When I was wrestling in our youth wrestling program I had the pleasure of spending a lot of time with Billy Kelly. At the time I didn’t consider it even remotely a pleasure because he would routinely pound the ship out of me. It wasn’t until years later that I had come to realize just how much of an influence Billy had been to me on and off the mat. Billy was a couple years older than me and even at a young age was quite an awesome wrestler. Billy had taught me several things but 2 of the things that I remember most vividly are perseverance and giving that extra effort or never giving up. There was one specific day that has stuck with me to this day and was probably one of the most critical days in my life in so many ways. Although at the time it felt like just another one of Billy’s “enhanced interrogations”. The funny thing is Billy isn’t even aware of this, until now maybe.
Perseverance– Billy would pound on me and make me continue to fight. As in teasing me he would get on top of me and fish hook my nostrils, squeeze the pressure points under my arm pits, dig his elbows in my rib cages or cause me severe discomfort from several different methods. He never would let me quit though. As in some type of strange painful motivational technique, Billy would continually cheer me on to take more. The odd thing about it was, I envied him so much I would go along and it would quickly turn into a one way battle to see how much I could take. I’m sure there are plenty of maids or innocent bystanders that went home that night and told their families about some type of CIA enhanced interrogations . (Ok, I embellished here but I’m sure we supplied some very unusual dinner table talk for many families). Now, imagine getting pounded on by one of the best wrestlers in the state and he’s not letting you quit. Maybe I should have called it forced perseverance at that time because I really did not have a choice. Billy would do this in the hallways at hotels, parking lots at events and at least one time on the mat. I’ll never forget this one time on the mat at a summer tournament (I think at Navy Pier in Chicago) I had a bad sun burn. It was so bad I had blistered on my back and had to wear a T-shirt under my singlet. I had to wrestle Billy and for some reason I had a serious lapse in judgement. I thought that because we were at a big tournament with several hundred wrestlers and only a few of us from our club I made the mistake of thinking Billy would have a heart and not beat up on a “friend” from the same club at such a big tournament of unknown wrestlers, at least unknown by me. Here’s the lapse, I told Billy before our match about my sunburn–now for those of you who know Billy you can stop laughing now. I did say it was a lapse in judgement. That was my first mistake. My second was not medically withdrawing from the tournament. Like withdrawing was even an option back then. My parents were the type that once you signed up for something, you saw it through–no options. That’s why I was there in the first place. I had registered for the tournament and my parents planned on taking me so sunburn or not–I was participating. So during my prematch discussion with Billy I laid it out to him. It went something like this, “Bill, I have a terrible sunburn and that’s why I’m wearing this T-shirt, the ref would never let me wrestle without it. So please just try not to make it too bad”. Billy looked right in my eyes and said, “don’t worry Mike, I’ll make it quick for you”. The match came along and he pounded the ship out of me. Every chance he got he would grind my back into the mat or dig his knuckles into my back. Never did make it quick. Didn’t pin me at all. Ran the score up to like almost 30 to almost nothing. The pain was so severe I was crying on the mat. After the match I went into the stands by my parents and cried some more. Instead of crying I should have taken the shirt off. I wasn’t even thinking about that though and by the time I got around to it, all the blistering had popped and the fluid from my blisters dried my shirt to my skin. Peeling the shirt off was literally like peeling the top layer of skin off. Actually, not like peeling it off–that’s exactly what my Mother did, peeled the top layer of skin off on a large portion of my back. The dried blister juice acted as a type of glue–hope you’re not eating dinner.
A while later after I was done crying and finished bleeding. Billy came up to me and explained the lesson to me and that lesson has stayed with me to this very day and I’m sure will be in my thoughts forever. Billy said, “Mike, don’t ever tell someone what your weakness is before a match and when you step foot on the mat, don’t think that anyone is your “friend”. Your opponent is there to rip your head off. You could be brothers off the mat but on the mat you’re opponents and either he tears you up or you tear him up. But know that someone is getting tore up. That’s the entire idea in a one on one combat sport. When you step off the mat, you can go back to being brothers or friends”. The second lesson he taught me was;
Extra effort/ don’t give up– I don’t have as graphic a story about this one but it is a continuation of previous perseverance. When Billy talked to me after I had calmed down from the beating of a lifetime he unleashed on me he said, “I’m so proud of you that you never gave up. I gave you the beating that you’ve probably never had before and you still wrestled till the very end. You could have quit and that’s what I was pushing you to do but you never did. Now don’t you feel good about at least being able to say that you gave it your all for the entire match, wrestled under extremely painful conditions and still never quit”. Now I knew that I wouldn’t beat Billy Kelly,with or without sunburn.But winning wasn’t my mindset at the time. My mindset was pure survival. My secondary mindset was to lose the best way I could. This was more subconscious at that point than a conscience effort. Meaning that after training your mind for so long to just always do your best I believe at times like this, when you are performing under such diress, your brain just goes into auto drive and your hours and hours of preparation will kick in and your mind will tell your body to just do its very best. Billy did go on to claim credit for contributing to my ability on and off the mat, especially when it came to being tough when needed. He’s probably right although I have an older brother that contributed his fair share to making me tough. Regardless of who is deserving of the credit, the fact is I was receptive to it. All the training and coaching in the world will not help if you, the wrestler are not willing and ready to be “coachable”. This is one of the reasons why I am the person I am today and I believe it is because I was always ready and willing to learn. From going to my brother Dan’s high school wrestling practices with him in 7th and 8th grade every day to Billy contributing his unorthodox training. The fact is it was a combination of all things and by all people I came into contact with that helped me be able to later survive 8 back surgeries. Now after being forced into early retirement from construction management at 47 years old, I continue to find things that I am passionate about and explore ways in which I can help others. One of my favorite sayings now is, you nust let go of the life you had planned to make room for the one that awaits you. If you or someone you know are having a hard time with a back injury and need some support, please forward my information to them. Mike cell 708.559.4997. Thank you—pain is a terrible thing to suffer through alone. I’m here to help.
If you couldn’t tell by this article and if you follow me on Facebook, I respect the entire Kelly family a great deal. I am so glad I had the opportunity to compete on the same team with them, have their Father Coach Jim Kelly instruct me and to be able to call Jerry, Paul and Billy friends.
This past May me and a fellow team mate from back in the day
Greg Flores put together a reunion of the 1978 state champion Chicago Ridge Park District Wildcats in the IKWF. After 30 years it was really great getting together with Head Coach and creator of the team Mr. Jim Kelly, Jerry Kelly, Paul Kelly and many others. Facebook is really deserving as the tool that brought us all together. If I can leave you with a couple things I would hope it’s the very valuable and life changing lessons that Billy taught me in way of perseverance and extra effort and also that time is very important. If there is something you want to do, don’t wait for tomorrow because tomorrow is promised to nobody.
By Mike Houston Contributor to True Wrestling Insider