In late April, while taking advantage of Mystery Beer Monday with friends at Whistle Binkies South, we heard about the death of Vern Gagne, the Minnesota wrestling legend and “King of the Sleeper Hold.”
One of the guys took it pretty hard. During a toast, he described Gagne as “one of the best athletes Minnesota’s ever known.”
This, of course, led to the kind of discussion that inevitably takes place on Mystery Beer Mondays: Is pro wrestling a sport?
I sat back and let the other guys go back and forth for a while. Then I decided to swoop in and settle the argument once and for all.
Because, well, I’ve done some professional wrestling.
Ten years ago, for a magazine story, I took a handful of lessons at the now-defunct Midwest Pro Wrestling School in Maple Grove.
So, yeah, I know what I’m talking about.
Here is my rundown from that first lesson.
3:14 p.m.: “Maybe I’ll be The Writer,” I tell my wrestling coach, Terry, first thing. “I could wear an ascot and round horn-rimmed glasses like James Joyce. My signature move could be Close the Book or End of Story.” I demonstrate by slapping my hands together with my arms straight out in front of me, like I’m smashing someone’s head between my palms.
3:14:01 p.m.: Terry says “It takes hard work to complete the wrestling program. The ring personality comes later. You’ve got to start by practicing moves and …”
3:15 p.m.: “Retro stuff is popular,” I continue. “I could be Retro Randy and wear a ‘Miami Vice’ blazer and fanny pack and silver moonboots. My signature move could be from ‘Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo.'”
3:16 p.m.: Terry just looks at me. Then sends me into the ring to practice.
3:20 p.m.: I join the other wrestlers for drills. We wait like basketball players in a layup line. Except instead of doing a layup, we’re supposed to do a front tumble then jump up and bounce off the ropes then knock our opponent down and appear to drive an elbow into their larynx. Or something.
I’ve never been proficient in choreography. Once, while at a bar mitzvah, hired dance instructors wearing Janet Jackson headsets tried teaching party patrons The Hustle and The Electric Slide. Twelve-year-old boys, with the instructor’s help, soon Hustled and Slid in choreography as coordinated as ‘N Sync. My instructor, meanwhile, kept saying things like “No! Step RIGHT foot to right side!” and “Step LEFT foot behind right foot!” and “Ouch! You stepped on me!”
3:18 p.m.: Coach Terry pulls me out of drills to “learn to take bumps.” The term “bump,” to me, implies mild and painless physical contact. My wife bumped into me. At a wedding reception, I did “The Bump” with a girlfriend’s grandmother.
“Bump,” it turns out, is pro wrestling parlance for “incredibly painful freefall onto a wrestling ring less forgiving than people imagine.” I’m supposed to throw myself into the air and land. Without breaking my fall. Everything from waist to neck should hit at the same time. Letting your entire back hit the mat at once makes the fall louder and seem more realistic. It’s supposed to hurt less. Distribution of surface area.
It’s difficult, though, to unlearn 40-plus years of falling experience. After 50-plus “bumps,” I’m in a lot of pain.
5:14 p.m.: Two hours in, I realize there’s no way I’ll survive the mandatory 24 training sessions required to perform during a live wrestling match. I’ll be lucky if I’m able to drive home.
So, back at Whisle Binkies, I give my final word on pro wrestling: I didn’t think it was a sport, either. Until I tried it. Then I learned that, if synchronized swimming can qualify as an Olympic event, then pro wrestling, with all its practice and all its pain, can be called a sport.
The other guys at the table, though, barely acknowledge my definitive answer.
Soon enough, the topic drifts to some new survivalist reality show that is playing on one of the TVs.
I wait, letting them go on for a while, before I will swoop in and tell the about the time that, for a magazine story, I spent two nights, alone, in the Wisconsin northwoods.