The first and only time I "bumped" in a wrestling ring I think I gave myself a concussion.
I had to bump as a sign of solidarity. After a four-hour television shoot in front of a live audience I had asked a handful of wrestlers to stay in their gear and shoot promotional photos for a video game we were developing. The video game company had hired some asshole avant garde photo team that specialized in action photography. The photographer demanded that any action be captured in as real an environment possible. "Real" is the most nebulous of concepts in the business, but that night it meant if the talent was to be shot flying from the top rope, they had to actually be doing so.
Hey exhausted pro wrestler! Jump off the rope and hold this pose for as long as possible! Now do it again! And hold the pose longer than what's safe, too, so the photographer can grab your expression in lieu of you tucking into a safe landing position!
Sorry, lighting was off. Do it again.
We like that one. Good start. Can we get five more?
Do it again. Again! This is going to look great!
The photographers normally shot MMA fighters. Pro wrestling is fake, so by their rationale our guys were just repeating choreography and somehow not paying the tax that physics asks of a 200-plus lb. body in and out of extreme motion.
Around midnight I was approached by a wrestler named Travis Tomko. Tomko was a former bodyguard for Limp Bizkit and looked like an Aryan Nation hitman trapped inside "Street Fighter 2," but was really the kindest of souls.
Travis: "Hey man. Uh ... No problems here, we don't want any heat from the office, but ..."
TRANSLATED: "We're really pissed off about something the company's making us do but please don't say we're mad because we're afraid of being fired."
Travis: "... we've been up here for two extra hours and it's getting late. Seriously though, no heat. Thank you for the opportunity. ..."
TRANSLATED: "You're making us beat our bodies to shit in a marketing campaign for a licensed product most of us won't see more than $500 apiece from. We haven't eaten in hours and this week a few us have Scotch-Taped a variety of ligaments back together because we have no health care. We'd rather be asleep right now but we have to act like we give a shit about this video game because we're all paranoid about getting fired every day."
I promised to do my best to speed up the process. He knew that was a lie, that I was just an underpaid gofer standing in an empty arena and carpooling back to the same shitty motel he was staying in. Moments later he returned.
Travis: "We've decided we can't go again until you do."
Travis: "You gotta bump."
TRANSLATED: "You better bump."
So I bumped. With all the grace of a baby giraffe rolling down an escalator, in front of an audience that contained some of the most gifted athletes I've ever seen, I bumped square in the middle of that ring. And it hurt. It hurt so goddamn much.
The goal of a flat-back bump is for your upper back and both shoulders to land first, absorbing the fall. However, your body's natural instinct is to look straight ahead as you fall backwards. Try it at home if you don't believe me, but use a mattress (or don't and be sure to videotape it).
My chin came right off my chest and one shoulder got to the canvas before the other. I had landed headfirst, which was the worst possible thing to do. I temporarily lost my vision, then a bolt of pain shot all the way down my spine. Everything burned, from my ears to the crack of my butt.
The worst part was that I could hear how bad I'd done before I'd landed. Wrestlers are so well trained that they can spot a botched move before it's finished. It's like having a half-second's worth of precognition: Maybe a guy's shoulders aren't square as he's coming down, or another guy didn't get enough air leaving the ring apron. They can see it before it happens, so as my fat head swung backwards my first in-ring reviews came flooding in:
Travis: "Oh, shit."
Other guy: "Damn! Down goes PR guy!"
Another guy: /hisses through his teeth
Yet another: "You should've taken your keys out of your back pocket!"
I wanted to die. I was warm. Oh God, I was warm. Had I peed a little? Please please please, no pee. Please.
I had failed completely at "flat" and "back" yet succeeded so much at "bump" that I almost pissed myself. The dizziness made me want to throw up. But then came the applause. It was ironic applause, but applause nonetheless, so I gutted it out and forced a laugh. For a bubble of time I'd been indoctrinated and accepted into their world, and respect feels so much better than pain hurts.
Good God Almighty
Good God Almighty
In that moment I could feel two sensations washing over me:
1. An elevated risk of early onset dementia.
2. The realization that pro wrestling is a painful, horrible labor.
Wrestling is a calculated demolition of the human body for the purpose of theater. Of all forms of physical expression, it is the most physically taxing. The NFL is beset by head trauma scandals and shortened life spans, but a running back with a blown knee is still carted off the field immediately after the injury is sustained. Wrestlers tear quads and blow out shoulders three minutes into a pay-per-view match and keep going in service of the story and in fear for their job security. At its worst, MMA is just carefully managed assault and battery, but its marquee stars might fight quarterly. The top talent in pro wrestling almost always ends up back in the ring 24 hours after their biggest matches.
Get injured in the NFL or MMA and you're a man's man, an athlete. Get injured in pro wrestling and you're a punchline to the same people. It's OK to think of wrestlers as the superheroes they so desperately want to be seen as. I don't think they'd want it any other way, especially since so many people view them as nothing more than men in tights doing some kind of Hillbilly Hamlet.
But while their character and emotion is akin to video games or comic books, every single one of them is still tethered to a corporeal health bar with no extra lives. I realize now that if I asked Tomko to bump 50 times that night, that would have been 50 "units" subtracted from his life's total bumps. Knees get repaired and vertebrae fused, but there's still only so many bumps in a guy. Believe me when I say that if 60-year-old Hulk Hogan could somehow manipulate the booking of April's "Wrestlemania 30" into him main eventing as WWE Champion, he'd do it in a heartbeat. But he can't. The reason he's incessantly branded as the "host' of WM30 is to convince fans that there's no way he'll ever wrestle a match again.
Hulk Hogan is out of leg drops forever. Couple that fact with childhood nostalgia and you might suddenly discover a depressing awareness of your own mortality, but it's hard to feel sad for Hogan himself. Even at 60, and likely forever more, Hogan has become the pinnacle of wrestling immortality because of his character and not his bumps. He's also rich, and compared to 99 percent of pro wrestlers, he's still filthy rich even when he's considered broke.
I haven't seen Travis Tomko in at least five years. He got released from the company about a year after that photo shoot. In 2011 I read that Tomko was arrested for robbing oxycodone from a Florida pharmacy. The cops found him next door in a restaurant, where he had locked himself in a bathroom after asking a waitress for a spoon.
I didn't make Travis Tomko rob that pharmacy and I didn't make him become a pro wrestler. But one night I did make him bump 50 times for no particularly good reason.