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Marks are people who believe in wrestling as sport. I met one who insisted on buying me a beer after the show — who was I to refuse? He told me he had wrestled a bit in high school. Was pretty good, too, but got sick of cutting weight by the time he left for college. But he still remembered the instincts of grappling. The impulse to get and stay on top, to pin shoulders down.
For all that, he speculated, climbing that ladder must go against every instinct you’ve got.
I understood what he was saying. In a Ladder Match, we race to see who can climb fastest to retrieve the championship belt hanging overhead. Inevitably we wind up hitting one another with the ladder, or jumping off it. All the usual theatrics. That ascension from the mat, rather than sinking, this impulse to climb rather than hold down, this introduction of steel rungs, of a steel frame, into a sport defined by an absence of equipment — I understood these instincts, this worldview from a boy raised on up-down drills, go-behinds, fireman’s carries, and the other standard wrestling techniques.
But my instincts were not the same as his. I sought to scale higher — greater fame, greater fortune, greater reputation, the pursuit of the championship — a prop, yes, but a symbolic one, a belt that meant the world.
More to the point, there was that moment when the sweat got in my eyes, when the angle of the lights overhead hung wrong, straight down, and obscured the title altogether, until all I could see was something fuzzy and bright I didn’t know if I’d ever catch hold of. But it was as much as there ever was for me to reach for.
Marks — those fans who don’t get that wrestling is fixed — call it a draw. For them, more often than not, it’s a disappointment of unresolved fury when neither man has his hand raised in victory. Smart fans call it a copout. They say the booker painted himself into a corner and couldn’t decide who would win and took the path that helped no one and hurt no one, hurt no one except the fans who just wasted their time and money.
We call it a Broadway. I don’t know the etymology, though I could swear Cowboy Sam explained it to me once. I like to think it’s because we put on a show.
People think wrestlers can go as long as they want. That it’s like kids banging action figures together, and we keep going until bedtime, or until Ma calls for supper. But a Broadway is a showcase. The ignorant booker might put it on the card to kill time, but the boys in the ring understand what they’re being tasked with.
A one-hour time limit draw requires stamina, yes, the conditioning to go and go and go. But much more than that, it demands creativity. You think people want to watch an hour of guys lying down in headlocks? It’s about planning and storytelling. Peaks and valleys. Freytag’s pyramid of plot structure that I never thought I’d use after twelfth-grade English, but there I was laying out the inciting incident of a missed the knee drop, the figure-four leg lock as climax, a denouement of desperate grappling for that pin as the clock wore away, the announcer calling five minutes remaining, then four, then three —
And while the marks and smarks and smartasses booed and threw beer cups, I knew what we had achieved. The Broadway. The highest level of artistry our business allows for.
You can find Michael Chin at miketchin.com and follow him on Twitter @miketchin