When I was in elementary school, Hulk Hogan was the champion. He battled giants. Andre, yes, but King Kong Bundy, too, and Zeus, and Earthquake. Men named after monsters and gods and natural disasters. Mammoths no mere mortal could handle. Hogan threw overhand punches up, over his head, to stagger them. To stun them. So that one-by-one he might body slam them to the mat.
I learned to fear bigger boys, meaner boys. Devin Jones who flicked my ears on the school bus. Mark Davies who winged dodgeballs much harder than I ever could.
When I was in high school, Steve Austin was the champion. He battled Vince McMahon—Mr. McMahon—the megalomaniacal bastard who owned the company. McMahon subjected Austin to a series of proxies—The Rock, The Big Show, The Undertaker—but always remained, himself, the arch-villain. Not a giant, but a mastermind. I relished in those moments—few and far between—when Austin got his hands on McMahon. Left man-to-man, the boss was never a match for a redneck’s fury.
My buddy Sean had a crush on a girl. She passed when he asked her to a dance, and held out for William McGrady. William McGrady—who insisted on going by William; who wore button ups, not t-shirts; khakis, not jeans; Oxfords to our Chuck Taylors with duct tape at the heels. I don’t get it, Sean said. I could take out that kid with just one punch.
And so the face of oppression had changed from the bigger bully to the haves over our have nots. Devin Jones wouldn’t go to college, but William McGrady would. He’d be our boss, too, someday, and we could see it already. The kind of boss we could never punch in the face, because we lived in a real world, made up of SAT scores, scraping together gas money, and our mothers telling us we had to pay for our own tennis shoes from here on—let alone Oxfords.
So we stopped watching wrestling. I went to college, Sean got a job waxing floors, plowing roads, doing whatever the city asked of him. We went to the gyms, aiming for our chest to thicken, for our biceps to grow more bulbous, picturing the William McGradys of the world with every rep. Imagining proving the naysayer-oppressor-wimp-rich-kid-boss wrong.
We grew angrier. We grew larger.
We never stopped to ask if we were heroes.
Michael Chin was born and raised in Utica, New York and currently writes and teaches in Corvallis, Oregon. He won the 2014 Jim Knudsen Editor’s Prize from the University of New Orleans and has published work in journals including The Normal School and Prairie Schooner online. Follow him on Twitter @miketchin.