James began training for a career in professional wrestling as a fifteen-year-old with the support of his mother and father, both of whom have spent their careers in sales, under the caveat that he maintained his grades. Shortly thereafter, his parents divorced, and wrestling became a source of bonding between James, who continued to live with his mom, and his dad, who moved into an apartment less than a mile away in order to remain closely involved in James’ life.
“I was angry with the break up, but it never deterred me from wrestling because it was also something that my dad and I connected on,” James explains. “Anytime we were angry, we could always step out of the anger zone for a little while and say, ‘let’s talk wrestling, let’s watch wrestling.’”
“There was one time, he was dating a woman who had a couple of kids, and I remember we were sitting there in his livingroom watching Wrestlemania, and the boy called, and my dad told him, ‘I’ll call you after I’m done watching Wrestlemania with my son.’ And I thought, ‘wow, that’s pretty cool.’”
Training to be a professional wrestler would also prove to be an opportunity for James and his mother to bond, as she would drive him from their home in Riverside, up the 215 freeway during rush hour traffic to wrestling practice in San Bernadino, only to come back and pick him up at eleven o’clock at night to make the pilgrimage back, all while having to get up early for work the next morning.
“Ever since I was a kid, I always wanted to help people,” says James. “When I was growing up, after I figured out being Superman wasn’t going to work, I thought I’d be a firefighter. Everyone knows a firefighter! Then I thought I’d become a doctor. Then I was gonna be this, or I was gonna be that. I would say, ‘I wanna help people,’ and my parents would say, ‘O.K., so you wanna help people. Be more specific. You could become an insurance broker and technically help people.’ Oh, well I wanna help people with medical need. That’s how I ended up going down that path.”
Following high school, James would be accepted into the UC Riverside Biological Sciences department, which meant medical school was sure to follow. Before attaining his degree however, James would attend an EMT (emergency medical technician) course on a whim with a friend who had asked him to tag along. James became instantly enthralled. The ability to work with patients immediately, as opposed to waiting to complete medical school, appealed to him. It wouldn’t be long before, while working in the E.R., James’ co-workers began to see the potential and enthusiasm in him and started recommending that he pursue nursing, both as a way to better utilize his talent for comprehension and his natural tendency for compassion. James quickly recognized nursing as a conduit to expand his horizons, learn and do many different things, and potentially, to help more people, and began working to become an RN. Not to mention, James would be a little relieved to leave the craziness and the anxiety of the emergency room behind him.
“It’s been tough. I enjoy doing the commentary and helping out backstage, but I always want to in the ring, out there performing. That’s what I got into it for,” James laments.
James arrives at the Long Beach Convention Center for one of the biggest shows of the year for the organization that he considers his “home” fed, Mach-1 Pro Wrestling. The event is in the back area of the busy exhibit floor of the larger Long Beach Comic Convention, which appears as a giant geek swap meet filled with vendors all pushing their costume-clad pop culture offerings. He appears, as always, clean cut and professional, wearing pressed khaki pants, black dress shoes, and a sky blue collared button-up, but there is one noticeable addition: a blue sling (naturally, matching his shirt) in which his casted right arm sits. It has been a mere two weeks since James suffered his injury, and only a week from the surgery that left a steel plate and ten screws inside him. James was to perform in one half of the double main event tonight, but the injury would force him to the sidelines, a replacement called upon to take his match.
“Luckily they’ve been nice enough to still keep me there.”
James moves from person to person, offering up a warm “hello,” and a half-hug and awkward handshake with his left. He greets everyone the same: the interns who have just finished setting up the sixteen-foot by sixteen-foot ring, the show producers and management staff, and fellow performers. He does not need to go far to reach everybody. As word travels that James is in the building, bodies file out of the backstage area to greet the former two-time champion, and to show their concern for his well-being. James sheepishly downplays the injury, flashing his traditional broad smile which one might imagine has been expertly trained to disarm, calm the panic, and relieve concern as it does in his fellow grapplers. They, as always, are happy to see him. Almost as happy is he seems just to be there.
“First and foremost, I’m a fan. And once it’s in your blood it’s in your blood. I personally enjoy entertaining, that’s why [when nursing] for the kids I would do magic tricks. I think I had more fun with it than the kids did,” James reveals. “I just love to entertain. I’m not a six-foot-seven, crazy haircut having guy with a bunch of tattoos all over my body to where if I was walking down the street you’d think, ‘oh, yeah. He’s a wrestler.’”
As if on cue, a wide-eyed, fifteen-year-old fan approaches with his father. The two have attended many of James’ matches, and this is the first time they have seen him since the injury. Despite his villainous persona, James speaks to the boy as if he were a long lost friend, updating on the progress of his healing, while seemingly downplaying the severity of it all.
“I was really looking forward to seeing you and Nick Madrid tonight,” says the boy’s father. “It was sure to be a heck of a match.”
“Yeah, I was looking forward to kicking his butt too,” James plays up. “Don’t worry though, I’ll get him eventually.”
The fans depart after the youngster nabs a playful photo with James (it is still several hours yet from show time). James then turns his attention to his mistress, ascending the steel steps and gingerly stepping between the top and middle ropes into the ring (making sure to deliberately wipe his feet on the outside apron beforehand). He leans his broad shoulders against the ropes and bounces off of them lightly as if he is readying to take off across to the other side of the ring—but he doesn’t. A pair of performers working out their match for later in the evening clear out of the way for James. He steps softly from corner to corner, allowing himself a couple of small hops in the center. In this brief moment, the gregarious smile is gone, replaced by an expression of wistful longing. In that moment, it appears that James has gone some place far away—perhaps to the night he broke his collarbone, or maybe to a time months down the line, when he is again able to wrestle. What is clear is that he already missed it, and if one didn’t know better, the mournful creaks of the ply wood boards underneath the canvas and the cry of the ropes as he leans against them might suggest that the ring already misses him just the same.
“Are you hiding any drugs in your body?”
This is the first question after, “first name, last name, date of birth” that James asks every inmate that is being processed into the Orange County Men’s Central Jail at the intake window, the third they must visit after booking and fingerprinting. This is the last action that is taken before the person is booked and led to their cell. Here, perhaps more so than even in the E.R., acquiring that trust is of dire importance.
“Working in the jail, my promo skills have helped me. Not so much, ‘brother,
I’m gonna tear your heart out!’ But you wanna have that compassion, and at the same time, you also need to step in the role of being stern with your patients,” James says. “When you have guys that are methed out or whatnot and it’s not, ‘what I’m gonna do to you!’ But you need to get information out of them, so you can change your voice or whatnot, from a conversational to a more informed tone. I can let them know I’m there to help them, that I’m hired by the county, I’m hired by the health care association, not the Sheriff’s Department, I’m not your arresting officer, I’m there to help you.”
If working in the emergency room allowed James to see the best and worst of humanity, working in the cold, pale, fortress of white and blue painted brick and plexiglass merely allows him to see the worst. James has to process all of the worst types of offenders imaginable: rapists, child molesters, murderers, and has to do so while staying true to his Hippocratic oath. It is this ability to overcome his personal emotions and channel an inner being disconnected from the person’s actions that allow him to treat them, and is a trait he credits to his professional wrestling training.
The disposition of those that come in for booking, as well as inmates who are already housed who come in need of medication or some other form of treatment, runs the gamut. On one occasion, two women were being processed on a drug charge and denied having any in or on their person. James had to pass them on to a female nurse who had them strip down, squat, and cough, at which time one woman produced a meth pipe that she had been hiding in her vagina, and the other a bag of drugs that she had hidden in the same place. On another occasion, a convicted murder came in hopes of scoring some pain medication to take back to his cell for the likely purpose of trading amongst other inmates. When James told him “no,” the inmate let James know that if he could get his handcuffs off, or if he ever saw James outside of the jail, he would kill him.
“Even if a guy is coming in for murder, you still have the obligation as a nurse to help,” James says. “Even though I may be freaking out inside, even though it’s the right thing to do, I can carry myself with a confidence and let them know I’m telling them the truth, that it’s fact, even if I may be freaking out a little bit because the guy is twice my size and if he wanted to he could snap me like a twig. And I’m not a small guy….but he could snap me like a twig.”
Those were the last words James said into the microphone during the semi-main event at “Wrath of Con III” while performing commentary before bolting from the broadcast position. His formerly scheduled opponent, Nick Madrid, was beginning to get the upper hand on James’ replacement Shaun Ricker. Suddenly, James was up on the ring apron like a flash, in a move that drew Madrid’s attention enough to allow Ricker to nail him from behind and score the win. Following the match, Morgan would enter the ring, despite the handicap of having his dominant arm in a sling, and begin peppering the fallen Madrid with punches from his left. The crowd, including the fifteen-year-old boy and his father, became incensed, as James raised Ricker’s arm in victory. James would make his presence felt again during the main event match, in a melee that would see James’ rival Madrid team with two other heroes to vanquish Ricker and two villain partners in an impromptu tag match. James would remain at ring side, every firey, and letting the crowd know that he would not let a broken collarbone, a steel plate, and ten screws render him completely impotent. At one point after the match, a young man in his late teens or early twenties would be nose to nose in James’ face, threatening to fight due to James’ heinous actions—a fight from which James was not about to back down. After several mediaries separated the two, James would trash talk the hot-headed fan all the way until James went through the curtain to the backstage area, at which time, there was another addition to his ensemble: a wide-open smile of pure elation.
“Watching him as an artist is amazing because he’s so talented. He can pull off what most people cannot,” Imrie offers. “He’s as nice as anyone could ever be. There’s no angle there…what you see is what you get. But he’s also very believable when he’s playing his villain.
Concluded in Part III