Perched on a large rock, STRONK! surveys the vast Australian Outback with its rugged beauty, sparse and unforgiving, stretching as far as the eye can see. With his extraordinary vision, he glimpses untouched landscape for tens of miles in every direction.
He spent the afternoon traversing the unsullied ground, uncovering a trove of mysterious and unfamiliar creepy crawlies. Michael Oliver Best told him to stay put in the SUV with the windows up and the AC on, but after about ten or so minutes, he became bored and the untamed land on the other side of the glass beckoned him.
Gathering his newfound discoveries, he constructed a makeshift rock colosseum, a circular arena two stones deep, about three feet by three feet, and placed the critters inside.
In his mind, STRONK! takes on the role of Papa Best, the promoter of this miniature gladiatorial spectacle. He envisions his small creatures as his loyal roster, each embodying a distinct personality or “gimmick”.
We’re talking… the Sydney Funnel-web spider, with its fervent desire to get over and stay over, to be the man, driving it to play backstage politics and suck up to the big man through frequent sway-dancing. STRONK! very much likes its sway-dancing.
How about the Australian Inland Taipan resting coiled up and disinterested? It doesn’t desire fame or recognition, but it’s just such a natural talent, you can’t deny it a spot at the top of the card. STRONK! has high hopes for him; he’s a blue-chipper.
Or the fearful rodent backed against the rock wall, too terrified to move, that he nicknamed ‘Jace’?
Mesmerized, he observes their intricate movements as they skitter, slither, and approach each other with trepidation or cautious analysis before hastily retreating, as if magnetically repelled.
Within his outstretched hand, STRONK! cradles a scorpion, which paces back and forth repeatedly, before eventually settling in the center of his palm.
“Mister Godson!” he hears Michael Oliver Best’s voice call out, interrupting his playful diversion. “What in the world do you think you’re doing?”
Startled, STRONK! turns to face his wise and experienced handler. “LOOK AT THE NON-HUMAN CREATURES STRONK! HAS COLLECTED,” he replies. “THE NON-HUMAN CREATURES ARE SMALL BUT INTERESTING TO STRONK!. MINNESOTA ONLY HAS DEERS AND MOOSES AND BEARS.”
MOB’s expression changes to quizzical as he approaches the King Stallion.
“Indeed, they are intriguing,” he says, “but let me share a thought with you. Well, not so much a thought as an objective fact. See, these seemingly harmless creatures… can be deceptive. Size isn’t the sole measure of danger, Mister Godson. Even the tiniest of creatures can possess lethal power.”
Perplexed, STRONK! looks at Uncle Oliver, unsure of what he means. In his thirty-plus years on planet earth, he never considered that something smaller than him could be dangerous. It doesn’t make sense; STRONK! could easily crush each and every ‘fighter’ he’s forcefully recruited to his promotion. “HOW? HOW CAN SMALL BE DANGEROUS? SMALL MEANS NOT-DANGEROUS.”
Uncle Oliver kneels beside him, his eyes conveying years of knowledge and experience. “Take that scorpion you hold,” he says, pointing at the creature in STRONK!’s hand. “Its sting may be small, but it carries a potent venom. You didn’t know that, did you? You didn’t consider all the variables before you started manhandling a bunch of bugs and wild animals. If you’re not careful, Mister Godson, such poor judgment could prove to be deadly.”
The gravity of the revelation settles upon STRONK!. He carefully places the scorpion back into the arena. In that moment, he realizes that every living being, no matter how small, plays a vital role in the violent battle royale of life.
As if to illustrate the lesson, the scorpion, sensing the struggling stonefish (another one of STRONK!’s recruits) lying prone on its side a foot or so away, slowly dying, instinctively delivers a defensive but fatal strike, hastening the fish’s demise.
STRONK! thinks about all of the opponents he’s underestimated, and maybe continues to underestimate to this very day, based solely on their diminutive stature. He wonders what the human equivalent of a scorpion’s deadly venom is, and does Jace Parker Davidson possess it?
He gives his head a good, hard shake.
“NO,” STRONK announces.
Before MOB can react, STRONK! picks up his rock surrogate and mercilessly squishes the rats, snakes, scorpions, spiders, and lizards crowding his makeshift arena. It doesn’t take long for the survival rate to drop to zero. He lobs the bloody rock aside and stands up.
“UNCLE OLIVER IS RIGHT ABOUT EVERYTHING. BUT UNCLE OLIVER IS WRONG ABOUT THIS.”
He destroyed several of the Australian Outback’s most feared creatures, and, y’know, it wasn’t even all that hard.
Ordinarily, it would not be in his nature to harm innocent creatures. He’s not Jace Parker Davidson, he reassures himself. But to hear Uncle Oliver tell it, these things were anything but innocent; they were an imminent threat to the HOW World Champion.
And the threat has been eliminated.
Michael Oliver Best opens his mouth to speak—he should probably take corrective action right now to ensure STRONK! doesn’t start thinking it’s alright to bludgeon random creatures to death just because he feels the slight bit “threatened”—but instead he chooses to let this one slide. If STRONK! views himself as untouchable by virtue of his size, that’s fine by him! The needless loss of a dozen or so small lives is collateral damage; a triviality.
Confidence is key in championship contests.
“Come now, Mister Godson,” he says, rising to his feet, “we’re ready for you now.”
A short while later, inside a tent-like structure wrapped in hides and heavy fabrics, what MOB calls a sweat lodge, the heat swells relentlessly as red-hot coals stoke the temperature. Attendants occasionally enter and pour water onto the coals, creating thick clouds of steam that dissipate quickly into the air.
Michael Oliver Best informed STRONK! that he planned for the whole ‘sweat lodge’ experience as a means of helping to acclimatize him to the extreme heat of the Australian Outback. He thought a few hours in a sweat lodge would “optimize” STRONK!’s cardio for his title defense at #97RED.
The locals that MOB paid to set up the sweat lodge and administer the experience end-to-end claimed it also aids in mental wellness and body purification, which sounds like a welcome side benefit, but MOB secretly hopes it doesn’t purify his client too much; STRONK!’s got some very useful chemicals coursing through his million-dollar body.
As the hours stretch on inside the sweat lodge, the searing heat becomes unbearable, wrapping itself around STRONK! like an oppressive shroud. He is drenched in sweat, his body and mind weary. Loneliness creeps into his heart as the heavy layers of hides and fabrics isolate him from the world outside. He feels as if he is trapped in an infernal cocoon, cut off from reality, his senses disoriented.
Slowly, the boundaries between reality and illusion begin to blur.
The hallucinations creep into his consciousness like shimmering mirages in the desert.
Amongst the waves of heat and exhaustion, he sees a familiar figure emerging from the swirling haze—MONGO, the murdered bull, his loyal companion and best friend.
MONGO stands on his hind legs, a surreal sight that perplexes STRONK! as MONGO never stood for him before; it made trying to disguise him as a person so they could go to a steakhouse together very difficult.
The bull’s voice, a bizarre amalgamation of his former manager, Abdullah Choi, and, strangely enough, the iconic rapper DMX, fluctuates back and forth. STRONK! has never heard of DMX, nor listened to any of his music, which makes the whole thing both more and less confusing at the same time, depending on your perspective.
“STRONK! Daddy!” the bull says, sounding like Abdullah Choi, all whiny and annoying. “Don’t forget, it was that scumbag Jace Parker Davidson who took me out, bapa! That snake in the grass did me dirty!”
Then, the voice shifts abruptly, resonating with the raw and distinctive tone of DMX, though it’s more of a conversational tone than his trademark barking-style of rap. “Ayo, my brother, hold up! You gotta be careful, man! Not everything is as it seems! Don’t be too quick to believe everything you hear! These fools are out to deceive you, dawg!”
The battle of voices rages within STRONK!’s mind, each one trying to sway him towards their version of the truth, a twisted dance of conflicting narratives.
The hallucination seems so vivid, STRONK! can almost reach out and touch it. Yet, in the sweltering confines of the sweat lodge, the sight of MONGO plays tricks on his senses. The bull’s form seems to waver, its outline murky and illformed.
“Listen to me, big man!” Abdullah Choi’s voice pleads in an exaggerated whine. “Jace Parker Davidson killed me! You know this! You should be thinking about how you’re going to crush his skull, not taking a fucking sauna! Is this what your so-called Uncle Oliver has you doing? What is this shit, bro!”
In contrast, DMX’s voice counters with an air of conspiracy, “Nah, nah, my brother, it’s all lies! Don’t let them fuck with your head like that! There’s more to this story than you know, dawg!”
The two personas wrestle for control over the bull’s manifestation. MONGO’s form trembles, seeming to bend and stretch like a funhouse mirror.
As the argument between the voices escalates, Abdullah Choi, or rather the hallucination of MONGO, reaches a breaking point. With an exaggerated flourish, he pulls out a gun, pointing it towards his own head. “Enough of this!” he declares dramatically.
He wants very badly to shut up the other voice before any pertinent details are leaked.
STRONK! watches as Abdullah Choi’s hallucinatory version of MONGO attempts to shoot himself in the head. However, the bullet dissolves into thin air as it exits the barrel, leaving the bull unscathed.
The battle reaches its peak, with both the right (Choi) and left (DMX) side of the vertical, anthropomorphic bull fighting for control of the gun, before MONGO flickers erratically. In the midst of the strange encounter, STRONK! feels a sense of unease.
As the hallucination slowly dissipates, the sweat lodge returns to its unnerving silence.
STRONK! leans over to the side and sprays the contents of his stomach all over the floor of the tent.
He had steak for lunch (big surprise).
He passes out.
STRONK! feels himself falling into an infinite abyss. All around him is darkness. There’s not a single distinct feature to be seen anywhere. He opens his mouth to shout (real men don’t scream)… but nothing comes out.
He realizes that he’s not falling; he’s floating suspended in the inky blackness of his surroundings. He attempts to move his arms and legs, but it’s like trying to ambulate through sludge.
Suddenly, something hooks him from behind, snatching him by the HOW World Championship around his waist.
Now, he’s not floating any longer; now, he’s falling.
No, not falling—he is being pulled. Pulled deeper and deeper and deeper into the abyss; it feels as though it’s never going to end.
There’s no air in the abyss, so he can’t feel the wind blow past him as he plummets… but the woozy feeling in the pit of his stomach is all the indication he needs.
He’s not afraid. But he does wonder what the hell is at the bottom of all the pitch-blackness.
Then he hears it.
A guttural sound, as if belched forth from an angry giant, echoes up from down below. It’s so loud that it jars his skeleton; he can feel organs shift inside him. But there is no pain. None whatsoever.
He comes to a sudden painless, weightless halt.
Around him, the darkness gives way to an out-of-focus building far off in the distance. He squints to see better, and it becomes clear that the building is, in fact, the STRONKUMMS LLC factory.
Atop the building, vague shadow people stand, lining up along the edge, and one by one they step forward and silently drop.
STRONK! thinks about the business he and his ex-best friend Jace Parker Davidson built together. How full of life and optimism their small team of employees was in the beginning.
The mandate was simple: produce an affordable, flash-frozen beef steak, and feed the hungry populace.
But things quickly changed.
While the quality of the product was always substandard (very early on, almost at the point of inception, rotten camel meat was substituted for beef, which is a tough sell, even if your branding’s on point), the anabolic steroids injected into it—a fact withheld from consumers but somehow known by most—changed STRONKUMMS into something entirely different.
Then came Liquid STRONKUMMS, Jace’s bright idea.
Cocaine was added as a “secret ingredient.”
Now, if STRONK! should defeat JPD at #97RED, which he will, the question remains—will the company, once returned to him, even slightly resemble the one he departed following the life-threatening injuries he sustained at the hands of Conor Fuse? Will it just be a bastardization of the glorious firm he founded one year ago?
If MOB knew the true inner workings of the STRONKUMMS LLC business (the steroids, the cocaine, the questionable meat supply), he’d probably put his foot down and demand that his client silently wind down the company. Extricate yourself from that potential legal liability, he’d say, and STRONK! would, of course, have no idea what any of those words mean.
But the company is only a small fraction of the inner motivation that fuels the STRONKEST! Man Alive
The company, STRONKUMMS LLC… he’s come to the conclusion that it no longer holds the same significance to him. It’s just a name.
The untimely demise of MONGO—whether his “ghost” instructs STRONK! to destroy Jace Parker Davidson, or contradicts itself and asks that he instead think more clearly and objectively about where to direct the rightful blame—demands settlement.
And it will be settled.
Vengeance will be his.
At once, the STRONKUMMS LLC factory crumbles into a giant pile, before blipping completely out of existence, as though it were never there.
Back to the void. Until…
“Mister Godson, wake up!”
STRONK! DID NOT HAVE FRIENDS AS A TINY STRONK!
SMALL HUMANS MADE FUN STRONK!’S TALKING AND CLOTHES. STRONK! TRIED TO BE A FRIEND TO THESE SMALL HUMANS BUT THE SMALL HUMANS DID NOT WANT STRONK AS A FRIEND.
STRONK! WOULD RUN AROUND AND LIFT THINGS AND FLEX AND GROWN HUMANS WOULD YELL AT STRONK! TO PUT DOWN THE PHYSICAL EDUCATION TEACHER.
NO ONE LIKED STRONK!
STRONK! DID NOT UNDERSTAND.
JACE PARKER DAVIDSON WAS STRONK!’S FRIEND.
STRONK! AND JACE PARKER DAVIDSON FOUGHT IN A SALOON TOGETHER AND MADE A BUSINESS COMPANY AND BULLIED ANOTHER HUMAN THAT WAS THERE BUT STRONK! CANNOT REMEMBER THE NAME OF THAT HUMAN.
PAPA BEST TOLD STRONK! IT WAS OKAY TO HAVE FRIENDS.
PAPA BEST TOLD STRONK! THAT STRONK! IS THE MOST POWERFUL AND MOST POPULAR WRESTLER IN THE WORLD. WAY MORE POWERFUL AND MORE POPULAR THAN BRANDON YOUNGBLOOD. EVERYONE WANTS STRONK! AS A FRIEND.
STRONK! CAN HEAR THE HUMANS IN THE CROWD.
THE HUMANS LOVE STRONK! AND ACCEPT STRONK! FOR STRONK!
STRONK! HAD THE LOVE OF THE CROWD AND THE FRIENDSHIP OF WHAT STRONK! BELIEVED TO BE A GOOD HUMAN MAN. IT WAS THE HAPPIEST STRONK! HAS EVER BEEN.
BUT JACE PARKER DAVIDSON WAS JEALOUS OF STRONK! AND ALSO HATED MONGO BECAUSE MONGO WAS A GIFT FROM PAPA BEST.
JACE PARKER DAVIDSON SHOULD HAVE TALKED TO STRONK! BUT JACE PARKER DAVIDSON DID NOT.
JACE PARKER DAVIDSON MURDERED MONGO.
STRONK! WOULD HAVE BURIED STRONK! IN STRONK’S STRONKUMMS WORK BUT THEN JACE PARKER DAVIDSON STOLE STRONKUMMS AS WELL.
JACE PARKER DAVIDSON TOOK EVERYTHING FROM STRONK! AND LEFT STRONK! WITH NOTHING.
STRONK! SHOULD NOT TRUST FRIENDS.
ONLY UNCLE OLIVER.
ONLY BROTHER SWOLEX.
ONLY PAPA BEST.
FRIENDS HURT STRONK! AND MAKE STRONK! FEEL LIKE TINY STRONK! AGAIN.
BUT STRONK! IS NOT TINY.
STRONK! IS STRONK!
BIG AND STRONK!
IT MAKES STRONK! FEEL SAD TO DESTROY A HUMAN THAT WAS A FRIEND TO STRONK! BUT SOME THINGS CANNOT BE FORGIVEN.
STRONK! CAN FORGIVE TAKING AWAY STRONK!’S MEAT BUSINESS.
STRONK! CAN FORGIVE BEING SLAMMED THROUGH A CAGE.
STRONK! CAN FORGIVE THE HARMING OF UNCLE OLIVER.
BUT STRONK! CANNOT FORGIVE THE MURDER OF MONGO.
STRONK! WILL END JACE PARKER DAVIDSON.
THEN STRONK! WILL FORGET.
BUT STILL NEVER FORGIVE.
“Mister Godson, you nearly gave me a heart attack!”
STRONK!’s eyes flutter open. He lays on his back in the dirt outside the sweat lodge, feeling like his body temperature is nearing a thousand degrees.
MOB drapes a wet washcloth over his forehead.
One of the attendants fans him with a dirty shirt as Michael Oliver Best leans over him.
“You feinted,” MOB replies. “Out cold.”
The King Stallion blinks. Gulps hard. His mouth is so dry and parched.
With a shake of his head, MOB says, “You didn’t drink a single drop of the bottled water we provided, did you?”
STRONK!’s silence tells Michael Oliver Best everything he needs to know.
Two cases of bottled water are positioned on the floor of the sweat lodge, about a foot away from where STRONK! had been sitting when he tripped balls and cozied up real close to a burgeoning existential crisis or full-blown nervous breakdown.
He escaped just in the nick of time.
That is, before he could think too critically (a tall order for him on even his best and most lucid of days) about any of the needling thoughts that bubbled to the surface while his brain was slow-cooking inside his skull.
Now, everything he saw or experienced, either in the sweat lodge or while drifting deeper into the black abyss, is fragmented, half-remembered, or lost to the ether entirely.
The only revelation that seems to persist deep within him is…
This fight he’s persistently called for, this final battle with his ex-best friend in the Australian Outback, is not about the ownership of any company.
It never should’ve been, but it certainly isn’t now.
STRONK! never wanted to be a CEO; he doesn’t even know that such a job exists. He also couldn’t care less about reaping the profits of a thriving meat business, no matter how substantial they may be, because money has absolutely no meaning to him.
All that matters is satisfying MONGO’s insatiable bloodlust and thirst for revenge from beyond the grave.
And STRONK! is more than happy to oblige. He made a promise to him, and STRONK! Daddy never breaks a promise, and he definitely doesn’t let down a true friend.
STRONK! finally responds to MOB: “STRONK! WAS TOO HOT TO CONSUME LIQUID. AND ALSO STRONK! FORGOT THE LIQUID WAS THERE.”
MOB chuckles; he can laugh about it now that he knows STRONK! hasn’t suffered any irreparable brain damage (well, not any more than he already had, anyway), and isn’t, simply put, dead.
He does find it ironic, however, that, after chastising his client relentlessly about making stupid, short-sighted, potentially deadly choices, that he inadvertently almost killed him via heatstroke.
That… would’ve made for a difficult conversation with his brother, for sure.
Lee would’ve been pissed.
It was a gamble that paid off, MOB thinks. STRONK! had withstood the intense heat for several hours, before finally succumbing to the temperature and dehydration. It’s reassuring to know there’s nothing that nature can throw at his client that will compare to what he simulated this afternoon.
“Let’s get you up,” MOB says. “We’re heading back to the city.”