WHEN THE lights shut off and the bells began to toll, Nick Wilson paced back and forth in the darkness, knowing they tolled for him.
Once the crowd heard the sound boom through the amplifiers Saturday night, they rose from their seats in a hockey rink turned wrestling arena at the Flyers Skate Zone in South Jersey, and began a chant that Wilson remembered well.
It was time for Wilson, 34, to become “Nick F’n Gage” again, a legend in the bizarre world of ultraviolent wrestling who’d lost his crown and his freedom to painkillers back in 2010. Wilson shed addictions and 50 pounds with endless reps, rain or shine, in the prison weight yard, and now the bells told him it was time to do what he loved: smash chairs over opponents’ heads and leave blood on the canvas again.
“Nick F—ing Gage! Nick F—ing Gage,” the crowd roared on the other side of a black curtain.
Once those opening bells to Metallica’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls” gave way to heavy guitars and drums, Wilson quickly tied a black bandanna around his head and another around his face until all you could see were his eyes. He burst out from behind the curtain, embraced his older brother, Chris, for a few seconds and climbed into the ring as the crowd welcomed him back to the Combat Zone Wrestling league.
In 2011 when the Daily News interviewed him in the Camden County Jail, Wilson had predicted he’d return to the ring. The native of National Park, Gloucester County, had been arrested for robbing $3,000 from a PNC Bank in Collingswood a few days before Christmas 2010. At the time, he said he was homeless and broke, spending all his CZW winnings on painkillers.
Fans of CZW recognized Nick Gage’s trademark shaved head and dark beard immediately from the bank’s surveillance footage, and helped police identify him. He was the league’s first heavyweight champion and a Hall of Fame inductee.
Wilson took a plea agreement and was sentenced to serve at least four years, three months and one day in prison.
He was released March 31, and he sat down with the Daily News again last week at a diner in Audubon, Camden County, just a few miles from that bank.
‘Only one way to go’
Sporting ripped biceps and forearms that had been shredded by barbed wire or broken glass or both, he ordered steak and eggs and discussed a new, Zen-like philosophy.
“The past is the past,” he said. “It’s all about the future, one day at a time. It’s a cool way of living now. I’m pretty fired up for it. I was living that other way, and it sucks. You don’t realize how bad it sucks when you’re in it, but once you’re out of it and look back on it, man, it’s terrible. I came to grips with it pretty quick. I hit rock bottom, and once you hit rock bottom there’s only one way to go.”
Wilson is living in Haddonfield with his longtime friend and wrestling referee, Brett Lauderdale. Wilson said Lauderdale is the only one who visited him consistently when he went to the New Jersey Department of Corrections’ Central Reception and Assignment Facility in Trenton, and later to Jones Farm in West Trenton.
Lauderdale had him wrestling in events in New Jersey, New York and even West Virginia, almost as soon as he was released, and Wilson said his strict prison-workout routine made it easy to get back into the ring.
“The food in prison is horrible, all starches and sugars and ramen soups, and I initially got a job in the kitchen and blew up to 250. I was eating like six meals a day,” he said. “One day I said, ‘I got to get right,’ and I dropped down to 195.”
The Camden County Jail was the worst, he said. He slept on the floor until he found a cell that had an open bunk and told its occupant he was sleeping there, like it or not. At Jones Farm, Wilson said, he worked with cows, shoveling 10,000 pounds of food a day into their troughs.
It was a quiet time for him, he said.
“You’re waking up every day next to other men, [and] sometimes something’s going to happen,” he said, chewing on his steak. “I got the respect I deserved in there, you know what I mean?”
Most people there were “crybabies and quitters,” he said, although he befriended a former Temple University football player named Sean Szarka and they trained together almost daily. There weren’t many sobriety programs in prison, Wilson said, so he simply went out into the yard and worked out, even in the middle of winter.
“The weights were my rehabilitation,” he said. “When you get right physically, it changes you mentally – at least, it did for me. You’re still an addict, but you just live one day at a time.”
Getting caught was a blessing, Wilson said.
“You know what pills lead to?” he asked. “You’re going to Camden, and anything can happen in Camden.”
Watching Nick Gage videos on YouTube could get you in trouble at work. They are violent and bloody, bordering on the absurd, and although professional wrestling is choreographed, the stuff that Wilson was doing was always one slip or miscalculation away from a body bag. He was hit with chairs and tables nearly every weekend for years, and he’s had a whole high school’s worth of fluorescent-light tubes smashed over him.
Once, in 2009, a broken bulb stabbed into his armpit and got him airlifted to a hospital. According to legend, he died along the way. “Just wrap it!” he’d yelled before the chopper came.
Wilson doesn’t look at the videos in the same way as his die-hard fans. He sees a flabby addict, just going through the motions of body-slamming opponents off utility vans.
“I was out of shape,” he said. “The last year was my most popular year wrestling, but it was my worst physically. I look back on those videos and think, ‘I sucked.’ ”
A hero’s bloody return
On Saturday, hours before his return match with CZW veteran Drew Gulak, Wilson mingled with other wrestlers and employees at the Flyers Skate Zone in Voorhees, while female wrestlers grappled in the CZW ring that had been erected on the rubber hockey rink. There were plenty of hugs and handshakes. Wilson, in Gage’s trademark long jean shorts and Michael Jordan jersey, reiterated his commitment to a better way.
“I was on a different path back then,” he told a wrestler in the locker room as he laced up his tall, black boots. “I want to live the right way.”
CZW owner D.J. Hyde said the league is like a family, albeit a crazy one, and it had felt incomplete without Gage, who was perhaps the craziest of them all.
“He and I have battled together and bled together,” Hyde said. “I’m proud of him.”
As the sun set, Wilson began to pace the warm-up area behind the curtain, stopping often to stretch his legs. He stopped mingling, except for a brief interaction and hug from Hyde.
Metal bands like Slayer and Metallica played in his earphones.
“Old Metallica,” he stressed.
Once Gage and Gulak were in the ring, they almost immediately left it, charging through the crowd, hitting each another with chairs, ramming one another’s heads into the metal fencing. It was complete chaos, and the crowd, which included a few toddlers, loved it.
“Make him bleed! Make him bleed!” they roared.
The two wrestlers tossed one another off the top ropes and twisted each other’s backs, and each took boots to the face. Gulak won the match, and afterward Nick Gage stalked the ring, growling into the microphone, his back covered in some new wounds to accompany the healing scabs.
“Drew Gulak, what we’re going to do is, we’re going fight again,” he bellowed. “This time, we’re going to make it ultraviolent style.”
The fans who’d waited so long to see Gage weren’t deterred by the loss.
Sean Lobins, 24, of Somerset County, N.J., had a sign that simply said Nick F’n Gage and he described his hero’s return in the appropriate CZW fashion.
“It’s f—ing great to see him back in the ring,” Lobins said.
“There’s no doubt in my mind he’ll be back on top.”
After the match, Wilson went outside with his brother. The two men talked under a streetlight in the Skate Zone’s parking lot. It appeared that Chris, who wrestled for CZW as Justice Pain, was giving his younger brother some pointers, just like when they were kids, tempting fate and breaking furniture in makeshift backyard brawls.
Nick Wilson said his parents both died of cancer. Addiction severed his relationship with Chris, but he reached out and asked him to come watch him Saturday night.
“My brother was living the right way. He’s got family. He’s got a good job. He’s just a good guy,” Nick Wilson said. “We’ve gotten back in touch. I’m kind of fired up for that, too. It’s very exciting. I look up to him.”
Earlier, when “For Whom the Bell Tolls” was still blaring through the arena, Chris Wilson had maneuvered himself to the curtain to greet his brother as soon as he came out. They embraced for a few seconds, and it wasn’t choreographed by CZW.
Then Chris moved back into a dark corner of the arena, folded his bulky arms and watched the match. His eyes welled up a little, but he didn’t cry for his kid brother.
“This is where he’s most comfortable,” Chris Wilson said, keeping his eyes locked on the ring. “This is where he belongs.”