Posted March 31st, 2011 by Bill Apter

IN THE ROOM -Time … It Gets Us All

As a wrestling fan, I wish that nobody had to get older. I would love nothing more than to see some of my favorite stars of the 1980′s and 1990′s hang onto their primes and compete with some of the top stars today. The problem is I know this is just a fantasy. So few are blessed with the sort of career longevity that lets them compete well into their 60′s, 70′s, or beyond. And even if they do, it’s just not realistic to expect a level of performance close to what they could once offer. In the real world, people get older. Every day, the bodies of ORDINARY men and women – people with lives no more grueling than our own – break down around us. It’s just what time does.

Now, imagine a wrestler whose body has been subjected to years of abuse in the ring.
Take “Superfly” Jimmy Snuka, for example. Here is a man who has been on my mind a lot lately, since I met him a few weeks back courtesy of Bill Apter. Snuka, soon-to-be-68, is as warm a grandfatherly figure as you could ever imagine. When we met, we exchanged a hug rather than a handshake. This year, he will be celebrating his 68th birthday by wrestling a match at his own party.

This would be bad enough if Snuka were just planning to step into the ring for a token appearance, just to exchange a few high-fives with fans at ringside and feel for himself, one last time, that rush of adrenaline that comes with making your way to the ring. No, a Jimmy Snuka match means so much more than stepping between the ropes and exchanging a few headlocks. A Jimmy Snuka match would NEVER be a Jimmy Snuka match in any fan’s eyes without his heroic Superfly Splash off the top turnbuckle. Just imagining the sort of pain that must shoot through his body as he makes contact with a helpless opponent after taking this scary leap is enough to leave me cringing.

I can’t even wrap my head around the fact that he is closing in on 70 and still performing it.

As I think about Snuka flying around the ring at an age when most are content with a good ol’ rocking chair, I’m actually reminded of a 2005 interview I had with Shawn Michaels while working for a newspaper in Philadelphia.

At the time, Michaels was well into his “second career,” having come back from a horrific back injury in his 30′s that sidelined him for 4-1/2 years and physically plucked him out of the only lifestyle he had ever known. In such a sharp contrast to Snuka and so many older wrestlers who continue to ply their trade no matter what their bodies tell them, Michaels talked about the hardships he felt came way too early in his own life.

“I found myself, forced by the hand of God, to take a step back and appreciate all I had lost,” recalled Michaels, with a grim look. “It was so frustrating, probably the worst time period in my life. I never wanted to be one of those guys who held on far too long. It just never occurred to me how quickly that time would come. Time … it gets us all.”

That’s when I first understood why Michaels intended to walk away on his own the next time.

As I look back on Michaels’ statements almost six years later – and with the benefit of seeing him WALK away from wrestling rather than limp away or be carried from the arena – I wonder how much of what he had to say to The Undertaker this past Monday on Raw wasn’t directly from the heart. Why would Taker feel the need to continue to fight opponent after opponent each year at WrestleMania when there ultimately that huge battle he can never win?

Time … it gets us all.

I hate to think that “The Dead Man” – or Snuka, Michaels, or anyone else – will likely do irreparable damage to himself by continuing to extend his much-hyped streak. I guess the logical answer is as long as these men can physically perform, it is their own decision. I guess we should all be happy for Snuka as he continues to find satisfaction flying around inside the wrestling ring because he can. So many other men have been forced to tap out on their careers despite being 20-30 years younger. When I look into Snuka’s eyes, I see a man who at peace with himself and thrilled to look back on the great career he has forged.

Considering his reckless style in the ring, it is an amazing feat (or, as Michaels put it, “The hand of God”) that he is able to continue to wrestle at such a high level and remain in relatively good health for his age. Whatever the cause, Snuka’s career has outlived those of so many of his own contemporaries. Many wrestlers have come and gone in the last 40 years he has competed, and Snuka is still doing his Superfly leap.

Certainly, there is a part of all of us that would love to see these men wrestle in their primes, forever. That’s the fan side. It’s this side that ensures that WWE video games like All-Stars and Smackdown vs. Raw will continue to have strong sales because, in those games, we can relive our favorite stars in all their glory and help guide them in dream matches against so many of the wrestlers we see on TV today. It allows each of us to press pause on the ever-moving clock of life and play “What if” in our own head.

That, however, is a video game. There are no repercussions for taking risks.

In just a few days, The Undertaker, 46, will risk the longterm, physical health of his battered shoulder in the name of his WrestleMania streak. As difficult as it may be to believe, Snuka continues to excel at flying from the top despite being 22 years his senior. Like I said, it’s something I don’t understand and I don’t know that I’ll ever be able. When you try to compare Snuka to stars such as Taker and Michaels, you are presented with three entirely different cases for how to give the perfect storybook ending. Each man carries with him unique experiences that have shaped him. Each understands just how fleeting a career, one’s health, and even one’s life can be.

But they hang on, each of them, in their own way. They’re just searching for an answer to getting older, the same as everyone else.

Brady Hicks has been writing about wrestling for more than 15 years, for Web sites, newspapers, and magazines. He is a contributing writer for Pro Wrestling Illustrated, and the host of his renowned wrestling podcast, IN THE ROOM, at thebradyhicks.com.

Category: Wrestling.

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