I LOST A MATCH ON Nov. 12 against my former tag-team partner, Kevin Gutierrez, who wrestles under the colorful name “Corn Boi.” It was a classic Lucha Libre stipulation match. I put my mask on the line, and Kevin would cut his shoulder-length hair if he lost. Mask versus hair—or, as they say in Mexico, mascara versus cabellera.
We had many tried-and-true plot lines going for us. Teacher versus student. Old friends and tag partners who were now fighting furiously against each other. Older, bitter, crotchety veteran wrestler—that’s me—frustrated with this not-so-serious newer generation.
It was a good story. All the while, I knew how it would end—with me losing my mask and announcing my retirement from wrestling. I’ll wrestle a goodbye match or two next summer, but essentially, I was done.
When I put on the mask at age 40, I remembered a line from the great wrestling journalist Dave Meltzer. He wrote the obituary for Junkyard Dog, the African-American grappler who was a Main Event star and drew tons of money in the New Orleans area and later in the World Wrestling Federation. “If he had kept his weight under control and continued training, he could have been a star into his 50s like Ric Flair, The Crusher or Dick the Bruiser.”
Right there, Meltzer had given me the formula for longevity in the sport.
Ric Flair also said in his podcast that the enemy of any professional wrestler was inactivity. So, for the past nine years, I’ve tried to keep a regular wrestling schedule. If I didn’t have a match, I headed up to the Black & Brave wrestling school in nearby Davenport, Iowa, and worked out in that hard ring.
It all helped. My work actually improved as I had regular access to a ring for the first time in my career. My body felt good. I eliminated the heavy weights from my training, especially exercises that stressed my lower back.
I kept my weight under control. At five feet nine inches, I never allowed myself to go above 230 pounds, even during the holidays. Most of the time, the scale read around 215, and occasionally I got to a fit 208 pounds. With my tan, and dedicated work in the gym, I looked the part.
Kevin and I worked hard at the school. I insisted we train the way we performed in front of a crowd. It was invigorating to finally be able to work on my craft in a way I had never done.
When I was young, I wasn’t willing to move to locations that would have given me the chance to get in the ring and train with other pros. To be in a position to get to work with Kevin was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. Even at age 48.
After several long practice matches last summer, I could feel the repercussions. A headache was a given. When I went to wrestling school in 1994, we were hyper-focused on our bodies. Our neck, back, shoulders and knees were our injury concerns. Those were the dangers that weighed on our minds.
But our minds—our brains—were not a concern. Now, it was becoming one for me. The science of concussions and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a progressive brain disease, are today well-known and ominous.
The physicality of the sport also let me know that, while I could handle both the rigors of the training and my young contemporaries, my recovery was slower. It took me days or a week to recover fully from a 15-minute training match.
What was most heartbreaking was seeing something so clearly at my advancing age that I never thought about in my 20s. I had talent. Some of the kids who graduated from the intense, three-month training program at the school didn’t have the same aptitude for the life of a wrestler.
I was an athlete. Some others didn’t move as naturally in the ring. I saw countless young men hit the weights hard and still not look all that impressive, considering the time they were putting in.
My body had always responded to training. I loved pumping iron, which some wrestlers considered more of a required chore. Lifting weights cemented what I had been feeling since I turned 40. Wrestling was my calling.
I had pursued it, yes. But I had never given it the time, sweat and dedication that the craft demanded. I was always negotiating the price. As I approach turning 50 next March, Father Time was telling me I was pushing the limits.
It didn’t matter how long or consistently I trained—the end was near. Especially if I wanted to dictate my last chapter, rather than have it decided for me.
As we age, we begin to feel more physically vulnerable. You hesitate to climb on a roof or step too high on a ladder. All because you see or experience firsthand the physical dangers that life presents. You lose the invincible feeling of your youth, the blissful ignorance you had in your 20s.
When I would climb to the top rope of the ring to deliver an exciting move, my balance was not what it once was. My awareness of the risk I was taking, however, was ever-present.
Pursuing your passion, versus following the safe route, is something folks have been dealing with for many centuries. HumbleDollar’s editor offered this great piece of advice a while back: “I’d put in a plug for earning and saving starting in our 20s, so we can pursue our passions in our 50s, when we likely have a better idea of what’s important to us.”
That’s great advice if your talents and pursuits are cerebral. But what if they have a large physical element? I wish I could retire at 55 from the chemical plant where I work and then hit the road to do wrestling shots all over the country. But for my dream, that’s not an option. As Warren Buffett once said, “It’s a little like saving sex for your old age.” My passion had a limited window, and it passed long ago.
After the match, my kids and I headed to Applebee’s for a late-night meal. I told them this would be an aspect of the business I’d miss. My wallet was full from the generous pay. We drew a great crowd and the promotor paid me well—$300—plus my daughter sold lots of merchandise. I came home with more than $600 in my pocket.
The match was good. I had delivered in the ring. For the fans, for the promotion company, for Kevin. My kids and I were all smiling and enjoying the meal and the glow from the evening. It was nearing midnight, well past my bedtime. But I knew the euphoria from the evening would keep me up late.
A few days after the show, Kevin and I had a chance to talk on the phone. After our conversation about the past few days, he asked me how I’d felt at the end of our match. How did it feel in the ring taking off the mask with my sister, my nephews and my family in the audience? With the fans and wrestlers all watching and thanking me for my career?
Grateful. Grateful was all I could think of. To have been physically able to get to that match, when the summer before I was questioning if I could reach the finish line and allow us both to have this moment. Grateful to have had a dream, and to get paid for it.
Grateful to have been able to pursue it and enjoy everything that came with the journey. And—most of all—grateful that I was able to maintain my health, my job at the chemical plant and my family along with it.
Juan Fourneau’s goal is to retire at age 55. When he isn’t at his manufacturing job, he enjoys reading and writing about personal finance, investing and his other interests. Juan, who is married with two children, retired from the ring after wrestling on the independent circuit for more than 25 years. He wrestled as a Mexican Luchador under the name Latin Thunder. Follow him on Twitter @LatinThunder1. Check out Juan’s previous articles.