“We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.” – Ernest Hemingway
The gleaming metal stretched out ahead along sleek edges of sharp useful office furniture, and a glass-paneled wall broke up the monotony of the scene. Dan Ryan marched toward these, not giving the young lady at the desk so much as a glance. He’d seen her before. He knew she didn’t care.
The glass doors parted and he entered.
Mike wasn’t there yet, so he slowly walked toward floor-to-ceiling windows and looked out over the city, weathered eyes squinting slightly to make out the cityscape as they panned from near to further out.
He fidgeted briefly with the ring on his left hand, then turned his head slightly, eyes looking a quarter-way to the side without actually seeing what was behind him, or in this case who.
“It’s a nice office.”
The Son of GOD looked on like a son showing off to his father. Only, Dan was nothing like his father, not in any way that they’d admit. Big brother? Maybe. He was definitely a mentor, whether he knew it or not.
Ryan kept his back turned, a sign of respect that Mike Best recognized, but just for a moment or two longer, then he turned around.
“I understand there’s a… gamble… in you helping me prepare for a situation where you might have to defend against me. You know we might have to do it again, right?”
Mike shrugged it off, trying to nonchalant the man he’d looked up to for so many years, trying to find that perfect balance between not giving a shit and big timing him.
“Dan… you’re shitting me, right? You’re the entire reason I became a wrestler.”
Ryan’s eyebrow shot up slightly, then he looked around. “Am I about to get tased?”
“What?” Mike was incredulous for a moment, then it clicked. “Are you going to– what? No, Dan. No. I’m serious. Don’t you remember all that shit with the fruit baskets? Oh, Dan Ryan is my hero, I watched him bust out a window on that– ah, fuck, wait. I never said any of that loud, did I? You remember a big fat fuck promoter back in the CSWA days? In Jersey, that night you beat the dog fuck out of Hornet?”
Dan flinched a bit. “‘That night?’ You’re not exactly narrowing it down much. I beat the dog fuck out of Hornet a lot in those days.”
He realized suddenly that they had an audience. Mike saw his glance and turned his head. He’d stayed in the doorway, and Ellie Kalisten’s hands had long since stopped moving. She was staring, transfixed, hands and wrists frozen, hovering in the air as if caught by the spell of seeing Mike Best in a light saved for very few people in the world.
Mike grunted, trying to wipe the utter mark off his face as he closed the door slowly but firmly, shooting daggers at Ellie. He thought he saw some glimmer of satisfaction in her expression. They’d have to have a talk about that later.
“2004. East Rutherford. I’ll pretend I don’t know the exact date. Not to be weird about it or anything, but like… I was there, man. Like, came there to see my favorite wrestler Dan Ryan level ‘was there’. Watched you tune up that fat fuck promotor’s car with your bare hands and take a stack of cash. Said it was owed.”
Ryan nodded. “That does sound like me.”
“Yeah well…” For a brief moment, Mike felt like that kid again, but he shook it off immediately. “Look, I’m dog shit at this kind of thing. Just suffice it to say you shook my hand and gave me some advice that changed my life. Going to war with you isn’t a hassle or a risk. It’s an honor. I’ll fight you anytime you wanna throw down, man. I can’t promise I won’t kick you in the dick until you die, but I mean… it’ll be an honor regardless.”
Dan turned again to the window, drew in a big deep breath, then smiled a bit before turning around and shaking his head slightly.
“Well then, I suppose if you’re good with the idea of me kicking you in the face until you die if I have to, I can’t really complain, can I?”
Mike smiled a devilish smile, crossed the room and, finally relaxing, pulled back the chair at his desk and sat down. Ryan swung a massive leg over the back of a chair across from him and sat down as well, leaning back and crossing one leg over the other.
“Buddy…” Michael mused, with a hint of a twenty percent kidding smirk. “You’d have to.”
“Good.” Dan adjusted his oversized frame in the woefully inadequate office chair. “I’ve had years of these conversations with Eric Dane, and in most of those cases, he would have metaphorically slung his dick up and dropped it on the table ten minutes ago, so hopefully we can just leave it at that. You’ll fight hard. I’ll fight hard. Punching. Kicking. Limb twisting. Knee striking. Head dropping. All the good stuff. Respect. Booyakasha. All that. If you’re good with it, I’m good with it.”
Mike leaned back, sliding effortlessly into killer mode and smirked that ‘you might kill me, but no you won’t’ smirk.
“I’m good with it.”
“Good,” Dan returned the smirk. “In that case, since the best work is actual work, come out to my place and let’s go through the paces a little bit. I know you and Lindsay had a session at her place a few months back, but I like my workouts to be a little more…. I dunno…. spartan.”
“Oh, God.” Mike rolled his eyes. “You went ‘spartan’? You’ll spend $1,100 on a steak, but the gym is spartan?”
“I spend when I need to spend, and I don’t spend when I don’t. That’s why I’m calling my own shots instead of being an indentured servant to people I wouldn’t otherwise spend any time with. Spartan is what made 2004 happen in the first place.”
Mike smirked again, appreciating the obvious dig at 24K.
Ryan slapped two very large hands down on the top of the desk and stood to his feet. On the desk, he left a card with an address. “Well…”, he says, heading for the door, ”If you wanna come down and get some work in, this is the address. If you see a shit-hole little house with a big warehouse building out back by a lake, you’re in the right place.”
Mike picked the card up and turned it over in his hand, then glanced up as Ryan reached the door.
“Dan. Before you go…”
“No way in hell I’d have stopped for some kid the way you stopped for me. So tell me…. why’d you stop?”
Ryan turned his head, not all the way around but just enough to make eye contact.
“That advice you said I gave you…. It was good advice?”
“It made me the man I am today.” Mike shrugged, trying to brush off the lingering disgust that he felt with himself for continuing to sound like a teenage girl. “Yeah, man. It was good advice.”
Dan waved it off. They both get it. Dan was just as uncomfortable with this sorta thing, so instead of some grand gesture, he shrugged.
“I guess,” he replied, “that’s a pretty good reason to stop.”
He turned back to the door, not waiting for a reply, not expecting one, not wanting one, but tossed the last comment over his shoulder as he left. A fleeting emotion crossed Mike Best’s face. It doesn’t matter, no one was looking anymore anyway. Dan Ryan was already through the door, several steps out into the reception area.
“If you show, come around to the side entrance. It’s closer to the ring area. I’ll be inside.”
Ellie Kalisten looked up from her computer monitor again, and locked eyes with Mike Best again. His eyes narrowed, and a head jerk motioned for her to get back to work.
”The chief incalculable in war is the human will.” – B.H. Liddell Hart
Dan Ryan was equal parts professional athlete and businessman, and on the best of occasions, dressed the way you’d expect someone of his stature to dress. These moments were rare, of course, since he’d rather be at home in jeans and a t-shirt, or out on the ranch tossing things around for fun. If not people, then large, heavy objects.
But on occasion….
The back of this limousine was spacious, enough room for eight to ten people easily, but in this case, it’d been outfitted with a monitor nearly the full width and height of the front of the passengers’ cabin, where a partition separating them from the driver might be.
Ryan was leaned back, arms stretched out to each side, dressed in business attire. He pulled his tie loose, tossing it casually aside and loosened his collar, blowing out a sigh in relief as he looked through tinted windows at the lakefront zooming past.
He looked down at his phone to get the time. After meeting with Mike Best that morning he’d attended a business meeting in the Gold Coast district. These people were nondescript in appearance, the sort of boring, tedious affectations of wealth dripping from every pore, but they were old money, and he had to dress the part. The purpose. Don’t worry about that right now. That’s for another day.
The driver aggressively swerved through traffic and up onto the 90, but traffic was shit, so he knew he’d have some time before getting back to the lake.
Several months back, it crossed his mind that it might make sense to get a more permanent base of operations than a hotel suite downtown and a little dive restaurant in Chinatown. Keep one high class, keep one for the seedier side of business, and find a place to work.
Several wooded acres behind an old home near Belleau Lake did the trick, and he’d spent the last few months renovating an old warehouse building on the water into a place to train where he could slip under the radar.
He looked back at his phone, noted the time once more and fiddled with the touchscreen until swiping over the top of the voice recorder app. No time like the present to get some words out of his head. They’d be expecting something soon. Might as well brainstorm it now while inching through this urban sprawl.
“Adaptability has always been my strong point. For over twenty years I’ve navigated the ups and downs of this business, and throughout that time my hallmark has always been my ability to survey a situation and adapt to my surroundings.
I’ve watched so many men and women expend so much energy barreling full speed ahead into situations they were ill-prepared for.
But I’m a counter-puncher.
I always have been.
Lucky I’m big, eh? I can take more punishment than most. I can absorb most attacks enough to be able to let them come to me and probe for their weaknesses. It’s a strategy that’s worked from the beginning, and it still works today. I wouldn’t recommend it to most of you. Your fragile little bodies would shatter under the punishment. That is unless you’re Kostoff, who hits like a tank, or Max Kael, who has an endless supply of spare parts anyway.
Most of us who spend most or all of our time populating the main events of wrestling shows around the world will tell you that wins and losses don’t matter as much as big moments do. Consistency, though, is what builds a legacy. Persistence, when one of the inevitable dips comes along, is what keeps you around, what makes who you are mean something.
An indomitable will is what separates me from everyone else.
I can’t tell you how many times over the years I’ve been in this position.
It’s a business of cycles. Like Greenwich, you could set your watch to it. Stick around long enough and certain patterns emerge. Cliches are formed, repeated, repeated again. You layout a template, and someone steps into it. Hotshot rookie. Plucky underdog. The schemers. The party boys and empty-headed morons yapping their way to situations they can’t fight their way out of. The rich asshole and his cronies. The golden child. The aging veteran down on his luck.
Look around you. If you can’t put one of those labels on someone around you, it probably goes right on your chest.
Andy Murray’s the new hot shit right now, and I realize the irony of that statement when talking about a twenty-six-year vet, so I guess that makes him the aging veteran down on his luck, too. A real double threat kinda guy. But this new-boy shine is gonna wear off eventually. He’s no different than any other big-time legend that walks into HOW and runs up a quick little winning streak, and he preaches this King of Wrestling garbage to Mike Best and Max Kael like they haven’t been living and thriving in this system since long before he ripped his first knee ligament.
You think this is gonna last forever, but believe me, the whole ‘jump up on some doctor’s office butcher paper and have a talk about my sore knee’ – slash – ‘chit chat with my financial advisor about all my bad financial decisions’ routine is gonna get real old real fast if it hasn’t already. But as he said, he’s a gambler. Roll the dice again and keep hoping the same numbers come up, I suppose. It’s a bold strategy, Cotton. Let’s see how it works out for ‘im.
I’m not writing a book on our business here. I’m telling all of you this because I don’t feel like, at this point in my career, I should have to act surprised when things go down the way they do. Believe it or not, I expected High Octane to be a hell of a fucking challenge. When people say a place is tough, I believe them, because I’m not a fucking idiot.
I’m still around… because I’m not a fucking idiot. Fucking idiots waltz in, balls in hand acting like they’re bringing class to the joint like they’re gonna be the first dude to show everyone how to fucking win a match, then inevitably get dumped right on their ass.
And you know exactly who you fucking are.
The history of this place is riddled with the corpses of hotshot loudmouth motherfuckers who talked themselves up to a place they couldn’t handle once they got there. Then what? They drop down into silly foolishness, accepting their fates like good boys and girls or else they temper tantrum themselves into irrelevance forever.
Maybe they end up banished to the Phantom Zone for four months to think about what they’ve done and get a leg up on some of that yard work. I dunno. Maybe they rant and rave like a lunatic on social media and then one day just go ‘I’m out, bitches.’ and everyone responds ‘Mmmkay, bitch.’
I said it upfront because I’m fucking smart. I said I was aiming for the biggest prizes in this company because everybody better fucking say that. I meant that, and I also meant it when I said that I’m here for the long haul, and no matter what happens, no matter if I come just inches from winning and fail, or I do what I set out to do, I will be here, relentlessly pursuing it again.
And forgive me if I don’t celebrate some of your early successes or sit in the corner and sob about my sad, sad life because I lost. If history and logic, and fucking talent has taught me anything, it’s that I’ll be back, and I’ll be challenging for gold again. You can absolutely fucking count on it.
Hell, it might be this week.
I’ll be ready. Don’t worry about me. Worry about yourselves. Work out your own plan for when you inevitably hit that High Octane wall, and you find yourself winless, beltless and all alone with nothing but your bad decisions to comfort you. Maybe you’ve got a legendary father to call and cry lines of mascara to, also.
Go walk through a fucking casino or down to your closest corner store and lean on the display of scratch-offs to complete your lottery metaphor and talk about how fucking cool you are, because I have to say I’m absolutely fucking enraptured by the symbolism you’re all filling my eyes with this week. Maybe go the extra step and hold up that corner store. You know, because that lottery is lethal.
Don’t worry about me though. I’m fucking great. I’m a fucking legend, and if my name is called, I’ll fight like one, the way I always do.
I don’t need a lottery to be lethal.
I just need a victim.”
Ryan tapped the face of his phone, stopping the recording and nodded, tossing it on top of the bag next to him.
He peered out the window as the car rolled to a stop, and looked out at the short trail past the main house of the property, where it led up to the warehouse with its little sliding door on one side. He shoved his phone down in the bag, zipped it up and opened the door, stepping out.
”No one starts a war – or rather, no one in his senses ought to do so – without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war and how he intends to conduct it.” – Karl von Clausewitz
The late afternoon sun streaks into the cavernous building as the door opens, and a rather large figure momentarily blocks it out again as Dan Ryan comes all the way in. The space, large enough nearly to cover an entire football field is dark, save for some lights hanging from above. They were those halogen lights you used to find in high school gyms, dropping from the ceiling on a long metal pole with a little cage over the bulb, and they dotted the ceiling throughout the structure.
The ground was rough in appearance, and it seemed as though it may have been used for some machine work at some time, as it still had stains in various places and a faint scent of grease still hung in the air.
On each end, large metal doors rolled up to let air in and to provide a cross-breeze. Air conditioning was not a feature. Fortunately, it was April, and the breeze was cool, and the air not yet particularly warm.
On one end a variety of weights were placed, as well as CrossFit equipment, large tractor tires, and some practice dummies for Muay Thai training.
On the other end, a full-sized wrestling ring was set up; that part of the gym is his destination.
Dan unslung a bag from over his shoulder and dropped it on the floor near ringside, where a short burst of dust was disturbed by the impact. He reached down and tugged on some tearaway pants slightly to reveal ring gear underneath, having changed in the house out front before heading back, and pulled his t-shirt off over his head.
With a firm grip of the ropes, he hopped up on the apron and climbed through, immediately breaking into a jog, and running the ropes to warm up.
“I see you’ve spared no expense.”
Lindsay’s cutting jab, with an air of playfulness to it, came from the entrance closest to the ring. She sauntered over, dropped her own bag next to Dan’s, and unzipped her hoodie to reveal a black halter top. That was tossed onto the top of the bag. Next went the joggers; underneath, a pair of black and 97red MMA shorts. “Hope it’s all up to code.”
Dan caught the ropes, hooking his arms and bouncing in place there, but otherwise didn’t miss a beat. “Not sure.” He pulled one arm over to the other, stretching his triceps on each side as he did. “I suppose you’d have to ask a building inspector. I didn’t hire one.”
Troy put a leg up on the ring apron, doing some stretching of her own, and looked up. “That’s so reassuring.”
Dan pivoted, pulling back on the ropes and squatting down, then popped back up and spun around to face her again, watching as she was, by then, up on the apron and climbing in.
“Good.” He smiled. “I’m so glad you like it.”
“It’s very you.” She patted his arm and rolled her shoulders. “Now, how do you want to break this place in?”
“I need you to be the scout team. I want your version of what I can expect from everyone, and I do mean everyone. No idea who I’m gonna have to deal with. It could be anyone from Andy Murray, to Mike, Max and a couple dozen in between. But specifically, since you’ve been in the ring with him too, and had more luck than I did…. sorta…” He smirked, while Lindsay grunted slightly. “Maybe we should start with Mike.”
“So you want me to knee you to death? You’re already pretty well acquainted with that.”
“I mean…” He tilted his head to one side slightly, considering this. “It might be more helpful to go through what might come before the knees, but eventually yes, knees, sure.”
“Alright then.” Lindsay moved to the center, took a deep breath, and beckoned him forward. “Let’s begin.”
Dan moved in and locked up immediately, pressing forward, then reversing momentum to swing her through to the opposite side with an Irish Whip. She came off with speed, ducking a clothesline, and hitting the other side. Ryan stood waiting, readying himself to deliver a clothesline, but she dropped quickly, driving through the knee with a dropkick low.
He winced in pain as he went down, letting out a little too much noise, which she noticed. But he was up fast, just as fast as she was, to her surprise. She threw a kick to his rib cage, but he caught it, then swept her other leg and swiftly dropped an elbow across her knee. He quickly grabbed her leg by the ankle, and twisted it, keeping his weight on her knee, but it only lasted a moment, as she was able to reach back and use the ropes for some leverage to wiggle free.
She got to her feet quickly, quicker than him this time and immediately fired off a lunging elbow that caught him right across the bridge of the nose.
This staggered him, and he stepped back, and she spun hard with a roaring elbow that caught him flush in the side of the head. Seeing him go down to both knees, she quickly jumped to a rear mount position and started raining elbows down on his head. At least three hit their mark before he slumped down hard, using his momentum into a supine position to swing his massive tree trunk of a leg into a hard kick that found its mark on her forehead.
He shook off the cobwebs, rising to his feet and turning to face her again. He saw only a flash and was somehow able to use both hands to slap away a running flying double knee.
Having survived the Raynes of Castamere, he lunged in with a clothesline, only for Troy to duck the attempt hit the ropes and came flying off with a very close facsimile of Mike Best’s Shining Wizard. This he ducked, and in a fluid motion, grappled her from behind and lifted her into a ‘torture rack’ position, preparing to hit the Headliner, his rarely used Burning Hammer.
Troy’s eyes went wide and she desperately kicked her legs, shaking his footing just enough that she’s able to hook the top rope and toppled to the mat, shaken but neck unbroken.
At this she paused, getting up to one knee and facing her brother-in-law, and he crouched as if preparing to strike and smirked.
“Not fucking funny.”
He shrugged. “You got out of it. I’m impressed.”
The corner of her mouth twitched. Before Dan could react, Lindsay’s forehead connected with his browbone. He stumbled backward but she grabbed his wrist and pulled him into a spinning inverted shoulder jawbreaker. He crashed to the mat, dazed, and Troy took off running, jumped toward the ropes and springboarded backward, hoping to land a moonsault. Ryan moved and she hit the mat hard.
Dan charged back in, looking for a big boot, but Lindsay rolled forward and popped back up to her feet. She spun, connected with a sharp kick to the kidneys; as Dan arched his back she pounced, grabbed his neck and hooked her arms underneath his massive upper body with a Dragon Sleeper.
Ryan reached for her hair but she managed to evade his hands. He started to struggle, punched at her arms, which made her knee him in the back.
Lindsay wrenched the hold in tighter, but a particularly violent swing of his right hand caught just enough of her leg to knock her off-balance, and she stumbled to the side, releasing her grip. Ryan grabbed at his neck, and cracked it to one side with a sneer, then rose and started to throw a roundhouse kick.
He pulled it, however, and held up a hand, looking past her at a man, dressed in full ring gear, particularly expensive sunglasses, his arms crossed — the Son of GOD, the Six-Time ICON Champion — Mike Best.
Lindsay relaxed and turned her head in time to see him start to walk slowly over to the ring, a somewhat disgusted look on his face as he did so. “Well you did promise me a shit-hole.”
Ryan put his hands on his hips, breathing in deeply. “It serves its purpose.”
Mike made a sort of ‘ooookay’ gesture with his eyes, and climbed in, setting the sunglasses gently in the corner behind the ring post. Troy made a wave with her hand as if to say ‘it’s all yours’, and climbed out, snatching up a towel from a rack on the wall and wiping the sweat from her face.
“Well then,” he said with a wry grin, “Where we starting? Skull-caving elbows? Straight to the dick kicking? You know I’m not teaching you the secret to DEEZ KNEEZ. You gotta talk to Troy for that shit.”
Dan gave her a glance and chuckled. “Nevermind that. Let’s just start by going through the paces a little bit. Then, we’ll see where it goes.”
Mike nodded, and nimbly began to circle, bouncing back off the ropes and stopping abruptly, as if about to strut, but he grinned instead and stalked to his left while Ryan smirked and mirrored him to his own right.
They both approached the center of the ring — and began.