A chunk of my childhood was in black and white. Or, to be more accurate, my recollection of the outside world as-it-was when I was young, my memory of historical events, is in black and white because television was in black and white, and that was the conduit to the outside world. The Vietnam War, the Brady Bunch, Richard Nixon, the funeral of Martin Luther King, and even cartoons. Saturday nights when I was a pre-teen belonged to black-and-white UHF stations, to Big Time Wrestling.
One of the stars from those days was Pat Patterson, whose obituary in the New York Timesthis week caught my eye. He was Canadian; he was gay; he was a legend. But all of the wrestlers loomed larger than life. It was the nature of their business to loom.
Big Time Wrestling
Wrestling, like so many forms of circuses in our world of bread and circuses, has evolved multiple times over the centuries. My grandparents probably saw it as a sideshow in a circus or attached to vaudeville acts before the invention of TV and mass media. It did not spring forth in whole cloth as it is today, in pay-per-view, with lasers flashing, tens of thousands of fans, and heavy metal music blaring. The version I saw was on that tiny (9-inch) TV screen on grainy channel 40 in a musty half-filled Sacramento auditorium. But it was essentially the same.
As Saori Yoshida, thirteen-time world champion and triple gold medalist in women’s wrestling, walks towards the microphones to announce to the press that she is retiring, her shadow looms large. Larger than she is, the shadow seems a perfect metaphor, a thing that will always tower over her, no matter what she achieves.
Yoshida was the face of women’s wrestling—Japanese wrestling, Japanese SPORT—a bona fide celebrity in every possible way. Daughter of a national champion who startled wrestling at age three. A national Japanese hero who, in Brazil on August 2016, was expected to tie the existing Olympic record of four consecutive gold medals for the same event. A drone winning-machine who could be relied on to add to the Japanese medal tally. A national disgrace when she was upset in the finals by the unheralded Helen Maroulis of Rockville, Maryland.
With 40 seconds left, Yoshida dives in like an eel in a way that she has not, all day long… but Maroulis dances to the side…They are waltzing in a weird kind of circle. Until the buzzer sounds. Time seems to stand still; there is a pause, a silence across the arena… Maroulis sinks on her knees and clasps her hands together one last time in prayer, in benediction, in emotion, in whatever her body can think of to do…
From my story, “Rulon with Cornrows” about the Yoshida-Maroulis match.
Yoshida hadn’t lost a match in four years. The last time the two had met, Maroulis ended with a broken arm.
What’s it like to stop being a legend? When the failure to win, when your achievement of a silver medal isn’t even mentioned in your achievements? You’re not a four-time medalist, but a three-time winner who lost. Your story is no longer your record of being undefeated for 119 matches; your story is how you were beaten.