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Day 8: The Killer Bee

Day 8: The Killer Bee
"Jumping" Jim Brunzell and I in New Brighton, MN

"Ya know, wrestling prepares you for nothing," says "Jumping" Jim Brunzell across the picnic table.

The body that once hurtled to the sky feet first as he performed dropkick after dropkick on his opponents now tilts about 10 degrees forward. He moves with a pre-oil Tin Man's deliberation, rising from the table one vertebra at a time, his face pinched with frustration.

"I just had my tenth surgery. I've has six operations on my knees, had both knees replaced, both shoulders replaced, and one hip replaced."

While chronic back, knee, and hip are all but guaranteed among wrestlers of his era, the shoulders are particular to Brunzell because of his high-flying style and move arsenal.

"I jumped so much and I landed with my forearms and shoulders as shock absorbers for the dropkick."

The Killer Bees; Brunzell is on the right

It's a muggy but mild mid-June day, and we're chatting outside Cowboy Jack's, a shopping plaza restaurant in New Brighton, MN. Jim's wearing white cargo shorts, sandals, and a short-sleeve blue shirt. His head sits like a water jug on his broad shoulders, and he has a single, small earring, a cross, in his left ear. Despite all the physical limitations, he smiles big and even at 72, has an air of playfulness.

I've asked him about life after wrestling (his days as a full-time performer with the WWF ended in 1990), and as he has done his whole life, "Brunzee" (all the wrestlers have nicknames) doesn't hold back.

"I look back and think, Jesus, I feel so blessed that I survived this business. They worked you to death. I mean, Khosrow [the Iron Sheik] went 92 straight days without a day off."

When you're done, "you either can work at a stadium or work at the airport."

As independent contractors, wrestlers aren't provided health insurance and certainly aren't given pensions or retirememt.

Although he was part of the WWF's boom in the 1980s (here he is wrestling against the Hart Foundation), he never made more than $103,000 in a year (he still has records of his payoff and expenses for every day on the road as well as all his tax returns), and his big run with B. Brain Blair as the tag team The Killer Bees only lasted three years. He was just over 40, with a wife and two young kids, when his fullt-time career ended. He had been 30 credits short of graduation at the University of Minnesota when he joined Verne Gagne's wrestling training camp (along with Ric Flair, the Iron Sheik, and others) in 1972 and got on an 18-year ride without seatbelts.

And so, he did the one thing he knew how to do, perhaps the only thing he knew how to do: he sold.

In wrestling, "selling" is the art of pretending that you are hurt as your opponent has you in a hold, punches you, etc. The better you are at selling, the more believable the match. As a lifetime babyface (good guy), Brunzell was expected to spend much of the match selling before making a customary comeback (most wrestling matches have a formula in which the heel dominates for much of the match, only to have the babyface make a comeback and emerge triumphant).

And Brunzell, with his boyish good looks and eager eyes, was particularly good at it.

Now that he could no longer sell pain for living, he turned to cleaning chemicals and equipment. A friend hooked him up at Dalco Enterprises, a janitorial supply company, where he sold goods until last year, when he finally retired.

The Killer Bee, who stung so many, is now back in the hive with his wife of 47 years. He feels every dropkick he delivered every day.