No Holds Barred: Grappling With My Son

Dear Michael,

You’ve warned me – you, at age eight, weighing in at all of 48 pounds – that you intend to kick my butt. Now the time has come.

It’s Sunday, we’re here at the gym, on a gray mat. I’ve dropped to my knees to approximate your height, and we’re wrestling.

You charge at me, scowling and growling, and put all your moves on me. The clothesline. The pile driver. The suplex. You know plenty of moves.

Still, I slip one arm around your neck, the other between your thighs, and hoist you over my head for a full body slam.

Our match is make-believe, of course. Neither of us intends to hurt the other – we’re just pretending to. I pull my punches, but still you go reeling. You attack me with a bogus face rake, and I snap my head back, yowling in feigned pain.

As we grapple, I ask myself, Should I let him win?

You had gotten interested in pro wrestling about a year earlier. You watched matches on TV, absorbed in the antics of Earthquake, Typhoon and the Nasty Boys. We bought you plastic models of your favorite figures, Hulk Hogan, The Macho Man, the Million Dollar Man. You subscribed to a monthly wrestling magazine, dipping deep into your allowance of $3 a week.

You begged us to take you to a tournament at Madison Square Garden. So we did. There, wrestlers with fire hydrant necks and arms like suspension-bridge cables strutted around the ring glowering. They leaped off the ropes and flung each other around with impunity, all in a carefully choreographed charade of combat.

But if the bout was a circus, the audience was a sideshow. Tattoos and biker jackets, cheering and jeering, nose rings, Goth makeup – the arena had more testosterone than a prison riot.

We took you to other tournaments, and your preoccupation grew into a full-fledged fixation. You collected wrestling cards. With your plastic action figures you enacted imaginary clashes between Ric Flair and Sid Justice. You scanned your wrestling magazine for news about the Undertaker and the Legion of Doom. Three nights a week you watched matches on TV, maybe between the Big Boss Man and the Ultimate Warrior.

Soon you knew all about every wrestler, right down to height, weight, age, ring record and best moves, and at the dinner table spared us no detail. All you ever wanted to talk about – any time, any place, with anyone – was wrestling. Our conversations addressed such pressing issues as,

Who was better, Rowdy Roddy Piper or the Warlord?

OK, I figured, no harm, no foul. Pro wrestling gave you heroes to root for and villains to boo at. You could thrive on the imaginary inflicting of pain, on fantasies of dominance and submission. Wrestling would school you in the wages of conflict and competition, in the lessons of fair play and cheating, of right versus wrong.

Oh, make no mistake: I had my concerns. Pro wrestling sends certain unfortunate messages to its audience. If you’re frustrated and angry, for example, your best bet is to bash someone in the kisser, or worse. The sport promotes a win-at-all-costs aggression. Of all the forms of cultural enrichment available, pro wrestling – with contestants who bring folding chairs into the ring to leverage as bludgeons – was never quite what your mother and I envisioned for you.

So now we’re wrestling, you and I, and I have all of this on my mind.

Should I let you win?

You’re all spindly limbs flailing. You rush me for a clothesline – right arm outstretched, the better to knock my head off. You fold your arms and ram me, and I spill backwards onto the mat. Your spunk surprises me. You clamber on top of me, your chest athwart mine, your palms pressed to the floor. I squirm under you, barely lifting my shoulder blades off the mat, as if unable to escape.

With your breath warm on my face, I lie still and let you pin me. For my money, you earned your victory.

P.S. — Question of the day: Would you let your child win? Why yes or no?

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