Chapter excerpts from BLUE COLLAR BALLET: Adventures of a Wrestling Poet
Somewhere in Central Kentucky, 1989
I can taste blood, smell sweat and beer, and hear the catcalls of the small-town crowd, but with my face pressed against the rough and grimy canvas, all I can see is dirty gray. My lungs are screaming for air, and the skin of my chest stings from a series of hard open-band chops. As I push myself to my knees, the faces of the ringside fans swim into focus on the other side of the ropes. Their eyes are slits, their mouths blank holes howling for my bad-guy blood.
I wouldn’t mind resting another few seconds, but there’s a hand in my hair, and before the insistent tug becomes too painful, I allow myself to be pulled to my feet. Gypsy Joe is smiling. As he backs me up against the ropes, my teacher growls: “Ready for the floor, boy?”
Inwardly, I groan. The old bastard has thrown me out two times already, and I’m not looking forward to a repeat performance. But I offer no resistance as he runs me across the ring, and at the right moment, I allow our mutual momentum to hurl me over the top ring rope. During the long trip to the unpadded concrete, I have time enough to wonder just how the hell I got myself into this…
Lesson 1: Welcome to Gypsy Joe’s Wrestling School
The ropes were steel cables covered with ancient green garden hose. Here and there, wicked twists of rusty metal protruded through the cracked and peeling plastic. The mat consisted of warped plywood over steel struts, topped with irregular pieces of rough, dirty-brown carpet. The huge spring beneath the wood was rusted solid, with no give at all. The turnbuckle pads, haphazardly patched over with rags and duct tape, oozed what was left of their stuffing. All of this was claustrophobically enclosed on three sides by the splintered wooden walls of a ramshackle shed, with one side entirely open to the February weather.
If I was looking for glamour, it damn sure wasn’t here. Yet, I experienced a small but unmistakable thrill as Joe and I climbed though the ropes. Despite its primitive qualities, this wasn’t a simulation of a wrestling ring constructed of clothesline and mismatched wooden posts such as I’d erected in my back yard when I was 12 years old. It was the real thing.
I bounced up and down a few times, testing the give of the plywood floor. There wasn’t much. “So, who owns this house, Joe?”
“This old guy l know.”
That seemed to be the extent of the small talk. I never did find out who lived in the house, what his relationship was to Gypsy, or why he’d allowed Joe to set up this cramped, if functional training ring.
I began pulling my blue “Bike” brand kneepads on over my sweatpants, trying to come over as cool and relaxed, but I was nervous, and it must have showed.
“Relax, brother. We’re not in a hurry.”
There are only three basic ways to fall in wrestling: the forward flip, backward, and face forward. Anything else is just a fancier version of one of these. We began with the basic forward flip-over fall.
Joe got down on his hands and knees. “OK, brother, what you do is run up, put your hands flat on my back, and flip yourself over me. You wanna land on your back with the soles of your feet hitting first, and slap the mat with both hands at the same time. One more thing--unless you wanna break your neck right away, keep your chin tucked in.”
I gave it a try. Everyone has seen this fall a thousand times, if not in wrestling, then in the movies. Some stuntman gets shot on a balcony, bends forward, and flips gracefully over the railing, plunging to the unseen net below. These guys never fall to one knee and roll sideways, or spin around and fall off backward. They always take the smooth, controlled forward-flip.
In this case, my first bump was neither smooth nor graceful. Relying more on main strength than momentum in hurling myself over Joe’s back, I crashed heavily to the only-slightly-yielding plywood, dizzied from the quick mid-air spin, knocking my breath out, banging my unprotected elbows, and forgetting to tuck my chin in far enough, which earned me a sharp, painful rap on the back of the head.
“Feet flat, brother! Arms like this! Otherwise, you’ll break somethin’, and then you’ll be tellin’ everyone that Joe made you hurt yourself!”
I tried again, feeling what was an unnecessary strain as I hurled myself over Gypsy’s broad back with a noise that was half-groan and half martial-arts yell. My main problem, as it would have been for most neophytes, was a lack of relaxation. I was working at the fall, not simply allowing it to happen, and when my tense body hit the mat I felt the full impact. In addition, Joe began to slowly rise to a half-standing position, which gave me a lot further to fly. Most of my crash landings were painful, but a couple of times, I did it almost right, and began to get a vague idea of what I was trying to learn to do. Finally, Joe straightened up so far that I was afraid to try and flip over him. “Damn, Gypsy--it’s too high! I’ll land on my head!”
Joe took my protests in stride, and switched me to the backwards fall. You know, it’s amazing how much the average body just doesn’t want to fall backwards on its shoulders. In a way, this bump was like the old psychology encounter-group exercise of learning trust by allowing yourself to go limp and fall back into someone else’s arms. The important difference is that there was no one to trust but myself.
“No! You’re gonna break your damn elbows! Slap with the front of your forearms, brother! And quit tensing up! Just go limp and take the fall!”
I tried, but as before, was working too hard at it, throwing myself down more than letting my body fall backwards under its own weight. Tension led to self-disgust and more tension. I began to feel frustrated, winded, and inept. Joe changed the pace, and began to show me the basic “Collar and Elbow” tie-up which begins most matches.
“This hand around the back of my neck! That hand on my arm--no! Don’t shove it in my face! Nobody’s gonna like that, brother! Right--that way. Now…let’s move around. Let’s dance, brother! You know how to dance, don’t you?
Now break the hold! Now! No, don’t hesitate! Break! Good! Now go right back to it!
C’mon--circle around me some, then--lunge! Yeah, that’s right! And look mean, brother--we ain’t playin’ fuckin’ patty cake here!”
We danced the first movement of the Blue Collar Ballet around the splintery, sagging
ring--circling, then lunging to hook up collar-and-elbow, pushing, pulling, being pulled and pushed. For a moment I was exhilarated, and felt I could become the dance--if I relaxed…
Lesson 2: The Wall of Pain
I returned to the practice ring to continue my dance lessons with Gypsy Joe. We went on a little longer than we had previously, and for me, it was a volatile mixture of frustration and encouragement. Ironically, I had learned just enough to know how badly I was actually doing, and could easily imagine Joe rolling his eyes at the thought of my ever becoming a wrestler.
“Let’s work some holds!” barked Gypsy. We locked up, and danced around the ring for a few seconds. I tried to remember to look mean, but was distracted by a slow, creeping, throbbing pain in the muscles of my lower back. It wasn’t a vague ache, nor a sharp glassy stab such as I was used to from my injured L-5 disk. This was a brand-new pain, resulting from my back muscles being tenderized by constant pounding on the unyielding plywood. In addition, I had developed a bitch of a head cold, which stopped up my ears and threw off my equilibrium.
Gypsy gave my upper arm a light squeeze. “Take the Arm Drag!”
The Arm Drag is a flashy but essentially simple maneuver. All you must do is come across with your left arm, hook your opponent under his left bicep, and fall straight back. Your dance partner does the rest, giving up a nice crisp forward flip to the mat. It’s a hard move to screw up, but somehow, I managed. Through a combination of bad timing and clumsiness, I stumbled sideways and accidentally came down with a knee to Joe’s gut. He shook it off and rolled to his feet. “Whaddaya waitin’ for? Lock up!”
Back to the collar-and-elbow dance. I went for a Top Wristlock, and in my dizzy state, leaned far too heavily on my partner. “Goddamn, brother! If I was that stiff with you, you’d be tellin’ everybody that Joe was mistreatin’ you!”
“Sorry, Joe,” I said sheepishly.
“Don’t be sorry! Just do it right!”
Suddenly Gypsy hooked my arm and fell back. I wasn’t looking for the Arm Drag, and failed to execute the bump. I landed right on top of him. It must have hurt, but he didn’t say a word.
We waltzed across the sagging plywood and into the ropes. “Take the Headlock, brother!”
I captured Gypsy in a loose Headlock and spent a few seconds pretending to grind and crush his skull. “Okay, enough of that boring crap! Take me down!”
The Headlock-and-Throw looks brutal, but is no more so than any other basic maneuver, assuming the thrower doesn’t come down too hard on the throwee. I started Joe over my hip, he took the bump perfectly, then I crashed down on his ribs like 200 pounds of clumsy bricks.
I was mortified, and fully expected Gypsy to curse me out thoroughly. Instead, he got up and walked away to the ropes, standing there with his back to me, rubbing his forehead in silent exasperation. I was grateful for his patience, but it would have been less embarrassing if he had screamed at me.
Gypsy shook his head, sighed, and came back to the center of the ring. With a student like me, I felt sorry for the poor old guy--despite my earlier concerns about getting the crap kicked out of me, Joe was the one taking all the damage.
Again, we danced. Gypsy grabbed my wrist and went into the dramatic-but-painless Arm Wringer. I sold it with some groans, and, as if the pressure had become too much to bear, decided to take a forward flip. My pain-wracked body and stuffed-up head conspired to cause me to mistime the move; instead of making a complete turn and landing on my back, I came down right on the point of my left shoulder in an explosion of glassy agony.
It was the first time I had really, truly hurt myself badly in practice. I walked back and forth in grim silence, shrugging my shoulder and biting my lip, telling myself it probably wasn’t broken. The rules of macho seemed to call for me to suck it up and go on without complaint, and I tried, but my heart was no longer in it. I also must admit that I was just plain scared of getting hurt again.
“Uh, Gypsy...I’m really sorry, brother, but I think I better stop for now. I got a real bad cold, and my back and shoulder are kinda hurtin’. I know it’s not a big deal, but...”
“Whattaya mean, it ain’t a big deal? It’s your body, brother. You can do whatever the hell you wanna do, but I don’t want you gettin’ hurt.”
So much for macho. Reluctantly, but with relief, I gave it up for the day…