Mankiewicz wiped the sweat from his chest, as Dr. Manelli tried to stitch up the gashing wound on his forehead.
“You can’t keep on giving like this, Mikey boy, it’s gonna kill you!”, the doctor said, his eyes two coin slots as he stared, with a concentrated smirk, at the point where the thread emerged from the slashed up skin, in an effort to flawlessly rejoin the two ends.
Mike Mankiewicz, better known to (few) ring fans as Mike the Mauler, knew the doctor was right. He had been giving and giving and giving for all these years. He had tried in any and every way to regain the promoters’, any promoter’s, trust for so long he barely remembered the crowds chanting his name. He had lied down and stared at the lights for a number of goofs he could have easily crippled in less than three minutes and had gone from being one of the scariest heel monsters in the sport to being a jobber, in a heartbreaking downward spiral. And, though it basically killed his career, it had been to no avail. No booker offered to move him to a new promotion, repackage him and give him a new push, nobody even offered him a desk job; his appearences in the ring, quite the opposite, had been scarcer and scarcer, leaving the old job at the slaughterhouse as his only real income.
The Mauler was not 45 yet, but he knew the end had come a long time before: his career died when he had agreed to the shoot job.
It was 1963, seven years before. Still felt like yesterday, though.
Impervious to the stitching needle’s sting he closed his eyes and his mind went back to Amarillo, march the 17th 1963, the beginning of the end.
“That guy’s not worth the spit on the rim of your glass, Mick! Why should you let him walk away with the belt?”. Fred Missos was a massive bear of a greek: he wasn’t more than 5′ 11″ but must have weighted around 350lbs and had a charismatic personality as imposing as his rounded stomach. Fred was also a gangster, and that was Mike’s main concern at that moment. The next day he had to face Bearpaw Redding, a muscular former fullback from Chicago with a captivating persona and no skills whatsoever. Great talker, still.
The promotion pushed him like crazy, giving him a string of high profile victories against title contenders and the fans were all expecting a dazzling title triumph over the Mauler, so much that bookmakers had stopped taking bets on the grizzled afro-american grappler. Mankievicz had no hope, it seemed. Missos had other ideas, though.
“You lose to a stinker like that, your reputation’s shot, Mick. You better listen to me! I got good friends in Canada. They book matches up there and it’s not tied to the world league. You get there with that belt, it’s gonna be gold, Mick! And I can cut you in on a share of the bets, my boy. People are betting against you like there’s no tomorrow. I’m gonna put my money, a lot of it, on you. You think you can take that belt home to uncle Fred?”. It all made perfect sense. Mike agreed with the mobster, at least in part. Why should he leave the belt to someone who had no ability in the ring to talk of? Redding was a jovial fellow, with a booming laughter you could hear from a hundred yards away. But he was no real grappler. He knew nothing of submissions, nothing about crippling holds, nothing about wrestling, for God’s sake! He was a strong, powerful man with a good tackle that made his opponents fly and his fans howl’n’holler in delight. Why didn’t old Florian ask him to drop the belt to one of his two children? Sure, they were green, but they had been top notch wrestlers in highscool, Florian jr going as far as winning the nationals in the heavyweights. They were sound mat technicians you could build the fed on and the Mauler respected that. But Bearpaw? Where did he fit in the picture?
“He doesn’t”, Mike thought to himself, very cooly, as the old man’s words rung in his ears. “You are a great wrestler, but… People don’t get behind you, son. – Why’d he always have to call everyone ‘son’?- You don’t draw and in this sport that’s the bottom line, son. We’ll put you in a feud with Bearpaw and you’ll drop the title, the nigger’s got dollar marks all over him! You are a bit too.. Old school, you know? But it’s gonna be a great match, SON”. He wondered if the old racist wanker would ever call Redding “son”. He probably would, if it made him an extra buck.
He didn’t need to think any longer, his mind was made up.
Uncle Fred looked him in the eyes and smiled: he could read men and knew that Mankiewicz needed no more convincing. As the shooter’s lips parted, only one question escaped his mouth: “What’s my share?”.
“Oh GOD, Mike, why you doin’ this to me???”
Bearpaw’s screams still rung in Mike’s ears as he rode a Greyhound to Calgary, 10.000 bucks richer. It didn’t take him too much to get to Redding’s back, even less to get him in a toehold. He only had to choose how to maim him, at that point. He went for the knee and, in another thirty seconds the number one contender’s career was over.
Over, he thought to himself, a bitter taste forming in his mouth as the words started taking the shape of reality. The championship belt in his sack weighted what felt like a ton, as his heart did. He had never liked old Florian, but what he did that night went against everything he had been taught by Kowalsky in training. “You don’t spit in the hand that feeds you, kid!” – he remembered that growl as if it was yesterday – That is rule 1. You play good by the promoters, promoters will be good to you. You let anyone get weird ideas into your life bread, you may well be screwed!”. Did that have the sound of a prophecy? Maybe, but Mankiewicz did not give it a second thought, he pulled the hood of his sweater on his eyes and just slipped into a tormented sleep, ripe with ominous dreams of Bearpaw’s expression of excruciating pain and Kowalsky’s words.
It took him a couple of months to realize just how screwed he was.
Canada was a long way from Amarillo and, in the beginning, life had been pretty great in Calgary. The territory was blossoming under the guidance of Stewart Harrison, a former great grappler with a gift for visionary booking and Mike had been placed right at the center of the action. His Amarillo championship belt had, as Fred said, been gold and he started being booked as “the scariest technician monster in the sport”, straight in a feud with the champion, a high flier from Alberta. And the Mauler looked the part too: at 6’10” and 303lbs he was the biggest, most imposing grappler in the promotion and his squared chin and scarred face (a souvenir of Korea) did the rest.
But the World League had very good memory. And could flex an arm that was terribly long and powerful.
That arm had a rounded face and a name to go with it. Luke Kubic, the president of the league, was an incredibly convincing talker and, during a secret meeting, had made Harrison an offer he could not, possibly, refuse. “How would you feel about being accepted in the World League? We could send some of our most popular talent in, to help promote the territory. Hell, we could even send the champ in for a tour!”. Sweet sweet music that was to Stewart’s ears. Recognition at last! “But there’s a couple of conditions – Kubic said – before we can call it a deal”. Of course there’s always conditions, the canadian thought. “We want the Amarillo belt back. And, obviously, that Mankiewicz motherfucker has to go. No way he’s getting scot free, you don’t cross the League!”. A handshake later Mike himself, after screwing Bearpaw and Florian, was screwed. Two careers at the price of one, Kubic had always been an “eye for an eye” kind of man and he made damn sure that the only work Mike would ever get again was in putting others over. Yes: at the tender age of 37 the Mauler went straight from contender to jobber and now, at 45, he knew it was over before it really begun.
“Hey Mikey? You there or you asleep?”. Dr Manelli was done with the stitching and roused the daydreaming Mankiewicz. “I’m fine doc, thanks”, he said as he made his way to the bar near the presbyterian hall the event was held at. “A couple of beers will wash the spleen away for sure”, talking to himself had become quite the norm, ever since he became a ring outcast. Other talent wouldn’t let themselves be seen near him in fear that his bad reputation would rub on them and, even after 7 years, he was as isolated as when Kubic had made his offer.
As he chugged down his first beer of the night he noticed a little asian fellow eyeing him intently and thought nothing about it: he did have that effect on people. But at beer three the tiny guy wasn’t just still staring at him, he beamed him a huge smile of recognition across the room and motioned to join him at the table. Mike shrugged, got up and sat with the diminutive guy, who introduced himself as Shinji Utsuki.
“You the great Mike the Mauler! I know you! You great fighter!”, Utsuki spouted. “Former great – Mankiewicz replied with a sad smile – Just passing by, now…”.
But the jap wanted to hear nothing about it, “No! – he said – you still great! America not understand!” And he pulled out a business card.
“I make puroresu promotion in Tokyo. We need talent. You are talent. I pay ticket, you come work?”.
Heck, Mike thought, he’d go to Japan. Wasn’t this the second chance he had been waiting for all these years?
The Mauler looked at the diminutive promoter, extended a hand and, for the first time in seven years, found himself smiling.