The canvas was worn and yellowed, the stench of sweat was magnified by time. Decades upon decades young men had practiced and learned their craft on this very mat, inside of the worn ropes. Clay laid still for a moment, his huge frame rising and falling with each breath.
In a match with Teddy Palmer there wouldn’t be many moments like this. Moments for thought, moments for planning the next action. The brief thought spurred Clay into action, the Behemoth exploded from the mat and hit the ropes. On the return he dropped to the mat, visualizing his opponent leaping over him.
Clay was deceptively quick as he shot up once again off the ropes and took a titanic swing with his arm, letting it hit nothing but air. In that moment Teddy had the lariat scouted, and Clay put the breaks on. He stopped, spinning in the moment and smashing his imaginary opponent with a discus punch on the return.
Teddy was intelligent, Clay knew that. He’d have the lariat scouted, Teddy would have seen the tape. The entirety of High Octane Wrestling now had Clay Byrd firmly implanted on their radar. The idea of the lariat coming out of nowhere as it had against Sektor or Zeb wouldn’t quite work.
Counters to counters needed to be prepared, the work had to be done. Each move in the ballet of destruction needed to be choreographed. Each moment thought through, preparation and walk through needed to occur. You could lift all the weights in the world, you could spar all you wanted, but nobody would be your exact match in the ring. Nobody could mimic your opponent at an expert level.
Clay had to stay focused, this was the tenth time he had worked the match in his head today. The tenth iteration of counters and moves thought through, each one coming closer and closer to victory. You had to prepare for the worst scenarios, and as a hulking behemoth, running the ropes, trading cardio wasn’t where you normally wanted to be.
But you still had to be prepared.
The discus punch, into a brutal knee strike would be enough to ring Teddy’s bell. The setup was a simple combination, and as Clay continued the visualization he bounced off the ropes and crushed his imaginary opponents larynx with a diving lariat.
He’d have to throw it many times, he knew that. Teddy was a veteran in the High Octane ring, he was an expert, he’d gone into deep water with the best this company had to offer. He’d been the main event at March To Glory just last year. He’d gone through the entire roster to win the LBI.
Teddy Palmer was a force, and Clay had to be ready to stop the force.
He knew why he was picked, he knew why he was next on the list of The Best Alliance to try to put a stop to Teddy’s run. He could be trusted, he could be relied on, Clay could execute. Solex? Sektor? Jatt? Hughie? When push came to shove, the lot of them didn’t stand a chance against the best 214 had to offer. It was time to test Teddy against the upper echelon of the alliance, and it was time to test Clay against the upper echelon of the 214.
Clay allowed himself another moment before beginning his cool down. The drills that he had practiced in a barn in Plainview, Texas as a 12 year old boy watching his father wrestle were still the same. He dropped to the mat on his back, rolled to his stomach and pushed himself up as hard as he could to his feet. Each time he pushed himself up, he could hear the words of his father echoing in his ears.
“Down, Roll, Up,” Clay said out loud, as he listened to Robert’s voice in his head. The ground was a dangerous place, on your feet was where you could deal damage. Stay. On. Your. Feet. The lesson had been taught then, and was firmly implanted in Clay’s strategy and psyche now.
As Clay continued the drill for his cool down, he gradually lessoned the pace. Taking a moment longer to perform each maneuver. As he auto piloted through the cool down he thought back to the test. Why was Lee testing him now? Sure, the benefit of the short term gain was huge, bringing another belt back to The Best Alliance was always vitally important.
But giving Clay time in the ring with Palmer? What was the end game, what Machiavellian machination did Lee Best have in mind? The run Palmer had been on against The Alliance was impressive, the meat grinder tactic seemed to be having little to no effect on taking Palmer out, or bringing the LSD title back to The Alliance.
It seemed unnecessary, extra, over the top. At least from the outside looking in. Why not wait for Wargames? Why not rig the lottery so Palmer has to get punched a bunch by Dan Ryan? Why not have Teddy fight his recently returned kryptonite The Finish Line?
Why Clay? Did he somehow deserve a title shot after three wins against the lowest tier of High Octane Wrestling? Was his rampage up the standings against afterthoughts like Zeb Martin, has beens like Zion, or never will be’s like Lester really that impressive?
No, Lee was testing his steel. Making sure it wasn’t brittle, making sure it wouldn’t buckle under pressure from the best The Grapplers had to throw at it. He had to be sure of his team going into Wargames, he had to be confident in the pieces to the puzzle.
Knocking John Sektor out before the ink had dried on his tournament contract was one thing, taking out Teddy Palmer after five battles in High Octane Wrestling would be an entirely different test. His corner, his team, they operated at a very high level. They relied on each other, they leaned on each other for support. They trained together, they worked out together, they stayed together.
Together. That’s how they operated the best. Each one had failed on their own, from Troy’s failings against JPD and Harrison, to Fuse’s failings against Jiles, to Zeb’s failings… Alone they all faltered. But together, the sum was greater than its parts.
The Alliance? It wasn’t a support system. It wasn’t a Union, it was the gang of miscreants with their own agendas. Each man with his own vision of where he should be. As delusional as each of their own thoughts may appear to be. Sektor and Jatt’s lost greatness and pension for drugs and debauchery, Solex’s baby oil, Harrison’s money, Jiles’ shield, JPD’s vengeance.
Each member of The Alliance had a reason for being there. Each one had a reason for staying and maintaining this war. Clay’s own initial motivation had been like Harrison’s. The money was great, it kept the school running, it did its job. But now that the money was here, what was next? What was the next step for Clay? The next desire? What could Lee Best offer Clay to continue the war, to continue the body count?
This wasn’t a test of the teams though. This was a test of individuals. So what was Clay Byrd’s motivation?
The opportunity to become something greater.
It burned in Clay, it’s why he worked out in this old gym for days before boarding the USS Octane, it’s why he had limited the boozing, it’s why he had limited all the distractions. Clay wanted opportunities, and Lee Best saw through the gloss and veneer of the need for cash.
What Clay Byrd wanted was the opportunity to make a name for himself. It’s why he had agreed to enter a cage in HOFC, it’s why he had agreed to take on such an absurd premise as a full time wrestler. The opportunity to be on High Octane’s radar, the opportunity to be the next guy up. The drive, and the desire to be the fucking man.
He’d fought battles across the globe for fifteen years of his life, he had wrestled in smokey bars, bingo halls, and high school gyms across the world. Why had he done it all? Why had he continued to put himself in situations that would risk his well being for almost nothing?
Clay rolled out of the old ring finally finishing his work out. He walked across the old torn apart gym, the owner had finally decided for a remodel. The years of pain and suffering would be removed, the yellowed canvas and ring would be gone. The destroyed and decimated floor tiles would be replaced.
Instead of a place that turned boys into men, instead of a gym that taught a craft it would soon become like every other gym in Los Angeles. Stair climbers wall to wall, yoga classes where the wrestling ring was, tanning beds where the locker rooms were.
Clay cringed at the thought as he picked up a towel off of a wooden bench and ran it through his sopping wet beard and hair. Decades of history, decades of memories, erased by corporate greed. Business owners always wanted something new, something shiny. They always wanted the opportunity to be better than what they were. As Clay watched the remodeling crew walk in he realized Lee Best’s goal. It was time to reshape The Alliance, to make it better than what it had been. He was Lee Best’s opportunity to do just that, and as much as Clay hated, GOD was his opportunity to make a lasting mark on this business.
Clay picked up a small black book from his gym bag, he flipped it open, thumbing through. It’s pages were littered with the names of gyms. He slowly drew a line through “Claude’s California Boxing Club.” Clay scanned the dates underneath, making a notation of the specific date he had been there.
He had continued using the same book Robert Byrd had used for decades. If you found a place with character, a place you enjoyed working out you wrote the name down. You marked the dates you had been there, and when it was gone, you crossed it out. The procedure was simple, but it assisted bringing the memories back. Clay shut the book and finished cleaning up.
Let’s cut the shit Ted, I’m not callin’ ya by some pet name the ladies have been callin’ ya fer years. I’m gonna keep it simple, yer name is fuckin’ Ted. When Ms. Troy calls ya that, did ya let her know that all yer old girlfriends used ta call ya the same thing? That ya were always there little fuckin’ Teddy Bear? Were gonna save the cuddlin’ and canoodlin’ fer yer fans on twitter, and call ya by yer big boy name.
Ted, what is there to say ‘bout ya?
Ya’ve been on a tear, ya’ve massacred The Alliance at every turn. Each time Lee stacks the deck against ya, ya manage ta come out on top. Ya dig down deep, and ya manage ta find that lil bit extra. That lil bit more. Ya hear section 214 shouting yer name. Beggin’ fer ya ta be there superman, and ya stand up and deliver. Time and time again.
Ya have taken up the call of their queen, ridin’ in like fuckin’ Lancelot and massacrin’ the kingdoms monsters at every turn. She gets ya ready, makin’ sure ya got all twelve of yer steps down pat before ya go out there. Makin’ sure yer workin’ hard and trainin’ that ya ain’t out there chasin’ tail and bein’ the Ted Palmer of old. She makes sure yer ready ta be rallied by the call ‘two-one-four, two-one-four.’
But, what happens when there isn’t a two-one-four? What happens when it’s the quiet of the calm sea and yer in the shit. What happens when yer tryin’ ta put all the pieces back together after my sledgehammer fists crash inta yer skull and all ya hear is silence? Just yerself suckin’ the salty air of the ocean, what happens when it’s just the two of us in that ring Ted.
I’ll tell ya what happens. In the cold, in that quiet moment when ya hear my feet stompin’ ‘cross that mat, and ya know I’m comin’ but know ya can’t get out of the way in time. When that lariat rips yer fuckin’ head off, you’ll lay there and yer subconscious will listen as that referee counts One… Two… Three.
But why will it be that way Ted? Why will it that way fer ya on that ship out in the middle of that water?
Cause yer queen is gonna fuckin’ fail ya. I can already picture yer week in my head. Ms. Troy calls ya up ‘Teddy! Teddy! We gotta get ya ready fer this match! That big feller Clay Byrd sure is mean!’ And ya two will go back and forth, talkin’ ‘bout life, and just like in one of them TV show cartoons she’ll have an epiphany.
‘TEDDY! I KNOW WERE GONNA GET THE BAND OF IDIOTS TOGETHER AND RUN A CAMP!’ And the two of ya will skip off ta some fancy trainin’ school. She’ll have some big dumb goof put ya in some holds fer a bit, some idiot who mighta been a big deal if the cards had come just a lil different. Or maybe that police guy will just hit ya with a fuckin’ ball bat fer a few hours. Ya know, that’s what friends do, right?
But Ted, none of that is gonna be the same as climbin’ inta the ring with me on that boat out there in the middle of the fuckin’ pacific. There’s no preparation fer a feller like me, unless yer callin’ Dan fuckin’ Ryan in as a fuckin’ sparring partner there isn’t ‘nother feller on this planet built how I’m fuckin’ built.
There’s not ‘nother mother fucker on this planet with my athletic ability, who has trained to wrassle their entire fuckin’ life. There ain’t ‘nother fucker on this planet, who is as ready fer this opportunity as I am. I’ve waited my entire career fer a chance ta make a mark in the most important promotion in the world. I’ve waited my entire career ta take somethin’ from a sad sack of shit like yerself.
See Ted, I’ve finally found my reason ta be here. I’ve finally figured it all out. It ain’t ‘bout the piles of money Lee Best throws at me, it ain’t ‘bout no title belts. It’s ‘bout the opportunities. The chance ta make somethin’ better fer me. It’s ‘bout what I fuckin’ need ta finally take my career ta the next fuckin’ level. It’s ‘bout havin’ the fuckin’ moment Ted. I need the fuckin’ moment, I need the competition, I need ta stack bodies. I NEED ta beat ya in that ring Ted.
But why do I need ta beat YOU? Why do I need ta beat the cold dog shit out of Ted Palmer? Is it cause it’ll hurt Ms. Troy that much more, is it cause Lee asked? It’s cause this isn’t ‘bout no Best Alliance versus Two Fourteen, this is ‘bout yerself and I standin’ ‘cross the ring from each other on that fuckin’ boat and findin’ out who the best man really fuckin’ is Ted. As much as all them sad sacks of shit who sit in section 214 want it to be you, as much as Lindsay Troy wants it to be you. They can all get together on Saturday night and have a fuckin’ vigil of hopin’, prayin’, beggin’ and pleadin’ ta whatever god they believe in. None of it’s gonna matter, because yer gonna disappoint every fuckin’ one of them on Saturday night.
I ain’t Hughie Freeman, I ain’t Jatt Starr, and I sure as fuck ain’t John fuckin’ Sektor Ted. I’m somethin’ entirely fuckin’ different. I’m not hear livin’ off my past Ted, I’m not hear livin’ off of good will that I’ve built up for years and years doin’ what needs done. No Ted, I gotta build that good will, I gotta build that fuckin’ reputation. And takin’ somethin’ from a feller like yerself? Takin’ somethin’ away from ya?
That’s what builds it. That’s what elevates a guy like myself and takes me ta the next level. That’s what makes me fuckin’ scary Ted, that’s how I become somethin’ people ‘round these parts fuckin’ fear.
Ted, I don’t care how much ya fuckin’ prepare, I don’t care what the brain trust of 214 comes up with. I’m gonna fuckin’ break ya in that ring, I’m gonna over power ya, I’m gonna out muscle ya. I’m goin’ ta take my place in High Octane Wrasslin’, and I’m gonna go straight fuckin’ through ya ta do it.