Introducing LIVING THE GIMMICK by Bobby Mathews, a gripping novel on pro wrestling and its very real dark side!
“What if someone murdered the biggest wrestling star on the planet, and his best friend had to navigate the current ‘sports entertainment’ world to solve the crime?”
Introducing Living the Gimmick by Author Bobby Mathews
Pro Wrestling Stories senior writer Bobby Mathews joins us today to talk about his new novel, LIVING THE GIMMICK, and how he came to write what New York Times bestselling author S.A. Cosby (Razorblade Tears, Blacktop Wasteland) calls “a wild and surreal trip through the subculture of old school pro wrestling.”
We’re also excited to bring readers the first chapter and cover reveal of the book. But before we begin, here’s a little about LIVING THE GIMMICK, out May 27, 2022, from Shotgun Honey Books:
When retired pro wrestler Alex Donovan sees his best friend, former world champion “The Wild Child” Ray Wilder, gunned down in the street, he’s drawn back into a world of spandex, spangles, and spotlights in order to find the killer. As Donovan digs deeper into Ray’s life, he realizes that the list of people who wanted Ray dead seems endless.
Battling his aging, failing body, Donovan feels honor-bound to avenge Ray’s death when no one else seems to care. His guilt over escaping the wrestling business to build a new life when Ray couldn’t — or wouldn’t — drives him to find the killer, no matter if it’s friend or foe.
Living the Gimmick uses the backdrop of pro wrestling in the 1980s and its current climate to examine the strained bonds of a lifelong friendship and how an all-too-real abuser can exist without scrutiny in a showbiz world full of fake tough guys and choreographed fighting.
JP Zarka (Editor, Pro Wrestling Stories): Bobby, we’ve previously talked a lot about your love for old-school wrestling, and you’ve written some well-researched and compelling non-fiction pieces for us over the years. What was the impetus for writing a novel like LIVING THE GIMMICK?
Bobby Mathews: I blame my dad. In all seriousness, my father and I would sit down every Saturday afternoon for most of my childhood and watch Southeastern (and later Continental) Championship Wrestling from the WTVY studios in Dothan, Alabama.
We’d head to the Houston County Farm Center for the show later that night. There were a lot of times growing up when I didn’t have a thing in common with my dad except wrestling. It kept us connected. So there are a lot of my own memories and nostalgia that came into play when I was writing LTG.
JP: There was a lot of great wrestling in that territory!
Bobby: Absolutely. I got to see the very beginning of Hulk Hogan’s career, when he was making the territory loop as Sterling Golden, including his first-ever match against Andre the Giant — I mean, legit first — in Dothan.
Arn Anderson got his first real push in the territory. So did Sid Vicious, wrestling under a hood as Lord Humongous.
It was a really unique territory in that you had the mainstays like the Armstrongs and Fullers, but you also had a ton of young talent who came through. Masahiro Chono came through the territory on his excursion early on in his career.
The Freebirds, Michael Hayes and Terry Gordy, essentially got their start there. Hayes started as a referee and member of the ring crew before he broke in as a wrestler.
Yokozuna (then wrestling as Kokina Maximus) came through very early. Mick Foley, Paul Heyman, Shane Douglas — they all spent parts of their early careers in the territory.
JP: A lot of great talent. For our readers, LIVING THE GIMMICK is fictional, but the whole book feels like something that could have happened. How did you put the idea together?
Bobby: I’d had kind of a nebulous idea of putting together a wrestling-based book for a few years, but I needed an idea that would set the book in motion.
Several things finally came into focus for me — the revelation that Arn Anderson and Ric Flair had heat with one another after being “best friends” on at least a professional level for decades, plus the Harvey Weinstein trial and verdict.
The idea stewed for a bit, then distilled down to: “What if someone murdered the biggest wrestling star on the planet, and his best friend had to navigate the current ‘sports entertainment’ world to solve the crime?”
JP: There’s a duality to the story, where you describe events in the past and how they have bearing on the modern timeline in the story. You do it beautifully. How difficult was that to pull off?
Bobby: Once I realized the kind of story that I wanted to tell, it wasn’t really that difficult. Other writers will hate to hear this, but I wrote LIVING THE GIMMICK over the course of 28 days in February 2021. Submitted it to my publisher on March 1 and got the acceptance letter/book contract on June 25.
But here’s the funny thing to keep in mind when you’re writing about the old-school days of territory wrestling: Whatever you can come up with that’s fictionalized almost pales in comparison to the way things REALLY were back in the day.
Like, I think about the story I did for Pro Wrestling Stories about Dr. Jerry Graham retrieving his mother’s dead body from a hospital morgue and escaping with it.
Territory wrestling wasn’t quite “anything goes,” but many of the guys did whatever they could get away with. There was definitely an underbelly of outlaw culture to that era of wrestling.
JP: Kind of the Wild West in those days.
Bobby: It really was. There was a huge element of wrestling in those days that saw themselves as the insiders and everyone else outside the business as marks to be taken for as much money as possible. And to be honest, there’s still a part of the business — I can’t say how large — that’s still like that.
But I think one of the coolest things about writing this book is that when old-school wrestlers, veterans, guys who have been in the business a long time … when they read it, they react positively. They know I got the details about the business right. Because I’ve been in and around the wrestling business for years, it was important for me to treat the talent and the business itself respectfully.
JP: I got to read the book late last year, and I’m sure you got sick of my frequent DMs telling you how much I loved the book after every chapter! It’s great how you fictionalized some people that readers might recognize. And the payoff, solving the murder, is really well done. You set up serious stakes for every character. What do you do next?
Bobby: I have a book coming out in February 2023 called MAGIC CITY BLUES, also from Shotgun Honey. And later that year, Down & Out Books will produce DIRTY SOUTH: HIGH CRIMES & LOW LIVES BELOW THE MASON-DIXON LINE, a charity anthology that I’m editing along with Raquel Reyes, where proceeds will be donated to the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama.
JP: Do you have plans to continue writing novels about wrestling?
Bobby: I’ll probably revisit the subject in the future, but I’m unreliable: I write what comes to mind and chase weird stuff down whatever rabbit holes it goes.
Right now, I’m working on a Southern Gothic novel set in 1976 as Hurricane Eloise devastated the Gulf Coast. But wrestling’s a part of me. I don’t think I’ll ever leave it behind completely.
Pre-order an e-book copy at this link: Living The Gimmick.
Read Chapter 1 of Living The Gimmick – A Pro Wrestling Novel by Bobby Mathews
Pro Wrestling Stories is honored to bring you the first chapter of Bobby Mathews’s new novel, LIVING THE GIMMICK.
Closing time, when the lights come up, the music is silenced, and the drunks go home. The tabs get paid, the regulars shuffle out the door and weave their separate ways home. Sometimes the couples come uncoupled, recoiling in near horror at who or what they were considering taking home. Bright lights and last call are the enemies of the drunken hookup. Except when they’re not.
I walked the last ones out, turned the locks closed behind them, and emptied the tip jars. Hit ‘No Sale’ on the cash register and changed singles out for twenties and tens. The cash went in my wallet. I closed out the day, and the register began spitting out its daily report on a long, narrow white spool of receipt paper. While it printed, I restocked the cooler. Two cases of Bud Light, a half a case of Miller and another case of Coors. Wipe down the bar with a mostly-clean damp rag and then pour the last of the coffee into a thick china mug. I put it at the end of the bar and sat down to read the tape. The tension in my shoulders eased as I read the tape. It had been a good night, for a Tuesday. Might make my nut this month. Sip dark, bitter coffee and let the after-hours silence wash over me like a gentle wave.
The banging at the door didn’t startle me, exactly. Plenty of patrons leave their wallet, or their coats. I never open up after closing, though. They can reclaim their property the next day. It’s all the same to me. But this knock was insistent. Whoever it was didn’t plan on going away. He — it had to be a guy — would beat out’ shave and a haircut, two bits’ and then alternate with long, repeated paradiddles of a song I knew but couldn’t place. I waited.
He kept going for a full five minutes, and I kept getting madder about it. Finally, I dragged ass off the stool and went to the frosted, opaque door that said Donovan’s Public House in gilt letters. I unlocked the door and swung it open.
Ray Wilder grinned back at me, his bleached blonde hair swept back and gelled in place, wearing a tailored suit that must’ve cost more than my entire liquor inventory. He was wearing a camel’s hair coat, gold-rimmed glasses, and he smelled of good bay rum. He swept past me into the bar and whipped off his knee-length coat.
“It’s about time,” he said. “You always were a stubborn son of a bitch. Pour me a drink, would you?” He took a seat next to the end of the bar and picked up the tape I’d been examining.
“Jesus, that’s depressing. You used to make that just for walking in the building.”
I went to the liquor cabinet where I kept a bottle of Bushmills Black Label single-malt Irish whisky and pulled it out, along with a pair of glasses. I put one in front of Ray and poured a generous shot. My own was a little less generous. I knew the dangers of trying to keep up with Ray Wilder.
The creases around Ray’s eyes and mouth were deeper than I remembered. His hair was thinner, and his body was thicker. His face was tanned and lined from age. The scar tissue on his forehead looked like pink taffy. He was fifteen years older than me, and still in the life.
“Looking good, champ,” I said. We clicked glasses, and he drained his in one gulp. I refilled it for him, and he downed the next one, too. After that, he didn’t wait for me to offer the bottle. He grabbed it himself and poured dark amber liquor up to the rim. With two belts in him, he seemed a little calmer. His hands didn’t shake this time when he raised the glass, and he sipped a little slower.
“You can lie to your friends, and I’ll lie to mine, but let’s not lie to each other,” he said. “Jesus, the drive from Atlanta. You remember it?”
I did. A straight shot down I-20 out of the city and into the scrub pines of western Georgia, that feeling of flying along in the middle of nowhere with most of the exits dark and quiet after ten p.m., the bump at the Georgia-Alabama line and the sound of tires whining over grooved, rough pavement. A little more than two hours fromHartsfield International Airport to downtown Birmingham.
“You’re on the southern loop this week?”
“Yeah, the pay-per-view in Atlanta was tonight. Tomorrow we’re here. Then Dothan and Pensacola, finish up in Tallahassee.”
I shook my head, thinking of the lonely miles in the car. Professional wrestlers spend most of their lives on the road. I’d done loops like that for twenty years, took the money I’d saved and opened a bar. Ray was still at it. He didn’t wrestle anymore, but he was still out there at ringside every night, managing some kid the company thought would be the next big thing. He still took bumps, selling his ass off for the good guys. I tuned in every now and then, and he was still just as magnetic as ever. When he was on the screen, it was impossible to look away.
He was my best friend.
“It’s not like you remember it,” he said. “It’s all politics now. Whose ass you kiss, who your friends are.”
I tipped some whiskey into my coffee and swirled it around a little.
“It was always that way. You know that.”
He shook his head.
“You’re not there,” he said. “It’s worse. You can’t do anything anymore. They don’t want anyone to get over — they want the promotion to get over, not the performers. Do something to get yourself over, they’ll take you off TV.”
“You getting heat?”
“Nothing I can’t handle, but I’ll tell you, it changes the way the boys treat each other. We used to be on the same side. You remember that?”
“Sure,” I said. What I remembered most was that you picked your battles. You found guys who were like you, guys you could work with and trust, and you looked out for each other. The rest of the locker room was on its own. But Ray didn’t remember it that way. He was still on the road, still making the towns and putting on better performances than wrestlers half his age. He’d spilled more blood, wrestled more matches, and banged more women than anybody I ever knew. If he remembered things differently than me, what of it?
I was a long way and a lot of lonesome miles out of the life. Ray was still there, still running after the spotlight, still chasing the money.
“Now they got rules, I mean real rules, not like what we used to have. You know you can’t blade anymore? They had a cage match tonight, nobody bled. A cage match without blood is like a kiss without a squeeze, baby. It’s not like it was. We can’t bleed, we can’t cheat. I’ll tell you, it’s almost like having a real job.”
“So do something else.”
Ray took a look around the silent bar with its ghosts of patrons not-long departed. I knew what he was seeing. The champ was a guy who liked to party, who never let anybody else pay for his drinks, who stayed up all night just because he could. He’d been in bars all over the world. My place wasn’t much different than the saloons we’d run through twenty, maybe thirty years before.
“You mean like this?” Ray said. “Sling drinks for punk kids, do all that customer service shit? Buddy, you’re a better man than me.”
“That was never in doubt,” I said, and we both laughed. But I didn’t like the way Ray’s words made me feel small, as if there was something vaguely embarrassing about what I was doing. “What’s wrong with it?”
He kept looking. The bar where we sat was made of oak and worn smooth by time and use, an L-shaped thing that ran nearly the entire length of the narrow building. The stools were sturdy, swivel-seated things, and the tables scattered around the room were two-tops with matching black hardback chairs. There was a small stage, little more than a platform, where undiscovered musicians played sometimes for tips and watered-down drinks. Along the far wall was a line of high-backed booths so you could feel like you had some privacy. Beyond them, a small door led to a game room with a pair of pool tables and an old pinball machine that worked almost as often as it didn’t. The whole thing wasn’t much, but it was mine.
“There’s nothing wrong with it,” Ray said after a while. He shook his head, laughed to himself. “You always wanted something like this. You own the building?”
“Yeah, got a couple apartments upstairs, too.”
Ray nodded at the numbers on the tape.
“That what you make every night?”
“No,” I said. “But it’s pretty good for a Tuesday. Toward the weekend it picks up a good bit.”
“Jesus, it’d have to.”
Ray drummed his fingers on the table. I heard the tap-tap-tap of his Gucci loafers on the hardwood floor. There was something weighing on his mind. Ray was rarely nervous, and when he was, he couldn’t keep it in long. I figured he’d tell me what it was eventually.
“It’s good to have something. I never had anything beyond this, you know?” He didn’t wait for me to respond. “Hell, I never wanted anything beyond this. I don’t know, maybe my Daddy didn’t love me enough, but I never got my fill of it. You come out from the curtain and the crowd goes wild. Don’t you miss it?”
Did I miss it? The wrestling business is all-consuming. When I walked away from it, it was like I’d left a part of my soul, as if some important part of me had been amputated. Could I tell Ray that sometimes I walked around the empty bar and cut promos on non-existent opponents? Could I tell him that sometimes I still tried my old wrestling trunks and boots on? Sucked in my gut and pretended that I wasn’t fifty-something years old, acting like a kid playing dress-up. Sometimes I looked in the mirror at my own scarred forehead and wondered why I’d done it.
And then I’d think about the crowd screaming for my head. I’d think about the lights and the sweat and the blood. I’d remember the flights and the food and the booze and the women. Every morning when I woke up, I was in pain. My neck, my back, my hips, and my knees ached constantly. And if you asked me if it was worth it, I’d tell you yes, goddamn it, every moment had been worth it.
And Ray wanted to know if I missed it.
“Sometimes,” I told him. “Mostly I miss riding around in the Lear jets and limousines.”
“I miss that, too. You know what I rented when I got to Atlanta? A goddamned Toyota. We wouldn’t have been caught dead in a Toyota.”
That made me grin.
“The hell you say. I saw you pull up one night in Meridian, Mississippi, in an AMC Gremlin.”
Ray tossed off the rest of his drink.
“That was different. I drove the damned Mercedes off that levee by accident, you know that. Left the keys in it, too. I wonder whatever happened to it?”
That was the life, right there. It was the 1980s and the era of conspicuous consumption. If Ray wrecked a car, he went out and leased another one. He didn’t finance anything. He didn’t have to. He was making a million dollars a year as the world champion and flying into St. Louis, Portland, San Francisco, Dallas, Tampa, Atlanta. The road was his home, and the money piled up. I’d been in the business for a couple of years myself before we met, and I was bringing home a thousand a week in a little backwater promotion based out of Pensacola, Florida. When Ray pulled up to the arena in that Gremlin, it changed my life.
Ron Baskins was the promoter, a lanky Tennessee hillbilly who’d bought the territory from his cousin and was busy upgrading everything from the rings we used to the arenas we ran. He wanted everything to be first-class, but on a budget. So he paid to have the world champion come into the territory every time he could get dates for him. Ray usually drove himself from town to town, but when he wrecked that Mercedes, Baskins approached me in the locker room and asked if I’d drive the champ for the rest of the tour.
Back in those days, driving the champion around was considered an honor, and I was glad to take on the duty. But with Ray, it was also a bit of a trial. He never slept. After the matches, we’d stop at the nearest gas station and buy a case of beer. By the time we got to Ray’s hotel, he’d be lubricated and ready to hit the bars for a couple of hours. But a couple of hours was never enough. We’d find ourselves closing the place down and bringing the party back to Ray’s room, where he’d finally fall asleep at six in the morning.
Those drives — and those days — were long. Ray would catch a few hours of sleep in the hotel, work out, and then sleep in the back seat while I drove him to the next stop. There were days that were nothing more than a blur, where I’d had as little sleep as him, but I was the one who was behind the wheel, struggling to keep my eyes open all the time. But I did the job for him, got him to the arenas safe and sound, and kept up with him on the nights when the neon called and nobody went to bed. It also helped that he liked my work in the ring and on the microphone. So when a job opened up in his home territory, he pulled a few strings and I was in.
That’s when the craziness really started.
Ray would walk out onto the set of Unlimited Championship Wrestling, dressed in a tailored navy blazer and gray slacks. His tasseled loafers probably cost more than my first car. His crisp white shirt shone on the monitor like an angel’s wings. He’d hold the title belt in two hands, proudly displaying the world championship for the fans to see and appreciate. And then he’d talk the fans into the building. He’d get them to give up their hard-earned coin to go watch the world’s heavyweight wrestling champion.
And then he’d add a little something extra.
“Now, tomorrow night, I’ll be in Las Vegas, Nevada, staying at the Sands Resort and Casino, darlin’. I’ll have my best friend, Alex Donovan, with me. And I want all you young ladies to know that if you’re between the ages of 18 and 28, we’ll be looking for some company. No husbands or boyfriends allowed. Leave ’em at home, girls, and you’ll have the time of your lives.”
The next night, we showed them why we belonged in Sin City. There were so many women in the hotel lobby that we had to fight to get up to the room. Eight young women made it into the elevator with us, and one of them was sporting a black eye. Ray’s shirt was torn, and his belt was missing. The fly on his slacks was open. I’d been groped, kissed, and hugged. One of my shoes was missing.
“Jesus Christ,” I said. “I think I had more sex in that lobby than I’ve ever had in my life.”
One of the women on the elevator looked at me with cool brown eyes and said “You ain’t seen nothing yet.”
Her name was Pam, and she had me naked before we ever got to the room. Lord knows I went willingly enough, and by the time we stepped inside Ray’s suite, she’d shed all of her clothes, too …
That was the start, and there were hundreds of nights like it afterward. Ray wasn’t just the life of the party, he was the party.
One time I woke up in the same bed with him, the bodies of three women separating us. Neither of us remembered what happened. We never mentioned it.
And I left all of that behind. It’d been five years since I set foot in the ring. I wasn’t too injured. Wasn’t too old. I was just done. There comes a day when you realize that you look like shit in your trunks, that no amount of good lighting can hide the toll that the road and the bumps and the bruises and that kind of life takes on you. When that happens, you have to get out.
In my saner moments, I was glad I’d gotten out when I did; it was too easy to see myself in Ray Wilder’s shoes, riding an endless loop of appearances around the country and the world, spending money faster than I could make it so that the road became a treadmill I could never get off. Ray’s nickname was ‘Wild Child,’ and it fit him. He often told people that he’d never retire from the business. The truth was that he couldn’t. He was a wrestler. He didn’t know how to do anything else.
We sat at the bar for a couple of hours, old friends passing the time together, but he never told me what was on his mind. Eventually, the bottle of Irish was done, and so was I. Ray stood up from the bar to put on his coat. Other than a slight reddening of his eyes, I couldn’t see that the alcohol had much effect on him. I wobbled him to the door, unlocked it, and opened it. He walked outside, but turned around to hug me before he left. “I wanted to talk to you about something,” he said. “I don’t—”
The gunshot sounded loud, and blood and brain matter sprayed my face. I threw up my arm, but not in time. I should have closed my eyes. I watched my best friend fall across the threshold of the bar I owned, saw half of his head missing. His bleached blonde hair was soaked with blood and his one good pale blue eye rolled in its socket and his Gucci loafers beat an unsteady beat against the floor. His breath hitched, and hitched again. I watched his chest. Somewhere, someone was moaning “No. No. No.” over and over again, and it took me a minute to realize that it was me. I grabbed Ray’s hand, squeezing, begging him to squeeze my fingers back, to let me know that he knew I was there. And then his chest stopped moving.
Someone must have called 911. I don’t know who. I couldn’t do it. I kept holding Ray’s hand. As long as I held onto him, he wasn’t really gone. The paramedics finally pried my hand loose from his and moved me to one of the straight-backed chairs near the stage. They checked me for injuries while I watched them load Ray’s body into an ambulance. I don’t remember if I responded. When it pulled away, there was no siren. That’s when I accepted that my best friend was dead. He’d been murdered right in front of me, and I didn’t do anything about it. I watched the crime scene people come and take measurements, pictures, the whole nine yards. Time passed. I’m not sure how much, but the dark night sky was lightening toward purple by the time they were done. I sat in the chair and didn’t move. Didn’t speak. Didn’t do anything. I could have called someone, I suppose, but it didn’t seem to matter much now.
“He’s in shock,” one of the paramedics told a plain-clothed cop. “I don’t think you’re going to get much out of him.”
“I’m fine,” I said. My voice sounded very far away, as if it were coming from underwater. The cop asked for my ID, and I dug my wallet out of my back pocket and passed it over. He looked, saw my name, and recognized it from the name on the pub door. I didn’t say anything else.
“Sure you are,” the cop said. “Have you got keys for this place, Mr. Donovan?”
I did. Somewhere. The paramedic found them in my right front pocket. She took them and passed them over to the cop. The two of them helped me up and then we went outside, and I watched them lock up. They ushered me toward the back of a second ambulance.
“No,” I said.
“You need to go to the hospital,” the paramedic said. Her name tag said ‘Styes’ in bold, black, blocky letters.
“Sir, you’re in shock.”
“Him,” I pointed at the cop. “I’ll go with him.”
They exchanged glances. “Hell, I gotta question him anyway,” the cop said, and escorted me to his car. I got in the back, ducking my head to keep from smacking it against the low window frame. The cop shut the door behind me, and I looked back at my bar. Donovan’s Public House in flowing red neon. It should’ve meant something to me, but the sign felt unfamiliar somehow, as if either it or I had become untethered from reality. I leaned against the back seat of the cop cruiser and closed my eyes. I didn’t know where we were going next.
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