Wrestling a Bear
We were minding our own business in a back room of a bar, shooting pool. It was on the western edge of Avon Lake. We were celebrating Steve’s 21st birthday. Both of us were fresh out of the Army and our other best friend, Mike, was home from college.
A stranger walked in and casually asked if we wanted to wrestle a bear. No’s quickly turned to contemplation quickly turned to hell yah, as long as we’re all in.
We were led to the parking lot to sign our “rights” away on some forms. Years later, the same owner of Caesar the Wrestling Bear would be in the news for one of his bears mauling a man to death. It doesn’t take much imagination to understand how a captive bear trained to bar fight night after night would turn. On this night, we were wrapped in a cocktail of invincibility that combined bravado with ignorance.
We needed to capture this life experience, or death, for the record so we called – of all people – my mom. She agreed to drive across town, bringing her camera. Later, we’d get grainy copies of a video tape shot by a neighbor’s friend who was there that night. The neighbor thought he was just watching a bunch of crazies on film until he recognized me, so he dubbed a copy of the tape to give to us.
Caesar was a full grown black bear. He looked enormous, especially when he stood. Plus, he had his teeth and his mouth was not taped closed as some anticipated. He also had massive bear paws and claws that were not restricted at all. The smell of real danger began to seep in as we were introduced to Caesar and given some pointers. Sudden movements, loud noise and over aggressiveness by any of us could make the bear “defensive” and not “playful.”
Oh, and one particular pointer stuck with me, “Just make sure he doesn’t accidentally hook you in the corner of the mouth with a claw because he’ll rip your cheek straight up without knowing it.”
The handler sized us up and looked at Mike, Steve and me saying, “Usually, smaller people have a better chance of pinning him down because he is more playful with them.”
The reward for doing so was something like a cool grand – certainly incentive to give it our best shot. The pecking order went Mike, Steve, then me.
Mike was a tall guy with a pretty solid build. He entered the closed off mat (a.k.a. dance floor) and definitely had a serious look on his face. The bear must have gotten a bad vibe from Mike because he got rather aggressive. The trainer separated the bear from Mike and gave Caesar a firm reprimand. Meanwhile, Mike looked at us as if to say, I want out. But he was in – up to his neck in. The match continued. Mike tried hard, maybe too hard, and the bear got all crazy again – even rearing up on his hind legs. They ended the match and took the bear out to the parking lot to calm him down.
I was so happy Steve was next and not me. When that thing came rumbling back in, it was ready for business. Steve’s a scrappy fighter and wasn’t fazed by much in those days, but he quickly hit the mat, hard, and looked up …fazed and then some. You could tell there was nothing to be done once that bear had you. Its weight and strength determined your range of movement. It wasn’t up to you what happened in there, it was entirely up to Caesar. Moving Caesar would be like trying to move a brick house. It wasn’t going to happen unless he allowed it to happen. He wasn’t allowing Steve to do much. When Steve came off the floor, he was dripping in sweat, exhausted by the energy he expended.
My turn came. I had tried to learn from observing Mike and Steve plus remembering the pointers the trainer gave us.
Once in the ring with this beast, a voice popped in my head screaming, “What the hell are you doing here?”
I wasn’t fairing much better than Steve and Mike. The bear used one paw and swatted me down like a rag doll. Before I knew it, he was on top of me and I couldn’t budge. It took every bit of strength I could muster just to move my hand an inch, even then I could only manage to do so because Caesar allowed it to happen. I talked with a friendly, playful and calming voice. I moved slowly and didn’t look him in the eyes.
That’s when the unthinkable happened. We were both on our feet. I moved in and he went down – because he was playing and took himself down. In an instant, I was on top of this massive creature.
Now, let me slow this description down and zoom in. I went from not knowing what happened to staring at powerful jaws inches from my face, breathing in the animal’s hot, stale breath. I slid one hand over and Caesar let me press his paw to the mat. To get the other paw stretched out and down meant I’d basically have to get close enough to kiss Caesar on the mouth, my neck fully exposed.
“A-A-A-A-And we have a …” before the DJ could say “winner” Caesar was up and I was down.
And that’s where I stayed for the rest of my time.
When I regrouped with my friends, none of us felt well. The acid in our stomachs, the exertion out on the floor and the rancid bear smell all over us was all we could stand. We went behind the building, saturated in sweat, and heaved everything from our stomachs and then some.
When I looked up, one of my friends said, “Dude, your neck is bleeding.”
By Rocco Satullo, author of a memoir and novel