The promoter was old and blind. He’d been a wrestler himself – before going blind – successful mostly in the south.
The secretary let the wrestler into Pratt’s office. The promoter and wrestler shook hands and both took their seats. Being blind, Pratt didn’t have much to go on about this wrestler other than word of mouth and the handshake. The handshake felt as solid as all this wrestler’s hype, he decided.
The wrestler had heard all about this blind promoter too. It was an anomaly – for sure – but there he was, across the desk in blackened glasses, a full head of silver hair and a plaid sport coat. The wrestler knew from years of experience that promoters are a crafty, conniving bunch. He wasn’t going to let this one’s disability disarm him.
“We’re looking for another masked man,” Pratt said. “The Crimson Madman just left the territory. He was a tremendous heel. Sold us out all winter but they needed him in Texas.”
“That’s what I’m here for,” the wrestler said. “Ready to keep the houses up.”
The Contender noticed how Pratt, though blind and in his fifties, still carried the physicality of a wrestler in his prime.
“So, they tell me you go by The Contender?” the blind man asked. “And you’ve been all around the country. Plenty of experience. Main event experience.”
“Yes, sir,” The Contender said. “Fresh outta Tennessee where I did the loop with their top babyface. We had sellouts for months. Big money and all kinds of matches. Tag. Steel cage. Lumberjack. Chain. You name it, I can do it.”
“Well, fantastic,” Pratt said. “Only thing is I got a problem with the name.”
“My name?” the masked man asked. Little did the blind promoter know his charge was seated across the desk, masked.
“Yes. It’s problematic,” the promoter said.
“But I’ve built up the name and gimmick. I’ve been a pro for 14 years now. I’ve been through Texas and Florida and California and Minnesota. I’ve been top of the card, if not main event, everywhere. I’ve been making big money and I don’t wanna blow the formula now.”
The promoter’s telephone rang.
“Excuse me,” he told the wrestler.
He picked it up. It was his secretary.
“Mr. Pratt,” she said. “He’s wearing the mask.”
“He’s wearing the mask.”
“Now?” the blind promoter asked.
“When I left him with you, he was.”
It was a simple black wrestling mask. No stars. No contrasting white outline around the mouth or eye holes. Nothing but simple black which Pratt, obviously, couldn’t tell.
“Okay,” Pratt said, then hung up the phone.
“Son, you wearing the hood?”
“Yes,” The Contender said.
“Why? You know outside the arena and off TV, we’re all in on the gimmick.”
“It’s who I am,” The Contender said.
“Suit yourself,” the promoter said. “But what’s your real name? I’ll need it for the checks.”
“I prefer to work cash,” the masked man said.
“Suit yourself,” Pratt said. “But I still got a problem with the name – The Contender.”
“What’s the problem?”
“What if we really get you over and we want to make you champion?”
“What about it?”
“We can’t have you as our champion – The Contender.”
“For God’s sake, it doesn’t make any sense,” the promoter said.
“It’s who I am,” the masked man pleaded.
The promoter pushed himself away from the desk.
Mimicking the ring announcer, he continued, “Introducing…..in the corner to my left……from parts unknown…..your North American Heavyweight Champion….The Contender.”
“I could go by The Masked Contender,” the wrestler said. “I can concede that much.”
“Son, I can’t make you champion if you’re The Contender. Masked or not. It just doesn’t make sense. Besides, you’ll make more money as champion. Champions always do.”
“Are you guaranteeing me the belt?”
“No guarantees. You’ve got to get yourself over first. Audiences aren’t the same. It’s different up north than it is down here.”
“I’ve main event-ed north, south, east and west.”
Pratt lit a cigarette.
“What if we call you The Expert?”
“Masked Contender is all I can budge,” the wrestler said. “I got the boots and the robe. They’re all tailored to the gimmick.”
“Sure as the stars shine,” The Contender said.
Pratt thought for a second.
“Alright then,” Pratt said. “But I don’t think I’ll be able to make you champion, no matter how over you get.”
“Identity’s the important thing,” The Contender said. “I can live with that. And thank you, sir.”
The promoter stood from behind his desk. He reached out his hand. The wrestler stood and they shook.
“You start Monday,” Pratt said. “In Little Rock. Be there an hour before the bell.”
“I’ll be there,” the wrestler said.
Pratt buzzed his secretary. She opened the door and saw The Contender out to the lobby. The wrestler was relived the gimmick he’d nurtured for the past 14 years wasn’t going to be messed with by the cantankerous, old, blind promoter.
The wrestler left, thanking the secretary for her hospitality on the way outside. Then she went back to her boss.
“How’d it go?” she asked. “Is he main event material?”
“Maybe main event,” the blind promoter said. “But not championship material. Definitely not championship.”