What We Win When We Lose
by A. Van Jordan
In a wrestling match, there are five official ways in which a wrestler scores points, but one of those ways is contingent on your opponent committing a penalty, which only leaves four ways to actually strategize for points. When it came to the official ways that I could score points, I was pretty good at all of them, but I was a master at the most important, unofficial way: I knew how to get into my opponent’s head.
Now, I say all of that not to sound like a bad ass but to paint the picture of what I faced on the mat. I would be a bad ass, for instance, if I were talking about being a college wrestler at Iowa in the ‘80s or an Olympic wrestler in Sydney in 2000, like when USA’s Rulon Gardner upset the wrestling world by defeating the undefeated Russian, Alexander Karelin, but I’m talking about 8th grade in Akron, OH.
Growing up in a blue-collar town in a predominantly black neighborhood and going to public schools, shaped my sensibilities. I have lived in Washington, DC; New York city; South Orange, NJ; Austin, TX; and parts of North Carolina, but I am completely from Akron. In the 70s and the 80s, it was the kind of town in which men were defined by having a job with good benefits, and boys were defined by having some athletic prowess. In short, if you were a guy, you had to know how to do something and you were the man if you did something better than others. It sounds a little Midwestern cliché, but it was real. The part that wasn’t cliché is that not many places in America had what that neighborhood had: black owned businesses, black home owners, low unemployment, and plenty of rec centers and a viable YMCA where kids could blow off some raging hormones playing basketball or learn to swim or to dance ballet or to box. I got involved in something that was called the Greater Akron Area YMCA program. We called it GRAY-Y. I entered a boxing program there, and we would talk about the fights of Ali and the stars of the 1976 Olympics as much as we boxed. In my mind, it was just a way to hang with my friends and imitate my favorite boxers. I didn’t realize it then, but my interest in this club introduced me to the kind of training I would embrace more seriously later as a wrestler.
Fearing bullies is a perfectly legitimate reason to learn how to wrestle. I didn’t have that problem in 8th grade, but I did up until 6th grade, when I started boxing at the Y. That year, I beat up James, the school bully, who had been left behind twice; so, it was like I had beat up an 8th grader while I was in 6th grade. He was the terror of the school; I think the teachers were even afraid of him. So, when he approached my girlfriend and me on the playground—girlfriend meaning the girl, Laura, whose hand I got to hold during recess—pushing me out the way and wrapping his muscular arm around her shoulders, I knew even then that it’s always better to get your ass kicked trying than to go out like a wimp by walking away. At least, that was the rule at Schumacher elementary in 1976. The rules of conduct in public school at recess are similar to being on the yard in prison. Once you’re labeled as weak, everyone wants a piece of you. I wasn’t going out like that. Once I beat up James, if I had been of drinking age, I could have had free drinks in any joint in town for the rest of my life. I liked that feeling. I got a rep as the nice guy who would beat up bullies. I had friends who were athletes, and I had friends who were nerds, and I was a little bit of both.
It was clear to me, even at that young age, that walking between these worlds would be a part of my identity to come. It’s strange to decide that the liminal space between two worlds was somehow a comfort zone. Usually, one gravitates toward a group or into solitude, one or the other. For me, the idea of lingering too long in either felt precarious. Dipping into the culture of athletics, dipping into the culture of music--I was a band nerd, and I would go on to become the captain of my high school marching band—or dipping into the escape of science, my real first love as a boy, and literature all seemed like perfectly reasonable ways to perambulate the world. At the time, the idea of anything being post normal wasn’t put into language; for me, it was simply a feeling. And I wanted the freedom to walk the earth feeling different from others.
One might think of this as a directionless path. One might even say that this sounds a bit immature or noncommittal. On the contrary, I knew this at my core; I wanted it all, but I didn’t want to be locked into any of these as an identity, and I was committed to that. As a result, team sports were not an option. I had no interest in being a part of a team in the traditional sense. I don’t know how else to say this: I wanted to be feared and liked, all at once. It’s a fool’s ambition, but it was a real ambition. It was and seems to be a bit of who I am. The only hitch is that I only want to be feared by bullies, and I only want to be liked by the underdogs.
What I learned on that playground that day seemed emblematic of what I’ve carried with me throughout my life. When you defend yourself and win, no one will blame you for winning. In 6th grade, James approached me with the idea that he would get into my head, embarrass me, and, in turn, take my girlfriend—whatever that means in 6th grade. For me, I knew all I had to do was fight, win or lose, and that alone would surprise him; no one ever really fought him back. All I had to do was to throw the first punch, and I knew he’d be surprised by that alone. I carried this onto the mat with me the next year when I started wrestling.
In the first moments of any street fight, the fight usually goes to the ground. The nervous energy and adrenalin of a street fight brings the fighters to a grapple that almost always ends with them on the ground. In a wrestling match, the wrestler who scores the takedown usually wins, 90% of the time. Whenever I wrestled, I wanted to score the takedown. I did that often and I was golden, psychologically, and my opponent would be on the road to a broken spirit.
Every move in wrestling—every hold, every throw—has an escape or a reversal. In 8th grade, I had a match that would be as indelible on my psyche as that playground fight was in 6th grade, but the results would not be in my favor. Years before this day, though, the scene had been set for the mind fuck that was on its way: My parents got divorced when I was 8 years old, and although I had as good of a relationship with my dad as most of my friends did, we still didn’t talk very much. We saw each other, but we didn’t really talk, which was something that I could never make sense of as a kid. Everyone talked to me. In my mind, I wondered, What’s wrong with him. The rest of our relationship was just as cliché: we never played catch, we didn’t have “the talk” about girls, and we never talked about what happened between him and my mom. We just were father and son, and that was that.
As a result of this strange pact, my dad never came to any of my wrestling matches, which was particularly strange because he would often pick me up from wrestling practice and drive me the 2.6 miles home from school as he left work on his way to his new home. It was “our time together.” Even that short ride would be spent mostly in silence. He never asked me anything about wrestling. My dad was into baseball, which I hated, and, in his defense, I never asked him one thing about that either. To this day, I’m not even sure why he was so into baseball. My dad started working for Goodyear, Tire & Rubber when he was 16. They found out how young he was, let him go, and then he came back when he was 18; he retired from Goodyear when he was 68 years old; he died nine years later. I say all of that to say this was not a guy who played in the Negro League or even Little League. He just worked, but he loved to watch and talk baseball. And, in my spare time, I just liked to fight, whether wrestling, boxing, or on a playground.
In the middle of the season, I had a match against a guy from one of our biggest rival schools, West Junior High. It was only a big rival because we didn’t like kids who went to West, and they didn’t like kids who went to Simon Perkins, which was my school. As a result, everyone on our side of town, the west side of Akron, came out for this match, which was also unusual because hardly anyone came to wrestling matches.
I was loose and excited and ready to show off. I came out with the mantra that my coach, Coach Hume, would say to me that first year on the mat: Don’t worry about what your opponent wants to do; do what you want to do. In less than 30 seconds, I scored a takedown against this kid who had muscles like a bodybuilder. He was a little shorter than me, too, which was good for his center of gravity. Wrestling is not a tall man’s sport, really. Even if you’re a Super Heavy Weight in Greco-Roman wrestling in which all of the moves are above the waist, you still have an advantage with your center of gravity, if you’re a bit shorter. This kid could have given me a hard time, but he was already nervous, and I had already scored a takedown. Second period. We go to the center of the mat. He takes the down position; I’m dominating the match, so I get to choose, and I choose to be on top. As I get set, I make the mistake of glancing into the crowd, mainly out of vanity to see who all was there, and then I caught a glimpse of my dad.
The match was pretty much over from there. I’d like to tell you now about all of the moves, throw by throw and hold by hold that transpired in that match, but I honestly don’t remember. It’s all just a blur, much like it was to me on the mat that day. It’s like I blanked out and came to with my opponent’s hand being raised over his head. I wrestled from 7th grade to 11th grade, but I never got pinned. So, I know that’s not how I lost, but I did lose handily on points.
Wrestling is one of the few sports in which you can score points for nearly accomplishing something. If you get your opponent on his back, with one shoulder blade on the mat or if he’s bridging on his neck or elbows to keep from getting pinned, you get two points for what’s called a “near fall.” This is often just a moment that lasts for a couple of seconds. Even coming close to being pinned is enough to rattle an opponent’s self-confidence on the mat. It’s so palpable a truth that you can be awarded points for it.
Think about it: If you’re walking down the street and slip or stumble but don’t completely fall on your face, it still rattles your swagger. It’s hard to strut after that. The same dynamic takes place on the mat. Alexander Karelin, the great Russian wrestler, had a move in which he would pick his opponents up off the mat, hoist them over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes, and slam them back down to the mat. He wrestled Greco-Roman style, super heavy weight, so his opponents were often 285 and above. In Greco-Roman, lying flat on the mat is often the first move after starting the period in the bottom position. It doesn’t look like much because it seems like the wrestler is just bellying down on the mat, but it ‘s actually pretty damn hard to move a guy from that position if you can’t grab or tie up his legs, which you can’t in Greco-Roman. Most of his opponents had never had that feeling of weightlessness and lack of control that one feels when lifted off your feet. Lifting them up was enough; they’re already slammed in their minds. Slamming them down to the mat, physically, simply finishes the job started in their heads. Once your mind isn’t into a match, once you lose the mental focus, the match is over. A spectator might see wrestling as an extremely physical sport, but it’s just as mental as it is physical.
I lost interest in wrestling, really, after my 9th grade year. My coach, coach Hume, died from a brain tumor, and I was heading to the local high school the next year. At the high school, our coach was less of a coach and more of an advisor for a student club, it seemed. He didn’t really know much about wrestling, and the team, though filled with talent, never really had a winning season. The high school was a ten-minute walk from my home, so I didn’t need rides home from practice. My dad and I never really talked about the match he saw, and we definitely never talked about wrestling--or about baseball, for that matter. And, so, over time, I fully embraced my other passion: The trombone. And, as I said, I became the captain of the marching band.
With that, I thought that I was free from wrestling. I assumed that I would never really think about it again, but, like most loves, once relegated to past tense, it still, hauntingly, lingered. This wasn’t a high-school-jock-glory-days reverie, though; this was a need to deal with the challenge of what it means to try to escape one’s defeats. Remembering your wins and embracing them is easy. Remembering your losses and embracing them is torture.
I started every week when I wrestled. We had wrestle offs among the team, and I won every week. I did fine in the matches, too. I won some and I lost some, but I barely remember my wins. I don’t think I remember my wins much because I don’t know what, if anything, I learned from them. I felt like I walked away with some lesson with each loss, though. Coaches will tell you that you gain confidence from learning and playing a sport. They’re talking about learning how to win at something, really, though; if you learn a sport and learn to win by beating either your opponent or your personal best, then, ideally, you’ll transfer that confidence into other areas of your life. To some degree, I believe this. I definitely left wrestling with more confidence than when I first stepped onto the mat, but I also learned how to focus as a form of escape from the distractions in my world. Often, I will be faced with someone who wants something from me with a sense of urgency, and I realize that their urgency isn’t necessarily mine. I can hear coach Hume saying, Don’t worry about what your opponent wants to do; do what you want to do. And I can see myself not doing that back in 8th grade, and I realize that I never want to feel that again.
Just before my father died, back in 2005, we would watch sports on TV and talk about the games as if we had been doing it our whole lives. When a family member is in the hospital, you really only want to talk about subjects that are both light and that your loved one loves. We watched the World Series as Chicago won by sweeping the Houston Astros, which he predicted, on the TV in his hospice care room. Once, during that same time, while channel surfing, we came across a college wrestling match on ESPN, and we paused on it for a moment. I think the wrestlers were from Penn State and Wisconsin. We just paused on it for a few seconds, I pretty much knew that this wasn’t what he wanted to watch, so I was ready to move on but I had to watch for just a second, and just at that moment one of the wrestlers pulled away from an arm bar and repositioned himself in a locked position, upright, with his opponent. The ref raised his hand. My dad looked at me with a look that had a question in it, and I realized that it was a moment in which he acknowledged that I knew something—something of value, something that maybe he hadn’t learned in his 77 years--and I said in response, “Yeah. You get a point if you can manage an escape.”
A. VAN JORDAN is the author of four collections: Rise, (Tia Chucha Press, 2001); M-A-C-N-O-L-I-A, (2005); Quantum Lyrics, (2007); and The Cineaste, (2013), W.W. Norton & Co. Jordan has been awarded a Whiting Writers Award, an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, a Pushcart Prize, and has been included in The Best American Poetry Anthology of 2013. He is a recipient of a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship, and a United States Artists Williams Fellowship. He has been a Professor in the Dept. of English at the University of Michigan, and he currently teaches in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. In the fall of 2014, he will be the Henry Rutgers Presidential Professor at Rutgers University-Newark.