The Rightful King of Wrestling

(Originally published in Thuglit.)

After a week, I went to see a doctor about my finger. I got the name of an MD who would play ball, a guy known to be loose with the Placidyl. The doc was one of those little guys who really looked after his beard. He sat me up on an examination table in my underpants, sanitary paper sticking to my thighs and looked at my finger with magnifiers clipped over his glasses. The ring finger on my left hand was swollen up twice its normal size. It throbbed like a mother and was starting to turn black around the knuckle. The doc made a clicking sound in his throat, pushed away from the table on his little rolling stool and marked something on a metal clipboard. He said: “There’s definitely a tooth in there.”

I told him no shit there was a tooth in there. For a doctor, this guy didn’t seem too bright. I told him the issue was not the existence of the tooth, but what we were going to do about it.

“I thought this stuff was supposed to be fake,” the doc said, not looking up from his clipboard. “Aren’t there supposed to be schools? Teach you the right way to cut yourself? How to fall down so you don’t get hurt?”

I ignored that. I said: “About the tooth.”

“I’m not going to lie to you,” he said. “It does not look good.”

This was spring, 1984 or ’85: I had just finished up a run for Fritz Von Erich in World Class Championship Wrestling. One of the first nights of the tour I’d worked a match with Eddie Tortuga on the undercard of Flair versus Kerry Von Erich at Cowboy Stadium, a tribute show for Kerry’s brother David, who’d just died of an overdose in Japan. Me and Eddie were the curtain-jerker and I’m proud to say we burned it down. Place was packed to the gills with real Texas wrestling fans, mostly girls who threw yellow roses at Kerry’s feet and tried to cop a feel as he came down the aisle. A lot of Latinos too, so of course Eddie was a big baby face. I played the heel. In those days I was booking myself as “The Rightful King of Wrestling” because most people remembered my dad from his days as NWA champion, before he went to work for Vince Sr. in New York. I came out to the ring with a tux on over my wrestling gear, acting like the world owed me something. Took the mic from the PA announcer and cut a quick promo about how many cars I had, all the women I got just because my daddy had been some big, famous wrestler. The fans ate it up. They wanted to kill me.

Halfway through our match, I shot off the ropes for my patented flying fist and caught Eddie, the fat little son of a bitch, with his mouth hanging wide open. I’d been walking around ever since with his tooth stuck in my hand.

“Just pop it out,” I said to the doc. “Write me one for Placidyl and I’ll get out of your hair.”

“I don’t think so,” he said. “You’re going to have to see a specialist.”

I told him that was bullshit. I told him I’d worked through a lot worse than having some Mexican’s tooth stuck in my finger.

The doc said: “We’re not even going to talk about the risk of infection, which is high, but you might have a severed tendon. You might need surgery.”

“Can’t do that,” I said. “Insurance run out.”

“Didn’t you say you just had the biggest match of your life?”

“That?” I said. “Hell, that money’s spent.”

The doc shook his head, magnifiers making him look extra solemn. “This is over my head,” he said. “Really.”

I put a tone in my voice. I said: “Look. You’re just going to have to improvise.”

The doc took a long look at me in my underwear. I was pretty solid in those days and I had this smile I could put on that said, Try Me. I made a lot of money with that smile. I was a main event bad guy in most of the territories.

The doc went at it with a big pair of tweezers. There was a lot of blood and puss and I could feel the metal scratching at the bones in my knuckle. Brother, it hurt. When the tooth popped out, it was bigger than I expected. Almost the size of my thumbnail. The doc said it looked like a cuspid number six.

I asked what that meant and he said, “What am I? A dentist?”

The thing about the tooth was, half of it was gold. The doc held it under a lamp and it glittered in the light. He said: “Lookee here.”

I drove home to San Antonio with a big bottle of Placidyl and the tooth in a plastic jar like the kind you piss in for your piss test.

First things first, I had to sit down on the sofa and explain to Gena what happened to my wedding ring. The EMTs snipped it off in the locker room when I started to swell up. She looked at my finger, wrapped in gauze, and squinted at me like she was trying to decide how mad to get. Her daddy had worked as a booking agent for Bill Watts in Mid South, so she pretty much grew up around the best bullshitters in the world. She could see I was telling the truth, but that didn’t mean she was going to cut me any slack.

“How many times have I told you to take your ring off before you go out there?” she said.

I was in no mood for this. The stuff the doc had said about surgery had been kicking around in my head since I left Dallas. Infection. Severed tendon. Full range of motion. I’ll be honest, I liked being able to use all my fingers. Surgery was expensive and our big house in Alamo Heights already had us dug in pretty deep. I wasn’t going to let her play nagging wife on this one.

“Let’s try to be bigger than the stereotype here, Gene,” I said. “I could’ve lost my finger.”

“This is a not a small thing,” she said. “That ring was the physical symbol of our everlasting love.”

I told her I was familiar with the concept of a wedding ring. I told her I could get a new one. I showed her the tooth, rattled it around in the plastic jar. Told her maybe we could pawn it, use the money to get a new ring or maybe have it melted down into something else, whatever she wanted. This wasn’t the end of the world, I said.

“Besides,” I put my hand on her stomach. “The physical symbol of our everlasting love is right here.”

Gena was only a few months, just barely starting to show. The idea of a baby was making us both stress out about money even more. If I had to go off the road with an injury, who knows what we’d do. There was a plan in the works for me to get a run as NWA junior heavyweight champ. If that happened, I’d get work all over the country. Jerry Brisco told me he’d made close to eighty-five thousand dollars the year they’d put the strap on him.

Now, the feeling of my hand on her belly seemed to break Gena’s will to be angry at me. She crawled over the couch and kissed me on the ear. She was a short girl, curvy and liked to not wear a bra underneath her T-shirt. From the first time I met her at the Omni in Atlanta – back when I was working squash matches for Harley Race, and she came up backstage to tell me I had a nice look but I needed to work on my lats – I knew this was a girl I could be with for a long time. So the night I got home from Dallas, even though every joint and muscle in my body just wanted to wash down a Placidyl, sit in the hot tub and call it an early night, I let her get on top of me and forgot about surgery and poor, dead David Von Erich and everything else.

When Eddie Tortuga called on the phone to say he wanted his tooth back I told him it didn’t belong to him anymore. It had stopped being his when he’d made the unfortunate decision to get it stuck in my fist. He told me he didn’t think of it that way. He told me the tooth was an important part of his gimmick in Mexico, El Tortuga de Oro. It didn’t play right if one of his gold teeth was missing. Kids at his matches down in Juarez were laughing at him now, saying he looked like a vagabundo. I told him, if the tooth meant that much to him, he should’ve made a point to hold onto the damn thing. He asked me if I was really going to play hardball with him on this.

“I don’t like that you have part of me in your possession,” he said. “It’s creepy.”

I told him that was fine, but I was more concerned with the monetary implications than the metaphysical ones. I told him what the doc said about maybe needing surgery.

There were credit cards calling me on the phone. A mortgage. The baby. It all put me in a tough spot, I said, especially since I got cut loose by Red Cross/Blue Shield after Bruiser Brody dropped me on my neck last year in Memphis and I had to do a long stretch of rehab. Eddie made a chucking sound with his tongue and said he had some ideas. He told me he could get me into a good policy, that he had an agent over in Scottsdale who would play ball.

“It’s pretty sweet, holmes,” he said. “I got one of them umbrella deals. Medical, homeowners, personal liability, the works. I can hook you up.”

That sounded good, but I didn’t want to give him the satisfaction. I said, “Still.”

There were a few seconds of dead air and then he said: “Maybe we can get into a mutual back-scratching situation here.”

I told him he had my full, undivided.

Eddie said he could pull some strings and get me a booking with him in Mexico. “Remember Dallas?” he said. “We were magic together, brother.”

If I came down, and brought him the tooth, we could get on a big card he knew about in Monterrey. Probably main event the fucker, he said. Both get a good rub out of it and make a nice pay day. Enough to cover my immediate expenses, no problem. I asked him how much he thought and he quoted me a price I knew was crazy. Even if I made half that, I figured I could get the surgery and have a little cushion left over until I could get back on the road full-time. Besides, I did remember Dallas and we had been magic. The chance to get back in the ring with Eddie, to feel it all clicking, like everything was right with the world, sounded good.

I told him what the fuck, go for it and he said he’d call the promoter and set it up. After I hung up I asked Gena if she wanted to go to Mexico.

“Like a vacation?” she said.

“Like a working vacation,” I said.

We drove down in my beater Caddie, crossing the border just before Laredo. The uniform guy there recognized me from TV, channel 39, and right quick we got off the wrong way. He told me it was a shame what I’d done to Terry Gordy a few years back, that time I broke his leg during that cage match. I tried to laugh it off. I told some stories about playing football with Earl Campbell at UT. The year we went 11-0 and lost to Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl. The border guard didn’t go for it. I thought he might search the car, but at the last second the phone in his little guard house started ringing and he waved us through without another word.

Gena is one of those people who can put the radio on scan and just let it go. After another hour of white noise, preacher voice, white noise, oldies station, I picked out a tejano channel I thought might help get us into the groove. Then, out of nowhere she turned in her seat and said: “How long you think we are going to do this? Drive our shitty little car to a shitty little town for a shitty little wrestling show?”

Right there I felt like pulling over. I said: “I’m not going to become an architect anytime soon, Gene. You know that.”

“Our baby is going to need a daddy,” she said. “One who is around more than just Monday nights.”

That just about tore it. I asked her if we were really going to have an argument about my fictional relationship with our unborn child. I told her she ought to have more respect for the things I did to support our family, especially as a person who had grown up around the business.

“Yeah,” she said, being careful of her French nails as she reached over to punch the radio back to scan. “That worked out great for me.”

Eddie’s “big card” turned out to be in a half-full bingo hall on the outskirts of Monterrey. All aluminum siding and no ventilation. I want to say the inside was done up in big furls of red, white and blue bunting, but don’t quote me on that. The two of us went on last, me coming out in my tux and a pair of big aviators I bought at a truck stop on the way down. I got on the mic and riffed about being a rich gringo, how I wanted to build a wall along the border. I showed off my wristwatch, saying it cost more than any Mexican made in a year. People threw empty popcorn boxes and a little grandma in the front row shot me the finger. I gave her the same smile I gave the doc back in Dallas.

It was so hot my aviators fogged up and I hung them from my jacket pocket. Eddie hit the ring in his green jumpsuit and a gold mask covering the top half of his face. The crowd went ape shit for him. He pranced and flexed and did his turtle dance and the people ate from his hand. He mugged and posed, careful not to open his mouth to smile.
When we’d met up backstage to plan the high spots for the match, he didn’t even ask about the tooth. I thought it was weird that I had to be the one to bring it up. When I did, he told me not to worry about it, that he’d get it after the show. He said we’d all go out to his place in the country for a nice barbeque. He kissed Gena’s hand and slapped me on the shoulder, saying he’d see me out there.

We’d decided that I was going over in the match. It would piss off the fans, leave them all hungry for more. If everything worked out, I would come back a month later for a blow off, let Eddie pin me and it would be a huge payday for everybody. We started off with a little chain wrestling and right away I couldn’t do shit with the grip on my injured hand. The finger ached and wouldn’t bend. We locked up in a collar and elbow and I put my mouth close to Eddie’s ear.

“This is your big show?” I said. “I’ll be lucky to make gas money.”

He hit me with an uppercut and I dropped to one knee. “It’s not my fault,” he said, grabbing my hair. “Promoter fucked up.”

I found out later that our match hadn’t even been advertised on the radio. Still, we worked a real crackerjack for those people, an absolute gem. I did all my power spots and Eddie did his aerial stuff. Halfway through he pulled off a pretty splitleg moonsault and caught me in the face with his knee. I felt my eye start to swell. I did my flying fist off the ropes and gave it to him stiff.

For the finish, Eddie was supposed to go for a springboard plancha, I would catch him and reverse it into a powerslam for the one-two-three. We went forty minutes at a pretty good pace. I was sweaty and I could tell he was gassed. When he hit the last spot, he didn’t get much elevation on his plancha and I had to stoop to grab him out of the air. Everything was too slick. My grip failed and his weight slipped and something popped in my knee. Loud. My leg gave out and as I went down on my back, I knew I was hurt pretty bad. I held Eddie on top of me, whispering to him that it was his night to go over and the ref counted me out. The fans popped huge and Eddie hopped up on the second rope to soak it in. Their screams like white noise in my ears. I had to crawl back to the locker room. A midget wrestler held the door for me.

Eddie had a nice spread on a couple of acres in the hills outside of town. The front of the house was two stories of stone and mortar, the real thing, not like the faux shit they were starting to use in the states. A long run of steep stone steps led up the side of the house to a second floor patio. To make it up I had to hop on my good leg with Gena tucked under one arm, my free hand testing the strength of the rickety wooden railing. Some of the other luchadors came by and we barbequed on the deck with Eddie’s wife and six thousand kids buzzing around us. I sat in a puffy outdoor chair and shook everybody’s hand. They all said we had a five star match. I just smiled and nodded. I couldn’t move much. Eddie grilled a whole chicken with a can of beer stuck up its ass and it came out tender and juicy. We ate and drank until the kids went to bed, the luchadors trickled out and it was just me, Eddie and Gena sitting on the deck in candlelight.

I popped Placidyls and chased them with Miller High Life. Gena scowled at me.

“This one thinks he’ll live forever,” she said.

Eddie laughed and eyed her boobs through her T-shirt. “All the boys think they’re made of steel,” he said.

I was wearing shorts and sandals and had an ice pack taped to my knee. Left eye blackened almost shut. I felt the opposite of made of steel. I took out the little bottle with the tooth inside it and flipped it across the table to him. Eddie said, “Thanks, holmes,” but barely looked at it, unscrewing the lid and rattling the tooth into an unused ashtray on the picnic table. I told him I hoped he was good and happy to get that fucker back, because with the shit money we drew I was going to take a bath on the whole trip. He told me again about the screw-up with the promoter.

“When shit happens,” he shrugged, “make chicken salad.”

I ignored that.

As we were getting ready to leave, I asked for the information about the insurance policy he’d told me about. Eddie squirmed in his seat, eyeing the ice pack bleeding down my leg. “I don’t know,” he said. “Providers aren’t crazy about pre-existing injuries, you know what I’m saying?”

I told him I appreciated his professional opinion, but I’d like to give somebody a call all the same. He scribbled a name and phone number on a piece of paper and handed it to me. We stood up to say our goodbyes, the act of pulling myself to my feet making me feel instantly twice as drunk, and Gena excused herself to use the ladies’ room before we hit the road. Suddenly Eddie was grabbing my arm with a tight little claw hand and hissing that he had something else he wanted to talk to me about. He left me alone on the patio, sipping the last of my beer and listening to the crickets while he went into the house and came back carrying a Reebok shoe box that had been sealed shut with a thick crosshatch of duct tape. He dropped in on the table and from the solid whump it made, I knew it wasn’t shoes in there. I asked him what it was and he smiled, his tongue flicking in and out of the empty space where his cuspid number six was supposed to be.

“The good stuff,” he said. “Dianabol, Stanozolol, Oxandrolone. Even some pure testosterone for anyone who’s got the feria.”

The shoebox needed to get to America, he said, an address in Dallas. Once it got there I’d be paid in the neighborhood of ten thousand dollars. I just had to drop it off. The guy behind the door I knocked on would put a big, fat envelope in my jacket pocket and send me on my way.

“Now I get it,” I told him when he was done. “I guess I probably should’ve known better than to buy that bullshit about the tooth, huh?”

Eddie flinched, as if I’d smacked him. “You want gas money, motherfucker? There it is. You want to make a little scratch for your wife? For your baby? I’m giving you a chance.”

From behind us, the screen door whined open and Gena came back out onto the patio. She stopped short when she saw the box. She grinned, but there was no humor in it.

“The way you’ve got that thing taped up,” she said, “you might as well write ‘drugs’ all over it.”

I told her about the ten thousand dollars. I said: “It’s money we could really use, Gene.”

“That sounds great,” she said. “And by great I mean the stupidest fucking idea I ever heard.”

She came and stood very close to me. She said she was going down to warm up the car. She told me that if I had that box with me when I came down, she was going to call a divorce lawyer when we got back to San Antonio. She said she was sure one of Wahoo McDaniel’s ex-wives could point her in the right direction. Eddie and I watched her go and I thought it over: His phone call. His crappy show. His barbecue. If it was all a plan, it had been a slick one. Good enough that here I was thinking about actually being his mule. My knee ached. My hand ached. I thought about the guy in the uniform at the border, the one who wanted blood to avenge that time Terry Gordy wanted six weeks off to take his new girlfriend to Acapulco. I knew the chance of running into him again was slim, but if it happened I laid fifty-fifty odds in my head that he’d search my car just for fun.

I laid odds in my head that Gena was serious about leaving me. Honestly, I couldn’t tell.

“You heard the lady,” I said to Eddie, giving what I hoped was a friendly shrug.

He pantomimed the motion of cracking a whip and dug into his breast pocket for his smokes. “You’ve always been a punk,” he said. “Without your daddy you’d still be setting up the ring before Jim Crockett house shows.”

My face fired red and for a moment I had a fantasy of killing him. Rushing him, bum leg and all, pushing him over the patio’s stone side wall. Imagining the soft thunk when he landed. Instead, I turned away, hobbling off toward the car, hearing the sound of his lighter flicking behind me. I made fists and my hand closed around the slip of paper he’d given me about the insurance. I remembered what he’d told me: Umbrella policy. Personal liability. Homeowners. That’s when I saw it, an idea spreading out in front of me like somebody unfolding a map. I was standing at the top of the stone steps with my hand on the shitty railing. All those stairs. It was a long way down.

With one jerk I ripped the railing away from the stone wall. Little brass screws popping. I took a deep breath and then pitched myself out into the air head first. A diving, twisting, somersault of a move. Just … flying … and for a second it was like I could see every star in the Mexican sky. Below me I could see the little stone driveway where Gena already had the Caddie in reverse and I could smell, somewhere out of sight but close by, the ocean.

When I think back on it now, I like to imagine I could see more than that. I like to think that in the moment, I could see everything. The whole board game and every move, past, present and future as clearly as if it had already been made, like one of those chess prodigies you read about.

Like I knew that nine years later, Kerry Von Erich would go for a walk on his daddy’s property, sit down under a tree and shoot himself through the heart.

Like I knew Bruiser Brody would never be the big star everyone thought he was going to be. That in 1988, a booking agent would stab him in the showers before a match in

Puerto Rico and he’d bleed out before paramedics could get him into the ambulance.

That two decades after the cage match that enraged that border guard from Laredo, a heart attack would get Terry Gordy. Dead at 40 somewhere in Georgia or Alabama.

Or that Jerry Brisco would go work for Vince Sr.’s kid in New York. I’d see him on TV all throughout the ’90s.

And Flair, well, we all probably could’ve guessed about Flair. Flair would just go on and on and on. He’s still at it today. Over sixty. He got divorced again this year. He’ll probably die in the ring.

Within a couple of years Eddie Tortuga would retire and become one of the biggest promoters in Mexico. As long as he lived, he’d hate my guts for what happened next.

In retrospect, it seems like I knew.

It seems like I must’ve had this master plan all figured out. That Eddie’s insurance would fork over a nice, fat settlement to pay for surgery on my hand and knee and the back I was about to fuck up beyond all recognition. I would be out of action more than a year doing rehab and I would never win the NWA junior heavyweight championship. Instead, they’d put it on masked guy called The Cobra and he would take the title home to Tokyo and keep it there for two years.

Gena and I would have three girls. She’d grow round and happy and finally get me to walk away from the business for good in 1991. I’d sell auto parts and send my babies off to college. One day would come after the next.

Of course, that’s all bullshit. I didn’t know any of that, not then. At the time I was just spun out on booze and Placidyl and, as weird as it sounds, I was thinking about the doc. The one in Dallas, with the beard and the magnifiers clipped over his glasses. The one who thought this stuff was supposed to be fake.

Here’s the thing I’ll never understand about people like that: They get so wrapped up in trying figure out what’s real and what isn’t, they end up missing the whole show. The point is not whether it’s real or fake. Any idiot with two brain cells to rub together knows it isn’t real. The point is, learning to relax and go with it. If you can do that, every now and then you’ll see something that really makes you wonder. You’ll see a guy take a stiff punch or get busted wide open or break down crying tears of joy when they strap that title around his waist, and just for one second, you’ll think: Could it be?

That one tiny speck of doubt. Like, you still know it’s all planned, but at the same time, you don’t know. And maybe you don’t want to know anymore. That’s what it’s about.

Because let me tell you brother, there is no factory out there manufacturing folding chairs that don’t hurt when you get clubbed over the head with one. There is no good way to fall down. Are there ways that are better than others? Sure, but you still feel it. You always feel it. That night out there on Eddie Tortuga’s ranch, when I came down out of the air and hit those stone steps, I felt them.

I felt every single one of them.

I just didn’t think about how much it was going to hurt until I was already in the air.