It was getting colder in Cleveland.
It was fall and the leaves were changing and when I walked to work I needed a sweater more and more frequently. On a Thursday night I drove down to Alliance, and I only opened the window when I needed a cigarette, which probably happened four or five times over the course of the hour.
I had met a girl at a show some time over the summer and we had flirted on the internet for a few months before deciding to see each other. As I drove my heart swelled and pounded with the possibility, the moments of our not quite a date playing out in my head: sitting together, saying things that we found charming and pretending not to notice when our shoulders would touch as we swayed back and forth and watched the stars shine through the trees.
When I pulled off the highway I drove through a stop sign. I was probably still caught up in my fantasies and I was wrenched out of them by squealing tires and a quick yank of the steering wheel and a narrow avoidance of hitting a car with rims worth more than the old Volvo I had bought from my dad when I went back to school. I had been in a wreck before, a youthful indiscretion late at night, but I had never experienced a near miss and I found it terrifying, being confronted not with reality but instead with sobering possibility. When I turned back, the other car had pulled over and gotten out and motioned wildly at me and it was totally deserved but I kept driving because I was 19 and I had no idea what to do.
When I found her house she was waiting for me on the stoop and she grabbed my hand and smiled as she pulled me inside. We went through the screen door in to an enclosed porch and she told me to watch my step as we crossed another threshold, stepping over a baby gate and through a shower curtain where the front door would have been. I didn’t ask but she told me it had broke and they just put a lock on the screen door and figured it was fine and it was.
Her mother was sitting on the couch with her elbows on her knees and she looked up at me and her expression didn’t really change. We shook hands and I felt self-conscious, for her hands were calloused and rough and her grip was strong and some base part of me felt extremely inadequate.
Looking back, the feeling was probably mutual, for shortly after, unprompted, she explained that she milks cows at a local dairy farm and her hands always end up gnarled and weathered no matter how much she cares for them. As she said it she lit a cigarette and then she clasped her hands together and tried to make them as small as possible in the lap of her jeans.
Later, the girl and I drove to some fast food place and waited for her friend to get off work and then we walked through the busted part of a fence and passed around bottle of Mad Dog 20/20 in an old cemetery. We whispered at first but no one seemed to be around; we got more boisterous as the night went on and the three of us laid prone on the grass between the headstones, our hair touching. She grabbed my hand and we laced our fingers together as my face got hot from the drink. There was just enough light from across the street to see our silhouettes and to see our breath as the night got colder. I dozed sometimes and talked sometimes and we walked back to her house as the sun came up and we kissed on the porch, her tugging on the collar of my jacket and my hands awkwardly at my sides. Her mom saw us and smiled and made coffee on the stove and I left for Chicago with a mug with a lighthouse design on the side.
The drive to Chicago was long and mostly boring and I thought a lot about the girl who I had spent the night with and her mom smiling as she handed me a mug of coffee and I thought a lot about professional wrestling. I was going to an ROH show, which up until a day or so before had been billed as Steve Corino vs. Samoa Joe for the ROH title. When Corino was pulled at the last minute, the show changed to a rematch between Joe and CM Punk. What could have been a haphazard and thrown away show immediately become something else entirely. In some ways, it was the mirror of my almost accident from the afternoon before, a moment that represents the potential for chaos crystallized into something powerful and unique and better than before, a moment that doesn’t remind us of our own fallibility and mortality, but instead of the wonderful forces of serendipity that very occasionally make our lives better than they might have been before.
The show, now dubbed ROH Joe vs. Punk II, was good but long and my attention was starting to wane as I sat through the many different Carnage Crew segments on a night where Mick Foley and Ricky Steamboat both cut promos. I was filled with anticipatory glee when we reached the semi-main, an I Quit match between Jimmy Jacobs and Alex Shelley.
While Generation Next never truly grabbed me in the way it did some of my peers, Alex Shelley always exuded the necessary cool to make the entire thing seem realistic. He is equal parts desperate to prove himself and arrogant enough to think he deserves to jump the line. He is good enough to win on his talent and learned skill and yet he cheats and cuts corners in the frustratingly pragmatic way of all the best villains.
On the other hand, Jacobs seems only just removed from the days in which he came to the ring on a pogo stick. While it is impossible to watch this and not see the character he became, here he performs with a youthful exuberance. In some ways, he is buoyed by his own naivety; his effort and his spirit are only available as a resource because he doesn’t realize how outclassed he truly is.
A slap from Shelley ignites Jacobs, who hits a spear and exchanges some early strikes before being thrown to the outside. Jacobs hits a head scissors and uses a chair and Shelley throws himself headfirst into the guardrail and the pace in this match is truly insane. The action only stops for Jacobs to throw chair after chair in to the ring. Jacobs’ body hits the barrier with enough force to separate the ROH façade from the rail itself.
As they get back inside the ring, Jacobs swings wildly, already desperate. His face collides with a chair over and over and his arms are at his sides and I wonder if wrestlers have an innate ability to ignore the body’s desire to protect itself or if it’s learned over hundreds of hours and matches and drills, I wonder if putting your hands up is quite literally beaten out of you.
Jacobs comes back again, hitting a neckbreaker and then simply using the chair, hitting Shelley and putting it around his neck. In the corner, Jacobs pulls a spike from his boot. I wonder if it was the first time he ever did that, and it’s a fun bit of foreshadowing for the rest of Jacobs’ career. If it was the first time he ever pulled it out, it shows, as he is unable to connect before Shelley steals it and stabs him and pulls it across Jacobs’ forehead, bloodying him.
As Jacobs bleeds he tries for a Contra Code and gets caught in a tombstone on to an open chair and this match is like an action movie that you started in the middle, just guns blazing everywhere and cars crashing in to buildings and people and you know who the good guys are and who the bad guys are and it doesn’t matter that you missed some dialogue at the beginning because shit is blowing up and it’s fucking cool. Shelley presses his advantage, pulling out duct tape and a kendo stick, tying Jacobs to the turnbuckle and striking him repeatedly and thoroughly. As Jacobs writhes in pain in Shelley’s eyes he almost seems shocked at his own actions, at his capacity to go this far. While he would probably never admit it, Jacobs has pushed him beyond, Jacobs has forced him to think and to plan and to scheme and to hurt in ways that he has never done before. It seems over, as Shelley confronts Jacobs, hatred and scorn in his eyes.
And then Jacobs goes low.
It’s the only counter Jacobs has available, all things considered, but it still had to be shocking for Shelley to see the previously happy go lucky Jacobs attack in such a traditionally underhanded way. As Shelley goes to his knees, slack jawed, gasping for air, Jacobs pulls another spike and cuts the tape away from his hands.
And Shelley recovers!
Again knocking the spike away, Shelley practices self-preservation via kendo stick. The spike abandoned, lost in the scuffle, Jacobs steals the kendo stick and uses it with reckless abandon, repaying his opponent in kind. There is no surprise in Jacobs’ eyes at the lengths he is willing to go, for he must dig this deep in every match. He swings wildly and he chokes with purpose. He goes to the top rope and he misses and Shelley grabs a weapon with each hand and stabs and connects and over again until Jacobs is face down on the mat.
He recovers again, headbutts and fists as his navigators as he finds his way to his feet and eventually to the top rope, hitting the senton he missed mere moments before. This is his last shining moment, for again he is hoisted by his own petard: Jacobs sets up a series of chairs to hit a Contra Code on (an escalation of the earlier moment that saw him tombstoned) but finds himself unsuccessful. Shelley hits a Northern Lights 2k Bomb and locks in the Border City Stretch for the final time that night. Jacobs finally sees his will power run dry.
As I drove home the next day, I found myself thinking about this match as much as any from the evening.
It was concise and it was harrowing and there were moments of pain that remained with me, snapshots of anguished faces, bloodied but determined. I thought about how many matches they must have had against each other, and how often they must have found themselves having to up the ante to stand out, to reach the next level. They pushed each other, commercially and artistically, and their ability to manufacture that seemingly visceral hatred has the bizarre effect of tying them together inextricably, creating a bond in the hearts and minds of the audience, creating a moment where they were so opposed to each other they became inseparable.
I drove an hour out of my way back to Alliance under the guise of dropping off the coffee cup to see that girl again that Sunday. She wasn’t home and I never saw her again. Her mother invited me in anyway. She had cooked a pot of Velveeta shells and cheese and we ate in the kitchen, standing and leaning against the wall. We lit cigarettes off the stove and we laughed at each other’s jokes. I went to the gas station and bought two forties and we sat on the couch and she played a Bob Seger cassette and we sang along badly and she danced by herself, lit from behind by the dim, yellow light in the kitchen. The shower curtain in the doorway swayed in the autumn wind and her hands seemed smooth and perfect against the bottle.