Then there's the time I resurrected a seven-hundred-pound black bear in up in Tomah. I'd been semi-retired for a little over three years by then, retired ever since the Continental Wrestling Alliance had passed on extending my contract to a nineteenth year. At first I stayed home, kicked back and watched All My Children and The Price is Right. I was finished with the business, The Life. But wrestlers don't get pensions and bills pile up, so I found a job bagging groceries and wrangling shopping carts at Dominick's. It was me and a bunch of other broken down old men asking "Paper or plastic?" and pushing carts in the snow. The only difference between me and them was that those broken down old men were in their seventies. I wasn't quite fifty yet.
I stuck with that job for awhile, but the itch came back. The road, the ring, The Life--it throws you in a headlock tighter than any drug, any woman ever could. So I put in some calls and got myself booked for a few independent shows. It wasn't the big leagues, it wasn't the CWA, but I was wrestling again. I've always been a worker in that ring--making other guys look good, keeping them safe, helping them tell the fans a decent story--so I took my twenty-five years' experience and did the best I could to smarten up a bunch of kids who were green as street signs.
I was working the territories on a steady basis, wrestling half-crippled from all the injuries that a life in this business leaves you with, when I got a call from John "Friar" Tuck. Friar told me how Emperor Jones Number Two was retiring and that he wanted me to have one last shot at Emperor's title. Whether it was out of loyalty to Emperor and Friar, the payday for working a main event, or the promise of something I'd never won--a championship--I couldn't say. But when he asked me, I could feel The Life tighten its hold on me once again. I said yes and bought up all the liniment and athletic tape I could afford.
John "Friar" Tuck was an old WWII frogman who'd been operating the same territory out of Wisconsin ever since he returned from the Pacific in '46. The promotion's always been fringe, probably because of a lack of talent and the isolated location. Tomah's a real shithole an hour north of the Dells. Because he was out of the way and such a small operation Friar never did get bought out by the Continental Wrestling Alliance or Global Wrestling Federation when those companies started gobbling up territories in the 1980's. Friar Tuck's Wrestling Road Show--that's the outfit's name--was touring mostly in Minnesota and Wisconsin, sometimes the Dakotas back when I broke in with them. Today they'll do shows in Tomah and Lacrosse, maybe Eau Claire, once in a while the Northwoods. They've always loved Friar Tuck's up in the Woods.
I was twenty-three when I first worked for Friar--fresh out of training at Art Stigma's wrestling school, The House of Pain. I was bouncing around the Rust Belt at the time, working shows here and there, but nothing steady. That's when my cousin, Fredrink, mailed me Friar Tuck's promotional flyer. Fredrink was taking his family on vacation to the Dells and made a wrong turn on the way to Tommy Bartlett's Water Show. They stopped for directions in Tomah when he saw it: FRIAR TUCK'S WRESTLING ROAD SHOW RUNNING WEEKLY. THIS WEEK'S MAIN EVENT: WORLD'S ONLY TWENTY MIDGET, ALL 100% PURE-BLOOD CHIPPEWA INDIAN BATTLE ROYAL. ALL MIDGET. ALL REDSKIN. ALL THE TIME. &!!! OPEN CALL TO CHALLENGE "THE KING OF THE NORTHWOODS," EMPEROR JONES #2, FOR CHAMPIONSHIP & CASH!
I arrived at The Road Show with my bag in one hand, the flyer in the other. I told Friar, in all my twenty-three-year-old cockiness, that I was there to win Emperor Jones's title. Friar spit out a peach pit he'd been sucking on and nodded his head. "Put on your gear and come with me," he said. "The bear's around back."
Here's the thing about Friar Tuck and his Wrestling Road Show: instead of relying on talent, Friar put all his energies into gimmicks and sneaky angles. His matches were more of a circus act than wrestling. He'd strap midgets in harnesses, wench them up from the rafters, and make them battle each other in mid air. He'd challenge any marks in the crowd to try and pin the Road Show's resident strongman, Ole Gunderson. If they could pin Ole, Friar would pay them five hundred dollars. That never happened. On the rare occasion when a challenger looked like he might overtake Ole, Friar, acting as the Road Show's ref, would give the guy a taste of the cattle prod he kept hidden up his shirt sleeve.
But what Friar loved most, what was the bread and butter of his shows, were the animals. When the Road Show was operating outside the jurisdiction of municipalities or cities, and sometimes even when it wasn't, Friar would throw all kinds of animals in the ring with each other: gamecocks would duke it out with two alley cats or a badger and a particularly vicious Rottweiler would go at it. And, as it was stated in the flyer, there was a standing challenge for wrestlers to take on Emperor Jones Number Two, who I'd been told had a three year undefeated streak.
"When you lock up just watch your neck, and I wouldn't use no leverage moves or submission holds on his left forepaw. He don't like that too much." This was the advice, the only training Friar Tuck gave me before our first match, a match which I lost to the Emperor. We locked up, grappled. I reversed a few of his holds, threw an awkward headlock around his massive neck. I was swatted and batted and finally pinned. There was no blood, no mauling--he would have torn me apart if his claws hadn't been removed--but my body was pummeled. My insides were applesauce. I lost three more matches with him that weekend, but returned the next weekend, and each weekend after that for ten months. Most challengers would wrestle the Emperor once and move on. Some tried their hands at rematches, thinking they'd figured the bear out. They never did. Emperor would dispatch them with one swat and yawn and that was it. I didn't keep coming back because the pay was great; I earned less than I could make working around Chicago or Milwaukee. I kept going back because I wanted to pin that bear and hoist the Interspecies Title over my head in victory. Week after week we'd wrestle. One show Friday night, a show on Saturday night. Twice on Sundays. I never could beat him, but I'd come close. Near stalemates. I was strong back then. Six and a half feet tall and three-hundred-pounds of nothing but muscle. I could suplex guys two at a time and deadlift compact cars. And I needed every bit of that strength to hold my own with the Emperor. After wrestling him a hundred and twenty-seven times I probably knew that bear better than anyone. I can still taste those hot breaths he'd snort out at me when I'd work him to the mat, spraying me with bearsnot and looking up at me with those almost human eyes.
Match one-twenty-eight was my last with the Emperor. I had him. If he were a man he would have submitted to me, but bears can't speak up and say "I give!" All they can do is roar and go crazy and sink those teeth two inches into your thigh. That was the only time Emperor ever seriously injured me. But I don't blame him. I'd been able to get a modified chicken wing locked in on his left front leg, the one Friar had told me not mess to with. When he was a cub Emperor had stepped into a bear trap. The scar from the jaws of the trap had long since faded, but the memory of that pain was still with him. I was so close to beating him. I knew with one good submission hold he'd lose his will to fight and then I'd have him. Have my championship. I clamped down on the only leg that I could get to and Emperor went crazy and took a chunk out of my thigh.
"When you think of your name, just think of something that makes you happy." That's what I tell the young guys I see in these backwater promotions nowadays. I tell them to think real hard about their ring names before settling on one. And once they do find that name they like, the one that makes them feel like a superstar, to stick with it no matter who tells them otherwise. I tried telling that to a few rookies when I was with the CWA, but it was no use. Once a kid makes it to the show--when he signs on with Global Wrestling Federation or the Continental Wrestling Alliance--it's too late. Once they make it that far up the ladder they think they've got everything figured out. I know I did. But now that I'm back in the territories I get a chance to give advice to guys who want to hear it. They listen. And why wouldn't they? For eighteen years I was the CWA's Warthog, for cryin' out loud.
David Carlo Ferrari, that was the name I was born with. Coming up, I worked as "Racin" Dave Ferrari. That's what I called myself when I wrestled all my matches with Emperor Jones. Man, I was going places with that name, main-eventing a lot of small shows, winning tournaments; I even did a commercial for a used car dealer in Joliet. "Racin" Dave Ferrari was the name I was using when the CWA's president, Smilin Joe Spiceland, saw me work a match way the hell up in Rhinelander. Turns out Joe had family who lived there and decided to stop on his way to the Twin Cities for a business meeting. Smilin offered me a CWA contract on the spot and I was sure it was because of my name; I hadn't even wrestled that great of a program. I worked slow and dragged around and old ham-n-egger for thirty minutes without any high spots. Hell, it was ten minutes into the match before we even touched each other. He didn't have any official contracts on him, so Smilin drew the terms up on the back of a program for that night's show and signed me right after the match; I was still in my boots and trunks, dripping sweat all over him, all over the contract, on the X where I had to sign my name. I drove down to CWA's headquarters in Chicago two days later to make things official.
Smilin sat me down across from him at that huge mahogany desk of his, the same one you always see him sitting at during TV interviews. "Dave," he tells me, "I like your style. You're a good worker. Someone who I think could contribute a lot to Continental. Someone Smilin Joe Spiceland would like to do business with." Smilin's flashing that horse tooth grin of his at me the whole time. "There's just one thing, Dave. I'm gonna have to change that name of yours. CWA's overloaded with car guys right now. I've got The Edsel, Craig and Ken Camaro, and there's Mustang Sally and Mario Andretti Petty. Last thing I need is another one of you people.
"See, Dave, I'm in the need for a good solid animal. A monster. A manster. A regular man-eater-upper." Smilin bugged-out his eyes and leaned over his desk, snarling and snorting and spraying me with spit. Smilin pointed both hands to an imaginary marquee. "The phacochoerus aethiopicus. The Warthog! That's what I need, Davey. The Warthog. Come on, you give it a try. Real ferocious. Let me see you, Dave. Be the Warthog, Dave." A year earlier I'd been wrestling a real animal, the Emperor, in front of twenty people when he decided to gnaw on my leg. If the bite had been two inches higher or a half inch deeper, I'd never have wrestled again. I looked Smilin Joe Spiceland square in the eye and let loose what was to be the first ever Warthog War Cry.
"Perfect. So, it's settled then." Smilin Joe extended his hand to me and I shook it and "Racin" Dave Ferrari sped off into oblivion.
The Wrestling Road Show office and Emperor Jones's lodging were all crammed into a rusted-out, corrugated garage on Friar's property five miles outside of Tomah. I made it four paces onto Friar's land when a mangy St. Bernard bolted out of the garage growling, headed right for me. I cocked a fist, ready to fight the dog off, when a shotgun blast crackled through the crisp, pine-scented air. The St. Bernard immediately heeled and Friar Tuck shouted, "Flatlander!" Friar called anyone from Illinois "Flatlanders."
"What's with the saber tooth here?" I asked.
"That's Duke Thompson Number One. Keeps the Emperors company. I'm using him to socialize Number Three. Three and the Duke like to go at it a bit. Those two really have some wars. Reminds me of Number Two and you, Racin." Friar leaned his shotgun against my car slapped my shoulders. "Racin Dave. Shit. It's been a while, brother. How the hell you been?"
"You know, keeping both shoulders off the mat. How's the Emperor?"
"See for yourself. He's where he always is." I walked to the back of the garage. Emperor's cage took up about the same space a compact pickup would.
"You get him a new cage?"
"Same as it ever was."
"Emperor's smaller." Friar was right. The bear's muscles didn't bulge as much as I'd remembered. His coat wasn't as thick; the battle scars he'd picked up over the years were easier to see through his sparse fur. The Emperor Jones I'd wrestled all those years ago--Number Two--took over for the original Emperor who died in '68. When Friar Tuck called me to see about wrestling I kept picturing Emperor as I'd remembered him, a massive, powerful animal. I had to remind myself that he, like myself, was an old-timer now.
I picked a watermelon wedge from a bushel basket near the cage and fed it to him. Friar used the watermelons to train Emperor, reward him for obeying commands. Emperor sucked down the wedge and looked up at me. Maybe there was recognition. His eyes were still almost human, only more tired looking now. I patted the Emperor on his muzzle. He sniffed my hand then started batting it around with his head. I knew he was challenging me. He wanted to lock up, have one more test of strength.
I took the bear out into a field behind the garage and sparred with him a bit. It was more like a three-way match having to contend with Duke Thompson Number One as well. Emperor would stand on his hinds and we would lock up and the dog would alternate attempting to knock me or the bear over. When we locked up it was like no time had passed. It was like working with a guy you know real well and trust real well in the ring. You don't have to call spots or work things out before hand. You just know what the other's gonna do. Nothing had changed except his strength. I was a broken-down old wrestler. Forget about bears, I shouldn't have been able to throw around little kids. But I could tell that if I hooked him the right way, I could throw the Emperor down easier than guys bodyslammed me after I'd changed my name to The Warthog. I didn't think the Emperor had too many more matches in him, if any. The St. Bernard would have put on a better show.
After I put Emperor back in his cage, as I was walking from the garage to Friar's house, something let loose a roar louder than any I'd ever heard in my life. Louder than Emperor after I'd shot on his bum leg years ago. Friar lived on a five acre parcel of land nestled at the edge of an old growth pine forest. The roar came from the far edge of his property, from a cage near a copse of trees.
I was a good three hundred yards away from him, but even from that far he seemed too big. I figured it was some optical illusion from the distance, maybe the bars of the cage distorting him. I was up wind of him, so he caught my scent quick enough and started pacing back and forth in his cage taking occasional swipes in my direction, just dying to get at me. Emperor Jones Number Three was big, even for a brown bear. He was a young and powerful Kodiak, a giant caramel colored wrecking ball. I guessed he was nine foot, maybe eight hundred pounds. He could have been bigger. I moved in closer to him, judged his reach at about six feet. He was still pacing back and forth now, only much slower. He moved careful like barefooted people who break a glass do. He stalked in slow motion. His head trained on me. Number Three's yellow eyes lacked the humanity that I always saw in Two's. I watched them dart away from me and that's when I knew it was coming. I was expecting him to take a swipe at me, but nothing could have prepared me for how fast he was. It was only instincts that kept me from losing my head. I saw a caramel blur rocket out of the cage and I twisted my body just enough so that he hit me with a glancing blow to my temple. The shot floored me.
I've had my bell rung plenty over the years--twenty concussions that the docs had "officially" signed off on, but dozens more that I dealt with on my own. Guys react differently to them. There's the headaches and dizziness that comes along with being concussed, but they take on a life of their own inside each wrestler's head. Whenever Ali Barber, "Sultan of Shears," took a stiff shot to the head, he'd gladly cover thousand dollar bar tabs for a few days. I never did have problems reasoning, but things would get spooky for me. The world would shift from real time to something else, something a bit slower, and I'd be aware of it. I'd catch myself zoning out and think, "this is weird." I could feel the rest of the world turning while I hovered above it. It's like the song Row Your Boat and life is but a dream. The little fella in that boat knew exactly what it was like to take a stiff chair shot from someone like The Mongoose or a paw from an angry bear.
My feet shuffled me back to the garage while the rest of me hovered over that big caramel bear. Friar saw the crimson welt on my cheek. "Ha! I see you got a taste of that badass Kodiak of mine."
"He's gonna be Emperor Number Three?"
"Started training him a month ago. I'm keeping him outside yet. Till he gets more used to humans. But I guess you can tell he don't like folks much."
"You should be working him. He'd give a better show than Number Two."
"I've been going pretty fast with the training. I keep expecting to walk in here and see Two belly up. But I've been saying that for the last ten years. Still, Number Three's not ready."
"Two can't work anymore, Friar. That dog of yours could take him." I realized that I was whispering to Friar so that the Emperor wouldn't hear me. "Making him go out there could get ugly."
"I'm counting on the Emperor having one last match left in him."
"So this retirement match is shoot? He's really quitting?" Everyone and their brother have retirement or "I quit" matches in wrestling. Wrestlers never really retire. The Life, it always clamps down on them.
"It's for real. Figured I'd let him go out in style. Give you one last shot at him. That was some good business you boys used to do for me."
"So what's Emperor's record now? He up to 500-0 yet?"
"2,343 wins and no losses." I was working out the number of matches Emperor had been averaging since I last fought him when the Kodiak roared and broke my concentration. I forgot all about Number Two and his perfect record and found myself hovering once again above Number Three, sizing him up, waiting for his next move. Guys come, guys go in The Life. The weak ones, the addicted ones, the reckless and the stupid--the unlucky ones--they get fired, get crippled, go to jail. Some die. Call it attrition. Call it evolution. They go away and it bothers you, but you'll forget. The long line of rookies--kids who haven't developed their own injuries, addictions, or bad luck--will make you forget. Those young guys, always waiting for their chance, are the only thing in The Life that remains constant.
I stopped by Friar's the morning of the show. He stood next to Three's cage, holding a revving chainsaw in one hand, throwing chunks of watermelon to the bear with the other. I asked what the saw was for.
"Gentles him up some. I rev it up if he decides to pounce on me. Number Three hates the sound. Loggers probably. Here." Friar shut off the saw when he stepped out of the cage and handed it to me. "This thing's a pain in the old asstacosher. It was easier with Number Two. All you had to do was jangle the chains of a bear trap if he got out of line. Friar looked at his watch. "Shit. I gotta boogie over to the Post and make sure they set up the ring proper. The Foreign Legion assclowns make me use their people to set it up. Last time, they left the ropes loose. I had midgets flipping out of the ring all night long." Friar slipped two hundred dollar bills in my shirt pocket.
"This my advance on the gate?" I asked.
"Shit. You know I never give advances. That's to keep us legit. The gaming board's been getting on my ass about the animal stuff lately, but the commissioner's a Legion member and I worked out a deal with him. Refreshments. Told him I'd restock the Legion's liquor shelf for them. I need you to stop by the trading post for me. Plenty of Schnapps. Lots of bourbon for the Old Fashioneds. And just the cheap stuff, stretch them dollars the way you'd stretch a rookie on the mats. I'll see you at the show. Gotta finish feeding Three and check on that ring."
"Need a hand loading Emperor into your trailer?" I asked.
"I can handle that job. Now it'd be a different story if we were gonna move this beast " Friar took his chainsaw and turned back to Emperor Number Three. The bear, having outgrown his cage, barely had enough room to turn in a circle without pushing a massive shoulder up against the bars. The sun lit up his coat and highlighted all those muscles rippling beneath it. He turned around in his narrow space and stretched out his arms against either side of the cage slightly bowing the steel.
I flagged down one of The Road Show's ringboys in the Legion parking lot to ask what Friar wanted me to do with the liquor. "The old man's inside raising hell. The Legion's Sergeant-at-arms stripped some lag bolts when he was tightening them. I told him to let me do it, but the guy says he knows what he's doing. 'Hell son, I was setting up rings in Korea for my battalion's Golden Gloves before your daddy was skin poppin' tittie mags.' Asshole." The kid shot two middle fingers in the air and walked off.
"Hey! What about the booze?" I asked.
"Just load it in Friar's pickup. It's the one with the horse trailer hitched to it. And that's another thing that's dicked up. Keeping a bear in a horse trailer? That ain't right, dude " The ringboy continued muttering to himself as he walked away.
It's been standard practice since Moses wore short pants for faces and heels--the good guys and bad guys--not to associate outside of the ring. Separate locker rooms, no drinking or traveling together. It was a bigger deal in the old days, before the top promotions admitted wrestling was more entertainment than sport, but it's still done. When you get it into your head that the guy you're feuding with is the biggest prick alive, even though you know it's all an angle, that he's a decent guy in real life, you tend to steer clear of him. Friar never said who was supposed to be the heel in my match, so I grabbed a bottle of Schnapps and climbed into the trailer to keep the Emperor company until bell time. I stroked his muzzle and fed him watermelon from a bushel basket. Emperor yawned and licked the sweet juices from my hand. I cracked open the Schnapps and had myself a pull.
Plenty of the boys drank before shows--some to chase away pain, others to "get fired up." I was never one to drink before a match, but now I needed to chase the gremlins, those cobwebs from my head, to get back to real time. I took a few more nips and grabbed a handful of watermelon pulp from the basket and pressed the cool mash against the paw-sized welt on my head. Emperor watched me with those placid eyes of his.
Friar had loaded Emperor into the trailer all by himself. In the old days it would have taken ten men--powerful wrestlers and lumberjacks--to coral the Emperor. I patted his muzzle and brought his head around to look at me. "There boy. This is good for you. Spinach in a can." I drenched a piece of watermelon with Schnapps and took a bite in a big pantomimed way so the Emperor would notice. It was the same way you feigned surprise or fear in the arena so that the people up in the cheap seats could follow your story. I took a bite. "Mmmmm! Mmmmm! Got a good taste," I told Emperor. I held out the rest for him. He sniffed. Looked at me with those person eyes of his, then swallowed it in one gulp. I sat there for twenty minutes feeding Emperor Jones watermelon and Schnapps. Wedge after wedge. Bottle after bottle. When he was finished, Emperor Jones had put away eight bottles of Schnapps.
I'd won my final match in the CWA. That's a real rare thing in the business. Guys who are moving on to another territory, who know they won't be back for whatever reason, they lose their last mach. It's tradition. It helps put over the other wrestler, gives him heat to be able to say that he was the one to run so-and-so out of the promotion. Another reason it's tradition for guys to lose is so that they don't jump ship with a promotion's championship. But I never held any belt in the CWA--I had a nice long run with that company, but The Warthog was a palooka, a jobber; he was no Racin Dave Ferrari--so it was less important for me to lose. I was wrestling another jobber in my last match, my friend, Happy O'Shea. Since neither of us were champions and, I'd like to think, because Smilin Joe was grateful for the eighteen years of solid work I'd put in for him, I got to win my last match in the CWA. It was a Wednesday night house show in a half-empty arena in Reno. And that was that. Some of the boys who I was friendly with met me for beers at a local dive bar. Most of them took off after they bought me a drink. Happy and Sunday Domingo, Professor Suplex, and Ali Barber were the last guys to leave, but even they only stuck around for an hour. There was a TV taping the next night in Eugene and the boys wanted to drive straight through before snow storms threatened to shut down traffic in the mountains.
There wasn't any gold watch or catered banquet for me. That didn't bother me. The way I saw it, I was one of the lucky ones. Most guys don't realize they've worked their last show until weeks or months, or sometimes years after the fact. Plenty of guys never realize it and die with their gear and dreams of a comeback still packed in a gym bag.
Emperor Jones Number Two vs. Dave "Warthog" Ferrari in "The War 2 Settle The Score" was the main event of that evening's Wrestling Road Show. It was the only match on the card that featured any animals. Times were changing, Friar had told me. The draw at the gate had been better than Friar expected; he'd sold more than a hundred tickets in advance and there were now twice that many people crammed into the small gymnasium. When commissioning the gym, the Legionnaires decided to have a stage built at one end, for medal ceremonies or other such honors. That was where Friar had his ring set up. Normally you work in the round, but this set up had it's advantages for a promotion like Friar's. It was easy to bring animals in and out and people wouldn't get too nervous seeing how they had to be wrangled from their cages when it was done behind a curtain.
Friar needed help getting Emperor from the trailer to the back of the stage. I hoped he was putting up a little fight, getting a little mean, and not just being difficult because he was a sloppy drunk. It took me and Friar and two other wrestlers to get him backstage. At one point Friar tugged a little too hard on Emperor's chain and the bear took a swipe at the old man and sent him flying. The other two wrestlers helped Friar to his feet. I couldn't help but smile. My old nemesis was back. "Dirty dog son of a bitch! Save that crap for the show," Friar yelled at Emperor. He handed the ringboy I'd spoken with earlier a bear trap. "Next time he gets out of line snap this. Give him the fear. I got no teeth and one real hip. I don't feel like losing any more parts before I die. Better get him ready. We're on in five."
The ringboy led Emperor to the curtain and unlocked his shackles. I walked to the other end of the stage and jumped up and down to warm up, rolled my head around and bounced on the balls of my feet like a prize fighter. And for a few moments I was back in the big leagues, bouncing up and down in the tunnel at Madison Square Garden, waiting for my pyrotechnics to erupt and my entrance music to hit. The illusion shattered when Friar announced my name and the crappy P.A. buzzed before a poor quality recording taped off the radio played. It was nothing like my CWA entrance music. I parted the curtains and ran out to little fanfare. The Emperor stared me down on my way out. His eyes were less human than they'd been. They were glassy and yellow now. Not the wild yellow I saw in Number Three's eyes, but a sicker shade.
"Now it's time," Friar announced, "to stand and pay tribute to the greatest champion his kind has ever produced. A monster who has bested all challengers in 2,343 matches. In his final title defense," Friar presented the Interspecies Championship to the audience and paused for dramatic effect, " the King of the Northwoods, King of Beasts and Men ladies and gentlemen, kids and children, I give you nine feet, nine hundred pounds of twisted steel and sex appeal I give you Emperor Jones Number Two!" The capacity crowd popped big time and I knew that I was to be the heel in our match. The ringboy tapped Emperor on his hind with a bamboo cane to move him along, but Emperor seemed to know exactly what to do. Friar's introduction must have set off a series of well-rehearsed actions for him. Emperor stepped through the curtain and up into the ring in one long stride. He looked at me. Looked at the audience. The ringboy tapped Emperor again. This time he stood up on his hind legs and spread out his arms to cast a shadow over the crowd. The boy swatted him a bit harder and Emperor Jones Number Two roared loud enough to make grown men wince and small children cry.
We started off slow. I was working out strategies as I fought, trying to remember. I threw a chin lock on the Emperor, Emperor reversed it and tossed me into the ropes. This went on for a good fifteen minutes. It wasn't a bad way to start a match--young guys today are nothing but spot monkeys with their acrobatics, always going a hundred miles an hour, forgetting about the buildup, forgetting about telling stories. I worked Emperor down to the mat, but he kicked me off him and knocked the wind from me. I panted for air and watched Emperor circle the ring once, put his head to the mat and vomit up a mash of watermelon that had the unmistakable smell of Schnapps. Emperor staggered out a few paces and sat into the ropes. He rolled his eyes, went limp, crumpled to the mat. I ran across the ring, still catching my wind, and dropped a vicious looking elbow on Emperor's head then threw him into a facelock. The fans booed me, sure that I was applying an illegal chokehold.
Friar moved in to make sure the hold was legal. "What happened?" he shouted over the growing jeers from the crowd.
"I think he's dead. Should I roll him up?"
"Not yet." Fans began throwing beer cups at me to protest the hold.
"He stiff yet?"
"No. He just went down."
"That bear's finishing his match tonight. Dead or alive, Racin."
Friar gestured for me to release the hold. The crowd applauded when I rolled off Emperor and worked him back up to his feet. The term "dead weight" had a new meaning for me. I propped Emperor up against the ropes and ran at him, hit him with a flying lariat, then jumped on Emperor's back and took a bite out of his neck. I spit fur into the crowd to get them to focus on me instead of the bear. They threw more trash and I contemplated my next move. I didn't have to work the rest of that match with Emperor's corpse. What did I care about two hundred cheeseheads in Tomah? And it wasn't like Smilin Joe Spiceland was waiting in the wings with a new CWA contract for me to sign. This was the end of the road. For Emperor. For me. I could have pinned that bear in the middle of the ring with one finger, spit in the dead animal's eye, and walked off into the night. But I didn't.
When you are of the mind that wrestling's a work, that it's all fake, it's not hard to notice the botched spots. You see a missed punch that a guy sells anyway; you watch the ref tapping the mat three times, but ignoring it because the guy who would have been pinned was supposed to win. Most fans know deep down that some part of the show is a work, but they're willing to forget about that because they want to get lost in the illusion; it's like watching a movie. For the fans to do that, to forget, the wrestlers have to hold up their end of the deal. We have to sell the hell out of a match, otherwise we shatter the illusion, make them remember that what we do isn't real--that there is a world outside of that arena, that bingo hall, that field house, that Legion gymnasium in Tomah.
I couldn't see the entire crowd from where I was, but I could hear them. I heard every person in that gym mark-out when I locked a chicken wing on Emperor's bum leg, the move that should have given me my win over the bear all those years ago. I heard collective moans of "Oooooo" and shouts of "Get up, Emperor, get up!" There were boos and a few "Warthog sucks!" chants. They believed. The more the fans screamed, the more graceful I became with my and Emperor's movements. The more heat from the crowd, the more Emperor seemed to come alive. I was wrestling him instead of myself. No one would have been surprised if I locked a sleeper hold on the bear and choked him out for the win. It would have been anticlimactic, but it would have been logical. Instead, I worked Emperor up to his feet and into a corner and punched him in the face. I was floating again. I, we, weren't two broken down old grapplers. We were young, powerful, kids. Racin Dave Ferrari, the monster who used to deadlift cars, and King of the Northwoods. I got him on my shoulders and went into an airplane spin. At the point where you would usually toss the guy who you were spinning I stopped and surveyed the crowd. I took a deep breath, hunched down, and exploded, thrusting Emperor from an airplane spin into a fireman's carry. Then I made the longest climb of my life. Five feet. A lifetime.
The crowd was on its feet now. A few of them shouted encouragement to Emperor, but most stood in awed silence. I climbed each rope of the turnbuckle. My legs wobbled, but were steadier than the ring ropes which jumped like plucked rubber bands. Instead of being the ref and trying to talk me down, Friar broke character and held a hand over his eyes with just enough of a crack between fingers so he could see.
I was blown up, gassed, spent, exhausted. The thought of just falling forward into the ring crossed my mind. Let gravity to the rest of the work and land on top of Emperor for my inevitable victory. I looked out on the crowd. Scowled at them. I gave off a Warthog War Cry that could be heard from The Dells, from Whitewater or Racine.
I leaned back and looked over the side of the ring. There were four feet between the ring apron and the edge of the stage. From there it was another four feet down to the linoleum floor. The top rope I stood on moaned. An anchor bolt that secured the rope to the ring post stripped its threading, shot across the ring. Someone, something, roared--me, the bear, the crowd, I couldn't be sure--and we took flight. The top rope snapped and the far end of the ring completely collapsed, but that didn't matter because there would be no mat landings.
I arched my body as we flew up and back like a high jumper flopping over the bar. We flew out over the ring apron, beyond the stage, and plummeted to the floor of the gym, smacking our heads on the linoleum at the same time. I looked up to see the crowd throwing steel folding chairs and crushing one another to catch a glimpse of the action. Two hundred cheeseheads chanted HOLY SHIT! in one voice. Friar was dazed, too out of it to do his job, to give that final three count. But I had staged it so a referee wouldn't have to determine the outcome. Both man and bear lay side by side on our backs. A paw rested on my chest. Two-hundred people at the Tomah American Legion hall yelled ONE-TWO-THREE! in their collective voice. A kid with a green mohawk made it official when he stepped over us and raised a paw in victory. There was no pulse, but he wouldn't have noticed it. All our hearts were pounding enough to make up for it.
I found Friar sitting on his lopsided ring, alone and in the dark. "Lost my bear. Lost my ring, Racin. I'm one more tragedy away from being a country song."
"You could fix the ring easy enough."
"I don't know. Maybe it's a sign. Hand of God smacking me up."
"That was some match. Never saw anything like it before. Emperor was great."
"He always was."
"You were pretty on too." Friar patted my knee then draped the Interspecies Championship belt over my shoulder. "I guess this is yours now." Friar and I sat there for several minutes without speaking. I could feel the world spin without me once more. Gently down the stream. "Racin, you go on and take care of Number Two for me. Think I'm gonna get doctored up then have a real stiff Old Fashioned. There's a fire pit behind the garage."
Those times when I let myself dream about The Life, I imagine making a comeback to the CWA for one last run, getting that push I never got in my prime, one that would finally get me over with the fans. It's a trap we all fall into. Most of us hang on too long waiting for that one last shot, that one last program that's gonna draw heat and make us money.
Besides that one last run, the only other thing I think about is my funeral. When I die I want to go out like the Vikings did. I'd be propped up in a badass funny car, one that could do a quarter mile in five flat on a big, gas-soaked--I'm talking racing gas, there's nothing like that smell--pile of wood. I'd blaze right up. I'd go out as Racin Dave Ferrari.
I didn't know what the Emperor's dreams were. I didn't know if there was anything in life he cared about besides watermelons. I used Friar's tractor to carry Emperor to the fire pit. There were the remnants of tree stumps, a tire, and some other garbage in it. Not exactly the setting for a glorious pyre. I doused him with a gallon of gas, lit a match and blew it out. Two more I lit and extinguished. I walked to the trailer and came back with the Interspecies Championship. I draped it on the Emperor and sent him on his way. Duke Thompson Number One sat at my side and whined the pitiful way dogs do when they're dejected, and we watched Emperor burn. His old black coat burned away, but it wasn't the smell of singed fur that filled the night. It was the smell of leather, of a championship I'd never win, that drifted off with the vapors, blowing away with the Emperor's ashes. A pair of crickets began their mating shrieks nearby and Duke Thompson trotted off to investigate.
The head was the last part of his body the flames lapped at. They boiled down his eyes. Boiled away the yellow. And for a moment they again looked human to me, made me wish I'd had a pair of silver dollars to close those eyes shut. I shut mine and turned away.
The business, The Life, it's always changing. You get hurt, you get sick, you lose your confidence, lose your heat, you get old, you die. Doesn't matter. There's always someone bigger, younger, faster. And you can't change any of it. Doesn't matter what your name is. Someone's pulling chains you can't see. Thing is, Davey, I can't use another car guy; animals is what I need. You're eating watermelon like you always do and you work a show, maybe the biggest one you've worked in ten years. And then you die.
It didn't take long to find a pair of boots and trunks that fit. Friar Tuck was one of those guys who saved everything. One corner of the garage was piled to the ceiling with old newspapers that went back to the 1930's. He had ring gear that must have gone back for just as long. I found a pair of faded blue trunks. The crotch was stained in grease or blood. The boots were a pair of amateur shoes, the kind the shooters from the old days wore. They were thin-soled compared to normal boots, soft and formless, and felt like an extension of my feet when I put them on. I could feel every pebble, every ant hill and twig I stepped on as I stalked the cage. I made no sound and approached downwind of him this time. The bars of the cage door were warm from his body. I jumped over a stream of piss, planted my feet, and found my center of gravity once more. I listened for the bell's toll and waited, waited for the caged bear sleeping through the night, no longer a namesake.