Chicago, IL | 15 July
Ritual punishment drew Andy Murray out onto the streets of whatever city he was based in every single morning, no matter what had come the night before.
Dawn’s sunlit splendour crept over the rooftops of the well-to-do neighbourhood in which 24K’s Illinois stayover house was found. It was a different world to the one Murray was used to occupying, as swarming affluence was never a constant even at the height of his wrestling career. Still, Andy wasn’t complaining. This was a different lifestyle, now: one that balanced the slickest place he had ever “lived” in with gruelling workout sessions three hours after getting in from a sloppy drinking session with James Witherold. Murray’s treat.
Such was the level of maintenance required to keep a 42-year-old body in peak fighting shape without sacrificing the fun parts of the job. The lack of pain pills made it all the more difficult, though the titanium knee brace that sent Cecilworth Farthington to the shadow realm in Normandy certainly helped.
Creased runners pounded the pavement as 24K’s most magnificent bastard ruminated on his increasingly complicated universe.
He was a champion but didn’t feel much like one, his prize earned through circumstance rather than glory. That would soon change.
The beating heart of a stable that had now occupied more spots on the list of champions than the Group of Death, though the biggest spot belonged to the only man who’d proven himself capable of besting The King of Wrestling in HOW.
Somebody who had sacrificed once-cherished personal relationships in the name of glory, alienating Vivica J. Valentine, his brother, and even his son on the road to War Games.
A legal puppet whose professional future was still bound to Mikey Unlikely despite Andy’s best efforts to destroy the restrictive covenant. Murray’s latest clandestine meeting with his lawyer, Jeff McDowall, went down the day before, and brought a major development in the settlement with the kid suing from for the barfight a few months ago. The Unlikely situation had slowed, however. That puzzle would take much longer to piece together.
But above all else, Andy Murray was a man rediscovering who the fuck he was.
And it felt good.
Nothing cleansed the soul, gave perspective, and presented opportunities for growth like a knee to the head. Mike Best had given Andy clarity. Mike Best had given Andy purpose beyond screwing around with fancy countdown clocks and calling people cunts.
The road ahead had shown itself, now, and Scott Stevens was the first pothole. Tripping over it wasn’t an option.
Murray rounded his last corner and skipped up onto the porch as he returned home. He wiped the sweat from his creased brow, threw back his hair, and checked his watch. That it read just after seven told him he was still several seconds from his PB. Another defeat. Another reason to get better.
The ICON Championship was the first thing Andy saw as he came through the door and shut it behind him, grabbing the towel he’d placed by the shoe rack. The King walked across cream carpets to where that symbol of War Games failure sat on the dining table, and he was pulled in, glaring at his own reflection on the gold plating.
At least he thought it was his own reflection.
All he could really see was Mike Best’s grinning maw.
An identity crisis is one hell of a thing.
If you aren’t going through one, you probably aren’t doing professional wrestling right. This sport takes something from everyone. It’ll grab hold of traits you consider your greatest strengths and expose them as fatal flaws, not giving a shit if you recover or not. It’s cold, brutal, and it doesn’t care. The smart adapt and forge new identities; everyone else becomes the definition of insanity, repeating losing habits until it’s too late, and the game passes them by.
Treading along Murderer’s Row has sparked one within my closest ally, Perfection, who turned to violence in the face of The Minister. MF Flair is snapping, snarling, and bathing in bloodlust after garroting Lindsay Troy. Eric Dane has gone from DEFIANT End Boss to Lee Best’s yes man in a fortnight.
Each is forging a new identity. Attempting to, at least.
Scott Stevens, your crisis runs deeper – to the extent that I’d consider it unfixable.
Everything you do lacks substance. You open your mouth and nothing comes out, man. It’s a fact about this, a fact about that, and another about nothing at all, because you have nothing to say beyond the shit you Googled before the show and even when you say that, it’s self-immolation.
A shitty dragon tattoo and new muscles will not separate the Stevens from the Stoovins, my guy.
Stevenspedia is a nice little gimmick to hide behind when you’re a confused little man with now discernible character of his own, but you can’t even get that shit right anymore. Perfection was undefeated when he wrestled Mike, you inverted Einstein, 24-cents-short-of-a-quarter dope! And the words “fuck Scott Stevens” came out of my mouth six days after your little Angel statement.
You really aren’t good at this.
If you can’t get your wikifacts straight anymore, what can you do? I’ve never seen such an empty vessel.
Let’s talk some real facts for a minute: High Octane Wrestling has moved past you. You have no way of coping with the knowledge that the place you have called home for however many years doesn’t need or even want you around anymore. That’s why your career is now a flat failure circle of failed comeback after failed comeback: no self-awareness, no vigilance, no identity.
This isn’t your HOW anymore, brother. Men like myself, Mikey Unlikely, Kendrix, and Perfection have only been around for five months, and yet we have done more to push this last great run forward than a man who’s been here for years. It’s hilarious and sad in equal measure.
Your own home promotion loathes you, bell-end. It is a disgusting house, filth-riddled and writhing with pests, and I am coming to clear it up.
I am the here and now. The King.
You are the past.
It’s not that you have gotten worse – from what I can see, you’ve always been this fucking gimpy – but because you are being left behind.
I am going to burn whatever remains of your world away at Refueled, Stoovins, because you represent what HOW used to be. Mike Best, Max Kael, and others who were once your peers adapted, stayed on top of the game, and redefined their place. You did not – and it’s why you can’t get out the basement anymore.
All I feel for you is contempt and pity. You are a dough-faced, dead-eyed blunder artist who hasn’t been a factor in years yet still bleats bullshit about “earning titles,” when you haven’t held this one since two-thousand-and-fucking-thirteen.
I hate that you still have one over on me – and that’s why I’m out for blood.
But don’t worry: I’m not trying to expel you from the history that is all you have left, but from the present.
There’s no place for you in MY ICON Title scene.
Chicago, IL | Minutes Later
The HOW ICON Championship was going through an identity crisis of its own.
In all but the physical form, the white-and-gold strap was still an extension of its most famous holder’s image. The nameplate said “Andy Murray” now but everything else reeked of the Son of GOD.
The King had no idea what Mike Best smelt of, of course, though he estimated something close to the ICON’s musty leather, given how long it had spent around his waste.
It had been called a “starmaker” in Rome. A springboard to the very top of the pile. The Son had referred to it as the single most important part of his legacy and while it warmed Andy’s soul to think of how aggravated Mike must get knowing it was now in an enemy’s hands, it brought little lasting comfort. He had too much work to do to get wrapped up in such pettiness.
Step one was overcoming Scott Stevens.
Though Murray thought the HOW veteran was off-base with most of his demented spiel, he was right about one thing: the strap hadn’t been earned. At least not traditionally.
Andy inherited it as a product of defeat. Though his Herculean efforts deserved some kind of War Games reward, the reign wouldn’t be legitimised until he had made his first successful defence. Granted, Andy would feel better about it had his challenger earned a shot through credible, high-level victories, but he could only play with the cards dealt to him. The joker would be cast away at Refueled.
Falling at this hurdle meant curtains for everything else, to Dan Ryan and beyond. Exorcising Mike’s spirit and imbuing the ICON with Andy’s own would be impossible if it somehow ended up around the Lonesome Loser’s waist. How could he truly make this the wrestler’s belt – Andy Murray’s belt – without smashing this goober?
But redefining this strap, the lineage and value of which wasn’t lost on Murray, posed difficult questions itself.
“Daniel knows the only fight he can win is one fought in a corridor or parking lot but that ring is what separates us and Bumfights,” he said on Refueled last week. The week before? “I don’t get paid to brawl in corridors like a lowlife scrapping for change.”
The words left his mouth with conviction, but how could Andy Murray consider himself above such things with the Jesse Coates situation still hanging over his head?
That night in Chicago, when Andy threw the first punch, was a blot on his copybook – one that made him no better than Dan “I Run To The Fight” Ryan.
In that moment – as Murray wolfed down a glass of water, still staring at the belt – he knew that eliminating this problem had to be a priority.
An immediate priority.
Defeats are valuable.
I almost hate myself for dropping this cliche, but it takes you places victory can’t. Suddenly, you are presented with the opportunity to tighten the nuts and bolts, fix things up, and develop a deeper understanding of your own identity crisis.
I’ve been attempting to unpack mine since I got here.
The first few months were all about throwing as much braggadocio and badassery out into the world as possible. I was wearing skin that I wasn’t totally comfortable in, working shows with allies I barely knew, trying to accept the fact that people weren’t chanting my name anymore.
It took War Games’ looming threat for me to come to terms with the impending disaster. So I prepared for that pay-per-view like never before, tearing everything I thought I knew about myself in the quest to become a beast. A goddamn monster. A horror. That’s what I thought it would take. Being a snide, flashy dickhead wasn’t enough: I tried to be everything Mike, The Minister, and Cecilworth were and more.
And in that loss, I figured it out.
Time to stop being the man I had in my hand and live up to what I really am: an elite, Pantheon tier professional wrestler. Straight up.
Not a complete fucking lunatic who tries to gouge eyeballs out with pens and carves emblems into the scalps of men he wants to team with.
Not a messianic burial artist whose immediate response to great success is to bury his face in a mountain of snow, burn down his own apartment, and bite Bobby Dean in the choad.
And certainly not a guy who can’t think of a barb more cutting than “hurrrdurrr, you dye your hair!”
I won’t bother talking you up anymore, Stevens. What’s the point? You aren’t even good at talking yourself up. You have received the kind of opportunity that should have eluded you years ago and yet you do a better job putting Chris Kostoff and Joe Bergman over than Scott goddamn Stevens, which tells me a couple of things:-
- You have less self-respect than Lindsay Troy, and she’s fucking a cokehead.
- Deep down, somewhere inside you, you understand what this match is really about.
You know the real reason Lee put this thing together.
Dan Ryan and I are going to make him a fuckload of cash at No Remorse. A champion has to make at least one contractually-obliged defence between pay-per-views and the chief doesn’t want to jeopardise the money match, so here you are, Stevens. You’ll walk into the Allstate, grab a nice little paycheque, eat the fall, and fuck right off.
Next week, you’ll be facing Simon Loveless or whoever the fuck. Me? I’ll be getting ready for a prizefight.
That’s where we are right now. I am an interloper – a guest no HOW original wanted roaming their hunting grounds – yet I’m well on my way to the absolute pinnacle.
You, a guy who has worked for this company for twenty times longer than I have, are a record-padder.
The ICON Championship won’t truly be mine until long after I have defeated you. Knocking you on your arse is just the first step, brother, because I’m already sick of looking at this bloody thing and being reminded of what happened at War Games. I need to expunge that feeling.
And I will.
A symbol of failure no more.
I was lost for a long, long time. The compass was jittery before we ran into each other three years ago but you tore up what was left of the map that December evening. Since then, honestly, the journey home has been labyrinthian.
But I made it.
A greater journey starts now. I love being able to call myself ICON Champion. I love entering the locker-room knowing that when people say I “won” it through failure, they are dead right, because it puts a chip on my shoulder. It gives me another thing to shove down their goddamn throats when they talk that talk.
You might not think I’m worth a cent, Stevens, but I feel like a millionaire right now.
And I can buy and sell bottom-dollar bitches like you.
Chicago, IL | One Hour Later
“Sally, hey. Is Jeff available?”
Andy’s phone was pressed between his shoulder and ear as he asked the question. Murray had changed into black jeans and a smart maroon polo but hadn’t yet finished drying his hair, so he tossed the towel on the bed when his lawyer’s receptionist answered quicker than expected.
“Uh-huh,” he said, accepting her response.
McDowall’s thick drawl rumbled through the tiny speaker seconds later. “Andy, what can I do for you?” he asked. There was more than a hint of surprise in his voice, given he’d only met with his client less than 24 hours prior.
Murray started making his way through the house’s upper floor as he spoke. “I know you’re probably between meetings or whatever so I’ll keep this brief,” Andy said.
“Is this Mikey related?”
“No, no,” Andy replied. “Coates.”
“Right, Jesse Coates. By my estimation, the letter should have been delivered an hour or so ago.”
“Great,” Andy said, navigating the stairs more carefully than usual: a combination of his divided attention and aching muscles following the morning’s session. “So it’s over, then?”
Jeff hesitated for a moment before responding. “Sure, but I’m getting the impression it’s not as ‘over’ as you’d like it to be.”
Blackmailing this punk kid out of his settlement wasn’t enough.
“Can you email me the materials?”
“I can,” was the reply. “I shouldn’t, but I can, technically.” A pause followed and Andy stopped dead, not entering the house’s main living area where he could here another 24K member clattering around. “Then again, if this business were defined by morals we wouldn’t have taken the last step in the first place, so…”
A smile crept across Andy’s face. Not necessarily a happy one. “Thanks, chief.”
“It’ll be with you in a few,” McDowall affirmed. “Just do me a favour and don’t tell me what you’re gonna do with them, alright? And be careful.”
“I always am.”
“Alright, until next time.”
The call ended with a bleep. Buoyed, The King of Wrestling came through to the kitchen where James Witherhold was making himself a little something for his headache, though he chose not to wrangle with the second It’s A Frapp! machine the Hollywood Bruvs had bought to casa de 24K. He turned around sluggishly but very much awake, already full of thunder for the day ahead.
“You’re scheming,” Perfection said, taking his first sip of hot, black fuel. The triple-shot espressos 24K’s loudest member put together always tasted like a grenade was going off in the mouth.
“How’d you know?”. Murray was thumbing through his screen, trying to catch the email notification as it came in.
“I recognise that facial expression from the last time I looked in the mirror.”
“Huh,” Andy laughed. No email yet. He kept refreshing. “You ready for your little trip to prison?”
The very thought of competing in a Gen Pop match pulsed contempt through Witherhold’s veins. “Don’t start me on the silly shit,” said James. “Not at this time in the morning. I swear to god, the hoops this fucking company makes us jump through.”
“Rather you than me.” Bing. There goes the notification. “Beautiful” Murray mumbled as he started flicking through the ruinous information attached, from details of the allegations themselves all the way through to the confirmed sum Jesse Coates’ parents had paid to the accuser.
Sensing fuckery was afoot, Perfection’s interest was piqued. “What’chu got there?”
“The end of this little cunt’s world,” was the reply. “Hey, you strike me as a guy with a burner email or two.”
“Who, me?!” Witherhold feigned innocence, but only for a moment. “Try a couple dozen.”
“Load one up for me mate.”
“You’re up to some shady fucking shit, Andy Murray,” Perfection said, turning to his own device. “How things have changed.”
The King came across the room. “Here,” he instructed, lifting his phone up so that Witherhold could do the same, starting an NFC file transfer. The materials were on Perfection’s device within seconds. “Send that bundle of shit to the following email address, please.” Andy paused only to find the contact he’d looked up earlier. “email@example.com.”
“The hell is that?”
“Jesse Coates’ boss.”
It took Perfection a second to realise. “That’s the little rat that tried to sue you, right?”
“I thought you told me you were going to use this to bounce the settlement? Send it to him and his parents or whatever. Good old-fashioned bribery.”
“Oh, that’s already happened,” Murray nodded.
“But it’s not enough.” The most Perfection smile to ever Perfection was on Witherhold’s face, now.
“Exactly. That piece of shit tried to ruin my life, tried to drag my name through the mud. This is what happens when you do that.”
“That’s precisely what I would have done. You’re learning.” Witherhold looked back up from his device. “It’s sent.”
And that was it. A professional life was ended.
“What did you say this guy did again? Sexual assault?”
Murray nodded. “You can read through the stuff if you want but I wouldn’t advise it, it’s pretty fucking gross. His parents ended up paying the accuser off before it could go to court so that it wouldn’t follow him around for the rest of his life.”
“I need to get your lawyer’s number. Sounds like a true master of the dark arts, digging this stuff up.”
“Well, it’s done now. He’s done.”
It’s a funny feeling, holding a man’s life in your hand. It didn’t feel good to Andy at all, but as sure as he knew he was in the trouble the moment he let that prick provoke him into swinging first, he understood the significance of what he’d done.
Blackmailing Coates would have sufficed. It had saved Murray thousands of dollars and a lot of future hassle. It had to be done, but emailing his employer? Bringing his entire world down around him?
That was a choice.
The choice of a man dead set on destroying the mistakes of the past.
One ghost had been expelled from his life today.
Another would follow at Refueled.