The first thing I do when I get to the armory is check the roster. A silly thing, I guess, but I just like to see my name in print, you know? Having it in black and white makes it more real. I find Les, the promoter, already on the floor, setting up the ring with Greg and some of the other workers. Promoters get a bad rap sometimes, but I like Les. All the guys do. He’s big on work ethic, always the first one to show up, last one to leave. He sets up, sells tickets, works concession, refs every now and then, breaks down, and cleans up. He’s there from beginning to end, and the boys respect him a lot for it.
“Hey, Les, you got the card?”
“It’s in the dressing room,” he tells me. “Sign in and get back out here.”
I go to the back and toss my stuff. The card’s taped to the dressing room door — just a sheet of notebook paper with pencil scratching. I scan down the list of names, looking for mine. I find Greg’s first, just one word — Dozer. What a great name. The first day of class, JoJo, our trainer, wouldn’t believe it was his real name, made Greg show his ID and everything. But there it was: “Gregory Dozier,” with an “i.” JoJo said, “Drop the ‘i’ and you’ll be a star.” Dozer. Perfect name.
I move across from Greg’s name to see mine, but it’s not there. He’s working with some guy named Shane — fresh meat, right outta training camp. I wonder why Les broke up our match? Me and Greg had been working together since the second week of class. We had a nice match going — good “David and Goliath” mix. I’m no pip-squeak, but Greg’s a big bastard. Like six-eight, pushing 300, mostly muscle. It’s an easy match because the crowd is automatically on my side. People buy into the underdog every time. He’s about six inches taller than me, but in the ring, it looks like a foot. Everything is just a little bigger between the ropes. So, the people feel sorry — I’m a natural babyface. They see this big guy tossing me around like a rag doll, beating the shit outta me, I make the big comeback toward the end, hit him with something off the top for the surprise pin, crowd goes ape.
Southern crowds are a little different. Our promotion stays local, but me and Greg have traveled a little. The farther south you go, the more they seem to like a good, old-fashioned shit-kicking, so I usually put Greg over. We can tell ten seconds into the match what kind of crowd we’re dealing with, so we just take it whichever direction suits them. Either way, it’s easy money, ‘cause I’m so good at selling.
JoJo was big on us learning how to sell. She hammered it in. The first thing she taught us (after the survival part of things — taking bumps, how to pick a guy up and slam him without dropping him on his head) was how to sell. Well, the very _first lesson was about respect. Never failed, some guy sees JoJo — this tall, wiry girl — standing in the ring, and he starts to snicker and cat-call. Like “A _chick’s gonna teach us to wrestle? Seriously?” A day later, JoJo “Mad Dog” Austin has stiffed him with a few forearms and run him through drills till he pukes on the gym floor, and suddenly it ain’t so funny. In my class, Scott Faust learned that lesson, and he stopped showing up on the third day. JoJo demanded respect, and didn’t take shit, no matter how big you were.
But anyway, after the basics and the attitude adjustment, came selling. She lined us all up outside the ring and gave us this big speech. You could tell she’d worked on it a lot. Paused in all the right places.
“This is the kind of business,” she said, “where it’s easy to be taken advantage of. It’s easy to con a wrestler because you’re all dreamers. It’s in your blood or you wouldn’t even be here. You say something just so, give it just the right spin, and a wrestler will believe anything you tell him. You guys got your heads in the clouds, always thinking about this ring, the crowd, the people popping for those high spots. You don’t want to waste your time doing squats, cardio, weights, drills. You want to be in-this-ring!” She stomped her foot with the last three words. She was good, knew how to work a crowd. Cut a better promo than most guys on TV.
“Now, when you leave this school, you’re gonna know how to work, so help me God. That’s what you’re paying for, that’s what I’m going to teach you. You are going to know how to work, and it may keep you out of the spotlight longer than you want, but that’s tough. Thing is, other trainers aren’t like me. They see guys like you, stars in your eyes, want to get in here, don’t care about training, about putting the work in. ‘You want to wrestle? Sure, here’s how to fall, here’s how to throw a punch, here’s a slam, get in the ring, that’ll be 500 dollars.’ You’re going to see a lot of people like that on the indie circuit. Green as hell, can’t work for shit. No clue how to hold a match together, all punches or high spots. The worst are the guys that watch that Japanese shit. Moves with goofy names like ‘Emerald Frozen’ or ‘Tiger Bomb From Space’ — moves that usually end up with the other guy getting dropped on his head. But they don’t want to put in the time to learn how to do it properly, so they end up hurting people. You gotta watch out for those guys. You’re going to work with them, I guarantee it. The thing is, it doesn’t matter which one of you is at fault, if the match sucks, the crowd will hate both of you. The smaller the crowd, the more vicious. Southern crowds are the worst. God help you if you put on a bad match south of Roanoke. You will be crucified.
“But, there is a really easy way to get around a bad worker: sell your ass off. Knowing how to sell makes a good match great and a shit match watchable. If he punches you, he’s got a brick in his hand. Slams you, you’re back’s broken. And selling isn’t just screaming, holding your ribs or your leg for a couple of seconds then pressing a guy over your head, going on like nothing happened. If you’re ribs are hurt — really fucking hurt — you can’t do anything. Can’t breathe, can’t move, can’t get up. Make the people believe it.
“And they want to believe it. The business is exposed — hopelessly exposed — but kayfabe isn’t dead. A lot of wrestlers don’t believe in the code anymore, but the fans do. They know it’s a work, but when they’re sitting there, they forget. Your number one job is to make sure they don’t remember.”
I caught on to it real quick. I’d work matches with Greg where he’d pound on me for ten minutes without stopping. JoJo would laugh her ass off. “You’re going to be something, Rage,” she’d say. “But you’re gonna get your ass kicked from Montreal to Memphis to get there. Just keep selling and you’ll make it.”
So anyway, I’m looking for my name on the roster. I finally see it. “Rollins” is all it says. I was hoping it would have the whole thing this time. JoJo always put our whole name up when we’d put on matches back at the school. She made every show out like it was a Pay-Per-View, like we were doing more than opening the doors to the community for eight bucks a head — money we would never see a dime of. It all went to equipment, keeping the water running and the lights on. Our paycheck, she would always say, was the experience. Still, she made us feel like stars, printed our names up real big and hung it outside, like a real poster. So there it was, “The Dozer vs. Ryan ‘The Rage’ Rollins.” The Ryan’s real, the rest isn’t. I like the alliteration. Just sounds cool.
But all I get tonight is “Rollins.” Still cool, but not the same. Les is busy, I guess, doesn’t have time for the little things. I can understand.
I trace across with my finger to see who I’m working with. We’ll have to get together and work out some spots. The name next to mine is “Burgess.” Something familiar about it, but…
I run back out to where the ring’s going up. The guys are stretching the canvas and I slide into an empty space next to Les.
“Les, this is probably stupid, but the guy you have me working with tonight. . .”
“Keep it tight on your side, Marty!” he yells across. “Yeah, Larry Burgess,” he says simply.
“Holy shit, Les.” I’m trying to help pull down the canvas but my hands are shaking. “Holy shit, ‘Legendary’ Larry Burgess? Are you serious?”
He finishes his side before he answers me. “Yeah, I’m serious. He’s doing a tour of the indies. Bastard’s expensive, but I thought it might bring some more bodies in, get them interested in the rest of us.”
“Les, seriously, I can’t wrestle Larry Burgess. I’m nowhere in his league, I’d just embarrass both of us.”
“You’re as good a worker as I’ve seen, Rage. He’s been out of the picture for a while. You’ll do fine. He’s just another worker.”
“‘Just another worker?’ Les, you’re talking about Larry Burgess. He’s headlined ThunderCard five times, he went sixty with Onotabe in the Tokyo Dome. You know PWI named that the greatest match of all time?”
“Yeah, but that was years ago,” Les says. He’s working on the bolt for the bottom rope. He tosses me a wrench and motions for me to work on the next corner. “Burgess has been out for six years. He’ll probably need help from you to shake off the ring-rust.”
“I don’t know, Les. I don’t know if I’m up for this.”
“Well, if you don’t think so, you can help finish the ring and go home.” He has a way of doing that — reminding you he’s the boss if you argue with him too long. I shut up, and I think he softens a little. “Look,” he says. “I think you can handle it. I really do, or I wouldn’t have made the match. I have faith in you.”
“Thanks Les. I’ll do my best, I guess.” It takes us about another forty-five minutes to finish the ring. After that I go to the back to start warming up.
It’s half an hour until show time and Burgess hasn’t shown up yet. I just keep stretching and doing some push-ups and stuff in the back, keeping myself loose. I want to be ready when he shows, since we’ll probably have to work out some spots in the dressing room. I’m nervous as hell. My stomach’s all in knots. Christ, I don’t know about this.
Greg walks up and pats me on the back. He’s jerking the curtain tonight, so he’s already got his tights and mask on. His gear’s a dull yellow. It’s supposed to be the color of a bulldozer, according to JoJo. Greg and I both think it looks pretty goofy, but you do what you gotta do. The crowd always buys into the mask, though. Makes him less human, gets him over as a monster.
“You doing okay?” he asks.
“Yeah, I’m fine.”
“Big deal, man. Going up against Larry Burgess. You should be pumped.”
“If I can keep from puking on him when I meet him, I’ll be doing good.” Greg laughs. “This guy’s like my hero, you know? PWI said his match with Onotabe in the Tokyo Dome was the greatest of all time.” I just shake my head. “Anyway, how ‘bout you? You met this Shane guy you’re working with?”
“Yeah, he’s a good kid. Little green, though. Still in mat school. He’s doing the job tonight.”
“Oh, that’s cool.”
“Yeah,” he says. “Les wants it to be a big squash, so we’re basically doing the match that you and me do. Southern version, of course, where I don’t pick him up after the powerbomb.” That’s my favorite part of our match. Greg drops me on my back with a big thud, and if the crowd’s into me, he picks me up before the ref counts me out. Makes him look mean and arrogant, so the crowd feels like he gets what he deserves when I finally beat him. It’s cheap heat, but people eat it up. If the crowd’s into him, the powerbomb is the finish — he just pins me.
“That’s awesome, man. It’s always nice to go over.”
“Thanks. What about you? You jobbing?
“Of course! I mean, I don’t know, I don’t know anything about the match yet. But, I mean, there’s no way I’m going over Larry Burgess, not some little runt like me. I mean, this guy headlined five ThunderCards. Did you know that?”
“Yeah,” he smiles. “I think I heard that.”
About that time, Les comes up to us. “Okay, Dozer. You’re up. Shane is already in the ring.” Greg nods, and all of a sudden, he’s not Greg anymore. Seems like he grows about six inches, muscles get as big as cantaloupes, and when he struts out the door, that’s Dozer walking to the ring. Man, when Greg is in character, he is in.
“You seen Burgess yet?” Les asks me. He looks a little pissed.
“No. I’m getting nervous, Les. We’re not going to have much time to work on the match. I mean, I’m sure he could wrestle a decent one with his eyes closed. You know, in his book, Burgess said that the first time he won the world title in ‘86, they called the whole match on the fly, and it was a solid four stars if anything. But, you know, that was against ‘Crusher’ Combs, not some rookie jobber like me. I need to know what’s going on. I don’t want to screw up, you know?”
“I told that bastard to be here an hour before, same as everybody else,” Les says. I don’t even think he heard what I said. “Here the goddamned show’s started and he’s not here.” Then he turns to me. “Well, when he comes in, make sure he sees me. If I’m not back here, I’ll be in the ring. I’m reffing a couple of matches tonight.” With that, he walks off to talk to some of the other guys, and I’m still here waiting for Larry Burgess. I do some squats.
We’re past the intermission when Burgess finally shows. I hear him yelling at somebody before I see him. I’d recognize his voice anywhere, I’ve heard it on TV so many times — a raspy Southern drawl (he started out in Memphis) that always sounds angry. He busts through the dressing room door and … it’s funny, but he’s not what I expected. When he was in the big promotions, Burgess never went too far over 235-240. He looks about 265 now, and not much muscle. He’s probably still got it, though, underneath. He’s just gained a few pounds is all. You don’t need to be all ‘roided out to be a good wrestler, anyway. Lot of people think that, but they don’t understand. Besides, Burgess never went in for power. He worked on the mat a lot. I’m sure he’s still got it in him.
“Mr. Burgess, my name’s Ryan Holliday. I go by Ryan ‘The Rage’ Rollins. I am such a fan, you don’t even know…”
“Thanks,” he says, brushing past me. I don’t think he saw my hand — I had it stuck out to shake. “Nice to meet the fans. Where’s the booker? I need to talk to him about salary.”
“I think he’s in the ring right now, reffing. Look, Mr. Burgess, I’d really…”
“Referee? Jesus Christ, you can’t afford a separate referee?” He rolls his eyes. “‘Hell am I doing here? Listen, I’m going to get a smoke. Tell him to find me outside, okay?”
“Well, actually, you think we could talk about the match a little while you’re waiting?”
“I don’t really have time to tell stories, I need to talk to Les.” He digs in his pockets for a lighter.
“I mean, I know you can probably do this with your eyes closed, but I’d like to go over some things, maybe just work out a couple of spots.”
“Kid,” he says impatiently. “What, you want advice? I don’t have time for that. I don’t have time for training tips. I’ve got to talk to Les about the match and my salary.”
I don’t think he knows we’re working together. I mean, most indie guys just plan show to show, sure, but this is Larry Burgess. He’s a real professional. Les should have told him about it.
“Sir, I wasn’t asking for advice. I mean, I’d love to get some pointers from you, don’t get me wrong. I’m sure you could teach us all a lot. But I was just worried about our match tonight.”
“Yeah. I mean, I’m sure, like I said, that you can just go out and have a five star match like nothing, but I just don’t want to let you down is all.”
“I’m sorry, kid, but we’re not working together. I’m in the main tonight, against whatever shmuck Les has put his belt on.”
“I don’t think…” Oh man, this is bad. Les shouldn’t do this. I’m going to have to clear this up with Larry Burgess. “There must be a mistake, Mr. Burgess. Les has us working together. We’re on the card.” I point him in the direction of the paper. He must have missed it on the way in. He stands there, looking at his name and mine, right next to each other. It must be a pretty big blow, not even seeing his whole name, just the last name like the rest of us shmucks. Les should have at least given him the whole name.
“No, this ain’t right,” he says, tapping the paper. “This is bullshit is what this is.” He just keeps tapping, his finger hitting the paper harder and harder. He’s really pissed. “I signed up for the title. I didn’t sign up to wrestle this guy ‘Rollins.’”
“That’s me, Mr. Burgess. That’s why I wanted to work out our match…”
“We don’t have a match, okay? I’ll get this cleared up. Damn well better be cleared up.”
I hear the bell ring and the crowd pop out through the curtain. “Sounds like the match is over, Mr. Burgess. Les should be back in just a sec.” The two workers come through the curtain, one (probably the winner) a little ahead of the other. They shake hands and talk about the match on their way to the dressing room. Les comes through a few seconds later, a zebra shirt stretched over his big gut.
“Where’ve you been?” he says soon as he sees Burgess.
“This kid tells me we’re working together tonight. What the fuck is that?” He ignores Les. “I was supposed to work with your champ this uh … uh … Kincaid or something.”
“Yeah, I know, there’s been a change of plans.”
“I’m not here to wrestle turds like this. I’m not some mid-carder. You promised me the strap, that was part of the deal.”
“Well, that was months ago. People around here love Kincaid, he’s crazy over.”
“They might love him, but they paid to see me!” Burgess says. I have to agree with him.
“I’m not taking the belt off Kincaid. Not to put it on some overcharging one-night-stand who shows up late and looks like he’s not seen a gym or a ring in years.”
“Fuck you, Les. My name is money, that’s why you called me. Remember that, you called me!”
“Kincaid has worked hard to get over with these people. I’m not cutting him down for you or anybody else.” Les is being a little unreasonable, if you ask me. Then he says, “If you don’t like it, walk.”
“Oh, that would make people happy,” Burgess laughs. “They pay to see a legend and get a bunch of third-rate greenhorns.”
“You’re right,” Les says. “People are going to be pissed. If I go out there and tell them ‘Legendary’ Larry Burgess is a no-show, they’re going to murder me. And I’d lose a lot of people, people that came for the nostalgia trip. But these kids are hard workers. The crowd loves them, and I may lose a hundred, but these guys will pull in a hundred more next month. So walk, go ahead, and you’ll leave with your pockets empty. And every promoter in the Southeast, everyone you’ve not already dicked over, will know what a ‘professional’ the great Larry Burgess is. Trust me, I’ll be on the phone all day, and you won’t be booked for anything more than a supermarket opening by the end of the week.” I can’t believe this. I mean, this is Larry Burgess he’s talking to, the only guy ever to make Gerry “Genocide” Jones submit, the guy who’s headlined five ThunderCards! Les is lucky he doesn’t break his neck. Burgess is staring him down, not saying a word. If I didn’t know better, I’d say he looks a little beaten, like Les has taken the wind out of his sails.
“Okay,” he says finally. “We’ll play your way, but this is the last favor you ever get from Larry Burgess.”
“Yeah, it is,” Les says. Now see, he didn’t need to say that, not when Burgess is trying to be a professional.
“So, can we work on the match now?” I ask when Les walks away.
“Shut the fuck up about the match, would you? The match will be fine if you don’t get in my way. Just remember that I’m going over and leave the work to me.” I nod. I mean, of course, that’s the thing to do, right? Wrestling Larry Burgess must be like driving an automatic shift — all the hard work gets done for you. All I need to do is sit back and let it happen.
I start going over all the standard spots and drills in my head, though. Just in case.
I’m sweating bullets already, standing behind the curtain, waiting to go out. Greg comes through after his match — his second for the night. He wrestles once with the mask, once without, so the crowd gets two wrestlers but the promoter only has to pay one. It’s an old trick.
“You up?” he ask, catching his breath.
“How was Burgess?”
“Oh, he’s great. Real professional. He and Les got into a big stink. Les was trying to screw him over.”
“That doesn’t sound like Les.”
“No … I mean, it was just a big misunderstanding, I think. But Burgess was really cool about it.”
“Oh, good, then. Well, I’m going to hang around and watch from the curtain. Have a good one.”
I thank him as my music starts up. It’s something with loud guitars and a lot of screaming. I can never remember what it’s called or who sings it. It’s not my taste, but Les thinks it sounds angry, fits my name, so I go along with it. I take a deep breath and push through the curtain. I get a pretty good pop from the crowd; they’ve seen me a couple of times with Dozer. I play to them a little, slapping hands in the front row, posing on the second rope.
Then Burgess’ music hits. It’s a kind-of rip-off on “Welcome to the Jungle.” No lyrics, a few chords changed. It’s pretty distinctive, and people recognize it immediately. They go nuts. A thousand people screaming at top volume probably doesn’t sound like much to Larry Burgess, a guy who did a Broadway with Onotabe in the Tokyo Dome, but it’s the loudest thing I’ve ever heard. I’m not too religious, but like most people, I don’t have a problem talking to God when I want something. So I take a second and give a little prayer that I’ll get a pop like this someday.
Larry Burgess finally comes through the curtain and, I can’t believe it, but the crowd actually gets louder. Man, it doesn’t matter how long he’s been off TV, people still know him, his name still means something. He doesn’t quite fit into his tights anymore — he’s still just wearing the underwear-bottom style. I personally would have switched to the full-length tights to kind-of keep the flab in, but who am I to secondguess Larry Burgess? What he looks like isn’t going to matter to people anyway once they see he still has it in the ring. He looks really pissed, and ignores some outstretched hands at ringside, but I guess he’s just in character, just being intense.
I offer him a handshake when he gets in, but he flips me off instead. I feel pretty stupid — he must be playing the heel tonight. That’s strange — the last time he worked as a heel was in the late ’70s when he was just getting started. He’s been a fan-favorite for years. Again, though, who am I to secondguess Larry Burgess?
The bell rings and we circle each other a little. He comes in for a collar-and-elbow-tie-up — a pretty standard lockup to start a wrestling match with. But he ends up with both hands on my shoulders so that it looks like we’re dancing. I must have goofed it somehow. “Sorry,” I whisper, correcting as quick as possible, trying to make it look smooth. He pushes me away and I throw myself hard to the mat, even manage to do a little backward roll onto my stomach. It’s one of those easy spots that crowds love — the test of strength. Burgess comes over and stomps a few times. There’s about three inches of air between his foot and my ribs, but I roll around like he’s hitting me with a sledgehammer. JoJo would have busted my ass for showing that much daylight with a kick, but I guess he’s just a little rusty. You can’t hold too much against a guy that hasn’t worked the big leagues for a few years.
Burgess pulls me up by the hair and sends me into the ropes, catching me coming off with a back elbow and covers me. I only kick out at the last second, as the ref’s hand comes down for three, and the crowd eats it up. He pulls me up and starts to scoop me for a slam, but only makes it about half-way up before he sits me down. I can hear him breathing hard — he’s blown-up about three minutes into the match. He tries again, and I give him all the help I can, swinging my hips up, lifting off his shoulder. I’m sure it looks really bad, but at least he got the slam in. He immediately drops down and puts me in a sleeper to catch his breath.
“What … the hell?” He’s panting close to my ear. “Why’d … you … sandbag me … on that … slam?”
“I didn’t.” Did I? I don’t think so, but . . .
“Damn … rookie. I can’t … wrestle … myself. Elbow … out.” I start standing up real slow and throw some elbows into his stomach to break the hold, just like he said. He doesn’t sell them too well, just kind of lets me go. I hit him with a standing dropkick, then come off the ropes towards him. He catches me awkwardly, then tries to muscle me up for a back body drop, but can’t put me up all the way. I have to twist in mid-air to keep from hitting on my head. It felt sloppy, and from the crowd’s reaction, it looked the same. They’re still yelling and all, still into it, but there’s this lull creeping in. Silence has a sound when you’re in the ring, and it’s scary as hell. Crowd is yelling, then they start to go quiet. That’s the backswing, after the pendulum reaches its apex.
Larry Burgess pulls me up again and punches me — really punches me. Stiffs the shit out of me a few times until my ears ring and I can feel a little trickle of blood from my nose.
“Watch it,” the ref says, pulling Burgess away. I shake the stars away in time to see him coming toward me with a kick to the gut. It makes contact, too, and takes my wind away. He gets me on the mat and tries to put a knee-bar submission hold on me. It doesn’t make much sense to start with, seeing as how he hasn’t set it up. Most guys would at least kick you in the leg to draw the crowd’s attention to it. On top of the shoddy psychology, he has to stop in the middle and try again — he had started on the wrong leg. I can understand it — I mean, submission holds can be tricky. If they don’t look right, people don’t believe them and, after all, he’s been out for a few years so he’s understandably rusty.
The crowd doesn’t see it that way, though. Three blown spots is a lot to forgive, and I can hear the pendulum swinging. If it passes the midpoint, the silence will be over and the “boos” will start. Not “Boo, you’re the bad guy,” but “Boo, what kind of shit are you trying to pull on us?” The kind of “boo” JoJo had warned us about. If something doesn’t happen soon, the match is dead. So I do the only thing I know how, what JoJo trained me to do. I start selling like a bastard.
I start screaming like the ligaments in my knee are going to pop, and I inch toward the ropes. I grab the bottom and wrap my arms around it, holding on like a baby to its mother. The ref breaks the hold and I point to my knee, really quick and casual, so Burgess will start stomping it. I scream like a girl. The ref pushes him away and I stagger to my feet, letting the one leg go limp, and I motion with my head for Burgess to come back. He pushes past the ref and kicks the leg out from under me, knocking me down again. I pull myself into the corner and let him follow me in, kicking and stomping. I can tell he’s getting winded again, so I fake a thumb to the eye and put him in a headlock on the mat.
“Just let me know when you’re ready,” I whisper.
“We can’t … lay here … like this. It’ll put … the crowd … to sleep”
“But I was trying to help you.”
“Fuck you. Don’t tell me … how to run my own … match.” I guess he knows what he’s doing, so we start to get up. He repeats the spot I did earlier, elbowing out of the headlock. I let all my air out in one, loud “oof!” and stagger back. He sends me into the ropes and I let my knee buckle for effect, crumple to the mat. He pulls me up and sends me in again, catching me with a clothesline — a little too high, right in the throat, making me gag. I do a somersault to really sell it, then lay on the mat like my neck’s broken or something. The crowd goes wild for that one.
“Take it home,” the ref says, so Burgess picks me up. I would have gone for a submission, since we’d made such a deal about the knee, but he sends me into the ropes instead. I’ve seen enough Larry Burgess matches to know what’s coming. As I bounce off, I jump into his arms just as he catches me, making it look like he picked me up at the waist. He pivots on one foot and falls to the mat with me. It’s a move called the spinebuster, and it used to be his trademark. It was a little sloppy tonight, I guess since he was tired. He used to do it really crisp, just kind of snap it off so that it looked like your back broke before you even hit the mat — like mid-air whiplash. Anyway, even if it isn’t as good as usual, I do what you’re supposed to do when a guy hits his finisher: I sell it like death.
He rolls over and covers me. I don’t move. The ref counts three, his hand smacking the canvas, and the crowd pops big. I don’t move. Burgess’s music plays and the ref raises his hand. I don’t move. He leaves the ring and goes back through the curtain. I don’t move. Finally, the ref leans over me.
“Hey, you okay?” he asks, honestly concerned.
“I’m fine,” I whisper. “Help me up. It’ll look good.” So he helps me up and to the back, and the crowd claps for me.
When we get through the curtain, Greg is waiting for me. “Good show, man,” but he doesn’t believe the smile he’s giving me. He knows the match sucked, and he isn’t the only one.
“Somebody needs to teach your boys to work,” Burgess is saying to Les. He’s bent over with his head between his knees, catching his breath. He raises up whenever he says something. He sees me walk through the curtain and takes a step toward me. He slaps me hard on the ear. “What the fuck were you doing out there?”
“I’m sorry. I was trying to help.”
“Back off, Burgess,” Les says, stepping between us.
“This kid stunk up my ring. Sandbagged me when I’d try to lift him, rest holds all over the place, calling spots so that people in the back could probably see them.” He moved toward me again. “Listen, you don’t call spots with me, okay? Not until you have a better idea of what you’re doing. I’ve been in this business for a while, okay? I’ve headlined five ThunderCards! I think I know how to call a spot, you know? Maybe you should leave the match up to the real wrestler next time, you think?”
“I’m so sorry, Mr. Burgess.” My lip is trembling, but I fight it. “It won’t happen again.”
“No, it won’t,” Les says. “Hit the shower, Ryan. I need to talk to Burgess in private.”
I do like he says, and while the water’s running down over me, I just start sobbing. I hope no one can hear me, but I can’t help it. I’ve screwed up my biggest match so far, I let down my hero, and made him look bad. I made Larry Burgess look like an amateur. I can’t understand it. I did my best, I did what JoJo taught us. Everybody has a bad match now and then, but this seems like a bigger deal to me. I let Larry Burgess down. I slide down the wall of the shower stall, pull my knees up to my chest and cry like a little kid. I just don’t understand it.
I’m stuffing my gear into my gym bag when Les comes up, pats me on the back.
“Hey, Les. Man, I’m sorry about tonight.” He just shakes his head at me and hands me some money.
“Here’s your payday. It was a good house.” I look at the bills and count four twenties. I was only supposed to get one.
“What’s this for?”
“For working hard,” he says.
“Did you see the match, Les? It sucked.”
“Oh, I saw it. It was a disaster, a big steaming turd-burger of a match. But it was watchable and the crowd stayed with it. Not by much, but you kept them in it. You adapted quick, you made good decisions. JoJo was right about you. You’re a natural.”
“Burgess didn’t think so,” I say, looking down at the money, feeling like I don’t deserve it.
“Don’t listen to that asshole. You all but worked a miracle to get what you did out of him tonight.”
I don’t say anything for a while. Then I blurt out, “I just thought it would be … different.” I really don’t know what I meant by that. But Les smiles like he understands.
“People don’t think this is real work,” he says. “But, some ways, it’s harder than anybody can understand. Stick with it, Rage. You’ve got a gift, it’ll take you somewhere.”
“You really think so?”
“I’ll bet you a title shot against Kincaid next month.”
“Seriously? The main event?”
“Sure thing,” he smiles. “I mean, you’re going to do the job, but at least you’ll get to headline.”
“I don’t deserve that, Les. Not after what happened tonight.” I smile and look up at him. “I’ll take it, don’t get me wrong. I just don’t know if I deserve it. God, the main event. That’s so cool, Les. Thank you.”
“You earned it,” he says, smiling back. “I mean, it’s not ThunderCard, but everybody has to start somewhere, right?”
“Yeah. Hey Les, you think I’ll ever get to headline ThunderCard, like Larry Burgess?”
Les smiles. “I hope so, Rage.”
So do I. I hope and dream.