Best Seat in the House

During the weekend of July 31-August 3, Mid-Atlantic Wrestling (in conjunction with the National Wrestling Alliance) hosted the 10th annual Legends Fanfest in Charlotte, North Carolina.  The events included a Hall of Heroes banquet, a four day convention, and a “Future Legends” wrestling camp.  I was lucky enough to be in attendance.  The four days were a blur, but I wrote down everything I could and this is the result

Charlotte

After getting on the #11 bus, it’s a straight shot up North Tryon to get to where I need to be.  The driver is helpful, though soft spoken.  Somewhere in our broken communiqué he understands that I need to get off at Hampton Church road.  It’s a good thing too since it’s a side road that I would have easily missed.

I take in the local scenery along the way, looking for any places I might want to visit later.  All I see are garages, nail salons and barbershops.  And I got my haircut before I left town.

I make it to the hotel.  An initial examination reveals no fresh chalk outlines.  That’s a good start.  I get my key and enter my room and immediately notice that it hasn’t been prepared yet.  I should go tell someone, but I don’t.  I’ve been on a bus for the last twenty four hours and I just want to lie down and think.

*****

The last time I took the Greyhound to go somewhere it was a lot less packed.  You had your choice of window seats.  Then again, that’s because I was going to Calgary in the middle of winter, which apparently is not a prime vacation destination at that time of year.  That trip had a cool, subdued vibe.  I mean, I was still in Canada after all.  But heading down south had a different feel to it altogether.

First of all, the t-shirts.  I don’t know what it is about traveling by bus, but it brings out the best t-shirts.  “It’s our job to take your load…not take your crap!” one proudly proclaimed, a mantra for truckers everywhere.  A young man had another that read “The original celebrity chef” underneath the beaming image of Colonel Sanders.  And then, my favourite, “The best smelling pits in town”, which requires no explanation.  When you know you’re going to be spending hours on a bus, you may as well plan ahead since you know by the end of the trip you won’t care what you look (or smell) like.

There was one tense moment that’s worth mentioning.  Somewhere between Michigan and Virginia we picked up a fellow who had the unfortunate habit of singing along with whatever song he happened to be listening to on his ear buds.  Worse, he only seemed to listen to the same song over and over again and he only sang one part of that song.  It was maddening, though ignorable.  At a stopover, a Greyhound employee confronted him about it and then things got weird.  All I heard was the employee say “You don’t talk to me like that!  Your ride stops here, buddy.  I’m calling the cops.”

Sure enough, the cops arrived and asked the parties involved to step outside to discuss the matter.  The rest of the travellers sympathized with the singing man.  They said he wasn’t doing anything wrong and that if the employee had a problem with him he should have asked in a more polite manner.  However, someone who was closer to the conversation said that the singing man threatened to kill the employee if he didn’t back off.  Not cool.  The issue eventually defused itself.  There was some discussion of “disturbing the peace” and “jail”, but nothing came of it.

What really irked everyone was that our trip was delayed by over an hour and we thought it was because of that incident.  It turns out the next driver was just late.  After getting to know him better, we all realized why.  Even after everyone boarded, he took his sweet time meandering about the bus and then he felt compelled to explain to everyone why he was late rather than get going as quickly as possible to get back on schedule.  I’m pretty sure he was f**king with us intentionally.  Lord knows how these drivers deal with boredom.  He did tell a pretty good joke though, which I will share with you now:

A man goes to a science fair to check out the latest inventions.  The gadget that catches his eye is a robot that can tell when someone is lying.  He thinks it’s neat and purchases one for his house.

Later that night at dinner, the man sits with the robot and his family.  He asks his daughter, “What did you do today, sweetheart?”

The daughter replies: “Not much.  I went to the library with Lisa.  We studied for a few hours and then I came home.”

*POW*

The robot punches the daughter right in the mouth!

The father nods, pleased that the robot works.  “Alright, alright, I know you’re lying.  Why don’t you tell me what you really did today?”

“We skipped the last class of the day and went to go see a movie,” the daughter confesses.  “Then we went back to Lisa’s place and then I came home.”

“Okay.  Thank you for being honest.”  He turns to his son.  “And what did you do today?”

The son replies: “I was at John’s house.  We watched some TV and played some video games.”

*POW*

The robot punches the son right in the mouth!

The father nods.  “What did you really do?”

“I was at John’s house!” the son replies.  “But we didn’t watch TV.  We found some of his dad’s old girlie magazines and we looked through them.”

Laughing, the mother says: “Yep!  He’s your son, alright!”

*POW*

Raise the Big Top

The Dr. Tom Prichard Future Legends Wrestling Camp was set to start at seven in the morning.  I showed up at a quarter to.  There’s nobody there, which is awkward since I don’t actually have access to the facilities at the Hilton University Place.  I consider beating on the glass door, but think better of it.  Wouldn’t there be wrestlers milling about?  After double checking my e-mail, I realize I need to head to the ballroom downstairs.  I don’t know about you, but where I come from most areas designed for physical fitness aren’t carpeted.

Wrestlers are trickling in now.  Several stop to say hello and shake my hand, likely assuming that I’m part of the camp.  I am, but not in the way they’re thinking.  I’ve signed on to be an observer, a role that allows me to be in the thick of the action without being an official part of the wrestling fraternity.  I understand this is an uncommon opportunity.  I’d brought my runners just in case I was asked to participate in any camp activity and now I suddenly wish I was wearing nicer shoes.

Seated at the opposite end of the room is an older gentleman who I assume is an observer like myself.  His name is Harrison.  We’re fast friends.  He’s from South Carolina, a lifelong wrestling fan and a staple of the local wrestling scene as far as I can tell.  He’s a physical trainer who deals with wrestlers all the time.  Definitely a good person to know in this situation.

Once I’m settled in, I’m able to take a better accounting of the room.  This is the first time I’ve seen a ring put up.  Let there be no misconceptions about the alleged trampoline-like qualities of a wrestling ring.  It’s thin, wooden slats on top of stiff metal.  Over the course of a long career, a wrestler will be asked to fall on it thousands of times.

Like any social situation, it’s interesting to see who does and who doesn’t know what they’re doing when it comes to assembling the ring.  Who takes charge and who sits back?  Should the veterans who paid their dues long ago still have to do this?  Should the newer guys take the initiative at the risk of overstepping their boundaries or exposing their rookie status?

There is a distinct lack of interesting hair, up top or facial.  I only see one dude rocking the 80s wet look.  He’s Ross from England, aka “The Muscle Cat” Saxon Huxley.  There’s also Plunkett whose long beard makes him the spitting image of Keith Jardine, and Steve Off, who in addition to having short spiky hair was blessed with naturally crazy looking eyes.  Maybe “blessed” isn’t the right word.

We start off with an old school roll call.  I make note of a few names I recognize and others that Harrison tells me to keep an eye on: Cedric Alexander, Rhett Titus, Chase Owens, Donovan Dijak, and Jaxson James.

The third observer, Glenn, tells me to keep an eye on Aaron Ritchie as well.  I ask him why.

“That’s my son.”

Show Me What Ya Got

The first drill is a dizzying sequence of Irish whips, drop downs, leap frogs, reversals, and vaults out of the corner.  The trainers point out that a drop down is meant to be an attempt to trip your opponent, which is something that never occurred to me in my years of watching wrestling because you never see anyone get tripped up by it.  The first of many lessons to come.

Inevitably, there are a few people that struggle with the drill.  It’s a test of cardio, agility, and core strength and I’m told that the mat has some give to it, which is making it hard to jump.  I figured this was their way of weeding out the stragglers, but something else happened entirely.  Wrestlers stumbled, tripped, fell down…and the ones on the outside only grew more vocal in their support.  This wasn’t a hazing, it was team building.  They were making adjustments, learning from each other, all the while picking the next man (or woman) up.  Keep in mind that they were all competing for a $2,500 camp scholarship (in memory of wrestler Reid Fliehr who passed away last year), not to mention the chance to stand out in front of four esteemed trainers.

That energy carried over into the camp matches.  The wrestlers were randomly paired up and told to put together a quick match, which was then immediately critiqued by the trainers.  Now, I tell myself, this is where the wheat will get separated from the chaff.  But again, that wasn’t the case.  Without an actual audience, the waiting wrestlers had to act as the crowd and they did so with gusto.  It was much appreciated too, because the trainers did not hold anything back.

“The schtick belongs out here.  Once you get in that ring, be a f**king wrestler!”  Les Thatcher says when he first sees Mike Sydal’s pre-match yoga antics.

“You cannot punch a girl in the face!”  Says Tom Prichard after Cedric goes after Chasity in their intergender tag match.  Over the next few days, the incident is brought up whenever Tom feels like busting Cedric’s chops.

With everyone looking so serious, Nigel McGuiness reminds the good guys that “It’s okay to smile.”

And Lance Storm reminds the bad guys of their basic motivation: “Why should you cheat?  Because s**t’s not gettin’ done.”

So it goes over the next four days, with every wrestler getting at least two opportunities to show what they can do.  Between the four trainers, they don’t miss a single detail whether it is a misplaced facial expression, a minor execution issue, or even unnecessary verbal outbursts.  When too many wrestlers call out to the crowd to cheer, Les warns that “The next person I hear say ‘Come on!’ I’m going to fine them ten dollars.”

It must be grueling having to sit through so many matches in a row, but I suppose that’s part of the discipline.  By the time the last of the first round of matches roll around, everyone is kind of burnt out.  All it took was a mental slip and a plain blue shirt to bring them back to life.

The Legend of Blue Shirt

If you’d asked me who would be the breakout star of the camp, Sean Deemer would have been somewhere near the bottom of my list.  At first glance, he didn’t have much of a physique.  He was quiet and based on what little data I had I wasn’t too impressed by his ability to get around the ring.  I took it as a bad sign that his match ended up being the last one of the first round of practice bouts.

Nigel had taken it upon himself to play ringside announcer and he called out the names of the participants.  First, he announced Anthony “All Good” Greene, who had already wrestled a match the day before.  He was solid, reliable, exactly the kind of guy I’d trust to have a good match with Sean.  When it came time to announce Sean, Nigel forgot his name.  He glanced over at him and said, “…and in this corner…uh…‘blue shirt’.”  Everybody chuckled.

Tom rings the bell.  Right out of the gate, the crowd starts chanting…

Blue shirt!  Blue shirt!  Blue shirt!  Blue shirt!  Blue shirt!

When a wrestling crowd starts getting behind something, it is like a tidal wave.  Eventually, everyone gets washed away in it.  Anthony and Sean had the crowd on the edge of their seats.  When Anthony used dirty tactics, we booed and hissed at him gleefully.  When Blue Shirt came back with a series of shoulder blocks, we leapt out of our seats.  To Sean’s credit, he never got caught up in the raucous reaction.  He stayed focused on beating Anthony and that’s all it took to keep us invested.  I looked over to the trainers to see Nigel with a big grin on his face shaking his head.  He knew what he’d done.  Even Lance was caught hiding a smile.

At the end, Blue Shirt got pinned because Blue Shirt had to lose.  It was a beautiful story they told where the hero dies in the end.  In losing, he earned our love forever…or at least for the next few days.  It was a practice match that nobody taped and so it will never be seen again.  And yet it was so much more than that.  The magic of wrestling in six minutes and a blue shirt.

This Boy’s Life

“The finish was a clusterF**K!”

Those are the words of Gerald Brisco after having watched a tag match end in confusing fashion.  The four young men involved stand in the ring and take their verbal whipping, the harsh words refining them like sandpaper.  Even if they know what they did wrong, they might not know what they have to do to fix it.  Aaron leans over the ropes, his face as calm as ever.  He’s been training for about six months.  This was his fifth match.

You can imagine how things went a day earlier.  Against Barrett Brown (a nice guy out of Texas with a mean scowl), Aaron struggled at the start of the match.  In particular, a sloppy looking arm hold caused Tom to have a conniption at ringside.  He actually had to press pause on the match to correct the action.  It’s not a good start, but any frustrations are put into a different context when Aaron is asked about his experience level.

“I hate you.”  Tom jokes when he hears that Aaron is just seventeen years old.

A handsome, athletic kid, Aaron certainly has the look of a person who might excel at sports.  He shows good moves in the ring even if he’s a long way from knowing how to string them together into a meaningful narrative.  And his demeanour rarely changes, which is both encouraging and worrisome.  On one hand, being able to shut up and listen is a rare and important skill for someone to have at such a young age.  On the other, he doesn’t look like he’s having any fun.

Harrison and I talk to Glenn to find out more about what drives Aaron.  As it turns out, Aaron is a young father.  His family (including his mother and his girlfriend) have come to the camp to support him but also to keep an eye on the baby while he is pursuing his dream.  Aaron is certainly not the only father attending the camp, but I don’t see anyone else tending to a stroller in between sessions.  His girlfriend even stops by to see how he’s doing.  She tells me that before she met Aaron, she didn’t have much interest in wrestling.

“Have fun in there,” I tell him, as if the thought hadn’t occurred to him.  That’s advice I offered to every wrestler I got a chance to talk to.  Early on, the trainers present the harsh reality that we are living in one of the most difficult times for a professional wrestler to make a good living.  The WWE employs less than a hundred personalities (not including their developmental division NXT) that we see on Raw and SmackDown every week.  There are other North American promotions with a television presence, but the end goal for most wrestlers is a regular spot with the WWE.

Fun is not the number one priority at this camp.  For the younger guys, they need to do everything in their power to show that they belong and playing grab ass in the ring isn’t going to do them any favours.  For the veterans, they have to be thinking that it’s about time their love of the business translated into love from the business.  It’s great to be able to do something you’re passionate about; it’s even better to get rich doing it.

Back to Aaron.  I don’t know if he wants to wrestle because he thinks it’s cool or he’s always wanted to try it or he’s a natural being pushed into it or if he thinks it will put him on the path to fame and fortune.  What I do know is that he has one more mouth to feed, meaning he’s going to have to go from young man to young professional in a hurry if this is truly what he wants to do for a living.  I wish him the best of luck.

The Art Of Two Elephants F**king

It’s no secret that everyone was tight on the first day.  Some stumbled through the drills while others were lacking punch during their matches.  Cue Dr. Tom Prichard.

With most of the organization and paperwork out of the way, Tom is free to get down to the brass tacks.  When he sees something done wrong, he leaps up, tussles his hair and stomps around half-lecturing, half-demonstrating.  As he goes over the subtleties of bumping, I marvel that he can still do them at all.  It’s a tricky, painful technique, but he knows it’s the only way to make sure they learn to do it right.

“The business is a mindf**k!” he says, reinforcing the notion that if you want to be a wrestler you better know what you’re getting into.  “You don’t know who the next star is until he becomes the next star.”  Any one of the forty wrestlers in this camp could make it big someday.  Maybe none of them will.  Tom isn’t concerned with that.  His job is to teach these guys and girls how to work a crowd and how to do it without breaking their fool necks.

He warns us about some potentially foul language he’s going to use to discuss what he considers to be needless risks.  Two women immediately leave the room.  He asks us to imagine stepping outside of the hotel and seeing two elephants having sex.  You’d presumably be in awe and eager to rush back to your friends to tell them, “Holy s**t, there are two elephants f**king!”

Five minutes later, you go out and see them again you’d probably think “Holy s**t, those two elephants are still f**king!”  But after the third, fourth, fifth time…it would lose its effect.  This is what happens when wrestlers try to put too much into their matches.

“Ten pounds of s**t in a five pound bag” Les says, adding further sophistication.

You lose the story and when you lose the story, you lose the audience.

Tom can’t help but get his blood up when he sees something wrong.  At one point, a particularly confounding tag match sees him assuming the roles of all four men.  He’s hitting the ropes, bumping on the mat, fighting for the tag, executing a one-man comeback…it’s amusing, but amongst the fun and games is a lesson on using instinct and common sense.  “React.  Don’t act.  Draw upon your real experiences.”

Glenn notes that Tom loosened up on the second day of camp, which helped to loosen everyone else up.  He also makes note of the words on Tom’s shirt:

You can try.
You can take your best shot.
Or you can do whatever it takes.
Which one are you?

“A good wrestling match is like good sex.  It starts with foreplay and builds to a climax.”

I came in not knowing much about Les Thatcher.  Now he might be my favourite person in the whole entire world.

I’m not just saying that because he took the time to come over and check on the observers, though that certainly helped.  Even if he hadn’t said two words to us, I caught more than enough of his sound bites to come to the realization that my world is a much better place with Les in it.  Let me explain.

Les got his start in the sixties, long before I was born and long before I even had any concept of what wrestling was.  Like most kids my age, I was drawn in to the Hogan-Warrior-Savage WWF era, which is well removed from the southern style that was being celebrated that weekend.  I have no concept of where Les comes from.  Somehow that didn’t matter.  Somehow in listening to his stories I came to understand that the fundamentals he grew up with and now taught still formed the basis of the wrestling that I enjoy to this very day.

It helps that his stories are frequently hilarious.

During the opening drill alone, he drops several lines meant to motivate the wrestlers and get them to settle down.

“You might catch a sentence or a word, but you won’t get the story.”

“It’s about seconds and milliseconds.”

“Slow.  Down.  Are you guys double parked?”

“That Superman whiff in the corner is bulls**t.”

Okay, that last one might have just been mean.  The bottom line is that Les gets the job done and he expects his charges to do the same.  When preserving an art form, there is little time to mince words.  As a lifelong wrestling fan that only recently started going to live shows, I can appreciate the urgency of his lessons.

“If people want to watch the WWE, they’ll stay at home,” he says.  “On the independent scene you have to tell a story to get them to buy a ticket and come out for the show.”  In other words, you’re fighting an uphill battle.  How do you get people to pay to see you when there’s a proven product they can catch on television for free from the comfort of their living rooms?  It’s all in the telling.

Les speaks with the kind of tone where his compliments and his insults have equal impact.  You never get the sense that he’s too angry nor that he’s overly enthused.  After another tag match, the four wrestlers await Les’s verdict.

“You guys frightened me,” he starts.  “You listened.” Relieved sighs all around.

Two Bucks and a Compliment Will Get You a Soda

Here’s a shocking revelation for you: I’m not Gerald Brisco.

After watching the matches or seeing a wrestler do particularly well with a drill or lesson, I’d make sure to give them a metaphorical pat on the back.  A good match here and a nice work, buddy there.  It never hurts to say nice things to people especially when you’re dealing with a hard working bunch like this.  That said, kind words from a stranger can only go so far.

What these wrestlers really came for was the sage wisdom of their trainers, especially one Gerald “Jerry” Brisco who was listed as one of the guest coaches on the Future Legends website.  Jerry is one of the talent scouts for the WWE.  He’s got a wide body, like a box.  When he smiles, he smiles with his whole face and when he talks you get an earful of that Oklahoma drawl.

Now I don’t know what his level of involvement was supposed to be at the camp, but he was advertised in the same paragraph as the other trainers.  One would reasonably infer that he would be working alongside them.

He ended up attending the camp for about half a day.  Put yourself in the wrestlers’ shoes.  As incredible as it must have been to learn from Tom, Les, Nigel, and Lance, one of the most exciting aspects of the camp was the possibility of talking to someone with a direct line to the biggest wrestling company in the world.  It’s one thing to be able to draw upon the rich history of traditional wrestling to improve your skills; it’s another thing entirely to be able to ask Jerry what one might need to work on to make real money in this business.  Some people can toil away in this business for years without knowing why they haven’t got that phone call from New York.  One conversation with Jerry could change their whole lives.

I’m not calling Jerry out as I understand he likely had other obligations to attend to.  His son was wrestling that weekend.  There were dozens of his friends who he likely hadn’t seen in years.  Stuff like that would reasonably shove a camp full of rookie wrestlers to the backburner.  It’s just unfortunate is all.

When I bring up the issue with a few wrestlers (not to mention having to deal with a larger than expected camp roster, which limited their in-ring and 1-on-1 time with the trainers), most of them just chuckle and repeat one of the business’ most common refrains:

“Card subject to change.”

“You can choose not to listen to any of us and do it your way.  You’ll be wrong, but…”

One thing I had to make sure not to do when I got the camp was mark out.  I gave myself a minute or two to get excited about meeting the wrestlers and the trainers, then I had to settle the f**k down.  It worked.  Except for when it came to dealing with Lance Storm.

Lance is a hero of mine.  He’s always represented Canada with pride and he’s one of the most respected wrestlers to have worked for the three major American companies of the mid-90s to early-00s (ECW, WCW, WWE).  He is constantly communicating with his fans on Twitter while also maintaining the sanctity of the business.  Most importantly, he stepped away from being a full time wrestler to focus on his school and spend time with his family.  The wrestling world is filled with stories of men and women who hung on too long just for the sake of glory or to keep the cheques coming in.  Lance chose not to become one of those people.

Lance is as hands-on a trainer as you can get and when he talks wrestling he swears a lot.  He’s also much funnier than people think:

Tom: “Look, I don’t go to the gym as much as Lance, but…”
Lance: “Really?”
Tom: “F**k you!”

Demonstrating proper technique is like a nervous tic for Lance.  Rather than talk your ear off about how to do something right, he’ll take a few seconds and just show you.  I see him taking students aside in between the practice matches to help them work out their kinks.  Even during the Q&A, as soon as he hears a question that he can answer by getting physical you know he’s going to do it.  Plunkett asks him a question about chops and I see Lance put down his coffee cup.  He’s going to chop this dude’s beard off.  Just when I think my prediction will come true, Lance stops short and gives Plunkett a light tap on the chest.  Lesson learned.

His other tic is a verbal one.  “For some reason you can’t put a match together without saying ‘f**k’.”

Despite the foul language (or perhaps because of it), Lance never fails to get his points across: Engage the audience intellectually.  Make them feel what you feel.  Don’t take unnecessary bumps when building up to one good one will get an even better reaction.  Somewhere in the middle of his teaching, I muster up the courage to ask him a question that I’d been pondering for years regarding a fan made list of the best wrestlers in the world that Lance once took great umbrage too.  Keep in mind, this was thirteen years ago.

Lance smirked.  “The DVD [Death Valley Driver] 500.”

I was happy he remembered and I wondered if his feelings changed at all with fans being “smarter” to the business than ever (or at least thinking they are).  Does it matter if we know who is responsible for a good match, who carried the heavier load?  Or should we just take what we see at face value?

Lance’s viewpoint is relatively unchanged: Unless you’ve been in the ring with someone, it’s impossible for you to know how good they actually are.  It’s possible to paint in broad strokes.  For example, you don’t need to be in the business to know that Bret Hart is a better wrestler than say…me.  But once you start comparing Bret to Steve Austin or Steve Austin to Ric Flair or Ric Flair to Harley Race…what’s the point?

“Do you enjoy that painting?”  Lance asks.  “Good.  Enjoy it.”

It’s a satisfying enough answer for me.  If we accept that wrestling is art, then we must also accept that there is room for subjectivity.

“What about lucha libre?”  Someone asks, bringing up the Mexican style of wrestling that is worlds apart from what they’re teaching at this camp.

Without missing a beat, Lance responds coolly: “I don’t understand lucha libre.”

That settles that.

“Are you going to pick those up?”
“Pick what up?”
“Those names you just dropped.”

I felt pressure to ingratiate myself with the wrestlers even though I had signed on strictly to observe.  It is a delicate balance, roaming amongst the wildebeests without disrupting the herd.  Often, the mere sight of me writing in my notebook was enough to raise eyebrows.  It helped that it has a shiny, garish cover with the words “Don’t Quit” in ornate lettering.  It looks more suited to scribbling bad poetry (of which there is plenty) or writing about how Sally gave me a funny look in third period today.  But it was a gift from a dear friend of mine and the message on the cover, while cliché, is also timeless and perfectly suited to the environment I found myself in.

“What are you writing about?” they’d ask.  It was harder to answer than you might think.  This started as nothing more than a personal collection of observations and amusing quotes that I could blog about for the sake of posterity.  But every time someone came up to express their curiosity or support I realized that I might actually have to write something that other people would want to read.  Regardless, it became a great way to start conversation.

The other method that served me well was mentioning wrestlers I’d seen in person.  The first time this happened was completely by accident.  During one of the Q&As, I asked Lance Storm a question about whether a wrestler needs to change their act if they’re getting a reaction from the crowd, but it’s not the reaction they’re looking for.  The example I used was Toronto native Brent Banks who plays a total s**t heel much to the delight of the crowd who laugh and cheer his exploits.  The bottom line was that if he’s trying to get booed then he needs to do something different.

After the session, Farhan Faruqui walked up to me and said he knows Brent and just like that we’re talking.  Farhan immediately stood out from the crowd due to his dark, foreign complexion and a bright orange shirt he was wearing (that combined with his body type prompted Lance to tell him that “you gotta clear orange with Taz.”).  He mentions that he knows Sebastian Suave.  Suave runs Smash Wrestling, one of Canada’s most respected promotions.

Gradually, I chipped away at the barrier between fan and wrestler until I got to know everyone well enough to give them the “smile and nod” when I passed them in the halls.  Some of them never warmed up to me completely, which is understandable.  Others (particularly the Canadians because we’re a kind, gentle folk) were much more forthcoming and I’m proud to call many of them friend.

By the fourth day, even the most reserved wrestlers (including Chase Owens, the man responsible for the header quote above) warmed up to me.  I respect that most wrestlers probably doesn’t have time to spare on folks intruding on the business.  But all you have to do is ask the right questions.  And occasionally pick up the alcohol.

The Doctor Is In

One dilemma that Harrison and I faced was finding good places to eat.  He works in health and fitness and I’m cheap.  There were plenty of places to eat around the hotel, but it was essentially a crapshoot as far as knowing what locations would be able to satisfy both our dispositions.  In one such diner, we ran into one of the wrestlers who we recognized immediately because…well, wrestlers just have a different way about them.

Dan Rodgers works out of Scotland.  Like most wrestlers, his dream is to make it big in America.  Unlike most wrestlers, he has a career as a doctor waiting for him at home.  He currently takes shifts at the hospital to make ends meet.  Unfortunately, his license doesn’t carry over to the United States so it’s not as simple as just moving over here and doing the same.  We’re about the same age, so I can relate to the urgency one starts to feel about deciding what to do with the rest of your life.  Go back home to a steady job or stay the course with the notion that that big break is just around the corner?

To Dan’s credit, he does a brilliant job of using his real life to inform his character.  He tells me about how he’s thinking of cutting a promo revolving around religious skepticism.  I remind him that we’re in the Carolinas.  He does it anyway.

People pray.  Fine.  But who do they pray to?  They pray to God.  Do you know how much that insults me as a doctor that you pray to God?  Was it God that busted his arse for five years in medical school?  Was it God that was doing a hundred hour weeks?  Was it God that was jumping up and down on your Gran’s chest saving her life?  No.  It was me.  It was Danny Boy Rodgers.  And you remember that.  ‘Cause whoever gets in that ring with me…when you’re down on your knees and you’re begging and you’re pleading and you’re praying…don’t pray to an imaginary man in the clouds.  Pray to me.  Because as far as you’re concerned, in this ring, between those ropes, and under those lights, I AM GOD.

Powerful stuff.  It works too.  A couple of other wrestlers go up and base their promos around him and how doctors failed to take care of their loved ones.  When promo work gets that personal you know you’re doing something right.  Sometimes all you have to do is be willing to take that risk.

Wrestlers Are Just Normal Folks Like You and Me, But Cooler

There are three girls at the camp: Tessa Blanchard, Jessie Kaye, and Chasity Taylor.  They immediately stand out and not just because they’re female.  Tessa is the daughter of    Tully Blanchard and the stepdaughter of Magnum T.A., two wrestling legends.  At nineteen, she’s already building up a following.  She and Chasity even get a booth during the Fan Fest to take photos and sign autographs.

Chasity surprises me.  After going through Tom’s body parts group twice, I joke that she must be a submission expert by now; as it turns out, she actually does aim to be a submission stylist, which you wouldn’t expect from a petite blonde with the nickname “The Southern Sweetheart”.  She’s also a line dancing enthusiast, whatever that is.

Jessie has a more muscular, brawny look in contrast to Tessa and Chasity.  During the opening workout, she gets in the ring with Dijak, the tallest man in the class.  She’s fearless.  When I ask her what it’s like to be one of the only girls here, she says “I don’t wrestle like a girl.”

Ross (the aforementioned Muscle Cat) hails from England, though he’s currently plying his trade in California.  His persona is based around being enlightened or operating on a higher wavelength or taking the red pill or some such thing.  It’s pretty much an excuse for him to call the audience a bunch of slobs, which is always fun.  Other than that he’s a great guy.

Chase and Rhett Titus came into the camp with impressive credentials and they didn’t disappoint.  Between the two of them, they’ve wrestled for major companies including Total Nonstop Action, Ring of Honor, and New Japan Pro Wrestling.  Chase even made a brief appearance on an episode of SmackDown.  You can tell they’re on another level from the majority of the camp, but they don’t carry themselves with any sort of ego.  They face off twice at the camp and on the Saturday night show, putting on the most well wrestled matches both times.

Mattia Thomsen and Travis Cole hail from Calgary, Alberta.  Travis trained with Lance (as did fellow campers Dan, Ross and Troy Tollison), while Mattia is following in the footsteps of his wrestling family.  He has some difficulties during the camp, particularly when it comes to mustering up the emotion required to cut a proper promo.  “I’m supposed to be talking about who I am…I’m nineteen years old!  I have no idea who I am!”

Later, we joke about how cool it would have been to base a promo around existential dread.  Sure, it might have convinced people to crawl into their tubs and curl up into the fetal position as opposed to purchasing tickets to a wrestling show, but it would have been memorable.

Anthony Greene was my pick to take home the camp scholarship.  “All Good” had to wear many hats during the camp.  He wrestled three times, stepped in to referee when Nigel got banged up, and was the first to volunteer when it was time to do promos.  I wasn’t as privy to his day to day performance as the trainers, but just based on my observations he would have been the one.

Josh Powers looks like John C. Reilly.  But don’t tell him that.  He doesn’t like that.

Logan Sutherland doesn’t say much.  He’s another camper who doesn’t look like a wrestler at first glance.  I ask him if he’s enjoying the camp and he responds with a monotone “I love it.”  Good talk.  It’s not until I’m sitting with him and watching the first show of the weekend that he opens up.  He has a lot to say about what’s going on in the ring and I realize that he’s a fan like me (albeit a fan with the guts to actually step between those ropes and give it a go).  He’s not here to talk about himself, he’s here to talk about wrestling.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised by the passion that these guys and gals have for the business.  Ask any of the trainers a question and you’ll get three different stories.

A question about Brad Armstrong strays into discussion on the “it” factor, the 10,000-Hour Rule, the look, Chris Hero, and nutrition.

Another question about bumping strays into a discussion of different eras, punching, Jerry Lawler, Memphis, and head shaving.  It’s not just the trainers either.  Chase has an endless array of stories about his matches and I’m sure he’s not the only one.  This is what happens when you’re dealing with people who make a living off of tall tales.

On the last night of camp, several wrestlers are hanging out and searching for something to watch on YouTube.  There are no viral videos or crazy news stories or remixed memes; the one thing everyone wants to watch is bad wrestling promos.  All day, every day, these folks live and breathe the business.  And line dancing, apparently.

Here, There Be Giants

Surrounding the Future Legends camp was the 10th (and unfortunately final) Mid-Atlantic Wrestling Legends Fanfest.  That meant a who’s who of wrestling royalty could be seen passing through our modest ballroom, including Dusty Rhodes, Rocky Johnson, Joey Malenko, Kevin Sullivan, and, of course, Ricky Morton.  Some thirty five years after the start of his career, Ricky is still a rock star.  My own personal encounter with him was certainly…memorable.

Ricky: “Man, it smells like seal pu**y over here.”
Me: *silence*
Ricky: “You want to know how I know what seal pu**y smells like?”
Me: *silence*
Ricky: “I’m a perverted motherf**ker.”

When not showing off his zoological expertise, Ricky was busy infecting the young wrestlers with what would become the unofficial “gang sign” of the Future Legends training camp, a sequence of slaps and shoulder shrugs punctuated by the phrase “Bubba…sheeeeeeeit…” (here’s the Muscle Cat with a demonstration)

As for Dusty, arguably the biggest star of the weekend, he stuck around to watch the camp in action.  Of course, even legends get distracted from time to time.   After Ethan Case got through doing a series of exhibition moves, he walked over to me and said “You know what the best part of that is?  I just did all that and Dusty didn’t look up from his phone.”

Tully Blanchard and Lanny Poffo were nice enough to stop for a pep talk and to answer questions.  It was a busy weekend for them as they were also inducted into the Hall of Heroes (the other honorees were Ox Baker, Gerald Brisco, Tommy Young, Joey Malenko accepting on behalf of his father Boris, and Tully along with his Four Horsemen compatriots Arn Anderson and J.J. Dillon).

“Does that make sense?”  Tully had to keep asking.  He’s straight and to the point so I can understand why he might worry about being misinterpreted.  Aspects of wrestling that are common sense to him could sound like another language to wrestlers of today depending on their influences and where they trained.  “Think shoot and work.”  Another phrase he repeats.  You’re working together, but you’re competing.  Mindf**k.

It takes a certain kind of person to play a villain, to carry themselves with that demeanour even in retirement.  To be a “flaming f**king a**hole”, as Tom puts it.

“I wasn’t likeable.” Tully says.  He was damn good at his job and he knew it, but that meant not being fully appreciated for it.  “I wanted people to respect my abilities.  Because then when I would cheat, they’d hate me even more.

Think shoot and work.

*****

In stark contrast to Tully’s brevity, Lanny has made a career out of the gift of gab.  He lit up the Hall of Heroes banquet with a speech that was equal parts poetic and bawdy, but always entertaining.  Thankfully, he left something in the tank for us.

Lanny has a natural, booming voice.  It’s incredible.  I almost laugh when he asks if the camp can hear him in the back.  Every word he says is annunciated perfectly.  You get the sense that this persona is a put-on except that it’s never, ever off.  He has a plane to catch, but not before sharing a couple of priceless stories with us.

The first is about his late brother, “The Macho Man” Randy Savage.  Every wrestling fan knows about Randy’s classic encounter with Ricky Steamboat at Wrestlemania III.  It remains the template for the modern WWE main event style match (despite not being a main event itself).  Even though he would go on to become a multiple time world champion and a top superstar for years, that match is still considered by many to be his crowning achievement.

According to Lanny, Randy always wanted to top the Steamboat match.  He had plenty of great matches in his career (his Wrestlemania VII tilt with The Ultimate Warrior being a particular favourite of mine), but Wrestlemania III always lingered.  That event occurred in 1987 and he retired as an active competitor in 2000.  For thirteen years, he couldn’t get away from Wrestlemania III.  That doesn’t mean he didn’t try.

Randy knew that there was one guy on the roster who could help him recapture that magic: Shawn Michaels.  He planned an elaborate match, but the WWF said “No.  Too old.”  For whatever reason, they’d made up their mind about keeping him on as a commentator and nothing more.  So Randy made up his mind too.  When his contract was up, he went to see World Championship Wrestling, the second biggest wrestling company in North America.  He set up a meeting and sold himself in a one hour presentation.  They signed him and Randy would go on to win four more world titles.

“Even The Macho Man didn’t win them all,” Lanny said.  “But he did better.”

Lanny wasn’t one to take things lying down either.  During his early days with the WWF, he knew his career was stagnant.  As “Leaping Lanny Poffo”, he was well liked, if not memorable.  It wasn’t until he transformed into the arrogant and calculating “Genius” that he was able to come into his own.  He continued with the poems that he had become known for (though they were now designed to infuriate the crowd) and developed an effete walk, which only made him more detestable.  It was something he had to practice, much to the shock of his then wife.

“You have the guts to do that?”  She asked.

“I don’t have the guts not to!”

When you’re up against the wall, sometimes you have no choice but to run right through it.  Or in Lanny’s case, gingerly prance around it.

Tainted Love

On the third morning, the remnants of the Hall of Heroes banquet were still present.  I got the feeling that the camp was going to be pumped up after what they saw the previous night.  That is, if the festivities didn’t take too much of a toll on them.

A scratchy voiced Tessa ambles up with a weary look on her face.  The after effects of performing Wannabe at James Mitchell’s karaoke party.  I’m sorry I missed it, but not as sorry as I am when I heard about Nigel McGuiness.  Apparently did a stirring rendition of the Soft Cell (or Gloria Jones, if you’re so inclined) classic Tainted Love.  My only major regret of the weekend was missing that performance.

(Please take a minute to read Nigel’s thoughtful account of the weekend)

I’ve mentioned the extreme level of specificity that the trainers were able to go into and nobody exemplified that more than Nigel.  The minute tweaks that he would suggest to the students were borderline insane.  He would always start off by saying “Just a couple of little technical things…” before proceeding to put on a clinic on the finer points of headlocks, wristlocks, reversals, facial expressions…no detail was considered insignificant.  It’s that dedication to perfection and individuality that will make you stand out as a performer.  Nigel would know.  He was nothing if not original.

“What would everyone else do in this promotion?  I’m not going to do that.”  When you’re struggling to get noticed, you have to think like you’re playing Scattergories: Only unique answers are rewarded.  When Nigel was first starting out with Les, he dubbed himself “The Ironman” Nigel McGuiness and he would literally walk around with a clothes iron.

Les: “What the f**k are you doing?  Is this guy on LSD?”
Nigel: “You laugh, but when Gabe [Sapolsky, the founder of RoH) heard about me he said ‘Is that the guy with the iron?’”

Near the end of the Q&A session, Les praised Nigel for the enormous success he had in his career despite Nigel falling just short of the WWE (reportedly a lingering injury scared them off).  But like Lance, Nigel looks happy and healthy.  He left the business when he wanted to.  He’s formed priceless relationships.  He mentions getting to know a fan named Mandy who regularly sends him random messages like, “My dog fell asleep on my pillow.

“Brilliant!”  Nigel exclaims.

If I may paraphrase Lanny: You can’t win them all, but you can do better.

Back For The First Time

You might think I’m burying the lede here, but the camp was such a satisfying, strange, and involving experience that the Fanfest and Hall of Heroes banquet were almost an afterthought.  Besides, there are smarter people than me to put all of that in the proper context.  That said, the experience was not lost on me.

Thanks to the quirks of random seating, I got placed at the table right next to the stage.  I was closer than Barry Windham, Paul Orndorff, Adrian Street…I could only imagine them wondering “Who the heck is this punk and how did he get such a good seat?”  I kept waiting for someone to tell me there’s been a mistake.

I had the pleasure of getting to know the legend at our table: Danny Miller (of The Miller Brothers) and his lovely wife, Karin.  They were a tag team that existed well before my time.  I was so grateful that Karin was willing to share stories of Danny’s career and his travels and even how they met (perhaps the most extraordinary part of all since Karin was born in Germany.  They’ve been married for 54 years).  Even after seeing all of the legends up on that stage, the people that left the biggest impression on me that evening were Danny and Karin Miller.

Which makes it all the more inexplicable that I couldn’t be arsed to say good-bye to them when the night was over.

The inductors and inductees all did a fantastic job of keeping the crowd engaged.  For me, the best was Jim Cornette.  Jim is a wrestling personality who I’ve seen and heard on television, online interviews, podcasts, etc., but I’d never had the privilege of seeing him in person.  He was presenting a plaque to Tommy Young, one of the most respected referees in history.  It takes a special kind of speaker to shine the spotlight on someone whose job was to stay out of the way.  Jim knocked it out of the park.  This might sound like a sanctimonious thing to say especially considering where I was, but I swear during his speech I felt The Holy Ghost.  I had to shake his hand, tell him how much it meant to me.  I have no idea why that seemed so important at the time.

After rudely interrupting Jim just so I could have my moment, I realized that I’d missed the Millers leaving.  I walked around looking for them, asking if anyone had seen them, but they’d presumably gone up to their hotel room already.

But hey, at least I got to shake Jim Cornette’s hand.

*****

Karin had mentioned that they might attend Saturday’s matches, but I scanned the room and couldn’t see them anywhere.  It was on my mind all day.  To think, us Canadians are known for our manners.  I had brought shame to my country.

It made it hard to focus on the matches, though I recall them being enjoyable.  Mickey Gambino (a camp participant who I didn’t even recognize due to a superb shift in mannerisms) got things started against Wes Brisco.  Jessie got called up as a replacement to wrestle Amazing Kong, one of the most intimidating female wrestlers in the world.  It looked like they genuinely beat the crap out of each other and by the end of the match, Jessie’s nose was bloodied.

Chase and Rhett stole the show while Cedric had an exciting match with former TNA Heavyweight Champion Chris Sabin in the PPV main event (there was a second live main event that could not be televised due to one of the teams being currently signed to TNA).  With all due respect to my camp boys, the match that stood out to me the most was The Rock n’ Roll Express versus Bobby Fulton & Tom Prichard.

You have to understand that for the most part I’m a child of modern WWE programming.  These days, wrestlers on television are dour and serious and overly concerned with looking cool, not to mention that they have to deal with multiple layers of corporate oversight.  You rarely see them get crazy.  Not Bobby Fulton crazy anyway.  That’s a whole new level of crazy that I wasn’t ready to deal with.

I’m not going to pretend that the tag match was some kind of technical masterpiece.  It was driven by comedy and nostalgia and the commitment of all four men to do whatever it took to give the people their money’s worth.  Maybe there was too much stalling, maybe having Bobby and Ricky’s kids at ringside was ridiculous, but for me the whole thing was aces.  At one point I made eye contact with Bobby who was in full fury and I felt genuine fear that he might climb up to my seat and crack me one.  Seeing Bobby, Tom and The Rock n’ Roll Express in action leaves me longing for a time I never even experienced.  That seems as good a way as any to sum up this trip so far.

When the show was over, I glanced around the room at the departing crowd.  Just a few rows down, I spotted Karin.  Our seats were on two separate platforms so I had to hop across to get to her.  I wasn’t missing a second opportunity to thank her for her time.  I apologized for leaving so abruptly the night before and she signalled for me to lean in closer.  I thought it was so we could talk over the buzz of the crowd, but she pulled me in for an embrace.  It was truly an honour to meet her and Danny.  There are people I’ve gone to school with or worked with for years who I barely remember.  I spent a few hours with the Millers and I won’t ever forget them.

*****

Sunday was even more of a showcase for the camp.  In addition to Cedric, Chase, Mickey, and Rhett working again, Joey Janela wrestled Wes Brisco while Chasity and Tessa wrestled each other.  It was a treat seeing the cheery Chasity switch roles with the more severe Tessa.  I made sure to jeer Chasity with as much bile as possible, which she would later thank me for.  Only in the world of wrestling can you yell “You suck!” at another human being and have them be grateful for it.

Even better, the rest of the camp was involved in an over the top “Future Stars Battle Royal”.  I was on my feet the whole time, much to the chagrin of the folks sitting behind me.  I could see Cheeseburger hanging in there, Travis blatantly mugging for the camera, Will Ferrara and Ethan battling to be the last man standing.  There were legends scattered amongst the crowd, cheering them on.  Ethan won, but it had to be considered a victory for the whole camp.

*****

After the matches, everyone does what they can to make themselves useful.  The wrestlers are taking down the ring for the last time and carrying it out to the truck, which leaves the rest of us to awkwardly stack chairs around the ballroom.  I team up with a woman named Rachel to clear the upper level, but we don’t make much progress.  We get to talking.  Rachel is training to become a wrestler.  I’m starting to think everybody around here is.

Hanging Moss

In a perfect world, I would write about every person I spoke to and every encounter I witnessed, if only to crystallize that weekend.

Lost amidst the larger than life heroes was the unsung staff that kept everything running smoothly.  Zack Salvation (a former wrestler acting as a ‘producer’ for convention and the weekend shows) tells me that the real pain in the ass was organizing the photoshoots.  For example, Ricky Steamboat had to do 177 pictures.  Each picture takes 6-7 minutes to print.  Steamboat was only available for three hours.  Do the math on that and what you’ll get is a broken clock.

Bob Keller is a booker, promoter, organizer, and generally important person who never seemed to be far from the ring.  On Saturday, a fan came to him with a ring bell covered in signatures to show off to Bob.  The problem is that the bell belonged to Bob and it had been stolen from him four years ago.  The fan was aware of this, but chose to flaunt it anyway.  After much hemming and hawing on the fan’s part, Bob decided it just wasn’t worth the trouble and let him keep it.  There are some battles you’ve won before they even start.

And then there’s Greg Price, the man behind it all.  He was like a ghost all weekend, though I hadn’t really been looking for him.  I’d been told that he preferred to stay behind the scenes, to let the talent soak in the glory.  He had a hand in almost everything that happened that weekend, so whether he was looking for it or not, there was plenty of praise to be thrown in his direction.

If you’re wondering, Jessie ended up winning the camp scholarship.  She had a hard time on the first day and I know she improved by leaps and bounds.  Enough to have that hard hitting match with Kong anyway.  Most importantly, she didn’t seem to have much time for my questions, which should have been a good indicator that her eye was on the prize the whole time.  Even without her life’s story, the sight of her tearfully accepting the award while surrounded by wrestling stars from different eras summed it all up better than I ever could.

Home

Monday morning waits for no one.  I packed my bags, taking solace in the fact that while this was the end of my adventure for now, the incredible people I’d met are continuing to pursue their dream of making it in this impossible business.  I was heading back to reality; the Future Legends camp is their reality.  There comes a point in every relationship where you cross a line and for better or for worse, you can’t go back.  I like to think that’s what happened to my relationship with wrestling while I was in North Carolina.

*****

On the way back north, I end up getting the same bus driver as before.  I’m thrilled to see him.

*POW*

At least he has another joke loaded up for the trip back:

 

A man and his wife are in need of a new mule.  They’re poor, so they have to settle for the cheapest one they can find.  They are offered a strong, healthy looking mule, with the only caveat being that the mule is extremely religious.

“If you want the mule to go, you have to say ‘Praise the Lord!’  If you want him to stop, you say ‘Hallelujah!’”  The mule salesman instructed.

“Okay.  We’ll take it.”  The man says.

The man and his wife are travelling along the road when an insect stings the mule on the backside, sending it running wild!  “Hyah!  Hyah!  Hyah!  Stop!”  The man yells at the mule.

Seeing a cliff up ahead, the wife remembers the salesman’s words.  “Honey, the mule is religious!  What were you supposed to say?”

“Oh, that’s right.  Hallelujah!  Hallelujah!”  Sure enough, the mule froze in its tracks.  They had stopped just short of going over the edge of the cliff.

Seeing how close they were, the man wiped his brow and exclaimed: “Praise the lord!”

Women’s Hockey Is The Greatest Sport In The World

Around 1:30 I decided to head down to catch the third period of the gold medal Olympic Women’s Hockey game.  There were plans to watch it with my mother, but she was running around doing her usual household chores and I had gotten caught up with some such horses**t in my room.  We lost track of time.  I’d been checking in online (when I wasn’t keeping tabs on Kyle Lowry) and since the score was only 1-0 I figured late lunch would be as good a time as any to tune in.

I was only watching for two minutes before USA doubled their lead.

I don’t watch hockey at all, but one thing I like about it is that the game has a firm, finite duration.  The game clock isn’t as malleable as it is in basketball, football or, most notoriously, baseball.  In a game like this, where so much is on the line, I start to break down the game into 30-60 second intervals.  It’s not unlike how I might watch a fight.  I do the math in my head to figure out Canada’s chances.

Down 2 with 15:00 to go.  Doable.

Down 2 with 10:00 to go.  Looking shaky, but this is high level hockey.  All it takes is a turnover in the US zone or a lucky bounce for Canada to chop this lead in half.

Down 2 with 7:00 to go.  My mother starts rooting for Canada to “get at least one”.  I briefly explain the hollowness of moral victories, especially when there is a gold medal on the line.  If you’re going to root for one, you may as well root for two.

Down 2 with about 3:30 to go.  Maybe this was a bad time for me to get into women’s hockey.

Marie-Philip Poulin scores for Canada.  The three minutes that are left feel like thirty now.  I’m certain that’s how it must have been on Team USA’s bench anyway.  The mood goes from “well, anything could happen” to “anything could really f**king happen here!

Sure enough, “anything” happens.  Canada is pressing hard, having removed their goalie for the last minute or so of action.  It looks like it’s about to pay off, but one of the Canadian players gets tangled up with the referee in the neutral zone just as she’s about to set up what would have been a high percentage chance.  Instead, an American stick swats the puck away and it travels the length of the ice…sliding…sliding…right towards the empty Canadian net.

*dink* It hits the post.

A centimeter to the right and the game is all but over.  Team USA would have had a two goal lead with less than a minute to go.  If they could hang on, that sequence would be a quirky footnote in the team’s first gold medal victory since 1998.  Instead, the ensuing events guarantee that the miraculous miss will become an instant YouTube classic and a fixture in Canadian sports lore.

On broadcasting duty, Jeremy Roenick had been saying that Team USA needed to keep up the pressure, not play it safe on the way to the finish line.  His words prove prophetic.  The Canadians crash the net and get another goal from Brianne Jenner to tie it up.  My mother leaps off of the couch and we hug.  It should be noted that neither of us know a lick about women’s hockey.  That’s the power of sports when there’s a narrative anyone can follow.

Mom says that she’s proud of Team Canada no matter what and even if they lose she’ll be fine with it.  I shake my head.  Yes, I’ll be proud of them.  No, I won’t be satisfied with second place.  They’ve come this far and they should take the whole damn thing.

Overtime comes around and all signs point to calamity.  Proving that there’s no such thing as momentum, the Americans are shot out of a cannon into the Canadian zone.  By my unofficial count and measurements, they get about twenty shots on goal from a couple of metres out.  Somehow Shannon Szabados and her defence stop them all.  They’re dodging bullets.

A penalty on Team Canada sets up a 4-3 woman advantage for the Yanks.  The empty netter stopped by an invisible goalie.  Szabados mutating into a cross between a brick wall and an octopus to stop all of those pucks.  They’d pulled off enough magic tricks today.  I didn’t expect them to escape this situation.

Not ten seconds later, another penalty.  On Team USA.  We’re playing three on three pick-up hockey now and the world is watching.  The sight of this enormous rink with only six players skating around it is surreal.  This is the gold medal game!  At some point, I lose track of which power play ends when.  All I know is that Hayley Wickenheiser, a women’s hockey player so famous that even I know who she is, has a breakaway opportunity.  There’s no way they’re going to stop her without some sort of penalty.  Skates get tangled and bodies fly and there’s the penalty…but no penalty shot.  I’m no expert on the rules, but that sure looked like an aborted breakaway opportunity to me.  I add it to the list of insane/inexplicable things that have happened in the last twenty minutes or so of this game.

After the dust settles, Canada finds themselves with a 5-3 advantage.  Mom is yelling at the player’s to shoot the puck whenever they touch it.  I sit, patiently.  You can see the geometry at work.  The numbers create unorthodox spacing.  I doubt that they prioritize two-woman advantages in practice.  But these are the best women’s hockey players in the world.  They sort it out.  The puck finds its way to Poulin who has the perfect angle for a score and she doesn’t miss.  She better be prepared to go from being a successful athlete to being one of the most famous people in Canada.

In contrast to my mother who is bouncing around the room, I’m more in shock than anything else.  I’m an unabashed hop-on on this runaway bandwagon.  I can only imagine how thrilling this moment must be for people who follow the sport and this team religiously.  It’s games like this that bring casual viewers and hardcores together.  Nobody watching this game will ever forget how Canada came back.  Nobody.

As for me, I’m wondering how anything that happens in these Olympics…hell, anything that happens in the sporting world for the rest of the year will top this.  Complete and utter euphoria over a single game in a sport that I don’t follow.  I watch my mother cushion her knees with a couch pillow, getting right up to the TV set so that she can get a good view of the medal ceremony.  The national anthem of Canada plays and obviously, I’m too cool to stand and sing along when it’s just the two of us at home.  I do make sure to listen though.

Canada Wins Gold

SMASH Wrestling – Any Given Sunday 2

I’ve been to a few concerts in my day.  If I had to choose I’d say my favourite one was seeing Emily Haines & The Soft Skeleton at the Gladstone Hotel in Toronto.  Haines is the lead singer of the much more well known Metric and this was her side project of piano-driven indie rock.  It was the group’s first live performance.  I’d bought their album earlier that day, but didn’t listen to it before seeing her.  That meant I’d be hearing it for the first time performed by Haines herself.  In the background, spooky images from Guy Maddin films were projected onto a screen, the perfect complement to Haines’s ethereal vocals.  I’ve seen Arcade Fire, Justin Timberlake and Kanye West.  Emily Haines is the one I remember the fondest, the memory that I revisit most often.

The audience was comprised of no more than a hundred people, so it was intimate to say the least.  If you’ve ever heard Haines’s songs, then you know that intimacy is her forte.  Now imagine that you’re only a dozen feet away from her.  I couldn’t even risk moving from my seat because I might lose my balance and end up tumbling into her lap.  Perhaps I should have risked moving.

I haven’t had a concert experience quite like it, though I did go to a show on Sunday that reminded me of it.

*****

 In Etobocoke, I kicked a man in the head and faced no repercussions for my actions.  Let me explain.

Sunday, January 26, 2014.  SMASH Wrestling.  Any Given Sunday 2: the sequel to what was arguably the best show in the company’s brief history (that I was lucky enough to attend).  Accompanying me was my faithful ally in all things wrestling, Paolo.  We decided to go all out and get front row tickets.  They were relatively cheap compared to what we had to pay for the nosebleed section of a Monday Night RAW taping.  I’m saying, if you live within driving distance of an independent wrestling show, you owe it to yourself to splurge and get as close to the action as possible.  I can’t promise it will be as good as SMASH, but there’s nothing quite like being inches away from live professional wrestling.  Again, I’m getting ahead of myself.

Paolo and I waited around like a couple of chumps not realizing that our first row tickets meant we could skip the line.  I told him that I didn’t mind standing around because I didn’t consider myself to be above the common man, but these VIP tickets said different.  I AM above the common man.

Bumper CarsI would lose my s**t if the action spilled out to the whirly ball arena.

The crowd was particularly large due to the booking of former TNA everything champion, AJ Styles.  SMASH brought in one of my personal favourites, Lance Storm, for their last show (Tapped Out).  Styles is a hell of a follow-up.  Paolo and I snagged tickets 1 and 2.

We managed to get seated just before the pre-show match, a six-man tag between a team from the US and a team from Canada.  I completely missed the names of the wrestlers and can’t seem to dig them up anywhere, so my apologies to the guys who put in a great effort.  Right away, I felt a sense of empowerment being in the front row, hooting and hollering at the bad guys who were right next to me.  This proved to be a huge mistake as my vocal chords were shot before intermission.  I couldn’t help myself.

Front row moment: The American team started using some dirty tactics and I barked, “That’s not how we do things in Canada!”  That drew a sneer from one of the dastardly Yanks.  This was the beginning of the shenanigans.

Team CanuckMatch 1: Alex Vega v. Brent Banks

At the first Any Given Sunday, these two were tag team partners.  Now they’re embroiled in a blood feud.  They’ve had a series of matches and each one ends with Banks cowardly attacking Vega afterwards.  I was eagerly awaiting this match since we got a taste of Banks’s over the top heel persona at Tapped Out.  After that show, they did a goofy year-end awards ceremony and when Banks won for “Most Hated” he couldn’t even be bothered to look away from his cell phone as he accepted the plaque.  What a jerk!

Front row moment:   As Banks made his way to the ring, I booed lustily.  Then I broke out an insult I’d been working on for a month:

You suck, Banks!

He turned and glared right at me.  Staying consistent with a chicken s**t fan persona I’d established, I immediately started pointing at fans around me to avert suspicion.

As for Vega, he has improved a lot since the first time I saw him.  He’s really tightened up the execution of his moves and he’s got a better physique too.  I came to see Banks, but Vega definitely won me over.

The match itself was fantastic.  The action was high paced indie fare, made better by the intensity of their rivalry.  It goes to show you how a simple, well played storyline can add so much to a match.  Banks had a couple of brilliant moments where he would tease going for a chop (always a crowd pleasing move), then do something different like rake Vega’s eyes.  We ate it up.  I couldn’t wipe the smile off of my face no matter how hard I booed.

Veda Scott v. Seleziya Sparx

After that white hot opening match, they made a wise decision to schedule the ladies to wrestle next.  A women’s match has a totally different feel to it, not to mention they have their own ways of getting the crowd riled up…

Front row moment: Seleziya stopped right in front of me, shook her groove thang and then blew me a kiss.  I believe she also said “That’s for you”, but she may as well have been talking to every man in the audience.  I’m pretty sure my heart stopped for a second there.

SeleziyaThere were some slow spots, particularly when transitioning between big moves but Seleziya and Veda definitely have some chemistry.  This was the second time these two have locked up, with each woman getting one win apiece.  Post-match, Veda got on the mic and challenged Seleziya to a rubber match, which I’m eagerly anticipating.

Gregory Iron v. Tyson Dux

I went to get some badly needed bottles of water, so I missed the video that hyped this match.  I was confused as to why everyone was so down on Dux, since he’s a SMASH Wrestling staple, but I learned later that he was making fun of Iron’s cerebral palsy.  That’s kind of uncalled for.

CyborgFront row moment: Iron furiously attacked Dux before the bell even rang, tossing him around ringside and bashing him with a chair.  As they passed by, Iron called to me to raise my boot.  I blanked completely, nearly blowing the whole thing, but Paolo yelled at me and I got my foot up in time to have Dux’s face rammed into it.  I’ve seen this sort of thing done at lots of indie wrestling shows.  I always assumed that the victim barely glances the boot, but I felt the impact as Dux threw himself at it!  What these guys do for their love of the business astounds me.

Dux managed to put Iron away with a Death Valley Driver into the corner, the second one of the match.  Then he cut a promo afterwards putting Iron over big time.

Matt Cross v. Scotty O’Shea v. Kyle O’Reilly v. A.C.H.

This was originally scheduled to be a triple threat match with Cross, O’Shea and O’Reilly.  The ring announcer pulled an amusing bait and switch, telling us that the match was no longer happening.  He allowed for the expected boos before telling us that A.C.H. had come up all the way from Texas to make this a fatal four way!  The action was absolutely insane.

Front row moment: Where do I begin?  The wrestlers picked our side to do all the crazy “flying out of the ring” spots and I feared for my life at times.  I wasn’t just staying in character!  There was an elderly woman sitting right next to me (who apparently goes to all of these Etobicoke shows) and I felt like I had to protect both her and myself.  Easier said than done when large, sweaty dudes in spandex are hurtling towards you.  I’m going to look like an a-hole when the DVD comes out as you’ll be able to see me visibly cowering in fear of the airborne wrestlers.

A.C.H. was the last man out, doing a spectacular flipping dive out of the ring.  He looked like he needed to chill so he used the woman and me as arm rests.  All I could do was pat him on the elbow pad and tell him to take it easy.

I felt a kinship with A.C.H. after that, so I felt really bad when Cross unloaded on him with fifty forearms to the noggin.  That’s not an exaggeration.  The whole place counted along with him.

Another great spot saw O’Reilly eat a stunner, stumble into the ropes and use them to flip back towards the ring and add momentum to a clothesline that looked like it killed A.C.H.  They really knew how to welcome the new guy to SMASH wrestling.

Cross ended up winning with a wicked Shooting Star Press.  He’s undefeated in SMASH Wrestling, which is why several fans were chanting “Goldberg” in recognition of his streak.  It’s going to be a huge deal when someone finally beats him.  Maybe Jay Lethal, who’s booked to appear at the next show?

M-Dogg 20Checkmate (Christopher Bishop & Lionel Knight) v. The Overdogs (Sebastian Suave & John Greed)

This was the SMASH wrestling debut of the NEW Overdogs, after Suave turned on his partner Josh Alexander at Tapped Out.  I like that he chose Greed to join the team.  He’s one of the few guys in this promotion with a different body type.  It’s a disgusting body type, but it is certainly different.

This match had an odd placement after that breathtaking multi-man match and with the co-main and main events forthcoming.  Still, the wrestlers did an admiral job and the action revved up near the end.  Bishop actually executed what I thought was the most impressive move of the night.  As Knight beat on Suave in the corner, Bishop maintained a headstand in that same corner for a solid 10 seconds.  When Knight was clear, Bishop released and landed a gorgeous split-legged moonsault.

Front row moment: There actually wasn’t one.  I’m glad because I’m not sure I could handle Greed getting up in my business.

Johnny Gargano v. Michael Elgin

I’d seen pictures, but until I saw him in person I didn’t realize what a big ass motherf**er Elgin is.  He’s kind of like a cross between Chris Benoit and Rhyno.  He’s built like a tree stump.

I was openly rooting for Gargano since this is my third time seeing him and that’s what I choose to base my allegiance on.  He’s put on a good show every time so how can I not have his back?

Gargano & ElginFront row moment: Gargano is great at getting the crowd involved and he kept looking at our section, mainly because we were in the minority in cheering him on.  Elgin hails from Ontario so I understand why he was favoured.  Still, when Gargano managed to make Elgin submit, us Gargano fans (Garganites…Garganoans…?) were made to feel like we were a part of it.

At one point, Gargano got hit so hard that he spit gum out of his mouth and I think it hit Paolo so that was pretty great.

Gargano GumThe rest of the match was filled with stiff strikes and high impact manoeuvres, though the complete lack of psychology left me somewhat cold.  I’m told that Elgin is meant to be a beast who can take a beating, but there were some sequences where they were just murdering each other and then springing back up like nothing happened.  From an athleticism and execution standpoint, it was astounding.  They really went all out in fitting in as many moves as possible.

Elgin’s strength is unbelievable.  His delayed vertical suplex, where he holds his opponent upside down for about a minute, is stunning to see in person.  Time and time again he was able to dead lift Gargano for various slams and suplexes.  He connected with a Falcon Arrow from the tope rope that I thought was the end of the match for sure.

The match had an amusing B-plot, involving a referee with some questionable counting skills.  I loved it because his counts seemed to favour Gargano, but the crowd turned on him quickly.  They even started a “kill the ref” chant.  Harsh.  Post-match, Elgin asked the audience to focus on the quality of the match and leave the referee alone.  Then he clocked the poor bugger with a spinning backfist.

The crowd had also chanted “we want Jimmy” (in reference to fan favourite official and big show veteran Jimmy Korderas).  Jimmy came out to check on his fellow zebra and as soon as he saw that he was fit to stand, he tossed him out of the ring.  That got one of the loudest pops of the night.  A bunch of savages in this town.

Chris Hero v. AJ Styles

Front row moment: Nothing in particular in this match, but being able to slap hands with Styles and all the other wrestlers was the whip cream on the sundae for me.  I’d seen Styles on TV countless times, watched his matches from Japan and now I was giving daps to the guy in a small gym in Etobicoke, Ontario.  How awesome is that?

The Phenomenal OneDamn, AJ Styles looks bad ass.

Early on, you can see why these two have had such decorated careers.  They’re just so damn crisp.  They really fill in the spaces between the high spots too.  That is to say, it never looks like they’re thinking about what to do next.  All of their movements and mannerisms make sense.  They make it easy for us to suspend disbelief, which I find can add a lot to a wrestling match.

I won’t say it was the best match of the night (I actually felt the Vega/Banks and the 4 way were superior), but it’s also a difficult match for me to evaluate because I was somewhat star struck.  It was just like seeing Emily Haines again.  I’d seen her on TV, in music videos, at festivals, but to be that close was surreal.  What might have been just another match for Styles and Hero was an unforgettable encounter for the rest of us.  It seemed to mean something to them.  I hope it did.

Hero won with his discus elbow to the back of the head, a move that has been heavily protected from what I’ve seen.  One shot and you’re done.  He now has consecutive SMASH victories over Lance Storm and AJ Styles.  Not bad.  He proposed a best of 7 series with Styles after and if that hasn’t already been arranged with companies across North America, then promoters everywhere should be lining up to get a piece of it.  If it swings back to this part of town, I know I’ll be there.

As it stands, they already have my money for the next show in February.  Will Matt Cross be able to keep his streak alive?  How will Vega and Banks deal with the pressure of the main event spot, a ladder match to boot?  Will seeing Mickie James in person cause me to melt (sorry, Seleziya)?

What else can I say?  I don’t drink, but I love to get SMASHed.

The UFC Comes To Winnipeg – Part 2: Two Trees Falling In A Forest

The prevailing sentiment after the show was that this was a card on par with last July’s disappointing Calgary show.  That card was chock full of inaction, stalling and questionable decisions.  There was no punch to it (pardon the pun).  Because Calgary and Winnipeg are cities eager for UFC action, there is the sense that they are being exploited.  After all, if people will buy tickets no matter what then why should you give them anything of substance?

One thing that people shouldn’t do is compare these events with the UFC’s excursions into Brazil.  I love an exciting finish as much as the next guy, but the matchmaking for the last UFC on Fuel TV card in Fortaleza was farcical.  It wasn’t that Brazilians won every fight or even the record number of submissions.  The problem was that the fighters who ended up losing were set up as glorified jobbers.  Add in the hostile home crowd and you may as well have basted them in steak sauce and thrown them to actual wolves.  This is not to take anything away from the Brazilian fighters that night, several of whom project as future contenders.  I’d go as far to say that those Brazilians are superior to the Canadians that I saw on Saturday.

Even if they failed to elevate heart rates, the UFC 161 participants should be applauded for their gritty performances.  Not every fight is going to be a jiu-jitsu clinic or an electrifying slugfest.  There were only two true stinkers on the card with the other fights being close, compelling contests.  Decisions happen, especially with intelligent matchmaking that leads to fair competition and not pro wrestling style squash matches.

Judging, on the other hand, continues to be a sore spot and there was some definite home cooking going on.  Let’s take a closer look at each match:

Bantamweight Bout: Yves Jabouin d. Dustin Pague via Split Decision (29-28 x2, 28-29)

Music:

Pague comes out to a remix of Return of the Mack.  That’s pretty dope.

“Tiger” Jabouin counters with Techno Syndrome.


MORTAL KOMBAAAAAAAT

Tiger wins.

Analysis:

The diverse striking of Jabouin served him well.  He worked his way past Pague’s long arms, put points on the board and set up his takedowns.  It was the latter maneuver that led to trouble.  Pague has an extremely active guard and Jabouin spent much of the first round fighting off submissions attempts.  Were it not for some late ground and pound, he might have actually lost the first round.

The disparity on the ground was even more obvious in the second.  Pague worked to full mount, landed a ton of punches and threatened with a rear naked choke.  To Tiger’s credit, he never panicked even when it looked like Pague had the submission locked in.

In the third, Tiger was doing fine until he threw a crazy ass (that’s a technical term) spin kick and fell down in a heap.  Pague pounced, but couldn’t capitalize and after a scramble Jabouin was able to get back on top.  It was another close one, but I gave Tiger that one in addition to the first.

I had the good fortune of running into Pague at the airport later that night and I congratulated him on a great fight.  The funny thing is that Pague came much closer to finishing the fight than Jabouin ever did.  Jabouin was just able to score more consistently.  It’s a shame that Pague might get released after this as both men put forth a good effort.

Lightweight Bout: Mitch Clarke d. John Maguire via Unanimous Decision (29-28 x3)

Music:

Maguire promised a special entrance if he got 10,000 Twitter followers.  True to his word, he entered wearing a belly shirt whilst dancing to the ‘80s classic, Maniac.

Some things you can’t unsee, bro.

Analysis:

This was built up as a battle between two accomplished grapplers and you know what that means: mediocre kickboxing time!  Neither guy is going to sign up for a K1 tournament anytime soon, but Clarke was slightly better on the feet and that was enough to get him his first UFC win.

Bantamweight Bout: Roland Delorme d. Edwin Figueroa via Unanimous Decision (29-28 x3)

Music:

Delorme comes out to We Own It, a song from the modern cinema masterpiece “Fast and Furious 6”.  Point: Delorme.

Analysis:

I’m a huge fan of Delorme and his ground work is truly a pleasure to watch, but he took so much damage searching for submissions that I thought Figueroa might have eked this one out.  Happy to be wrong.  With the victory, Delorme is undefeated (not counting a loss to Francisco Rivera that was overturned), but he still needs more seasoning before facing top competition.  This was the third straight fight to go to a decision and the third straight win for a Canadian.  This is the point where the judging was starting to look fishy.

Welterweight Bout: Sean Pierson d. Kenny Robertson via Majority Decision (29-28 x2, 28-28)

Analysis:

Pierson looked a lot bigger than Robertson and he used his size to avoid any bad positions.  His striking has always been a strength and even though he got taken down, he had a massive advantage on the feet through the first two rounds.  In the final period, Robertson cracked Pierson with an unorthodox upward elbow but he couldn’t put him away.  It was so damaging that I would have given Robertson a 10-8 round and scored the fight a draw as one of the judges did.

In interviews leading up to the show, Pierson uttered the dreaded “R word” (retirement) and that, for me, is a red flag.  I was rooting for him, but I thought that Robertson would win.  I swear I’m not a self-hating Canuck.  It was good to see Pierson get his hand raised even if it wasn’t in the most impressive fashion.

Lightweight Bout: James Krause d. Sam Stout via Submission (4:47, R3)

Music:

Krause comes out to B.o.B. and Stout to Lil Wayne.  Why is the entrance music getting progressively less interesting?

Analysis:

Stout was the obvious pick here, with 15 UFC appearances under his belt compared to Krause’s 0.  Then again, this is why they play the games.

I couldn’t believe my eyes in the first round.  Stout was being out-struck!  Conventional wisdom suggested that Krause should be doing everything in his power to get the fight down to the mat, but it was Stout who initiated the grappling.  It was a tactic he had used in the past to “steal” close rounds.  That tactic would come back to haunt him later.

Also, Krause broke out a cartwheel kick:

Krause stayed calm, cool and collected when Stout started to build momentum in the second round.  From what I’d read and seen, Krause was more than prepared for the UFC (he’d previously competed in the WEC).  I’m not sure even his most hardcore followers could have predicted he would make such an impact in his first night out.  He was so comfortable that he threw out a jumping knee, a Superman uppercut (!) and a stepping elbow.  His corner warned him about a late takedown from Stout and when it happened, Krause was able to turn it into a guillotine submission with just seconds to go.  He would end up earning the bonus money for best fight and best submission, totalling $100,000.  Not a bad way to debut.

Welterweight Bout: Jake Shields d. Tyron Woodley via Split Decision (29-28 x2, 30-27)

Music:

Shields comes out to Seven Nation Army, the only time you’ll see the crowd excited for him.  Woodley wins me over by coming out to Started From The Bottom.

Analysis:

Let me just refer to my notes here…

  • Round 1: Zzzzz…10-9 Shields
  • Round 2: Zzzzz…10-9 Shields
  • Round 3: Zzzzz…oh, spinning back fist!  Zzzzz…10-9 Shields

I thought this fight had reasonable star power, but I somehow forgot that both men have a reputation for grueling, grind it out victories.  Woodley fooled us all with a decent showing against Nate Marquardt (though it should say something that what I remember most is Woodley getting brutally knocked out) and an awesome finish of Jay Hieron.

Shields…is Shields.

Even though I think Shields won every round with pitter patter strikes and leg kicks that would best be described as “gentle”, he also failed 18 takedown attempts.  18!  The fact that Woodley was even less effective should tell you everything you need to know about this fight (I “LOL’d” at the announcement of the 30-27 score for Woodley and I hate typing LOL).

To quote the Winnipeg faithful: “Boo.”

Heavyweight Bout: Shawn Jordan d. Pat Barry via TKO (:59, R1)

Music:

Jordan comes out to Johnny Cash’s rendition of Hurt.  That’s kind of a bummer.

Analysis:

I’m comfortable absolving Jordan of his sins for the Cheick Kongo fight in Calgary after witnessing this demolition of Barry.  The “striker vs. grappler” storyline never materialized as Jordan came forward with some straight punches down the middle that stunned Barry.  Pinned against the cage, Barry ate at least a dozen unanswered shots before the referee was forced to stop the fight.  It was the quickest loss of Barry’s career.  The only thing more impressive was Jordan’s picture perfect celebratory back flip.

Women’s Bantamweight Bout: Alexis Davis d. Rosi Sexton via Unanimous Decision (29-28 x2, 29-27)

Music:

Davis comes out to It’s Tricky, which never fails to put a smile on my face.  She seems super excited.  Can you blame her?

Analysis:

The first round was the definition of mixed martial arts.  Davis, a gifted jiu-jitsu practitioner, was super aggressive in looking to finish with a triangle choke.  Sexton fought it off while raining down punches square in Davis’ face.  Looking at the scores now, I suspect Davis was rewarded the first round for essentially being on the offensive the whole time, but I saw Sexton doing most of the damage.

For me, this should have been the second draw of the night.  I had Sexton taking the first and third, with Davis nearly finishing the fight in the second (I gave her a 10-8).  Herb Dean seemed to be doing his best Steve Mazzagatti impression, letting Davis pound away on Sexton from mount.  In his defence, Davis needed more “oomph” behind her punches to force a definitive stoppage.  Sexton came in with a “never say die” reputation and she lived up to it.  Davis who has all the makings of a contender.

Light Heavyweight Bout: Ryan Jimmo d. Igor Pokrajac via Unanimous Decision (30-27 x3)

Analysis:

See Woodley/Shields above.

Okay, I’ll do my best here.

The most entertaining part of this bout was Yves Lavigne frantically resetting the action, desperate to avoid a repeat of the snoozer he had officiated earlier in the evening.  Donnie Yen couldn’t have produced any action with these two.

I don’t blame Jimmo entirely, since Pokrajac was completely helpless as Jimmo secured double underhooks and picked him up and planted him against the fence.  Still, it would have been nice to see Jimmo do something to try and finish.  He apologized afterwards for putting on a bad fight, but he’s had a bad reputation for stalling and boring audiences since his days as a Maximum Fighting Championship title holder.

To quote the Winnipeg faithful: “LET’S GO JETS!  LET’S GO JETS!  LET’S GO JETS!”

Heavyweight Bout: Stipe Miocic d. Roy Nelson via Unanimous Decision (30-27 x3)

Music:

Big Country comes out to We Will Rock You.  But of course.

Analysis:

Based on the audience’s boisterous approval, I’d swear that Nelson was born and raised in the Prairies.  It’s a shame that he couldn’t match their enthusiasm.

Nelson’s highlight reel preceding the fight told you everything you needed to know about Miocic’s gameplan: Stay away from that overhand right and box, don’t brawl.  The crowd was waiting for Big Country all night and he was needed more than ever after the Jimmo/Pokrajac tranquilizer.  The bloodthirsty denizens all expected him to go out there and dust Miocic just like he had everyone else in his last three fights, but Miocic never fell into that trap.  He danced around, using immaculate footwork to set up combinations that Nelson walked right into.  In person, it looked like Miocic was landing 4 out of every 5 punches.  If Nelson were human, he wouldn’t have made it past the first three minutes.  Miocic was juking and jiving like Manny Pacquiao.

The UFC put Nelson in a strange position here, booking him as a late addition to bolster an injury ravaged card.  That decision coincided with this being the last fight on Nelson’s current contract.  He’s a proven draw with a contentious relationship with management so a return is by no means guaranteed.  I think he’ll come back, but it’s possible that you won’t see him rubbing his belly atop the octagon for a while.

Light Heavyweight Bout: Rashad Evans d. Dan Henderson via Split Decision (29-28 x2, 28-29)

Music:

That’s right.

Step Into A World is BACK!  My friend Paolo always says Evans hasn’t been the same since he stopped using this music, so now that it’s back I’m feeling even more confident about picking him to win.

Analysis:

If two legends fight in Manitoba and they’re both closer to retirement than a shot at Jon Jones…does anybody hear it?

Don’t get me wrong, the crowd at the MTS Centre was heavily invested.  Based on their reaction, you’d think Suga and Hendo were battling over UFC gold.  Yet one cannot ignore how the loss of two major fights (Eddie Wineland/Renan Barão, Antônio Rogério Nogueira/Shogun Rua) relegated this to “default” main event status.  We weren’t even going to get five rounds out of them.

By the time the lights dimmed, I couldn’t help but get caught up in it.  Between the two of them, they’d done it all.  The Olympics.  PRIDE.  Strikeforce.  The Ultimate FighterWanderlei SilvaChuck LiddellFedor EmelianenkoForrest Griffin.  Shogun.  Rampage Jackson.  And now, Winnipeg.

The fight itself was forgettable.  Like Nelson, Henderson has become too dependent on one weapon: his mythical right hand, the “H-bomb”.  For fighters like Lyoto Machida and Evans, it’s child’s play to stay out of the way of your strengths while attacking your weaknesses.  It wasn’t exactly vintage Suga, but he looked much improved from his last couple of contests.  He didn’t seem afraid to come forward and pull the trigger, though he doesn’t pack the heat that he once did.  Both men scored knockdowns, but it was Evans who consistently avoided the big shots.  There was a look of sheer joy on his face after the split decision win, though the pro-Hendo crowd was disappointed.

Regardless of the outcome, I know I’ll never forget seeing this match.  Having not grown up with boxing, I can only listen and learn about the mystique and the aura associated with the greatest of pugilists like Ali, Frazier, and Robinson.  Even from the nosebleeds, I got some sense of what that was like when Evans and Henderson strode down to the cage.  Fifty years from now, we’ll remember them.

*****

In addition to meeting Pague at the airport, I also saw Michael Johnson on my flight and recently retired Mark Hominick at another gate.  I’m not a fan boy by any means, so it never occurred to me to ask for pictures or autographs or any of that jazz.  That wasn’t what was cool about it.  It was more important to me that I felt like I was walking in their world.  There were no microphones, no cage, no arena.  Just a group of people on their way home.  I’m an outsider looking in, one step closer to kicking that door down.

The UFC Comes To Winnipeg – Part 1: Of Beards And Latex

A week before UFC 161 in Winnipeg I still wasn’t sure if I was going to go.  In general, I prefer to watch sporting events on television.  Modern technology has made home (or bar) viewing even better than being there, unless you’re not rocking some first class seats or a luxury box.  I’d never seen a UFC event live.  I’d seen some Canadian promotions and Bellator when it came to Windsor, but not the UFC.  Maybe I could wait until they came back to Toronto.  It didn’t make sense to fly to Winnipeg for a day or two, did it?

There are always a hundred reasons not to do something.

*****

I did my best to sleep in the cab, at the airport and on the plane.  With no plans to stay at a hotel, I’d have to get my rest where I could.  It was going to be a long day.

On Saturday, the UFC hosted a “block party” at cityplace.  It wasn’t so much a party as it was a collection of merchandise and snack booths and a small tent where fans could attempt a few feats of strength and agility.  It was actually kind of lame.  After a lap around the area, I made my way to the stage and waited for the Q&A session with TJ Grant.  I’m not going to pretend I’m a longtime fan of his.  Like most people, I hopped on the bandwagon after his war with Evan Dunham.  He’s the only person who can claim a first round finish of Gray Maynard and he’s now the number one contender to the lightweight title.

I was disappointed when I saw how well groomed his facial hair was.  He had a mean hockey playoff beard going for a while there and I assumed that he wasn’t going to shave it until he won the belt.  There goes one of my questions.

When it was time for fan interaction, nobody stepped up so I did and I gave him the softest of softballs (response in bold):

What does it mean to you to be the first Canadian to challenge for the lightweight title?

You know, to get to fight for the title, it really hasn’t even sunk in yet.  It’s just one of those things man.  Seize opportunities.  I promise I’m going to put everything into it and I’m gonna do my best.  It’s really like a dream come true.

It wasn’t exactly an exclusive interview, but it was a start.

Grant came off as modest and humble (so, Canadian) and nothing he said was particularly earth shattering.  He told us about his diet, his fondness for Johnny Cash and encouraged young kids to say their prayers and eat their vitamins.  His words regarding the rigors of training stuck with me:

There’s gonna be times where you don’t feel like you’re getting better but you will.  You’ve just gotta push through it.  Just be consistent.

“Showdown” Joe was hosting the session and he got on Grant about his reckless behavior during the Maynard fight.  Grant was eating heavy shots, but kept coming forward.  Showdown asked the crowd if he thought that Grant was crazy and nobody agreed.

“It was all part of the plan”, Grant said.

For some reason, Anthony Pettis kept getting brought up.  It was Grant himself who initially evoked the former WEC champion, stating “I don’t do fancy kicks off the cage or anything like that, but I can guarantee when I get out there I’m going to put that guy in a serious dogfight.”  Later, a fan asked if Pettis might steal Grant’s spot since Pettis recently had to bow out of a promised featherweight title shot.  Grant says Ariel Helwani had asked him about that, but Showdown assured everyone the contract is signed.  Considering the UFC’s injudicious handling of title fights recently, I hope he’s right.

One of the most common questions a fighter can get is “If you could fight anyone, past or present, who would it be?”  It’s always a fun question.  The answer reveals a lot about the fighter: their influences, their motivation, their ego.  Without hesitation, Grant offered his response:

Benson Henderson

            Yeah, I think he’s ready.

*****

The second session I attended featured Sarah Kaufman and Jordan Mein.  With all due respect to Grant, Kaufman and Mein were a lot more lively.  Showdown goes out of his way to put over Mein as the future at 170 because “Georges St-Pierre can’t fight forever.”  Without missing a beat, Mein added “He’s gettin’ old.”  Seeing Mein was a treat for me since I’d seen him fight in Orillia.  I made sure to mention it when I stepped up to ask a question:

I was lucky enough to see Jordan live at the first MMA event in Ontario when he main evented against a man who was victorious last night, Josh Burkman, and he beat him soundly.  I think everybody knew that he was a future UFC fighter (after going through Strikeforce as well).  My question is: you cut a pretty crazy pace in your career.  I think you’re only 24, 25 years old and you have almost 30 fights…more than that?

(Mein says that he’s 23 and he’s had 36 fights)

Have you ever considered taking any sort of break?  Has that even entered your mind or is it just like a job, like you do it normally?

Well, my last fight I got a fractured orbital and a fractured nose so I’m taking about six months off.  Maybe a little less, maybe five.

Ouch!  I was glad to hear that he was taking some time off, though obviously not under those circumstances.

After Kaufman answered questions about why women’s fights are so exciting (ability to push the pace and conditioning level) and if she’d been offered the chance to replace Cat Zingano as a coach on TUF (she hadn’t), I got my chance to ask her about something that had been bothering me for a long time:

I hate to bring up Rousey again, but in the build-up to the Rousey fight they had you guys film a video.  I don’t know if you remember this.  This was probably a long time ago now.

I have a good memory.

For anyone who hasn’t seen it, Sarah and Ronda were in full bodysuits.  It was a very well done video, but I remember thinking it was a bit much and they would never do something like that for the male fighters.  I’m wondering what your thoughts were on that.

You know…I don’t love being in latex, first off.  Especially white latex.  I’m already a little bit ghost-like and it doesn’t really do much for my complexion.  I just think they were trying to come up with something different for the promos.  They promo everyone a little bit differently and they kind of want to promo her like the hardcore, bad reputation blonde bombshell.  I think they kind of came up with her idea and then were like, “Oh yeah, we can be like superheroes and you can be in a white one!”  That’s kind of how it was.  It didn’t turn out that great because they ended up getting the suits from a sex store so we had like zippered crotches and stuff.  So they didn’t end up using as much footage as they wanted to and they couldn’t actually do anything with it.

With that, I felt vindicated in my decision to make the trip to Winnipeg.  The next man up asked if they let her keep the suit.  She declined, but kept the boots.

Kaufman and Mein both came from the dark ages of MMA to now making a decent living in the sport.  Kaufman recounted how she fought on an illegal card.  After the show, someone threw a rock through the back of her car.  Mein says he fought in Australia once and there was no testing whatsoever.  Maybe this is why they were in such good spirits the whole time.

The topic of dream matches came up again and Kaufman chose BJ Penn: “He’s amazing and he would kill me.”  Someone yells out “Struve!”, but Kaufman says he’s too tall.

Mein called out Brock Lesnar.  Sadly, I kind of like Mein’s chances in that one.  Manitoba native Joe Doerkson is suggested and Showdown tells everyone to be careful because he might be lurking in the audience somewhere.

They both shared amusing stories about being hurt or knocked out during training.  Mein says his uncle dropped him with a liver shot, while Kaufman explained how strange it can be to lose consciousness:

I’ve actually only ever been choked out in demonstrations, so never when rolling.  My coach was putting on a triangle and was talking and all of a sudden I woke up and I’m drooling, I’m shaking…The first thing I thought, just kind of look up and you have like the best sleep ever for 10 seconds or 3 seconds then you wake up feeling really rested and it’s awesome but then you kind of look around and you have no idea why people are staring at you.  For the entire class, looking at me as if I had died.

Showdown said he can’t afford to be knocked out because he knows someone will take a video of it.  I have to compliment Showdown for his expert moderation of the Q&A sessions.  There are times when people don’t know what to ask so it falls on him to keep the conversation going without completely taking over.  He was able to express his thoughts on MMA judging and the state of legislation in Canada while keeping the fighters front and centre.  As the crowd warmed to the guests (or just got drunk enough to stick their faces in front of the mic), he knew when to back off.  As someone who wants to be involved in sports journalism and maybe even broadcasting someday, I was admiring how he plied his trade as much as anything else I saw or heard that day.

I Can’t Win – Ballad Of A Suffering Jays Fan

 

You’ve seen this scene hundreds of times.  A basketball player drives into the lane and gets fouled.  Everyone on the court mills about, taking their time to get into position as the shooter steps to the free throw line.  He takes a couple of dribbles or slaps the ball with his hands or exhibits some other absolutely necessary idiosyncrasy before attempting to put some points on the board.  As all this happens, it falls upon the commentary team to fill in the blanks for the viewers at home:

“…his second trip to the line this game.  He’s shooting 85% on the season and he’s made 12 straight free throws…”

The shot goes up.

*CLANK*

The ball bounces weakly against the ground, the score unchanged.  The broadcaster’s jinx strikes again.

Forget the fact that nobody on the court can hear what the broadcaster is saying.  You ask most sports fans and they’ll tell you that no matter how successful an athlete has been recently; one presumptuous statement from the announcer will immediately cause that player to falter.  It’s ridiculous.  The universe doesn’t work that way.  Broadcasters make these kinds of proclamations all the time and they go unnoticed until the result we see on the screen is so contrary to what we’ve just been told that a “jinx” is the only logical conclusion.  The truth is that when a great athlete makes an unexpected error it is the exception that proves the rule and that’s why those moments stick in our minds.  Not because of any intangible influence.

I don’t believe in jinxes.

*****

Saturday, April 21st marked the 4th Toronto Blue Jays game I’ve attended this season.  They’ve lost all 4 of them.

I’ve seen them lose in almost every possible way.  I’ve seen them lose trailing the entire game.  I’ve seen them lose in extra innings.  I’ve seen them get absolutely slaughtered too.  I was at the 13-0 game a few weeks ago, the kind of traumatic experience that turns darkly hilarious after a few innings.  It brought to mind a scene from Community:

…when I was born I got my umbilical cord wrapped around my neck, both arms, and one of my ankles.  Mom said that there came a point when the doctor stopped delivering me and just started laughing.

On that day, the Blue Jays were Pierce trying to escape the womb.

The only thing I haven’t seen is the Jays blowing a big lead and I’m not looking to get that one crossed off the list.  I just want to see them win.

It’s gotten to the point where I just hate everything I see on the long walk back to my car.  I hate the other poor fans who suffered along with me.  I hate the staff.  I hate the theatres and restaurants around the Rogers Centre.  I hate Canada’s Walk of Fame.  I hate Roy Thomson Hall.  I hate all of these things because looking at them reminds me of the terrible Jays performances I’ve paid for and sat through this season.  I need them to win so I can love these things again.

Baseball is a game of so many variables that to agonize over every undisciplined swing and fielding mistake is futile.  If the team is good, the positives will outweigh the negatives in the long run.  I know this to be true and yet, when I’m watching the game live, these failures wound me deeply.  I take it personally.  Against the Yankees, Rajai Davis repeatedly found himself in high leverage situations and three times he created an out hacking at the first pitch.  It was borderline pathological.  We booed him lustily.  We didn’t care that the only reason he was playing was because Jose Reyes is injured.  When you’re on the field, you should act like you belong there.

I’ve had seasons where I’ve only gone to a couple of games and I guarantee you the home team won at least one of them.  To have gone to four games this early in a season that is carrying such great expectations and to witness four losses is almost unfathomable.  Not that the team is tearing the house down otherwise.  They’ve lost 12 of their first 20 games and I just happened to be at 4 of those losses.

The scary thing is that there’s no encouraging way to process this information.  Either my mere presence is causing the Blue Jays to underperform (unlikely) or this team is not as good as we predicted they would be (increasingly likely).  I choose to believe that they’re going through a bad stretch, like any team does during a season.  I choose to believe a lot of things about Toronto sports teams to help me get through the year.

Even taking into account the Reyes injury, it’s difficult to convey the depths to which this offence has plummeted.  As of April 23, the Jays are 28th in batting average, 26th in on base percentage and 18th in slugging.  They are hitting a farcical .202 with runners in scoring position.  They are tied for the 2nd worst run differential in all of baseball.  We’re reaching a point where the doctor is going to stop delivering and just start laughing.

The team is only 4 games under .500 in a year where the AL East division is going to be a bloodbath, but I don’t know how much longer I can massage my fandom.  Conventional wisdom tells us that Baltimore and New York will regress, Tampa Bay and Toronto will round into shape and Boston…who knows how far that team can go with the inspiration of a wounded city?  Still, if the Jays are 7 games out of first in the middle of May?  9 games out by the end of June?  Toronto management did everything in their power to create a contender, but even in our sabermetrics obsessed era baseball games are not won by projections.  Sports will always be decided by an amalgamation of talent, skill, motivation and luck.  For any fan, the latter factor can provide either frustration or exhilaration; even more so when you feel like you’re somehow affecting the home team’s fortunes.

The flex pack I purchased has me committed to at least 11 more games this year and I plan to go to every one of them.

I don’t believe in jinxes.

Angel Stories

For years, I worried that something might happen to her and wouldn’t hear about it.  I wasn’t particularly close with too many of her friends and I’d met members of her family once or twice.  She lived in Brampton growing up, but she bounced all over the place when she got older.  If it wasn’t for Yaya I wouldn’t have found out at all.  She told me that they found Angel down at the Harbourfront.

*****

It came as a surprise to me that not everyone referred to Angel as Angel.  She was born Angela Sinclair and she had two brothers named Anthony and Angelo.  She took on the alias to avoid confusion.  I learned this in a roundabout way when I went to Steve’s Music and I was told she wasn’t there, but the staff thought I was referring to another girl whose name actually was Angel.  Luckily, Angel(a) saw me.  She told me that I could call her Angela from now on, since being mixed up with her brother was less frequent these days.  I shook my head.  She was my Angel and that was how it should be.

*****

I hate that I can’t remember the words to You Got Me by The Roots.  Angel and I rehearsed for that like crazy.  She was psyched about performing a hip-hop number and we’d agreed that You Got Me would be perfect for us.  There was a lineup to get into the club and we just went over the song over and over and over again while we waited.  We must have looked like the biggest dorks, but it paid off.  We got on stage and we didn’t forget any lines and frankly, we killed it.  To this day, I still think we outperformed Maestro who was the special guest that night.  Of course, our turn came way later in the evening and the crowd had thinned by that point.  Worse, the subway system had long stopped running and some friends of mine had to drive her home.  It was the last and best night of hip-hop karaoke I attended.

*****

She once wrote an entire exam in rhyme.  She got an A.  It was apparently so good that her professor added it the course website (the link is long expired, unfortunately).  I don’t know if this says more about her or about the quality of evaluation at the University of Toronto.

*****

Angel would do this thing where you’d say something and she’d react by opening her eyes as wide as humanly possible.  She would vary her expression depending on whether she approved or (as was often the case with me) disapproved.  Regardless, in that brief moment between initial recognition and processing, what you just said seemed like the most important/intelligent/insulting/bewildering thing that was ever said.

*****

I’ve been known to go off on a rant from time to time, usually ranging from harmlessly ignorant to wildly uninformed; occasionally entertaining.  One of my best was about the Justin Bieber smash hit Baby or as I like to call it, “The Greatest Pop Song Ever Written”.  I’ve never put this theory down in writing, so now is as good a time as any.

The song starts off with a simple piano bit that adds a touch of class to the proceedings followed by some unimaginative vocalization.  The beat comes in and it’s impactful, but inoffensive.  At this point, I’ve essentially described every dance pop song you’ve heard in the last 50 years, though you could substitute other instruments for the piano (electric guitar, violin, saxophone, etc.).  Bear with me.

The lyrics are nothing to write home about, but they are affecting (especially for the target demographic) and thus, effective.  The words could not be more thoughtless, a broad mix of age old epithets (You are my love, you are my heart) and modern phrases (Are we an item?  Girl, quit playing).  It is fluff, but what digestible fluff it is.  Then we get to the chorus:

Baby, baby baby oooooh
Baby, baby baby noooo
Baby, baby baby oooooh
I thought you’d always be mine, mine…

That right there…sums up every love song you’ve ever heard in your entire life.

Baby, baby baby ooooh = I met someone and I’m in love
Baby, baby baby noooo = We’re having some problems
Baby, baby baby ooooh = Regardless of what happens, I’ll never forget him/her.
I thought you’d always be mine, mine = Generic longing

Compare to a section from Something by The Beatles:

You’re asking me will my love grow
I don’t know, I don’t know
You stick around now, it may show
I don’t know, I don’t know

Or Unchained Melody by The Righteous Brothers:

Lonely rivers flow to the sea, to the sea
To the open arms of the sea
Lonely rivers sigh, wait for me, wait for me
I’ll be coming home, wait for me

Is there really any difference?  I could list a hundred songs with more powerful, clever, well thought out lyrics that follow the same structure and sentiment.  Baby distills centuries of lyricism and poetry into a handful of nonsense utterances.  It is brilliant.

A guest “rap” by Ludacris, in which he dishes out possibly the weakest 16 bars ever heard on a mainstream song (when you rhyme “star-struck” with “Starbucks” you are no longer qualified to be a hip-hop artist) somehow makes the song more irresistible.  A better verse might actually have distracted from this tightly manufactured concoction.  Even after going on this spiel multiple times (verbatim, mind you), I’m still not sure whether I’m kidding or not.

When I finally got around to sharing this with Angel, she wasn’t sure whether or not to take me seriously.  We were hanging out at Sonic Boom and she was half-listening to me, half-scrolling through rows of discarded discs…then it happened.  Someone had overheard our conversation.  He gave me a nod and said, “You know what?  This guy is right!”  Then he walked away.  I’ll never forget the look on Angel’s face.  She’d always humoured me, but never had she seen a third party actually step in and confirm that my deranged thoughts actually had any merit.  I could see the chill running down her spine.  She was absolutely mortified.  It is a precious moment that I brought up constantly and will hold on to forever.

*****

One time, Angel and I had this exchange:

Me: I think they should make more “hip-hoperas”.
Angel: I didn’t even watch that first one.  What was it called?
M: Carmen.
A: Who was in it?
M: Beyoncé.  Uh…that black guy.
A: Oh, that black guy.  In a hip-hopera, that really narrows it down.
M: It’s that guy, uh, he was in…shit.  He was in Dawn Of The Dead.
A: Didn’t see it.
M: Shit.  Okay, it’s that guy.  Not Taye Diggs.  Not Omar Epps.
A: Mekhi Phifer?
M: Yeah!!!

She was the best.

*****

If you’ve ever hung around my friend William and me for more than five minutes, you’ve undoubtedly heard us espouse the virtues of the cinema classic Van Helsing.  If you’ve never seen it, it’s about how a monster hunter played by Hugh Jackman travels to Transylvania to fight Dracula, the Wolfman and Frankenstein.  That premise alone doesn’t sound too horrible, but the movie takes itself too seriously and it is absolutely immaculate in its incompetence.  Anyway, we’ve watched it many times and we never shut up about it.  What you don’t know is that we viewed the film separately before commiserating on its awfulness.  It was Angel who saw it with me first.

I wouldn’t say I tricked Angel into watching it, because I assumed that she had the same expectations I did.  However, it was only halfway through the movie (probably around the time Van Helsing is doing a SICK “fall away from some flames while spinning and firing two guns at the same time” move) that she nudged me and said something to the effect of “What the fuck did you drag me into?”  After the movie was finished and she got over her outrage, we spent hours going over the mind-numbing details.

“He dedicated the movie to his father.”  I said.

“Did he hate his father or something?”  She replied, not missing a beat.

That started off a long tradition of us going out of our way to watch bad movies.  When my friend Gary went to Guatemala for six weeks, it was Angel who picked up the slack and accompanied me to see Transformers.  We were disappointed by the dullness of Stealth and pleasantly surprised by how easy it was to make fun of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 1.  The only movie that came close to Van Helsing was Doomsday.  I went back through my writings and saw a review I did of the film (hardly worth mentioning), which ended with these thoughts:

“…she suggested that we wander the city for a while.  I don’t think we went anywhere too out of the way, but almost every place is new to me and I can’t think of anyone else I’d rather have accompany on one of these aimless jaunts.”

*****

As in charge of her life as she was, there was a lot of turmoil there too.  She was someone who would shout at the world and not flinch when it shouted back.  But I could see it taking a toll on her.  It took a while, but I figured out the most important thing I could offer her: peace.  She could always come to me when she needed to settle down or step away from her daily trials.  We had big plans for this one outing but we were both recovering from recent illnesses so we decided to take a break at Innis College.  The afternoon was perfectly wasted as we went upstairs and ended up taking a nap together.  A similar thing happened when she stayed at my house in the dreaded suburbs.  She’d been having problems with a boyfriend and family and I thought a little tender loving care was all she needed.  I was ready to listen to her all night, but we ended up falling asleep around relatively early.  She didn’t need to talk about all that stuff.  She just needed to rest.

*****

Is there such thing as a “professional orange squeezer”?  Like, if you were really rich, could you hire someone with freakishly strong hands and arms to make delicious, pulpy juice for you at a whim?  When I first brought this up to Angel, she indulged me for at least half an hour, even furthering the question with intelligent and disturbing inquiries (and yes, man or woman they’d obviously be shirtless).  It became a dumb gag that would often spring up when I was forced to improvise, adding something different to the story every time as is customary with any good joke.  One time she asked me about “Tavish McSqueezie” and I had no idea what she was talking about.  She insists that’s the name I came up with for my hypothetical employee, but I swear that that was her invention.  It should come as no surprise that neither of us was in any hurry to claim it.

*****

The day after my birthday I had lunch with Angel who had forgotten the date and honestly, we’d made plans to meet a week before and I didn’t even think about it myself.  She even let me pay for lunch, which she definitely would not have if she knew it was my birthday (but would be justified anyway as I will explain later).  Angel remembered that my birthday was sometime this month and when she asked me for the exact day, I just deflected the question.  Later, by rummaging through some e-mails, she apparently discovered the date and called me that night.

“Fuck you!  Happy birthday, you asshole!”

I only wish you could hear the emotion with which that was said, but alas, it shall remain mine and mine alone.  Now, in both our defenses, the only reason she forgot is because I didn’t tell her and the only reason I decided to pay for our meal that day is because we also went out the week of her birthday a couple of months ago and she paid for dinner that night.  In brief, we both treated each other to birthday meals, just on our own birthdays.  We’ve always been unorthodox in our methods and I don’t see why we would handle such a trivial ritual any differently.

Am I forgiven, Angel?

*****

Joni Mitchell comes to mind.  When she was living with Graham Nash, he wrote the song Our House.  It’s a good one, written with warmth and humour.  Nash was amused by the sight of Mitchell playing the pretty housewife, cleaning up and planting flowers in the yard.  She was an unlikely candidate for domesticity.

For Angel, it was Mushaboom.  The Feist-penned song conveys the charming struggles that come with city living and the desire to escape to some quaint hovel at the end of a dirt road.  I couldn’t tell you if Angel ever wanted that sort of life for herself.  She loved the city; parts of it anyway.  We both thought that it was a brilliant song that happened to encapsulate that nameless desire that is always just out of reach.

*****

We auditioned for Canadian Idol together.  I wonder how many people she told about that.  It was…nothing like you see on television.  We’d gone on the last possible day so there was almost no line-up; presumably, the best of the best Toronto singers had already come and gone and only the truly exceptional talents would be making it now.  I decided to give it a shot anyway and Angel kept me company.

We weren’t part of the same audition group unfortunately, but I could kind of hear her and I know for sure that she was in there with the producers a lot longer than I was.  “She’s showing them what’s what now,” I thought.  Afterwards, she told me that they had her sing a couple of times and that they passed because she didn’t look comfortable singing without her guitar (why would they let people bring instruments then?).  A silly, self-obsessed part of me chooses to believe that they wanted her but she declined because she didn’t want to make me feel bad (not to mention she hated the whole concept).  That’s the sort of thing she would do.

*****

There was this one perfect day her and I spent at the Harbourfront, sometime after her cousin Johann died.  He’d committed suicide, which was something I struggled to understand.  I had a cousin who had done the same and to this day I get frustrated thinking about it.  Angel, as always, was understanding to the point that I thought she was being naive.  We had a discussion (we never argued) about it and she explained to me how it was possible to feel so helpless, so powerless to affect the things in your life that are infringing upon your happiness that self-termination seems like a perfectly reasonable option.  I refused to accept it, but for the first time since my cousin’s death, I at least came close to sympathizing with him.

Anyway, that’s not why I bring that episode up.  At some point during our walk, Angel decided to sit down on the edge of the dock and let her feet dangle.  I didn’t join her for a variety of reasons: I was scared someone might push me.  I was scared I might slip and fall in.  I was scared my shoes might drop off and into the water below.  She wasn’t scared of anything.  Eventually I did sit down next to her and I even swung my legs a little.  That was one of Angel’s gifts.  She helped me overcome a fear of something silly and small, but she could instill courage in anyone at anytime about anything.  One of the most common fears people have is expressing themselves, especially in public, but I don’t know how many friends she convinced to get up on a stage somewhere to read a poem or sing their hearts out.  Angel was fearless and she had the power to make you fearless too.

*****

It has taken me longer to finish writing this than I thought it would.  As cliché as it sounds, I guess I worry that when I’ve processed or exorcised all of these disparate fragments that that will be the end of it; there will be nothing left to say and I’ll have to move on.  What if I can’t recall every story or what if I’m remembering them wrong?  I know that doesn’t really matter.

The wonderful thing is that as close as our relationship was, I’m certain that you could ask any of her friends or family about her and they’d have just as many personal and intimate and funny stories about her.  What she and I had was unique and yet it’s also something I have in common with everyone else she welcomed into her life.  Paradoxical.  I wrote all of this to make myself feel better and to capture a fraction of what made Angel such an incredible creature and, perhaps most importantly, to communicate her power to bring people together.  I’m a recluse by nature and she was all about inclusion.  That attitude was apparent in her charity work, which I was always reluctant to participate in.  I would show up when the cause piqued my curiosity.  That was one of the rare times she became upset with me, when I refused to sign some petition that she brought around.  Eventually she grew to respect my reasons, but it was hard work.

In turn, I respected her diligence, never telling her to slow down or take it easy even though everyone knew that would be good for her.  We might never be able to convince each other (she rarely admitted she was wrong about anything), but we would listen to each other.  I respected her.  I loved her.  With all my heart, I truly, truly loved her and it feels so good to say it.  I never took our friendship for granted.  One time (more than once, likely), as we were parting I hugged her and said, “I love you, you know that?”  With most people, the words would have been caught in my throat but they were spoken with ease.  She said she loved me too.  I’ll be telling Angel stories for the rest of my life.

Smash Wrestling

My friend Jess is always keen to e-mail me about deals on various sporting events, usually relating to the Blue Jays or the Raptors and the timing of her latest promotional offer was fortuitous, to say the least.  The offer was for a new Etobicoke based wrestling company called “Smash Wrestling”.  I’d only ever been to one wrestling event in my life and that was in Japan and it was absolutely incredible.  My buddy Paolo and I are always bitching about criticizing the wrestling we see on TV and saying how we should go to more independent shows.  Add in the fact that the show was billed to include a dream match-up between current “Ring of Honor” World Champion Kevin Steen and (deep breath) current “Dragon Gate USA” Open The Freedom Gate Champion Johnny Gargano and the outing looked to have some serious potential.  Jess’ boyfriend William came along, but Jess herself declined; surprisingly not interested in spending four hours in a tiny venue watching sweaty dudes pretend to beat each other up.

The event was held at the eZone, a multi-purpose complex used to host anything from kids’ birthday parties to laser tag to, yes, professional wrestling matches.  Paolo, William and I couldn’t have been more thrilled by the quaint, intimate environment and even though we were late we got ourselves the perfect spot: right next to the bar and right next to where the wrestlers would be emerging from.  This was my first wrestling show in North America and you best believe I was going to get in the performer’s faces!

In the olden days of wrestling, before everyone knew that it was “fake” (an insulting term that I use strictly for its commonality), paying customers were referred to as “marks”.  It simply means someone who has paid money to engage in a showy, often deceptive, form of entertainment (also see: magicians, circuses, carnivals), but in the wrestling world it has taken on a negative connotation: marks are considered to be “dumb fans”.  The counter to marks are “smarks”, those who read everything they can about the wrestling business and take pride in being in on the secret or knowing what’s really going on.  There’s nothing wrong with being a smark, except those who feel the need to flaunt their knowledge and act like cynical jags.  A bad smark is the equivalent of that fan at a baseball game who is on his phone all the time, is too cool to get up and cheer and generally acts like they would rather be anywhere else than the place they just paid a ticket to go to.

Suffice to say, there were a few smarks at the show.  These fans sat in their seats with their arms crossed, throwing out “insider” terms and generally trying to get themselves over rather than just enjoying the show.  A few times, people who obviously knew the wrestlers outside of the ring taunted them by calling them by their real names or with other non-sequitur personal comments.  Look, I’m more than aware of the nature of the business, but there is no way I’m going to disrespect the wrestlers and the crew who put the whole thing together by trying to show how smart I think I am.  If that makes me a mark, then I’m a proud mark.

I got right into the act at the end of the first match, as hometown hero Brent Banks lost via roll-up, with his opponent getting a handful of his shorts.  I yelled at the winner, Mathieu St. Jacques (who you know was evil because he was from Quebec) and then lamented to my friends that the crooked act had tainted the show for me, even though it was a finish I’d seen hundreds of times on television.  But like I said, I got into it.

The second match featured the team Myles of Action (Preston Myles & Action Jackson) facing off against Jack Rushton & Weapon X.  Jackson was sporting a nice afro, much like Banks from the first match, making Smash Wrestling two-for-two on matches featuring wrestlers with afros.  Money well spent already.  Rushton looked to be working some kind of MMA gimmick and he was the only one in the ring wearing a shirt, which we joked made him look like that freshman in college basketball who puts something on under his jersey because he’s ashamed of his physique.  The good guys won and when I went to give Myles some daps on the way out, I got his blood on my hand.

Cool!

Out next were John Greed and Gregory Iron.  Iron is well known for being a wrestler who suffers from cerebral palsy.  It’s an incredible story and it made him a sympathetic character from the get-go, especially against Greed who looked like your stereotypical bearded bad dude.  Iron took a major beating during the match to the point where Paolo and William got uncomfortable.  For the record, I’d have no problem watching either of them get the crap kicked out of them and they’re both functionally retarded.  Though I was somewhat mortified when one of Iron’s signature moves was loading up his afflicted hand to swing at Greed.  Yowza!

I should note that the quality of the wrestling had been great so far and you could really see and hear the impact of the moves.  The myth of the wrestling ring being like a trampoline is not as prevalent as it once was, but I’m not sure you can comprehend just how hard the mat is until you go to one of these small shows.

This was moments before I smashed William’s head into the ring post.

Paolo thought the next fight was a classic mismatch as “Cyborg” Tyson Dux faced “Hacker” Scotty O’Shea.  He reasoned that O’Shea could just take control of him from the start or give him a virus or something.  I can’t find fault in that logic.  Dux managed to navigate through O’Shea’s arsenal of malware and porno pop-ups to make it to a draw.  Steen ran in to attack O’Shea, only to have Gargano come out and interfere with his nefarious plans.  Apparently Steen suffered a back injury, so this storyline was concocted to change the main event to a tag team match.  Most of the crowd was behind Steen (a Canadian), but as I’d taken a firm stance to boo bad guys and cheer good guys, I gleefully gave him hell.

After a short intermission, Alex Vega and Psycho Mike were given the task of warming the crowd up again and I thought both guys were good.  Vega has a lot of flash and Mike really impressed me with how he moved in the ring.  He looked comfortable and natural in there.  Even though William kept reminding me this was a scripted contest, I insisted on laying $40 down on Vega with a local bookie (read: homeless person).  It looked hairy at times, but Vega pulled it out with a cool springboard move and I breathed a huge sigh of relief.  I’d have enough gas money to make it home AND my child would get to eat tonight.

The second tag team match was maybe my favourite match of the night, featuring The Overdogs (Josh Alexander & Sebastian Suave, accompanied by the lovely Seleziya Sparx) vs. 3.0 (Shane Matthews & Scott Parker).  It was just an old-school tag match with Sparx playing the role of the evil seductress to a tee.  At one point, Matthews tried to get her number and shouted “I love you!” to the delight of everyone.  A high heel shoe to the head eventually gave the Overdogs the win and as Suave passed by I said “Boooo!” to which he replied with a sarcastic “Yaaaay!”  I think we had a real moment there.

A valet is to wrestling as a ring girl is to cage fighting.

The final match was everything I could have asked for in a main event.  As soon as Steen popped through the curtain, I started to jeer and he pushed the railing threatening to come at us.  Being a total coward, I dove behind Paolo who was promptly shoved by the massive wrestler.  The whole time William was sitting in his seat laughing his ass off.  I relished playing the role of the “chicken sh*t fan”.

Kevin Steen, our new BFF.

The heels got a taste of their own medicine when Gargano and O’Shea came out to attack them before they could even get to the ring.  They brawled around the room, beating each other up with chairs, a keyboard and a fan’s crutch.  A thrown garbage can sent trash flying all over the people in the front row.  If Steen was legitimately injured, I couldn’t tell because all four men worked their asses off to put on an entertaining brawl.  The highlight for us was O’Shea and Dux fighting in our area, forcing us to move chairs and evacuate so O’Shea could set up a high flying move.  He hopped on to the bar (“Watch out for my tips!” the bartender shrieked) and then performed a moonsault on Dux.  We couldn’t have been more than two or three feet away.

With no regard for human life!

 

I love any situation where the social contract is amended in favour of everyone having a good time.  Even if you’d never been to a wrestling show before (and again, this was only my second one), you know when two big dudes come tumbling in your direction, you best get out the way!  You don’t ask any questions, you don’t get mad if you spill your beer and you don’t get offended when the wrestlers bark at you to “Move!”  One kid fell out of his chair and I swear the parents were more concerned with not messing up the match than making sure he didn’t get trampled.  Now that is what wrestling is all about!

Just like going to see an up and coming band at an out-of-the way venue, you never  what to expect when you attend a show like this.  We even got an impromptu match between Gargano and a malfunctioning microphone at the end of the night (it turned out it just needed new batteries).  I look forward to seeing how the Smash Wrestling promotion develops from here.  For anyone reading this, please go out and support your local independent and minor league companies.  Whether it’s wrestling, mixed martial arts or co-ed lacrosse, take some time to get out of the house, pick up some cheap tickets for you and your friends and have a go at it.  It’s cheaper than going to a Raptors game and, frankly, way more fun.

Vegas

I got back on a Saturday and slept most of the day.  Around 2 or 3 in the morning I treated myself to a bowl of cereal.  I couldn’t help but think about how young the night must still be in Vegas.

*****

This is the story of a lucky man.

The woman at the United airlines baggage check-in told me that I’d be okay to bring both of my bags on-board.  She seemed sweet and helpful so I nodded my head and proceeded to customs.  When I got to security, things got confusing.  After passing through the x-ray machine, one of the employees opened my bag to take some liquids out.  I’d forgotten that I packed in a full size shampoo and body wash and I told him it was okay to throw them out.  For some reason he put them back in and insisted that I go to the last minute baggage check-in.  I’m not sure if he thought that I wanted to keep them, but it was twenty minutes to flight time and the lady at the desk told me it was too late to check in now.

“Can’t you move some things around, maybe make one bag smaller?”

I had no idea what she was talking about, but I was starting to feel the urgency of the situation and I began to shuffle the items between my two bags wildly.  At some point, I removed a small black satchel and placed it on her counter.  It contained the following items:

  • notepad
  • headphones
  • glasses case containing a pair of clip-on shades
  • package of wet napkins from Japan
  • two USB cables and a wall charger
  • iPod with about 4,000 songs on it
  • $300 US dollars

It was the last time I would see those things.  The clerk kept telling me that my flight was about to leave so I needed to hurry.  I had no idea how close I was to missing my flight until I heard this announcement:

Last call for Alexander Lee, please proceed to gate F7.  Last call for Alexander Lee…

You’ve never seen someone run so fast through an airport.  Onlookers must have thought I was in love.  Even weighed down by two bags, I was able to get down like Usain Bolt.  I might have done 200 metres in about 20 seconds.  And you bet I made the damn flight.

I was so exhausted that I slept all the way to Chicago.  It wasn’t until I needed American money for some food at O’Hare that I realized what was missing.  It was a sickening feeling and I talked to whoever I could to figure out how I should go about communicating with the folks at Pearson to recover my satchel.  I called my parents.  I made a mental note to e-mail the website as soon as I could.  That’s really all I could do.

Without the contents of my iPod to stimulate me (I’d loaded several podcasts on there that I’d planned to listen to) and not feeling particularly tired I simply meditated for the duration of my flight to Las Vegas.  It occurred to me that the following items were not in my lost satchel:

  • iPhone
  • passport
  • wallet

Like I said.  Lucky.

*****

This is Brian.

Brian is a doctor.  I used to have this respectful admiration for the people in the medical community.  When I was growing up, I associated doctors with being kind, reliable and noble.  They seem like the kind of people who really care, who you believe were put on this earth solely to help others.  When one of your best friends becomes a doctor, all of that crap goes out the window.  Even though they’ve got this new title, you still end up having the same conversations and doing the same stupid stuff that you always said you’d do when you were kids.

On this occasion, Brian was flown in to give a presentation at a conference and he was given a reasonable amount of compensatory funds to take care of his food and travel expenses.  What better way to take advantage of that than inviting a few friends to come with you?  I was the only one who was able to make the trip and I’m grateful that he decided to let me tag along even though his colleagues kept assuming we were a pair of well-to-do homosexuals.  It probably doesn’t help that we ended up going out with a gay couple on what was for all intents and purposes a double date.  But I digress.

The point is that I used to be able to look at a doctor and see a pillar of the community.  Now I just see my friend Brian.

*****

As with any good Vegas vacation, it began with go-karts.  Brian’s friends Helena, Grace and Eugene (a racing fanatic) decided it would be fun to check out the Fast Lap Indoor Kart Racing facility.  I’ve never raced any sort of vehicle before, but I did almost get a speeding ticket once so I didn’t think it would be too difficult.  After a few laps, I have a newfound respect for vehicular racers of all kinds.  I’ve always been a staunch advocate against race car drivers being classified as athletes, but I realize now that you’ve got to be in decent shape because the vibrations from a high powered vehicle will mess you up.  And I was driving a go-kart!

I know what you’re thinking: “How could someone who looks this cool have any trouble racing?

Several things I didn’t know about go-karts:

  • even though you’re not going that fast, speed is relative to the space you’re moving in and since the track is indoors and the lanes aren’t that wide you find yourself genuinely afraid to let loose
  • these bad boys handle incredibly well and there’s almost no resistance so if you’re planning to crank that wheel hard you better be ready to follow through otherwise you might find yourself in a pile of tires
  • I found myself pressing down on the gas pedal for about 95% of the lap and it ended up hurting like a muthaf**ka.  My lower leg was kind of messed up for the rest of the trip.  Again: these are go-karts!

So Dale Earnhardt, if you’re up there somewhere and you’re reading this, I’d like you to know that I take back everything bad I ever said about you and your sport.

Afterwards, we chose to forgo the cab ride back in favour of a cooling walk back to the Bellagio.  Eugene led us around like a Vegas strip Sherpa, taking us in and out of different casinos and hotels and somehow bringing us to where we needed to be.  Apparently he and Grace have been to Vegas many, many times and the whole experience was old hat at this point.  I was dazzled by the city sights, but I would eventually see how one might become numb to it all.

*****

I had to drag Brian out of his room to check out the pool area at the hotel.  As the Bellagio attracts a more esteemed, some would say “senior”, clientele, it wasn’t exactly the MTV bikini fest that a young man would hope for.  The facilities were outstanding and there was no shortage of space, but if you go there looking to “pick up the chicks” as they say then you’re probably out of luck.  Unless you’re, like, fifty.

Needless to say, as soon as we were able to find a comfy spot in the shade, Brian understood why I thought it was so important he check it out.  The weather was hovering around 30 degrees Celsius and the thin Nevada air was surprisingly refreshing.  You could spend the early part of the day wasting away there and that’s exactly what I did when Brian had to go to his conference.  I completely lost track of time as I alternated between sleeping and peaceful contemplation.  I thought about how too few people get to live like this on a regular basis and I swore I’d make the most of it…after another quick nap, of course.

*****

Planet Hollywood proved to be a source of much merriment.  We ate a couple of meals there, including taking advantage of an “all you can eat” pancake deal…which, for me turned out to be three.  I made the mistake of wearing my favourite orange shirt that day, which just happened to match the attire of the servers at the restaurant.  I kept expecting the manager to yell at me, wondering why the hell I was sitting around eating with a customer.  I’m kind of a pushover, so if he’d ordered me to start serving some dishes I probably would have done it.

After a hearty meal (three whole pancakes!), we decided to kill time by playing some poker.  Fact: I had never played poker in a casino before.  I was incredibly tense and nervous, even as I found myself wedged between two Irishmen who couldn’t be friendlier.  I believe their names were Sean and Patrick, but I believe all Irishmen are named Sean and Patrick.  They could sense I was new blood and they started jawing right away to set me at ease or maybe just to see if I was easy money.  Maybe both.

After a while I did loosen up, going as far as to accuse them of faking their accents and actually being two hustlers from San Diego and also asking them what it takes to be an honourary Irishman.  “I don’t drink.  The Irish aren’t big on drinking, right?”  I deadpanned.  It was a good time.  All of the witty banter almost made me feel better about the fact that I was bleeding chips.  If my jokes were loose, my actual poker playing was the exact opposite: I was tighter than a (insert virgin-oriented simile here) on (insert common moment of sexual awakening).  I played horribly and the money didn’t last long.

*****

While Brian was off fulfilling his conference related duties, I spent most of the day at the pool.  Bobbing up and down in 3 ½ feet of water wasn’t as exhilarating as I would have liked, especially since I was there by myself and I kept checking to make sure nobody stole my shoes.  I got comfortable and probably looked like the clumsiest, loneliest goof in the world navigating the pool aimlessly.  I didn’t care.  I felt free.

Another thing I did when Brian wasn’t around was check out parts of the strip that one might miss when walking around with a friend.  The Cosmopolitan is another swanky casino with incredibly well furnished upper levels primarily reserved for housing guests and hosting conferences.  There was nice art and a cool art-deco vibe that would have fit perfectly in a movie looking for a retro-futuristic aesthetic.

It was the perfect time to do this sort of thing too: Middle of the day, nobody around, the evening conference goers killing time at the casinos or enjoying some afternoon delight.  That’s the thing about Vegas.  From an architectural standpoint it can seem messy, but the individual parts can be a sight to behold.  It’s a cliché, but going from building to building is like transporting between worlds.  The Roman trappings of Cesar’s Palace.  The upscale atmosphere of the MGM grand.  And in the distance, the awful turrets of Excalibur.

*****

Our third day in Vegas proved to be the most enjoyable.  Brian finished up his official duties as a representative of the Toronto medical community so it was time to open the cage and let the animal out.  We both decided to wear suits, which for some reason inspired us to freestyle a racist standard that we thought Frank Sinatra might have sung in his day.  I went with the always un-fashionable “button up but don’t wear a tie look”.

We had to get dressed up because we were spending a portion of our evening at a cigar bar called Casa Fuente.  Our disguise worked, because when we got there, a helpful employee walked us into the humidor and started going over the cigar selection as if he thought we knew something about the product.  We know nothing about the product.  I believe, “Uh…how about that one?” were my exact words when it came down to deciding.  Thankfully, even though our plebeian roots were showing, the guy was cool about it even walking us through the whole cigar lighting procedure (which I needed, sadly).  The pretty waitress didn’t even give me too much crap about ordering a glass of water, though she did make a face as if she couldn’t understand the words coming out of my mouth.  Can you blame her?

I’m not sure why I like cigars so much.  The image is a huge part of it, but there’s definitely something to be said about the taste and texture of a good stogie.  We had fun sharing stories with Brian’s friends Andrea and Helena, though the most amusing bit was probably Helena’s inability to keep her cigar lit.  “Amateur.”  I thought to myself.  That was moments before I accidentally inhaled too much smoke and almost ended up vomiting on an escalator.  Our waitress really would have been impressed by that one.

Andrea and Helena also made the excellent recommendation to check out Wild Bill’s Gamblin’ Hall & Saloon.  The fact that there was no “G” at the end of “gambling” told you this joint was legit.  It was actually the perfect place for people like us, because the dealers were good at their jobs but they didn’t have that clinical approach that you often see at some of the higher stakes casinos.  It was a small building, but they packed it with everything you expect in a casino.  As Brian and Helena won money (and Mardi Gras beads) and made friends at the blackjack table, I moseyed on over to the karaoke stage.  There were a group of drunkards monopolizing the microphone for most of the night, but I eventually mustered up the courage to get up and do a song.  I chose “I Will Survive” by Gloria Gaynor, one of my mother’s favourites.  It’s also an up-tempo tune.  I love singing sad stuff, but when you’re in Vegas and everyone is trying to have a good time, you have to respect the audience.  I made up for my weak vocals with some spirited hip thrusts, capped off by me giving a middle-aged woman a twirl from the edge of the stage.

Afterwards, I had to help Brian home as his blackjack success allowed him to enjoy an ample supply of free drinks.  They were filming scenes for The Hangover Part III, but for some reason we couldn’t get it out of our heads that it might have been Ocean’s Fourteen (a production that doesn’t exist).  Our repeated attempts to call out Casey Affleck and Scott Caan went unanswered, lost in the hustle and bustle of the strip.

*****

Our culinary choices during the trip were all over the place.  One night we’d be sampling the delights of a fully stocked buffet, the next we’d be picking up twenty chicken nuggets from McDonald’s (only five dollars!).  Not being a foodie, dining is really an obstacle for me to get past before I can move on to my next experience, especially in a place like Vegas.  Don’t get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoyed the delicious, sophisticated meal I ate at Estiatorio Milos, but I got just as much satisfaction from the “steak & shake” I devoured at the Hard Rock.  Considering how overindulgent the latter meal was and the setting in which it was served, I found myself referring to that combination as “the Elvis”.

*****

The second round of gambling went as poorly as the first, though it was equally enjoyable, albeit in a different way.  While the action at the Planet Hollywood was light and fun, the atmosphere at the MGM Grand was far more cutthroat.  I sat down and immediately noticed the big cat at the table, a grizzled, mustachioed looking fellow from Canada.  After a few hands and a few glances at the other players, I could tell he was in a rhythm.  His bets were all on point, getting everyone to fold or dragging just enough suckers in so he could take the wind out of their sails with two pair or trips.  Even his dialogue was controlled, opening up just enough to be polite, but not enough to give a single weakness away.

My play was better, though still atrocious.  I was working through Phil Gordon’s Little Green Book chapter by chapter and I clumsily used what I could from there even though my overall understanding of the game was still non-existent.  Nevertheless, I gained no small amount of satisfaction from raising on the blinds and watching the others limply toss their cards away.  Too bad I had no idea where to go from there.  If I was winning, my moves might have been tolerated but I was not only the pest at the table, I was also the sucker.  Whenever I got a decent hand, my eyes darted around like I was on bath salts.  I played horribly and the money didn’t last long.

*****

As the fourth night wound down, the magical pixie dust of Vegas quickly faded from our eyes.  We spent much of a three course meal discussing matters back at home, something we’d managed to avoid for most of our trip up to that point.  It didn’t help that we had to check out early in the day, about twelve hours before our actual departure.  We ambled around, bouncing from souvenir shop to souvenir shop (they all looked the same) and trying to make sure we had enough tip money to take care of the various attendants we knew we would encounter.  It got so bad that we ended up hitting a movie theatre to catch Skyfall.  “That’ll be a good way to kill three hours.”  I lamented.  When you’re on your last hours and lost dollars of a Vegas vacation, that’s the kind of stuff you find yourself saying.

*****

When we got home, I checked two lost and found areas and talked to everyone I could at Pearson, but I had to accept that my belongings were gone.  It was a bitter pill to swallow, only because the trip had worked out so well otherwise and I had been incredibly optimistic that the satchel would turn up.  I got over it.  What’s gone is gone.  Maybe I was too worn out to fuss over it.  Brian and I continued to talk about Vegas as we got on the subway, though it started to seem more and more like some far off place.  I made sure to express my gratitude for him bringing me along.  We planned to return to Vegas sometime, with reinforcements.  We split at Yonge station and on the train ride north, the lost things seemed inconsequential.

He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother

I’ve gotten sidetracked recently and while I don’t like to make excuses, the truth is I’ve been spending a lot of time with my brother, Chris.  He flew in from Japan.

You would think that since he only comes to Canada once or twice a year (usually for his friends’ weddings), we’d make all sorts of extravagant plans to make up for lost time, but that’s never really been our style.  We’re more the “sit at home, binge watch past seasons of television shows, play some Borderlands 2, discuss what we’d do if we ran the WWE, and then retreat to our respective rooms for a much needed power nap before resuming business in the evening” types.  Maybe that’s why we can’t be bothered to make a big deal out of these reunions.  We pretty much do what we already do in our separate lives.

On the day before he left, we realized that in the two weeks he was back we hadn’t watched some of our favourite movies.  So rather than engage in some Toronto-centric exercise like going to a fancy restaurant or *shudder* “Edge Walking” at the CN Tower, we sat and caught up on old films while playing the “Android: Netrunner” card game.

The Monster Squad and The Goonies: We actually watched Monster Squad the night before.  That was my favourite movie as a kid but I didn’t realize that it was a total rip-off of Goonies.  The plot, the tone and the character archetypes are shockingly similar to the point that I’ve been telling people that Corey Feldman played Rudy, the Squad’s cigarette smoking, leather jacket wearing junior high kid.  Feldman was in Goonies, not Squad.

But the most surprising aspect of these films was what PG movies were allowed to get away with back then.  Monster Squad features a lot of violence and since this was before CG, that meant a lot of realistic looking blood and guts.  There was also a lot of foul language, including a character being called a “faggot” and a little girl accusing the Squad of being “chickens**t”.  PG!  That’s not even mentioning all of the scary stuff the kids deal with in these movies.  There are so many life threatening scenarios in Goonies that it’s no wonder I rarely left my house to play with other children when I was a child.  I was not a thrill seeker!

Even when you strip away the nostalgia, both of these movies kick serious ass.  Like a Pixar film, these movies are geared towards younger audiences without being insulting.  The characters are fun and likeable.  You care about their wellbeing.  The jokes are juvenile and funny without being nasty.  These scripts don’t waste time with superfluous dialogue or forced exposition; the plots move.  Most importantly, if it wasn’t for Squad I never would have learned an important lesson about The Wolfman:

And yes, that kid (Andre Gower) does look like Lyoto Machida.

Gattaca: Director Andrew Niccol has had a spotty record since this 1997 debut, including the hilariously inept S1m0ne, but he’ll always be in my good books for Gattaca.  I can’t remember if he showed it to me or if I had to watch it in school, but I know that my brother was always talking about it and when I finally saw it we bonded over it.

It’s a great looking movie, utilizing that retro-futuristic look to brilliant effect.  It’s the best kind of science fiction too, not because it poses relevant questions (though it does), but because you feel like the world itself would be interesting even if the movie had no plot.  It avoids the obvious themes of oppression that would come with a society focused on genetic superiority, instead communicating the unique journey of Vincent Freeman (Ethan Hawke).  Even if he overcomes all of the hurdles in his path, he’s still an overachiever with a bad ticker.  I’m a sucker for a good underdog story and this one is as good as they come.

Heat: I don’t know if this is my favourite movie and I don’t know if it’s my brother’s favourite movie, but it’s definitely our favourite movie.  We’ve watched it countless times and it’s the one thing that we make sure to do whenever we get together.  It’s the quintessential heist film of our generation and just features a murderer’s row of actors: Pacino.  DeNiro.  Kilmer.  Voight.  Portman.  And those are just the actors who were or would go on to become marquee names.  Everyone involved just kills the material here and each character is memorable in their own way.  There are too many classic lines to count and my brother and I have spent years trading dialogue back and forth, often devoid of context.  The script is just that good and Heat, in my opinion, is as close as any movie comes to being perfect.

The Fighter: What was really fun about watching this again was that we’d just been through four movies and Chris is like, “I just want to watch a little bit and then we’ll call it a night.”  Of course, we watched the whole thing.  Maybe it’s because it’s a story about brothers, but this was a fitting end to the evening.  From the first frame, Christian Bale’s restless performance drags you into the film.  It’s authentic and tragic.  The opening credits sequence where Micky and Dicky take a stroll down Lowell to the tune of How You Like Me Now? by The Heavy is just straight bad ass.  In that short walk, you learn everything you need to know about the characters and the environment they inhabit.  You know what, just watch it yourself:

And it just rolls from there.  I can’t remember the last time I’d watched two movies in a row, much less five.  But that’s how it is when my brother is in town.

*****

I feel bad about falling behind on my TUF recaps, but after thinking about it I realized that last episode of TUF Classic I watched was so boring that I shouldn’t feel guilty.  The fight was decent, but it is The Smashes continues to hit all the right chords with me.  The coaches are involved, the show is funnier and there was even someone threatening to quit (Luke Newman felt lost since suffering an injury that took him out of training)!  That’s like catnip for me.  Next week I’ll be in Vegas so my recaps might be brief again, but I guarantee I’ll finish this series of posts one way or another.  Take us out, Kristie!