Learning How to Fall
You don’t remember his name, his appearance, anything about him. You remember only the glistening incision in front of his freshly-shaven hairline, snaking back along the symmetry of his skull and ending near the onset of the spinal column. Later that night, you take your index finger to the center of your own forehead and run it clockwise to the cervical vertebrae. You pretend. Because it could have been you.
He’d been bumping wrong all day. Your first week of training.
Of course this was going to be unsafe, you think. What’d you expect? That’s the romance of it, the glamour: Mick Foley’s missing teeth, Mysterio’s knee surgeries, Guerrero’s heart attack. The stuff of legend. Of horror, too. But a kid, your age, with his cranium divided?
It was all fantasy before that, grand fictional characters clashing in theatric aggression. That was until you fell in love—with an art, a masochistic dance—and now you are here, gaping at what you already knew, but somehow didn’t register: wrestling is dangerous.
Proof: the first thing you learn at professional wrestling school is how to fall. Bumping, it’s called. Seems simple, right? You just fall over. But your natural inclination—to brace yourself, with elbows, wrists, or a turn of the body—is wrong. That’s how you get hurt. How you break something. Pro wrestling is the practice of retraining your instincts to anticipate pain; how to accommodate a body in opposition to itself. Attack the mat, you are told.
Wrestlers speak of “bump cards,” a line of credit upon which you charge your infliction. There’s a limit, of course, and each bump takes you closer to it. You have to fall wisely, even in training, to get the most bang for your metaphorical buck. The human body can endure only so much.
You don’t think about this. Not at nineteen. Not when you are versatile, resilient, malleable. Not when your physique will bear it all. So you train. You are reckless. You bump—ten back, ten front, ten back, ten front. You launch your feet out from under yourself, as if slipping on a banana peel, the flat of your upper body landing flush—lats, lower back, shoulders, arms flung out in a T, palms down. Everything flush. Then the front bump: flipping forward, your head tucked down, feet up and over. Everything landing flush. You breathe out, each time, to protect your lungs. You forget, each time, how uncomfortable it is: the headaches, the displaced joints, the bruises.
For the first week, this is it: you learn how to bump.
But the kid, the one whose name you don’t remember, is just old enough to sign a liability waiver. Just young enough to still dream like a dreamer. He’s your typical “try-out”—a visionary thinking that since this stuff is “fake,” anyone can do it. So he arrives out of shape. Overweight. He pukes each training—a human body in opposition to itself. Even for the few who want to do this, hardly any make it through the initial week. Fake becomes very real.
In the ring, he’s doing his bumps, exhausted and in poor form. Does his ten, takes a break. Does his ten, takes a break. No one is watching as it’s all so basic; you work on your own stuff outside on the floor. Stretching. Calisthenics. But something is wrong when he finishes: foam coming out of his mouth, the left side of his body limp, stroke-like. You move him, with the help of other wrestlers, to the chiropractic table. Just scared kids helping another. Scared kids playing at what you all thought you wanted.
The ambulance siren is your awakening.
He’d been bumping wrong all day.
He shows up the next evening to say goodbye. Head shaved, incision glistening. He’s had emergency surgery to alleviate the pressure in his skull. Concussions, probably. He wasn’t rotating enough on his front bumps, instead flipping to his upper shoulders and neck, repeatedly. Over and over. His brain swelling upon each impact.
He’s still smiling though. He did it, lived his dream, if only for a week. A wrestler, he’ll brag to his friends, as he flaunts the proof. I was a wrestler.
You give him a hug and wish him well. Then you get back in the ring. You keep bumping. Ten back, ten front. Ten back, ten front. But something has changed, bringing a new warning to an old romance: broken bones, lost consciousness, torn muscles. No one prepared you for this. No one prepared you for him. Yet soon he becomes a faint recollection. A scar. You move on.
And you chase this dragon, through years of hard work and abuse, forgetting the early warning, the nameless kid trading in a dream for a busted skull. The fictional characters you once loved, the ones on TV, become your friends.
But then the romance begins to fade. Mick Foley struggling up the stairs backstage is not the pro wrestling you believed in. Seeing the Macho Man addicted to pills stands in stark contrast to the emotions you once felt watching him drop elbows off the top rope. And then, sometimes, like common people, they die. But the circumstances are not common: a heart attack too young while alone in a dirty hotel room; a severed spine from suplexes too high on the shoulders. There are no surprises left.
Years later you leave the business and move home to finish college. You know it has nothing to do with that kid, as much as you try to believe that your years meant more than his week. As much as you miss it all, even the unpleasantness. But, like that first night—your index finger to the center of your forehead, pretending—you know the truth. The whole time, you’d been learning how to fall wrong.
Tyler Dunning grew up in southwestern Montana, having developed a feral curiosity and reflective personality at a young age. This mindset has led him around the world, to nearly all of the U.S. national parks, and to the darker recesses of his own creativity. He’s dabbled in such occupations as professional wrestling, archaeology, social justice advocacy, and academia. At his core he is a writer. Find his work at tylerdunning.com.