“If you’ve got them by the balls,
their hearts and minds will follow.”
– Green Berets’ slogan during the Vietnam War
By the Book
Wrestling is not for wimps. It is mortal combat: a modern day fight or flight. The match pits two wrestlers of equal weight to a contest that captures the essence of Greek strength and Olympic skill. In modern day matches, referees with black and white striped shirts keep score by the book, awarding points for flipping a guy on his back (the fight) and against a guy for running off the mat (that’s the flight part). Wrestlers contort their bodies to attach and parry, pull and shoot. When one guy pins the other’s shoulders to the mat for a two-count, the ref slaps the mat. Match over. The crowd goes wild. The ref grabs the wrist of the winner as the wrestlers shake hands, and raises it up for the polite applause.
Referee Jim Chung raises hand of wrestling champ, Andrew Howe
The uniforms are made of sheer, stretchy material that leaves nothing to the imagination. For prepubescent boys, standing alone on the mat in uniform is as humiliating as standing naked on the dance floor at a middle school mixer. Wrestlers wear protective headgear to prevent cauliflower ear, and jock straps and cups to protect the family jewels, but it is a one-on-one sport with fists, elbows, knees, head and torso as weapons.
The ref is also there to jump in preventing any potentially dangerous moves or body slams. One dangerous move often stopped by the ref is an “illegal chicken wing,” where the top wrestler jams his arm between his opponent’s elbow and back and leverages the down wrestler’s arm against the joint so that his shoulder might come out of its socket.
Legal Chicken Wing
What happens when there is no ref, no head gear, and the match becomes a back alley brawl? That is when survival skills emerge, and the pugilists begin fighting for something more basic — their manhood.
Since our Dad wrestled, so did his sons. We didn’t have a choice. During our formative years we lived in a suburb of Baltimore, Maryland, called Towson. Dad found a fledgling wrestling team at the local YMCA. The rec junior wrestling team had only a handful of participants: Curt Fisher, Topher Sisson, Greg Pfeiffer, my brother Ned, and me. The five of us weighed between 65 and 140 pounds. Our dads and our volunteer coach, Ron Davis, knew that we needed a roster of twelve wrestlers to compete in the areas’ Junior League. Anticipating injuries and illnesses and other absences, we needed about 20 wrestlers to field a respectable team. After some phone calls and searching, Coach Davis and the dads decided to join forces with another team from the Northeast Police Boy’s Club. The merger of the teams allowed us to become full-fledged participants in the Junior League that first winter of 1967. It with also gave us the benefit of more coaching oversight. The Police Boy’s Club, located near historic Memorial Stadium, was the after-school refuge for “latch-key” kids from some of the roughest neighborhoods in the City. The coach, Ray Haney, helped guide wrestlers from the Boy’s Club to Mervo, Patterson, Dunbar and Southeastern.
The Police Boy’s Club was notorious for having the most physically aggressive kids in the league. The wrestlers had a well-earned reputation for violence that often flared up at practices and meets. Coaches Davis and Haney believed that blending the two teams would tamp down the bad-ass boys and refocus their aggression on winning. Our team was cross-cultural: Blacks, Hispanics, Native American, and a minority of Whites. Other teams in the League were either totally Black or White; ours was Team Diversity!
In the first few practices of the newly merged-team Ned, Kurt, Greg, Topher and I battled for places on the team by challenging the other guys in our weight classes to a series of “wrestle-offs.” The 5 of us from the Towson Y had decent takedowns and solid technique. We made it into the starting line-up, along with Dennis Dillow, Danny Chavez, Henry Oxyndine, Tom Holt, Calvin Hemphill and others, as the December League matches got underway.
Things did not start well for me that first season. I had a poor record, losing to boys who were both better and worse than I was. Coach Davis shook his head as I consistently lost matches by one or two points. He pulled me aside one Saturday, after a string of losses and said, “Henry, you are too nice out there on the mat. You should have won that match. Find your ‘killer instinct.’ That’s what’s missing. Without it you will never be a winner!” The problem was I did not know where to look.
From late November through March we wrestled. On Tuesday nights we practiced and held intra-squad challenge matches and on Saturdays we had League matches. Ned was our 85 pound wrestler and I was the 120 pounder. After Tuesday practices, Dad would take us to Howard Johnson’s near the Stadium and we chowed down Ho-Jo chopped beef steak with A-1 sauce, iceberg lettuce wedges with blue cheese dressing, and vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce. Most meals we counted calories. We were both good at making weight, so Tuesdays were our reward. Best of all, we had the undivided attention of our dad for conversation, strategy, drills, and camaraderie around wrestling.
The team started to gel by mid-season, still there were often flair-ups of anger at practices and outside matches. To help quell the turmoil, Coaches Davis and Haney depended on Officer Lou. An off-duty policeman, Lou was licensed to carry a handgun. He wore it holstered around his waist, prominently protruding, as he walked the perimeter of the gyms. Officer Lou was there for most of our wrestling practices and all of our matches. He was also on-hand after the matches, when the “real scores were settled.” One match was against Pointers of Sparrows Point: home of the steelworkers’ unions and the shipbuilders in Southeast Baltimore.
The all-white Pointers had been undefeated, until we wrestled them in their home gym. We were tied going into the final match, which was won by Calvin Hemphill, our 140 pounder. Calvin was strong as an ox and he pinned the defending Junior League champ in the last few seconds. The crowd, except for our fans, were muted in their applause. The Pointers team, looking for trouble, came downstairs to the visitor’s locker room after the match. Soon after the glass bottles were broken but before the rumble spilled blood, Officer Lou appeared, with his weapon drawn. Lou shouted for us to sweep up the glass, throw the towels in the bin and leave NOW. The Pointers stormed off cursing under their breath and jeering at us. We knew that they would be waiting for the next chance for revenge.
Whose Ball Is It?
My brother and I spent every other night of the week practicing wrestling moves on the oriental rug in our front hallway, dodging the chest of drawers and the grandfather clock. We were eager to see who could take the other down and throw in the perfect half-Nelson. Occasionally, when we had a bye weekend, we would catch a ride to the Towson Y and play a round of hoops. I was never any good at basketball; my dribbling and shooting were too erratic. Wrestling was my go-to sport. That Christmas, however, Santa gave us an NBA quality leather basketball and we had to try it out. Not wanting to hurt the leather by dribbling it on our driveway, we headed to the Y and its gym with three varnished basketball courts.
That Saturday morning while we were shooting at an open side basket, two Black boys came over and started to shoot with us. Before we could protest, they dribbled our ball to the other side of the court and played keep-away. We confronted them demanding they give us the ball back and were told to “beat it.” Ned threatened to report them to the front office, but there was no one in authority in the office that morning. The other boys claimed the ball was theirs and said we would have to come take it from them. For half an hour we failed to make progress, so I took a different approach. I challenged the taller of the two, who was about my size, to a wrestling match – the winner getting the basketball. It seemed pretty simple. I would pin the kid in no time and we would get our ball back. What I had not anticipated was a near life threatening struggle for my fatherhood.
Off With His Head
We walked to the padded wrestling room on the side of the gym and took off our sneakers. Ned and the other Black guy watched cautiously as we went head to head, slowly circling and checking each other out.
When my opponent suddenly punched me in the side of the face, I knew this was not going to be a regulation match. He hit me again, this time just missing my eye. Dazed, there was short time to refocus. Ducking his third blow and I dove squarely into his torso for a double-leg takedown. He thudded to his back and quickly arched his spine, trying to escape my grip. As he snaked his way to his belly, I threw in my left leg around his leg in a grapevine. I held him down with a cross-body ride.
Classic Cross-Body Ride statue
Dangling my head near his right arm, I waited. He soon reached back and viciously locked his forearms around my head. Having spent lots of time at Naval Academy wrestling clinics, I knew this kid would grab my head. It is a beginner’s mistake that can be costly for the head grabber. As he clasped and squeezed his hands into a head lock, I was in perfect position to execute a painful pinning combination, known as the “Guillotine.” To explain the move, imagine a wrestling hold where the top wrestler’s legs twist one of his opponent’s legs into a pretzel. The down wrestler’s hips feel cut off from the rest of his body. His head and neck are pulled hard and fast in opposite directions from the rest of his torso. In short order, he struggles for breath. With his shoulders soon flat on the mat, it becomes a humiliatingly slow near-death experience. At least this is the way it happened during those wrestling clinic demonstrations.
“The Guillotine,” demonstrated by wrestler in the black shirt
Once I had secured my opponent in the Guillotine, I started feeling pretty comfortable. I could patiently wait for his submission as he gradually gave up.
By the Balls
To my surprise he didn’t give up. Instead he flailed one free fist at the back of my head, then swung his other fist at my crotch, punching wildly. He missed my balls but landed punches on my thighs. Then he opened the fingers of his left hand and grabbed my jock strap and squeezed my scrotum and testicles with everything he had. I was stunned. No one had ever played dirty like that before. It hurt like HELL.
In a split second I considered my options: give up and call it quits, walking away shamed and bow-legged, or fight back until this kid begged for mercy. His nut-grab was an astonishing shock. If he were getting more ferocious, then so would I. I grabbed his left wrist, but he would not let go of my sack and balls. As he pulled my flesh and pubic hair, I ached intensely. Ned was yelling at the guy I was wrestling, pleading with him to give up. Ned started to pull me off him, but the smaller Black kid pushed and taunted my brother. The anger escalated for all four of us as we fought harder. The kid in the Guillotine was squeezing my balls and stretching my scrotum as if HIS life depended on it.
Gritting my teeth and applying an accelerated torque on the Guillotine, I pulled and stretched my legs and arms, cranking up the intensity of my hold. The boy’s shoulders were flat on the mat as I dug my chin into his forehead, and pressed harder. He matched my pressure. I yanked my left forearm by his ear and my wrist lodged across his throat. Jamming my wrist against his bulging veins and wind pipe, I squeezed as hard as I could. My breathing intensified as my heart rate zoomed to the max. I was fighting for my life. The irony was that we were fighting over a basketball.
“The Guillotine” as pinning combination against Pitt
For about thirty seconds the kid rocked violently trying to buck me off his back in one final burst of rage. The more he struggled though, the more his wind pipe got cut off. After another minute of loud grunts, oxygen deprived, his eyes watered and he couldn’t breathe. Physically exhausted and turning pale, he slowly let go. His fingers released my testicles and shorts as he whispered “uncle,” the verbal white flag of surrender. No one was more relieved than I was.
It took us a few minutes to grab the basketball and hit the showers. My whole body stung when I the water pelted against me. I had multiple bruises on my head, face, thighs and scrotum. Waiting for our lift home, it was hard to walk straight-legged.
I could not run for about a week. But, I survived my rite of passage. From the moment my mortal enemy released my balls, I became a better wrestler. After that fateful Saturday my teammates from the Northeast Police Boy’s Club noticed the difference in my wrestling. I was the aggressor and I started to win more consistently. Coach Ron noticed and smiled knowing I had found my killer instinct. My teammate, Danny Chavez, said I was growing “a new set of cojones.” I took it as a complement and felt more part of the team.
I didn’t hate that black guy. I felt for him. He and his smaller buddy had to resort to stealing to get things they wanted. His crowd played by a different set of rules: they taught him to play dirty. He taught me some invaluable lessons:
- Be alert — never assume the same fairness rules will apply in a fight.
- There are times to be nice & times NOT to be nice — evaluate every situation and pick you spots.
- Get tough and get real — he had made me a tougher wrestler and more determined man.
- Be prepared to defend your manhood — size up the situation in matters great and small, or suffer the consequences.
- Play for keeps — when others are deadly serious, match their intensity.
- Lead with your strong suit — poor preparation and positioning could kill me.
Although I never knew his name, I credit that kid with the transformation of me as a wrestler. His fight or flight nut-grab gave me clarity. His earnest attempt to castrate me woke me up. I never won a Junior League title (my brother Ned did) nor a Maryland Scholastic Association championship (Greg Pfeiffer did), but through high school, college and 16 years of coaching, wrestling continued to an important part of my life.
A long-time business partner of mine always said I had a “fierce work ethic.” It is rewarding to think back nearly half a century and to know exactly when and where I found the balls to be fierce and courage to be a man. It is a stance that I practice every day parrying challenges and fending off mortal thrusts in the business world.
Henry, I appreciate the story about your nuts. I now understand the extra effort you used when demonstrating the guillotine in the McDonogh School wrestling room. Great story!
— Harry Klaff
Wrestling is old fashion.
It’s so strange when I read that you lived in Towson, since I don’t come across other blogs based around Baltimore. I live in the city just 10 miles away. I’m not surprised by what happened, black people can be especially underhanded and entitled. Good on you for teaching him a lesson he’ll never forget and for your growth!