The Wrestle Off

The members of the team had rolled out the resilite mats in the back gym. The air was barely heated, so they had been hard to the touch as the boys rolled them in three straight sheets. The kinetic energy of a pair of teenage boys transferred to the friction of the shoes applied a sheering force that would separate untaped mats. That was acceptable during a normal practice, when the mats would be shared by a half dozen pairs at once. During a real match they would be taped together, to prevent them from separating during the bouts. The tape was an expense that the cash strapped athletic department wouldn’t waste on a practice. But there was no risk of separation during the opening half of this practice. The mats were rimmed with spectators, the members of the team focused on the two participants in the center. During a normal practice, the mats might be rolled out with either side up. The lesser used side had five circles, laid out like the dots on a die showing 5.

Today, the other side was visible. The mat showed two concentric circles superimposed with a capital S, the first letter of the town and the high school. The larger circle ran around the edge, passing within a foot of the lacquered pine boards that made up the floor of the gym. In the center, a two yard circle encapsulated a long rectangle, 6 inches by a yard that contained the exact center of the mat. The smaller circle was large enough to contain the two boys and an adult. The man was shorter than many of the boys in the room, with a mess of black hair, and a black mustache about halfway between neatly trimmed and bushy.

This was the third coach the team had seen in as many years. Two years prior, the wrestling coach had left to take of a college team at a school in the western part of the state. The team had entered into to previous season without a coach until the mother of one of the wrestlers, an active participant in the school system, prevailed on the head of the math department to assume the roll. Rick was a Tin Knocker by trade: he installed heating and ventilation systems. Some of the boys had recognized him when he arrived at the the start of the season as he had been a referee at a fair number of their matches. His blue collar attitude exactly matched the personality of the team. His was no intellectual approach to coaching. He drilled his motto, repeated at the end of every practice and before the team burst out of the doors to the cheering crowd:

To be a champion requires to total commitment of mind and body. If you don’t have that, they don’t call you a champion.

This was not a normal practice. Today the team members would compete for slots on the Varsity team. Any wrestler could challenge for any position, provided they had a reasonable chance of making weight. Wrestle offs went in the same progression as the live matches, from lightest, 103 pounds, up to heavy weight. Some of the earlier slots had passed to the incumbent uncontested, or taken a token challenge from a younger or less experienced wrestler would lead to a quick decision. However, certain weights had multiple contestants of equal ability vying for the slot. Such was the case for 145 pounds this afternoon.

Of the two wrestlers facing Rick that day, his motto and manner appealed more to the shorter. John was a latter arrival to the wrestling team. His true passion was Football: He was varsity this year, and would be one of the captains during the next, his senior year. Due to his acne and his intensity, some had speculated on steroid use, but those that knew him knew he was just an intense teenager who spent a lot of time perform activities that generated a great deal of sweat. Rick was one of the few people that could get away with calling him “Johnny” usually as a portion of a barked coaching during a match. “Jesus, Johnny! One, not two!”

The other boy was taller, one of the tallest in the room, although by no means near the heaviest. Adam was an intellectual and a band geek who had joined the wrestling team his Freshman year due to a combined whisper campaign by his mother and the cajoling of the lead Sax player in the Band. Wrestling had come surprisingly naturally to the near-sighted geek. A lifetime of skiing and tree climbing had given him a degree of athleticism masked by his inability to intercept a ball in three dimensions. The intensity of the sport demanded his full attention, unlike the boredom and frustration that had lead him to walk home from baseball mid-practice.

Rick gave the last of the instructions and the two wrestlers faced off. If this had been a match, they would have worn singlets with the school colors: orange with black edges. Instead, they were dressed in simple shorts and t-shirts. Each wore an ear protector head gear: one was white and puffed out, looking like the hair style of Princess Leia in the Death Star, the other slimmer and black, more modern looking but providing less protection against the “cauliflower ear” that was the trademark of the wrestler. On their feet they wore Tiger Asics wrestling shoes, also in simple black and white. The shoes covered their ankles, and had a special sole that didn’t extend all the way to the edge of the base of the foot.

Each placed their right foot on one of the short lines of the rectangle, and dropped into their ready poses. Both took a staggered stance, Adam more so than John. John’s back leg, his left, was reinforced at the knee with a brace, the result of a Football injury. They dropped their hips and flexed their padded knees so that their shoulders, lead knee, tow, and the white line on the resilite formed a plane. Each had the complete lack of expression that typified the wrestler. The look, often terrifying to non-wrestlers and less experienced members of the team, came from examining a human body as physical mass to be manipulated. The passion and intensity was all the more frightening from the control and confidence that was portrayed.

Rick held up his right hand, fingers extended, and simultaneously blew his whistle and chopped the air. His hand traced a downward stroke, a ceremonial parting of the cellophane that had kept the wrestlers separated and contained.

John exploded first. As a football player, he had drilled the tackle thousands of time. This translated to a wrestling move known as the power-double-leg-takedown. His goal was two drive his head into the sternum, while simultaneously grabbing the ankles and knocking the other guy backwards. Once on the ground, John would attempt to gain control of the other guy. If he was successful, he would be awarded “Two Points: takedown.”

Power Double

Power Double

Adam and John were very close in weight. Since there was a limited number of members to the wrestling team, they could not avoid wrestling with each other. Unlike the meritocracy of the wrestle-off, day to day wrestling partners were often chosen based on friendship and the various social structures that dominated high school life. John often wrestled with other members of the Football team, some significantly heavier than he was. Adam often worked with less experienced kids, Andy who was a late comer to the team, too late to reach his full potential. Or Mike who, Adam had only recently deduced, was left handed and had learned all the moves for a right-dominant wrestler, turning what could have been a powerful advantage into a liability. However, Adam and John had not only practiced often against each other, but had watched each other from the sides, knowing that this bout was inevitable.

Adam sprawled. He kicked his legs back, grabbed the back of John’s shoulders and threw his chest at the floor. They hit with a boom, and both boys immediately kicked into a spin drill.

Spin drills are a combination calisthenic and muscle training exercise. During practice, wrestlers are paired off. One assumes a bottom position, calves and palms on the floor, back arched. The other wrestler positions himself with the center of his chest on the middle of the bottom wrestlers back. Standing on his toes, he clasps his hands behind his back and waits for the whistle. At the sound, he spins around the bottom wrestler, the arched back and adolescent chest connected as if by an axle. On the sounding of the whistle, he switches direction, always on his toes, always spinning as fast as he can. By the time the coach calls “switch!” his chest is in pain from trying to process the maximum amount of oxygen.

Both boys spun, each trying to get behind the other, to claim control and the first two points of the match. Instead, they separated, each backing away to their feet, and John surged forward again. This was his strategy: a blitzkrieg style attack that would quickly overwhelm his lanky opponent. Again the sprawl, the spin, and the return to the feet. Sometimes, they would circle out of bounds, and Rick would blow his whistle, return them to the center, and blow the whistle again.

Both Adam and John had reputations for being hard headed. They showed the truth of this when they head-butted in their attempt to close the distance. To an untrained observer, it would have appeared dance-like the way they simultaneously grabbed the back of the others head with their right hand, and the others right elbow with their left hand. The tie up was something the coached advised them not to do, but it was actually Adam’s advantage.

Tie Up

Tie Up

Adam stepped back with his right leg, pulling John in a circle. Normally, this move would have meant nothing, but Adam was six foot tall, unusually for a wrestler at 145 pounds. When John stepped forward, he placed his ankle with reach of Adam’s arm. The ankle pick was an unusual take down. It was different enough that it was the founding block of Adam’s success on his feet. He’d drilled variations on the single and double leg take downs, and secretly lusted after performing a fireman’s carry after seeing the photo of a textbook execution by the coach from freshman year, but only the ankle pick produced steady results. With John’s head in his right hand and John’s right foot in his left hand, Adam had the leverage to force John down to the mat.

The match was three periods long, each period lasting two minutes of running time. After the end of the first period, the leader would be given the choice. “Top, Bottom, Neutral or Defer.” This choice was strategic. If the pair were evenly matched, taking bottom meant a pretty good chance of getting an escape, which netted a single point. A wrestler might choose top to maximize the chance of winning by a Pin, or at least scoring points by exposing his opponents shoulder blades to the mat. Neutral meant that both wrestlers started the period the way the match started, on their feet. The choice was further muddied by the fact that one boy chose at the start of the second round, the other at the start of the third round. Or the wrestler could defer, making his opponent chose now, and claiming the right to chose at the start of the third period.

John took top. His goal was to pin Adam. Adam knelt down behind the long line of the central rectangle, the tops of his feet flush along the floor. Some wrestlers chose to curl their toes, to get a quicker push off, but Adam found he was just as fast this way, and the flush position prevented his opponent from easily grabbing his ankle. He placed his palms on the mat in from of the other side of the rectangle, sat back on his haunches, and flexed his back, Head up, elbows slightly bent.

Taking the top position gave the wrestler a few choices. Most common was left hand on the opponents left elbow, right hand on the center of the stomach, right foot on the floor behind, left knee down. But John’s tackle approach meant he was going to try something riskier. He stood behind Adam, hands forming a diamond in the center of the lower boys back, feet behind and to the left of his opponent. The moment his hands touched the bottom boy, Rick blew the whistle and both wrestlers exploded into action. John’s goal was to tackle Adam, to drive him to the ground, and get him into a pinning combination called a near-side-cradle. Adam knew this was coming, and as the whistle blew he pushed up with both hands, stood with his left foot, and pivoted to the right, avoiding the tackle, and earning “one point, escape.”

The match continued, take down, escape, reversal. John once succeeded in getting Adam prone, attempting the cradle. John had his left hand behind Adam’s neck, his right hand a the bend of the other boys right knee, and his forehead driving into the rib cage, attempting to fold his opponent, clasp his own hands together, and roll the boy onto his back. The response, to turn away and arch to the other side, gave the attacker the opportunity to try the same attack from the right instead of the left, toggling back and forth as each attempted to react faster than the other.

Driving to the near side cradle

Driving to the near side cradle

At one point Adam had top position. As a taller wrestler, he had learned to use his legs to his advantage, again a series of moves that were less common among his peers. The leg ride, or grape vine, was performed by hooking his heel around his opponents thigh, and hooking over the back of the other kids ankle. this left his upper body free to attempt various turns while maintaining a grip on the lower wrestler. There were three moves he could use, and he probably tried all of them. He could pull his opponents arm straight back, and, using his head, pull the lower wrestler over. This move was called the Guillotine. Second was the Banana Split, where the grape vine on the left leg was paired with a two armed attack to the right leg. Or her could helicopter his free leg around, scoop the other kids head and use the momentum to turn his opponent.

These two were fairly evenly matched. There were no back points scored during the match. As the match continued into the third period, Adam held a slim but solid lead. Both boys were tired, pouring far more than the normal energy from a practice into the competition. Around the sides, the other members of the team watched on: Paul, dominant at 189, one step below heavy weight. Matt, the freshman already a powerhouse at 103. Neil, Tim, Scott. Tony, who’s dominance at the 152 weight class forced Adam to cut the weight to get down to 145.  Fernando, the exchange student pressed into service at heavy weight.  This was early in the season, before repeated weight loss caused the lanky wrestler’s body to break down, leading to a shoulder injury that would follow him for the rest of his life.

The final minutes of the match. Both boys were on their feet, working for the takedown. Adam attempted a single leg takedown, snatching behind the knee with both hands, yanking the leg off the floor. John’s injured knee gave, and Rick stopped the match. The mode of victory was no less definitive for having been so anti-climactic. Adam would wrestle 145 and John would Wrestle Junior Varsity, at least for the next week or two.  The following year, their weights would separate enough so that they no longer competed for the same slots, John settling in at 152, Adam  taking 160.

Rick would coach for another couple years, guiding Paul and Matt to be the first and second state champion wrestlers that high school had produced.  Rick’s feud with the Athletic director would build during this time.  His status as an outsider, not a teacher, denied him a key to the newly refurbished boys locker room.  The night of home match, with two teams of boys who had starved themselves down to weight eager to weigh in and then eat, Rick used his work boot as a field expedient lock pick to enter the locker room.  He was relieved from his position as wrestling coach.

Cognitive Science has it that a sensation goes through five layers of neurons before it reaches the level where we “know” something.  We are already removed from reality when we first experience it.  Memories are stored and retrieved, until what we remember is not the event but the memory of the memory of the event.  The details drop off as the cohesion of the memory degrades.  What we are left with has the quality of legend:  larger than life, more real than the events we ignore every day, streamlined.

This match happened long ago. Did John succeed in getting the first take down, or did Adam? The answer is locked in the collective memories of the men, young and old, that observed and participated. Perhaps, if you polled them, a collective truth could be extracted, but it does not matter.  Both Adam and John agreed that this was how the match started, and this was how it ended.  That is what we call truth.

8 thoughts on “The Wrestle Off

  1. Excellent imagery. Those really were good times as Matt HOLT states.

    In a parallel universe, I am math teacher and wrestling coach.

    I hear that Craig Kosinski is coaching in VT somewhere. Ever hear from Rick?

  2. Haven’t heard from Rick yet, but as the world gets more and more connected, I’m sure it is only a matter of time. I’ve seen some indications that he still lives and works in the area.

    Wrestling was a life changing experince for me. Without it, I doubt I’d have done many of the things I did in life afterwards.

  3. Hey:

    Hope you are well. I agree, the imagery in your writing was spectacular. love thefact you remembered how as a leftie I was lost learning as a rightie.

    All the best.

  4. Just saw this Adam
    Matt sent it to me it was a fun time for me and I hope it was for all involved
    Its funny though that I was relieved for not following the rules were the biggest rule breakers were the AD and principle

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