”Living in a place such as this is like dancing on a live volcano.”
– Kentetsu Takamori
May 15, 1996.
A clear, sunny Spring day.
Citizens of the area are milling about. In the near distance, Sumiyoshi Shrine rises to an ornate steeple. The Shinto shrine, one of the oldest and most important in all of Japan, has a history dating back over a millennium, dedicated to the Sumiyoshi Sanjin, a group of three Shinto deities who are believed to protect travelers and sailors.
It is a simple shrine, rustic and purely Japanese, built without the use of nails, having a distinct curved, thatched roof.
Walking on the path through one of the gardens, a teenaged boy adjusts the backpack over his shoulder. He’s big for his age, standing nearly six foot, six inches, with room to grow, blond hair and piercing blue eyes. The Sorihashi arched bridge is to his immediate right, with the Taiko-bashi drum bridge straight ahead. Both are painted in bright red, a color scheme central to the entire shrine, functional not only for crossing the small moats but also considered symbolic and protective in local culture.
Passing through the archway of the bridge he looks ahead beyond the row of structures within the shrine to another path that leads beyond the South-most buildings. He looks at his watch and picks up his pace. He’s late, and lateness is most certainly not tolerated. A row of men in red and beige tunics are kneeled in front of a statue, a representation of the Sumiyoshi Sanjin deities, and the boy slows just enough to be respectful as he passes.
Moving past them he takes the path to another structure tucked into the back gardens, over a small bridge and outside the shrine walls. The building ahead is wider than most of the buildings within the shrine, but more modern in design. It looks spacious from the outside, stretching some thirty feet to either side of a simple wooden door. There are small functional window slats on either side of the door and more slats every couple of feet along the wall in both directions, designed to promote airflow and cooling of the interior.
The boy approaches the door, then kicks off each of his shoes and places them on a small rack on the porch. Stepping inside he makes eye contact with a short Japanese lady sitting behind a small desk. He gives a curt bow with his head, which is returned by a quick smile, and he continues inside through a set of double paned glass doors. The interior is a large wood paneled room, and looks as though it were decorated and designed in the 1980s, which it was.
The center of the room is dominated by a large red and beige mat.
The boy snaps to attention.
“TAKE YOUR PLACE!!”
The boy quickly finds an open space alongside a dozen other boys his age, all dressed in fighting gis, with belts running the spectrum from white, to one lone black belt on the furthest opposite end of the line.
He stands up straight and tall, being taller than every other boy. One of them, the one nearest to him, whispers out of the side of his mouth.
The larger boy grunts. “Shut up, Aoi.”
“Your father is going to kill you.”
“I said shut – – -”
“MISTER RYAN, I ASSUME THERE IS A REASON WHY YOU ARE TEN MINUTES LATE?”
The voice booms through the room, reverberating off the walls and echoing back. The tardy student looks up at his father, James Ryan, a man in his early forties with graying around the temples within reddish brown hair.
“YES SIR!,” the boy replies. “The train was delayed and I wasn’t able to – -”
“AND SHOULD THIS EXCUSE YOUR TARDINESS??”
The boy’s shoulders slump. “”No sir.”
“DANIEL, FRONT AND CENTER!”
The smaller boy next to him speaks up. “Told you!”
Dan flashes him a look.
“I said shut up, Aoi!”
“NOW, MISTER RYAN!”
He steps forward and comes to a stop three feet in front of the elder Ryan, holding a stare straight ahead at nothing in particular.
His father steps forward, stopping at a three quarter angle about one foot away. Without turning his head, he calls for another instructor.
“Hai!,” comes the reply. Hiroshi Sasaki, an apprentice of the elder Ryan in his early thirties, steps forward from the far corner of the room and hurries to a position next to Dan, facing the same direction. Dan peeks over of him out of the corner of his eye, but quickly returns his gaze forward.
“Hiroshi.” James Ryan looks over at his associate. “My son requires private training. Please separate him from the students who know how to better manage their time so that he does not influence them negatively, but is rather an example and demonstration that even my own blood…”
He holds on that word. Dan inhales deeply and squeezes his eyes shut.
“…is not exempt from following rules.”
Dan turns his head and, giving his father one last look, follows Hiroshi Sasaki through a door into the next room. It is empty save for ornamental weapons on the walls and a flat black mat covering the floor, which has a springy feel with each step. Dan’s shoulders slump as the door closes behind him.
“I didn’t mean to be late. It’s just… I missed my first stop, and I hurried as fast as I could…”
“Doesn’t matter.” Hiroshi interjects. “You are held to a higher standard. There is much that you need to be taught. You are to be my legacy as well as your father’s. I will show you the things which you will need to survive. Self is the enemy of peace. It is the antithesis of understanding. Discard yourself so that selfish pursuits do not one day threaten to destroy you. This you must learn. This is how your father wants things to be.”
“How he wants things to be…” Dan mutters. “Okay then…”
He adopts a fighting stance, which Hiroshi mirrors.
Hiroshi begins to circle, one foot behind the other, a motion which Dan soon begins himself.
“We will dispense with the Wai Kru for this lesson, I think.”
Dan nods but says nothing.
He reaches out a fist, and Hiroshi does as well. They tap each other as a sign of respect. Then, immediately, Hiroshi launches into a series of jabs, low kicks and kicks to the midsection. Most are blocked. The final kick catches the teenager flush in the chest and staggers him back, but he retains his footing. Hiroshi throws another kick to Dan’s thigh, which is in turn blocked by a raised knee. Dan fires back with a kick of his own that strikes the outer thigh of his teacher. Hirosho shakes the leg out but is otherwise mostly unharmed.
Dan rushes forward, jabs striking out in front, most catching the circling arms and fists of his more experienced opponent. One catches Hiroshi on the chin, snapping his head back. Dan pauses briefly, then watches as Hiroshi turns back and smirks. Dan rushes in, lowering his head and clinching Hiroshi around the waist. The man is able to twist his body weight, gaining leverage, but is then lifted up and over the head of the boy, his feet flailing and catching part of the ceiling as he goes over.
Hiroshi hits hard, rolling over onto his stomach and groaning in pain. The boy feels a rush of regret, and hurries over to his teacher.
“Hiroshi, are you – -”
Without another word, Hiroshi reaches up, hooks both of his legs around Dan’s left arm, and pulls back, rolling the big kid over him and onto the mat. He hangs on to his arm and pulls back, causing the teenager to scream in pain.
Hiroshi lets go and scurries to his feet, and stands over his student.
“Your compassion makes you weak. It is a failure of self. You feel remorse so you show compassion to soothe yourself. It does nothing for your opponent. Women and children require compassion, not the warrior. The warrior must be ruthless. The deed is by then already done. You still have much to learn.”
Dan shakes the cobwebs from his head, adrenaline rushing through his veins as he reacts to the shock of being so easily thrown to the mat. He looks up, and Hiroshi holds out a hand.
Dan stares at him for a moment, then sighs and takes his hand, rising to his feet in the process.
“Don’t worry. I will teach you.”
”It is in the roots, not the branches, that a tree’s greatest strength lies.”
– Matshona Dhliwayo
Set along the clean, white shores of Miami Beach is a beachside villa, its Mediterranean-style architecture makes it stand out among other homes along the shore. This part of Miami Beach is reserved, or owned, primarily by the wealthiest of inhabitants. The exterior boasts a combination of white stucco walls and terracotta roof tiles. Swaying palm trees surround the property, and a gated fence provides a sense of privacy and seclusion.
On the Southern edge of the property, an infinity-edge pool appears as though it will cascade over a waterfall into the ocean. A covered cabana is nearby, and the trio of Dan Ryan, Craig Massey, and Phyllis Anderson are sitting in three wooden beach chairs arranged around a small circular table.
“Pretty nice place for a rental.”
Dan looks out over the beach to the water while Phyllis, resplendent in a bright pastel colored pants suit, fiddles with the corners of the pages within the notebook on her lap.
“It wasn’t cheap.”
Dan glances over at her. “Nothing ever is, that’s worth having.”
“This is better than South America.” Craig Massey smiles and raises a small cocktail glass filled with a yellowish green liquid, topped with a miniature umbrella and a small straw, and sips.
“You did well, Phyllis.” He smiles at her and she returns a nod. The smile fades, as if it were a closing curtain at the end of a performance, and she averts her eyes. He turns and looks at Craig.
“I assume you contacted the GOD of HOW as soon as we landed.”
Craig nods. “I did. He extended an invitation for you to join him… ‘IN GOD’S HOUSE’ as it were for an Alliance reception. He didn’t call it that exactly, but that’s what I’m calling it. I didn’t ask if Phyllis and I were invited.”
“You’re not.” Dan says matter-of-factly. “Contact Mr. Best and let him know that I cordially accept his invitation, and will see him promptly this evening at 8pm, as requested.”
“You got it.” Craigs sips another greedy gulp of his tropical drink, letting out a satisfied ‘ahhhh’ afterward.
“And I presume that your second order of business was to make sure there are accommodations and arrangements made for the arrival of Mr. Hiroshi… yes?”
Phyllis speaks up, and Dan turns to her. “I saw to it personally. He requested more modest lodging, however he’ll still be close by, and he’ll be at the training site tomorrow morning at dawn awaiting your arrival.”
Dan nods and looks out over the water once more. “Good. If the two of you have other things to do, you’re free to go. I’m gonna stay out here a little while longer.”
Craig and Phyllis stand to their feet and push their chairs forward to the table. Craig sets his drink glass down, and with a wink and a clicking of his mouth, turns and walks away. Phyllis follows shortly thereafter, the sound of her shoes clacking on the molded concrete.
Dan continues to look out to the ocean, then closes his eyes as he leans back in the chair. In a few moments, he begins to drift off to sleep.
”The truth is rarely pure and never simple.”
– Oscar Wilde
This is a full circle moment for me. It’s not a final one. There is still so much work left to do. But I continue to fail in my hope to find myself again. Maybe this is the final moment, or at least, the final chance. Rhys Townsend talks about a championship being dangled in front of him, and it’s been dangled in front of me as well.
But before Rhys Townsend, before I ever knew about High Octane Wrestling, there was something else.
That is, of course, no slight on HOW. This place has become my home. Rhys wants to claim sole ownership over it because he thinks being locked in a single cage is more valiant than being free to thrive for more than one crowd. I won’t get into that pissing contest. There is no point in arguing something with someone whose feelings will never change. He fights for what he fights for. I too have my motivations.
Hiroshi Sasaki is here, now, in Miami.
It’s been twenty seven years, before I came back to the states, before my career began, before I became… what I became.
I close my eyes and I see everything as though it happened yesterday. A solitary figure standing on a tree covered hill, bathed in the fading light, my thoughts a whirlwind of memories and emotions.
I spent years under Hiroshi’s tutelage. He was… is… a Master, and Master Hiroshi was… and probably is… a stern and unyielding instructor, and yet he was a man who imparted great wisdom upon me.
I see the dojo, a weathered and aged wooden building… Americans would call it a shack…and I remember the countless hours of sweat and dedication I poured into my training. I have a stubborn streak ten miles long, but it was worse once. Master Hiroshi taught me how to harness it. The memory of my training weighs heavily on my mind, like an unbreakable chain binding me to the past.
I struggled with patience, always reaching for the instant gratification of victory. There were so many times I sparred with him, only to find myself on the ground defeated. Each time was a lesson, and he was quick to remind me that strength alone could not conquer the world. I came to learn this lesson, but had so much trouble accepting it. Young men always feel they know best. Oversized, powerful young men who face little resistance feel they know everything else, too.
But it wasn’t only Master Hiroshi’s teachings that stayed in my thoughts. It was the image of my Master himself, a man of profound serenity and unshakable composure. In quiet moments I glimpsed the depths of his character, and the strength it took to be so determined and unyielding in the face of his own obstacles and barriers.
Rhys Townsend wants me to forget who I was, or ignore it. He wants to wrap a protective barrier around himself to keep the outside from sneaking in. He thinks this gives him an edge, makes him superior. He thinks that because my history was not in High Octane, that it is somehow less valuable. And… I supposed he has that right. Like I said, I won’t argue a futile point.
But neither will I respond to his assertions with foolishness. I happen to believe that High Octane Wrestling, among the companies I have been proud to work for, is right at the very top of the mountain. I won’t insult a place that I call home, a place that has embraced me for better or for worse, because one of its ‘legends’ has a myopic view of the wrestling business that goes no further than a High Octane ring and a taco truck.
This is the most dangerous, most competitive wrestling company in the world, and I am proud of both my past and of my present and my future.
You can do what you want, Rhys.
I know who I am. I know how to fight. I know how to win. Time comes for us all, but it will have to drag me kicking and screaming to the bitter end, whatever form that end takes.
When I was down, it was Lee Best that reached out a hand. Do you understand what it means when you are at your absolute lowest point and someone reaches out a hand to you? What about when it’s the one person most people would not expect, and there is absolutely nothing in it for him? When you are dead in the water, no use to yourself or anyone else, and you are a pariah in the only world you’ve ever known and loved… and someone reaches out, helps you to your feet, then slaps you across the face and tells you… ”REMEMBER WHO YOU FUCKING ARE, MOTHERFUCKER.”
I don’t want hugs. I don’t want someone to put their arm around me and tell me that everything is gonna be alright. I’m a fighter. That’s what I am and that’s what I always will be. You can chuckle at that if you want, you can laugh, you can roll your eyes and disregard everything I say, and none of it matters. All that matters is what I can do and what I cannot do. I have a long track record of hurting people, of making people feel pain, of punting them in the head or driving them down onto their heads.
And here is the part that I want you to pay attention to the most.
I want to win this match. I badly want to win this match and then go to ICONIC and win the World Championship. It’s dangled in front of me too. For me, it’s being dangled as a reward, because I have been purposely selfless in extreme loyalty to GOD, and he rewards that. I know Him, I know who He is, and He knows who I am.
And he knows that if he asks me to make sure you never make it to ICONIC, he knows that I will do the job I have been given above all else, above my own pursuits, above my own burning desire and determined pursuit of another World Championship. If you think your battles with Michael ten years ago is what makes this your home, makes this place woven into your very soul, I’m not gonna argue your meaningless self-glorifying protestations.
It may have once been your home, but now it’s mine. Your past does not grant you perpetual authority on who High Octane means the most to, not now, and not ever. You are so talented, an amazing competitor, and no one can ever take your past away from you, just like you cannot take mine. I am here fighting for High Octane, so tell me, who are you fighting for? What are you fighting for? The championship? Awesome. That should be a given. Who isn’t fighting for a championship? Who would be here going through the grind of this business if they didn’t care about winning a World Championship?
I’m tired of the old ‘classic’ lines, and I’m tired of the games. I know what gets to you, my friend. You can say what you want about my tactics, but it only took me calling HOW my home to finally break that stoic ‘don’t give a shit’ shell from around you. And that’s what I do. I poke and prod until I find weakness. And I’ve found yours. You can’t hurt me.
I walk with GOD, Rhys. You walk with ghosts.