BROOKLYN — I have Bang Bang Barry Malone pinned up against the ropes of the ring with his hands up. I take a second — or maybe three, maybe 15 — to gloat, gesturing to the imaginary crowd filling Gleason’s, the legendary boxing gym under the Manhattan Bridge. This place smells like sweat and feels like humid determination. The cheers of the fictional fans turn to boos as Malone breaks free, grabs me by my ponytail, and walks me into the middle of the ring.
I grimace. Cowboy Denny Douglas, Malone’s partner, yells from the other corner of the ring, “Is that all you got, Aunt Char?”
It’s not. I shove Malone’s chest and he flies across the ring into a somersault. With my arms held up high, my bicep flexed, I taunt him. He winces as he staggers to his feet and charges towards me at full speed. I clothesline him hard. He hangs in the air for a moment, his back ramrod-straight four feet above the mat, then crashes down and sends a huge WHA-BAM! echoing through the cement-walled space.
Gabriel Krenik stands up from the spot where Malone fell.
“That was better!” Krenik says, rubbing his back. Matt Banks, who was Douglas moments ago, comes over to us.
“Yeah, really good,” Banks says to me, smiling. “Take your time before you hit him again, though. You can have him down and work the crowd for 10 seconds or even 45 , and everyone will wait for you. But you looked tough this time. You were really Aunt Char in there.”
“There’s that reality,” Krenik says, gesturing to the gym, which is mostly empty on a Tuesday at 2:30 p.m., “and there’s this reality.” He points down to the ring floor.
“In here, you can slow down time.”
WWE superstars are forged in the Earth’s core and burst through its crust wearing leather gloves, or they descend from the heavens on a cloud of floating sequins, or they wash up on shore in a folding chair and a haze of hairspray. These performers don’t grow up, even though they’re full-size adults, and full-size adults must once have been small. The rules of biology — and physics, and time — don’t apply to wrestlers.
They do, however, apply to the people who become them. This corner of Gleason’s is where WWE Hall of Fame wrestler Johnny Rodriguez — AKA the The Unpredictable Johnny Rodz — runs his promotion, the World of Unpredictable wrestling. Rodz trains Banks and Krenick, up-and-coming wrestlers he thinks have a real shot at making it in the WWE. I’m here to learn how a superstar emerges.
One of the first things Banks asked me when I stepped into the ring was what friends call me when I get drunk. I told him I become Aunt Char, a thrice-divorced, middle-aged woman who lives in Connecticut and complains about her country club. So when we practice, Charlotte Wilder, Matt Banks, and Gabriel Krenik cease to exist. Aunt Char terrorizes Cowboy Denny Douglas and Bang Bang Barry Malone, the team of heels that call themselves The Honchos.
“OK,” Banks says. “Let’s practice a roll again. You remember the roll from last week?”
I do. I place my right foot a little bit in front of my left, kneel down, lift my butt, karate chop the floor, roll over my arm, tuck my head, flip myself over, get up slowly, and turn to face him. Then we go back into the choreography we’ve been practicing that ends in that monster clothesline.
Wrestling is a premeditated, violent dance. You know who’s going to win each match, and you have a pretty good idea of how you’ll get there, but, as Banks says, it’s really a waltz with room for improvisation. You “lock up” by putting your hands on each other’s shoulders, and then one person leads; your footwork must match, and cues — a hand squeeze, a nod, a change in direction — signal what the next move will be.
The hits here are real, and the pain of landing flat on your back or getting your neck squeezed against the ropes is no joke. But every step is understood by all parties, anticipated, and controlled. It may look like someone is getting picked up, but he or she is really jumping, helping out their antagonist. There are certain things you never do, because they’ll throw off the rhythm and timing and could result in serious injuries. Slamming sideways into someone’s knee and blowing it out because they didn’t face forward is what happens when people get sloppy.
I am very sloppy. There’s so much to remember. Face this way. Place your feet there, no, there, yeah. Keep your arm above his leg when you grab it so that you protect your nose. Raise your arm there — yes, almost, but this much, not that much.
You also have to sell it, and if you’re not used to exaggerating your movements and performing as a superstar on a raised platform, it can feel unnatural to stomp around a ring yelling things like, “Come home late again, Barry Malone, and I’ll divorce you, too!” Aunt Char pins Malone for the gazillionth time, and I, Charlotte, get up laughing.
This is a mistake. When I turn around I see Rodriguez — or maybe Johnny Rodz, it’s hard to tell when he’s being which, mostly because they’re basically the same person after 79 years — standing by the ring.
“Why are you laughing?” he scolds. “There’s no laughing. This isn’t funny. I don’t make a joke of it with your work, do I?”
Before I go any further, I have to tell you about Johnny Rodz. He holds court in his utility closet-sized office next to the ring every day except Sunday, when he goes to church, and speaks to the rotating cast of students who seek his counsel. Over the course of the several hours I’ve spent in one of the chairs next to his desk, he’s told me about how Andre the Giant used to sleep on his couch, how Vince McMahon Sr. was a gentleman, how much he loves his wife, Ellen. The walls of his office are covered in pictures of his family and famous wrestlers he’s trained, like The Dudley Boyz and wrestler-turned commentator Taz. He points to the photos as he tells stories.
Rodriguez grew up in the hills of rural Puerto Rico and left to come to New York City at 13. His father was a farmer and his mother used to give him a beating if his younger brother, who he was in charge of watching, did something wrong. She was an orphan, and he doesn’t know anything about her side of the family. He only knew her, the mysterious woman who could always tell when it was going to rain, even if the sun was shining, and told time by where the shadows of the house were against the dirt of the yard. She smoked cigars backwards. She’d roll one herself — “huge,” Rodriguez tells me, holding out his hands half a foot apart to indicate the size — light it, then turn it around and take a drag from the burning embers.
“It’s true!” Rodriguez says, laughing, when I look at him incredulously. “Don’t ask me how she did it, but she did it! I tried it once, nearly burned off my tongue.”
Rodriguez’s stories ebb and flow in and out of sense. Timelines warp, facts slip, events get repeated slightly differently. It’s not that he’s lying, it’s that the raw data doesn’t really matter as long as his myth of himself holds: That he was the No. 1 wrestler in the world until his first wife divorced him and he had to leave the circuit for a bit. That he was forced to get a job working for the local newspaper union in between matches to make ends meet. That he never made a fortune like other wrestlers did, never won a championship. That he was the ultimate heel, the guy who spent his career making other wrestlers into heroes, slamming his body against the ropes and mat again and again so his competitors could wear the shiny, heavy belts of victory.
That was Rodz, though. In here, Rodriguez is the hero. His students revere him, and he is not to be crossed. I fear that by laughing at my own inability and because I’m having so much fun, I’ve given Rodriguez the impression I think this is silly. I absolutely don’t. I tell him so.
“No,” he says, softening, “I know you don’t. I just want this to be the best for you, the best experience. And it only will be if you’re serious, if you’re tough. If you sell it.”
He tells me to try again, and turns to Krenik, who’s hopped out of the ring and is standing next to him. All nearly-300 pounds of Rodz let out a mighty roar, grab Bang Bang Barry Malone by the neck, and toss him into the ring.
In that moment, all of Gleason’s belongs to Johnny Rodz. He is the King of Brooklyn, the country, the world. A few other wrestlers have arrived by now, and all of us look at him in awe. We see what he once was, what he still is. What these hopefuls want to be.
Krenik and Banks are wrestling each other now. After another hour — in which I haven’t laughed and have even earned a Rodz nod of approval — I’ve tapped out. I’m pretty sure I’ve ruptured my ACL, if not every other ligament in my knee, and I can feel a softball-sized knot forming in my lower back. A day later, I’ll wake up and my kneecap will be completely purple. For over a week, I’ll have bruises up and down my arm so bad that when my mother sees them, she’ll say, “You’re never allowed to do that again!”
“My body is always fucked up,” says Krenik, “but that’s no different from any other athlete.”
The Honchos are good. They slam each other against the ropes and smash down onto their backs, selling the entire thing to the nonexistent crowd. Banks and Krenik couldn’t have been kinder or more generous as they taught me, but Malone and Douglas are always the bad guys. They’re big kids in there, wrestling and inhabiting the role of the villain as fully as you did when you were a kid doing pile-drivers off the living room couch. Banks and Krenik can still access that glorious, childlike suspension of disbelief that most of us lose somewhere along the way.
Both 31-year-olds grew up in towns of 2,500 — Banks in Arkansas and Krenik in Minnesota — and have traveled and worked odd jobs around the U.S. since. Banks is a trainer at Equinox when he’s not at Gleason’s, and Krenik works in housekeeping at the labor and delivery wing of a New York City hospital.
“I have to be sweet and nice all day around these babies,” Krenik says.
“But in here,” Banks says, shaking his head. “You should see him at a match.”
I actually have. Last year, a friend’s roommate was in one of the shows Rodz promotes at a club called La Boom in Queens. I went, and I remember The Honchos’ performance. It was one of their first together, and even though they were still working out some kinks, they showed that spark. You could tell that these cowboy-hat-and-vest-wearing pair have something special together. They worked the crowd like a couple of magicians, calling out fans who were heckling them, using the boos to fuel their impressive and masochistic bumps. They were pros. They pinned the crowd’s emotion.
They’ve gotten better since the summer and can’t wait for the day they can do only this for a living. Both played high school sports, but say they’re now in the greatest shape of their lives. Banks, who’s worked as a bartender, gave up drinking to train as best he could. He’s 6’6”, but in the ring, he’s 6’9.” They can shed themselves in here, become bigger and completely different versions. They can be free.
“I was 29 when I started, so I was old enough,” Banks says. (Krenik started around the same time.) “I wasn’t a young kid who comes in here and doesn’t know what it takes. I knew it hurt, but I’ve known all types of pain. Wrestling is perfect because it’s physical and creative. It’s everything. It’s all I need.”
Rodz comes out of his office.
“I want to show you something,” he says, gesturing for me to follow him.
He’s cued up the DVD of his WWF Hall of Fame induction from 1996. It includes a match at Madison Square Garden from 1971. Rodriguez gives commentary as we watch Rodz — wearing a tiny speedo and boots in the grainy footage — take hit after hit.
Rodriguez explains how the guy he’s wrestling was “a real schmuck” (a lifetime in New York means he peppers his speech with Yiddish words) and didn’t play into the crowd enough. Instead of taking his time to play up the tension so the release of a big move was as huge as possible, he’d hit Rodz too early and lose the momentum.
“I was out there trying to make him look good and he was messing it all up,” Rodriguez says.
Rodz finally gets the other guy to take his time. They circle each other. Rodz bounces off the ropes, firing himself into the center, and takes a massive hit from his opponent. The crowd goes nuts — the camera pans to a little old lady in the front row cheering at Rodz’s misfortune.
“That crowd?” He says. “I made them. You steal every second. It doesn’t matter what you planned, you hear that roar? You go with it. They’re all like, ‘Ugh, that guy?’ That’s what you want.”
Banks and Krenik are rapt. They’ve had a taste of this, but they want it on the biggest stage. They are determined to make Rodz’s past the Honcho’s future.
We step out of Rodriguez’s office. Rodz stays in there to watch the rest of the induction video — which he’s seen thousands, millions of times — alone. I leave Aunt Char in a folding chair next to the ring as Banks and Krenik climb over the ropes. Cowboy Denny Douglas immediately puts Bang Bang Barry Malone in a headlock and they struggle with each other, turning to bellow at the imaginary fans.
The two will be here until 9 p.m., when they go back home to their apartments and their daily lives. But the Honchos will stay, tangled in the ropes, exhausted, bruised, and happy.