. His bleached blond hair soaked with blood has become an iconic image in wrestling. He’s also known for the Flair Flop, a move where he get hit several times, appears to be fine, and then suddenly falls face first flat onto the mat. Also, if you ever see Flair climb up to the top rope, you can bet your last dollar that he’s going to be body slammed off of it by his opponent. His most important contribution to wrestling, however, is the open-handed chop across the chest. Even now, when Flair is finally on the verge of retiring, any wrestler who chops another in this fashion will be met with a chorus of Ric Flair’s famous “Whoooo!” from the crowd.

Though some of his moves are predictable, Flair is widely regarded as the best all around wrestler of all time. He could, and still can on occasion, tell a story in the ring that has fans on the edges of their seats. He’s nearly sixty years old now and still wrestling, even though is back has been broken, he suffered countless injuries, and his body is pretty much falling apart. And fans still love him because he still delivers the goods—he might not be what he once was in the ring, but he still tells the story, and he still cuts some of the best promos in the business.

Wrestling wasn’t all fun and games around our house, however. My grandma really couldn’t stand it. It wasn’t just because I put Chuck (who I outweighed by about 20 pounds, even in second grade) in the camel clutch and pulled a muscle in his neck. It was because come Sunday morning, wrestling was on again. As far as my grandmother was concerned, Sunday morning was for church, the Free birds and Von Erichs be damned.

As you can probably guess, this didn’t fly with me. First WCCW (World Class Championship Wrestling) came live from Texas at 10am. I’ve already mentioned the Von Erichs, no one in my childhood, save for Hulk Hogan, elicited such hatred from me as Kerry, Kevin, David and Mike. They were the bane of my existence. First of all, as my wife so kindly put it years later, “they were built like brick shit houses.” Even then their six pack abs and blonde, all American looks reminded me that I was overweight, unpopular and nothing close to an athlete. I preferred my wrestlers, like Arn Anderson, with round hairy beer bellies. Those wrestlers, although usually the heels, reminded me of my father, my brother and their friends. Big, strong, ordinary looking men. If they can do it, I thought, I can do it.

I wanted to see those goddamn Von Erichs get theirs and you never knew when Flair would show up in Texas to give it to them. Every week it was a battle between me and my grandmother. My brother and Dad were still in bed around church time so I didn’t get much help in the fight and I usually lost. I would cry. I would stomp around the house, much like the great Kamala, as I got dressed in my best clothes and I would feign sick, but I almost always ended up in the front pew. But my desire to stay home and watch wrestling was so strong that once, during an “I don’t want to go fit”, my grandmother slammed my finger in the car door as I was making one last attempt to crawl out. It hurt like hell, immediately turned purple and began to swell. I could move it, so it wasn’t broken, but it hurt for days and I ended up losing a fingernail. I got to stay home and watch wrestling that week, and I still consider it worth it. I believe that was the day The Missing Link showed up and head butted the hell out of Kerry.

And that’s my second answer. I love wrestling because it saved me from church. During our last battle, I laid down on my bedroom floor and refused to move. My grandma took a kick at me, missed, and stubbed her toe on the bed post. She ended up getting a blood clot and was laid up for a few weeks on doctors orders. I wasn’t forced to go back to church after that. I wasn’t a kid normally given to tantrums, my parents didn’t put up with them, that I would nearly kill my grandmother over wrestling must have proven its importance.

But, that one isn’t completely true either. It would only be a year or so after the car door incident that I would have a complete turn around. I’d become obsessed with church, obsessed with going to hell, I’d pray constantly just in case I died with a sin on my heart. I gladly skipped wrestling for church. But maybe my early rebellion, my choice of pro wrestling over church, helped me break what, looking back on it, was a religious neurosis.

As I get older and make new friends none of these explanations seem to work. Now, it’s been a long while since someone actually made fun of me for watching professional wrestling, or involuntarily laughed when I said something like, “I can’t go to the bar tonight, RAW is on.” People get more polite when they get older, or at least more tactful. These days I’m usually met with quizzical looks, or an “I used to watch wrestling,” but more often than not, and this is the worst, they are honestly interested. They really want to know why I like it, and I can’t ever seem to give them an answer that satisfies me. I can go on and on about wrestling as an art. “Sure,” I say, “I know it’s fake, but do you know what all goes into it? It’s like Greek Drama in some ways, or at least the heroic myths—you have archetypal, bigger than life heroes and villains. You have death and rebirth, good vs. evil, love and hate, all of the major themes. Plus, the matches themselves are like a dangerous ballet. The outcome is predicted, but the moves are often called on the spot, and when it’s done right it’s seamless. It looks real. That’s art, right?”

That doesn’t quite do it either.

You know, me and my dad never did make it to a wrestling match together. But I do have this story I sometimes tell at bars or parties when other folks are reliving the no hitter they pitched or the two game winning free throws they made. It always starts out the same way. I hold up both of my hands and ask if they can see that one of my pinkies is crooked. They never can. Even my wife says I’m imagining it, but I can it. I point it out and say, let me tell you how I that happened.

And one night, after a few beers at a party, many years before my father died, I came home and my dad was waiting up for me like he usually did—pretending to watch television. His back hurt by this time. When he was in his late fifties, he finally got another mining job. One day he was shoveling something, I still regret not asking what, and he ruptured two disks.

“You ever notice that one of my pinkies is crooked?” I asked.

“Sure,” Dad said, although the only light was from the tv and he didn’t even glance over to the couch where I was already sprawled out.


It was August twelve, nineteen eighty and nine. It was the height of popularity for the LWWWF ( Leadwood World Wrestling Federation). Since Leadwood only had a population of about 1000, there were only three top tiered main-eventers in the fed. There was the behemoth and perpetual champion, Bob Bingaman, his brother Jay and myself. Jay was my best friend and tag team partner. We had held the tag team straps for nearly two years. Bobby brought in a new “special” tag team partner every week, but he never had any luck with them. Ron Bridgeman submitted during an “anything goes” match when I stuck his fingers into a metal fan. Then there was Tommy White, all the way from Irondale, Missouri, who had given into the might of Jay’s stomach claw before Jay had even applied it. We had talked it up so much that all Jay had to do was spread his fingers and Tommy submitted. Even Henry Mills, six years our senior at 22, had been pinned after a leg drop at two hours and thirty one minutes into that epic battle.

Despite never getting his hands on the tag belts, Bob had won the heavyweight belt on the opening day of the fed and had never come close to dropping the strap. Jay had made a championship belt out of cardboard, glue, magic markers and some glitter. It was actually a pretty good representation of the NWA title belt and Bobby, when he wasn’t carrying it around to rub in our faces, kept it on his dresser next to a prized black velvet painting of Elvis.

Two weeks before that fateful August day, Jay and I hatched a plan. Bobby had a title defense coming up against Jay—their parents would be out of town. It was to be a cage match (basically, we’d take all of the furniture out of a room and the first person to escape was the winner). It can be a dangerous match, so Jay and I decided to soften Bobby up the first chance we got.

I was at home playing Excite Bike on Nintendo when Jay called. “Man, my parents just went grocery shopping, put on your gear and get over here!”

My gear consisted of a pair of sweat pants. I was at Jay’s house in no time. Bobby was in the shower so we stretched out a little, did a few squat thrusts and hid in the big walk-in closet in Jay’s living room. The shower stopped running. Silence. The bathroom door squeaked open and suddenly the house was shaking underneath Bob’s thunderous footsteps.

Finally, Bob, in nothing but his underwear (tight and white) stepped into the living room. I opened the closet door a crack. Bobby was scratching himself, so I threw open door and we pounced like cougars. Surprised, Bob was easy to get to ground. Jay stuck a leg behind him and pulled back on his shoulders while I pushed against his meaty man breasts. Bob was big, but his balance was questionable. He hit the floor in a thud.

“It’s time to go to school, Daddy! Whoooooo!” I managed to get Bob’s tree-trunk legs wrapped into my most deadly offensive move—the figure four. Bob writhed and screamed in pain. Jay took to the top of the couch and extended his arms, both hands flaring the Oh too familiar Elvis/Snuka “I love you” sign. Again and Again, Jay rained hard elbows down on Bobby from the top of the couch. Bob, once immortal, lay lifeless, his shoulders flat against the floor. Still I applied more pressure. Still the elbows fell from like meteorites from the sky.

“Are you boys crazy!”

Jay and Bob’s mom had come home.

Bob would get his revenge. About a week later, I dropped by to see if Jay wanted to run over to Wal-Mart with me and look at CDs. I found Jay face down in a bowl of Purina puppy chow. Bobby had jumped him outside of his parent’s bedroom, pile-drived him, and left him face first in a heap dog food (a pile driver went a long ways back then).

“Jay?” I shook him. “Jay, are you OK?”

Finally, he came around. He looked at me, eyes glassy and wet. “I’m hurt,” he said. “You’re going to have to take the title shot.”

I knew what I had to do. Those next few days I trained harder than I’d ever trained in my life. I rode my bike a mile to school and back. I watched Rocky I through III. I did twenty jumping jacks every afternoon. I ate Grape Nuts for breakfast. And, of course, I did squat thrusts. Hundreds and hundreds of squat thrusts.

When the day arrived, I was in the best fighting shape of my life. We cleared Jay and Bob’s bedroom of furniture. The beds, the dresser, Jay’s drum set, everything. His parents were in St. Louis for the night. We weren’t going to be interrupted. This match had no rules and no time-limit. There was going to be a winner. Two men were going to step into the cage and only one man was going to step out, and that man would be Leadwood World Wrestling Federation Champion of the World!

Bobby and I circled each other. He was four feet tall, 560 pounds of pure mean. His fingers were like polish sausages. His head a mutated pumpkin. We locked up. Bob walked through me like a bulldozer through a trailer park, knocking me to the ground. He didn’t even go for the door. He was toying with me. We locked up again. Same results. He smirked as he imitated my imitation Ric Flair strut.

“Not so tough without your partner, are ya big guy?’

The next time around, I summoned all of my strength and attempted to chop the champion across the chest. I missed and caught him on the forehead instead. Unfortunately, Bobby had a head like Crusher Blackwell; it could hammer nails. And it was at least the circumference of an old pick up truck tire. My pinky snapped like a twig. My hand throbbed with pain, as my old car door accident came howling back to me.

I was breathing hard and Bobby, three times my size, hadn’t even broken a sweat. I had to get my bearings. There was no way I was going to out power him, I had to out think him. This time as Bob tried to lock up, I ducked underneath him and dropped kicked him from behind. As I had planned, his front loaded bulk carried him in massive waves of flesh into the far wall. Whooooo! I cried and opened the bedroom door. There stood Jay. His eyes shone with hope. He pumped one fist triumphantly in the air. Finally, our revenge.

Bobby was big, at least 650 pounds, but he was quick as cat shit and had already kip-upped. He grabbed me from behind and spun me around. Jay was closed the door again (part of the official LWWWF rules) as I was being lifted into the air for a body slam. I felt my back practically snap as I landed on the unforgiving carpet floor. But it wasn’t over yet. Bobby cackled. Pure evil. I knew what was coming, THE BIG SPLASH, but I was helpless to prevent it.

Seven hundred and ninety five pounds of pure diabolical genius came crashing down on top of me. Every rib in my body cracked. I couldn’t breath. Bob played his own referee and gave me a ten count, slapping his Frisbee sized hands onto the floor. He was only proving a point—taking a page out of King Kong Bundy’s playbook. He knew he couldn’t win that way. He had to walk out of cage.

Bob peeled himself off of me. He chuckled and gave me a sharp kick in the ribs. “Neither one of you punks will ever beat me,” he said and began to make his way toward the door. With every step he took the floor shook and it felt like someone was sticking blades between my ribs.

Now, up until this point, I had never believed in Hulking up. I considered it, even then, a cheap gimmick. But something came over me as I lay there thinking of Jay, in his neck brace (which I must admit was nothing more that a tightly wound scarf), standing outside the door ready to raise someone’s hand in victory. My body, independent of my brain, began to convulse. My ribs and pinky seemed to heal. I felt no pain. Bobby looked on in horror before turning back toward the door and running for it as fast as his stubby, powerful legs could take him. But he was too late; I was on my feet. Bobby’s baseball bat fingers had just touched the door handle when I grabbed him by the back of the hair.

The cage door had a brass coat hook set in its center. It was made of titanium and as sharp as a razor blade. I pulled back on Bob’s hair, it felt like cocking the hammer of a gun. I slammed Bob’s head into the coat hook with every bit of force I could muster . . .

Some say an old lady down the street went blind that day. Some say at least three bitches in town gave birth to two-headed pups. Still, others remember it as the great August blizzard of Leadwood, Missouri that dropped three feet of strangely pink-tinted snow onto the ground. I remember Bobby’s eyes opening wide, like a guppy brought shockingly out of the water. I remember his arms flailed out to his side like Jesus on the cross. I remember Bobby falling backwards, in what seemed like slow motion, in one, final, Nestle plunge. When he landed every window on the block broke. I said, pointing to the dump of flesh before me, “There he is! There he is!” And I walked on out of the joint, Leadwood World Wrestling Federation champion of the world. Jay couldn’t have been prouder as he strapped the cardboard belt around my waist.


Epilogue #1.

A week later, in one of the best promos ever given in the LWWWF, Jay turned on me and challenged me to the championship in a regular match. In what was my first brush with called spots, Jay whispered, “Let me put you in the back slide like Kerry did Flair. I’ll let you kick out at 2.” Of course, Jay didn’t let me kick out at 2 and I lost my belt.

Epilogue #2

When the three of us were nearly thirty, we got into a heated debate, over a few beers, about who had actually retired LWWWF champion. The record books were a bit fuzzy on that. So, we decided to have a tournament to settle it once and for all. We drew names out of a hat and it was decided that the first match would be between Jay and Bobby. About thirty seconds into the match Jay started seeing spots in front of his eyes and nearly every muscled in Bob’s body had cramped up. I reckoned about the same would happen to me, so we just said to hell with it.

Epilogue #3.

And that’s really why I love wrestling, and that’s what I’d like to tell folks when they ask. But it’s not a fun story to tell sober, although my dad loved it, and even if I did tell it, I’m still not sure the point would come across. And the point is this: Imagine loving to do something so much that you do it every night, even if you’re as old as Ric Flair, knowing that it’s killing you.

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