Here we are again – just me alone with my oldest friends. The clang of iron on concrete ricochets off the walls like a sonic bullet. Glory, glory, the gyms are open again! The covid-19 quarantine has brought so much real suffering in Colombia it would be narcissistic to complain about missing the gym. But after three months of prison workouts, Navy Seal push-up challenges and never-ending burpees, I more than need the iron.
Every molecule of my being demands it. The mighty ferrous truth-teller against which we humans measure ourselves. I against I. The eternal war. The only true fight there is. Alone with yourself, battling inconceivable loads that will crush you out of existence if you fail. Atlas shrugged? Not in my world.
Just making the journey to the gym post-quarantine presents its own peculiar problems. The small local buses that bumble up and down the mountain only allow one seat in three to be used. Long, socially distanced lines of would-be passengers stretch down the hill. Dozens of eyes glaring, mouths covered by black face masks. The ninjas are on parade, uncomfortable in daylight.
Out of politeness I let an elderly women board before me, realising too late most of the waiting ninjas are ancient. The next thing I know I’m helping them all up the step until the driver shakes his head to signal the bus is full, leaving me to wait an hour for the next one.
The gym is a converted car park. Poured concrete, textured walls, a monolithic brutalist cathedral crouching on the mountainside. At the entrance I stop, startled. For a moment I think the elderly security guard is pointing his stun gun straight at my neck. I am a split second away from sweeping his legs and grabbing the weapon before I realise the ‘stun gun’ is some kind of new-fangled electric thermometer.
I try a greeting. My Spanish is barely comprehensible on a good day, the compulsory mask making me a mumble-a-like for Tom Hardy playing Bane in the Dark Knight Rises. The gym’s door is locked but a secret knock like a drug deal and it swings open. Apart from the owner, I am alone.
Time to get ugly. I attack the weights with an intensity that borders on insanity. Super-sets, drop-sets, machines, free weights, hours on the heavy bag, training through the pain and beyond. I am my father’s son – blessed with eloquence and loaded fists. My father was an army boxing champion who became a Fleet Street reporter. I am a hardcore wrestling champion who became a novelist. Like my father before me, I fight and write. I nail my demons squirming to the page and slam shut the book. I made a choice a long time ago to put myself in the battle, to step into the arena and get bloodied.
My introduction to combat sports was through my first judo coach, ‘Tiger’ Joe Robinson, a professional wrestler and stuntman best known for his work as Sean Connery’s stunt double in the James Bond movies. His words to me when I was eight years old are engraved forever on the blackened walls of my memory: “There are two kinds of people in this world Alex,” he would say with the certainty of a man who had created his own myth and lived it every moment. “There are the spectators, happy watching from the safe seats in the crowd, and then there are the gladiators – the people who have to walk out on to the sand and fight, to test themselves, to get bloody.”
Tiger Joe knew what time it was – but the happy days didn’t last. My formative years came to a crashing close at an inaccurately named public school, an institution of Orwellian cruelty that was neither public nor interested in educating me. At my first day at that school, in the first assembly, the headmaster asked the new boys to introduce themselves and declare their ambition in life. Most replied they wanted a military career or a job in the City. Scientific ambitions were also rewarded by a round of applause. When it was my turn, the headmaster frowned – he had already told me my hair was too short and I “looked like a yob” – a capital offence in his eyes. I put my trust in fair play and told the truth: “I want to play drums or guitar in a heavy metal band.”
My heart sank. I didn’t understand the tense silence and ‘someone’s gonna get it’ snickering. Being a musician in a rock band was all I’d wanted to do since hearing the opening bars of Satisfaction come swaggering from the speakers of our ancient record player. Music is my life. The headmaster thought there was something very wrong with that and spent the next three years trying to torture the wickedness out of me. “Rea wants to play drums in an ’eavy metal band,” he sneered at that first assembly, exaggerating my accent in front of staff and pupils and throwing the switch on three years of relentless persecution. But like any good monster, it just made me stronger. I left school with the same ambition I arrived with – to play in a metal band – but now I carried a chip on my shoulder that would work its way into my heart and one day almost kill me.
I’ve never experienced before or since so much toxic bigotry coagulated in one place as I did during my time at an English private school in the 1980s. When we went on school trips our coach would often pass the local comprehensive school. Our teachers would encourage the pupils to crowd the window and jeer, waving their cricket bats and shouting threats at the bemused comprehensive kids we passed, many of whom were young girls.
Encouraging their all-male charges to scream abuse at young working-class women seemed to give the faculty particular delight.
The teachers my parents trusted to mentor me seemed incapable of addressing me as “Rea” without adding “peasant” or “common shit” as an unwelcome addition to nomenclature by which I identified myself.
The ugly jeering I heard from the privileged pupils on that coach echoes down the decades to the present day. I hear it in the cheers and sneers from the Tory MPs sitting in Parliament as they deny Britain’s nurses a pay rise. I hear the same grotesque celebration as the Tories turn down Britain’s firemen for a pay rise and yet again, louder and louder, every time the Tories award themselves another record-breaking raise. Snouts in the trough, curly tails giving the nation the finger, souls sold long ago and replaced with smug superiority, drunk out of their tiny minds on a cocktail of bigotry and toxic tradition.
Raised by pain
To my ‘teachers’, discipline was a curriculum of physical and emotional abuse. The truth of the thing is, I was raised by pain. Walking through an environment filled with so much hate, honestly I don’t feel you’re able to comprehend the true magnitude of evil. My locker was frequently searched in my absence under the pretence of looking for cigarettes, banned literature or some other mythical contraband. The ‘masters’ saw no irony in declaring to my parents I had a learning disability while confiscating book after book from me.
Once an anarchist pamphlet about the Stonehenge Free Festival was found in my possession – an unforgivable crime that required a two-tier punishment. First came the ritual humiliation of being made to stand in front of the school at assembly while the headmaster once again ridiculed my religion and politics. He took great delight in publicly tormenting young boys he knew couldn’t answer him back. The regime was a pyramid of abuse and the headmaster was the crown stone of the shit-pile.
After the public shaming, the rest of my punishment was being made to attend “rugby practice with the first XV for the rest of the year”. This is bourgeois double-speak for “20 strapping sixth-formers in their late-teens are going to administer daily punishment beatings to a small 13-year-old and pretend the neck braces, broken ribs and stitches are sports-related injuries”.
‘Practice’ involved making me stand on my own with the ball while the others lined up to take turns to charge me, smashing me off my feet again and again with illegal tackles like they were trying to break me in two. Somehow I would stagger back to my feet, staying defiant as long as I could. By the end of a three-hour practice my legs were scraped bloody, crimson trickling through the thick Sussex clay from wounds ripped by the larger boys’ studs, sharpened for the purpose. My ribs never got the chance to heal and I spent the whole year unable to fully inhale because of the pain.
All I learned at school was how to bury my feelings so deep my tormentors would never be able to unearth them. Intelligent children need feeding – my abusers starved me and then force-fed me poison. The school used some of the exorbitant fees they were charging my father to build a state-of-the-art performance centre with a fully equipped gym. Tired of the daily beatings, I knew I needed to get bigger to protect myself. I thought getting better at sports might temper the abuse.
I begged to be allowed to use the gym. I asked if I could come in early, stay later, anything! I just wanted the chance to improve. I thought that was what they wanted but why encourage progress and growth with positivity when you can destroy with shame and ridicule? I was told the gym wasn’t for losers like me – I was beyond any kind of improvement. That is what my poor father was slaving away to pay for. For my dignity to be reduced to a handful of mud leaving me with a legacy of rage, self-loathing and shitty impulse
I never blamed my father. He was the working-class son of a working-class family. He had no idea what went on behind the private school gates. I was too ashamed to tell him. I thought I could tough it out. I saw him breaking his back working to pay the fees and I didn’t want to let him down. I should have trusted my father. I should have spoken out. More than a decade later, when I finally confirmed his suspicions, my father’s reaction was dramatic. Without hesitation, he wanted to get in his car and drive to my abusers’ houses and take a baseball bat to them. I lied to spare him, telling him the men involved were already dead. I should have trusted dad from the beginning. For three endless years I marinated in the miasma of cruelty.
As soon as I was legally able, I left home and school and headed to the city and the siren call of punk rock. I wanted to burn the whole establishment to the ground. When I realised that wasn’t going to happen I decided to burn myself down instead. When you’re continually reminded you have no value, it’s easy to become convinced all the rules are stacked against you. Kicked dogs only know how to bite.
Self-immolation seemed inevitable until I started lifting weights, an activity ruled by that most simple of metrics – pure physical strength – the perfect antidote for the weakness of my damaged soul. I entered my own personal iron age, submerging myself in its elemental depths. I was lost and the barbell became my saviour, my distraction, my outlet – the unsafe space where I learned to embrace the pain. The agony of my soul found vent as the fuel cranking the pistons. Fuck you, I’m broken but I’m not going anywhere!
My eldest son is 11, only a year younger than I was when I started at my so-called seat of learning. The thought of someone abusing my children the same way, of them being subjected to the same torture and ridicule shakes my very core with rage. My children will be free to choose their own religion, political views, philosophy and music. They will grow up free to pursue what brings them joy. Free to go to school to learn and grow without having to listen to their ambitions derided, their religion scorned, their parents mocked.
The iron is unchanging, immutable – exposure to its solid state is transformative. The gym is where I learned to sacrifice, to push through pain in the present for a better tomorrow. The gym is the sacred ground where the gods of iron blessed me with revelations that have changed my life. Self-discipline is freedom! Discipline makes me laser-focused on reaching my goals. Discipline makes me formidable. Unstoppable. All the things they said I would never be. Discipline is how we free ourselves from tyranny’s yoke.
I finish my workout, muscles burning, sweat blinding my eyes. Last man standing on a battlefield littered with slain excuses. To take all that hate and pain and let it make you stronger, that’s how you find the light in the darkness – it’s the only true glory there is.
I started wrestling to put a smile on my dad’s face after his diagnosis. He died before he could see me but I wasn’t ready to quit. I wanted to go the distance. I moved to Los Angeles for a decade, fighting hardcore matches in places you wouldn’t want to go without carrying a gun for protection. When I won the belt for the first time, I thought I could live in that moment forever. But life never stands still and the punishment starts to pile up until pretty soon all you’re doing is waiting for the bell.
In those days I wrestled with mania, these days I watch WrestleMania with my sons. If Juan ever catches me sitting with my shoulders slumped, trapped in pointless rumination, he walks up to me, raises my hand in the air like a wrestling referee and announces to the world: “Yay, Max Ammo, campeón!”
There’s an old saying: “A father knows his child’s heart as only a child can know his father’s.” Tonight is a joyful occasion, my wife graduated today. She is without doubt the strongest, wisest, most beautiful, most powerful woman I’ve ever encountered. She is the heart of our tribe. Her physical graduation is cancelled but the school asked her to go in and read a speech as she got the best marks this year. This is a real achievement when you consider Marcela is also responsible for home-schooling both our sons.
We get pizza to celebrate. I wish I could give my wife more but funds are tight and the future is uncertain. After 20 minutes of “por favor, senor, por favor!” I surrender and Juan and I watch WrestleMania 20. It was originally broadcast on 14 March, 2004. It is Juan’s favourite because it’s his favourite wrestler Eddie Guerrero’s big moment. It has special significance for me too because WM20 was the last year I watched with my father before he finally succumbed to Alzheimer’s.
For a moment dad is in the room with us, cheering Eddie on – three generations united by a warrior who thrills them with his passion! I wish my father was physically here, just for one moment so I could hug him and Juan together as Eddie lifts the belt in celebration. It happens every damn time we watch WM20.
The real miracle
Sometimes life in all its beauty makes me cry. That’s the real miracle, the gift my wife and children give me. Before I met them I thought all I had inside was anger and rage. Now I realise all the love was there all the time too, just waiting for the right moment. Against that love the darkness is no more substantial then polluted snowflakes in sunshine.
My wife walks in and sees Juan and I laughing and cheering as we react to the onscreen action. She notices my residual tears.
“What happened, mi amor?” she asks.
I smile at her so widely my face hurts.
“Something especial.” I tell her. She gets it.
At the end of the day you can’t let some sadistic arseholes define who you’re going to be for the rest of your life. Their approval is neither requested, nor required.