John Irving recalls writers and wrestlers in this memoir, and in this tale, shares his experience as a tournament referee.
In the first three weight classes, Cliff and I gave out half a dozen penalty points for the illegal headlock – apparently a feature of Maine life – and Cliff bestowed one disqualification: for biting. Some guy was getting pinned in a crossface-cradle when he bit through the skin of his opponent’s forearm. There was bedlam among the fans. What could possibly be more offensive to them than a no-biting rule? (There were people in the stands who looked like they bit other people every day.)
That night in Maine, Cliff Gallagher was 68. A former 145-pounder, he was no more than 10 pounds over his old weight class. He was pound-for-pound as strong as good old Caswell from Pitt. Cliff was mostly bald; he had a long, leathery face with remarkable ears – his neck and his hands were huge. And Cliff didn’t like the way the crowd was reacting to his call. He went over to the scorer’s table and took the microphone away from the announcer.
‘No biting – is that clear enough?’ Cliff said into the microphone. The fans didn’t like it, but they quieted down.
We had a few more weight classes (and a lot more illegal headlocks) to get through; we kept alternating the matches, between referee and mat judge, and we kept blowing our whistles – in addition to the headlocks without an arm, there were over-scissors and full-nelsons and figure-four body-scissors and twisting knee-locks and head-butts, but there was no more biting. In the 177-pound class, I called the penalty that determined the outcome of the match; I thought the fans were going to rush me on the mat, and the coach of the penalized wrestler distinctly called me a ‘cocksucker’ – normally another penalty, but I thought I’d better let it pass.
Cliff conferred with me while the crowd raged. Then he went to the microphone again. ‘No poking the other guy in his eyes over and over again – is that clear enough?’ Cliff said.
It was Cliff who refereed the heavyweights, for which I was – for which I am – eternally grateful.
The boy who’d been thrown on the scorer’s table, and had thus been victorious in the semifinals, was a little the worse for wear; his opponent was a finger bender, whom Cliff penalized twice in the first period – patiently explaining the rules both times. (If you grab your opponent’s fingers, you must grab all four – not just two, or one, and not just his thumb.) But the finger bender was obdurate about finger bending, and the boy who’d been bounced off the scorer’s table was already … well, understandably, sensitive. When his fingers were illegally bent, the boy responded with a head-butt; Cliff correctly penalized him too. Therefore, the penalty points were equal as the second period started; so far, not one legal wrestling move or hold had been initiated by either wrestler – I knew Cliff had his hands full.
The finger bender was on the bottom; his opponent slapped a body-scissors and a full-nelson on him, which drew another penalty, and the finger bender applied an over-scissors to the scissors, which amounted to another penalty against him. Then the top wrestler, for no apparent reason, rabbit-punched the finger bender, and that was that – Cliff disqualified him for unsportsmanlike conduct. (Maybe I should have let him been thrown on the scorer’s table without penalty, I thought.) Cliff was raising the finger bender’s arm in victory when I spotted the losing heavyweight’s mother; it was another gene-pool identification – this woman was without question a heavyweight’s mom.
In Maine that year – only in Maine – I had heard us referee’s occasionally called ‘zebras.’ I presume this was a reference to our black-and-white-striped shirts, and I presume that Cliff had previously heard himself called a ‘zebra,’ too. Notwithstanding our familiarity with the slur, neither Cliff nor I was prepared for the particular assault of the heavyweight’s mom. She lumbered manfully to the scorer’s table and ripped the microphone from the announcer’s hands. She pointed at Cliff, who was standing a little uncertainly in the middle of the mat when she spoke.
‘Not even a zebra would fuck you,’ the mom said.
Despite the crowd’s instinctive unruliness, they were as uncertain of how to respond to the claim made by the heavyweight’s mother as Cliff Gallagher; the crowd stood or sat in stunned silence. Slowly, Cliff approached the microphone; Cliff may have been born in Kansas, but he was an old Oklahoma boy – he still walked like a cowboy, even in Maine.
‘Is that clear enough?’ Cliff asked the crowd.
It was a long way home from the middle of Maine, but all the way Cliff kept repeating, ‘Not even a zebra, Johnny.’ It would become his greeting for me, on the telephone, whenever he called.