The lock up, in which wrestlers start a match by extending their arms and grabbing hold of each other, one hand around the back of the neck and the other on the elbow, is a callback to its collar-and-elbow wrestling origins in the 19th century. Although little else in today's high-octane, gymnastics-like performance resembles that ancestral form, it is still used to begin almost every match, a reminder that no matter how many steel chairs and backflips you see later on, this spectacle is rooted in something very different.
Standing with my knees slightly bent in a boxer's stance, I face Mr. USA 1979 (he won the national bodybuilding competition that year) and prepare to lock up in a Hilton Garden Inn.
"OK," Tony Atlas bellows, his eyes narrowing, thinking about how he's got to be sure to not hurt this 170-pound writer.
We both lunge forward, grabbing hold of each other's necks, and instantly I feel the pressure of two giant paws bearing down on my neck. Tony's going at quarter speed, and even then everything about my body feels vulnerable when pressed up against his massive frame.
I work out regularly, play ice hockey, tennis, softball, and box, and am generally in good athletic shape, and yet even with something as simple as a lock-up, I can feel just how real the physicality of this art form is.
Holding each other, I instinctively rest my forehead on Tony's bicep, which feels like a firm pillow and easily supports my weight.
"See where you have your head? You want to hold your head back," he says.
I've already screwed up.
"Because if I can do this..." he says, yanking on my head and pulling me forward like a bobblehead--I offer so little resistance he lets go and says with a hint of disgust, "you wimpy."
We try again, and this time he shows me how to transition from a lock-up to the next move, in this case a side headlock. One minute I'm resting on his pillow bicep, and in a blink he's reached those 21-inch arms around the side of my head and applied the vice. He's making no effort, cradling my head, and yet I'm far from comfortable, extremely aware of the potential in those arms.
The crash course continues with a lesson in the other part of wrestling--speaking. Even the most polished performer in the ring needs to be able to get on the microphone and sell his story, advance the narrative arc so the fans watching at home can't resist buying a ticket to the next live event.
"You never put your opponent down," he lectures. This surprises me--wouldn't you want to say what a piece of crap your opponent is, how much better you are?
"No, you build your opponent up, you put him over. You say how much you admire him. And then you add the 'but,'" he said.
"But, as strong and tough as you are, I'm stronger, and when I get in the ring with you, you're going to see who the greatest is."
He then launches into an impromptu promo for a match against me, of all people. Apparently we're wrestling on December 7 in Madison Square Garden (I was admittedly a little disappointed he didn't give me a ring name, instead simply addressing me as "Brad") in what is sure to be a very short match.
It makes perfect sense. If you say how weak your opponent is and then you beat him, what does that say about you?
"Let me give you an example from politics," Tony says. "Remember when Trump was making fun of Biden [during the campaign], saying what a weakling he was for hiding in his basement [during COVID]? Well, what does that say about Trump when Biden beat him?" He cracks up, his body shaking with laughter, his lips squeezed, as if to say "c'mon Donald."
Wrestling is not just play fighting. It's storytelling through physicality, ritualized narrative that draws on basic psychology to elicit a basic but powerful reaction.
You're good, but I'm better. And I'll prove it.