Fountain Valley, California
Wrestlers of any kind, even those who are not participants in the sport itself, are drawn to it by the magnetic force of the trial. Something inside each wrestler needs proof in the fire of the crucible. Above all else, the testing of one’s character is the goal. Every grappler seeks, through the agonizing process of forging his will, something that transcends his natural abilities and makes his soul unbreakable. Some wrestle for the joy of the contest and the love of the trial, some wrestle because they must. In his days as a wrestler, Malachi competed for the thrill of exerting his prowess, and his energies required someone to pound on. Jacob, however, wrestled because something in him had to. It was as much about the journey as it was about the destination.
Jacob had established himself as a superior competitor by his junior year of high school, a state-placer as a freshman and a sophomore. But, there was a threshold he had not crossed – Nick Mays. Nick was a senior and three-time California State Champion. A short, unthinking, muscled one hundred and forty-five-pound specimen who hounded his prey with brute, unrelenting, Neanderthal force. He had been a buzz saw that cut down his competition since he was fourteen-years-old. He pinned Jacob three times in three matches by overpowering him. Jacob was lean, lanky, and cat-like, relying on leverage and strategy, but whenever he faced Nick, his strategies melted into pure fear and this was a reaction that ended in inevitable disaster.
Jacob breezed through the opening rounds and semifinals at the prestigious, two-day Five Counties Tournament, headlong toward another showdown with Mays. The semifinal match was at nine in the morning and he awaited the final at seven in the evening. Malachi made his way from Westmont College that Saturday to watch his brother and lend him support. Jacob needed all the help he could get, as the dread of facing Nick burrowed into him that morning and afternoon.
“Why are you here?” asked Malachi.
“I’m not sure what you mean,” said Jacob.
“I mean, why do you keep at it, knowing you have yet to figure Nick out?”
“I don’t think I am trying to figure him out. I’m trying to figure me out.”
Malachi smiled. It was the first indication he’d had from Jacob that he was on the right track. Malachi won a state championship himself, but he also knew Jacob’s approach to wrestling was far different than his was. He made the drive from Santa Barbara with the sense that Jacob was on the doorstep of a reckoning, and that Mays was the only thing that stood in his way. Malachi was familiar with the Mays family, having taken pleasure in dismantling Nick’s older brother Michael time and time again. He knew that Nick had learned under Michael, who was now coaching his brother. He also knew that both were meatheads that only knew one way to wrestle: bully and attack. But, he believed in Jacob, a great tactician and a brilliant improviser. All Jacob needed to do was decide to win.
“You know you’re going to tear him apart tonight, right?”
Jacob replied, “. I don’t know that. Nothing I have tried has worked so far.”
Malachi asked, “Well, how has he you so far?”
“He gets low, and he’s in on my legs so fast that I don’t have time to react. Then I get desperate, make a stupid mistake, and he punishes me for it.”
Malachi said, “Yeah, but all he has is speed and muscle, and a reputation that sucks everyone into his game. That, and he’s one cocky son of a bitch. His confidence is his strength, but he’s spilled over into overconfidence, which means he’s due to lose. All it’s going to take is someone willing to knock him off.”
“True,” said Jacob.
“And remember, said Malachi, “Opponents exist for only one reason. When they step onto your mat, they exist for your victory and nothing else.”
“Jeez, man, I didn’t get into this for the metaphysics,” Jacob protested.
“You absolutely did. Weren’t you the one who said you wrestle to figure out something inside of yourself? I know that once you figure this out, you’ll know exactly how to beat this dude and never lose to him again.”
“What do you think I need to figure out then,” asked Malachi
“Some of that’s for you to decide, but I think I can help. What are you going to do with your fear of losing?”
“Ignore it, I guess?”
“Wrong.” Malachi said flatly, “Fear always exists in a fight; it’s what you do with it that counts.”
“You always seemed to wrestle fearless, though,” said Jacob.
“Wrong, again,” Malachi said almost furiously, “I needed it. It was where I found myself. Fear pushed me out on the edge where I needed to be. I took my fears and made them my opponent’s dread. You have to use it like a dagger in your hands and plunge it straight into their heart. Nick’s problem is that he is fearless. I’ve never seen the kid wrestle afraid, so I don’t think he’ll know what to do when fear grips him.”
“How did you do that? I mean, use your fear?”
Jacob leveled his gaze deep into Jacob’s eyes, “I died before I ever set foot on the mat.”
Jacob was flummoxed, “You died?”
“Absolutely. I treated each match like a warrior would a battle. Fear is always on the battlefield, but when a warrior has decided that he is already dead he can transcend his own fear and use it as a weapon. What’s the worst that can happen to you? You’ve already lost to this guy every time you have faced him.”
“So, I should die to the fear of losing to him?”
“That,” said Malachi, “and to whatever you think he’s going to throw at you. So, what does he have to throw at you?”
Jacob let out a frustrated sigh, “His shot. That double leg comes in quick. He starts low, then explodes and he’s a Tasmanian Devil when he’s on top.”
“And what is your game?” asked Malachi.
“I like to stretch guys out, use my length to find a leverage point.”
“So, do you think you can slow him down enough to stretch him out?”
Jacob found confidence as he said, “I suppose so.”
“You need to think about your approach now and know you will beat him before you step on the mat. By the time you step on the mat, you shouldn’t be thinking at all.”
“All right, I think I can get there,” said Jacob.
“And how are you going to beat him mentally?” asked Malachi, “Assuming you can do whatever you want, what will you do to him?”
A half-crazy smile curled on Jacob’s lips, “I want to punish him. I want to pull him in, let him take his best shot, flip the script on him, tear him apart piece-by-piece, and then stick him.”
“There you go, man. Take a little while to figure out how you are going to do that, then let it go and get some rest before the match. That will give your strategy time to sink into your subconscious so you don’t have to think about it while you’re wrestling. At that point, all you should be doing is acting in the moment, imposing your will like he is only there for you to prove yourself.”
Jacob did just that. It was four hours until the match, and he took two hours building his strategy and visualizing his path to victory. Then he let go of it, and napped for an hour. His dream during that nap had one singular image. Nick’s face was in his hands while Jacob’s hand was being raised by the referee.
When the finalists were introduced at center mat, Nick gloated, claiming that Jacob was going down again. Jacob didn’t even hear him, and hardly even saw him as the two shook hands and faced off. His gaze was fixed past Nick, someplace else. Jacob found that other place, and seemed utterly oblivious to his surroundings. When they stepped back on the mat to wrestle, the only thing Jacob heard was the referee’s whistle, then, besides his heartbeat and breathing, everything went completely silent. Time transformed to something thick and viscous like honey falling from a spoon; a slow dripping of each moment, a separate eternity in each drop. He had attained the kind of transcendence that comes in battle. His body was on the mat acting and reacting, but he was somewhere above the fray watching everything unfold.
The match was a study in perfect execution. Jacob let Nick shoot out to an early lead but kept his composure. As time was expiring at the end of the first period, Jacob began imposing his will by throwing Nick with punishing force at the edge of the mat. The throw landed out of bounds, so no points were awarded, but it took Nick’s wind away. Jacob had just put him on notice.
Nick’s apprehension was palpable in the second period. Jacob became a predator operating with the cold efficiency of instinct and Nick was the prey. The fear rose up in Nick as Jacob’s confidence swelled. Nick let off a panicked shot at Jacob’s legs. Jacob caught him and stood him up in a body lock that put Nick in a precarious position. Nick desperately tried re-gain his balance by scooting his hips out. As soon as Jacob sensed him moving back, he sagged his own hips under Nick’s body, bumped him up and threw him again, this time in the center of the mat where there would be no escape. The slow-time that Jacob had been in since the beginning of the match seemed to fill the gymnasium as the crowd looked on in utter disbelief. Nick’s legs left the mat and the momentum of Jacob’s throw sent him arcing heels-over-head on a merciless journey to the mat. Jacob had eviscerated him in that moment; the rest of the match was a mere formality. As Nick gasped for wind, he rolled out to his belly. Jacob pounced on him, stretched out his squat body and locked Nick in a cradle with an adrenaline-filled iron grip. The referee called the pin seconds later to a roaring crowd that Jacob never heard.
Just as he had seen it before in his dream, Jacob looked over his shoulder to see a brutalized Nick on his elbows and knees holding his face with his palms. Jacob dismantled his opponent, body and soul, in less than four minutes. Nick never recovered from that loss, and Jacob would never lose to him again, as he marched on to the first of two state titles. But, in the moments after victory, Jacob did something that said more about him more than the victory itself. Knowing he had accomplished all he set out to do that evening, having nothing left to prove to himself, he walked over to Nick and offered his hand to hoist him up to his feet. Whatever happened in the heat of battle was locked in those moments, and they would not define him. He learned to embrace victory without hatred. After his hand was , Jacob took off his headgear and walked slowly off the mat as if nothing at all had happened. The only sign of celebration he gave was a knowing glance he shared with Malachi as he walked away.
Jacob found something on the mat that night that he would fight for much of his life – stillness. For the better part of four minutes, he was an external observer of himself. He died to fear. That night he learned to transcend passivity and anxiety and become a man of action. Of course, the greatest battles lay ahead of him where there were no mats to catch his fall and no referees to ensure fair play. But, something came alive in him that day. A fire that could never be wholly extinguished was sparked in the inner recesses of his heart. In the confusion that defined Jacob’s journey from adolescence to adulthood, he became a man that night. Without knowing it, he set down the pathway toward that defining contest that would one day make him whole after wandering through a soul-crushing wilderness. Jacob was, and would forever be, a wrestler.