Headlock

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Chapter 10: Representing the Old Guys

A week before the Nutmeg Games, my wife re-expressed her reservations about my plan to continue to wrestle. I could see her conducting her own mental wrestling matches in her head, trying to balance her support with her concern. She didn’t stand in my way, but she sure appeared uncomfortable with the idea.

Also, the playoff schedule for my boys’ travel baseball teams came out and they both had critical games on the same day as the tournament.

“Go ahead and wrestle,” my wife dripped with sarcasm. “If that’s more important to you than your kids’ baseball playoff games, then I guess you have your priorities set.”

Now I had the opportunity to grapple with my own mind. I hated the idea of missing their big games. But I had worked so hard to prepare for the tournament and I could not bear to miss it. There would not be any other tournaments that I could attend between the end of the summer and the beginning of the next season, which would mean that this was my only chance to compete before the Nationals next April.

If I wanted to know where I stood, it would be now or never. And granted, the Nutmeg Games tournament would only represent a second data point in conjunction with the New England Freestyle tournament the previous month. But at least two data points could formulate a line and indicate a direction. I had to know if I could perform better this time compared to last time. I would risk disappointing my wife and missing my kids’ games. Secretly, I would hope for rain. But I had to compete. I had to know.

My wife softened her dialog and helped me out quite a bit the day before the tournament. I decided in my typical last-minute style that I would like a new wrestling singlet that fit me better and a set of protective headgear to help avoid the cauliflower ear that many wrestlers developed as the result of burst capillaries around the earlobe. I stopped by a few sports shops in New York, but couldn’t find what I needed. My wife found a small, medium and large at a shop in town and picked them up for me.

The Medium fit perfectly and I looked much less ridiculous than in the Youth Large I had worn at the previous tournament.

The rain teamed on Saturday night before the Sunday morning tournament and all the baseball games washed out. I went to bed weighing 147, two comfortable pounds underweight. I had fasted the whole day eating only one small piece of mozzarella cheese for dinner. I could have eaten much more, but I hated that anxiety of cutting it so close and wanted to show up at the weigh-in worry free.

In hindsight, I should have eaten more. When I stepped on the digital scale, I could not believe the number that popped up on the LED display -144.5. I was 4 and a half pounds under for a total weight loss of 55 pounds in four months

It didn’t matter that I came in light. I ate my watermelon and my granola. I hydrated, stretched and tried to pick out the competitors in my weight class. I felt ready to wrestle and stronger than the previous tournament. I thought I could win. I really did.

For my first match, I drew a 27-year-old. He looked enormous, covered in tattoos and felt like he was made of brick. I later found out that he was a former Connecticut State Champion who did not wrestle in college, but who had since become a semi-professional Mixed Martial Arts fighter.

We shook hands. We tied up and the experience reminded me of wrestling against Pingtafore in the New Englands where I couldn’t control his hands or move him off balance. He gripped my wrist and biceps and I could feel my arms bruising in his clutch. He squeezed so hard, I couldn’t move. But technique-wise, he was not materially better than me. Essentially, I could wrestle toe-to toe with him and possibly even score on him.

He took me down with a high-crotch shot that I almost stopped. I sprawled and hit him with a hard cross-face. His strong arms pulled my left leg in close to his chest and I had to bail to my stomach to avoid going to my back. With me face down on the mat and him on top, he went to work, abusing me for the next minute. He drove his head into my kidney while trying to curl my knees into my chin for a cradle, but I kept my near hip down and my legs extended straight. I arched and flexed my back to avoid buckling as he tried to fold me in half at the gut. He reached up under my head and powered a strong half nelson over the back of my neck using my upper arm as a lever to turn my head and attempt to roll me to my back. I looked away from the half nelson, chopped down on his arm to alleviate the pressure and avoided keeling over. He switched from move to move, reacting to my defenses. He next hit me with a vicious cross face, raking his forearm past my nose and mouth and grabbing my far triceps. He pulled it under my body, doubled up on it and pounded his shoulder into my back to flatten me onto my forehead, face down on the mat. I was still able to turn my hips away, crawl up to a base, get a leg out for stability and stop his attempts to turn me.

I could stop him. But I couldn’t escape.

The first period ended with him leading 2-0.

At the start of the second period, he won the coin toss, which afforded him the choice of starting on top of me or on bottom. A wrestler will typically select bottom as it is easier to escape than to hold a man down. So, starting on bottom often equates to somewhat of a free escape point. He had the added choice of deferring his selection to the third and final period, leaving me to decide whether to choose top or bottom in the second.

“I’m definitely not choosing bottom,” I said to the ref as I stood there pondering my options.

“I wouldn’t either,” he whispered back to me with a smile.

My opponent had dominated me to such a degree, that choosing down would no doubt doom me to spending the entire second period fighting off more bruising cross faces and cradle attempts. Choosing top would almost surely give away an escape point. At only 2-0, every point would matter greatly, if I believed I had a chance to win the match. I chose neutral and took my chances that I might be able to take him down from standing. If anything, I could attempt a headlock and try to knock him out in one big move.

There would be no headlock. He took me down on a single leg takedown about 20 seconds into the period. I tried to hook his far leg and execute a punishing split leg move called a spladle. But I wasn’t strong enough to hang on to his leg or yank it forward into my chest as I needed to do. Again, I had to base up, yielding him two more points, to avoid giving up even more back exposure points.

And then, down 4-0, I scored my first point in 18 years, a one-point escape. I managed to take control of his wrists and stand up, despite his weight bearing on my back. I didn’t have time to enjoy the accomplishment as he came at me immediately and nearly took me down again. I held on until the end of the period to defend his attack and finished the second period only down 4-1.

I had to assume the top position to start the third and final period as my opponent chose down, presumably to earn his free point. Surprisingly, I rode him well, covering his hips, chopping his arms to the mat and keeping enough pressure on his back to make it difficult for him to get away. Apparently, I still had some effective technique in the top position within my dusty repertoire of moves. However, my opponent worked hard to escape and my newfound ability to stay on top did not last.

As I started to lose my control over him, I remembered one of my brother John’s favorite moves, called a Zook. I slipped my left leg inside his right and locked my foot around his ankle, like an inside grapevine. I grabbed a nearside head and arm lock and attempted to stretch him forward. The idea would be to eventually roll under his chest pulling his legs, hips and head over my body and exposing his back. I squeezed it with as much strength as I had to give and stretched him forward. I could hear him groan a little bit, so I knew I had the move well executed. We struggled against each other for quite some time, neither able to improve their position. He fought with his strength. And ultimately his fortitude trumped mine. I couldn’t hold on and he scored a two-point reversal to go up 6-1. He immediate went back to his cross face, bruising my nose and scuffing a chunk of my cheek. I managed to escape again close to the end of the period and lost by a respectable score of 6-2.

I stood in the lobby outside the gym trying to catch my breath. My arms hung down by my side in exhaustion. I contemplated eating my ham and cheese sandwich and drinking another bottle of Evian. I had too much adrenaline flowing to adequately feel how stressed my back and neck muscles were, but I could tell that it would be a rough morning the next day.

A heavy-set guy my age, maybe a few years younger, walked right up to me with his hand extended.

“I admire you,” he said. “A bunch of us were pulling for you. I don’t know how you do it, going out there against these 20-year-old kids. It was an inspiration to see you battling that guy so tough. Nice job. Hope you win the next one.”

His wife pitched in her own praise and asked if I was Ok. It felt good to earn the respect of random spectators even in a losing effort. Another person overheard the exchange and contributed well wishes for my next match.

“You’re representing us older guys,” he said. “Everyone was watching you out there.”

I ran into a tall, athletic-looking middle-aged dad in the bleachers. I instantly recognized him as Ken Pera, a throwback to my own high school days. Ken was a state champ from our biggest rival, Berlin High School. We had wrestled together on the Connecticut National team and I had coached against him after college. He had since moved to my town, Avon, and worked with my brother to run the town youth wrestling program.

He took a double-take when he ran into me. He never expected to see me in a singlet on the mat again. It was nice to chat with a peer, who had seen me in high school and held that deep-seeded respect for my body of work that many others use to exhibit, back when I was a more relevant figure in the Connecticut wrestling scene. We reminisced about guys we both knew in high school. I asked about Coach Day, the legendary coach at Berlin High, who had also served as my coach on the National team.

At the start of my second match of the day, I saw Ken work his way through the crowd and take a seat on the side of the mat.

That next match popped up too soon. I had maybe 25 minutes to rest and replenish. Then I drew another former Connecticut State Champ, a college sophomore who wrestled at the University of Virginia and won his conference championship earlier that spring. He was nearly as strong as the MMA fighter, although considerably less intimidating. At least he didn’t have knuckle tattoos.

But what he did have was the ideal combination of strength, speed, quickness and agility. He looked like an extraordinarily muscular gymnast and moved like a boxer, bouncing up and down, back and forth, always on the balls of his feet and ready to pounce.

When he hit me with his double leg takedown, his execution was flawless. His head drove straight into my sternum and he yanked both of my legs out from under me before I could react. I was down 2-0 in seconds and again fighting off my opponent from the bottom position. But this guy’s style differed greatly from the MMA fighter. He took control of my wrist, hooked a leg and conducted a move called a tilt. Not so much designed to result in a pin, it generated three points for exposing my back to the mat.

I managed to return to my stomach from the tilt and worked to get back to my feet. When I stood up, I hooked my arm over his in a whizzer position, using it to secure my balance on my feet. He used his underhook position to gain leverage and hoist me off my center of gravity. In a split second as I rose from the mat, he popped his hips underneath mine, threw me straight through the air onto my head and pinned me. He hit the throwing move so quickly and exploded through it, I had no chance of stopping it. My feet soared through the air as my body rotated over his hips and slammed to the mat with a loud slapping thud. I heard the crowd gasp. The ref smacked the mat to signify the pin. And, just like that, I had lost again.

I shook it off. He just caught me off balance with a good move. It happens. I hadn’t been pinned in 25 years prior to that match. But it didn’t bother me.

I never lose,” I thought to myself, quoting Ghandi. “I either win or I learn.”

And I had just learned the danger of letting a young quick, opponent drop his hips underneath mine. I reminded myself to be more careful in upper-body throwing situations.

In my third and final match, I drew a kid who wrestled for the Navy, but was not a starter. He was also on the Navy Jujitsu club. He was built somewhat like the wrestler from Virginia that had just pinned me, quick, strong and athletic. He took me down and rode me for a minute or so, but I managed to reverse him with five seconds left in the first period to tie the match at 2-2.

In the second period, he chose to start in the down position, hoping for a quick and easy escape point. But, I dominated him from the top position. I threw my legs over his hips and wrapped them under his legs in a double grapevine move that enabled me to stabilize my hips on top of his while keeping all my weight pressed into the lower half of his spine. It stopped him from being able to stand up and escape. It also gave me freedom to work on his head and neck and try to turn him to his back.

I executed a power half nelson, controlling his arm, neck and head and managed to torque his ear sideways enough to turned him toward his back. I used my legs to squeeze the life out of his stomach and freeze him from rotating his hips to escape. I scored three points for exposing his back to the mat and took a 5-2 lead. After he squirmed out of that move, I hit him with a double chicken wing that tied up both arms behind his back. Using his arms as levers, I rotated my hips all the way around his head which flipped him upside down behind me and exposed his back a second time. I scored three more points for the move to up my lead to 8-2. I thought I had him pinned, but I ran out of time in the second period to stick both shoulders to the mat. I chose the down position and stalled most of the third period. I escaped once to make it 9-2 and he took me down with about 30 seconds left in the match to reduce my lead to five points. But he couldn’t score any additional points and I ended up winning by the final score of 9-4. It was my first win since the late 90s. I ended up taking third place in the tournament.

I sat in the bleachers for an hour after that third and final match of the day, waiting for them to announce the place finishers in my weight class. It’s funny, but at 47-years-old, having won literally hundreds of matches and nearly as many trophies and medals, I was still excited to earn and receive this medal.

I showed it to my kids and my wife and all three of their faces brightened with pride. It reminded me of the feeling as a teenager when my parents would beam at my accomplishments.

It didn’t matter that I couldn’t straighten my back, or that I had little round bruises dotting my arms and shoulders or that a small chunk of my cheek was missing or that I had an odd, misshapen bruise across my nose from the numerous cross-faces I had endured.

I had won a match against a 22-year-old college wrestler. I walked away from that tournament – or rather, I hobbled away – feeling like I had taken an enormous leap forward in my goal of preparing for the Nationals. And I had positive news to disclose at work.

Just in case anyone doubted me, I received a text from Kenny Pera with a series of pictures he had taken. There was one with me turning my opponent to his back with my leg scissor and power half. And there was another, which I set as my laptop background photo of the ref holding my arm in the air to signify my victory.

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