I almost scrolled right past the headline.
It was warm for an early April afternoon in Chicago. I was walking home, my head cocked toward the sidewalk as I caught up on my Google Reader unread list. I picked out the name of my friend as the headlines flew past. His assumed name, that is. My friend Alex was a pro wrestler named Larry Sweeney.
It didn't register with me at first, those dashed dates signifying one's passing. For that brief moment between seeing the headline and reading the article, I assumed it was some sort of work. Or maybe Alex had quit the business. The lead blasted away any delusions I was making up in my mind:
"I just heard about the passing of Larry Sweeney tonight..."
I rushed home. I remember debating whether I should call Alex's ex-girlfriend. She was the reason I knew him, and she had been my point of contact for news about him the last couple of years. I don't know if I called her that day or not.
I do remember Googling his wrestling name. I read everything: news items, obituaries, opinion pieces about deaths in pro wrestling, user comments on articles. It's weird to read about your dead friend. It's even weirder when you're reading about your dead friend on a wrestling website.The thing that took me most by surprise was just how hard I took the news. Alex was a friend, but one that I had spent limited time with. We met in 2003. I was 18, and living in a 2-bedroom house with four or five or six people. Alex and his girlfriend moved into a tent in our backyard for the summer, pushing our household occupants near double digits. In a house full of hippies and punks, we bonded over pro wrestling.
There are certain cues that tell you just how much of a fan someone is, and I knew that Alex and I had the same sort of passion for pro wrestling when he pulled out a snail mail copy of the Observer. We spent the next three months swapping stories of our favorite moments between 1985 and 1998, that wrestling sweet spot for anyone born in the early 80s. He told me about his plans to go to wrestling school in Pennsylvania, and this idea he had for a character called "Sweet and Sour" Larry Sweeney. I thought it sounded campy.
Alex and his girlfriend left for Pennsylvania at the end of the summer. I saw him a handful of times after that: twice stopping in Bethlehem, PA, on trips to visit my then-girlfriend's family in New Jersey; twice when he wrestled in Plainfield, Indiana, for Ian Rotten's IWA Mid-South; and twice on the streets of Lakeview in Chicago when he was homeless and in a manic phase of his bipolar disorder. I didn't stop to talk to him because it scared the shit out of me, and I wasn't sure he would recognize me in his condition. I regret that now.
You hear a lot of hyperbole about the deceased: "He could light up a room." "He could always put a smile on my face." "He just had a certain aura about him." But that's how I felt about Alex. He was so smart and so charming and never failed to make me laugh. When I finally saw him wrestle, live and through the miracle of YouTube, Alex made me feel like the 8-year-old kid I used to be, the one who loved to watch rented WrestleMania tapes with his dad.
I could write so much about Alex the performer, but you're better off typing his name into a Google video search and watching him for yourself. Instead, I'll share a couple of personal anecdotes about Alex Whybrow, the person, my friend.
1. I only remember seeing Alex drunk a single time. I came home from a night shift to find him and our roommate Dave shirtless. Their chests glowed a beet red, and everyone in the room was laughing. Apparently, someone had gotten the idea to start a chop contest, and these were the last two men standing. For the next couple of minutes, I watched them run across the room and knife-edge chop each other across the chest. Like a good heel, Alex put Dave over.
2. Fast forward a few years. I was living in Las Vegas. I hadn't spoken to Alex for a while when I found a voicemail from him. There was no hint about the reason for the call, just that I should call him back. It turns out he was calling me backstage from Monday Night Raw. He had played the part of Hulk Hogan's son, Nick, in Randy Orton's parody of the Hulkster's reality show "Hogan Knows Best." His one line, handful of poses, and subsequent toss from the ring were more entertaining than Orton had been during the entire 8-minute segment. I was so glad that he thought to call me.
3. At his memorial service, his ex told me his family had asked her to take care of the things Alex had left behind. She brought his gear to give away to his wrestler friends, but she also brought his old wrestling figurines, and asked if I wanted one. I'm not one to turn down free swag, especially when it comes with the remembrance of a dear friend. This now sits on a shelf in my office:
I'll leave you with my favorite Larry Sweeney moment. At a CHIKARA show in Allentown, Sweeney challenges a 10-year-old boy to an arm wrestling match in the ring. Hilarity ensues.
12 LARGE, BROTHER.