Jackknife Morgan or just Knife, for short, went back to the jobber dressing room to check on the kid. He didn’t really want to, but he knew he had to. What he wanted to do was get paid, buy some beer and drive to the next town. But this other thing, he knew it had to be taken care of.
The kid was sitting bent over on a bench, bleeding and holding his ribs. There were about a dozen of the other boys in the room, other guys who already had been or were going to get squashed too.
Knife unfolded a chain and sat in front of the kid. The chair groaned while the room went quiet, everybody wondering what was going on. It was rare when one of their stars came into the jobbers’ locker room.
“How you doing?” the 350 pound brute asked the busted-up kid.
The kid felt like he had broken ribs and a few loose teeth. And he was bleeding over the left eye from a hard way gash from Knife’s clumsy elbow.
“Okay,” the kid said, because that was what he was supposed to say, especially to a seasoned veteran like Jackknife.
“Sorry it got kinda rough out there, kid. But I had to get over. Gotta make the people hate me. You know the gig, yours and mine, right?”
The kid nodded.
“I squash you, a young, fresh faced kid, on the TV, and the people hate me. That way we get 6 thousand in the arena to pay to see the star babyface kick my ass. Billy taught you that, right?”
“Yeah. I know,” the kid said.
Billy Wilson was a national collegian champion. He’d have gone to the Olympics if he hand’t injured his neck weeks before. After his amateur career, he became pro. Billy was known as one of the toughest, legit wrestlers in the country, unlike the overgrown, overblown gimmick men like Knife who mostly just look and talk tough and mean.
Since retiring, Wilson had turned to training and he liked the kids with legit pedigrees like himself – kids from the colleges of Iowa and Oklahoma who were real badasses of the circle. It was for this reason Knife had come over to check on the kid. First, even though he was just a kid, Jackknife knew that, even weight only 210 pounds, coming out of Oklahoma State and with Wilson’s pedigree, this kid could probably tear his head off at the snap of a finger if he wanted to. And, if word got back to this kid’s trainer that Jackknife’d abused one of his greenhorns, all Wilson would have to do, with the connections he still had in the business, would be to put word out there for somebody to really fuck Knife up and it’d be done. That’s just how respected for his legit toughness Billy Wilson always and still was.
Jackknife leaned back in his folding chair. He reminded the kid, “You’re job’s to make me look good and you can’t go out there on TV taking too much for yourself. That makes me look bad. And it’s not just me saying I need to look good, the promoter needs me to look good too. See, it’s all about the business. It’s all business, see?”
The kid hadn’t tried taking anything for himself. He’d taken all of the veteran’s punches and kicks and slams just as he was supposed to. He’d done what he was getting paid to do and still taken a beating – a legit beating from the careless and sloppy veteran. But he couldn’t say anything. He’d been taught that when you’re new, you just listen. You don’t talk back. Not only for your own physical and political salvation but also to maintain the reputation of his mentor’s school. Wilson couldn’t have the reputation of putting whiny bitches out there on the road and in the rings. That was just as bad as putting sloppy workers out there.
“Kid, you ever hear how I sold out The Garden?”
“No,” the kid said.
Knife recoiled at the disrespect. Jackknife Morgan was a major superstar throughout the country. Anybody in his business ought to know.
And, of course, the kid knew about it. He’d seen it in all the magazines. It was just that nobody’d told him about it directly.
Feeling slighted, Jackknife went on to describe how many times and with who and when he’d sold out Madison Square Garden. He told how he’d wrestled their Puerto Rican champion in every sort of match. He told of how he grappled The Giant all around the loop. He went on to brag about all the money he’d made there in New York and how it set him up to go around anywhere in the country he wanted to main event for big money.
“I ain’t so much bragging about the money as just telling you how this business works. Bigger houses – bigger arenas – it all equals bigger paychecks.”
“Thanks,” the kid said.
“See, kid, it’s sort of an honor and a privilege for a young buck like you to get in there with a big star like me. When I was your age, I’d have been honored.”
The kid nodded.
“And I’m not calling myself a big star just to brag. See, I gotta accept what I am so that the young fellas like you know exactly what they’re dealing with. I’m humble, but, for the sake of the business, I gotta make it clear that there’s a hierarchy. And for the sake of the business, we all gotta respect one another’s spots on the card.”
The blood dripped from the gash over the kids eye. It puddled up on the concrete between the kid’s boots. He wondered if the promoter was going to follow through on the promised fifty dollar payoff. That’s another thing he had to contend with, getting swindled and not having the experience or political clout to take any kind of stand. All he had was Wilson’s reputation, which only held so much water.
“Shoot,” Knife went on. “I can’t imagine how many young guys like you I’ve given some shine. Greenhorns who’ve gone on to fine careers.”
The kid was still trying to breath through his busted ribs.
“Ya know, you could stand at the curtain and take some notes on my matches, if you want,” Knife said. “Take notes on how a main event pro works. That’s really how you learn.”
Jackknife had the reputation for his work being the shits. But he was big and mean looking and could talk. But as far as really being able to handle himself in or out the ring, he was an absolute novice – just a big, dumb barroom bouncer. It was mainly Knife’s seasoned opponents that kept any of his matches from going to complete hell.
Still, the kid knew his role. He’d been hired to be a jobber, the same way most new guys get their experience. The jobber puts over the stars. The jobber makes the superstars look good in the ring. But there was the kid, sitting broken in the locker room, helping put Knife over in real life too and damned sure not getting paid enough for that. He’d already suffered the gash, the loose teeth and the ribs. The rest was just too much.
“And, as you go along, kid, never forget that this business is all about giving back.”
Knife went on to tell how he’d dropped the belt in Memphis to the kid down there they’d decided to push. It was a big step forward in that kid’s career. And that was true. But it wasn’t Knife’s decision. It was the promoter’s. And Knife got paid handsomely do to the job.
“Wildfire went on to hold that belt for a year. And he made lots and lots of money,” Knife said. “That’s what we do. Pass the torch. Give back.”
The kid wasn’t stupid. He knew that Knife had made his money too and it was the promoter, in hope of making more money with that belt on Wildfire than with Knife, not out of philanthropy – that’s why the belt went on that kid in Memphis.
“I like helping out the new guys. I like showing them them ropes” Knife said. “And if the promoter tries stiffing you tonight, you just let me know. Okay?”
He kid didn’t reply. The just sat there holding his ribs and bleeding. He knew that Knife knew he wasn’t going to make much of anything that night. He’d barely make enough for food, a cheap room and the gas to get to the next town. He knew that Knife knew he’d hurt him pretty bad and never even bothered to ask with any genuine concern how he felt. He knew that Knife could easily slip him an extra fifty, since he was probably going to make 2 or 3 thousand over the course of the next week, and he probably made that much last week. The kid knew that if this was his teacher Wilson, he’d do it if he’d fucked somebody up.
“These promoters are all crooks,” Knife said. “So just let me know if he tries screwing you on tonight’s payoff, okay? Cause you earned every penny.”
“You’re really good on the stick,” the kid said.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Knife asked.
“You can really cut a promo,” the kid said.
Knife sat up straight.
“Thanks, kid. Yeah, I sure can talk them into an arena.”
In his few weeks of training, Wilson had filled the kid in on the business. He told the kid how he’d start off doing jobs and since he was young and good looking and had an athletic build, as he made his way up the card, he’d most likely be cast as babyface. He also said the promoter was always the enemy of the wrestler. But, he added, the other wrestler is, a lot of the time, the enemy too. He told the kid not to buy into the bullshit about the wrestlers’ brotherhood. He explained how a fellow wrestler is as likely to be the first to betray as any promoter. And he further warned how a wrestler’s job, in addition to grappling, is to put himself over. How that was the main thing – making the audience think and feel he’s a genuine hero or villain. Wilson explained that’s all a wrestler does – spends his entire time on the road, in the ring, on television, in the locker room or in the promoter’s office trying to get himself over – trying to get people to buy whatever character the wrestler crafts out of himself.
“You’re a great gimmick man,” the kid said.
“What’s the supposed to mean?”
“Nothing,” the kids said.
“Nothing?” Knife said. “Hey, I’m try to help you out. This is more than a veteran’s advice. This is a vet offering action. You hearing me? Nobody stood up for me when I was getting stiffed on paydays.”
The kid didn’t reply. The kid knew it could easily have been because Knife was as much of an asshole then as he is now. That could easily have been the reason nobody helped Knife out. And the kid knew, as a novice himself, he didn’t have much as far as the business went. But he still had skills and he still had pride. He had the skills and pride of being a real athlete. And, even with busted ribs and the aid of adrenaline, he had enough to take down nearly any man and twist him into knots. He knew he had the skill to easily take down the slob in front of him. And, with what he’d learned from Wilson, he was pretty sure he could break bones and bust joints just about as easily.
“You not hearing me?” Knife asked.
Jackknife was feeling a bit offend that this kid wasn’t showing him his due respect. He was the elder. He was the veteran and there he was offering assistance against the promoter in case the kid was going to get screwed. It was a big deal, Jackknife putting his neck out there like that.
Knife asked again, “You not hearing me, son?”
The kid looked up. He wasn’t afraid. He wasn’t nervous. He knew it was what he had to do for the sake of all that he was and ever wanted to be.
“You know I was state wrestling champ in high school?” the kid asked.
“No,” Knife said.
“Well, I was. What about how I wrestled at Oklahoma State? And an NCAA finalist?”
“Ugh huh,” Knife admitted. “I heard that.”
“And trained by Billy Wilson. The Billy Wilson, right?”
“Everybody knows Billy’s reputation,” Knife said. “He’s one tough cookie. Let me tell ya, kid, how I started this riot in Florida once and had to fight my way all the way back to the locker room. Chairs were flying. People were spitting on me and trying to stab me.”
“No,” the kid said. “And I don’t want to hear about it.”
Knife looked puzzled.
The kid said very calmly and under his breath so the rest of the locker room wouldn’t hear, “No more stories. No more bullshit. You either shut up or I get off this bench and snap your goddamned arm within 3 seconds. Got it? You hear me?”
Shocked, Knife stood and slid his chain back. The kid looked up from the bench, bloody faced.
“And any word of this to anybody – the rest of the boys, the promoter, Billy – word gets around to me that you’ve run your mouth – I’ll track you down. I’ll find you in Memphis or Detroit or Los Angeles coming in or out of some arena and I’ll break your fucking legs. I’ll break ’em before you know what the fuck’s happened. And once they mend, I’ll track you down again and break ’em all over again. I’ll fucking cripple you for life and you’ll never wrestle again. You’ll never make another dime, got it?”
There’s a code in the wrestling business that if you can’t handle yourself outside the ring, especially with the crowd in or outside the arena, you’re done. Cause word spreads fast and the illusion’s blown when some amateur boxer or army tough guy lays out the top, local wrestler in the bar. It shatters the illusion that everybody, both wrestlers and audience, so desperately try to maintain for their own livelihoods and entertainment.
Knife folded the chair up. The kid prepared for Knife to swing it. Instead, the veteran leaned it against the cinder block wall. He walked out of the locker room, finally saying nothing.