(October 31, 1998)
An evening bred from violence, seeded in violence. Steeped in violence.
The violence began some time before, when my friend Bradford left his wife behind and took himself to Atlantic City. There, he dropped $7,000 and many an alcoholic beverage into an already laden system. Bradford plays craps hard and fast: $300 on eight, $300 on six, $100 or so on the pass line…you get the idea. He’s the ‘one more roll’ type – one more roll, just one more roll, who knows what fortunes the next roll will bring?
Bradford does not have $7,000 to drop at the craps table. Violence to his assets. Violence to his marriage. Violence to his body – Bradford has the waitress bring him three drinks at a time to hold him over until she can bring the next three.
Money dropped, money gained, money dropped again, Bradford heads back to northern New Jersey. At the Garden State Parkway, he guesses wrong and turns south, to Cape May. It is only around Cape May that he learns of his mistake. A quick nap and back he goes.
Oh, the tug that must have been at him to see those signs for the Atlantic City Expressway, those lights boding fortune off to his right…
He was to come back, bringing friends…
Mankind enters first, walking a bit off-kilter with the distracted effect of a psychotic responding to his voices. The ring is encased in aluminum fencing reinforced with crossbars. This is not your usual professional wrestling ring cage: It goes all the way over the top and leaves a good four feet outside the ring. It is the Cell. The match is Hell in a Cell. It has come to pass once before: That match ended in blood, much blood, and this one bears little resemblance to anything nicer. Mankind is a self-mutilation wrestler. This man has cut himself often for his sport. He is missing part of an ear, left it on a sprig of barbed wire for the enjoyment of the fans. His body is a little soft, a little less than sculpted, yet somehow dangerous, somehow a lethal weapon. If all we can say is that wrestling is fake, then this man has broken his body all for naught, for no one is getting the message.
We meet in a pseudo-Mexican joint to start things off. Bradford and my friend BJ are off checking into our complimentary suite and getting our complimentary tickets to tonight’s fight: Naseem-McCollough for the featherweight title. The casino is the Wild, Wild West, an extension of Bally’s Park Place. Only here, in this joint, does the name first hold any meaning for me. The place does not look Mexican but like a movie set for something Mexican. One expects banditos with filthy, filthy sombreros to come clinking in, demanding tah-KEE-la, their overly brown, filthy faces scrunching up in constipated glory.
Everything is on the house. To pass the time until Bradford and BJ return, I start with tequila and beer, then onto beer and tequila, then a beer with tequila coming later, then another tequila. I try different beers on the menu (I even practice their names with a kind of Spanish flare, but the white waitress anglicizes my every attempt), but the tequila remains constant. There are golds and there are the even darker kinds, but all I want is the precious, clear tequila, the water tequila, the cerveza that fries on first contact but then goes down like sugar water after a while. (Don’t let them fool you – there are those who argue that tequila goes the other way around, but don’t you fucking listen to them for a second.)
BJ and Bradford return, and I howl, “You scalawags,” upon their entrance, for we are the high rollers tonight. We are the ones being wined and dined on the house, we are the ones being duped by free room and board for the night in hopes of us losing big, losing a lot, a lot of money, so who gives a high holy one if anyone else is a little bothered by our boisterousness? BJ and Bradford enter like rogues, with deep growls and evil laughs, and the session begins. We pour into our receptacles lubrication of the most alcoholic sort. We order dead animals steeped in fattening sauces and moan our approval. Drinking tequila is not enough, for this joint laces everything else with it: the barbecue sauce, the coleslaw, the cheesecake. Beer is served in thick, glass mugs that land on the table with a satisfying thump. We are big, ferocious men who have the power tonight, who are in the spotlight, who have a free ticket. We are men doing violence to our bodies and condoning the violence done to the dead animals before us. The staff waits on us happily and reminds us the tip is separate. We are happy, meat-eating men who are glad to gratuitize well the wench who keeps the plates and glasses full.
The Undertaker is one of those awesome wrestling specimens: just under seven feet tall, massive arms enshrouded in painful-looking tattoos. Mankind waits for him atop the Cell, and the Undertaker obliges. Mankind of course takes the opportunity provided by a climbing opponent and starts striking the Undertaker on the side of the head before he can pull himself all the way up. But this is the Hell in a Cell – no one wants to see an evening of fake strikes, feigned punching and foot stamps to make the effect sound real. So they face each other atop the Cell, and soon it is the Undertaker with the advantage and Mankind in the precarious position: at the edge of the Cell, hanging in balance with arena floor looking at him in the face.
Then comes a move that seems to stun the crowd whole, even the naysayers that must be out there: The Undertaker flings Mankind forward off the Cell, down fourteen feet or so onto a broadcast table. No matting. No buffer beneath the wooden table. The thing gives, but with a crunch that sends shocks through your lower back and even gives a little flap to the organs. Mankind has fallen with a roll in the air to afford him a landing on his back, but still a crew comes almost immediately from the back, much like the crew that swarms immediately upon a stunt double after a particularly dangerous maneuver. Mankind lies there beneath them, talking to them, both assuring them he is fine and telling them that the table hurt like a mutherfucker.
Bradford, BJ and I get to the Convention Center during the last preliminary. An Irish fighter is going for the title tonight, fighting against a black man no less, and the Irish contingency of the entire Tri-State area must be here. The prelims battle themselves silly, but the Irish want to see Irish, and a brawl has already broken out and the beer stands are closed. Our seats are in a heavy crowd of Irish, singing and bleating air horns and waving flags and boasting rugby shirts.
“We’re among the Irish, lad,” Bradford tells me in his best brogue.
“Aye, lad,” says BJ, “the Irish. You got to be Irish too, me boy.”
I smile and agree and take manly pats on the shoulder. My name is Seamus now, Seamus McWeems, and I’m Irish, goddamn it. You tell me different, I’ll kick your face in.
McCollough enters with not nearly as much presentation as Naseem. Our seats give a great view down the aisle, and before the McCollough entourage starts, the Irish’s wife hands him their daughter. Daddy’s going to get his brains beat in for money, honey. Daddy’s going to get his nose broke in four places, and everyone is here to watch him put up a fight.
Naseem enters under Michael Jackson, “Thriller.” Echoes of flesh-eating zombies in the music. The boy can bob and weave like a snake, but who the fuck is here for a boxing match? We Irish want to see a black boy get his clock cleaned by a good Irish lad. We Irish want blood. We Irish want to see somebody get a good tarring.
The match continues. Mankind struggles from the stretcher his crew is trying to take him away in. His right arm dangles as he makes his way back to the ring. The fight continues, but there seems no way to surmount the level of violence already attained with the fourteen-foot drop. Not another drop from the top of the Cell and through it this time, to the ring, not a leg drop by Mankind onto a chair covering the Undertaker’s face. The Undertaker does start to bleed from an incision he takes a moment to cut into his forehead, but we all know this trick. Yeah, yeah, blood, yeah, yeah. We’ve seen the older wrestlers, their foreheads a coleslaw of scars from the years of slicing themselves with the razor blades they hide in their wrist tape. Yes, we know that actual violence happens every now and then: We know King Kong Brody got stabbed to death by his own tag team partner in the locker room before their math; we know Killer Kowalski knocked off his opponent’s cauliflower ear and the referee felt it quivering still when he picked it up to put in his pocket; we know of the drug ODs (Brian Pillman) and the sudden deaths (Quickdraw Rick McGraw) and of those who got so goddamn big their own bodies crushed them to death (o hail Andre, Andre the Giant!). Oh shit do we know how Dr. D David Shulz smacked around that
20/20 reporter and never appeared in the big leagues again. So what are you going to entertain us with NOW?
Mankind knows the game. He ain’t massacred his own flesh all these years for nothing. He’s set himself on fire, he’s thrown himself on a bed of nails for crowds in Japan. No way we’re getting through this match without a little more self-mutilation.
The chair drop stuns the Undertaker. Mankind pulls out from under the ring a sack of thumbtacks. Bright, shiny ones. Poured out onto the ring. The Undertaker is beaten back toward them, but does not fall. Mankind jumps onto the Undertaker’s back to stun him once again with a nerve hold, his fingers jammed into Undertaker’s mouth. The Undertaker stands and lifts Mankind onto his back. One step back, then two. Mankind is in the air just above the thumbtacks, riding piggyback.
Then the drop.
Mankind rolls around in the thumbtacks for effect – thumbtacks on his upper arms, in his legs, all up and down his back. There are some even in the back of his head! This match is over! This match is over! The bloodthirsty are a bit shocked, the skeptics aghast that someone would go this far for an act.
Naseem has danced and weaved and hot-dogged for far too long. McCollough has taken the fight to him – this kid is here to bust heads. We Irish have danced jigs up and down the aisles between rounds. We Irish have hooted at every solid punch. We Irish are hitting each other in a common wish to bitch-slap that Prince Naseem and make him cry.
The fight goes all the way to the end, despite the experts’ best predictions. We Irish know who’s won, and nothing the ‘Let’s Get Ready to Rummmmmmmbllllllllle’ guy can say will lead us to believe otherwise.
Two Irish lads next to me, two fine boys who have taken the armrest covers off their father’s recliner and are wearing them on their heads, turn to me just before the decision is read.
“We’re going to riot,” they tell me, “if Wayne doesn’t win. Are you going to riot with us?”
Fakir Musafar, the modern primitive, the man anthropologist Charles Gatewood called an “Astronaut of Inner Spaces,” had this to say about modern spectator sports (this, mind you, as he inserted sticks into his chest to hang from until he spoke to the Great White Spirit or ripped the flesh from his chest): He found the violence in them too outward, too much performed only by a few and watched by the rest. “In our culture, it’s all second-hand…they’re trying to have a physical life vicariously.” He valued the enlightenment in those who had the courage to inflict the suffering upon themselves to rise above the body.
If this is the case, then McCollough and Naseem (well, maybe not Naseem) up there are high priests of having-their-heads-bust and the budding rioters next to me merely seers of the light. If this is the case, then Mankind is HH the Battling Lama, the bodhisattva of self-infliction, maybe even the White Sprit himself, the entity Fakir Musafar was going to torture himself in honor of, all for the chance of a moment’s revelation.
Maybe he had a point, after all. But still: a riot? I turn to BJ and Bradford and tell them, “Riot.” I turn back to my Irish brethren with silly strips of fabric strapped to their heads.
“Yeah,” I say. “I’ll riot with you.”
The Irish boys punch my shoulder in camaraderie. Bradford, BJ and I make for the nearest exit. The decision is read, and as we leave, we hear the chant of “Bullshit…bullshit…bullshit…” The promise of some real violence, with cops and billy clubs and busted capillaries staring us in the face, and we take the back door out. Mankind had a reduced ear to show off his years in the ring – and believe me it is an ugly fucking sight. BJ, Bradford and I were safe on the Atlantic City boardwalk, living our physical lives vicariously…
But, then again, there still awaits a night of other self-injurious behavior. The violence of drink, the violence of gambling…the violence inflicted upon the throat with the sucking of a damn good cigar.