“You know what?! I’m futtin’ done wit’ ya!” Yelled the man who broke me into the sport and business of professional wrestling - at me - on a cool Summer night with the icyest Arctic wind of his breath coming from the hottest hellfire of his heart.
“Okay.” I said, my poker-face, and matching vocal tone, camouflaging my startled confusion.
That’s how my first ever rasslecoach broke up with me; outside of an abandoned carpet store that had been converted into a dirty rug of a wrestling arena where a surreal casserole of fresh faced, big-star-aspiring and all-but-given-up-on-all-hope athletes threw each other around with reckless abandon for crowds-in-quotes of hateful fans, on a Friday nights, in the year Two Thousand and Something.
Despite the self-certain finality of his tone that was far from the last time that I heard the heavily accented voice of Scotty McKeever, but the last time I did will be the last time I do - in this lifetime at least (insert your belief system, or lack thereof, here).
So, how did we get to the point that my mentor was severing ties with me under the hum and glow of an unnecessary stop light on Coal River Road in the once booming town of Whitesville, West Virginia, which had now dwindled to a population of 514? Well, let’s start by looking at three beginnings.
The first beginning is that of a troubled young man who passed by a running, unattended vehicle and said to his buddy, “We should jus’ take that futtin’ thing an’ hit the road!” To which his buddy consented. They drove from West Virginia to Florida in that stolen van before being arrested after a failed attempt to “dine and dash” (leave a restaurant without paying). The troubled young man spent time in prison as a result.
The second beginning is that of a troubled young man, whose Uncle bet his cousin a hunting bow that he would be sent away to a juvenile prison before he reached the age of eighteen. The troubled young man spent his time dreaming big in defiance of such negative typecasting, and has a clean record to this day.
The first troubled young man would get out of prison and decided to become a professional wrestler.
The second troubled young man would break out of the suffocating prison of conformity training public school by deciding to become a professional wrestler.
The third beginning sees the coming together of these troubled young men, one not so young anymore and the other still a pimple-faced teen. Which really begins with an awkward phone call.
I, the pimple-faced troubled youth (as you may have guessed), called the troubled youth turned troubled adult, Scotty McKeever (as you may have guessed), from my friend Joe Evan’s house. Joe and I were both wanting to start training and Scotty was our best chance. We were both showing signs of nervous-excitement as we each held our wireless landline phones up to our ears and listened to the ringing receiver.
“Hallo?!” McKeever screamed on the other line.
“Yes, sir. We’re the guys who were asking about training.” I said.
“Oh… Hey! Don’t call me sir. It makes me feel futtin’ old!” McKeever stated.
“Oh. Okay. Sorry.” I said.
“Listen: trainin’s $300 down and $20 a week after the first week.” McKeever said.
“Oh. Okay. How long will it last?” I asked.
“Well, that’s upta you. Some people learn quick, other people it takes ‘em a while. No guarantee on time.” McKeever said.
“Oh. Well, we already know some of the basics, like how to bump!” I said with naive enthusiasm.
“You know howta bump?” Scotty asked with the enthusiasm of a DMV worker at 4:50 pm on a Wednesday. Before I could answer he posed another question, “Have you ever bumped...in...a...ring?”
“No, si...ahem...no.” I answered.
“Well then you don’t know how to FUTTIN’ BUMP!” Scotty lectured. “It’s different from whereeverthefutt you been practicin’ whatchu seen on TV!”
“Oh. Okay. Sorry.” I said.
For many years Scotty liked to tell this story in his fashion.
“So, this futtin’ kid calls me and I’m takin’ a sh**, and let me tell you, when he tells me that he can ‘take a bump’ I fill the futtin’ bowl!” Which always got a huge laugh.
“Did he know how to bump?” Would ask my other grapplecoach, TJ Phillips.
Scotty would stare at him annoyedly and say defeatedly but honestly, “Yeah.”
TJ would then ask me. “So, where did you teach yourself how to bump?”
“In the grass. In a field.” I would answer.
“And was it different than bumping in a ring?” TJ would ask.
“Yeah: it was way f***ing nicer.” I would answer. Which always got a huge laugh.
Thus began my beautifully tumultuous relationship with the beautifully tumultuous journey man “Big Mac”, as his best friend Chuck Jones would call him, Scotty McKeever.
When I started training under him, Scotty had been wrestling for around twelve years. During that decade and some change, he had been beaten up badly in some of his first matches, which were televised nationally by World Championship Wrestling, thanks to the influence of his trainers Mark Canterbury (Henry Godwin, Shanghai Pierce) and George South, by the likes of Big Van Vader and Sid Vicious, he had wrestled in the then Mecca of Southern Wrestling, Memphis, TN, for Jerry Lawler, for Jim Cornette’s much beloved Smoky Mountain Wrestling, and all across the country for some of the best and worst small independent wrestling promotions.
Scotty’s training was rarely hands-on and mostly consisted of him telling me to keep practicing one basic maneuver until he said to stop and then leaving the venue. T.J. Phillips would do the hands-on (more often arms wrapped - around my neck - training). When Scotty got an opportunity to do a tour overseas, I would finish my formal training with the more engaging duo of Bart and Brad Batten.
The Battens had also taken over the duty of matchmaking at the weekly wrestling events held in my hometown of Oak Hill. They proceeded to book me in the opening match against another inexperienced wrestler, JV Insanity, every week, for around 26 weeks (and I beat him, every damn week). This was both good and bad for my development. Good because JV and I were forced to sink or swim as far as learning how to command a wrestling ring, without the benefit of having a ring general lead us. Bless our little hearts, we tried, we really did, and we got better, but still, we were two kids play-wrestling.
I could have stayed in that rythm of play-wrestling - and getting lots of repetitions of bad habits - with my buddy, if it wouldn’t have been for Scotty McKeever returning from touring and asking the Battens, “Why ‘on’tcha lemme wrestle the kid?”
The Battens consented and Scotty drug my Spring-green ass through a damn good, for my skill level match, like I was a hoe being drug through soil by a highly skilled gardener. Bart and Brad were impressed and booked me against Scotty, again; the seed for my real training had been planted. Scotty worked his magic, again, and I looked better than I should, again. The Battens were impressed, again...with Scotty, so the next week he was wrestling on the other end of the card from me and I was back to wrestling JV with a little more to bring to the table, this time.
“Damn.” I thought. “If I could work with Scotty every week, like I do with JV, I could actually learn how he’s turning my Chicken-sh**-ass into Chicken salad.”
I came up with a plan: I would go out of my comfort zone of just doing what I am told and pitch an idea to Bart and Brad.
“Hey...Um...I was wondering if...well-” I started.
“Just get to the f***ing point, Kid!” Bart demanded in his good natured way.
Brad laughed and added, “Are you gonna ask us to prom?”
They laughed. I said very seriously and nervously. “No. Um. I was wondering what you thought about me doing a fued with Scotty McKeever, ending with a Hair vs Hair match?”
They looked at each other’s identical face and smiled a “oh, hell yeah” sort of smile. “We love it!” Answered Bart without exchanging a word with Brad.
I knew they hated my frizzy white boy dreadlocks, so I figured they would go for it.
Over the course of the next few weeks, lightbulb after lightbulb began to turn on in my head like a developing nation just getting on the grid. Scotty was a wrestling genius, he knew how to put moves together like a wordsmith creating epic, narrative poetry and put matches together like he was creating captivating novels, and piece those novel-matches together into a complexifying series that told a grander story. Each bit of his work could be pulled out and appreciated for its craftsmanship and and when put back together would make you go both “Ah!” And “Aw!”
In other words, he should have been a star in professional wrestling, and if I ever really break through to huge star status its nebulae formation will have begun in that sixteen square foot, low - almost touching the floor, under-sanitized ring learning from the man that wielded it. The demons that had driven him to drive to Florida in someone else’s van steered his fate into a windy steep mountain road that kept him from ever really taking off, though.
What drove him to call things off with the student whose head he had shaved at the end of an enlightened feud? Next time on Scotty’s Song.