Tim Tillinghast: Clay, I’ve been around this business a long time. I’ve seen the greats come through every promotion. I’ve seen Lindsay Troy in PRIME, I’ve witnessed Mike Best in HOW, I’ve seen the Tchus, the Americas, and the Farthingtons. They don’t ever change at their core; who they are is who they are. This late in your career, how are you working to attack a flaw this big?
Clay goes to speak but it’s Tim’s turn to hold his hand up.
Tim Tillinghast: If I’m Christopher America, I’m making sure Jace Parker Davidson knows his job during the main event. I’m getting Benny Newell out there. I’m calling in a favor from Mike Best. I’m making sure that every possible distraction is in and around that ring.
Clay nods in acknowledgement. He taps his hand off the table for a moment before looking over at Tim.
Clay Byrd: My camp and myself have identified the issue. We know what the problem is, and we came up with a unique, different strategy ta attack it. We aren’t sitting idly by, lettin’ me walk inta a hornet’s nest unprepared. I’m gonna be ready fer the moment at Iconic, Tim.
Tim Tillinghast: Yeah bu…
Clay Byrd: And that’s the thing Tim, there ain’t no ‘Yeah Buts’ Anymore. There ain’t no excuses I’m not out here justifyin’ my past defeats. I’m done makin’ excuses and I’m done blamin’ people other than myself. I’m goin’ ta walk inta this ring in a few days and take that title belt from Christopher America. I’m goin’ ta have the one thing I’ve dreamed of since I was a little boy; becomin’ World Heavyweight Champion. Or, I’m gonna get pinned in the middle of the ring by a smarter, better wrestler.
Tim takes a moment to reflect on the answer before responding.
Tim Tillinghast: You really believe you’ll feel that way?
Clay Byrd: Yes.
Tim looks at The Behemoth and decides to switch gears.
Tim Tillinghast: Since we’re on the subject, let’s talk a bit about America.
Clay Byrd: He’s a great champion.
Tim smiles and takes a moment to hold up his hand.
Tim Tillinghast: He is a great champion, you’re right. But let’s talk about his road to get to Iconic.
Clay Byrd: What ‘bout it?
Tim Tillinghast: Well frankly, he’s run through…
Tim holds his arms up and adds air quotes.
Tim Tillinghast: ‘The Highwaymen’ like a hot knife through butter. I want to take it back to the beginning and, more specifically, back to that first encounter. America taking on Joe Bergman with a shot at War Games on the line.
The Monster from Plainview nods his head.
Clay Byrd: Ya, ya know. That one was prolly my fault.
Tim Tillinghast: Oh? Would you like to elaborate?
Clay Byrd: Well, I hadn’t seen America. He was a name from the histories of High Octane. I knew the feller was great at one point. But, I knew Bergman was our ringer. If we could get Joe through qualifyin’ and take out Lee Best’s lil secret weapon we’d have a great shot.
Tim Tillinghast: So, you put Bergman up to it?
Clay pauses and chooses his words carefully.
Clay Byrd: I knew what Joe was up against with STRONK Godson, everyone had done their homework on that animal. But we didn’t have a clue on how good of shape America was in, and we didn’t know his mindset comin’ in. We knew switchin’ him off of Hollywood to Bergman was gonna be a curveball and we wanted ta see if he could handle it.
Tim Tillinghast: So you were testing him?
Clay Byrd: Absolutely.
The plane ride to Bergman’s barn was a tense affair. The encounter in the truck had led to a limited dialogue between the two, most of that discourse came from the lips of Bergman. The terminal number, which direction to head, what time their flight left. The run through the airport had been so fast, there hadn’t been time to talk about anything else. But now that the two men were on an airplane cruising at 35,000 feet, there was nothing but time. The silence was heavy, at least it felt that way to The Behemoth.
He’d never spent much time alone with Bergman. The two men had always been the furthest apart ideologically, Clay’s philosophy towards violence and the way he went about his business had always left Joe uneasy. And Bergman’s insistence on the ‘right’ way being the only way had left Clay questioning Bergman’s loyalties at times. Solex and Byrd had always lived by a code of ‘by any means necessary.’ Bergman, and now even Harrison, had started to feel differently.
“So,” Bergman broke the silence with a simple statement. He had no follow up, but the man with the midwestern sensibilities started the conversation exactly how a midwesterner would. No rhyme or reason, no opening salvo, no deep dark point. He was just tired of the silence, and he wanted it to leave.
The Behemoth was still upset about the events back in Houston. He’d been so close to finishing his task; he was right on the brink of success. Clay had walked to the edge of his own madness and peered over the edge, and he could almost taste what the other side was like. He’d looked into the abyss and the abyss had looked back at him. Bergman glanced towards Clay and asked the one thing that was on his mind.
“Were you really going to do it?”
Joe squirmed in his seat hearing the cold, direct tone that The Behemoth had answered him with. He’d never spent this much time alone with Clay before. The Monster was the silent force behind the Highwaymen. He would push the initiative forward through actions rather than giving orders. Bergman looked the big man over while Clay kept his blue eyes pointed forward. He wanted to change the subject from the encounter in the alleyway to something more palatable. Bergman waited a few more minutes, sitting in silence before trying to breach it again.
“So, let’s talk about America then.”
“What about him?” Clay asked. Bergman was desperate to change the subject, and he had a few things he was dying to know the answer to.
“Why’d you pick me to get you ready for him?”
“You know why,” Clay turned his head towards Joe, his eyes bright with the sunset coming through the window reflecting off them.
“I do?” Bergman asked with a laugh slipping through. If he knew the answer to the question, why would he have asked it in the first place. Clay’s response led him down the road to the answer though.
“You still believe in the cause. You still want to fight. You won’t give up. Solex and Harrison…”
“Distracted,” Bergman fired back defensively. Hearing The Behemoth talk poorly about the other members bothered him.
“Broken.” The statement felt like a noose around Bergman’s neck. The two men sat quietly again. The Monster from Plainview didn’t take his eyes off Bergman. He stared at him the entire time and took a deep breath. “That’s why you’re gettin’ me ready. You went through it, you took him on head on, and yer still here. Yer still fightin’.”
“One loss isn’t the end of a war,” Clay nodded at Bergman’s statement. He turned his entire body towards Joe. It was hard to explain something like this to someone like him. Someone who believed in his friends; someone who trusted others.
“And I think yer the only one that really understands that this is our moment, Joe. This is when we strike. We take everythin’ from those pricks. You take down Jace and take the LSD and tag titles while I put Christopher America in the fuckin’ dirt and take the World Heavyweight Championship. And then it really begins.”
Tim Tillinghast: Clearly he passed with flying colors.
Clay Byrd: He managed ta get past Joe and got himself a ticket into War Games. America wanted it more than Joe did, and he proved it in the ring. So yes, he passed with flying colors.
The candor Clay shows surprises Tim, and he reaches down for his mug. He takes a sip and signals for someone off camera to get him a refill.
Tim Tillinghast: So War Games…
Clay Byrd: I’ll save ya the condescendin’ bullshit. It was pretty clear I let my own emotions get the better of me. I went through that entire experience hatin’ every motherfucker I was supposed ta be workin’ with besides Solex and Harrison. We thought we could do it all on our own.
Tim Tillinghast: And how’d that work out?
Clay shakes his head and grins.
Clay Byrd: Thought I was gonna save ya the condescension. Clearly, it didn’t work out. Harrison, by virtue of bein’ the LSD champion, ended up bein’ in the ring from the drop. Solex got his number called early, and I was in the back all by myself and got my ass kicked for it.
Tim Tillinghast: What happened back there?
Clay Byrd: I still don’t really know. One minute I’m sittin’ in my locker room watchin’ the monitor, the next I’m gettin’ dragged ta the ring, a bloody fuckin’ mess by Mike Best’s kid. Once I got my feet under me I fought like hell, but I ended up gettin’ caught by America and that was the end of my night.
Tim Tillinghast: And that was the turning point in the entire match. Solex was taken out and Conor Fuse was left to stand alone against Lee Best’s personal army. Clearly he wasn’t able to take down America or Best and the two of them won War Games and the World Heavyweight Championship along with it.
Clay nods; he knows the story all too well and doesn’t need it recited back to him. He runs his hand through his beard. Tillinghast gets his second coffee and takes a sip, placing it back on the table.
Tim Tillinghast: But something happened that night between America and Solex. You could see the hatred they shared for each other leading up to the match, and you could certainly feel it when the two men collided in Ukraine. Lee Best, being the brilliant businessman that he is, recognizes an opportunity and sets up America versus Solex. HOFC rules for the World Heavyweight Championship on the USS Octane, in Washington D.C., on the weekend of the 4th of July.
Clay Byrd: Great fight. Wild fight, but great fight.
Tim Tillinghast: And then, shortly after that fight, Steve Solex was announced as the number one contender for the World Heavyweight Championship. How’d that make you feel?
The Monster from Plainview smiles, picking up his water bottle. He understands Tillinghast’s intentions, and picks and chooses his words carefully.
Clay Byrd: I was happy for Steve. He’s been ‘round here a long time, and he proved in the cage with America that he undoubtedly deserved that shot. That fight was so close, there were multiple times both fellers were saved by the bell.
Tim Tillinghast: So you weren’t jealous? Who was your opponent at Dead or Alive?
Clay Byrd: Funny, Tim. Yeah, I fought some crayon eating dickhead and Steve had a match with the World Heavyweight Champion. Would I have rather been in his shoes? Of course.
Tillinghast goes to start in but Clay once again stops him.
Clay Byrd: But this was Steve’s moment, and he made America’s life a living hell all the way up ta that match. But it wasn’t one sided, America made Steve’s life hell as well. America played mind games all the way through and caught Solex by surprise.
Tim Tillinghast: Don’t you think you have to do that, though, when you’re being hunted by an entire roster of hungry wrestlers?
Clay Byrd: That’s why earlier I said he’s a great champion. He’s not a great person, and I’m sure Mr. Cheevers would agree with that.
Clay raises an eyebrow and looks at Tim with a smirk.
Tim Tillinghast: Well I can’t deny what America did to celebrated World War II veteran, and centenarian, Richard Cheevers wasn’t horrific…
Clay Byrd: But it worked.
Clay stood outside the barn. A yellow flood light that was attached to the barn illuminated the cleared area around it, and the surrounding woodlands. The Behemoth took a deep breath; the cool air tickled his throat and stung his lungs. But the air was more than welcomed against his hot skin. He was down to a sweat-soaked tank top and shorts now, the sweatsuit had long since hit the floor of the barn. The work they had been putting in took a lot out of Clay physically and mentally. Roy on the outside screaming the most ignorant things he could think of, and Harrison swiping at his legs. His skull ached almost as much as his hamstrings did. Joe was running him ragged.
But it felt fucking incredible.
Clay’s mind was on fire but there was a peace; an odd calmness that had descended through the work they were putting in. He heard Roy on the outside less and less. He stayed in the middle of the ring, away from where Harrison could affect the outcome. He kept his head on a swivel for whatever wily trick Bergman was trying to pull on him. Clay took a large drink from the gallon jug of water he had carried outside with him. He needed a moment to himself, to reflect, to look at the stars, to set his mind right.
Behind him he heard the groan of the barn door, but he didn’t turn around. This was home. This was where Clay was at his happiest, surrounded by friends, working through their craft, readying for what was to come next. He heard the heavy steps behind him, and then felt Solex’s arm wrap around his shoulder.
“Looking pretty fucking good in there, buddy,” The MercDad clapped Clay on the shoulder before sitting down on the edge of the concrete pad. He motioned with his hand for Clay to join him. The larger man took up residence beside Solex, and the two men sat in silence for a moment. They stared out at the few stars they could see between the clouds that the half moon was tucked behind.
“Bein’ honest, I feel pretty good Steve,” Solex smiled and raised his can of PBR up to Clay’s water jug and smacked it against it. The two shared a chuckle as Solex took a big swig from the can while Clay sipped at the jug.
“Good to fucking hear that,” The MercDad took a second smaller drink, more sipping the foam off of the rim. He’d been thinking of how to tell Clay for awhile now, but it never felt like the right time had presented himself. But Solex had to tell him; he had to let him know that one day he might be hitting the trail.
“I dunno how many more of these I got in me, Clay.”
“I know,” The Behemoth’s response was left to marinate for a moment by the #1 Dad. Of course he’d known, he lived with him for the better part of the year. They’d been attached at the hip since before going into War Games.
“How long have you known?” Solex questioned, and The Monster grinned back at him. Solex hadn’t been right since he’d shown up in High Octane Wrestling. But there were flashes of excellence, flashes of what was, and what could be.
“Since the Marauko started.” Getting the old man going had taken Clay weeks. Their initial run through had been so hard, and losing the group phase to Ellis and Sektor had finally lit a fire under Solex. But it had taken a lot to light the fire, months of work, months of effort.
“How the fuck? I didn’t even know during the Marauko.” Steve thought back to watching The Behemoth pull up in that black Ford F250 and parking it in his perfectly manicured lawn.
“Ya were hangin’ by a thread, Steve.” The Behemoth took a deep breath. His emotions were on overdrive from everything; the match, his grandmother, that son of a bitch Roy. “But I couldn’t let ya go. Not like that, not after that…”
“Yer the only real damn friend I’ve ever fuckin’ had ‘round here.” Clay stood up and took a few steps forward, looking out at the sky as the half moon finally appeared. Steve could have walked away the apple of Lee Best’s eye. He could be yucking it up in the box with the old bald fuck anytime he wanted. “And it was selfish as hell gettin’ ya involved in all this.”
Solex stood up and walked up beside Clay, looking at the moon with him.
“I wouldn’t have had it any other way, Clay.” The MercDad and The Behemoth, two of the meanest, nastiest men in the history of High Octane Wrestling, hug each other. It’s rare to find a kindred spirit, and when you do, you don’t let it go easily. The Behemoth pats Steve on his back as the two men let go of each other.
“Yer goddamn right, neither would I.”
An awkward silence that only occurs when two rugged, strong men, break their craggy exteriors. The two of them stood looking up, neither of them looking at anything in particular. They stared for a few more moments before walking back over to the concrete barn foundation and taking up their familiar seats. Neither of them had spoken for what felt like an eternity.
“I’m gonna get back in there. I’ll let Joe know you’re coming?” Solex started to walk towards the barn door, but Clay wasn’t quite finished talking.
“Hey Steve?” Byrd’s tone caused Solex to stop and turn back towards him. “What’s it like bein’ in there with him?”
Steve inhaled. How could he explain it? America had been his greatest foe, his toughest challenge. The man that took him to his absolute limit. In a few short months, America had ascended to the pantheon of greatest rivalries of Solex’s career, and his career had been long.
“It’s the hardest damn thing I’ve ever done, Clay. America will do fucking anything to win. Whatever it takes, you think you’ll go as far as him, and then you see where he’s willing to go and he’ll take that next step and it surprises you every time.”
Clay started to respond but Solex stopped him and crouched down beside him. “What we’re doin’ in here, Clay, it ain’t gonna be anything like when that adrenaline is fucking pumping and that son of a bitch starts trying to put your shoulders on that mat. He ain’t going to let up.”
“I know,” Byrd nodded. He needed to hear it for real. Not from Bergman, not from Harrison. He had to hear it from the only person on the entire planet he could trust with anything.
Solex looked down at Byrd and smiled, he’d known Clay for a long time, and he’d never seen The Behemoth this focused. “But you’re gonna beat his fucking ass.”
Tim Tillinghast: It did work and Christopher America walked out of Dead or Alive with the World Heavyweight Championship.
Clay Byrd: He does whatever it takes. I’m not goin’ ta take that away from him.
Tim Tillinghast: Then there’s Rumble At The Rock. Steve Harrison and Christopher America go to war for weeks. Those two men are like a constant ball of activity and energy the entire way into the show. And Harrison gets his desired stipulation, a submission match.
Clay Byrd: We were over con…
Tim’s back on the offensive in the conversation.
Tim Tillinghast: How did you feel about Steve Harrison getting the shot at Rumble At The Rock?
Clay Byrd: I thought I deserved it.
Clay had responded without hesitation. Tillinghast nods along with the response, but he’s still firing.
Tim Tillinghast: You were the HOTv champion though…
Clay Byrd: Which means that week in, and week out, I was stompin’ my way through everyone. Despite Lee Best’s weak attempts at thwartin’ me, I kept goin’. Wrasslin’ tags one week, wrasslin’ title defenses the next. If all that belt is meant fer, beatin’ jerkoffs, what’s the point of it?
Tim Tillinghast: Steve Harrison had a better record and was higher in the standings than you were.
Clay Byrd: Sure, and I ain’t sayin’ Steve didn’t deserve his shot at the 97RED lady. I just thought it should have been mine at Rumble At The Rock..
The evening had almost drawn to a close. Bergman and Clay had been at it for over ten hours now. Even Bergman’s incredible stamina was starting to show signs of wear, and The Behemoth was drenched head to toe in sweat. Harrison was smiling and laughing on the outside, while Solex was feeding lines into Roy’s ear.
“Ya better tell that little shit stain some real hurtful shit ta say!” Clay shouted with an exhausted grin on his face. Roy had played his part perfectly, and it was hard for The Behemoth to stay angry. Now, the shit he was saying, it wasn’t needling him, it wasn’t bothering him. Now, it was just funny.
Bergman and Clay locked up, The Monster had managed to finally corner him, and he needed to make sure he tied up Bergman’s stealthy hands. Bergman transitioned to a headlock but Clay went straight through, tripping Bergman and taking him down with a half nelson. He felt Harrison on his ankle from the outside the second it drifted too close to the rope. Clay instinctively pulled himself forward, yanking his body out of Harrison’s reach and dragging Bergman’s face across the canvas.
“Ah shit! We’re good!” Bergman shouted as he rolled across the canvas out of The Behemoth’s grasp. Clay looked up, wild eyed and smiling as Bergman started to climb to his feet while rubbing his face.
“Let’s take five, that one got me,” Bergman grinned through the pain while clapping Clay on the back. Solex and Roy retreated to the cooler with Bergman while Harrison tossed the big man a fresh towel. Clay lumbered out of the ring, opening the gallon jug of water and inhaling a quarter of it with one enormous pull. He dumped a little on his forehead and through his long blonde hair.
“He’s gonna fuck with that,” Harrison said with a smirk, yanking on Clay’s beard. The big man took a swipe and managed to push Steve away.
“Ya want me ta cut my fuckin’ beard off? Go fuck yerself,” Clay shook his head to indicate ‘absolutely fucking not.’ Harrison took a moment to polish his bald head with a spare towel. He slapped the top of his head and smiled.
“Could at least do the hair. Bald is beautiful, Clay.”
“Yer just fuckin’ jealous that I got it and you don’t,” Clay teased his blonde mane a bit and threw it back over his shoulder. The Miracle Man rolled his eyes while walking away from The Behemoth to grab another towel. He threw it over in Clay’s direction.
“Thanks. Ya ready for Conor?”
Harrison’s face curled into a cruel smile. He’d hated Conor Fuse for years, and the thought of beating the hell out of him got his blood pumping. “Always have been, I got that little fuckers number.”
“Yeah. At least someone does.”
Harrison nodded to Clay and walked over, sitting on the apron beside the big man. This was the hardest he’d ever seen Clay prepare for anything. He’d been with him on the boat for War Games and he’d seen him prepare for Ukraine. But this was it. “You gonna have this prick’s number? I’d rather have that and that belt.”
“That’s the idea. At least I ain’t out there challengin’ him ta a submission match with a bum knee,” Clay clapped his own knee brace, then slapped Harrison on his. “Brilliant fuckin’ move there, dickhead.”
“Oh, fuck off. Starting to sound like you wanted me to lose,” Harrison shoved The Behemoth a bit, and the conversation died off between the two men. Harrison looked at Clay with a raised eyebrow. The Behemoth shrugged.
“I ain’t gonna lie ta ya, I kinda did.”
“What the fuck?” Harrison was taken aback. His own teammate wanted him to lose? Why the hell was he here in the barn then? He glanced towards Bergman and Solex to see if they were hearing Clay.
“Hold on, I didn’t want ta see ya lose,” Clay reassured The Miracle Man. Harrison started to say something but Clay interrupted him. “I just wanted ta be the guy ta take his fuckin’ head off.”
“That’s kinda fucked up,” Harrison shook his head back and forth.
“I can’t help it, it’s just the way I was made,” Clay took another drink out of the water jug and stood up, stretching his hamstrings to keep himself loose. “Ya know how it is, when the game’s on the line I want the fuckin’ ball.”
Harrison considered The Behemoth’s thoughts for a moment, his hand going through his own brown beard as he looked eye to eye with Clay. He folded up his towel and placed it into Clay’s arms with the other two towels. “Well now you got it, so don’t fuck it up.”