Inside the Squared Circle
It’s a culture in itself; a world of action, entertainment, drama and disbelief. Professional wrestling has long been a mainstay within our society. From the sideshows at a local carnival to the pay-per view, multimillion dollar spectacles that take place once a month. Hundreds of thousands of screaming fans watch as their favorite stars take a beating week in and week out, earning their stripes as a “face” or “heel” trying to win the coveted championship belts.
Many don’t know what goes on behind the scenes, the hours of ring preparation leading up to the show, the chatter in the locker rooms among the different characters and the countless hours of training each rookie goes through before they can even grapple in front of a live crowd. I know. I felt it the next day when I tried getting out of bed, nearly every muscle in my body tenderized by the mat. It was worth it.
Mike Carter is a local celebrity in the ring. He lives the life of a superhero. He doesn’t quite save the world from an evil mad scientist, but outside the squared circle, the eight year veteran is a regular Joe. And unless you’ve seen him in action, you wouldn’t know he body slams people for fun.
Charles Crawford and I met up with Mike just outside Jackson and drove another 30 minutes or so to the small community of Puckett, roughly 13 miles outside of Brandon. A sign outside the rundown building advertised a tag-team tournament. Inside, we were walking into history. The arena had no air conditioning, just a concession stand, a few couches and a pool table. The makeshift entrance walkway had pyrotechnical equipment scattered on the ramp that led to the ring.
“You both getting in,” Carter asked. “Just me,” I said nervously. To be honest I wasn’t nervous at all, I felt like a kid. I stepped inside the ring that legends of the Mid-South promotion have grappled in for over 20 years. The likes of the Junkyard Dog, Roddy Piper, Kamala, Jake “the Snake” Roberts, and Sid Vicious just to name a few. These were guys in their prime when I was growing up, guys my dad and I talked about when he watched them years before I was born. This was special.
Carter was a specimen. His 6-foot-2, 240 pound frame intimidated me a little bit. He played nine years on the football field, but he’ll be the first to tell you wrestling is not like any other sport.
“My first time it was worse,” Carter said. “I got home and went to sleep with the same clothes on, passed out on the floor.” He said he went about half an hour before he wanted to quit.
He wasted no time getting me going with some quick stretches that turned into a wrestling boot camp, counting my squats and pushups before running in motion and face planting the mat. I’m not really sure why it’s called a mat, there’s not much cushioning underneath, just some plywood and carpet padding. It stings a little.
We moved to the ropes, crisscrossing one another at full speed. My knees started to buckle the faster I ran as I tried to avoid Carter from knocking me down like an All-Pro linebacker. I already needed a water break. Round two and we hit the turnbuckles. Jumping on the bottom rope and bouncing backwards so the other guy can run underneath. I was pretty good at that. Carter was too. He says he doesn’t train as much as he used to, everything he showed me came so natural and fluent. But it wasn’t always like that, he learned fast. He needed three months before he caught a break.
“A guy they booked didn’t show up for a house show and I was thrown in,” he said. He was supposed to work security that night, a way to pay your dues before actually stepping into the ring. “I didn’t have any gear. I grabbed a football jersey and a mask from the back and basically did a job,” he said. Carter explained that he was practically a punching bag for the other guy to gain more fan popularity.
Becoming a popular superstar in the industry is just part of the job; not only do you have to have the ability to perform at a high level night in and night out, you have to have charisma, a personality both in and outside the ring. Mike Carter is a good guy, popular with fans of all ages. He’s also a three-time Mississippi Heavyweight Champion. The rate I was going, it might take me a little longer to get there.
After another water break, my head spinning from bouncing around he showed me the classic kick out moves that can take your breath away. The one where the referee has a slow three count….one……two….and then right when his hand is coming down, the crowd cheers and the match continues. But I was just about done. He convinced me to lie still after I kicked out and then all 240 pounds came crashing on top of my neck, twice. The infamous Hulk Hogan leg drop. I gathered up enough strength to try the body slams.
“It’s not supposed to hurt,” Carter said. It does if you don’t follow directions. I didn’t care about the pain, my body was ready to give in but my heart wanted more. I had that feeling that Mike had talked about earlier.
“It’s a great adrenaline rush,” Carter said. “Once you hit that curtain; you might as well be a junkie because the roar of the crowd or the boo of the crowd, I was hooked from the first time. The more people you see, the more you get that rush and that’s why it never gets old.”
Pro wrestling’s popularity has grown over the years into sports entertainment, featuring story lines and drama, at times described as a “soap opera for men.” It’s a business that can make you or break you, both physically and mentally. But like Mike said, it’s the rush that keeps you coming back. It’s the guys like Sid Vicious, who gave Carter his first pro win, that still draw a crowd. Those larger than life gladiators you love to hate.
After surviving this experience, I've grown to respect the sport and the athletes a little more. I quickly learned there is more to wrestling than what's portrayed on Monday nights.