Ringmasters

"C'mon, Kirby! Don't just take that! C'mon! C'mon!"

The old man has a point. He's a gray-haired farmer-type in faded blue overalls, and his thorny hands, gnarled from a lifetime of labor, are funneled around his mouth as he hollers for Jason Kirby to fight back, to do something in the wrestling ring besides flop around getting his butt kicked. Kirby is writhing on the sweat-stained canvas like a wounded seal, grabbing his lower back, face twisted in an exaggerated grimace of pain. It's hard to watch.

All fight long, Kirby has launched ill-advised attacks, only to be knocked over by his opponent, who picks him up and hurls him back down. To be fair, Kirby's as overmatched as a salamander fighting a crocodile. He's 5 inches shorter and 65 pounds smaller than the smirking, swaggering "High Energy" Jermaine Johnson, whom the crowd despises. The fans — all 160 or so of them — alternate between cheering for Kirby and cursing Johnson.

Velma Whitaker and other fans scream at a villainous wrestler in Midwest City on Aug. 23.
photo by John Clanton, The Oklahoman

"Kirby! Kirby! Get up! C'mon!"

Maybe he hears the farmer's words, although that seems unlikely, given the noise level here. We're in an empty retail store or warehouse attached to the Golden Goose Flea Market in Midwest City. The ring, its floor raised about three feet off the concrete, sits in the center of the room, enclosed by three tape-wrapped ropes attached to cushioned ring posts. Four yellow-painted steel pillars wound 'round with a single line of straps serve as a flimsy barrier, more psychological than physical, about five feet outside the ring. The fans sit in metal chairs around the barrier, a rough square of bellowing humanity whose voices reverberate off the low ceiling and exposed ductwork. Between that noise and the slapping crashes that accompany each of Kirby's falls, I can barely hear the kids beside me.

One of them is Shane Ferguson, a 6-year-old towhead who started hanging out with me as soon as I plugged in my laptop. Shane's dad, Scott Sanders, and his dad's twin brother, Shawn Sanders, fight as a tag team called the New Age Syndicate. When they wrestled earlier, Shane bounced up and down like Tigger, dancing around the outskirts of the crowd to get the best view. Shortly before an official ended the match prematurely without awarding a victory, Shane rushed back to me.

"This is a country ass-whuppin'!" he said, then ran away. He returned a moment later, deadly serious, intent on making me understand. "That was a real country ass-whuppin'."

Now, he's standing a few feet away. Tiera Ledesma, one of the nerd twins, has taken Shane's preferred seat beside me. Her friend, Boston Cervantes, is nearby, watching Kirby's ongoing brutalization. They're 12 years old, and they're pretending to be Gertrude and Poindexter, "nerds trying very hard to be gangsters." Despite never attending a pro wrestling event before, they've tapped into the spirit of this thing. They know that here, if nowhere else, they can recreate themselves into anything they want to be with no fear of consequences. Hero one day, villain the next. The crowd sees only what you choose to show them.

Kirby is showing them a dead man. He's lying face-down in the ring, unmoving.

"Check it out!" Boston says. "I think he's really hurt."

Tiera doesn't say anything. She just sits here, with her pink spectacles, uneven pigtails and black Converse All-Stars that climb all the way to her knees — watching intently, eyes worried, as Johnson is declared the winner, as security guards drag Kirby's limp body through the ropes and carry him backstage. The farmer slumps in his chair. Shane darts away.

"He killed him!" Boston says. "I think he's really dead!"

Mr. Ebony’s soulful journey

Tom Jones, veteran wrestler and owner of a Midwest City wrestling school, leaves the ring after introducing La Reina de Corazones (right) to the crowd.
photo by John Clanton, The Oklahoman

Tom Jones has watched the whole thing from behind dark glasses. At 66, he's the professor emeritus of his own wrestling school and part-owner of the Mid South Wrestling Alliance, the company that's putting on this show.

Jones has the musculature of a much younger man, an athletic man. His biceps bulge. Beneath his T-shirt, his abs look hard as stone. He says he can still bench 315 pounds.

He moves like an old man, though, taking small, slow, shuffling steps. Forty years of pro wrestling have taken a toll. His left arm won't straighten, and he has trouble closing his left hand into a fist. A long-past ladder match opened a gash on the crown of his head that took 12 stitches to close. Now he's having problems with his right eye, which is swollen almost shut.

"You showboat a lot," he says in a voice that's half-whisper, "but your body takes a pounding."

Pro wrestling is not an exact science. Wrestling schools teach students legitimate holds and throws, everything from small joint manipulation to Greco-Roman grappling, and many students have amateur wrestling backgrounds. Pros train relentlessly, learning how to take "bumps," or falls, and how to perform potentially deadly moves without hurting anybody.

Sure, the scripted drama in the ring is mostly fake, but it's not exactly a Christmas pageant at church. Everything that happens in the squared-circle is based on muscle and sinew and skill, on trust that the 300-pound man bashing you with a folding chair is good enough to land flat surfaces against flat surfaces, not edge on, not at an angle. Sometimes he's not good enough, and instead of feigning agony, you feel the honest bite of cracked ribs or watch a crimson filter wash over your eyes, blood spattering the canvas and rolling off your body like rain on a fresh-waxed car. Sometimes wrestlers suffer serious injuries — Owen Hart broke "Stone Cold" Steve Austin's neck with a botched piledriver, and Darren Drozdov, who wrestled as Puke and Droz, was left a quadriplegic after an improperly executed powerbomb. Rarely, wrestlers die in the ring.

Compared to some of his colleagues, Jones has had it easy. He fought his last match two years ago, at age 64. Only then did his body speak to him, telling him that it could take no more abuse. Each morning, he awakens to aching bones and screaming hip joints. He lies alone in bed, hearing a voice, not unlike the farmer's, urging him to arise. Get up! Don't just take that! C'mon! After awhile, he shuffles across the floor to his bottle of Advil gel capsules, downing two (never more) and waiting for the pain to ease.

Three times, Jones has been divorced. Three times, he has fathered a child. He's lost touch with one son, who lives in Indianapolis, but talks often to his daughter and other son, Cody Jones, who is also a wrestler. He remembers when they were infants, when he was criss-crossing the country in his car, driving from one venue to another, wherever they'd have him, sometimes earning less from fighting than he spent on gasoline. He was Mr. Ebony then, or the Soul Man, or Bearcat Jones, or The Gladiator.

"You come home and pick up your baby, and they look at you and go, ‘Waaaah!' because they don't even know who you are," he says. "And you look at them and don't know what to do."

Yet he would do it again, all of it, not changing anything. If not for wrestling, he wouldn't have seen America or been cheered in Japan. He might still be a Georgia farmer, watching the birds fly and wishing he could go with them. He might be driving a forklift at the Pepsi plant, like he did before he found out about a wrestling school up in Boston, Mass., a place so far away from everything he knew it might as well have been a foreign country. It all started there, this whole thing, the wrestling, the women, the camaraderie, the applause. He knows generations of wrestlers, men whose names spring to his lips when his mind goes in search of a topic. "Giant Baba. He passed on. Andre the Giant. He's dead, of course. A fine gentleman, a fine gentleman. I knew him well."

Life moves on, he likes to say. Life moves on, and we're just passing through it. The celebrity days are gone, and this is his life, back here behind the flea market. A concrete floor. A wrestling ring. Students who love him. Fans who admire him.

And the show, always the show. He rises now — Get up! Get up! — and walks painfully toward the ring.

Queen Erica versus the good ol’ boys

Erica Torres, also known as La Reina de Corazones, looks away as Kevin Morgan wrestles in a match at the Golden Goose flea market in Midwest City. Torres, a world-class amateur wrestler, is a hot prospect in the Mid South Wrestling Alliance.
photo by John Clanton, The Oklahoman

Shane wanders off but always returns to the seat beside me. I'm up against the cinderblock wall, about 15 feet behind the audience, using a wobbly table as a desk.

I like having Shane around. He keeps me advised of key incidents. "I just punched myself," he says, demonstrating his technique for me. It's an air punch to the face, the kind wrestlers use, and he leaps as he throws it, so his feet touch the floor just as his fist "strikes" his jaw. If he were in the ring, his landing would've resulted in a hollow bang, giving the illusion that the punch connected.

Watching him has distracted me. I look up to see Jones standing inside the ring, holding a wireless microphone. La Reina de Corazones, "the Queen of Hearts," stands beside him.

Her real name is Erica Torres. She's kind of short, with dark brown hair and Spanish features, but the most noticeable thing about her is how lithe and sinuous she is, not bulky with muscles but long and slim, like a snake. Yesterday, during practice, a male wrestler hoisted her into the air, and she wrapped herself around his back, neck and chest and clung there effortlessly, her body conforming to his every contour as if she'd been poured there and instantly frozen.

Torres, who is 20, left California a couple years back to attend college in Oklahoma City. Money was tight, so she left school and got a job at UPS. With a dozen years of amateur wrestling experience and state, regional and national titles behind her, she needed a new athletic challenge. She considered mixed martial arts; her cousin, Joe "Daddy" Stevenson, won "The Ultimate Fighter 2" reality show in 2005. But her father had fought on the lucha libre circuit in California when he was younger, and he invited her to join him at Jones' pro wrestling school a few months ago.

She hasn't fought a pro match yet, but she's the Mid South's brightest prospect. Everyone expects her to make a lot of money someday with one of the major wrestling corporations, TNA or the WWE.

"If I don't make it, I'll just keep on the indie circuit and keep having fun doing it here," she tells me later. "It may not pay much, but it's always nice to give back to the smaller crowds who can't make it to TNA or a Vince McMahon show. Those are really expensive."

Jones is singing her praises to the crowd, his voice indistinct among the echoes. A couple phrases jump out: "bright future," "could fight any woman in the world." Then he passes the mike to her, and she freezes. Pinning someone is easy; talking to the fans, not so much. She thanks the crowd for being kind, casts about for something else to say ...

and then, before she can say it, music starts blaring from the black speaker cubes on the floor, loud and obnoxious ...

and a man pushes his way out of the wrestlers' tunnel like some grotesque, muscle-bound baby emerging from the womb ...

and he's climbing into the ring, arrogant and aggressive ...

and you know big Brian Blade is a bad guy, a heel, even before he speaks into the mike that has somehow materialized in his giant hand and says ...

"This ring is no place for a woman. Take yourself, get out of this ring, and maybe tonight, when this is over, you can come back to my place and clean it up and make me some dinner."

Whoa! Did he really say that? Now Tom Jones, veteran Tom, Tom with his aching hips and black glasses — Tom has squared his shoulders and thrust out his chest. He's standing up to this sexist throwback, telling Blade he owes La Reina an apology.

"Old guy," Blade says, "your time is passed. This is my time."

All at once, I know how this is going to play out. I can see it already. Torres doesn't need a champion. She's going to defend Jones and take this jerk out herself. She'll wrap around Blade like a python, like a climbing vine, choking him with those slender, impossibly flexible limbs — toppling him as the audience, filled with feminist spirit, cheers and yelps with glee. I may even join them. La Reina, this tiny woman, will chop down a towering stereotype smoothly, rapidly, knocking him unconscious before his lumbering, testosterone-swollen brain has a chance to process what's going on. It's a perfect debut, a changing of the guard, old to young, male to female —

— except it doesn't happen.

Instead, another man, more massive, rushes out of the tunnel to confront Blade. They wrestle. Blade wins.

I watch Torres disappear backstage, feeling bad for her. Wrestling's storylines are coarse, more Chaucer than Pinter, bawdy tales in which salon-baked women, their skin glowing orange, catfight in a swirl of silicone and hair extensions, exposing more than they conceal. Any bras burned are for salacious effect. I like my narrative better. Torres deserved the win.

Everything you need is here

The nerds abandoned me. So did Shane. He's with his family over by the security guard, who hasn't stopped anyone from going backstage. We're nearing the end, just one match left. It's the biggie, the main event, "The Awesome One" Kevin Morgan versus the Mid South's reigning champion, "The Real Deal" Aaron Neil, who is wearing something that resembles a leather kilt.

"The Awesome One" Kevin Morgan basks in applause and cheers despite losing a championship match on Aug. 23.
photo by John Clanton, The Oklahoman

I don't know the champ, but I met Morgan at practice yesterday. He's a big guy — 6 foot 5 and 255 pounds — with wiry brown hair, a long, straight nose and a lantern jaw. In the ring, wearing his silver and black wrestling tights, knee braces and shiny black boots, he looks like a superhero, albeit one who takes a few nights off each week for a good steak sandwich and a pitcher of Bud. Like most of the wrestlers here, he's strong and intimidating but looks better as a shirt than a skin.

Morgan, 29, is Jones' heir apparent, the prize pupil who graduated to teacher. Morgan handles much of the training and is the matchmaker for Mid South's biweekly shows at the flea market. He decides who fights and who wins.

It was Morgan who unleashed Shane's dad and uncle. He sent little Kirby to his death and sicced Blade on Torres and Jones. Now he's fighting, too.

He looks confident. Before entering the ring, he did a lap around the strappy barrier, bent at the waist to exchange high fives with children, and he was plenty popular. Facing Neil, he seems to be smoldering with barely controlled rage, but ... he's not, is he? What's foremost in his mind is a single thought, thrumming over and over: Don't screw up. Don't screw up. Other messages skitter around the edges, a thousand of them. What's the next move going to be? Is the crowd involved? Am I selling this?

"The only time my mind stops," he said earlier, "is when that bell rings and the match is over."

He slams his chest into Neil, who doesn't flinch. Neil slams into him, and he doesn't budge. They fight like two bulls, evenly matched, colliding repeatedly to no effect. They're the two studs of the Mid South, the kings of the ring, and even though Kevin the matchmaker could crown himself champion any time he likes, it's better that he doesn't, that he has this immoveable object to test himself against — because what's beyond it for him, what's left once he crashes through this kilted rock?

"I want to be in the big-time someday, but I know I'm not ready," he admitted yesterday. "To tell you the truth, I'm scared to try."

Why risk rejection? Here, man, here he is the big time. Listen to that crowd. "Let's go, Kevin, let's go!" He's proven himself, found a family. He has no girlfriend, no wife, no kids — not yet — but everyone in Oklahoma wrestling knows his name. Here, he has found what makes him happy. He'll wrestle until the day he dies, he said, and he hopes that when death finds him, he's in the ring.

"This world," he said, "the only people who care about me are those people right there. Outside of that, I have nothing."

And everything! For what is this place, a flea market, if not a home of dreams? Knock-off bags aspire to be Coach purses. Overstocked merchandise has a second chance to sell. LP albums, vintage jeans, dusty hardware, old TVs. Few items will find their way to the bright and shining mansions of Nichols Hills, but some might. One could. And if they don't, what's wrong with staying here, where a farmer cups his hands to yell "C'mon!" and a boy throws a punch at the air, where tweens dressed as nerds dressed as hoods play pretend and men launch themselves through the sky?

Neil and Morgan struggle in the middle of the ring, in the middle of the room, in the middle of it all. Neither moving the other back. Neither going anywhere.

Exeunt, pursued by a bear

I slip through the tunnel, join the wrestlers backstage.

Kirby is drinking something from a bottle. Water. Lemonade. Can't tell which. His bleached blond hair is wet, and if he's hurt, it doesn't show.

"You scared a couple of kids half to death," I say. "They think you're dead."

"I know! Kevin told them they had to rush me to the emergency center," Kirby says. He takes another drink. "That sucks. Now I have to be the last one to leave."