“It seems like just yesterday.”
The thought swirls around in his mind as he recalls himself as a young man walking up to a dilapidated, make-shift gym in a dusty old barn in the middle of Nowhere, USA.
He can still vividly remember the searing heat on the back of his neck as he peered inside for the first time.
He can still remember the familiar stench of sweat, blood and dust mingling in with the stale air.
He can still see the face of his mentor, The man that would help him to attain his childhood dream of being a superstar in the world of professional wrestling.
He never would’ve reckoned that the gruff old man with a southern accent, thick mustache and burly muscles could have gotten him this far.
He calls to mind the long drills, learning how to run the ropes, how to take the falls, how to apply the holds correctly.
His muscles instinctively recall the mistreatment they received whenever his teacher would stretch him out for mistakes he would make in the ring.
“How green I was back then.”
His mind darts back to his first ever match in a wrestling ring.
He can recall the disappointment in his heart, when he walked into the tiny backwater high school gymnasium and only saw thirty people in attendance.
Even though he had hoped for more, thought there would be at least 200 people, he went out and gave it every thing he had.
After all, this was his first match as a professional wrestler.
And though he was scheduled to lose that night against some local schlep that wrestled part-time and worked as mechanic during the day, he knew he was destined for greater things.
“Ha! And here it was I thought wrestling in front of 1,000 people at the sports auditorium was the big time.”
His mind jumps forward a decade.
By this time, he’d already made a name for himself in the business. He had already held several championships in a number of promotions.
He had held enough championships to know that holding regional championships really didn’t mean all that much to him.
He can recall the frustration of wanting something more, something bigger than just defending regional titles in outskirt cities.
He wanted the bright lights of the metropolitans. He wanted to be the next big thing. He wanted to be the Muhammad Ali of Professional Wrestling.
He had the charisma, he had the physique, he had the look, he had the intangibles that the greats before him were made of.
He had more to offer than what the world was willing to ask for.
Discouraged and haunted by the nagging injuries that come with ten years of performing in the squared circle, he could remember contemplating early retirement.
“Glad I stuck it out.”
Had he not, he might have missed the phone call. He might have not been around for the news.
Finally, someone had created a platform. Finally, some crazy schmuck had done the impossible and gotten most of the regional companies together and formed one wrestling alliance.
The news was staggering. A national television audience? Arenas filled to capacity instead of recreational centers filled to the third row?
It was like a dream come true. And yet, a nightmare at the same time.
He thinks back to the fulfillment of his dream. The crowds were so outrageous. The roars of the fans, it was a kind of intoxication he never experienced before.
Flaunting himself in the ring, and twenty-thousand fans eating it up.
Cutting an interview in Dallas and being asked about it days later in Minneapolis.
And the women. So, so many women. He laughed at his naïveté as a younger man, truly believing he would never cheat on his fiancée.
Fast living in the fast lane. There wasn’t a drug he didn’t experiment with. There wasn’t a liquor he didn’t consume. There wasn’t a woman who flirted that he didn’t take to bed.
The VIP rooms, the special treatment for him and the boys, the hob-knobbing with celebrities.
They called him “Mr.” when they spoke his name.
He thought he was at the top of the world.
He lets out a small laugh when he thinks about making the jump to the world’s biggest wrestling promotion.
He hadn’t the slightest inkling that he was going to be a world-wide phenomenon.
He was just a kid from Smalltown, U.S.A.
And now he’s wrestling for sixty-thousand Japanese in Tokyo.
He’s doing television appearances in Great Britain.
He’s making millions of dollars.
The Heavyweight Champion of the World.
But more than anything, more than any title, any woman, any drug, it was the spotlight that was the most alluring thing about it.
It was controlling millions of people with a simple phrase. It was the feel of walking out from the back and thirty-thousand people chanting your name.
That was the best part.
It was so intoxicating that he couldn’t stop seeking it.
He had to have that opiate, if he had no other. Even if it meant a divorce. Even if it meant estrangement from his children. Even if it meant fractured bones and torn muscles.
He simply had to have that stimulant.
And he had the privilege of chasing it all around the globe, and the payoff would come thirty, sixty and one-hundred thousand strong.
“One Hundred-Thousand fans…nothing lasts for ever, I guess.”
Time changes things. Time passes us all by.
The toned and rippled physique he once had, has become layers of skin and flab, decimated by age.
The catchphrases he used to say on the microphone bring more mockery and derision, than they do cheers and adulation.
His body just doesn’t move the way that it used to, now that he’s past fifty.
He looks at the new generation with a mixture of awe and jealousy.
They can do things in the ring he never even thought of doing. All of those crazy flips and complex maneuvers.
When he was in his prime, a suplex was considered a crushing, match-ending maneuver.
The game has passed him by.
They say: “Maybe you should just hang it up, old man.”
“Maybe I should. I’ve tried.”
But he has nothing to go back to. He neglected his family, choosing to chase his dreams, chase those crowd eruptions, living on the road 300 days a year.
His son hates him. His ex-wife won’t even speak to him. He has no home to go to.
All the hard partying took a toll, not just on his body, but on his finances, as well.
He has no 401K, no health insurance. He knows it wasn’t wise, but he was young and foolish, so he wasted all of his money on fancy suits and fast cars.
He has to keep wrestling. He has to keep earning.
But more than anything, he just can’t let those cheers go.
Perhaps. An old man in a business meant for kids less than half his age.
There are always those penetrating voices in the crowd who let him know just how pathetic he is.
There wasn’t even an internet when he won his first championships. Now, he can read as thousands of people deride him over it.
“Step aside and let the young stars have their time!”
He knows that they’re right.
That’s what makes the sting that much worse.
“What, ******* ingrates! There wouldn’t even BE an industry without me!”
The fury envelops his brain as he thinks of all he’s given up for this life.
“I sacrificed my family to entertain you!”
“I took chair-shot after chair-shot to entertain you!”
“I worked through broken bones and concussions to entertain you!”
“I bled buckets to entertain you!
“I watched my friends get put in a casket because of this business and they were in it to entertain you!”
“And now you tell me that I should step aside?!”
As he tries to calm himself down, a small voice enters his head…
“Was it really for them? Or was it for yourself?”
He doesn’t want to face the truth.
The reality that as much as it was for the fans, it was just as much for himself.
And why shouldn’t he be allowed to wallow in his dreams? He worked hard to live them out.
Is he really a bad guy because he wants to keep hearing them chant his name?
Is he really a politicking snake, because he positions himself to keep living the dream?
Wouldn’t they all do the same? If they could live their dreams, wouldn’t they fight to live it as long as they could? Especially when the alternative is autograph signings at the local Autozone and lonely nights in a rented duplex?
But, if the fans don’t want him anymore, then is there really any dream left?
This locker room isn’t in Madison Square Garden. It’s not in the Staples Center.
It’s in an amusement park in Florida.
“An amusement park. Fitting. Maybe I should just hang them up.”
As he contemplates retirement for the 5th time this month, a knock on the door snaps him out of his train of thought.
“Your segment is up, head to the ring, please.”
A part of him wants to tell the stagehand that he’s done. He hurts all the time, he can’t wrestle like he used to, and the critics say that just him hanging around is sad and damages the legacy he wants to leave behind.
“Yeah, this is it. I’m going to retire for good.”
But, it would be unprofessional to quit now. He’ll finish this segment, and then tell management he wants to retire once and for all.
After all, this is not Madison Square Garden, it is not the Staples Center. It’s an amusement park in Florida.
He slowly ambles his way out to the curtain, a tear almost in his eyes, as he feels that for all he’s given to this business and to his dream, he’s stuck between where he’s not wanted and where there’s no one around to not want him at all.
He walks up the ramp, and he hears the mild spattering of cheers let out from the several hundred people in the audience.
As he sucks in the noise, it’s like a remedy for his woes.
“They do still care about me.”
It’s not sixty-thousand people. It’s not thirty-thousand people. It’s only five-hundred.
But this will do.
This will keep him going for now.
This will keep him hooked on the business for a little while longer.
Because this is his weekly fix.
A sad situation for an addict, indeed.