I’ve always prided myself on being smart enough to realize in the moment when something represents more than what it seems. I’ve also prided myself on being fine with not being smart enough to know what anything means, just that it means something. A few weeks ago, I saw a band on a farm in Spencer, IN and I was surrounded by a thousand people, delirious and sweating, screaming along with every word. The singer, after a lifetime of struggles with addiction, looked healthy, and he smiled wistfully. His dad and his brother shared the stage and played on a few tracks, and Erik Peterson’s widow was just off stage watching.
When it ended people walked out arm in arm, and I turned back and saw a girl rubbing her hands in the gravel in front of the stage, crouched down, her face hidden. I kept walking and filed out in to the night and found my car but on the ride back to the room I thought about that girl and that moment and how something about it felt “important” with a capital I. It felt like something I should struggle to remember, like it may come in handy to me in life, a reminder that things and spaces are sacred.
I had a similar moment years before.
I had left Cleveland and driven to DC with a printed out hotel reservation and $230 and my friend John riding shotgun. We worked together in Cleveland and we were parting ways for the summer. In a few months we’d be living together in upstate New York. We had grown close in the way that young men can sometimes grow close. A little road trip before parting ways for a few months, some fun times before the grind of summer work.
The first night we ended up at a bar in Rockville that had one of those touch screen game machines and served beer out of a plastic cooler. We spent a bunch of money on the game where you have to find the differences between the two pictures. The drinks were cheap and as I got drunker and would go out front to smoke I felt more and more certain that I was probably just drinking at someone’s house and they were charging me for it. I sat next to a woman that had been arrested earlier in the day for swimming in the canal, but had somehow convinced the cops to drop her off at the bar. As I type that it seems probably untrue, but I didn’t question it at the time. She eventually got cut off and passed out with a glass of white wine in her hand and the bartender called the cops and they picked her up and she went back in to the squad car without much of a fuss.
Later that week I met my high school girlfriend out at a pool hall and when John went to the bathroom I kissed her on the mouth and she kissed me back. Something about it felt so illicit, as if I was cheating. When he came back to the table, we were blushing and smiling, like two children who got away with something. At the time, I didn’t know what. Maybe I still don’t. She got too drunk and we spent an extra hour at the bar just smoking cigarettes and playing pool so that I could sober up enough to convince myself I was sober enough to drive. We took back roads and I walked her to her door and tousled her hair. She went inside and turned the light on and I could see her silhouette in profile at the kitchen table. She sat unmoving as we pulled out of the complex.
Driving away, I thought about how still she was, how long she might have sat there. The image pounded away in my head as I stared at a hotel ceiling with the lights out. I never spoke to her again. Maybe that was on purpose. I was in love with that final image, the impermanence of it all.
We woke up hung over and ate chocolate chip pancakes — we couldn’t finish them. We then took a slow drive down to Manassas. I wore sunglasses and we got stuck on the highway for a while and I put on Diary by Sunny Day Real Estate with the windows all down. It was early summer. Months before we went to an early AIW show in a snowstorm and Tyler Black was the only non-local talent to show up. John was excited to see him again. On that show, in a building with no heat, Tyler Black looked like a man who belonged in a different place, in front of more people.
Tonight he would get his chance. He was about to fight Bryan Danielson.
It’s always fun to hear the “You’re gonna get your fucking head kicked in” chant. Black starts out hot and scoops slams Dragon from the ring to outside and stays on him. The announcers put over a match between these two from earlier in the year which I vaguely remember. Early on they do a neat bit of storytelling, with Danielson rocking Black with a European Uppercut, his first bit of offense in the match. Even so, Black is able to recover a little quicker than Danielson expects and goes back on the offensive with a dropkick.
In some ways, this match is a rough draft of a lot of the Seth Rollins championship matches we’ve seen recently, where at times he looks outmatched, but is always just slightly better than his opponent at the points where the tide might turn. Black is a little more self-serious here, less intentionally obnoxious, but even the character work is pretty similar. All of his flash and style and shows of athleticism, all of the trash talk and signs of disrespect, they’re all there. Just like they do today, it’s clear they are a way to hide the deep seeded inadequacies that Black/Rollins feels. It’s actually pretty interesting to see this stuff so far back.
Black goes for a surfboard and it’s apparent that he’s bitten off a bit more than he can chew. Danielson easily reverses and starts to stretch Black. I feel like I’ve said this a bunch in these articles, but it’s really a shame we never got to see prick champion Danielson in the WWE. No one looked at their opponent with more disdain than he. If I could have one wrestling wish, it would be for a dominant heel tag title run from “Best in the World” era Danielson and Hall of Pain era Mark Henry.
Danielson puts the surfboard back on and pulls Black down in to a dragon sleeper while still elevated, which looks very painful. Danielson gets him in the corner and starts just shoot punching him in the chest and stomach. I’d love to talk to Danielson about moments like that. It serves such an extraordinary purpose. By Danielson going out of his comfort zone like that, it makes us take Black that much more seriously. Did Bryan know he was doing things like that? Did he have to plan it, or was it innate for him?
Black keeps shoving Danielson off. He’s like a younger brother, outclassed for the moment but too proud to concede. In a moment, he’s oddly sympathetic, and the audience has forgotten his earlier cockiness. Danielson demands that Black hits him, and part of me thinks there is some respect in that. Dave Prazak is taking about how the pace favors Danielson, but part of the genius of Danielson is that he makes it seem like every pace favors him.
A moment later, the tide turns again, as Black is able to heave Danielson to the outside. He sees an opening and dives over the top rope. As Black picks up the pace, it would be easy to levy the same complaints against him that he often receives now, in that his offense as a heel is almost too breath taking and dynamic, although it’s a more forgivable sin in this context, as a young upstart, on his brush with his superiors.
After a near fall, Dragon finds an opening and pushes Black over the top and does a dive of his own. Another begrudging show of respect. A physical proof that he’s just as athletic, just as quick. He pushes too hard and flies in to the crowd. The fact that Danielson has to push himself so hard is a moral victory for Black. They go back and forth, and at points it’s a glimpse in to the future for both, a WWE main event in a poorly lit armory. We even get a buckle bomb.
They fight over the back suplex and miss a phoenix splash. Black fights out of the seated elbows, and Danielson is able to snatch a heel hook out of midair when Black attempts a Pele kick. I wonder if Rollins thought about that when he put Sami Zayn in the same hold last Monday. He fights his way out, but succumbs a moment later to a single leg crab. He will probably find no solace in making Danielson dig so deep in to his bag of tricks.
On the way out I spotted Greg H, who at that time was responsible for many of the ROH meet and greets and fan get-togethers. We made small talk and as I left I gave him $80 which I owed him for a hotel room from a few years before. He thanked me honestly. I don’t think he ever expected it back. I met John outside and we wandered towards the car and I stopped to lean against a wall and smoke a cigarette. I saw Jimmy Jacobs doing the same, out of his gear, sitting on the concrete. He was looking off in to the distance and I didn’t say hello. We passed him by and got in the car and drove and changed the CD twice before settling on something.
Like the night before, I found myself staring at the hotel ceiling. Passing him by felt important. Giving Greg my last handful of cash felt important. In less than a month I’d leave Cleveland for good. I’d go somewhere new and I’d have bills and a job. John would be there. I looked over to him, his side rising and falling as he slept. He’d become a bridge between two lives for me. I could still see the outline of Jimmy Jacobs, illuminated in red from the brake lights. I could still hear John talking in my ear. I was glad.
It felt like an ending. It felt like a beginning. I didn’t know which.