”It’s better to start as a fool and learn from your mistakes than to fake being a genius and ignore your errors.”
– James Clear
DIAMOND IN THE ROUGH
William P. Hobby Airport
May 3, 2023
“Flight 335 direct service to Seattle, now boarding at Gate 23.”
A loud voice booms over speakers high overhead. The baggage claim area is bustling with people looking to get their luggage and get on with whatever business they have. Four carousels are spaced about twenty feet apart each across the low-roofed lower level of Hobby Airport, the smaller of the two major airports in the Houston area, reserved primarily for domestic or regional flights.
“Flight 214 direct service to Nashville, now boarding at Gate 14.”
Across from the carousels are the car rental desk and several staggered rows of glass doors. There are a few drivers standing nearby with signs bearing the name of the passenger(s) they’ll be picking up.
There’s a distinct smell in the air, the kind when you’re in a building that’s very old, the kind that makes you hearken back to an earlier time but is non-specific enough to remain vague.
Standing by the glass door nearest to the ramp down from arrivals is a man about six-foot-three, well-muscled, dressed in an ill-fitting suit with a button that is hanging on for dear life on the front of his jacket. His brown shoulder-length hair is combed back and parted slightly like a throwback to the 80s straight out of a Gold’s Gym.
“Flight 1225 direct service to Denver, now boarding at Gate 5.”
As he stands there, he nervously shifts his weight from one foot to the other and watches as more people walk down the hall in his direction. He checks his watch and glances up at the departure/arrival board, and notes to himself that his passenger should be approaching soon.
“Cut that out. You look like you need to go to the restroom.”
Phyllis, Dan Ryan’s long-time assistant, smacks the man on the shoulders. He doesn’t respond.
“Scott, you don’t have to go to the restroom, do you?”
The man, Scott Hunter looks back at her and shakes his head no.
“No. Not anymore.”
Phyllis scrunches up her nose and looks down the length of his pants leg, uncomfortable with what she may see. To her relief, there’s nothing. Just a cheap pair of slacks and knockoff designer shoes.
She shakes her head. “I’ll ignore the implications of what you just said. Still, calm down. You’ve met before.”
“Flight 293 direct service to Orlando, now boarding at Gate 12.”
Scott’s shoulders slump.
“I know, but he wasn’t too excited to see me last time. He didn’t at all appreciate all of the hard work I did to master pinpoint impressions of his opponents at March to Glory. Do you know how hard it is to do an impression of Joe Bergman?? That guy has the personality of mayonnaise. Everyone knows that’s the most boring of all condiments! And Scott Stevens? Seriously, that guy looks like an old, used piece of meat! It took weeks to perfect the art of looking like old rotten lunch meat that I left in my cabinet drawers in case Paul McCartney comes over to visit because he’s vegan and the last time someone let him near beef he went crazy and let his wife join his band, and that’s a true story that I saw on the Howard Stern show. And also Jatt Starr’s head looks like a mushroom! What am I supposed to do with that?!”
Phyllis is flabbergasted. “There are a lot of words in that impressive run-on sentence that I have questions about, but I think it might be more prudent to not ask those questions.”
Scott is shaking his head. “And I really like roast beef, too…”
His voice trails off as his attention is diverted to another group of people exiting the escalator at the end of the hall, two by two.
After six or so people step off of the escalator, there’s someone taller than pretty much everyone else who Scott sees riding down. He’s got dark sunglasses on, blonde hair, and is dressed in business-class attire. Scott watches as Dan Ryan walks toward him, limping slightly while favoring his right hip. On the wall along the hallways are various portraits of local celebrities and athletes. About two-thirds of the way down, a family is sitting on a bench and a small elementary school-aged child is looking up at a portrait of a much younger Dan Ryan, with two championship belts strapped to his waist.
Dan walks right behind the kid, and his loud steps cause the child to instinctively look behind him and then higher and higher at the big Texan walking by. The kid taps his dad on the shoulder, pointing, but the man isn’t interested and simply shushes him.
Dan continues on, catching sight of Phyllis and Scott standing in baggage claim. As he approaches, he looks at Phyllis, gives her a little nod, then turns his attention to Scott Hunter, who has now thrust his hand forward for a handshake. Dan doesn’t take the handshake and doesn’t even look at Scott’s hand. He just keeps his shaded eyes directly on the terrified young man in front of him.
“You were supposed to meet me in Dallas.”
Scott stammers in reply. “Um… uh… I got lost. Craig told me to meet you in Texas. Did you know that Texas is actually really really big? I feel like they should have a map at the border or something so people don’t get lost.”
Dan stares at him and thinks to himself. “Idiot.”
But he doesn’t say it out loud.
“You got my baggage already?”
“Oh um…” Scott fidgets. “No, I mean… not yet…”
Ryan holds up a hand and gestures for him to stop talking, then points at the baggage carousel. Scott takes the hint and hurriedly rushes over to retrieve the luggage.
Dan turns to Phyllis.
“You have no idea how much Craig owes me for this one, Phyllis. This kid is hopeless. You should have seen the crap he pulled during training the last time I saw him.”
Phyllis smiles slightly. “I heard.”
Dan looks over at Scott fumbling around trying to pull a large piece of luggage off of the conveyor. He loses his balance and flops onto it, then rides about six feet before rolling off and jumping up into a pose, trying to look as though he meant to do it. Dan shakes his head and turns back to Phyllis.
“I hope he’s not planning on mimicking Xander Azula…”
Phyllis shakes her head and rolls her eyes slightly.
“I wouldn’t worry about that. I asked him what he knew about Xander Azula on the way over here, and he said, ‘Don’t worry, I’ve never been to Estonia and I always wear a condom.’ So I think you’re safe.”
Scott rushes back over, easily hoisting the large suitcase up, although the button that was holding on for dear life before is missing, since it shot off the front of his jacket like a wine cork when he fell onto the conveyor.
Dan gestures for him to go and he turns to head out into the pickup area where an Escalade is waiting. Dan and Phyllis wait and let him go ahead, then, making sure he’s out of earshot, Dan sighs and Phyllis chuckles, placing a comforting hand on Dan’s shoulder.
“It could be worse,” she says.
Phyllis shrugs her shoulders. “No idea. I just assume it could. I could be wrong.”
They walk through the doors where a smiling-like-an-idiot Scott Hunter waits and holds one of the back doors open. Dan looks at Phyllis one more time.
Phyllis stifles a laugh, then climbs in and scoots across to the other side. Dan follows, closes the door, and resolves to make the best of things.
Just then, Scott calls out over his shoulder from the driver’s seat.
“So, who is your opponent this week anyway?? I asked Phyllis but she started talking about some venereal disease or something. Seemed a little inappropriate. Don’t worry, I assured her I was clean.”
Dan sighs again.
Yep. She’s definitely wrong.
”Fine gold is recognized when it is tested.”
– Leonardo Da Vinci
WHO’S TESTING WHO?
I’m really, truly, actually home.
There are no fans around me right now. This isn’t a patronizing muse to get a rise out of people or to make some money on merch.
I was born here. In a hospital down in the Medical Center exactly forty-three years ago, I was born. We stayed here until I was five when my father got offered a job overseas, and we left, and I learned how to fight under the tutelage of some of the toughest sons of bitches you could ever know. But you don’t know their names, do you? These are the guys who don’t give a shit about fame, about riches, about glory. They care only about the fight, about the honor of the fight.
And that word means many things to many people, doesn’t it? Honor. What does it mean to you, Xander? To me, it means taking every ounce of ability, drive, and determination inside of me and maximizing it until I take my final breath. I started my life here. Maybe I’ll finish it here, too.
I have to tell you, this time feels very different to me. I’ve wrestled in this city many times, but I never felt the spirit of it. I always showed up, did my job, and then moved on to the next town. I took it for granted. That’s been an unfortunate theme of my professional life, and I suppose, my personal life as well.
There’s a regretful arrogance that comes with success. I found success far too quickly, shot to the top like a lightning bolt. I never once considered that it might end. It never crossed my mind that there might come a day when I wouldn’t be the absolute best in the world. But this business is fickle, my friend. Truth be told, I might be able to fight my way back to the top. It remains to be seen.
But if I do, I’ll have to work harder than ever before to get there. The aches and pains are getting worse. My match last week gave me a nagging pain in my hip that will take an entire week’s worth of physical therapy to work out before match time. I have to do so much more to take care of myself to make sure I can live up to my obligations. All I’ve ever known was running a hundred miles an hour as fast as I could go, and this deliberate approach does not naturally suit me.
And that arrogance, yeah, I always said it was supreme confidence. That was the lie I told myself and everybody else. And no one, not my family, not my close friends, not people I’d worked with for twenty-some-odd years, could get through to me. It seems the only way for me to make real change is to face a self-inflicted failure. No one else made me a pariah in this business. I did that to myself.
Now, just because I went to that low, that doesn’t mean I have to stay there does it, Xander?
You’ve been here in High Octane for a long, long time now. You’ve taken a lot of losses and felt a lot of very painful beatings, but here you are, still grinding away. You don’t get the respect you deserve for enduring this long. This might surprise you to know, but I admire you for it. I sat in the back and watched you as you were crowned the HOW World Champion. I saw the look in your eyes and what it meant to you, the years of disappointment melting away in one shining, magical moment.
Until it was taken away.
That’s how things go around here, you know? The end is never what you think it’s going to be. I never expected to be over forty years old having to fight, scratch, and claw to get my name back, but here I am. Life is a roller coaster. But here I am.
Not just in this city.
In this company.
It’s not where you’re born. It’s where you are accepted and embraced. This is the company that took that second chance on me, and Lee Best will have my forever gratitude because of it.
Don’t think I’m a fool though. I know exactly what will happen if I lose to you this week. I know exactly what would have happened had I lost to Bobbinette… to Bobbie… last week.
This HOTv title means more to me than you can possibly know. It’s not just a stepping stone. It is the single most important thing in the world to me to defend this championship week after week and prove that I really am what I have always claimed to be. That the aches and pains are worth it. I would rather die than lose this championship to you. That’s what you have to beat to win this week.
You have to beat a man who isn’t looking at this as some kind of War Games warm-up. You have to beat a man who wants to make a statement loud and clear. And hey, yeah I know you’re gonna get your chance to be my teammate. I’m gonna beat the ever-living shit out of you. If you survive it, maybe it makes you tougher. Maybe it makes you capable of doing some serious damage at War Games. Maybe we win the damn thing. We’re all watching and waiting to see if you want it badly enough.
I’m fighting hard for my future. I won’t give up until I’ve found it. Every week is a test. What is your future, Xander Azula? And, what will you do to find it? How hard will you fight?
I’m giving you everything I’ve got this week. The world is watching. This is your test, too.
Try and make us proud.
”Trauma is hell on earth. Trauma resolved is a gift from the gods.”
– Peter A. Levine
In a gleaming skyscraper in downtown Houston, on the thirty-second floor, are the offices of Waterbury, Brown, and Associates. There’s a large lobby overlooking the city. Dan Ryan stands near the window watching as people and cars go by far below.
“Mr. Ryan…” A voice beckons from behind him.
Dan turns around and sees Kendall Waterbury, a man in his mid-forties, with a slight graying around the temples and a neat business suit accented with a #97Red tie.
“Why don’t you come inside?”
He gestures to an office door, upon which is a nameplate reading “Kendall Waterbury, Attorney at Law”, and watches as his much larger client walks inside and takes a seat.
“I spoke with your associate, Mr. Craig Massey. He’s an interesting guy. Likes to tell stories.”
Dan surveys the room and sees bookshelves lining one wall, and a floor-to-ceiling window behind a large mahogany executive desk, but he doesn’t answer the attorney. Finally, he settles his eyes on the man across the desk, which only serves to make that man uncomfortable.
“I um… let him know that I had some important paperwork to deliver to you. He suggested I give it to him so he can give it to you, but I thought under the circumstances you would want to have it given to you directly.”
Dan watches as Mr. Waterbury pulls out a manila file folder and places it on the desk. He flips it open, takes the first packet from the top of the stack of papers, and turns it around so his client can read it.
Dan leans forward and looks down. Across the top of the page is stamped in red, “retracted” with a date of a week earlier. It’s the restraining order originally filed by Cecilia Ryan against him, and he looks back at the attorney.
“Who retracted this?”
“Well,” the man replies. “Your daughter did, as a matter of fact.”
Dan pauses. He hadn’t expected this, and his eyes darted back to the page, almost unbelieving.
“You’re saying she changed her mind? Simply changed her mind?”
“That’s not all.” The attorney returns to the folder and pulls out an envelope. “Apparently, she wrote you a letter. Ten pages, I’m told, front and back. It’s sealed, with strict instructions that it be read by you alone.”
He hands the envelope to Dan, and he takes it, staring at it like someone just handed him a ticking bomb. After a few moments, he tears it open at the top and pulls out a thick packet of papers, a letter, handwritten in ink. He starts to read, his eyebrows furrowed, and after only about ten seconds, he stops.
Dan looks up at the attorney, then stands up and shoves the letter back into the envelope from which it came. “Thank you…”
He hastily places the envelope into his inner breast pocket and turns to go. He doesn’t wait for any response, but simply leaves the office and makes a beeline for the elevator. He presses the button and it immediately opens, and he walks inside.
Standing in the elevator, he pulls the envelope back out and holds it in his hands. He stares down at it, thinking about what he just read, and mulls it over. The whirring of the elevator maintains a steady rhythm, and he closes his eyes, taking a deep breath. Reaching street level, he opens his eyes.
The doors open, and a smile tugs at the corner of his mouth. He steps out into the lobby and walks out to the sidewalk just outside the building, and he looks up at the huge building around him, and he smiles again.