“It’s great you like being here so much, Johnny. But don’t you wanna spend some time with your friends? A girlfriend, maybe?”
Mickey sat beside me on the stained apron of his wrestling ring. His Popeye-like forearms bulging as he planted his hands rigid against his knees. He looked at me through his warm brown eyes, lifting his trilby slightly to scratch the mop of curly blak hair underneath.
“Ah, I’d rather be here. Besides, my Dad said there’s no room in life for friends,” I explained, taking a laboured breath.
“What?” he snapped. “What kind of messed up thing is that to tell a young boy?”
I shrugged. “He said that if I want to get ahead in life I have to be ruthless, which means stepping on those closest to me, or risk being walked all over myself.”
Mickey studied me for a good few seconds before speaking, before finally shaking his head slowly and placing a reassuring hand on my shoulder.
“Now you listen to me,” he began, leaning in nice and close. “I don’t wanna speak ill of your old man, but he’s got this one wrong, okay?” he continued to explain, tightening his grip a little on my shoulder.
“What do you mean?” I asked. I remember being conflicted in that moment by what my pop had told me compared to what the man whom I respected more than anyone was about to say.
“The golden rule of life, Johnny. Never, ever, betray your friends! Friendship and trust go way beyond blood or genetics or politics. You find out who your friends are, then you hold onto ‘em! A friend you can trust is a precious commodity to people like me and you.”
There was nothing I wanted more than to have a few trustworthy relationships. Unfortunately, I seemed to have a lousy Trust-O-Meter. Especially when it came to women and partners.
We spent much of the rest of the flight to Miami in silence. The mention of retirement had caused an uneasy feeling inside me. It’s like death, inevitable and looming over me, the only question is when? I’m not ready to give up, not yet. My body’s fine, I still have a lot left in the tank. Mentally I’m stronger than I ever have been. But losing the LSD title to Jatt and slipping back down the pecking order is a likely stopping point for me.
Of course, I’m not even entertaining that option because it’s a negative way to think. We only think positively, remember? It was just something I had to consider, before putting it to the back of my mind as another reason to succeed.
We landed late evening and were both pretty spent, so we headed straight to my old beach front apartment and had a couple of drinks before getting an early night. Today, we were up bright and breezy and eating breakfast by six am. The plan was to head over to Mickey’s who would likely be opening around eight. Mickey was my old coach from my youth who introduced me to the sport and gave me a place of sanctity and somewhere to escape during my confusing teenage years. I owed a lot to Mickey, and coming home to his gym was what I needed to get prepared for this war with Jatt.
It was disgustingly humid as we walked the length of the beach towards Mickey’s rustic old gym. October was the worst time of year for humidity in Miami. It was only going to make training more gruelling and difficult, which was a good thing. The warmth will zap your bodily fluids in seconds and it will slow you down. Everything you need to train for a ninety seven minute match.
Once you’d been to a wrestling gym like Mickey’s, you could never get it out of your system. Once you’d trained in a wrestling gym as long as I have, the sensation was always there, like the memory of a passionate kiss.
The first time anyone visits a wrestling gym what hits them is the smell, thick with men’s sweat – not the unwashed stink of fermented body odour, but the layered, built up saline scent of constant work and leather and old-worn sports kit. And as soon as you get past the smell what gets you next is the rough-edged environment.
At some point every man in a wrestling gym knows he is going to fight, and he is definitely going to get hurt. The first time I ever visited this place, as a young kid – back when I went to school in Miami – the smell, the fear, and the excitement all rolled into one utterly addictive high. Maybe the old Roman gladiators had smelt, trained and fought like this. A boy’s club couldn’t have been made more primitive, or more amazing.
The constant sparring used to remind me of training scenes from Spartacus. Kirk Douglas slugging it out to stay alive, a sheen of oil and sweat all over his lean torso. In every wrestling match it came down to the same thing. No matter what anyone said, wrestlers are gladiators and it’s no hyperbole. It’s a fact of life.
My first moment inside the bittersweet stink of this wrestling gym was now over twenty years ago.But the glorious tradition, the pleasure, the fear, the adrenaline would never leave me. Mickey’s old ears must have heard us both enter as his feet came shuffling through a door at the back. The sight of me caused him to stop in the doorway, his weathered face beaming with delight. He was wearing his usual get’up of grey sweatpants, worn sneakers, a dirty white t-shirt and a crusty old grey trilby hat. He removed the hat and placed it over his chest, his hair underneath it was grey and as fine as if it had been sifted through gauze. His thick grey eyebrows had that indefinably sporty look. He had a long chin, a nose with a hook to it, thoughtful grey eyes that had a slanted look because the fold of skin over his upper lid came down over the corner of the lid itself.
He stood there politely, one hand touching the door at his back, the other holding the grey hat and flapping it gently against his thigh. I could tell this reunion meant as much to him as it did to me, which made me feel loved for the first time in a long time.
“Johnny!” he gasped, holding out his arms.
I marched forward wearing a smile of my own and took the little old man into my arms, his face pressed against the crest of my chest. He was the only person in this world who I allowed to call me Johnny.
“Ah, it’s good to see you old man,” I said, holding him tightly in my arms.
“Ohh, and you, and you,” he sang, pulling away and lifting his frail hands to my face, cupping both sides. “Let me get a good look at’cha.”
He looked long and hard into each of my eyes and I worried that he would see the darkness. But he just smiled and patted my cheek. I didn’t know what that meant, so I changed the subject.
“Here, let me introduce you to someone. Adam, come over here,” I called to my own protege.
Adam shyly made his way over and Mickey gave him a warm and welcoming smile.
“Ahh this must be Adam Ellis. Johnny’s told me so much about ya. Here let me take a look at’cha,” he said, taking Adam’s face in his hands like he had mine. “Well would ya look at that,” he gasped, smiling in disbelief before turning his attention to me. “He has that same look in his eyes as you did when you were a boy.”
“Yeah, well the business hasn’t taken his soul yet,” I grunted.
Mickey reassured him: “Ah, don’t listen to him kid. It’s not as bad as he says, or else he wouldn’t have done it for as long as he has.”
I took a moment to look around again. The old ring, the dusty weights, the leather punch bags hadn’t seemed to have moved or changed.
“Where is everyone?” I asked, realising that we were the only ones here. It was early, so there was a good chance that business didn’t pick up until later on.
“Well when you said you were coming here to train and I figured I’d close the place to the public for a week. I don’t want you to have any distractions, and I talk about you so much to the kids here that I worry they wouldn’t leave ya alone,” he explained, in his whispery voice.
“You didn’t have to do that. I’ll be sure to reimburse you for the loss of earnings.”
“I won’t hear of it!” he said sternly and proudly, looking at me hard to warn me off pressing the issue. “If an old man can’t help out his greatest success then what’s the point, eh?”
It wasn’t hard to remember why I loved Mickey as much as I do. He’s the only person who has ever made me feel truly loved. He was the closest thing to a real father I ever had and my heart felt like it was growing two sizes like the Grinch.
His fondness for me was clear to see all over the walls of the gym. Old photo’s of my early years mixed with more recent success’ proudly shrined the place in my honour.
“I guess we best get to work then.”
“I’ll lock the doors.”
Adam and I spent the next three days training in Mickey’s dungeon, sweating our reserves in the dry humidity. It was such horrible conditions to work under, especially after getting used to the cooler climate of Missouri. Still, Alcatraz would be much cooler with the breeze of the Island. If I could train, endure and perform in these conditions then in theory my engine should work a bit easier when it comes to defending against Jatt.
I’d heard through the grapevine that Jatt had been simulating the Iron man match with his team. A good idea, and one which I had planned to do myself. Adam and I were about to start the ninety seven minute clock and go at it. Adam being the man who beat Jatt’s sparring partner in a HOFC match not too long ago. I had no doubt that he would be a much better test for me than Jatt’s partner had been, and he wasn’t wearing a bunny costume.
We both stood across Mickey’s ring from one another, stretching and limbering up as we waited for Mickey to enter to officiate. We were both down to our skins and wearing only shorts and wrestling shoes, already glossy with sweat before even doing any physical work. The heat was unbearable and Mickey’s didn’t have air conditioning, which was perfect.
Mickey took his time getting up onto the ring apron, breathing heavily against the ropes and fanning his brow with his hat.
“You sure you’re up to this old man?” I asked, feeling concerned that I was putting him at risk in some way.
“Will you stop reminding me how old I am,” he grumbled, giving me a sideways glance.
I looked away, feeling bad for hitting a nerve with Mickey. The old man tried to mask the fact that he was struggling to catch his breath as he fished an old stop-watch out of his pocket.
“Okay boys,” he gasped, gesturing for us both to join him in the centre of the ring.
Adam and I walked towards one another with warm, knowing smiles. He was excited to compete against me and I could tell he was itching to show me everything he had learned. The old cliche of master versus student.
“Now I know you want this to be as real as it gets, but I don’t want either of you getting hurt. So listen to my instructions at all times and if I say stop, you STOP! Got it?”
We both nodded, but Adam and I had already spoken about this. I warned him not to hold back and he promised me he wouldn’t. Sure, there was a heavy amount of risk training this way. Adam was a full time wrestler and I could easily get hurt, which could mean fucking my chances of even making it to the Iron man match. But I believed I was being pragmatic. I was better than Ellis and I should be able to protect myself. If I couldn’t make it out of this simulation in one piece then I had no business stepping in the ring with Jatt at Alcatraz. At least that’s how I saw it. Some might say it’s just Sektor being egotistical, and maybe they’re right. But there was only one way I could measure my body for a ninety seven minute match and that was by having a ninety seven minute match. Any information I took away from this would only help me fine tune things in time for the big event.
Mickey clicked his watch and gestured for us to go at it. Adam looked hungry. I liked that, but I also began to worry that he might get over excited and do something reckless.
I decided to give Adam some room to start this contest. When it comes to Jatt I’ll be the one in the driving seat and trying to dictate the pace of the match, but I was curious as to how Adam would approach this. To my delight he decided to begin as you would expect, by locking horns and exchanging holds. It was ballsy of him to try and enter a chain-wrestling contest with me, but it was also smart this early on. With so much time ahead of us in this match it was important to pace ourselves. He could have easily come storming out the blocks looking to blow me over with his pace and agility, but he was wise enough to know that I could take it, and would wait for him to burn himself out.
Arm-drags into armbars and headlocks comprised the majority of the action in the first fifteen minutes, with neither of us getting an early fall. I wasn’t looking for it, and every attempt I made to get a hold locked in he had the energy and gile to find a way out of it. In those fifteen minutes I was more than assured that he had all the basic tools to become a polished technical wrestler, and it felt like a proud Dad moment.
But we weren’t here for Adam Ellis.
I sent him up and over the ropes with a mean clothesline, jumping out of and following him to the outside. It was dangerous territory for me to be on the outside. In the ring, between the four sides of rope was my domain. As long as I was within the confines of the ropes I felt safe because I knew where to position myself at all times to have a get out if I needed it. On the outside? There was nothing to protect me, not even a canvas. I’d already heard vague threats from Jatt’s camp of him potentially boxing clever with our match and using some crooked tactics to get the win. He was more than likely trying to unsettle me, but I had to prepare for it all the same.
I wanted this match with Jatt to be a traditional wrestling contest. A technical exhibition of the ages between two long time friends and foes who came out of the golden generation and were still able to create a classic match at our ages. It seems Jatt was beginning to doubt his own credentials as to whether he could actually match me as a technician, which was wise because he couldn’t. No one can. So now how to be prepared for anything. And with Jatt? Anything, means literally anything.
We were just about into the first third of the match and already we were both doubled over and struggling to breath. It was like breathing in a hair dryer in this heat and our body’s were drenched. My head was throbbing with dehydration as I’m sure he was. I’d kill for a slug of water but there wouldn’t be any water breaks at Rumble at the Rock so the same counted here.
I caught him with a stiff chop which sent him reeling back to the corner, dropping to my knees. I kept an eye on him in my peripheral vision and that’s where he made his first mistake. He saw me down and came running at me like a bull to a red rag. I used his momentum to arm-drag him to the canvas, throwing my legs across his body and pulling his arm towards my chin on the canvas like a fulcrum. I could feel the fibres of his tending and ligaments straining under the pressure.
“Tap, kid, he’s gotcha!” Mickey warned him.
Ellis yelled in a mixture of pain and anguish as he was forced to tap out, giving me the first fall of the contest. I instantly let him go, not wanting to cause my own apprentice any harm, not with his own title ambitions in the near future.
It seemed this caused him to have a momentary lapse of discipline as he recklessly came after me to square up the score. I caught him in hold after hold and managed to pick up another three falls, bringing the score to four-zero in my favour.
“How long we got?” I asked, as I gave Ellis a second to compose himself.
“Fifty two minutes,” Mickey bluntly replied.
Jesus, we’d only been wrestling three quarters of an hour and hadn’t even reached the halfway point. My head was pounding. My arms and legs felt heavy and my lungs were stiffening. The heat was making things so much harder than it needed to be.
Although I had four falls on Ellis, I decided to wipe the slate clean in my own head, as though we were still zero-zero. In the real world if I had four falls over Jatt, or even two, I would slow down and use holds to let the clock tick down, eat away at the time and conserve as much energy as possible. It’s wrestling smart. But who’s to say I’m going to achieve such an advantage so early on? Especially against the man who has much more motivation to kick out and find the ropes to survive. I had to pretend that this was jatt, and that we were still wrestling on a level playing field.
The fatigue began to really set in. At one point I found myself holding him down in a headlock, just to give myself enough room to stretch out my calf to get the cramp out of it. It was beginning to feel like the war of attrition it was supposed to be.
Ellis seemed to have much more in the tank than I did. It seemed the deficit in points had given him a kick of adrenaline and he changed tactics, showing his ruthlessness by going to work with his fists and feet. I found myself sweating, enduring blows to the gut and head from a boy seventeen years my junior, and now the difference in age was beginning to show. Any trainer could see that the younger man would have beaten me in a normal bout if it was based on stamina alone. That’s what Iron Man is supposed to be about, a sporting event based on stamina.
But not this Iron man match. Not with a pro like me. My main power wasn’t in my stamina, or my speed as it had been in the old days, or my arsenal of holds, but in my absolute determination to never give up. It was the thing which kept me in the ring for nigh on twenty-something years, and it was the quality which made me a rock solid champion. My sparring partner today was no more than a kid, really. A very tough kid. Wiry too, when you compared him to me, but with enough raw ability to cause an old pro like me a lot of problems.
We were near the end now, both dry heaving and sweating from body parts we didn’t know were capable of sweating. The taste of salt in my mouth was beginning to make me feel sick as Ellis and I glared at one another from across the ring. We both got up to our feet and stumbled towards one another like the walking dead, practically collapsing into one anothers arms.
But then he exploded. With a sudden spurge of energy he had me face down on the canvas. I could feel him transitioning over my spine but couldn’t react. Next thing I knew he had his knuckles locked around my forehead and was folding my neck back unnaturally like an accordion. My heart sunk as I realised he’d locked in his faithful STF, the traditional version of the Sektor Stretch which he often used to win matches.
“I got-ya, John,” he grunted. “You gotta tap!”
I heard his warning but his hold was only the threat of damage, with not enough leverage to threaten any real injury. It was enough to hurt, but I could certainly endure it.
“D’ya give up?” asked Mickey, having taken an age to get down on eye level with me.
“N-no,” I grunted, reaching up to his hands.
That’s when he wrenched back. I could feel the fluid in my neck popping as as a tremendous pain burned under my chin. It felt like my throat was about to split out of the front of my neck. I had no choice.
I had to tap.
I couldn’t believe it. Ellis let go instantly as he earned himself his first fall towards the end of our mock Iron man match. I slowly pulled myself to my feet in disbelief and staggered over to the corner with my back turned to him. I held my neck the whole way and eventually turned to look at him. He and Mickey were both speechless, as though neither one of them could believe what had just happened. They both seemed nervous, probably wondering how I was going to react.
It was that easy. My body had failed me. Tired and exhausted, it couldn’t do what I wanted it to do.
Mikey’s watch started beeping. All three of us listened to it echoing around the old gym before Mickey finally clicked to stop it.
“Well done, kid,” I eventually said, turning disappointedly and heading out of the ring.
I sat down on an old bench across the gym, barely able to pull my water bottle out of my gym bag. Water had never tasted so good. I was going to feel every bit of this session in the morning, and probably wouldn’t be able to move properly for a good few days. But what I had learned was important. The deeper Jatt and I go in this contest, the more vulnerable we both are. We’re both around the same age, with the same war wounds. I could only hope my conditioning was still better than his.
Mickey must have asked Adam to hit the shower, so that he could come talk to me one on one. The old man grimaced as he planted his hands on his knees and strained to sit down next to me on the bench.
“That kids got a bright future ahead of him,” Mickey said, obviously impressed by what he had seen from Adam. “Now I know what it is that you see in him.”
“Uh-huh,” I replied, still bitter that my student had gotten one over on me, and too tired to be nice about it.
“Look, I gotta ask ya, why are you doing this?” he asked, straining his old features to try and get a read on me.
“This match with Jatt. What’s it all about?” he asked.
“Why does everyone keep asking me that?” I groaned, shaking my head gently because of the headache, whilst trying to get more water on board.
“I spoke to you about a year ago on the phone, and you was in a real dark place, Johnny,” he began, looking at me with the eyes of a concerned parent.
“I usually am.”
“Yeah but you talked about Jatt alot. How he was a good pillar of support for ya. And although he drove you a little crazy, you felt like the two of you were really helping one another get back on your feet.”
I let out a sigh, feeling a twinge of guilt.
“You sold him out!” he growled, hissing his words through clenched teeth like they were venom.
He’d caught me off guard and I knew Mickey well enough not to challenge his morals.
“I tried,” I explained. “I tried to help him. But he didn’t want to change. He was lazy and holding me back and it was driving me nuts. I had to do what I had to do.”
“Well, apparently you forgot the golden rule of life, Johnny,” he said with a sigh of disappointment. “You never, ever, betray your friends. And you certainly don’t give up on them!”
I chewed on that for a second, feeling a little irked for being cross examined by my mentor for my choices in life. Eventually I turned to him slowly and looked straight into his old, grey, eyes.
“Who said I’m giving up?”