Modest in Spandex
Story and Photos by Jessie Runyan-Gless
The Tokyo Dome is packed, and 58 thousand fans yell in anticipation of the four-man tag team match. For Modest, fighting in the Tokyo Dome is the most defining moment of his career. He didn’t win a belt or get a shot at a title match, but he realized that he didn’t care about wrestling as much as he thought he did.
It was a point in his life when he began to understand the gift of children and spending time with the people he loved. “[These] are really the only things you get to take with you past this life,” he says. “All of the fair-weather fans that I’ve met along the way that I don’t remember, and don’t remember me for the most part, [makes for] a pretty empty life.”
Professional wrestling can be an even tougher career on the faithful family man, as temptation lies beyond the ropes of every ring. Once a wrestler makes it to the professional league, lusting women persuade them to find the comfort of home in the confines of their bed. In this sport, if a married man chooses to forego temptation, he is called a “gentleman” as Modest says. In Japan, he was one of those men. Once he denied himself the swooning women, he had to accept that the remainder of his fans didn’t wear lipstick and knee-highs. However, Modest loves his fans, and says he is able to find something in common with almost all of them.
Michael Modest commands respect rather than asks for it. He is a figurehead for West Coast Wrestling Connection, an independent wrestling league based in Salem, Oregon.
Almost every month, the wrestling league makes its way to the Regional Sports Center in Springfield. Jeff Manning, the owner, works hard to give this league a community feel. Joan Valdez, well known by the wrestlers of the WCWC, gets emotional as she speaks of Jeff. When Joan was down-and-out, abandoned by her daughter, Jeff was there to help in any way he could. Once she was able to find a place to live, she had no money left to furnish it. Jeff provided her with some furniture to make the place feel more like home. “He has a heart of gold,” she says.
Troy Frink, Valdez’s partner in crime, nods his head as she tells her story. He is one of the few fans at the event who is able to get a word in edgewise on Valdez, and knows more about amateur wrestling leagues in Oregon than the wrestlers themselves. Between Frink and Valdez, the wrestlers endure a lot of verbal abuse in and out of the ring, but this halts when Modest comes from behind the curtain.
In Springfield, Modest is the most beloved wrestler. Kids scramble to get his autograph, grown men struggle to high-five him, and other wrestlers respect him. Joan Valdez has his picture printed on her T-shirt and screams, “Mike [Modest] will kill you!” to his contenders.
After seventeen years in the profession, Modest is a seasoned wrestler with a realistic outlook on the sport. The illusions he once had regarding professional wrestling have slipped away, and today he views it as any other job. “[There are all these] things you think it is going to be, and you find out that it’s not. It ends up being a regular job,” he says, though to the rest of us it is anything but regular.
Modest spent twenty-four weeks out of the year in Japan up until four years ago, and found it nearly impossible to balance family and work. “[When traveling], I’m really truly happy about ten minutes a day; [the] ten minutes that I am in the ring,” he says.
As the glamour of the job has faded away, the constant abuse to his body has begun to surface. Modest laughs at the people who write professional wrestling off as fake. Though some moves may be discussed prior to the match, the pain is real.
Modest was fighting the Brown Bomber Robert Thompson when he broke his ribs. He felt a hot sensation in his chest and couldn’t breathe for a minute. Once he got his breath back, the Bomber picked him up to throw him back into the ring. Modest noticed the swelling on the left side of his ribcage where the break was located. His broken ribs shifted as he moved, and came close to piercing the skin. When Bomber threw him, the swollen area caught on the apron (the fabric that covers the floor of the ring) and he was unable to breathe again.
At age twenty-two, Modest was fighting Fatu in Modesto, California. Fatu back-dropped him over the top rope, and Modest landed on the floor in the splits. He tore his ACL in his left knee.
Later, he tore his ACL and meniscus in two places in his right knee while training wrestlers. “Everything we do in there is real. When I body slam somebody, I am picking them up and I am body slamming them. He is landing on his back.” As he says, the business demonstrates how much abuse the human body can take. “Pro wrestling is an indefinable sport,” he says. “There are parts of it that are fake, and parts that are very real.”
When two men are wrestling against each other in the ring, both want to win regardless of what the promoter has told them to do. “Wins mean video games, posters—payday up,” says Modest. “Both of them want to make money [and] both of them want to feed their families. You get a lot of heat inside the ring … If someone gives you something that was out of line, you give it right back,” he says.
Once, without thinking anything of it, he sent one of his fans on MySpace a few signed posters. The gesture meant the world to the young boy. He told Modest how he had cancer, and that he was a role model to him. “[The boy] said, ‘you give me a lot of hope, because I figure if you can get slammed around in the ring like that, then I can beat cancer.” Currently, the boy is in remission.
The last time Modest was in Springfield, a family of four loggers bought him a beer. The youngest was around ten years old and goes to every match in Springfield with his father. He asked his dad if he thought Modest would come and sit with them for a minute. His dad told his son if they bought Modest a beer and asked him to come sit, he probably would.
The kid walked up to Modest and said, “We want to buy you a beer.” Once Modest had the beer, the kid said, “Now we bought you a beer, will ya’ come sit with us for a minute?” Modest laughed and said of course he would, regardless of the beer. There couldn’t be a more suitable name for this wrestler, as his demeanor is what sets him apart from others.
In Springfield, the West Coast Wrestling Connection fans are wild, the wrestlers are outrageous, and any vacant chairs go unnoticed by all. Modest puts the same heart into the show as he did while wrestling at the Tokyo Dome in front of nearly 60 thousand people. As Modest walks through the curtain to fight Dr. Cleaver, his face is mean, his jaw is clenched, and his light-blue eyes are piercing. Even in spandex, his masculinity is daunting. His loyal followers go nuts. The people of Springfield croon. Their hero has entered the ring.
Watch the video here.