I broke into wrestling just after the Monday Night War boom period had begun the final stages of its decline. It was an interesting transitional period where I got to ride the wave of promoters trying to hold on to the glory days of when you had to do little more than put the word Pro Wrestling on the top of a cheap flyer and it was as good as printing money. These promoters seemed to believe that by subtly shifting this or that that they could still run profitable wrestling events for a very low-risk investment. They shifted around their cheaply budgeted rosters, cheaply budgeted advertisement methods, cheaply budgeted venues, cheaply budgeted drama, etc. They failed to realize that their previous successes relied almost wholly on the condition of professional wrestling being extremely culturally popular. In 2003, it wasn’t. It’s said that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, expecting different results, but, then, who among us only tries the light switch only once before accepting defeat? In the process of independent wrestling light switch flicking, and new bulb testing, the wrestling slumlords of my salad days lost a lot of money before they realized that the electricity they had been pirating had been cut off. Also, in the process, I had hundreds of matches in my first year of wrestling, making tens of dollars, and amassing many a horror story; which, in honor of the great month of Halloween, I would like to share a few with you.
“Tenneseeds Of Doubt”
“Who the F*** are you guys?!” Someone screamed.
“Stop f***ing talking to each other!” Another person added.
Both of these heckles elicited a laughter that cut like a red-hot, heated, jagged, rusty heated knife through the fragile foreskin of my baby-wrestler ego.
“Want to do a show in Tennessee, next week?” Dan Richards, who has recently become better known as the man brave enough to be a “Progressive Liberal” in the hills of Eastern Kentucky, but back then was just my wrestling school classmate and friend “Big Dan”, asked me softly.
“Yeah, definitely.” I said back, in a thankful, hopeful tone.
Ahhhh! This f***ing sucks! I screamed in my head, as the match quality deteriorated even lower than the expectations the crowd had for two out of shape guys they had never heard of.
“Take this piece of shit home, kids!” The referee said, begging us to conclude a match that even he was embarrassed to be apart of.
A wrestle-vet that will remain nameless was responsible for both the crest and trough of this wave of emotional taxation.
He had promised Big Dan that he would get us booked in Middle Tennessee, which would be a good opportunity for us to learn that good old Tennessee ‘rasslin’ style in front of fans that “still believe”. It sounded great.
So, Dan and I loaded up into his not-as-green-as-us, but still green, Jeep Cherokee and set out from Beckley, West Virginia on a 7 hour and 10 minute, before stops, drive to Columbia, Tennessee. Which, as New Jack once pointed out is known for “Mule Day”, an annual festival dedicated to celebrating the best of both beasts of burden, half-horse-half-donkey.
Along the way we stopped to pick up the wrestle-vet, at his home.
He told us amusing stories and valuable insights into the inner workings of the grapple game. The hours flew away like uncaged falcons and soon we were in the Central Time Zone.
“You boys wanna meet a Memphis ‘rasslin’ star?” The Wrestle-vet asked us.
“Yes!” We both said enthusiastically, despite the fact that we were both raised strictly on cable-channel wrestling and neither one of us had heard of the nominally popular wrestler who will also remain unnamed. Still, we knew that Memphis wrestling was to be respected and anyone who had been a star there must be wealthy with knowledge and may throw us a couple shillings of wisdom, if we were lucky.
The wrestle-vet gave us directions to the Memphis Star’s house in Nashville.
“Wait here a minute, boys.” The Wrestle-vet told us, then left us sitting in the Jeep.
Neither one of us had internet-capable phones, back then, and we didn’t enjoy the same music, so, we waited in anticipatory silence for the Wrestle-vet to wave us into Memphis Star’s house.
We waited for five minutes. Then ten. Then twenty. Thirty. Forty. Right about the time we started to look at each other with “well, this is weird” expressions, about forty five minutes in, the Memphis Star’s door came open and our Wrestle Vet friend waved us over with excited vigor.
We jumped out of the car with enthusiasm and rushed over to the door, where an older, out of shape, grumpy looking man exited, grimacing in the Mid-Summer, violently-hot Nashville sun.
The Wrestle-vet introduced the man as the Memphis Star and us as the Good Young Boys.
“Nice to meet ya.” The Memphis Star said in a tone that contradicted the words. We each reached our hands out and received handshakes that seemed to be designed to impress the folks at Guinness with their record demolishing briefness.
Dan and I shared another “well, this is weird look” as the Memphis Star rushed off to air-conditioned sanctuary of his car. Leaving us and the Wrestle Vet standing on his porch.
The Wrestle-vet gave us a proud smile, gave us each a big-brother-love-pat on the back, simultaneously, and asked, “You boys ready to make a town, or what?”
“Y-yeah!” We answered, with only slightly lessened-by-confusion enthusiasm.
We loaded back into the Jeep and returned to the Good Ol’ Days through the power of storytelling.
About an hour later, we pulled up to an old school building with more cars parked in front of it than I was accustomed to seeing around a wrestling venue, back in those days. I was excited. It seemed I was set to wrestle in front of a crowd numbering in the hundreds for the first time in my few months in wrestling.
“Wait here, boys.” The Wrestle-vet said, then left us setting in the Jeep.
It didn’t take us as long to give each other “well, that was weird” looks, this time.
Once again, no phones, so, we were just doing the awkward elevator stare of silence for a five minute eternity.
The Wrestle-vet finally reemerged from the building with a strong pokerface, but slightly hesitant walk. He signaled to Dan to roll down the windows with the antiquated circling fist meant to mime the manual window rolling days of yore.
Well, that’s weird. I thought and imagine Dan did, as well, considering that he had at first started to open the door, to get out, but instead nervously closed it back, turned the car on with a crank of the keys, and pulled the power window toggle towards himself.
The window let out a lazy groan as it slowly slid down into the door. Once it was secured into place, the Wrestle-vet leaned in, staring Dan in the face then glancing back at me.
He’s got bad news. I thought.
“I got bad news.” He said. “They’ve over-booked this card. Now, I can, for sure, get you on this card...but...I feel it would be better for y’all if you went across town to the rival promotion, who’s also runnin’, and try to get on there. There just won’t be much cheddar here. Ya might be able to get a good payday, over there.” Then, he pointed out into the Great Unknown behind us.
“O-… Oh. O-kay…” Said Dan, saying it all really.
So, our Wrestle-vet pal gave us directions to the other venue where the head-to-head competition in the (*Tracy Smothers voice*) Clash In Columbia was happening, apparently.
If we were silent before the Wrestle-vet had told us about the sudden change in game plan, well, now, we were a black hole like vacuum where sound was treated like it was a local talent forced into a handicap match with Vader and Scott Steiner in the early ‘90’s. As we pulled away, we shared a look that said, “This is very freaking(since Dan was very Christian, at the time)/f***ing(since I wasn’t) weird.”
It was a grim, sad drive across town; our very own Green-as-baby-sh** Mile.
We pulled up to a bingo hall type venue that had a large grocery-store-sale type vinyl banner with big, bold letters that braggingly exclaimed that PROWRESTLING was TONITE.
From where we were idling in the car, we could see very large, muscular men in European beach attire going in and out of a basement area below and behind the main entrance of the building.
“Think we should bring our bags with us, just in case?” Dan asked hopefully.
“NO!” I croaked out, automatically. “No.” I repeated with a little more dignity.
We walked up the sidewalk leading to the basement-locker-room with the pace of the Undertaker, at WrestleMania. All the while watching through the window, as men who looked like competing body-builders practiced wrestling maneuvers with each other and invisible training partners.
I was a 5’10” 155 lb teenager, with a skin tone that would make my Scots-Irish ancestors say, “Gi’ sum fookin’ s’oon, ya edjit!”
Dan was 6’5”, with a much more impressive body, but a much less impressive tan. The strikingly better impression his physique made in comparison to mine, was comparable to the strikingly better impression the collective physiques, that the wrestlers occupying that locker room, made in comparison to his.
We stood outside the window pitifully, like poor children outside of a toy store in a Christmas film, for a moment of several life times, before I knocked on the door like an orphan on a millionaire's welcoming mat.
The largest man I had ever seen in person opened the door. He looked to be about 7 foot 15, 400 lb, with -4% body fat. He was wearing a hockey goalie mask and S&M dominant wrestlewear. “YES?” He said, his not-wholly-unlike-Lurch voice echoing under the hard plastic hood.
“WE…” I screeched pubescently. “Ahem.” I said in a more dignified tone. “We would like to speak to the matchmaker, please.”
“‘Kay.” Said the real life giant from your worst nightmare or wildest dreams, depending on your personal preferences. The sliding-glass door screeched, seemingly in horror, as it was forced shut quickly and sternly.
Dan and I didn’t need to look at each other, this time.
This is very freaking-f***ing weird. I imagine we thought simultaneously.
Unable to bring ourselves to focus on the late-80’s WWE bodied gentlemen warm-up, we looked at ourselves in the reflection of the glass, like unpopular kids emotionally preparing themselves for the terror that is their first school-dance.
A few moments of countless eons passed, then an overweight, grumpy-looking man slid the door open. “Yes?!” He said, and I suddenly felt I should have been nicer to Jehovah's Witnesses in my previous incarnations.
“Y-yes, sir. Ahem. Well, we were uh wondering if you could uh...or, that is, if you had any room on the card. We would like an opportunity, sir. Please.” I said.
The grumpy looking fellow assessed us with his eyes. Clearly unimpressed he said, “Where’ya from?”
“West Virginia.” Dan said.
“West Virginia?!” Said Grumpy Promoter with as much shock as annoyance, this time.
Dan and I nodded our heads.
“Whatthahellareyadoingdownhere?!” Said Grumpy Promoter in a single breath.
“Looking for an opportunity.” I said in my best military cadet voice.
“Doncha got no work back in West Virginia?!” Said Grumpy in an accusatory voice.
“Yes, sir.” Said Dan. “We work, at least, three days a week, back home.” He added proudly.
I thought the Grumpy Promoter was going to take a bump on the concrete basement floor for a moment. “Then what the f*** are you doing down here, begging for work for?!”
Dan and I each looked in the other’s eyes hoping to find a logical answer resting somewhere in there, we found nothing but “Yeah, this must seem weird, huh.”
Milliseconds of mellinas went by as we waited for some thought more helpful to arise. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. This whole, long ass trip was a waist. Nothing. The most embarrassing moment of my life. Nothing. Should probably just take off running back to the car. Nothing.
“Just give ‘em, boys a chance.” Came an angelic voice from the shadow created by the Grumpy promoter whose face softened a bit upon hearing it.
Sweet deus ex machina, Batman, we might just get to wrestle!
(Next time on Wrestling Horror Story: Tenneseeds Of Doubt)