The Leo Burke Finish
I was a quiet child. I have theories. Theories about my father’s scolding leaving little room for me to speak. Theories about inheriting my mother’s nature. Theories about living more in the space of my imagination than on any playground or classroom.
I found a voice in professional wrestling. Friends with whom to speculate whether The Ultimate Warrior could beat The Hulkster. Friends with whom to share the process of wrinkling and bending the glossy pages of WWF Magazine in our grubby fingers.
I found a gravelly low voice in my Macho Man Randy Savage impersonation, oddly on point well before I hit puberty.
I told Heather about my obsession with wrestling early in our courtship. I’d made the mistake of withholding it from the woman I dated for four years coming out of college. The truth emerged by excruciating degrees, in not being able to resist a conversation about the size of Andre the Giant, in DVDs and books, discretely placed out of sight in my apartment.
I decided never to hide my fan-ship again. That this was a take-it-or-leave-it part of me.
My first sexual experience—rubbing against the back of the couch—was inspired by a video of Andre bear-hugging Hulk Hogan. All of that sweat. That screaming. I didn’t understand my response in the moment, only that it felt good and that my mother was very curt in telling me to stop, so I never did it in front of her again.
Once I learned, years later, words and concepts like arousal and masturbation, I felt so ashamed. For years if anyone asked about my first subject of attraction, I subbed in Miss Elizabeth—beautiful, curvaceous, virginal valet to The Macho Man.
I grew up in the early days of pay-per-view wrestling. The era when the WWF shifted from using television to seduce the viewer into shelling out for tickets to live events, to using television to lure us into television for an extra fee. Three-hour live specials, available for twenty, thirty, forty dollar fees.
My father, who had introduced me to wrestling, who had bought me wrestling action figures, who had taken me to my first live shows, refused to pay extra money to watch television, and so I consumed these early shows via the scrambled signal of the pay-per-view provider—a wavy, flickering, off-colored image, but the soundtrack of Gorilla Monsoon and Jesse Ventura’s color commentary intact.
My mother told me to sit back and draped a baby blanket over the TV so I wouldn’t ruin my eyes. Still, I listened to the voices.
My father’s father believed that wrestling was real—a legitimate sport. A Cantonese-speaking immigrant, he never developed a handle on the English language. Couldn’t read. Couldn’t interpret the news. But he could understand Buddy Rogers and Bruno Sammartino. Abdominal stretches, belly-to-back suplexes, running dropkicks, and figure four leglocks. Good and evil.
We visited my Chinese grandparents three times a year for long weekends, a five-hour drive between Upstate and their row-home in Queens where they had raised my father. After the initial hugs, the belabored niceties, we had little to say until wrestling came on. Grandpa never missed an episode of Superstars or Wrestling Challenge.
Dad called his father stupid. That a grown man could believe wrestling was real.
On an Easter visit, shortly after a WrestleMania, Grandpa grappled with English pronouns and verbs to ask me, He fight him—who win? My father laughed at the circularity, the absurdity of the question, and repeated it often, whenever Grandpa came up in conversation. So stupid.
Grandma didn’t start watching wrestling until later on, until my teenage years, until Grandpa’s final years. Maybe it was an implicit understanding she didn’t have much time left with him or a surrender, after fifty years of marriage, to the fact that this was something important to her husband, and something that he would not leave behind.
That first visit after she’d started watching, Waylon Mercy appeared on the screen—a journeyman wrestler in a Cape Fear-inspired sociopath gimmick. He smiled for the crowds and shook hands with his opponents—even the referees! But once the bell rang, he turned mean, attacking with a fury and finishing off lesser performers with a sleeper hold finisher that looked entirely capable of choking a man to his death.
I’d seen this act over a period of months. Understood it. But still, what I remember most is Grandma holding my upper arm while Mercy mugged for the camera en route to the ring. He bad man.
I used my action figures everyday. More than play. More than routine. Approaching religion. I filled the unused backs of spiral notebooks from previous school years to list the matches for twice-a-week make-believe television shows and monthly pay-per-view spectaculars. Built elaborate mythologies, each figure cast in the roles of four or five different characters, with the obvious limitation that characters rooted in the same little plastic man could never fight one another.
When I reached middle school and still dedicated time to my figures, Dad did not approve. Seventh grade and you’re still playing with dolls. He shook his head. Over summer break, he intercepted me on my way downstairs to play, to instead work on algebra at the kitchen table.
I loved writing as a kid, but I didn’t love reading. Not until I discovered Pro Wrestling Illustrated. The color photography of WWF Magazine paired with tabloid-style articles, profiles, interviews, and rankings. Monthly rankings of the top ten performers from each national promotion and larger regional territories.
Bill Apter was a traveling reporter on the wrestling beat, all but synonymous with Pro Wrestling Illustrated and its sibling publications, Inside Wrestling and The Wrestler, to the point that they became informally known as “Apter Mags.”
In 2015, he published a book reflecting on his experiences, Is Wrestling Fixed? I Didn’t Know It Was Broken! He discussed the process of calling all of the regional promoters to find out who they planned on pushing for the months ahead, so they could guide his rankings. These conversations, not unlike the magazines themselves, operated under a veil of kayfabe—acting as though the wrestling world were real. No one would tell Apter that Lex Luger was on his way to a world title, but they would tip him off that he should keep an eye out for that Luger kid.
In 2014, I needed a distraction. I was waiting to hear back from applications to MFA programs—a process that would speak to my value as a writer, not to mention where I’d live for the next two years, not to mention whether Heather would move with or merely visit me, remaining long distance if I settled down in the Midwest.
In celebration of WrestleMania 30, and as a distraction from waiting, I wrote a seventy-thousand-word article for Buzzfeed, ranking all two hundred-eighty-seven WrestleMania matches to date.
The post went semi-viral. Forty-five-thousand readers, celebrity endorsements via Twitter. And it gave me an excuse to email Bill Apter, to ask if he would share the post with his readers. In the process I tried to tell him how much the Apter Mags had meant to me as a kid. That I may never have learned to love reading had it not been for that entry point.
Apter replied within twenty-four hours. Agreeing to post the link. A friendly, Thanks so much for the nice things you said! A connection, however momentary. A sense that, if just for an instant, not only did wrestling matter to me, but I mattered to wrestling.
I ended up moving to Corvallis, Oregon for my MFA. A selective program with writers I admired, yes, but also the Pacific Northwest, with its absence of snow and proliferation of trees and waterfalls. A place where Heather and I would both live.
She’s said that she watched—or perhaps absorbed through osmosis—more wrestling in our first month living together than she had in a lifetime up to that point. She learned the wrestlers, their moves, their theme songs.
We watched The Wyatt Family, an ominous swamp cult faction, make its entrance. Heather observed that they—Luke Harper, in particular—looked like members of Mumford and Sons. We took to singing the chorus of our own version of “I Will Wait” to one another. A slowed down, grizzly, wide-eyed, I will wait, I will wait for you that transformed folk-pop into a stalker’s anthem and trivialized the Wyatts past the point I could ever find them frightful again.
My first year at Oregon State, I submitted to workshop a short story called “Finishers” about a pair of boys who grow up devout wrestling fans and grow apart when the narrator starts dating girls and stops following the WWF, much less the indies and puroresu his buddy indulges in. The story met a warmer reception than I expected, highlighted by professor Nick Dybek giving us all his Macho Man impersonation, salvaged from Saturday mornings of his youth spent watching the USA Network. I knew that I could out-Savage him, but let him have that moment, relishing the minor miracle of the venerable novelist letting loose, and proceeding to expound on the joy of language like enzuiguri. And my classmates, the smartest young writers I knew, discussing the postmodern interplay between kayfabe and the preponderance of fans who, unlike my grandfather, knew that the fix was in.
November 9, 1997, wrestling changed forever. An incident that became known as The Montreal Screwjob. Bret Hart was on his way out of the WWF, WCW-bound, and found himself at a creative impasse with the powers that be. Ultimately, owner Vince McMahon, referee Earl Hebner, and opponent Shawn Michaels worked not with, but around Hart, staging a finish Hart was not aware of and would not have agreed to. They acted as though Hart had said uncle mid-match, conceding victory to his arch-rival, and relinquishing his world title to him.
Hart spat in McMahon’s face on air, and went on to punch his lights out backstage.
It wasn’t the first wrinkle in the kayfabe-reality spectrum. McMahon had publicly admitted his product was athletic exhibition rather than contest in 1989 so that he would no longer fall under the jurisdiction of the New Jersey Sports Commission (to put a finer point on it, so he’d no longer owe them thousands of dollars in permit fees). In the five years to follow, new characters included The Undertaker, an invincible zombie, and Doink, an evil clown. The kinds of gimmicks that challenged the most devout believers, the ones I have to imagine may have even given my grandfather pause.
But while McMahon’s admission was public, it wasn’t a part of WWF programming, and thus it existed in a parallel universe that did not quite reach those of us so thoroughly entranced by wrestling’s spell. Montreal changed that. Undeniable. Indeed, McMahon embraced it and espoused an evil on-air character inspired by that moment, a character that tormented the good guys for decades to follow, imposing unfair stipulations and stakes on matches. A new villainous archetype. Not Andre the Giant, too massive for Hulk Hogan or The Macho Man to overcome. Mr. McMahon, too rich and influential for Steve Austin or Mick Foley to ever get a fair shake.
My father was unmoved by Montreal. He not only knew the fix was in on pro wrestling, but was the type of fan suspicious of anything that had happened at a wrestling show. If a wrestler slipped, the flub had to have been intentional. When an announcer’s mic went out, it was a calculated plot device.
After a show I attended in college, I told Dad about a fan who had jumped the barricade and ran into the ring. A fan who nearly made a difference in the match before security grabbed him and removed him from the scene.
He’s part of the show, Dad said. Are you really that stupid to think that anyone who goes out there isn’t part of the show?
I began to argue the point. That it made no sense for the WWF to book someone to charge the ring only to be stopped by security, only to role model a behavior that the WWF prosecuted over. Not to any creative end. The guy didn’t even have the tell-tale biceps, tattoos, or long hair to suggest he was a regional wrestler, brought in for an anonymous spot.
I began the argument, but he dismissed with a shake of his head. You’re as bad as your grandfather.
I let it go.
Watching wrestling not for years, but a lifetime allows you to see all manner of reality befall wrestling and wrestlers. Consider Bobby Heenan, a wrestler who rose to far greater fame as a talker. First as a manager, a sidekick for guys working high-class gimmicks like Nick Bockwinkel, Mr. Wonderful Paul Orndorff and Mr. Perfect Curt Hennig, a mouthpiece for imposing guys who had trouble assembling a coherent English sentence, like Andre the Giant, The Barbarian, and The Islanders. Then he moved to color commentary, where he couldn’t resist a pun or a clever dig at one of the good guys’ expense.
He reached the peak of his powers in 1992. The thirty-man Royal Rumble match was ostensibly built to showcase new acquisition Ric Flair and anoint him as the new world champion. Flair more than held up his end of the bargain in an hour-long virtuosic performance, but Heenan had a career night as well from the broadcast booth, openly rooting for Flair, screaming and feigning horror each time Flair was at risk of elimination. No one questions that both Heenan and Flair were on fire that night, but it remains a point of contention among wrestling pundits which of the two was the match’s truest MVP.
All of this talent, all of this gift for gab, and real life pulled the greatest swerve of all: Heenan contracted throat cancer in 2002. Illness and treatments and surgeries robbed him of his voice. Left him capable of little more than a sentence or two at a stretch. Bereft of the gift that made him famous. Bereft of his gift to the wrestling world.
But still, for me, a lifelong wrestling fan in his thirties, Heenan hanging on in any condition feels like some sort of inspiration. That he’s survived. Before I’ve reached middle age, I’ve stood witness to the passing of so many of the men and women I looked up to as a child: Randy Savage, Dusty Rhodes, Davey Boy Smith, Eddie Guerrero, Test, Brian Pillman, Crash Holly, Dino Bravo, Bertha Faye, Big John Studd, The Big Boss Man, Hercules Hernandez, Chris Adams, Bastion Booger, Kerry Von Erich, Ludvig Borga, Sensational Sherri, Bad News Brown, Sean O’Haire, Road Warrior Hawk, Chris Benoit, Junkyard Dog, Rick Rude, Luna Vachon, The Fabulous Moolah, The Giant Gonzalez, Yokozuna, Earthquake, Roddy Piper, Crush, Terry Gordy, The Ultimate Warrior, The Renegade, Bam Bam Bigelow.
This sad, long list is not exhaustive. And it lends perspective. That in the grand scheme of all the world’s losses, mine have been few. My father’s father the first I remember, a funeral I had to miss because I had to choose between it and a high school chemistry final.
Heather talks about her fear of losing her father’s mother. Mimaw’s only been in her life this long because of a series of young parenthoods that aligned just right for them to get these thirty-five-plus years of overlap on this earth. But good fortune and synchronicity—they will run out. On a long enough timetable, they always do.
We can’t help death. We talk about that sometimes in terms of one another. That one will go on without the other. We talk about it with a sense whimsy in the suggestion of one of us, a ghost, haunting the other, with markers from our time together, minor annoyances and pranks. That my ghost would forget to throw away his used Kleenexes. That hers would rearrange whatever I leave lying around into the rough, approximate shapes of smiling faces.
And then we talk about abandonment. She’s afraid I’ll leave her, and I hope that impulse lessens day by day, year by year. Still, there remains that sliver of possibility. That fight we don’t make up from. That pretty young woman who lures me away.
I tell her it will never happen. But like someone with the instincts of a wrestling fan, she always keeps an eye open, always awaits the possibility of a heel turn.
On our first date, my first visit to San Diego, Heather took me to Black’s Beach—a beach across the street from UCSD that one can only arrive at after descending an uneven set of man-made stairs, carved from a cliff side. I’d never seen a view of the ocean like the one from any point in that downward hike, much less when we reached the sand.
It’s a nude beach, and sure enough, a pot-bellied, white-bearded man wandered unclothed, his penis hanging loose before him. Heather told me to look into her eyes in what I thought was a particularly romantic, tender moment, before she told me that she’d made glancing eye contact with the old nudist and now wanted to ensure he’d pass by without engaging her.
We progressed, knee deep into the Pacific where we held hands and had our first kiss.
I imagined a spectacle of a proposal, even that day, even when we were so new. I’d fly out each of our closest friends and have them planted on that very beach, waiting for us. The fantasy evolved as Heather and I drew closer, as we picked our song, an acoustic recording of “I Choose You” by Sara Bareilles. I’d have my friend Peek, who had played in a half dozen different bands, strum the chords and begin to sing as we reached the sand.
A year and half passed, and the more fantastical parts of this vision faded—the idea of flying out compatriots, the idea of particularly elaborate set ups. We touched down in San Diego for New Year’s, after a whirlwind trip through upstate New York, visiting my family and friends. And when we reached the cliff overlooking Black’s Beach, it was just the two of us—not even the third-party photographer that had become so en vogue to capture the moment of the proposal.
A blackbird fluttered down before us. Heather said it was a sign something magical might happen. We began our descent.
The steel cage match began as a plot device to keep either wrestler from running from a fight. Over time, the powers that be found fans more excited for the great heights a cage match allowed for than the action inside the fenced walls. From a height of fifteen feet, a wrestling match attains its apotheosis. The threat of one man diving onto another. The threat of a fall.
And then there’s the descent. Contemporary steel cage matches declare the first man to escape the cage and have both feet hit the floor the winner, and while there’s a door to walk out of, it’s terribly anticlimactic for someone not to climb to the other side.
This often leads to strange but oddly real-world-pragmatic scenario at the end of the match. Two men who have climbed over the top and hang from the far side of the cage. The first man to drop will win. But when do you stop climbing down and settle for a drop? You want to win, but you don’t want to hurt yourself. Just the same, you never know when your opponent might make the decision to drop, too.
The question becomes what a wrestler is willing to sacrifice to win? And how soon?
Thousands look on from below, awaiting the answer.
Heather reached the beach first. We sat in the sand for a minute. The only other people in sight were silhouettes, a football field away. No one was watching.
I suggested that we walk into the water, to my best approximation of where we had had our first kiss. Then I got down on one knee.
We took photographs in the aftermath. Called, texted, emailed family and our closest friends. The privacy of the moment unraveled by degrees. Then we posted one of those photographs to Facebook. The two of us smiling. Her hand on my chest. The ring sparkling in the sun. My ninth-grade crush was the first one to like it. Hundreds of acknowledgments followed from old friends, family, teachers. My sister. My mother. My father.
I recall a summer afternoon, I must have been nine or ten, when my father and I each sat bare-chested on the couch watching wrestling. I remember watching his stomach expand and contract with each breath, and that I aimed to match his rhythm with my breath, my skin. I had never felt more connected to him.
Four months after we got engaged, Heather and I returned to California and went to WrestleMania. We came dressed like Mick Foley from different eras. Me with a white collared shirt, a tie, a foam replica of the leather mask Foley had worn when he took on the role of Mankind. Heather with a beard her friend had knitted out of wool, and a black-and-red checkered flannel shirt with the sleeves cut off—the Cactus Jack character.
The first time I’d seen her wear the beard, I hadn’t liked it. I thought it looked masculine and didn’t like the way it had covered her face. But at WrestleMania—up in the cheap seats with a fiancée who was cosplaying to look like one of my favorite wrestlers from my elementary school years—I thought that she had never looked so beautiful.
It turned out to be a beautiful wrestling show. Four hours without a bad bout. A hard-hitting seven-man ladder match between all of the guys who should have been getting more attention and had something to prove. Cameos from the New World Order and DeGeneration X, the hippest stables of the 1990s that had never crossed paths, having a stand-off as much older men. The Bulgarian Brute, Rusev, riding to the ring in a tank. A bloody main event that spontaneously turned into a triple threat, three-way match, so that Seth Rollins, the impromptu addition, ended up winning his first world championship. It was the kind of show that made my heart happy. For a know-it-all fan of twenty-five years to be legitimately surprised, to spontaneously rise to my feet in shock and delight—it was breathtaking.
It reminded me of another time I’d heard another man describe wrestling as beautiful. A simpler time. In his 2007 memoir, Bret Hart wrote about a match he worked with his brother-in-law, Davey Boy Smith. I squeezed his wrist as the cue to reverse me into the ropes, and I dove over him for a sunset flip, the simplest move in wrestling. But instead of falling backwards, we did the old Leo Burke finish: Davey fell forward, holding my legs with his arms, collapsing on top of me and pinning me beautifully. One… two… three!
You can tell from the memoir that Hart loves wrestling. Even at his bitterest, recounting the Montreal Screwjob and all of his former friends who had swerved him or said things behind his back, recalling the concussion he absorbed when Goldberg kicked him the head, the stroke to follow that ended his career and threatened his life. There are still these passages on sequences of moves, working the crowd, perfect stories told at perfect times. And in these moments, I connect with him.
Hart returned to the fold by degrees. He collaborated with Vince McMahon to assemble a three-disc DVD set—a documentary about his life, a compilation of his best matches. Then he accepted an induction to the WWE Hall of Fame. Finally he returned to the ring for just a few more short story arcs in which the matches were carefully planned, and Hart was carefully protected. And I drank it all in. Remembering myself much younger, scrawnier self. Seeing my own underdog reflected in the ring, in an undersized, hardworking hero who kept pushing despite insurmountable odds.
One could say that, in his old age, Hart loosened his principles, reconciling with bitter enemies, succumbing to the lure of the only company befitting his star power, the only wrestling promotion that would allow him to reach millions upon millions of adoring fans. You could say that he loved wrestling, and that mending his marriage to WWE was inevitable.
Heather suggests such thoughts about me sometimes, in moments of insecurity, citing my long list of past crushes and when I ended one relationship to pursue another. That I might be in love with love, and that she’s only filling the role for now.
On the drive north from Santa Clara—an all-night road trip, because WrestleMania marked the end of my spring break, and I was back to grad school the next afternoon—I looked to Heather. I looked to her as the moonlight reflected off her glasses. I listened as she rapped along to “Baby Got Back” on an old mix CD. I reflected on an afternoon in the sun, crowded in among seventy-six-thousand wrestling fans, and holding her hand. And I knew what I’d always known.
I knew our pairing with one another was not a placeholder, but equal parts choice and destiny. Like I am both my father’s son and my grandfather’s grandson. Like the best tag team pairings—The Hart Foundation, The Road Warriors, The Steiner Brothers, The New Age Outlaws—did not fill blanks on a roster, but rather carved their own niches. Like nothing the world had seen before. Inimitable. Perfect. Beautiful.
Michael Chin was born and raised in Utica, New York and is a recent alum of Oregon State’s MFA Program. He won Bayou Magazine’s Jim Knudsen Editor’s Prize for fiction and has work published or forthcoming in journals including The Normal School, Passages North, Prairie Schooner online, and Bellevue Literary Review. He currently serves as a contributing editor for Moss. Find him online here and follow him on Twitter @miketchin.