A Rock and a Hard Place
You can be the Babe Ruth of wrestling and still have something to prove.
That's the way I felt on March 17, 2002, at WrestleMania X8 in the Toronto SkyDome. I had something to prove to myself and a lot of other people, and there was only one place I could do it -- in the ring. Against a guy called The Rock. In front of nearly 70,000 screaming fans.
It was already preordained that The Rock would win this clash of titans. We both knew he was going to come out on top that night.
But that didn't make my job easier. If anything, it made it harder. It would have been simple if all I had to do was put a boot in his face and lay a legdrop on him and strut around afterward like I owned the place.
Yeah, that would have been a piece of cake.
Unfortunately, that wasn't the way it was supposed to go down. I was supposed to lose the match, but I was supposed to do it in a way that made even bigger stars of both of us. And that was going to take some doing, brother. Losing this match the way I needed to lose it was going to be a lot harder for me, a lot more complicated, a lot more demanding of my skills as a wrestler and as an entertainer than anything I had done before.
Because this wasn't just a wrestling match. It wasn't just two guys tossing each other around in a ring for a piece of leather with a buckle on it. This was our shot at immortality. This was our chance to create something that people would talk about for a long time to come. Nobody had ever had an opportunity exactly like this one in the whole, long history of wrestling, and maybe no one ever would again.
It wasn't like all the movies I'd done where you could roll the cameras over and over again until you got it right. This was one time, one chance, don't screw it up or else.
And for me, there was something even bigger at stake in that arena. Immortality is great, but before you can even think about that you've got to get respect -- and the person I've always found it hardest to get respect from is myself.
I'm always asking myself, "What've you done for me lately?" And before that WrestleMania, as I paced the long, curving corridor backstage like a lion in a cage, my answer had to be, "Not much."
Two years earlier, I'd left another wrestling organization under a black cloud. Basically, I was kicked out on my ass and told I'd never wrestle for them again -- that I was a has-been who could never be the attraction I used to be.
They had got me doubting myself. I was forty-eight years old. I'd had three knee surgeries over the past year and a half and I would eventually need to replace the knee joint altogether. And what they had said about me in public was dragging me down like a boulder hanging from my damn neck.
But I hadn't gone under the knife three times just to accept the verdict they'd laid on me. I did it to have an opportunity to make things right again, to end my career on my own terms and not someone else's.
I didn't want people to remember me as the guy who wrestled until he was washed up. I wanted them to remember me as the guy who wrestled longer than anybody and went out on top. I wanted that to be the ending of the movie.
That whole time I was sitting at home and recuperating from my surgeries, all I ever wanted was one more chance. Just one shot at making things right again. And here I had gotten one.
Of course, it wasn't just my knee that was giving me trouble. I'd just gotten over a hundred-and-three-degree fever that damn near killed me and eventually landed me in a Florida emergency room, so I wasn't as strong as I wanted to be. Plus I had cracked a couple of ribs a few weeks earlier and I hadn't given them a chance to heal, so it hurt like hell just to breathe.
But I wasn't going to let that weak crap keep me from wrestling. I told myself, "Save the drama for your momma. There's seventy thousand people out there waiting to see you face The Rock. A fever doesn't mean a thing. Cracked ribs don't mean a thing. You've got a job to do, go out there and do it."
I was wearing black and white, the colors of the New World Order -- a gang of street-cool, renegade wrestlers -- with a matching feather boa and sunglasses. I had been wearing the same thing since I came back to the World Wrestling Federation as a bad guy in the beginning of the year.
But people had been cheering me anyway. It didn't seem to matter what I said or did, or how badly I treated them. They still cheered for me and booed my opponent. And that was the problem I had to face in the ring that night in Toronto.
Not just to lose. Not just to lose in a way that didn't diminish me. But to get people cheering for The Rock again too, so when the match was over we would both come out smelling like roses.
I knew a bunch of the other wrestlers thought I was going to fall flat on my face out there. I hadn't had to prove anything since I came back. This was my first chance to show them I could still hack it.
To show them...and to show myself.
Vince McMahon, the guy who runs the company, came over to join me as I waited for my music to start. I was so nervous and pumped up at the same time, I looked at him and I told him, "Everybody screws with me, brother. My wife makes me work hard, my kids make me crazy, the government screws with me, the IRS screws with me...and sometimes even you screw with me, Vince. But out there, that's my damn house and nobody can mess with me. Now I'm going out there to collect my money. I'll see you when I'm done."
He looked at me like "Huh?"
As soon as I said it, I regretted it and I wanted to take it back. It sounded cocky and arrogant, and I hadn't meant it to sound that way. I was just trying to tell Vince that I was focused, that I was as ready as I could be.
And instead I sounded like an ass.
All of a sudden, my music started and I walked through the curtain and down the ramp, an ocean of people waving signs and cheering for me at the top of their lungs, and millions more watching on Pay-Per-View at home. And I was thinking, "Way to go, brother. If you had a ton of pressure on you before, you've got two tons now."
It was bad enough all these people in the wrestling business were waiting for me to slip on a banana peel so they could say, "We told you so. He's too old, he's too crippled, he's too bald-headed, he doesn't have it anymore."
Now I had Vince wondering about me.
So as I made my way down to the ring with the music thundering and all the lights on me, all I could think was, "God, I'm such an idiot. Now I'd really better not screw up."
Copyright © 2002 by World Wrestling Entertainment, Inc. All Rights Reserved.