Day One of the inaugural DeNucci Cup and the reintroduction of the HOFC Championship.The beginning of a new chapter for the majority of the High Octane roster. A nine week journey that would ultimately tell the story of one battle tested Champion, and in turn twenty seven separate failures of varying degrees and heartaches. Twenty eight linear stories with little room for interpretation in between, as cut and dry as black and white.
Yet somehow I stumbled upon the shades of grey.
The night of the bracket draw, there was one name I wanted nothing to do with. I wasn’t privy to the entire field of play, but I was okay with any other scenario than fighting this man. It’s not that I feared him. It’s not that I thought I couldn’t beat him. I wouldn’t even say that I respected him. There was just something about the ‘kid’ I couldn’t quite put my finger on.
But as luck would have, destiny gave Teddy a big ol’ Fuck You.
Day One. Teddy Palmer versus Zeb Martin.
Everything happens for a reason though, right?
Our fight with one another didn’t quench the High Octane audience’s rabid thirst for #97red blood, that’s for damned sure. It was a technical spectacle, and it only ended when I was fortunate enough to catch the kid with farm-hand strength in a triangle choke. I took my shot, and counted myself lucky to walk out of that cage with the dub. Zeb earned my respect that night. He shook my calloused hand with his head held high, showing a level of class not many twenty year olds are capable of carrying themselves with.
And I couldn’t help but feel guilty. The same type of guilt I felt beating Red in the semi finals of last year’s LBI.
That’s when this weird thing happened.
In all my prior experiences, after waging war and earning another competitor’s respect, it’s commonplace to grab a drink, hit a strip joint, or simply part ways while looking forward to the ‘see you down the road.’
Not this duo, though. We took to the streets of Chicago. We decided to go sightseeing.
Kendra Collier and Lindsay Troy tagged along. Zeb’s mouthy, yet endearing little sister and the woman who has loyally remained his watchful eye in this otherwise treacherous landscape. A woman who I’ve long admired and, if truth be told, have been smitten with for the better part of a decade.
Like a fuckin’ school boy.
Lindsay that is, not Kendra. I feel the need to specify having been in cuffs once already due to a misunderstanding involving that teenybopper…
Our sightseeing led to further hangouts, prank phone calls, comforting one another through shitty times, like oh, I don’t know, one’s car being set ablaze. They chose to root for me, and I, in turn, chose to root for them. They celebrated my win over Scottywood, much like we celebrated Zeb’s upset over Sektor. They also comforted me when I reached my exit lane during the Elite Eight. The Miracle Man punted my nuts and dumped me on my fuckin’ head, punching his ticket to try his luck with, and ultimately get facefucked by, Dan Ryan.
The DeNucci Cup didn’t turn out to be my destiny, and the history books will forever read that I lost. But my story is far from one of failure.
I won on a much larger scale.
All the way back on Day One.
February 12th, 2021
The smooth oak frame clasped firmly between my hands, an Angelic halo created by the sunlight cascading through the window behind the grey-toned country plaid couch encompasses the beautiful family portrait. Mrs. Collier, who upon meeting her has kindly requested I call her Allison, is the picturesque mother and wife. She beams with pride and joy. Her family is her everything. Her children, Zeb, Kendra and Mackenzie, share identical smiles that have been nurtured with unconditional love. The strength of those sibling bonds is easy to feel, their poses natural, loose and full of life, rather than forced, stiff and fake for the sake of an illusion for others. Lastly, the unnamed husband-slash-father in the photograph stands strong and tall, knowing he’s the luckiest man on God’s green earth. His eyes are the only set not looking into the camera, his ocean blues shifted ever so slightly towards his wife and children. He is their rock. He is their protector.
It’s a portrait I can’t possibly relate to. Not from Zeb’s point of view. Not from the Patriarch’s point of view. It’s something I wished I had growing up. It’s something I dream of having down the road before it’s too late.
“Hmmmm…” I slyly grumble, looking around the quaint family living room, still its only occupant.
My eyes dart back and forth. My ears twitch, listening for footsteps. In the clear, I slowly slide my thumb over Zeb’s stepfather’s face. Looking at the four remaining faces, I can’t help but snicker, imagining myself in his place. Allison’s husband. Zeb’s dad. Their rock.
No wait, their boulder.
“Naaaaaaah…” I exhale, shaking my head at the silliness.
I slide my thumb over his face once more. I purse my lips, and nod at the thought of my imagined alternate reality.
It’d be a real shame if his truck’s brake lines were faulty, I ponder. These two broad, muscular shoulders are perfect perches to cry on, no doubt. Would they be willing to live anywhere but Georgia?
What the fuck Ted!
Calm down! I wasn’t serious, I quickly convinced myself. It was just a joke. Just goofin’…country boot goofin’. Check that sense of humour of yours…
After jumping back and forth through the hoops of an internal argument, there’s one certainty that isn’t up for debate: Zeb’s Mama is a fuckin’ rocket!
Definitely not what I was expecting at all. I hate to feed into stereotypes, but during my five hour trek from Nashville, my mind wandered and created an image of the woman I was on my way to meet. Plump, round and curvaceous. Her body would be a mystery, hidden beneath a floral print muumuu. Her not-so-golden locks would likely be bleached dry. The God awful perm wouldn’t help one bit. Her fire hydrant red nail polish would match the lipstick stains on the cigarette filters in the communal ashtray. An old school Southern gal, you know what I mean?
Boy let me tell you was I fuckin’ wrong.
Sure, Allison is slightly rough around the edges, but in an endearing, mother of three kinda way. Her locks are indeed golden. Shoulder length and slightly wavy, there’s no perm in sight to damage a single strand of hair on her head. A muumuu draped over her frame would be a crime, her body perfectly suited for a slim black slip dress. And don’t even get me started on her delicate facial features. Fuck me. The voice in my head screams ‘STELLA!’, the Southern belle sharing an uncanny resemblance with Ted Mosby’s ex-fiancée. I’d be hard pressed to remember the actress’s name, but damn is she gorgeous.
Pulling myself back down to earth, I push my brief and unrealistic daydream of murder aside, and concede her husband is one lucky man.
And Zeb is too.
I’d have killed to grow up in a family like his. Well, minus the Southern drawl. But fuckin’ wealthy beyond belief with what truly matters in this life: love.
“One day. Maybe…” I mumble.
My iPhone dances on the table in front of me. Placing the picture frame back on the table bookending the couch, I grab my phone to check the text alert.
Make it to Big Mama’s house? Watch out for Kendra’s hunting knife. ; – )
I can’t help but crack the slightest smile at the sight of her name. “Just maybe…” I say to myself.
“RUXPIN!” The booming voice of a demon causes me to drop the phone. My heart sinks into the pit of my stomach. “Whatchu doin’ here!” It doesn’t ask me so much as demands an answer.
The bane of my existence blocks my only viable exit. The sassy fifteen year old is positioned with her hands on her hips, her right foot ratatap tapping on the hardwood floor.
“Just you, uh, stay over there. I’m here for your mom.” I blurt out nervously, being that the last time I was in this girl’s presence, I was arrested.
“Wut you say?” Her eyes widen.
“No no no. Not here for your mom.” I begin. “Here to talk with your mom. About Zeb, that’s it. Scout’s honour.”
Her chocolate brown eyes soften with suspicion and she begins to let her guard down, if but only slightly. “About Zeb, huh? Everythang’s alright?”
“Everything’s great. I just…” I pause, looking for the right word. “Owe it to your mother to talk with her.”
She’s rolled her tongue in front of her top row of teeth, pushing her lip outward. Her suspicion remains, and the finger now pointing in my direction indicates as much. “My eyes. On you, Theodore Bear.” She proceeds to point her fingers at her peepers, then back at me. Repeat.
“Kendra!” Allison’s voice interrupts as she pushes her way through the threshold, well-worn coffee mugs in each hand. “Be nice! Quit harassin’ our guest and go’n now.”
Kendra slithers behind her mother’s back, making sure she is out of view and swatting range. She continues with her intimidating eye lock, boney fingers issuing her threatening message before vanishing into the hallway with ninja-like stealth. Standing up the slightest to meet Allison halfway, I take one of the mugs while offering my thanks for the hospitality. Sitting back down, she opts to perch on the loveseat perpendicular to the couch.
“You have a beautiful family.” I say, looking at the photograph, then back towards Allison.
Silence proceeds. Coffee cools in its mug. More uncomfortable eye contact is made with Zeb’s kin.
“I uh, really like your house,” I compliment, struggling to navigate this conversation.
“Let’s cut the bull hockey, Teddy. Why you here?” She cuts to the chase. “To what do I owe this visit?”
Man the fuck up, Teddy Boy. Just spit it out already….
“I’m here to ask for your son’s hand in partnership.”
What in the hell was that? Maybe I should have taken another second. Possibly two?
“Well, Theodore,” she begins before taking a sip from her mug. “Ain’t too shore my son is…you know…”
“No no no. Not that, that’s not what I’m saying. Asking. Uh…” I wipe the sweat off my brow. “…Tag partnership.”
“Ohhhhh,” she says, leaning forward with skepticism. “Zeb won himself quite the opportunity and you done decided tuh fly in like a buzzard. You want Mama tuh get in his ear, steer him in your direction. That it?” The claws of this protective Mama Bear are clearly showing.
“…Not quite.” I hesitate, mirroring the Matriarch, leaning forward. “I already know he’s gonna pick me.”
She bites her lip for a brief moment. “Oh. Well if that’s the case, why’d you come down here?”
Looking at the family portrait once more, I realize I didn’t need to make this trip for her. Or Zeb. But for me.
“You know, I didn’t have that growing up,” I say, referencing the picture. “A father I could look up to. A mother I could always count on. I have a big brother who was everything to me but my big brother.”
“I’m sorry, hun,” she offers.
“And the one friend I kept close, who I truly believed to be the brother I needed…” I pause, thinking back to the friendship that lasted nearly twenty-five years. “Well when I started to become the successful one, when I became more than just his comic relief, he jumped at the first opportunity to take his ball and go home.”
“Again…” she says solemnly.
“I thought I needed to do this for a number of reasons. I wanted to come here and assure you I could be a big brother to Zeb. I could be a guy he one day looked to for fatherly advice.” I pick up the picture, smirk, and look back at Allison. “But he doesn’t need that. He has all the family he needs right here.”
“Yes he does. And he always will.”
“I can’t relate.” I offer with a hint of self pity. “You know, he really did choose a shitty career. As did I.”
“But I can’t even begin to explain how much I love it. How infectious it is. How it works itself into the fabric of your existence. I’m sure he’s told you as much.”
“I’d be lying straight tuh yer face if I said I was happy he decided to do this,” she nods. “But he’s happy. And that’s all I want for my youngins.”
Spoken like a true mother.
“And I hope to God he never loses that. You’ve raised one of the most genuine men I’ve ever met, and that’s a real rarity in this industry.” I say. “He’s so fuckin’…”
“Aheeem,” she cuts me off, pointing at the Cross hanging on the wall to her left.
“Sorry ma’am…” I say, awkwardly bowing towards the Religious symbol.
“Right. Allison.” I oblige. “He’s so young and innocent, blind to the grief and bitterness this industry can breed. I’d hate to see his twenties take the wayward turn mine did. He deserves so much fu..uh..ricken?” I kind of ask to which she nods approvingly. “…more. He’s got a better shot than I did, that’s for sure. And I want to be there for him. I want him to be able to count on me like I wish I could have counted on those who I needed most. Cause if there’s one thing I know that’s for certain in this line of work, there’s no hiding from the legacy you leave behind.”
“You mean this kinda legacy?” Kendra’s smarmy voice interrupts us.
Standing in the threshold once again, the light-footed rascal stands tall, holding her MacBook firmly in her hands. She’s turned the screen to face us, and it takes me a moment to focus in on the image she has displayed.
“KENDRA!” Allison yells. “I DUN TOLD YEW…”
February 2012. Sexton Hardon aka Teddy Palmer in a mankini. Proudly, I clutch my trophy, having won that evening’s bikini contest.
“What, Mom?” she asks, unabashed.
“Gimme that computer and get tuh your room.” she orders the little hellion.
“Ugh!” is all the teenager can spit out before giving her mother the device and stomping off.
Allison repositions the MacBook on her lap, the screen facing her. She tilts her head to the side while looking at the picture, then looks up at me. Back at the picture. Then up to me.
“Don’t leave much tuh imagine, huh?” she scoffs.
“No. No it does not. You might be inclined to say I’ve had my fair share of missteps along the way…”
“Oh Teddy.. I know all about your mess ups. E’ry. Single. One of ‘em,” she states bluntly, closing the computer before placing it on the table. “You on’t thank I’d vet the company Zeb’s go’n keep?”
“Right…I will, uh.” I begin to stand up. “Just see myself out on that note. Thank you for the coffee…”
“Sit down.” She orders in a similar fashion to Kendra’s banishment. Her motherly tone has me compelled to do so, so I listen. “I also know a good man when I see one. Didn’t have that when I had Zeb, but shore got that intuition now. And as weird as ‘is whole meetin…situation…cluster’s been, I ‘preciate the sentiment behind it. My son could use a real friend like you.”
I’ve been through the ringer when it comes to camaraderie, losing that childhood best friend. Her last nine words aren’t lost on me, and I didn’t know how much I needed to hear them.
“And I know I need a friend like him. Now more than ever.” I lean back into the couch, this time Allison mirroring my movements.
“You know…that legacy you talkin’ bout? Remember this: the ink you writin’ with don’t dry ‘til you’ve long left this earth. So keep writin’ your legacy. It ain’t finished yet.”
“Thank you…” I delay before going all in on it. “Mom…”
“Teddy,” she looks down her slender nose at me. “You three years younger’n me.”
I didn’t hear a no…
“I promise you, I will not do your boy wrong.”
“I know you won’t. I can see it in your eyes.” Her sincerity is comforting. “That being said…”
“If I break that promise you’ll rip my nuts off and make me wear them as earrings?”
“‘Scuse me?” she asks, taken aback, not sure she heard me correctly.
“Growing up that was my mom’s favourite threat…” I take in a mouthful of coffee.
“Ooooooh, I like that. I’ma use that one on my husband,” she laughs, waving her pointer at me as a means of thanks. “But naw, I won’t be doing that. You wrong our boy and I’m not the one you gotta worry about…” A sly grin spreads and that wagging pointer is now directed behind me.
The coffee in my mouth becomes a mist in the air. Behind me stands Kendra. How the fuck she got there, I don’t know. She rustles her right hand through my mane of hair before gesturing a throat slash with her left.
She fuckin’ winks too.
“JESUS CHRIST!” I scream.
“THEODORE!” the Collier girls shout out in unison, pointing at the Cross.
February 17th, 2021
Pinched between my index and thumb is the closest thing I have to a family portrait of my own. My thirty-third birthday, I’m seated in front of the french vanilla homemade cake, inscribed with, you guessed it: ‘Happy 33rd Birthday!’ Bin stands to my left, arm around me, Sarah to my right, arm also around me. Andy stands behind the three of us, his arms outstretched, resting across his mother’s and father’s backs. It was the best birthday I’ve had yet.
And that’s saying something, seeing as on my twenty-seventh I watched Grady Patrick get knocked out by a ladyboy in Thailand.
Dropping the photograph into the duffel bag laying at my feet, it’s the last of my possessions to be packed up in this garage, my home base for the past nine months. Looking around, it’s harder than I thought it’d be to say goodbye to these four walls. Well, not so much these four walls, I suppose, but rather the Lee family.
My surrogate family.
“All packed up?” Bin asks, entering through the man door off to the side.
“I think so.” I say, kicking my lone duffel bag. “Not that I had much to pack anyway.”
“Yeah. You’re kind of…” he elongates his sentence. “…a hobo.”
“I prefer the term ‘free spirit.’”
He laughs. I laugh. Silence.
I reach out and pull Bin in, embracing the man who’s done so much for me when he owed me absolutely nothing. We both squeeze equally tight in what appears to be a game of chicken. Who will let go first?
“Thank you for everything, Bin,” I say, not letting go. “I wouldn’t have been able to turn it around without you.”
“Nah,” he replies, not letting go either.
“Yeah. You, Sarah, Andy. You showed me what a normal life looks like. Taught me what healthy relationships are. How to have self worth in a world more than willing to chew you up and spit you out.”
“We may have guided you, but you’re the one living it. I’m proud of you,” he admits, and I can feel the warmth in his voice.
“…son?” I ask.
Bin loses our game of chicken, letting go. He laughs, but shakes his head no. “How many times do I have to say no?”
“Just say it once!”
“No! Go out there, live life and you be someone’s daddy!”
“Ooooooh. Kinky.” I bite my lip and wink.
“You know what I mean,” he shakes his head, my brand of humour still growing on him.
“Yeah, yeah,” I reach down, picking the duffel bag up.
I throw it over my shoulder with ease, it’s just a few articles of clothing and a picture after all, and we depart the garage. In the driveway, Sarah and Andy wait, bundled up against the chill as snow falls from the winter sky. My taxi is parked in front of the house, and its driver glares at us, looking on impatiently.
Fuck him, though.
“Sarah,” I say, giving her a hug.
“Take care, Teddy,” she smiles.
“An-deee,” I lower my voice, trying to act cool.
I fail miserably in my attempt. He forces a laugh to soften the blow, but our fist bump is real. I go in for a hug, but he pushes away.
“Gaaaaay,” he says, emitting laughter from myself.
It’s short lived, however, as his mother reproachfully swats him upside the head. Not wanting the same fate, I shake my head disapprovingly towards him, my hypocrisy shining through. He rubs the back of his head, looking my way, trying his best not to smile.
“Seriously guys. I can’t thank you enough. You’ve given this not so young man the tools to finally make it on his own. I’ll never be able to repay you for what you’ve done for me.”
“Just don’t look back. That’s repayment enough,” Bin offers.
I smile and embrace Bin one final time. He walks with me to the taxi, his hand on my shoulder. Nothing more needs to be said, the silence between the two of us speaking volumes. Opening the door, I toss my bag in with little care and slide into the backseat. Bin, one hand on the top of the door frame, the other on the rear wheel well, leans in ever so slightly.
“Go get it…son,” he finally concedes, offering a cheeky wink before slamming the door shut.
My smile stretches from ear to ear, making this pending permanent move from Nashville to Chicago slightly easier to digest. The driver wastes no time throwing the car into gear and taking off for Nashville International Airport. My eyes quickly locate the rear view mirror, and as expected, Bin, Sarah and Andy stand in the middle of the street, waving goodbye.
Don’t look back.
No more leaning into my shitty upbringing.
No more Red and Ted.
No more excuses.
I stick my hand up and wave goodbye. Waiting until the trio is no longer visible, I pull out my cell and click on the lock button. The iPhone screen illuminates, and my lock screen is a photo of myself, Lindsay, Zeb and Kendra from our day at the Skydeck. Deep breath in, deep breath out. That smile hasn’t left my face.
There’s no looking back now.
You really fucked up.
Just like I fucked up. Refueled XVIII. February 29th, 2020.
I had my chance at those Tag Titles. Boy, did I fuckin’ crumble. My demons had long been chasing me, and they were nipping at my heels that week. Tired of running, I slowed down, and they caught up. Long silenced personal issues were now screaming from the ledge I’d fallen off. I got shitfaced before that ladder match. I’m serious; go back and watch it. I wasn’t a competitor, and sure as fuck wasn’t a challenger. I was nothing more than a spectator, zip tied to a guardrail. I was selfish. I was useless. And I watched my golden opportunity literally fall into Max Kael’s hands.
Fast forward and here we are, almost a year later, nine days to the date. That’s how long it’s taken me to get another crack at those Championships. And I didn’t even earn the opportunity. Zeb handed it to me.
And that’s all the motivation I need.
Zeb’s put his trust in me, not just as his tag partner, but as his friend. I need to prove he’s right in doing so. Zeb earned this opportunity for us, and I need to pull my weight. This is my chance to be selfless. My chance to be useful. The moment I show the world my psyche is as steady as a surgeon’s hands. To not fuckin’ crumble in the face of adversity. To dab my pen in the ink, and write the next chapter of my legacy.
That’s all I needed, boys.
But like I said: You really fucked up.
You had Steve jump me. You created an opportunity to beat the shit outta Zeb. You used the two of us as bait to lure Lindsay out. Kudos to you, Best Alliance. Well played. You got the jump on us. You made a big fuckin’ mistake, mind you, but yeah, you got the jump on us. You should have finished what you started. Leaving us beaten, battered and bruised wasn’t enough. We are far from broken.
And we are pissed thee fuck off.
So congratulations, Five Second Sektor and Jatt-O-Potamis. You’ve succeeded in firing the first shot in a war you won’t win.
Your veteran buddy Steve has been given the gift of time. Lindsay has to wait three weeks to get her hands on him. He’s gonna get fucked up, don’t get me wrong, but at least he’s got some time to get his affairs in order.
You don’t get that luxury. Starrsek Industries gets three days. Seventy Two hours to enjoy the company of those Tag Championships, cause Zeb and I are fuckin’ taking them. We’re gifting you the opportunity to skip out on NYC, reminisce about your hall of fame careers, and wonder when and where it all went to shit.
So enjoy watching us defend the Tag Team Championships against the Hollywood Bruvs at March To Glory.
Cherish what time Starrsek Industries has left before going under.
Hold dear the fleeting moments of relevance the Best Alliance has left.
Our hostile takeover of the Tag Team Championships is only the beginning. Your whole fuckin’ world is about to be turned upside down. Don’t blame anyone but yourselves. This is the path you chose.
And just remember.
There’s no looking back now.