Against my better judgment, Jace, I’m going to refer to you by your chosen name. I’m not doing it out of the kindness of my heart. Rather, I need you to get this message through your skull, however thick it may be. I need to at least try to teach a lesson before this match is finished. Whether you heed or not is up to you. I’m not worried about the follow-up. In fact, if the Best Arena burnt to the ground the moment after Rezin, Ria, Blueberry, and I walked out to our rental cars I would not shed a single goddamn tear. Hashtag-97-Red means not a goddamn thing to me. You might not ever learn this lesson because I plan on leaving you as a grease stain on your ring’s shitty little canvas. You will serve only as a warning, a head on a pike, if you will. The lesson I teach will be for everyone else who thinks they can step to The Anglo Luchador or to PRIME.
Jace, do you know the old adage, “Don’t poke the bear?” I understand if your spatial comprehension only encompasses the literal; you did willingly wrestle at the Crayon Factory before they decided their slurs for the mentally different were more valuable to them than you, Garry Ray-Ray Nelson, and GREAT SCOTT. For my own sake, I’m gonna leave it at that and not worry about what toddlers do with their free play time. Still, it’s not like you can’t grasp the bones of what that phrase means. You hang out with GREAT BEAR. I’ve been in the same room with him. Chill ursine, keeps to himself, has surprisingly avant garde taste in music. For as much of a Beats-wearin’, salmon-eatin’, chill vibes-havin’ son of a gun that bear is, you wouldn’t provoke him intentionally, right? You wouldn’t even want to try, because you know that big ol’ grizzly is an empty stomach or threatened cubs away from hocking that big paw with dagger-sized claws into your ugly mug.
What does that have to do with me? Well, Jace, the moment you decided to take a Twitter reply from your boy Ray-Ray and fire strays wantonly in my direction, you poked the bear. You don’t think you did, of course, because you’re a self-centered, egotistical piece of shit who’s high on his own supply. Why else would you go and beat a dead horse, one you didn’t even ride onto the scene originally? You took someone else’s shtick and then thought you slipped a goal past the five-hole, then decided, “hey yeah, time to masturbate on the Bird App” for the self-crowned King of Everything.
Well, I wasn’t amused. I have a little bit more than token affection for PRIME, y’see. Turns out people don’t just have to work for the gasoline fed under Ol’ Greybeard to have pride in their place of employment. But you wouldn’t know about that, would you? I only work for PRIME. I am our face when it comes to the Phoenix Wrestling Alliance. You’re so invested in HOW that you tried running off and working at the Crayon Factory. Yeah, that’s dedication for ya.
I’m making the jerk-off motion with my right hand, by the way.
Let me speak on a little history as part of this warning lesson here. My name is The Anglo Luchador. You can call me whatever you want behind my back, but I don’t give you permission to address me when I’m in the same room as you. You haven’t earned that right yet, and I doubt you ever will. I am the PRIME Intense Champion, which means I have been battered and beaten with bats and barbed wire, and I’ve spilled blood by the pint to earn the right to hold this title belt. I am your equivalent with your LSD title, but we are not equals. I have slain giants, and I’ve trampled annoying cockroaches. In the past, I was everywhere and then some, just like you, but PRIME is my home now. Most anyone who has crossed paths with me respects my name at minimum. The ones who haven’t? They’re footnotes in history.
The company that gave me my first break in American wrestling is lost to history now. It should’ve been my first home, but it never felt like one. I ruffled so many feathers there, made so many people mad as hell that some upstart little luchador ran circles around their fake muscles and ungroomed bodies that no trace of this place even exists outside of the memories of myself, Lindsay Troy, and HOW’s current Xerox Master, Dan Ryan. You could probably ask Danny Boy about the company he used to own. For all of Ryan’s indiscretions, he never felt the need to wipe his handiwork off the face of the earth. It should’ve been home to me, but I got hurt too much, and annoying little cockroaches kept trying to bug me, no matter how many times I’d shake them off. I had the last laugh in the end; I climbed to the top of the mountain. I won both those defunct places’ World Titles. That’s the caliber of fighter I am. I persevere.
And after I’m done with you on Sunday, the welts you’ll wear on your body and the impression I leave on you will be constant reminders of who it is you decided to tangle with.
Conversely though, and much to your noodle-brained surprise, when I look at your resume, I am not compelled to denigrate it like I’m some halfwit egomaniac named Jace Parker Davidson. It’s impressive. Former World Champion. Current ICON and LSD Champion. Hall of Fame. I won’t lie and say this is going to be a cakewalk, because you made the money and drove the miles in HOW. I am going to have to step into the hornet’s nest that is the Best Arena where I’m facing a hostile crowd. You’ll not only have fan support, but two muscle-headed lunks in Stronk Daddy and JERBOI GREAT SCOTT lurking as much as two cokehead roid freaks can lurk. I’m well aware I’m behind the eight-ball to start out. That’s okay, because nothing I’ve seen from you makes me think you’re at all taking this seriously. All your accomplishments won’t matter when I’m done with you. After I get you staring at the lights? You’ll just be another cockroach I had to flick only with better friends and a more nurturing support system.
When you poked the bear, when you poked me, when you poked PRIME, you put your career, your friendships, hell…even your employment status, in jeopardy. I don’t know much about Lee Best, but what I do know is that he never wants to see the competition succeed instead of HOW, and that failure comes with the price of a ballpoint pen to the eye.
I’m not here to make nice and kickstart the Phoenix Wrestling Alliance for my home base. I could’ve taken an easier assignment, ran from the grind. That’s not in my nature, even before you pissed me off. But Jace, you had to go and poke this particular bear, didn’t you. Now, I’ve made it my mission to relegate you to the Phantom Zone where stubborn loser feds and cockroach wrestlers reside. You’ll probably think I’m being dramatic, but I want to make sure I snatch all the teeth out of your mouth so the coroner can’t even identify you by your dental records. You might come into this match as the “King of Everything,” but you will be laid lower than Queen Elizabeth when it’s all said and done.
And it will all be caught on film. It will be a lesson to everyone in your home and the entire PWA. PRIME may have lain dormant for over a decade, but it’s still the place to go to prove you’re someone in this industry. I am proud to call it home. I am proud to fight for it, to be the first person on the roster to hop up and carry the fucking banner. The rest of my peers don’t want to jump in fully? That’s their prerogative. I got enough backup coming anyway. They’ll get their taste, even if they might need to see me facing down your bastard army like I’m Jon Snow. I may not be the Universal Champion at the moment, but one thing is certain.
I am a leader on this roster.
Can you say the same and have it be the truth?
Everyone in the PRIME locker room sat in horror and saw as one of their own, Jonathan Rhine, had his career robbed from him by his own tag partner. They can’t hit Paxton Ray right now because that slimy crawfish is hiding under a rock somewhere on the Bayou, but you know what they can do? They can watch me hit you after you poked me like the reckless dork you are. The few, the proud, the PRIME-leet like Rezin and Ria and especially King Blueberry decided to answer my call so they could maybe take out some frustrations on any of your goons who might try to hit me. I know the King himself is dying to hit someone.
You think you can wrestle a bear even while you’re jacked up on Liquid STRONKUMMS? Think again. This bear is a fuckin’ grizzly, and PRIME represents the cubs you threatened, Jace. I will be the bear who knocks your head off and leaves, because everyone needs to know that if you insult me, insult my pride, and insult my home, you will pay the fucking piper. And trust me, I’m not walking home to Vegas without your head on a pike. I would rather be in Jon’s position, to be honest, than let my roster down like that.
“Tell me again, what is a brainbuster? I can never understand Melvin when he tells me about all this wrestling stuff.”
The Melvin in this case is Beauregard. The Anglo Luchador, without his mask and going about his daily life is known better as Thomas FX Battaglia, and he’s seeing a psychiatrist at the moment. Melvin, the Phoenix Wrestling Alliance’s liaison, recommended Dr. Steven Barone to anyone who had felt traumatized by recent events at the latest supershow, where Paxton Ray shockingly and brutally attacked his now-former tag partner, Jonathan Rhine, after their victory over the eGG Bandits.
Tom was one of those traumatized people.
“It’s… like, you grab the guy around the collar of his neck while he’s bent over and lift him up. Then…”
He laid out his left hand, palm facing up, and then whistled as if to imitate the cartoon sound of a bomb falling from the air, making a raspberry sound as the right hand smacked on top of the left.
“Oh,” said Dr. Barone. “I see.”
“Yeah, but that was the tail end. I sat in shock. Pulled out my phone and posted disbelief on the company message app. But I was in for the fight of my life next, one that’d been brewing for months. I had to slap myself, get out there. But…”
Tom trailed off again.
“Take your time,” the therapist said.
“I got up off the bench and stepped to the doorway. And like, there Jon was, on a gurney, rushing past my locker room. I didn’t know if he was just out cold or clinging to life at that point. I could hear Jared yelling at that production assistant that’s always following him around. It was a different side of him; scary, but it’s not like I was scared of him. I was scared for him.”
The Jared he referred to was Sykes, aka King Blueberry, Rhine’s best friend and co-holder of the Tag Team Championships.
“I see,” Dr. Barone replied. “And did you wrestle your match as scheduled?”
“I did,” Tom said. “I won. Then I killed a bottle of tequila with another wrestler on the loading docks. Walked around Vegas. Thought about shit. Thought about the next thing up. But like… it felt like something was eating at me from the inside out. Still does, to be honest.”
The therapist nodded.
“Okay, so how close were you to Jon?”
“That’s the thing, doc,” Tom said after a beat. “We were friendly, ever since I got to PRIME. He was the first guy to welcome me to the locker room, like really welcome me as an outsider to that world. I raised a lot of money for his charity.”
That charity, Fighting for Nora, was named for Paxton Ray’s little girl who fought cancer into remission thanks to the help of all the money Jonathan Rhine and his foundation collected. Pax thanked Jon for his efforts with seven Lafayette Lullabies, his finisher consisting of a pop-up into a boxing-style uppercut, and then a brainbuster as the coup de grace.
“But,” Tom continued, “I wasn’t in his inner circle. I wasn’t Jared or one of his students. I wasn’t even the shithead who pulled off this attack. End of the day, I was just… a dude.”
The therapist looked at the luchador with a strained, almost quizzical stare.
“I understand the shock of what happened, how it might engender a reaction even among weak acquaintances,” the therapist continued, “But why would you feel like you were just, as you put it, a dude?”
“It’s hard to untangle…” he trailed off.
“Well, if I can be frank,” replied the therapist, “that’s what I’m here to help you do. I know it’s only our first in-person session, but I think we can make some progress.”
“Rome wasn’t built in a day, and I guess to use parlance from your industry, a championship isn’t won on the first show.”
Tom furrowed his brow.
“I know you said you had a flight to catch, which is why we couldn’t do a full, three-hour intense intro session,” Dr. Barone continued. “Especially wrestlers, who might have cognitive issues due to head trauma, I need time to hack through their mental weeds.”
“Yeah, well, I gotta get to Chicago and add more head trauma.”
“You wrestle for other companies? I was unaware PRIME had a presence outside of Las Vegas.”
“Long story about that,” the luchador said while rolling his neck. “But no, there’s this whole thing, and well, I’m just representing PRIME in another company.”
“Do you think what you talked about above… is there pressure? To perform? I mean could that be…”
“Hey, Dr. Barone, look at the time. I need to get outta here.”
The doctor rolled his eyes. No doubt Tom did have to get on the road to get his government mandated shitty massage from TSA. But there was deflection. A seasoned shrink can recognize these things from a mile away.
“I swear,” Tom continued, “I’ll be back. I’m back in Vegas beginning of the week next week.”
Dr. Barone nodded. “OK. We’ll make an appointment then…”
“End of the day, I was just… a dude.”
“But why would you feel like you were just, as you put it, a dude?”
That exchange stuck with Tom on his drive from Dr. Barone’s office to Harry Reid International Airport. Over and over and over, it bothered him. Was he being honest with himself and with the therapist? If so, why would this attack on Rhine bother him so much? If not, what reason would he have to hide his feelings from someone who was trying to help him?
That’s when the reflection in his rearview mirror interjected.
Tom slammed his brakes, and if it weren’t for the guy behind him practicing a safe following distance of four seconds or greater, he’d have had some explaining to do to the rental car company.
“Xipe tittyfucking Totec,” he exasperatedly grunted, invoking the name of the Aztec god of spring. “Don’t you ever fucking do that again.”
The man in the mirror laughed at him. Again. This was hardly the first time his reflection talked to him. Or appeared to talk to him. Your read on the situation is as good as anyone else’s.
“C’mon, you can’t throw a pity party and expect some visitors. Your mental anguish is exquisite.”
“You think this is a pity party?”
The reflection laughed.
“You forget I’m your reflection,” he said. “I see into your head, and I see that you’ve found a way to make Jon Rhine’s paralysis all about you.”
The real Tom let out an annoyed grunt before retorting.
“Well of course I’m making it about me inside my own head. I’m trying to process things. You don’t see me going up to Shway and asking her if she could ask Jon if I was really his friend,” he said referring to Shweta Kallemullah, Rhine’s girlfriend and the chairwoman of the now-dissolved Fighting For Nora charity.
“Ooh, you get defensive when you’re in crisis mode.”
“But that’s not what this is about,” Tom retorted, ignoring the ghost or the psychosis or whatever it was that was causing him to have a full-blown conversation with his own reflection in a rearview mirror.
“Really, muchacho? Then enlighten me.”
“Oh, so now you want me to tell you what you already know.”
“Okay, you want it the hard way.”
The luchador in the driver’s seat furrowed his brow, as the one in the mirror uncorked his expert psychoanalysis.
“Please,” Tom scoffed. “Do you think I’d exclusively rent small-to-midsize SUVs or drive the shitty green Ford Explorer I have at home if I was?”
“Ha, no, not overcompensating for a small dick, you nerd. You’re insecure about your place in PRIME. That’s the only reason why you’re on your way to Chicago as we speak.”
Tom’s eyes glazed over, at least until the bright hashtag-97-Red glow of the brake lights in front of him triggered a reflex. This time, he jammed the brakes to avoid rear-ending the car in front of him.
“Oh, did I hit a nerve?”
“Why do you do this to me? What did I ever do to… me? I am still not entirely sure how this works.”
“You’re having a conversation with the reflection in your mirror, genius,” his reflection snarked. “We’re beyond trying to figure out nuts and bolts, muchacho.”
Tom looked at his reflection coldly.
“But,” the man in the mirror continued, “there’s a reason why you dove headlong into giving this Jace guy everything he wanted for the chance to get your hands on him. You counterpunched. You acquiesced to going on his turf, on the turfiest of his turf no less. You’re not being smart about this at all.”
“Lindsay thinks I’m an idiot. Do you too?”
“Yes,” the reflection put it bluntly. “Mainly because you’re acting like one right now. And it’s because you want your peers to love you.”
He was putting up a front.
“Bullshit yourself, muchacho,” the reflection snapped back. “Everyone is telling you that you gotta nut up and believe in yourself, but deep inside, you still aren’t sure. Every little detail bugs you, like finding out from a press release that Jon couldn’t walk anymore. And it all just built up inside your feeble little head until the dam burst. Now, you’re about to put all the pride you have on the line and for what?”
The reflection waited a beat to see if the real Tom would say anything in reply. Predictably, there was silence.
“I’ll tell you for what. You had your phone on silent since before you got on the plane back in Philly. Why don’t you check your texts?”
He exhaled and reached into his pocket for his phone until he saw the traffic ahead of him stop once more. Now wasn’t the time to risk reckless driving. He had a flight to O’Hare International to catch. A date with destiny, or density depending on your opinion, with Jace Parker Davidson, one he was still unsure he could focus on after everything that had happened. Maybe he was overcompensating, but it wasn’t just because of Rhine. Jon’s paralysis, the shock of how his career ended, just put another load on his back to carry, which made the match with Jace all the more important.
He needed to bring some light back to PRIME to cut through the darkness.
The flight itself was unusually calm, and turbulence was at a minimum. Although Melvin had been evasive at Tom’s requests for a raise for his participation in the Phoenix Wrestling Alliance, he did allow for first class travel to Chicago for PRIME’s grand entrance into interfed glory on the Hashtag-97-Red front. GREAT SCOTT technically dove in first, but few people in the office appreciated how cozy he was with Jace and others instead of repping their brand. Either way, Tom was able to take a stress-free nap. Baggage claim went smoothly, and he found a taxi that wouldn’t leave him waiting for hours on end.
Suddenly, he realized he’d still left his phone on silent. He pulled it out of his pocket to see text notifications assault his face. The first from a contact in his phone labeled only as “Suplex Daddy.”
“Hey Tom, kick that idiot’s ass. Pulling for you.”
Brandon Youngblood, first Universal Champion of the ReVival era. The next one was from his close friend, head referee Timo Bolamba.
“Uce, you got time to talk later? I just visited Jon. Head feels real clear now. Call me.”
There were a lot of texts. Some from his wife and brother, but most of them were from his coworkers and friends back in the office. Angelica Brooks, head interviewer. Mushigihara, former sumo star turned professional wrestler. Jared Sykes, Rezin, Ria Lockhart…all of them who heard his call to arms and decided to go with him to make it a fair fight. It was the last text from a number he didn’t immediately recognize from the 504 area code that took him off guard.
“Hey, Tom, it’s Shweta. Sorry it took so long. Thanks for everything. Jon and I appreciate it.”
He stared at his phone until the cabbie’s horn shook him from his stupor. He got into the cab, and an eerie calm fell over him, like a knot started to come untied in his brain. Maybe it’s true that he was overzealous to fight Jace Parker Davidson because he was overcompensating before. Jon’s kindness when he first arrived in PRIME wasn’t fake, and it was representative of something bigger.
For the first time, perhaps in his entire wrestling career, Tom felt like a wrestling promotion he was in was really his home. He felt a leader, and not just one in his own head either.
And leaders fight, not only for themselves, but for others.