I always thought I was a warrior, a soldier on the front lines of some epic confrontation. Sitting on a scale at the precipice of the mountain of my own mortality week in and week out, the scale shifting with each momentary lapse in judgment. My life at the whims of the uncontrollable, my body a kite strung up over the ocean. The fierce breeze pushes me, and the only thing I want to do is stay above the water, stay above the ground, stay dry, stay alive. Just to feel the warm air continue to lift me, higher and higher, and my battle against the forces of evil escalating and escalating.
This was the conflict of my generation that wasn’t drafted for Afghanistan or Iraq. Those were choices the men and women who served had made. My lifetime never had a Vietnam, or a World War. There was no conscription in my world, there was never a draft lottery for the rich to purchase their way out of. My generation, for the most part, has lived at peace. At peace in a world on the brink of disaster and destruction, and maybe the world is really at the summit of a mountain with good and bad weighed on a golden scale.
Or maybe my life isn’t epic, in the grand scheme of the world are we really greater than the sum of our parts? Our carbon based bodies are put together by cells that have decided to work together for the greater well being of each other. If the universe is a person, we mean nothing in the grand scheme of its existence.
My world spins effortlessly around me, and my thoughts are warped by the centrifugal force of the gravity of my situation. Each decision I’ve made is inconsequential, ultimately my life continues on its seemingly predetermined path. The timeline of my destiny stretches onwards, an eternity for me to live through and just a moment in the eyes of the universe.
I turned forty years old last month, and I’ve had a lot of time to think about life, the universe, my existence, this ‘war’, this perceived game that we will play in Kyiv. What does it mean for me, what change can I make to my life by achieving ‘greatness’ while locked in the double cage at War Games? What incredible outcome could cause a monumental shift in my personal trajectory, that would potentially be large enough to shift this company’s trajectory? What could I do to affect High Octane Wrestling?
We all know the answer: NOTHING. THE MACHINE MARCHES ON.
The city of Przemysl was beautiful, its architecture echoed back to when the world was a simpler place. To most Americans the age of normal buildings in Europe could be tough to comprehend or truly consider. We label entire neighborhoods historical when they were built in the 1890’s. Here in Przemysl, Poland some of the buildings had already stood for a century, or even predated America. The architecture was fascinating, the central European city clashed with the former communist elements to create something mesmerizing.
Last year for War Games, Clay had traveled to Japan, a country he was incredibly familiar with. A home away from home for the large man, and this year the office had decided to step way outside of the comfort zone of any combat sport veteran. A new land, a new people, and a war zone. A translator named Aleksander had accompanied him since they had left Warsaw on the way to Ukraine.
“Mr. Byrd, we will be approaching the border soon, I’ll be discussing the nature of your visit with the border guards. Please only speak to me as we cross, they understand some English, but may not understand your dialect or accent…” The Behemoth’s head had been swimming since the plane had touched down in Warsaw. Of course Lee Best had booked him the worst flight imaginable. He’d had four layovers for a total of twenty-one hours spent sleeping and waiting in some of the most miserable airports across Europe. But now, in the car it was just himself and his new friend Alek.
“Yeah, whatever ya say Partner, whatever is gonna get me ta Kyiv in one pie…” Clay stopped mid sentence as they pulled up to the line at the border checkpoint. His jaw hung open as he looked at the refugee camp, it stretched along the outskirts of the city for miles. Their tarp tents pitched in neat lines, and the smoke of fires burning hung like a gray fog just above the canvas city.
“Those are the refugees Mr. Byrd. Down here, closer to the border, we have to keep them together until we can find more permanent accommodations,” The Behemoth never took his eyes off the camp as the translator spoke.
“Can we go there?” Aleksander looked at the Monster from Plainview, he was crammed into the passenger side of the Skoda Octavia. His knees were crammed against the dashboard, his shoulder was pressed against Aleksander’s own, and the other was mashed against the window. When Clay shifted, Aleksander could feel the power behind the man’s movements, and he wasn’t in a position to tell him no.
“Sure,” Aleksander blurted out, he was clearly not fond of the idea, however stopping before continuing the drive to Kyiv could be advantageous. He pulled the silver Skoda off the side of the road and down the dirt driveway normally reserved for military vehicles. The car jostled and jumped down the pathway before finally ending at the front gate. Alek’s window rolled down, he and the gate guard began conversing in Polish. Normally in the major wrestling countries of the world, Clay could grab onto a few words to understand the nature of the conversation. That was impossible with Polish, the guttural Germanic language had no known comparison for The Behemoth.
Clay watched what he could of the camp from the outside of the fence. Inside, children kicked a soccer ball across a mud caked road and chased after each other. The adults huddled around a few small fires outside of their makeshift homes. The ignorance and naivety of the children clashed with the ominous worry and fear that cascaded from the adults body language.
“He said: no,” Alek squeaked out, Clay responded by pushing the passenger door of the Skoda open and stepping out onto dirt and gravel road. Before he could turn around he heard the shouting and dropped his bag and raised his arms. From inside the car he could hear Alek shouting for Clay to do exactly as he’s told. The muzzle of a rifle jabbed him in his side as one of the armed men came around the side of the car. Alek was too busy shouting at the guards to translate for The Behemoth. He needed to get on his knees, and the big man obliged.
The freshly painted tan walls of the guard facility contrasted against the infant canvas city outside the building. The cinder block construction with the endless coats of government paint felt familiar to The Behemoth. He’d experienced something similar in his years out in West Texas. A poor population building the same buildings everyone else had, but the walls weren’t drywall and plaster, they were block.
From the outside it all looked normal, but once you crossed the threshold of the doorway to the inside, the truth was apparent. The block texture hidden poorly behind layer after layer of budget tan paint told the tale of hasty construction and corners cut. Clay struggled against the three sets of handcuffs that were strung together to imprison him. He could see Alek down the hallway at the front counter talking to the guards at the desk. He was chained to a metal pole that ran from the floor to the ceiling, but they had been nice enough to give Clay a chair at least.
He watched as women and elderly men entered the office in succession, one after another. He watched them walk to another section of the counter, taking a number. They still wore their winter clothes, even in the heat and humidity of the Polish summer. They had packed what they needed, they had packed what they could carry. Nobody expected this conflict to continue on longer than it had, nobody predicted this war would last months instead of days or weeks. This was supposed to be a blitzkrieg, a lightning fast assault on a target, it was supposed to cripple Ukraine.
And it had, it had crippled some Ukrainians, the ones Clay watched before them. Most of the people who entered and talked to the people at the counter left with their heads down and dejected. Rarely, a family would leave in tears. There wasn’t a smile besides the desk clerk, and even the smile her chubby blonde face produced was only out of courtesy. It had no sincerity behind the gesture.
Without Alek, The Behemoth was left with only his own faculties to understand the conversation. And Clay barely spoke comprehensible English, let alone the mix of Polish, Ukrainian, Russian, and German the people that lived here spoke. They danced between languages as effortlessly as Bobby Fisher played chess. And Clay could only imagine the conversations; it was clear families were coming to request news of loved ones. Either serving in the war, or separated from their families. It’s amazing that in an age where information travels so quickly, that there was still such a struggle to grasp it.
The one thing Clay could understand on the families faces, the one thing he could pull away from each conversation, the small little bit of knowledge he was able to correctly infer was what the feeling of true loss looked like. These people had lost everything, everything from their homes, to their families, to their friends. Women and children separated from their fathers, sons, brothers.
The desperation in their eyes, the futility in the effort, but the dedication to the task anyway. How many times has someone quoted the definition of insanity to describe a fellow competitor? Yet here it was, and in the flesh, away from the absurdness of the wrestling ring, away from the absurdness of organized combat, here it was. It did not look or feel as insane.
The big man cringed as a woman down the hallway let out a wail of anguish, she grasped at her chest her heart wrenched out in front of everyone. The sting of her emotion pierced the ear drums of everyone in the building, the woman spun into the arms of her oldest child. A son, no more than fourteen, his mother in his arms, his own grief boiling underneath. Clay wanted to reach out, to help them hold her, to hold the boy.
Unless we’re sociopaths we all have empathy, Clay thought. Even while being detained and uncertain about his own future, his heart ached. It ached for what that family might have been at one point, it ached thinking of the father they’d never see again. Alek finally looked over and pointed down the hallway at The Behemoth.
Clay looked up to his right and saw the visage, the specter of his father. He glanced at the open bag at his feet, the soft red glow of the orb. The Behemoth looked up at the elder Byrd and nodded, he looked back down the hallway at the young man and his mother. Now a small huddle had formed, two young girls no more than ten and seven had joined the hug around their mother.
Clay shook his head as he looked down at the orb. Here he was, a forty year old man holding onto something that couldn’t possibly be real. Something that he wanted so bad, that he craved. Why couldn’t it exist? Why couldn’t it just exist for him? Why couldn’t he be special? Why did it have to stop? Why did it have to stop now?
He looked up at the face of his father, his eyes grew huge with realization. He tried to beg and plead with The Behemoth, but his words were superfluous to the task at hand. They didn’t matter, they couldn’t matter because it wasn’t him. From that night, the look of shock about Tyler Best, Clay knew.
That wasn’t him.
He looked up as the guard walked down the hallway and looked at The Monster from Plainview. Clay smiled as Alek followed along, the guard in his brown military uniform turned the enormous man to the side, and unlocked the cuff around his left wrist. Clay jerked his hands free, the metal of the other three sets of cuffs clanged off the pipe.
“They misunderstood your intentions. Poland is not a big refugee country, so people sometimes are violent at the gates of the camps…” Alek walked with The Behemoth towards the exit, he continued to speak but Clay didn’t listen. The spectral image of his father walked in front of Clay, but backwards, looking him in the eyes. The two men walked back through the camp, to the vehicle. Alek got inside the driver’s seat while Clay stood outside, he turned around and looked at the wall of guards in the distance.
“Fuckin’ pricks,” Clay mumbled to himself. Last year it had been his father’s notebook. That notebook was a more legitimate voice to guide The Behemoth than whatever the fuck this red glowing orb was, and he knew it. He reached into the bag and took it out, it was warm to the touch. He dropped it on the ground, and lifted his size fifteen boot into the air.
March To Glory, the biggest loss of my career.
There’s been a few of them noe, but even the matches for the World Heavyweight title, they haven’t had the gravitas that the singles match that Michael Lee Best and I had that night in Chicago. In front of the faithful of High Octane Wrestling, the brainwashed thousands that believe in the Best family’s sociopathic ways – I fell. I was nothing, a man lost in his own world, raging against a machine that I could never actually defeat.
That night, the pain in my chest wasn’t from the elbow Mike Best dropped on me from the top of the steel cage. That night the hurt wasn’t physical, it was emotional. I was broken mentally and physically. I wanted nothing more than to destroy Michael Lee Best, I wanted nothing more than to break him into a million pieces in front of all of those people in Chicago.
I wanted to murder a man on television.
And now here I am, talking about how I felt about losing in a competition. The stakes were high for what we do, but in the grand scheme of life, of the universe? The stakes were incredibly low. For the average person they’d appear elevated, but the average person hasn’t felt what these people in Ukraine feel. They haven’t felt what it’s like to lose their father, mother, brother, their friends to an invisible faceless enemy.
My emotions, the hatred I felt in my belly, the fire that roared was misaligned, aimed incorrectly, misappropriated. Sure, I still hate Mike Best, sure I still hate Michael Oliver Best too, and of course, I still hate Lee Best. But my feelings feel muted in comparison to what these people feel, these people rage against the anonymous faceless being that wears another uniform, and here I am, still pouring milk on my cereal in the morning.
My sense of loss, what I’ve given up, what I’ve sacrificed, it matters, of course it matters. But in comparison to this? It’s meaningless. It’s naive and ignorant to compare what we do day in and day out to the horrors these people are experiencing every waking moment of their life. I lost a match to Michael Lee Best, and I went back to my truck and went to sleep. I went to my best friend and grieved, and suffered, and was angry.
What was I so angry about? Because I got fucked over?
My friend was still there, Steve Solex wasn’t hurt or dead. We lived to fight another day, we lived to fight on in our little battle. You know, Steve has always taken this seriously, but Steve never ripped his hands to shreds while holding the handle of a sledgehammer over it. Because Steve knows better than anyone how high the stakes of battle, of real, actual war can be. He’s experienced that, he’s experienced all of it.
We have no idea.
We know nothing of loss. We may have lost family members, we may have lost friends, but the stakes were known. The violence was expected, children weren’t left fatherless. When Mike Best killed Max Kael, it might have been the best thing that ever happened to Sutler.
Sure there was loss there, but that was an expected consequence of the fight they were having. They escalated the stakes to that level, they made the choices to have it go that far. They did it all to themselves. So what are we supposed to do here in the Ukraine? Compare what we do in the ring to the loss these people experienced? If they could choose, they would go back to their home, they would sit down and have a meal with their father. But a nameless, faceless, Russian man took him away from them.
There’s no enemy, nothing is personal. It’s just war, it’s just loss, it’s just what we all expect war to be. To the outside onlooker, especially to us in America he’s just another Ukranian life lost to Russian aggression. Numbers fly at our television and are thrown at us by talking heads, but the actual horrors we are shielded from. Because we need our own made up conflicts to escalate to a fevered pitch, so we can falsely compare them to what I’m seeing here in Ukraine.
Everything I’ve experienced to this point, up to this moment, up to this opportunity is inconsequential as a comparison. We’ll step in the cage, and we’ll talk about fighting a battle, we’ll talk about how this is a war. That match against Michael Lee Best was exactly that, a match. Nothing more, nothing less.
To the universe it was all pointless.