Who Really Killed King Kong
I was on the high school wrestling team. Before the biggest match of my career, Coach massaged each of my arms by rolling my bicep between his palms, as if it were a stick and he was trying to start a fire.
“Okay, Poothead,” he said. He called everyone Poothead, not just me. I’d weighed in at 126 pounds. Coach was my height, but probably 150 pounds at most, with short-cropped blond hair and a pooched-out bottom lip because of the tobacco. “You just go out there and give it the best you can,” he said. I was pretty sure I detected a tone of acquiescence. “You’ve come a long ways and can be proud.” I looked at Coach, but that was the best he was going to give me. He wasn’t looking at me, but at my opponent across the mat. This was the regional level and the winner would go to the state tournament. No one from our high school had ever gone to the state tournament before. Technically my opponent weighed the same as me: 126 pounds. But he must have had hollow bones or ate helium for breakfast or was made of balsa wood. His biceps were swollen, his chest puffed up. Even his ears had muscles. Even his muscles had muscles. I was no wimp, but I guess from coach’s perspective, I was outgunned here.
Tournament days were usually long days with big breaks between rounds. I had won an earlier match and so Coach took several of us to see a movie. It was a remake of King Kong starring Jessica Lange. King Kong didn’t have perfect takedowns, or reversals, or cross-body rides, or half-nelsons. But he could throw down, and he always wound up on top. It wasn’t always about style either with King Kong. It was about results. And that was inspiring—even if Coach wasn’t at that moment. He released my arm to retrieve a cup that he spit some dark ooze into and told me good luck one more time before sending me off.
I stepped onto the mat, where I met that familiar spongy feel under my feet, and King Kong. I adjusted my head gear, not that I needed to, but just to keep my hands busy before the perfunctory handshake. The referee gave his spiel about rules and safety issues, squared us off and then blasted his whistle. In an instant the Beast flew at me from across the circle. I braced myself.
At the edge of the mat, on either side of Coach and his cup, knelt my teammates—my vociferous teammates. Three of us had made it to the regionals. Six others had come along to cheer us on. Their voices slipped around the foam padding of my headgear. Their collective voices prompted me to layout flat when I saw the blur of muscles move toward my legs—the proper defensive move. And their voices gave me the wherewithal to hook my arms up under each of his armpits and the strength to turn Kong onto his back—all before Coach could work up a good spit.
At the edge of the mat cheered Sylvester Kelley. Sly was no more than five feet tall and weighed 98 pounds—post cheeseburger. He was all muscle and slippery as a trout. At practice he’d actually slip through cradles and leg locks as if he were a thread passing through a needle’s eye. Now he pounded the mat’s edge and yelled my name (Pierce, not Poothead) and when I did something right, like turn over King Kong and score two points, I heard him laugh. I wanted to stop and give him a hug, but I had both arms filled with someone who wanted to crush me, and there were at least three minutes left in the match.
Next to Sly was Bill Ledbetter. He was 119 pounds and came to our school his sophomore year from Colorado, with a reputation and his own mythology. We didn’t know how they wrestled in Colorado or what kind of super strength the mountain air might have given him. Since we were close in weight class, he was always my practice partner. There’s no way to know who was more competitive. When we ran laps, we raced. When Coach tried to break us down with suicides and run-a-rounds, he couldn’t. When we practiced, we tried to hurt each other in “semi-legal” ways, like adding extra pressure with an elbow, or digging into a breastbone with a bony chin, or squeezing a cradle (against that tender neck muscle) harder than necessary. As much as I can remember neither of us complained, and no one whined. More than anything, we each pushed back and squeezed and dug a littler harder. We grew tough together.
Sometimes (many times) we’d find ourselves a pound or two over on the day of a match. I’ve lost five pounds in a day before. So has Bill. Many times we did it together. If we turned on all the shower heads in the locker room to full hot, it’d create a cloud of steam so thick you couldn’t see from one side to the other. And if I wore two sweat pants and three sweat shirts and did jumping jacks for an hour in that steam, I’d sweat off at least three pounds. Sometimes I’d spot Bill through the blistering cloud, but only partially, and he’d looked more like a bird flapping futilely for lift off. If I still needed to lose another pound, I’d get a Coke bottle and a piece of gum. The gum helped me work up a spit. I’d carry the bottle with me everywhere I went until weigh-in, slowly filling it up. More than once Bill and I would cross paths in the hallway, each with his own Coke bottle filled with a bubble gum-pink liquid. I never held Bill’s bottle, but mine was always warm—at least body temperature.
From close by I could hear Bill’s voice, thin and tinny, cheering me on, but mostly calling out moves and counter-moves. He was always the strategist. With 15 seconds to go, I led by one, but Kong was on the move. He’d nearly slipped away. An escape would tie things up and send this match into overtime. I hung onto his lower leg, squeezed harder than I ever had Ledbetter. Dug my chin into his soft calf. But that was legal.
I heard Ledbetter and Sly exhorting me to hang on. And so did Steve and Wendell, Freddie and Todd, Barry and Butch. “Hang on!” they collectively chanted. Even Coach’s tobacco-muffled “Hang on!” gave me strength to squeeze harder. At the sound of the whistle I went slack. The leg slipped away, but it meant nothing. The match was over. I pictured King Kong toppling from near the top of the Empire State Building.
The referee made the win official by raising my hand. Then my teammates surrounded me and whacked me on the back, slapped me on the rear and patted me on the head and every strike I accepted as a gift. Even Coach’s “Way to go, Poothead!” caused me to throw my arms around his neck. Across the mat I saw my opponent walk off, head down, fumbling with the strap of his headgear. His coach glared at me. I wanted to tell him it wasn’t all me who killed the beast, but Sly, Bill, Steve and Wendell, Freddie and Todd, Barry and Butch.
We did it together.