The Strange Tutelage Of Truth Martini: Wrestling And The Art Of Identity
By Colette Arrand
Before the possibility of estrogen, my body was an object worth destroying.
I t was 2012 and I was a poet in suburban Detroit, a woman trapped — not as the cliché has it — in the body of a man, but by the limits of my hometown. I had no work, nobody to confide in, and no means of actualizing a transition that I had been thinking of as far back as my memory allowed.
I obsessed over my body. Fat. Masculine. An unstoppable force, hurtling forward into the wide-open space that a white, male body creates for itself.
I was an immovable object, immune to change . . . So I decided to harness this force. I decided to send what little money I’d saved to a P.O. box owned by a man named Truth Martini. I decided to become a professional wrestler.
Truth Martini is a lean, whiskey-throated man approaching middle age. His arms feature tributary tattoos of his father and grandfather — desiccated portraits I mistook for Frankenstein’s monster — and his inked chest depicts the crucified Christ. He is also, unquestionably, the best wrestling instructor in the state of Michigan.
He launched his school, The House of Truth, after suffering a career-ending injury, and has since produced a not-insignificant number of talented men and women known mostly to hardcore wrestling fans. In the ring, Martini plies his trade as a manager, a ringside pest who gives his charges advice, distracts the referee, and antagonizes the fans. He works for Ring of Honor, a small promotion that is nevertheless the third-largest touring organization in the United States, behind TNA Impact Wrestling and World Wrestling Entertainment.
The House of Truth is a sweatbox in Detroit, tucked away behind a strip mall tattoo parlor. When I enter the room, Martini is chain smoking at a desk, watching his assistants run drills in the ring. In such a small space, the ring is an imposing structure: television quality, made with steel beams and posts, high-tension cables for the ropes, vinyl matting. It measures 16 feet on each side and is 10 feet tall. With The House of Truth’s drop ceiling, the top turnbuckle is high enough that a large man, standing erect upon it, would need to compromise his leap if he wanted to avoid a rain of cheap tile following the thunder of his descent. Later in the training program, when learning how to make an entrance, Truth’s students emerge from the bathroom, its unvarnished door the ineffable curtain separating a person’s real life from the one lived by their character.
I want to say that I went to The House of Truth with an idea of my character, but the truth is that her shape was as vague as my own. There are very few in-between spaces in wrestling: a man is either in shape or not, a woman is either attractive or not. A man is always a man. A woman is always a woman. I was a woman, but wouldn’t pass for one on the street, let alone in the ring.
I imagined this as my gimmick, an Amazonian gender-bender, 6’2” — blurring the line between butch and femme, man and woman, human and monster. I regarded myself in a mirror, clad in basketball shorts and an athletic T-shirt, and swallowed her whole. I assumed my public gimmick, the one I called Paul, and shook the hands of my fellow students.
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The first day of wrestling school is spent learning how to fall, an act a wrestler calls “bumping.” There are two kinds of bump a wrestler might take, front and back, and they are the basic grammar of every wrestling match. Since Truth Martini can’t bump frequently enough to show us how it’s done, he employs two assistants, a local tag team who go by the names Bowser and Creeper. The two are fairly accomplished in Michigan, and they’re both House of Truth graduates. Truth Martini, gesticulating in their direction, seems rather proud of his men.
Creeper is the tall, emaciated one, a cultish hillbilly type who sports a wild, unkempt beard and clothing too loose to be of any athletic benefit. He’s quiet, so I don’t know anything about him except that, between he and his partner, he’s the nice guy. The one who doesn’t get angry when we fuck up.
Bowser is shorter than Creeper — fat and squat — his face kissed by a wisp of facial hair that suggests a late-blooming pubescence. Bowser is his real name, or at least that’s what I’ve heard, which, like everything else about him, is speculation. He started wrestling when he was in high school. Or when he dropped out of high school. Wrestling is how he pays his rent. Wrestling is how he eats.
Before the physical activity of class begins, he and Creeper introduce themselves, and Bowser does most of the talking. He says that he and Creeper are success stories in professional wrestling. They teach it, so that is hard to argue. But I’ve seen the payoffs wrestlers get at shows, rumpled twenties stuffed into envelopes as soon as they’re handed to the promoter by the paying crowd. At this level, calling it a “living” is charitable. Most of us, however, entertain the fantasy of taking bumps to pay the bills.
To be successful at professional wrestling, one must be dedicated to the fiction of success in professional wrestling. One must be dedicated to the fiction of ascendant masculinity. Watching Bowser and Creeper bump for us at terrifying speed, we listen to Truth Martini tell us about how dedicated he is to both fictions. He tells us why he retired from active competition. Once, the action of a match left him paralyzed. He was diving through the ropes, from the ring to the floor, a routine maneuver you see two, three times a show. His opponent failed to catch him, bailed on the move, and Truth ate the parquet floor of a high school gymnasium. He didn’t know that any real damage had been done — he saw stars, but he got up and finished the match.
He wrestled for a month or two after that, ignoring the pain he experienced because pain was part of being a wrestler, until he woke up one morning unable to move. A doctor tells him that he has a broken neck, and that’s it for his wrestling career. Still, every time I see him in Ring of Honor, he is taking a hideous amount of punishment for the sake of his character’s fiction. A man throws him from the ring into the first row of fans. A man hurls himself, cannonball-style, at his prone figure in the corner. Most fans don’t know his history, but every time I see Truth take a bump, I cringe.
When I asked him why he did these things, he laughed and said, “Because I know how to protect myself, and because I know when to tell a doctor to fuck off.” He turned to the class, lecturing as Bowser and Creeper continue to bump. “There was an article in Time about wrestling a few years ago,” he said. “It claimed that the average bump has the force of a 35-mile-per-hour car accident. Every bump. Every match. Some of us wrestle for a decade, four nights a week. Every night. Every match. Every bump. Picture that. Know that every single one of you is going to do it wrong, more often than not, until you learn how to do it right. My suggestion is to learn quickly.”
It’s been three years, and I’ve yet to find that article in Time. Reading through their archive, however, one can track America’s on-again, off-again love of professional wrestling. In 1925, covering a bout between Wladek Zbyszko and Ivan Zaikin, the magazine is keenly aware of the sport’s tenuous grip on reality, noting that the crowd was “eager to believe itself cheated,” and has since stood at arm’s length from the various manias WWE has inspired: Hulkamania, WrestleMania, and so on.
But at the height of wrestling’s popularity in 2000, they ran a piece called “So You Wanna Wrestle on TV?” an article about an actual wrestling school in San Bernardino, California. The man who ran the school had dreams of making it in what was then the WWF, but he was 40 with a beer belly and an assortment of poorly chosen tattoos. Nevertheless, he had a compilation tape of what he’d be able to do for Vince McMahon’s empire, including a grisly scene where he has his teeth pulled out with a pair of pliers. “It’d hurt if it doesn’t happen,” he said of being signed, “but you can’t think that way. Making it takes discipline, desire, and dedication.” Dedication to wrestling and its fiction. Time never said whether or not he sent the tape to WWF’s head of talent relations. Instead, the magazine called this man, paunchy and specializing in home dentistry, a “Hulk Hogan wannabe.”
But the truth is that relatively few people who enter wrestling school do so hoping to wrestle like Hulk Hogan, look like Hulk Hogan, or even make a fraction of the money Hulk Hogan made. Me? I’m in wrestling school trying to be myself, or an idealized version of myself that I otherwise lacked the means to create. I’m in the ring, hurling myself to the mat until my back aches and my elbows are bloody.
This is how you learn to fall, a process of failure and repetition. It takes time, but eventually those persistent enough will land on their back without wincing, without the slightest trace of real pain, and without revealing that it’s a carefully choreographed routine. This doesn’t happen on the first day of wrestling school. It can’t. We’re all bumping, failing to bump. We’re told to imagine ourselves on a rug, to envision the path that our body will travel once that rug is pulled out from under our feet. I try my best to put that metaphor to action and fall on my ass. The next person in line does it, but forgets this or that mechanical process and absorbs the blow on his neck. The next person in line does it and falls too fast. The impact pushes all of the air out of his body, his lungs making a sound like two popped balloons. He groans and gets to his feet.
Once we’ve all failed to do this once, we get to do it as often as it takes to get five good, convincing bumps in. I’m doing the best I can, but the mechanical process involves moving your arms and legs as the body falls, cradling the head without actually cradling the head. It eludes me. Creeper sees this and figures it’s a good time to stop and adjust my thinking. “Pop your hips,” he suggests. “Just thrust them while you’re falling. Like you’re having sex with a woman.” I try it his way, popping my hips on the way down, but I’m so focused on the motion of my pelvis that I forget to uncross my arms. Thus straightjacketed, my head comes dangerously close to making contact with the ring. Bowser, sitting on the turnbuckle, isn’t impressed.
“See that picture on the wall?” he asks, pointing to a wall of pictures, all of them former students of Truth Martini, all of whom had made it in the business. “Stare at it. Get mad at it. Tell Jimmy Jacobs over there to suck your cock, then ram it down his throat.” He shoves me aside. “Suck it!” he bellows, hurling himself to the canvas. “Like that.” Jimmy Jacobs is an attractive man, but I don’t have it in me to shout at his picture. The last thing I want to imagine, falling onto a certain, hard surface, is a mouth around my anatomy.
Any fun I was having in wrestling school is over. I’m thirsty, out of breath, and angry. So I throw myself onto the canvas. But my hips fail to buck, my arms are too slow in coming uncrossed, and it’s my head that strikes the mat first. Bowser sighs and says to try it again, so I do. How many times, I don’t know.
What truth, Creeper, and Bowser say, I can’t remember. Sometimes my head dribbles off the canvas. Sometimes it doesn’t. This doesn’t concern me. I am in a zone. I bump. I bump again. I do my best, but my best is woeful. We move on. There are other bumps. Other drills. It’s one of these that undoes me, a series of back-rolls from turnbuckle to turnbuckle. Truth Martini asks if I am ready and I am, but when I fall backwards for the first roll, my body does not follow through.
Instead of turtling and rolling over, I’m falling backwards like a child spoiling a freshly raked pile of leaves. I don’t know why this happens. I only know that my body disobeys the command my brain is screaming, that the ripe melon of my head strikes the mat so hard that I’m willing to believe anything Truth Martini says about the force of such falls. I black out. I come to. Bowser is the first person in my field of vision. He turns and hawks a loogie out of the ring. “Concussion city,” he says, chuckling.
For what seems like an eternity, I struggle through sets of bumps and drills. I run the ropes sloppily. The room spins when I get up from my bumps. I keep hitting my head. My goal is to survive until the end of class. To recover from this and come back stronger. But I can feel a great sickness building in the pit of my stomach, rising, trying to escape. I bail from the ring mid-drill, dive under the bottom rope and run for the unvarnished bathroom door. I hurl myself down in front of the toilet and vomit, everything coming out black and hopeless against the white porcelain of the bowl.
I paid $1,500 for this experience. That’s the price of tuition at The House of Truth, and it doesn’t matter if you last two months in his ring or two minutes. I dropped out, concussed, embarrassed. I resolve to go back. To get in better shape. To protect my head. It’s been three years. I’m getting older. My body is going through a process of radical change. Every day, it looks less likely that I’ll ever step between the ropes of a wrestling ring again. Just the same, as the image of myself that I project onto the world comes into focus, the need for a character, for escape, lessens.
For $1,500, I learned the limitation of the fiction I had dedicated myself to. What other outcome had I expected? My fellow students were ex-marines and college dropouts, capable athletes and struggling fathers. I don’t know if any of them made it, whether they’re cultivating an alternate reality within the world of wrestling, or if that world has rejected them, forcing them to think hard upon the merits of the world they already know. My enrollment in The House of Truth was something else, an attempt to tolerate a world I found intolerable. My body, as it has done so many times, failed me. Now, I find it yielding.
Months into the lifelong process of shedding my former gimmick, my skin is soft, my breasts are sore, and I can go days without encountering the name I once wore like a wrestler’s mask. How could I dedicate myself to the fiction of wrestling then, when I was so slavish to the fiction of my masculine image? How could I do the same now, engrossed as I am with the reality of my womanhood?
I went to Truth Martini seeking answers for these questions and found that I was not made for character work. He promised to teach me the secrets of professional wrestling and broke my body down in four hours. Still, I learned: the secret of wrestling is that there are no secrets, only truths. The art, if one wants to call it that, is in a wrestler’s ability to conceal those truths from an audience that knows them from the start. If a person’s identity is a kind of art, it seems to me that it would work by revealing unknown truths to the ignorant. The way you learn to do this is the same: you fall. You rise. You fall. Until you can do it without wincing. Until the pain of falling becomes pleasure. Until, at last, the motion of falling and rising brings joy.