Part 1 – Training
©Jeri 2003, 2004
I’m retired now, but the days I spent in the ring as a lady pro wrestler were some of the happiest of my life, and left me with a lot of wonderful memories.
Max thrust his muscled fist up in a strong uppercut into my upper stomach. This time, it got through my hard abs, right into my solar plexus. The shock of the impact sent a tidal wave of pain coursing through my stomach, and out into my whole body. This wasn’t the way we were supposed to be practicing it in a training session!
What had I gotten myself into!
I had grown up interested in all kinds of sports. I’d been active in track and field, soccer, softball and lacrosse, all the sports the high schools would let a girl play in the late 60’s. I had won a few medals, but only a few. I was good in each sport, but not at the top of the field in any one of them. I was a good, strong athlete who could excel in any sport.
At least that’s what I thought until that bet.
I liked sports. The feeling I got when I ran a race at my top speed or when I beat out a soccer goalie and scored a goal gave me a high that I can’t describe. You can see a glimpse of what it’s like on the faces of athletes in the Olympics, just after they’ve made a gold-medal winning effort. But only another athlete can know that feeling.
I kept up my sports activities throughout college. My athletic abilities had won me a sports scholarship. But while I participated on many of the teams in different sports, I didn’t really have a goal for college. I didn’t really have a goal for after college.
Now in my junior year of college, I still didn’t have any idea of what I would do for a living. I just wasn’t good enough in any of the sports to make any of the pro teams. I had a boyfriend, but we weren’t serious enough for me to even think about becoming a housewife. And being a housewife, the world’s oldest profession, didn’t really appeal to me anyway. But it was actually my boyfriend who determined my course in life, though unintentionally I might add.
It was at the end of my junior year. Summer break was in a week. We had gotten into a fight over my sports activities. I had my whole summer planned, including a lot of practicing for my sports the next year. He was complaining about my summer schedule not leaving much time for him.
My boyfriend was not really athletically inclined, so I usually got my way with him. I was actually stronger than him, and he knew it. I would grab him during our fights and hold onto him until he gave in and agreed with my point of view.
This particular fight started out the same. I grabbed him in a headlock, and wouldn’t let him go. But this time, it had another effect. Instead of giving in, he said I was just proving his point; that I was so devoted to sports that I didn’t care about anyone or anything else. This stopped me and made me think. I released him and was in the process of partially agreeing with him, when he said, “And you’re not even good it at it. You’re not as strong or tough as you think you are.”
Now this I couldn’t take. I had been near the top of every sport I had participated in. While I wasn’t in first place, I was at least in the top couple percent in all my sports. I knew I was good, and that all my training had made me tough.
I had a scathing reply all ready for him. But before I could scold him, he continued. “I saw an ad in the paper for a free pro wrestling school. They’re interviewing tomorrow for a six-week training that’ll start in a few weeks, during our summer vacation. I bet you can’t take the training. I bet you’ll fold in only a couple weeks. I’ll bet you fifty dollars you can’t last the whole six weeks!”
I never had such a mixture of emotions in my life. Initially, I was boiling mad at him for questioning my abilities. Then, it dawned on me what he had actually said. This was followed by a short period of thoughtfulness about what I would be committing to if I accepted his bet. Finally, I thought about the challenge this would give me.
I had always been interested in proving myself. I guess this was the real reason I enjoyed sports so much. Sports gave me a chance to push myself to my limits, to prove I had what it takes, to prove I was tough enough. And this sounded like the ultimate way to prove it.
So, in a period of less than a minute, I went from a state of fuming anger to one of joyous anticipation. So in a calm voice that actually shocked my boyfriend (he was obviously expecting me to explode in anger like I usually did), I said calmly, almost eagerly, “OK, it’s a bet. Where are they holding the interviews?”
That next day, I went for the interview. All my finals were over, so I had the day completely free. No more studying until the fall.
The interviews were being held in a building in the grimier part of town. It had a sign out front announcing it simply as, “Louie’s Gym.” Inside the main entrance was a small office with a bored-looking secretary seated at a desk just outside it. “I’m here for the pro wrestling tryouts,” I said eagerly.
She looked up, then handed me a three-page document and said, “Sign this.” It was a standard waiver that said I wouldn’t sue them if I were injured. I had signed similar documents for all my college sports activities. However, this one went into much more detail as to what nasty things could happen to me that I couldn’t sue them for.
Noticing my reticence to sign, the secretary said in her bored voice, “You can’t even come into the gym unless you sign that.” So I hastily signed it and handed it back to her. The secretary pointed to the office door, and motioned me to go on in.
I had seen pro wrestling on TV lots of times. Louie Palato (according to the nameplate on his desk), was short and stocky. He didn’t look like a wrestler. He looked like a manager, one who would bang his wrestler’s opponent over the head with a chair to win a match. I said, “I’m here to learn pro wrestling.”
Without speaking, Louie got up and looked me over. “Are you fit?” were the first words he spoke.
“Yes. I’ve participated in lots of different sports. I’m probably the toughest girl in the school.” That last may have been right, but I had never tested it. Still, I had high confidence I was tough enough for the training.
“OK, pull up your shirt so’s I can see your stomach and build.”
I had come to the gym dressed in tight, low jeans and a tight fitting, short T-shirt, my preferred form of casual attire. It accentuated and showed off my slim, athletic figure. He examined me slowly, seemingly eyeing every curve of my figure. He seemed to be looking right through my remaining clothes, seeing my body underneath. I had exposed much more of my body than this in my skimpy bathing suit on the beach, but I had never felt this thoroughly naked. But it didn’t bother me too much. And, I knew I would probably be working in a bikini in the ring sometime anyway.
“OK. Are you tall enough to unscrew that lightbulb up there?” he asked.
I dropped my T-shirt back down and reached up to the lightbulb in the receptacle above. As I did so, my shirt rode back up, exposing my bare stomach again. I almost chuckled to myself as I thought of the show I was giving him this day. I reached up with my other hand also, pulling my shirt further up to just below my ribs. I tried to move as seductively as I could, to give him the best show I could. I could just see his eyes popping out of their sockets at the sight of my fit body thrust out for his enjoyment.
A spasm of pain wracked my body. He had punched me deep in my gut. I doubled over gasping and fell to the floor holding my stomach. I was gasping for breath. The pain was almost unbearable. He just stood there looking down at me.
Slowly, I recovered. When I was able to make an attempt to stand up, he reached down to help me. He said, “You need more conditioning before you can train with me. Come back when you’re fitter.”
I had never been punched in the stomach before, but I knew I didn’t like it. If I had been asked before that day if I had a strong stomach, I would have said that of course I did. But I knew now I would need a lot more training before I could even think about doing this again.
I was slinking out of the gym thinking about the fifty dollars I would be giving to my boyfriend that night and the associated humiliation I would be enduring, when a girl about my own age and build stopped me. She said with a little laugh, “Been punched in the stomach? Daddy does that to all the new girls, just to show them they’re not as good as they think they are. Look, the training starts in six weeks. He wants all his students to have incredibly strong stomach muscles, especially the girls. You’ll learn why during your training. Just do a bunch of sit-ups and leg lifts to toughen your stomach, and come back then. You look like you’ll do just fine.”
I had been reprieved! The bet was still on. I had one more chance to win, and I was determined that I would not fail again.
Over the next six weeks, I trained as hard as I could. I focused my training on building up my stomach muscles as Louie’s daughter had suggested, with additional training to strengthen the rest of my body. My boyfriend complained that I was spending way too much time away from him, but I just reminded him that he had started this, so it was his own fault.
I never did tell him the details of my interview. I never told him I had failed to take a simple punch the average pro wrestler could take without even blinking. I just said I would be going back to the gym when the training started. I let him leap to the conclusion that I had won the position in the school.
Six weeks later, I was ready. I had a rock-solid stomach that I thought would withstand anything Louie could throw at me. I went to the gym, intent on showing him just how tough I had become.
The interview this time was actually anticlimactic. I walked into his office, and pulling up my T-shirt to expose my stomach to his fist said, “OK, I’m ready for you now.”
He glanced up at my stomach from his desk and said simply, “Fine. Training starts tomorrow.”
I knew I didn’t look any different, than I did the last time. I still had a little covering of fat that hid my muscles. I could only come to the conclusion that he was extremely perceptive to be able to see my development, even though I wasn’t able to see it myself. I would find out later from his daughter that he used his stomach punch test as an initial way to weed out those who were not up to the mental challenge of his training. He would weed out those who were not actually fit later, during the training itself.
Training started on a Monday. There were six men, and four women in the group. All looked fit, as fit as I was. We were all escorted into the gym proper by Louie’s daughter, Lynn.
The gym looked like any other gym of the era. It had an elevated boxing ring in the center. It had two full-length heavy punching bags along one side, and three weight sets and benches along the other three sides. Other than that, it was a plain room with a wooden floor and brick walls, with a back entrance to the alley and a side door to the locker room.
Louie came into the gym. He looked shorter than he had in his office, but more imposing. He had on a sport suit and white shirt that he had unbuttoned at the collar. But neither his clothes nor his stature caused him to look imposing. He was holding a little league baseball bat in his hand. And from the way he was carrying it, in one handed, holding it near the end of the handle, you could see that he was stronger than he looked. I could only imagine what he would be doing with that bat. But we would all soon learn what the bat was for.
“All right,” he said, gesturing with the bat, “this is your first day here, so I’ll tell you the ground rules. If you don’t agree with any of them, feel free to leave now. If you stay, I’ll expect you to follow these rules always. First, whatever I say goes. You’ll do exactly as I say, when I say it, and to the best of your ability. I’ll be training you as pro wrestlers. I’ve been in the business for years and trained hundreds of wrestlers, so I know what I’m talking about. My goal is to train you so you can get in the ring with any other wrestler, and not only lose to them, but look good doing it. And if you happen to win, I still want you to look good doing it, and make the other wrestler look just as good. I want the fans to cheer you, even if you lose.
“Second, I’ll need to see your body. I need to see your body development at all times during your training. I need to see how you apply the wrestling holds and blows, without your clothes hiding them. So, you men work in wrestling shorts without a shirt. And you women work with a bikini top and stretch pants or boxer shorts, your choice.
“Third, listen to my daughter as you would to me. She’s been in the business as long as I have. And she’s better in the ring than any of you. Don’t forget that. She’s a pro herself.
“Fourth and most important, I want to see you sweat! I want you to put all you have into your training. At the end of the day, I want you to go home completely exhausted and beat. If you have the energy to go out on a date after a session, you aren’t putting enough into your training. And I’ll know it. I’ll push you to your body’s limits, and beyond. I’ll push you beyond all limits you can imagine.
“Now this is your only chance to back out. Anyone want to?”
No one moved.
“Well,” I thought. “That’s plain enough.” I would learn that outside of the ring, Louie was as straightforward and truthful as could be. He would speak his mind, and say exactly what he was thinking. And no matter how fantastic what he said sounded, he would usually be right. And in this case too, he was not lying. My training would be grueling, but satisfying.
The rest of the day, Louie told us about the business of pro wrestling, energetically waving his bat to punctuate his points. He told us about all the tricks of the trade and the roles all the people played in the business, from the booking agent to the referee. He told us how our careers would go, from our debut to stardom, if we got that far. He told us the language of the world of pro wrestling, from a Body Slam to an Airplane Spin to an Atomic Drop. And he told us of the darker side of pro wrestling. Finally, he wound down late in the evening and dismissed us.
“And tomorrow we learn to wrestle?” said one of the other girls.
“No, tomorrow you learn how to build yourself up to wrestle. You need to be in top shape to be able to perform all the wrestling moves without hurting yourself or your opponent. So tomorrow, we’ll start your strength training. Then maybe in a few weeks, when you’re strong enough, we’ll start teaching you to wrestle.”
The next day, we all showed up at the gym at eight in the morning. I didn’t have any stretch pants, as that was not my style in clothing, and I didn’t have time to buy any before I had to get to the gym, so I came in one of my most conservative bikini bathing suits. I was comfortable in it, so I thought there would be no problem. I did have a set of sweat pants I brought in case I got cold, but didn’t think I would need them. But about half way through the morning’s exercises, the bikini bottoms broke in the middle of a deep knee bend, and I had to make a mad dash to the locker room. Lynn saw my plight, and loaned me a pair of men’s boxer shorts. I completed the day wearing them. They were so comfortable, I decided to buy a womens’ pair that evening.
The day had been just as Louie had promised it would be. It was beyond tiring. It was beyond exhausting. We all felt the exercises that day. Stopping only long enough to by my shorts, I went home, dragged my body into bed, and slept like a log.
All that week, Louie put us through all the exercises we had ever heard of, and a few I think he had made up himself, using the bat as a baton to conduct us through the correct forms for each exercise. We exercised our legs, our arms, our backs, and especially our stomachs. Just as Lynn had warned me, Louie told us that he wanted us to have stomachs that could take hard punches from another wrestler all day without any problem. He wanted our stomachs to be built solid, and be able to take punches like a tree. One of the girls asked, “Why? Why all this concentration on a strong stomach? If all the punches are fake, why do we need to have a stomach as hard as you want?”
Louie snapped around, reared up to his full five foot four height, and glared up at her. “Girlie,” he said, “you need to have a strong stomach because they’re not ALL fake. During the course of your career, you’re gonna have your stomach beaten a lot. For women especially, the preferred target is your stomach. No woman wants to get hit in the face, and the breasts and crotch are targets to be avoided, obviously. That only leaves the stomach.
“In wrestling, the fans want to see the wrestlers beating against each other in a way they know they themselves couldn’t take. Everyone knows your gut is the weakest part of your anatomy. Everyone knows that. So you’re gonna be beat there a lot. Punched, elbowed, kicked, stomped, kneed, every imaginable way your gut can be pulverized. You have to expect it. You have to train for it. You have to take it.
“Your whole reason for being in the ring is to entertain the fans. So there’ll be times where you’ll need to take a full-force gut punch to sell it to the fans. Otherwise the fans’ll know you’re faking it.
“And you’ll be trained in all the same moves, from the giving side. You’re gonna learn to punch your opponent until they can’t stand. You’re gonna learn to destroy them until they can’t stand. You’re gonna punch their gut to the mat until they give up, then punch their gut some more, just for good measure. And you’re gonna have to expect that next time, they’re gonna do the same to you.”
Louie’s monologue had been fascinating. It had given me an insight into the business I had never thought about. I had known the punches were not always full force, but I had never thought that the punches sometimes needed to be full force, just to convince the fans. Now I knew why some of the pro wrestlers appeared to be injured. They actually were. Anyway, I thought I could handle even these new rules.
At the end of that first week, I was utterly exhausted. We had done nothing but exercise all week. I knew Louie’s workouts had exercised every single muscle in my body, since every single muscle in my body ached at every move I made. Every muscle except for my stomach, that is. That part of my anatomy was in better shape, it only burned with a fiery heat. I’d have to remember to thank Lynn for her advice to do those stomach exercises.
That weekend, I brushed off my boyfriend, who wanted to go out. Instead, I told him all about the first week over the phone. He got mad at me, but I kept reminding him it had been his idea in the first place. I spent the whole weekend alternating between hot baths and strenuous exercises, to work the soreness out. I most certainly didn’t want my body to stiffen up from all those things we had done over the week, so I exercised it as hard as it could stand, though not as hard as Louie had. And it worked. When Sunday evening came around, I had just a general glowing warmth all over. There were no more stabs of pain when I moved.
The next day, Monday, I got to the gym early. My body was beginning to stiffen up, and I wanted to work out the soreness before Louie added it back again. Louie was there, but he was in his office, probably thinking up new ways to torture us. I waved to him, but he just grunted and went back to reading his sports magazine.
Slowly, just before the class was to start, the rest of the group dragged themselves in. Well, almost the rest. When the class started, we were short one girl. Louie told us she gave up. And of course, he asked us if any of the rest of us were going to join her. They all said no, though a couple of them had a little bit of doubt in their voices. I knew I’d never quit. Even though we hadn’t actually gotten around to the wrestling part yet, I knew I was going to stay. I had been looking for a challenge, and this was the toughest one I’d ever had the chance at, probably the toughest one I would ever have in my life.
It was obvious I had been the only one who had actually worked out over the weekend, even though Louie had told us all to do it. My muscles still burned with a deep warmth, but they didn’t hurt. But from the way the others moved, they were still in pain. I didn’t think my minor discomfort would prevent me from doing the exercises, but I could only imagine what the others would be going through. Actually, I didn’t have to imagine what it was like, I knew. I had been in their position Saturday morning. But I seemed to be the only one who had done something about it.
We got down to business, starting out with more exercises, as usual. I didn’t seem have as much trouble as the previous week, even though I was putting more effort into them. Maybe I was actually getting stronger, or maybe I was just getting used to them. Louie, however, had a different idea. Every chance he had, he yelled at me, telling me to work harder. And while he would also yell at the others, still recovering from the previous week, he seemed to be selecting me for special abuse. It was like I couldn’t do anything to his satisfaction. This continued for the next couple days.
It was on Wednesday, we learned what Louie really carried the bat for.
I had been slacking off a little in my sit-ups. Even I knew it. So I was not surprised when Louie walked over to me, pointed the bat at me and yelled, “You’re gonna have to do those better than that if you wanna be a wrestler! You’re not gonna be able to survive in the business with a gut that flabby!” and to punctuate his point, he rammed the bat down into my stomach.
Louie had timed it precisely right, almost certainly on purpose. I had just laid back and was relaxed, getting ready for my next sit-up, when the bat struck. It dug deep into my stomach, almost grinding against my spine. Only my muscles spasming hard at the last second saved me, a little. My hands shot from behind my head and cradled my stomach. I rolled over on my side, and gasped in little gulps of air. The bat had knocked the air completely out of my lungs, and I couldn’t take a breath to re-fill them. I just laid there, gasping and puffing. Louie, unconcerned that I was suffocating, kept yelling at me to get back to my sit-ups.
Slowly at first, then faster, I recovered. Louie was jabbering about how weak my stomach was if it couldn’t take even one little love-tap from an old man (his words, not mine). I eventually got my composure again, and re-started my sit-ups. After the first one, I noticed I was the only one doing them. All the others were just sitting there, staring at me. Louie glared around at them, and they all hastily got back to work. He looked back down at me and said, “Any time I see you goofing off, you’re gonna taste my bat again. You all hear that?” and he glared around at the others again.
The pit of my stomach still hurt, but it was rapidly fading into the background of the general fire that Louie’s exercises were causing. Soon, the pain from the bat was just a memory. One that I didn’t like to remember, however.
That day, Louie used the bat on one of the men, and one of the other girls, before returning to me again. But while I knew I deserved the first beating, I didn’t think I deserved the second one. I had been working as hard as I could, doing some more of Louie’s exercises, this time a back bend. As I was returning back upright, he jabbed the bat again into my stomach, harder than before. But this time, I saw it coming and tightened my stomach muscles as hard as I could make them. The bat hurt a lot, but it bounced off my hard muscles, causing me to only grunt a little and jerk forward. I quickly straightened up, and went on into the next back bend, almost as if nothing had happened. “Good,” said Louie. “You’ve learned. Just keep your stomach tight and you can take most any punch. You need to make your stomach muscles harder, but that’s just exercise and training. Now, if I ever catch you with a relaxed stomach again or if I ever see you putting less than your best into it, you’re gonna feel my bat again. And that goes for all of you,” he said as he glared around again.
It was the next day, Thursday, when we actually got a chance to wrestle. Louie broke us up into pairs. Since there were an odd number of girls, he told me to pair up with his daughter, Lynn. For some reason, he was still picking me for the hardest parts. He used Lynn and me to demonstrate the most basic wrestling holds, and how to get out of them.
Lynn had been a professional wrestler as soon as she was old enough. Her father had seen to that. She was my age, but a lot harder, and a lot more skilled. She applied all the holds Louie described on me. And the firmness of her holds told me I would have little chance of breaking them, at least at this point in my career. And when it was my turn to apply my holds on her, even though I wasn’t using my full strength, her hard body told me she was just letting me hold her, and that she could slip out of my grasp without any effort at any time. “That,” I thought “is what I want to be like, hard and strong like her.” That was the first time I had actually realized exactly how strong and athletic a wrestler really was. I knew now that even the softest looking lady wrestlers must be incredible athletes, and must have strong, solid muscles hidden beneath that layer of fat that most girls have, the fat hiding those incredibly hard and chiseled stomach muscles. I just HAD to be like that.
The remainder of that week and most of the next went the same. We started each day with strenuous exercises, focusing on Louie’s stomach exercises, of course. Then Louie would show us more and more complex wrestling holds and their counters. And Louie used his bat on me quite often. I could expect to be struck at least twice in the course of the day, any time Louie thought I wasn’t doing as good as I could, or if he thought I wasn’t holding my stomach as tight as I was able, or sometimes for no reason at all. I was doubled over a couple times, but I soon learned to try to keep my stomach tight always, especially when he was within “bat shot” of my stomach. He treated the others similarly, with periodic pokes with the bat, but he seemed to reserve his hardest hits for me. I would guess that I took at least three times as many hits from the bat as any of the others. I don’t know why. It may have been that I wasn’t as good as they were, though I thought I was. It may have been that he had a grudge against me, maybe because I didn’t do so well in his initial interview, where my stomach crumpled under his first punch. In any case, I seemed to be singled out for special treatment, treatment that I didn’t want but that was becoming less and less of a problem.
I remember one time near the end of that third week where I was doing a set of rapid sit-ups. Louie came over to me and shoved the bat into my stomach. “That’s not the way to do sit-ups! Curl your back more! Work those abs!” he said, as he jabbed the bat into my navel and leaned forward on it with his considerable weight. “Now do your sit-ups. This’ll provide a little more resistance.” Of course, I couldn’t sit up, not with what seemed like a couple hundred pounds digging into my stomach. But I was able to do a crunch, folding my body around the bat, then straightening out, keeping my stomach as hard as I could to prevent the bat from penetrating further. I was actually able to do five of these semi-crunches before he removed the bat, my eyes tearing from the exertion and the pain.
He didn’t bother me as much after that, but I could always count on him to know precisely when I had my stomach relaxed. He rammed his bat into my stomach many times, always when I was least expecting it, always while I was resting my stomach muscles. Many times, I doubled over from the impact. Sometimes, his thrusts were to my upper stomach, and would knock the wind out of me. But in any case, I eventually learned to tighten my stomach immediately after his hits, as he would continue ramming the bat into my stomach until my stomach muscles had been tightened sufficiently to deflect his attacks. All the while he was painfully jamming that bat into my stomach, he would be pointing out to the other students the proper way to take a hit, of course using my aching, softened stomach as the practice dummy. In fact, he seemed to delight in using me as his target. It took me a while, but eventually I was able to tighten my stomach hard after the first or second of his stabs, no matter how much it hurt. But of course, if he saw even the slightest of softness in my stomach, he would jab that bat deep into me, even harder than before.
The fourth week, we finally got into the ring. We did exercises and learned new wrestling holds in the morning. Then in the afternoon, each of us would get into the ring with our partner, as the others watched. Louie would set up the scenario for each of our sessions, describing exactly what holds and counters we would use, and who would win.
That first day was a disaster for all of us. None of us did anything right. We all missed our cues, sometimes actually missing the punch or kick by as much as several feet. Practicing the wrestling holds one at a time by ourselves was one thing. Actually trying to do them in the ring, trying to smoothly transition from one move to another was a whole different ballgame. At the end of the session that evening, we all came away with bumps and bruises, most of them self-inflicted. And to top it all off, Louie didn’t even scold us during the whole fiasco. He didn’t have to. He just stood there and let us make fools of ourselves. And it worked. At the end of the day, we had learned more about wrestling than all the yelling, screaming and coaching he could have heaped on us. It was just the humbling experience we had needed.
The next day, Tuesday, I was ready to tackle that previous day again. I now knew that knowing the individual moves didn’t mean a thing if you couldn’t do them in the ring, and if you couldn’t do them all in an orchestrated presentation. Louie had said it back in that first week. We were giving an exhibition, entertaining the audience. If we didn’t do that, no matter how skilled we were, we wouldn’t make it in the business of wrestling.
After we had worked off our new aches and pains that morning, we got down to business. Louie’s favoritism for working me harder than the rest surfaced again. He selected Lynn and me as the first ones into the ring. He gave us our instructions, this time much more complicated than the previous day. Lynn, of course, got the whole scenario correct. But I, of course, did not. I flubbed about half my moves, though I recovered from my flubs rapidly. And I even did pretty well in joining my moves into a cohesive presentation that mostly followed the scenario Louie had laid out for us. But none of this satisfied Louie, of course. He yelled and screamed and scolded me as if I had never done anything right in my life. He yelled and screamed at me throughout my whole bout, telling me in great detail how bad my wrestling was, and how I would never be a pro wrestler, let alone a good one, if my wrestling was that bad. Again, he was using me as an example, albeit a bad one. I don’t know, maybe it was because Lynn was in the ring with me that he thought I should have done better.
After my match was over and he finally ran out of bad things to say about my wrestling style, he called two of the boys to start their match. Of course, he gave them a much simpler scenario than he had given Lynn and me. But they still flubbed it pretty badly. He scolded them, but not anywhere near as bad as he had scolded me.
The rest of the bouts went about as expected. The boys had caught on pretty well, though they all made blunders. The girls, however, were at least as bad as I was. I thought they were much worse than I, but evidently, Louie didn’t. He scolded them even less than he had the others.
By that evening, we had all had our turn in the ring, our first real opportunity to wrestle. It was late, later than we usually stayed, and we were all ready to go home. But of course, Louie didn’t see it that way. He said there would be one more match, and that Lynn and I would be doing it. I no longer was surprise by anything Louie did, and particularly in this case. When he said there would be another match, I immediately prepared to enter the ring. I knew he was going to pick me. He always picked me. I was resigned to the fact that for the rest of my life, he would always pick me.
I was tired and hungry. But I still tried my best. Of course, it wasn’t good enough for Louie. I went home that night stiff, sore, tired and hurting, with Louie’s shouts still ringing in my ears. I fell asleep on the couch, in the middle of eating my dinner.
The rest of the week went the same. We all got better, though you couldn’t tell it by Louie’s shouts. Even in our most expertly performed maneuvers, he still found something to criticize, something we had done incorrectly, some miniscule detail we had left out, or some small movement he wanted us to do slightly differently, though he had told us to do it the other way the previous day.
The fifth week was a mirror of the fourth week. We all improved to the point where our routines could even be called “smooth.” We could take any scenario Louie could think up and execute it precisely as he said, though Louie was as critical of us as he had always been. And, of course, he worked Lynn and me harder than the rest, with me getting the hardest scenarios and usually getting picked to do a second match each day. It no longer surprised me when he told me to do a move he had never taught us, or to get up there and be used as a target dummy for one of the other girls, so he could get her to do some move properly. Several times, I had to stand there as one of them battered my gut, as he tried to teach her how to pull her punches properly.
I finally concluded that he had not liked my perkiness when I challenged him to punch my stomach that second time I met him. I could think of no other reason for my treatment.
That Friday started out as usual, bad for me. Max had been one of the stronger of the men there, probably the strongest. But he was also one of the least careful. Sometimes, he would lose control, not pulling his attacks in time. Or sometimes, he would lose control of his temper, with the same results. So Friday of the fifth week, Louie informed us that Max’s partner had quit. Coming as no surprise to me any more, Louie assigned me to be his new partner.
I was tall, but Max was a head taller than I was. He had pronounced, strong muscles. He must have been a weight lifter previously. I hadn’t really studied his wrestling style, as I had been concentrating on the other girls’ wrestling, and of course my own wrestling. That had left little time to study the guys there. But from what little I had seen, he was the best of the men there, the most skilled and the strongest wrestler of them. And I thought I was the best of the women, though Louie obviously disagreed.
Just after our daily strength exercises, Louie, in his usual style, gathered us together to outline the day’s training. He told us we were going to learn the right way to give and take stomach punches. We were going to learn how to sell the punch to the audience. He got into the ring with Lynn, his daughter. This was the first time any of us had ever seen him step into the ring himself. He usually stood outside the ring on the apron and yelled his insults from there. “OK,” he said, “Here’s how to do a proper stomach punch.”
Louie and Lynn circled each other cautiously as we had been taught. Lynn lunged forward to grab Louie, but with a speed I could not have imagined from one of his bulk, he ducked under Lynn’s grasp and threw a hard right uppercut directly to her upper stomach. He put all his considerable weight into the punch, rotating his whole body to get maximum power.
The punch landed on her bare stomach with a loud smack that reverberated throughout the gym. It actually lifted Lynn up, completely off the mat. As Louie’s fist pulled back, Lynn dropped to the floor, clutching her stomach in a fetal position.
I was shocked, but not from Lynn’s reaction. Louie had been holding out on us. I had never seen such a strong, perfect stomach punch performed before. And Louie, who I had thought of as just an out-of-shape trainer, had performed it. He must have been a pro wrestler to be feared back in his day. And, he had used that strong, perfect punch on the stomach of his daughter.
Louie turned toward us. “See? That’s how to throw a stomach punch,” he said, as Lynn rocked back and forth on the mat, gasping and groaning and holding her bruised stomach.
He said, “Lynn?” And as if by magic, Lynn got up, completely recovered, and walked back over to Louie by the side of the ring. I felt like applauding. I had never seen such a perfect job of acting. I still didn’t know where that loud smack had come from when Louie’s fist hit Lynn’s stomach (though I would learn soon enough), but it had completely fooled me, and probably all the rest of the class. I had actually been sorry for Lynn, seeing her obvious pain at the punch.
“OK, now get with your partner and do the same thing. You know how to pull your punches, now put some play-acting into giving and taking those punches. I’ll be around and coach you on the finer points.”
We spread out around the gym, at different places on the mats. I walked over to where Max had already staked out his claim to his territory. Before I could even introduce myself, I knew our partnership was going to be trouble. “Well, girlie, you were pretty hot stuff among the other girls. But you’re nothing compared to us men. I’m going to chew you up and spit you out.”
“And a happy hello to you too,” I thought. If I hadn’t known why before, I now knew precisely why his previous partner had quit the training. And as I had done in the past, I was cursing Louie under my breath for saddling me with this muscle-bound idiot.
I said, “Well, do you want to give or receive the first set of punches?”
“I’ll punch first. And I’ll pummel your weak abs until you go home crying to your mommy.”
“Yep, he’s going to be a problem, all right,” I thought.
I turned my back on him and composed myself. His words didn’t frighten me at all. But I knew he wasn’t going to pull his punches as we were supposed to be doing for this exercise. I knew exactly what he was going to do. He was going to assert his superiority over me immediately, trying to show me he was better than I was, trying to show me all men were better than all women.
I turned back to him calmly, but with my stomach as hard as I could make it. And not one moment too soon. He threw a strong punch to my upper stomach, trying to knock me to the ground, as Lynn had been. But he didn’t pull his punch. His broad fist impacted my hardened stomach muscles, and bounced off. The impact had sent a shock wave into my stomach, but it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. I stayed on my feet looking straight at him for a fraction of a second, just long enough to show him I wasn’t even fazed by his punch, then dropped to the ground holding my stomach as I had seen Lynn do.
And of course, Louie was right there telling me how bad an acting job I had done in selling the punch. He made me go through it several more times, with Max punching the same point on my stomach each time. But of course with Louie watching him, he pulled his punches so as to just barely make contact, enough to cause a loud smack but not enough to do any real damage.
“So that was why Louie’s punch had sounded like it had gone right through Lynn. It had been only strong enough to smack against her skin. It didn’t even penetrate to her stomach muscles,” I thought. I was wrong, but I would find that out the next day.
Louie made us do this what seemed like twenty times. “OK, now you punch Max a few times. And do a good job. I need to see how the others are doing.”
I turned to Max. “Go ahead, take your best shot,” he said.
I hauled back my fist in an exaggerated gesture, showy enough so even the fans in the back row would know what was coming next, then drove my fist forward, checking my punch at the last second so it just bare made contact. And Max just stood there. Now that Louie wasn’t there watching, he reverted back to his usual obnoxious self. “Is that the best you can do? I can take anything you can throw at me. You can never penetrate my stomach muscles. Now try again, only harder this time. I’ll let you wear yourself out on my hard abs.”
Of course, this wasn’t the way we were supposed to be training, but I knew Max wasn’t going to accept my pulling my punches any more than he was going to pull his. So I pulled back my fist a little and drove it forward, this time aiming to punch it through his stomach, all the way to his backbone. And to my surprise, it worked. I put my whole body into the punch, twisting as I had seen Louie do. The punch drove into his stomach at the navel, and penetrated a couple inches. He hadn’t been expecting the punch, and hadn’t had his stomach tight. He bent over at the waist and grabbed his stomach, a flash of pain on his face. But he didn’t fall to the mat as he was supposed to. Instead, he stood back up quickly. “OK,” he said with a slight tightness in his voice. “Let’s try that again.”
I did the same thing again, but it had minimal effect. He had tightened his stomach to the point where my punch bounced off it, causing some small effect, but nothing serious. In fact, all it did was make him mad. I think he was mad that I had been able to get through his defenses that once, and wasn’t about to let me get through a second time. He just stood there taking my punches, not even trying to react to them like we were supposed to be doing. I wasn’t getting tired, but it looked like he wasn’t caving in either. After about twenty punches, I said, “OK Max, it’s your turn again.”
I knew what was going to happen next. And I was right. I stood there with my whole stomach as hard as I could make it as Max pulled back his fist about waist high. With a determined, almost angry look on his face, he drove it forward into the middle of my stomach. It penetrated my abs a little, then bounced off, stopped by my hard muscles. The pain was much worse than the first time, though still tolerable. Against all the rules, I didn’t even try to react to the punch. I just stood there looking at Max. I said in a strained voice, “OK, it’s my turn.”
From across the room, Louie’s voice boomed, “Hey you two! You’re supposed to be pulling your punches!” Both of us heard him. Both of us kept punching at full force, alternating punches between us. Eventually, even Louie got tired of yelling at us to stop, and just watched. And of course the rest of the class stopped and came over to watch us, forming a circle around us.
My stomach was on fire from the abuse it was receiving. His punches were now penetrating deep into my muscles. But I was happy to see that I was also starting to do some damage to his stomach. My punches started to penetrate. But his punches were doing more damage than mine were.
On each punch, there was a flash of pain as his fist entered my stomach. Then as it withdrew, it left a smoldering, lingering pain that was building up rapidly. I was gasping and panting now, as the pain increased.
On the final punch, a hard one to my solar plexus, he caught me right in the middle of a gasp. At that instant, my stomach was relaxed a little. His punch penetrated into my upper stomach, compressing the solar plexus nerve bundle against my spine. A high voltage electric shock shot up and down my whole body, weakening every muscle as it passed. I fell, to the mat gasping for breath. Involuntarily, I was putting on a show as good as Lynn’s had been, though from my point of view, I wasn’t acting.
With his usual impeccable timing, Louie said, “OK, let’s break for lunch. We’ll do another exercise when we get back.”
After lunch, we practiced some other moves we had done before. I partially recovered, at least enough to go through the simple moves we practiced. They were solo moves, so I wasn’t up against Max.
Out of the corner of my eye, I watched Max. I could tell by his body language that he was mad. I think I had been the first person to hurt him, even though he had won the fight. I was sure he would be trying to get back at me the next time we wrestled each other.
Throughout the rest of that afternoon, I went over the morning’s training in my mind. I knew I needed some more training, but didn’t know what kind I needed. In the evening when the class broke up for the weekend, I lingered at the gym until all the others had left. I caught Lynn before she locked up. I told her I needed some more training, but didn’t know what. She said she had seen the fight and knew what I needed.
“You need to be able take a punch in your stomach. Remember what Dad said at the beginning of the course? ‘You need to be able to take punches full force once in a while to be able to sell the fight to the fans.’
“You aren’t going to like what I’m going to suggest, but the only way to learn to take a stomach punch is to practice taking them, full force. Look, do you have the weekend free?” At my nod, she continued, “Good. If you’re willing, we can work on this over the weekend. I guarantee you will be able to take his stomach punches next Monday.”
I met Lynn at the gym early the next day, Saturday. She taught me the proper way to throw a punch for each target point on the stomach. She taught me what it felt like to hit the stomach with the proper punch, using herself as the target. That’s when I learned that Louie hadn’t pulled his punch at all. Lynn had incredibly hard abs. My strongest punch couldn’t penetrate them more than a fraction of an inch. She said she had been wrestling ever since she was a little girl. But she said that my abs could become just as hard with some effort. I doubted that, as there was only one week left in the training. Then I would be going back to college, then getting a job that I’d probably have for the rest of my life.
Lynn started training my stomach to take punches. She moderated her punches, but they still hurt a lot. They weren’t as bad as Max’s, but they were continuous. She hit me from all directions as I tried to keep my stomach muscles hard. I hung from a bar, and she worked them over. I stood against a padded wall and she worked them over. I laid on the mat, and she worked them over. I stood with my eyes closed and my arms outstretched, and she worked them over.
By the end of the day, my whole stomach was one giant aching mass of muscle. I could barely walk, and could not bend over without a lot of pain.
Late in the evening, I went home, shuffling slowly. I would be meeting her early on Sunday to continue our training, so the last thing I wanted was to see my boyfriend on my front steps.
To make a long, loud, noisy story short, he wanted us to go to a movie on Sunday, I wanted to go back to the gym, he promised to send me the fifty dollars when I graduated the wrestling school, we broke up.
The next day was more of the same. I had recuperated from Saturday’s beating a little, but was still quite sore. Lynn “worked” the soreness out of me, or at least the new pains she heaped on me hid the old ones. She tapered off her training in late afternoon, and started me working on more stomach-strengthening exercises. These were different ones that Louie had never shown us. They were much more strenuous. They included such favorites as a Roman Chair medicine ball throw, where each of us throws the ball to the other, letting the ball land on our stomach, while reclining on a backless Roman Chair. My abs got quite a workout from this one. She taught me several other hard exercises that I knew none of the other girls in the class would be able to do.
By the late evening, I was as tired as I had been that first day. But my stomach had a general overall warmth, almost a glow, that I liked. I slept like a log.
The sixth week, our last, I did my morning exercises as usual, before the rest of the class got there. I was amazed that the exercises now seemed almost easy. When the first of the class arrived, I was hanging upside down from the top ropes on the ring, doing inverted sit-ups with a 10-pound weight grasped to my chest, one of the exercises Lynn had taught me the previous day.
Monday went a lot better than Friday. Louie told us to practice our stomach punches again. This time, I won the stomach-punching contest, leaving Max on the floor gasping for breath, and red-faced with anger. And afterward, with Louie scrutinizing us closely, we each did several of the exercises with the sender pulling his punches, and the receiver doing a very good job of acting. That evening, I had another training session with Lynn.
The rest of the week, we practiced the holds, moves and breaks until we could do them without thinking. Max was still mad, but he didn’t really have much opportunity to do anything about it. We would get into some full strength tussles, but with Louie watching, we usually broke it up fairly quickly. Neither of us really won these, though just the fact that he didn’t win made Max seethe with anger.
In the evenings, Lynn would continue to train me, though she was getting into other aspects of wrestling instead of just stomach punches. The last couple days, our evening sessions became more of general wrestling sessions, with each of us trying to pin the other. There were no illegal moves, but there were also no pulled punches. I knew there was nothing I could do to hurt Lynn, so I went all out, with no holding back. And she seemed to be going all out too, knowing exactly what I could take. Now that was fun! That was what wrestling should be. None of the posing and posturing, none of the faked fights, no predefined winners, just two strong wrestlers trying to pin each other, fighting as hard as they could, with no restrictions.
Friday morning, the last day of training, I was just getting down from the ropes when the others came in. But before we could start our exercises, Louie called us together, earlier than usual. He said we were all skilled in wrestling, but we still didn’t have that something, a “stage personality” he called it. So that day, he taught us the proper way to come down the walkway and get into the ring, keeping in character as either a face (good-guy) or a heal (villain). He taught us how to act in the ring and out of the ring. He taught us how to act when we won, and how to act when we lost. He trained us how to come into the ring when our name was called, making us practice this until we would automatically jump into the ring without thinking when we heard Louie announce our names.
Finally, he did something different than anything he had done during the rest of our training. He asked us what WE wanted to do in pro wrestling. He asked us what kind of personality we wanted to be in the ring, then schooled each of us individually in how we should act as that personality. That day, he finally brought out the pro wrestler in each of us.
By late afternoon, our pro wrestling training was done. We were as exhausted as if we had just done two days of solid exercises, but it was a mental exhaustion.
Louie said, “OK, I’ve taught you as much as I can. From here on out, it’s up to you. You’re competent to start out as rookie pro wrestlers, but only you can determine how far you go.
“I’ll see you here next Monday for graduation exercises. Be here at ten o’clock. And wear your wrestling clothes. It’ll be an informal thing.”
So, that was it. We said our good-byes and hugged each other. I even hugged Max, though as usual, we got into a “hugging match” to see which of us could crush the other, until Louie broke us up, again as usual. The boys all shook Louie’s hand, and the girls all hugged him. Except for me, that is. I grabbed Louie and lifting him up, crushed him to my chest and kissed him full on the lips. And he kissed me back just as fervently.
I was sad to see the others go, but I broke down completely when I said good-by to Lynn. She had been my best friend, and would be my inspiration for the rest of my life. I broke down again as I left the building, remembering all those wonderful memories I would be leaving behind.
On the way home, I stopped at a pay phone and called my ex-boyfriend. I invited him to the graduation ceremonies the next Monday, but he said he would just send the fifty dollars instead. Eventually, I got his check. But I never saw him again.
On the way home, my thoughts went back to college. The pro wrestling school ended just in time. On Monday, would be the graduation. On Wednesday, registration for my senior year in college would start, and I would choose the course of the rest of my life.
But all this would change on Monday.
To Be Continued.