wrestling with defeat

my first match

There is a scene in the new movie Foxcatcher, a biographical drama about wrestling, that really stuck with me. Mark Schlultz, a professional wrestler who has just lost in the opening round of the Olympic Trials, retreats alone to his room and breaks down. He seethes and boils until he explodes. He punches himself and smashes his face into a mirror. Later, when Mark’s brother, Dave, breaks into the hotel room, he smacks Mark and tries to chastise him, but he can’t—he knows Mark is hurting himself more than anyone else ever could.

The scene reminded me of my first wrestling match.

“Fuck!”

“WHAT THE FUCK!”

He yelled louder each time. His eyes opened wider and his face turned redder with each yell. It was as if hearing his own voice made him angrier—it was as if he was yelling back.

He smashed his head against the faded, peeling red locker in front of him.

Again. Bang!

And again. BANG! BANG!

“FUCK!” He shouted again, kicking the locker that refused to fight back.

Coach, rounding the corner from the gym, took off running when he saw his student terrorizing an innocent locker, pummeling it madly with his fists.

“What the hell are you doing?!”

Coach had him by the shoulders. Coach gripped him so tightly that I was sure Jacobs’ arms would be marked by the finger prints from those bear hands. Coach spun him around. Blood was smeared across Jacobs’ forehead and trickled from his knuckles. He still had his headgear on, but his hair was wild and disheveled and his eyes wilder still.

“I’m so fucking angry.” It started as a yell but ended as a whimper as the tears started coming.

Coach shook him, “Stop it! Stop it! Be a man!”

Somehow that shaking seemed to calm Jacobs, or at least slowed the physical tremors of his emotions.

“It wasn’t your damn locker or your damn forehead that beat you like a redheaded stepchild, so I don’t know what you’re taking it out on them for. Maybe you should have left some of that anger out on the mat, with the guy who just kicked your ass, huh? Now clean your damn face up and come out and cheer on your teammates. I swear if I hear any more noise from in here I’ll have you running ‘til next Tuesday.”

Coach walked out. Jacobs slumped down on the floor, ignoring the bench in front of him, and leaning against the viciously mauled, but unharmed locker. The fight went out of him. He cried for a few more minutes, sitting on the floor in only a one piece singlet, every bit a scrawny, pale 16-year-old. After the tears stopped he let his head sag in between his knees and let out a single muffled yell of frustration. Then he stood up, took a deep breath that seemed to puff out his chest, and put on the toughest face he could manage. He washed his face and left like nothing had happened.

I sat on the bench a few feet away as I waited for my own match to begin. Nervous and tense, my feet tap danced against the floor and my knuckles were white. Jack Johnson blasted through my headphones, but I could still hear the noise of the gym.

I watched Jacobs run into the locker room, beaten and angry. I tried to focus on myself, on my own match, but couldn’t. I watched him rage, cry, and, finally, walk back into the gym. Strangely, it calmed me. It reminded me that the pain and the glory, both are so unbelievably fleeting.

In that first match I wrestled the third ranked wrestler in our section. It was a home match and our tiny gym was filled to capacity. A spotlight hung from the ceiling illuminating the center of the mat. With 6 seconds left I was down by 4 points but somehow in a last burst of adrenaline and insanity I made my move and took my opponent to his back, winning the match. I stood in the center of the mat with my friends and family cheering, the light shining on me, my hand raised. For a moment I was on top of the world, and then I walked off the mat and life went on.

I remember another match, later that same year. I lost, and I came off the mat still sweating. I ripped my headgear off and threw it against the wall before I even left the gym. I’m sure my eyes and hair were as wild as Jacobs’ had been—I know I was as angry. My right eye was swollen and blue, and I still wore my singlet with two big red knee pads. I sprinted through the high school, looking undoubtedly strange, all 119 pounds of me running half naked through the halls. I found a quiet hallway where I pummeled lockers and put my head through a glass display case. That day my coach threatened to bench me if I ever acted that way again. I never did.

That it is the beauty and the pain of wrestling. It is a constant battle with your weight, with your body, with your fears, and always with yourself. Lose or win, it’s a deeply personal failure or success. As a result, winning in wrestling is unlike anything else; it’s addicting, making you feel confident enough to conquer the world.

But when you lose, you, and you alone have been physically beaten by another human being.  All your sweat, all of the weight you fought to lose, and the entire sport, which at times seems to have come to define who you are, seems momentarily meaningless.

But then you get up and you move forward, away from that loss, away from that low and shattered moment. There is a saying in wrestling: “once you’ve wrestled everything, life is easy.” But it’s not about the wrestling, it’s about learning to battle with yourself, it’s about learning to lose that battle, and to keep fighting the war.