Christ the Redeemer.
Brazil’s most iconic landmark; one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. 635 metric tonnes of soapstone perched atop Mount Corcovado, visible from the beach to the favela, casting a careful eye across the city’s every move.
I’m no religious man, but the symbolism of this monolith of hope and prosperity towering over such a troubled but beautiful city isn’t lost on me. Even without the Christian connotations, the statue is stunning, a true marvel, and a must-visit when in Rio.
“’Ungrateful.’ You guys love that word, don’t you?”
This is the first time I’ve used the GoPro to record speech, and I’m hoping the tiny camera clipped to my rucksack strap proves worthy. It’s a gamble, but a damn sight easier than holding a phone to my face while hoofing up this steep-ass mountain.
“Haynes, Hopper, Zhalia, myself: we’re not colleagues to you, we’re ungratefuls.” I pause to fill my lungs with oxygen: this trail is gruelling, even for a professional athlete. “You say we don’t show enough respect and appreciation for the things you do for this business, but let’s consider those things for a minute…”
It’s a long, hard trek up Corcovado: from city, to rainforest, to peak, across asphalt, dirt and foliage. The humidity is murderous, even in winter, and the incline is sharp and unrelenting.
It’s no wonder most people choose the comfort of the 20-minute light railway journey, but I’m not one to choose the easy option.
That’s not my style.
“You swarmed Alex Beckman like vultures and beat her to the point where we may never even see her again. You took Will Hayne’s trust and friendship, crushed it in the palm of your hands, then threw it off the stage...”
I swipe a river of sweat from my forehead and clear my throat. “Then, at Wrestleshow, you stood in that old familiar Dynasty circle, stroking each other’s egos, celebrating your actions, and preaching false sainthood until your whole world came crashing down around you.”
I’ve no love for Sean Jackson, but can’t say I didn’t enjoy Dynasty’s indignation when the Ace in the Hole briefcase met Blanca’s skull.
“If you’re gonna call us ‘ungratefuls,’ you need to give us something to be grateful for in the first place.” Coming to a rock face so steep it’s almost vertical, I stop in my tracks. Fortunately there are plenty of notches for footholds and a chain to haul oneself up, otherwise I’d be turning back. “You’re among the best wrestlers in the world and the biggest stars on the planet, but the way you treat this business is straight-up barbaric.”
With fingers clamped tightly around the chain, I haul myself onto the rock and plod forward. It’s only 30ft or so, but by the time I reach the top I feel like I’ve gone 30 minutes with Eric Dane.
“Dynasty is a chain wound tightly around the UTA, starving it of oxygen, squeezing the life out of it,” I say, up to the path ahead. “When the grip loosens, Dynasty adds a Mikey Unlikely or Kendrix-shaped link to the end, and the stranglehold tightens again.”
The train track’s just ahead and I can hear a carriage full of tired tourists rumbling away in the distance. I cross with due care and attention, and the smooth stone track on the other side is a welcome relief for my tired feet.
“I came to break that chain.”
The greenery’s starting to thin-out as I edge closer to the summit, and more and more of the night’s sky reveals itself with every step I take. In this heat, it’s easy to forget that it’s winter here. The mercury’s barely hitting 80, but for a guy who grew-up in the land of 50-degree summers, it’s absolutely sweltering.
A quick glance at my wristwatch tells me it’s close to 6pm. Still plenty of time to hit the statue before it closes in half an hour.
“You wanna draw parallels, Mikey? That’s fine, lad. Go ahead.” I swing my rucksack off my shoulders, drop it to the ground, and pull out a bottle of water. “Guys like you love telling me that I’ll never make it without bending the rules and betraying myself: that my code of conduct creates a glass ceiling that I’ll never break through.”
A long, cathartic gulp of water cools the fire within. “If that’s the case, then so be it, because I’d rather live like a hobo than sell myself out.”
“I’m tryn’a live a good life on my own terms, lad, just like you. Difference is, I won’t take shortcuts to get there, and I won’t turn my back on the things that got me here in the first place.”
I unclip the GoPro from my bag for the first time and point it at myself: I can tell I look like shit, but that’s the least of my concerns.
“Why?” I ask the camera. “Because I love the fact that I’m some little kid’s favourite action hero and I’m living out his dream on national television.
I love that a guy can come home from another soul-destroying shift at Burger King, switch on the television, and live vicariously through me every other Monday night.
But most importantly, because I recognise how lucky I am to be in this position. I understand that most people would kill for this opportunity, and I’d be failing each and every one of them if I took it for granted and abused my position.”
I throw my sweat-matted hair back over my head. “I do it because I’m grateful, Mikey.”
Time to throw the GoPro back on my rucksack and get going again. The path is expertly-constructed out of brown bricks, and I salute the poor souls who had to cart them all the way up here to build it in the first place.
“I count my lucky stars every morning I wake-up and I attack every new day with joy, passion and verve because all this can end in an instant, Mikey.” Carpe diem, motherfucker. “A man can slip-off his mortal coil at any time, and I’ve already met the reaper once: trust me, I don’t wanna do it again…”
Trawling through a past as bleak as mine isn’t easy, but it’s absolutely essential.
Whenever I feel like I’m not doing enough, I take my mind back to the night alcohol and other intoxicants stopped my heart for three minutes, and I realise just how lucky I am to even be here in the first place.
That’s what keeps me grateful.
“I’m 31 years old and 15 years in the business, and I’ve made enough mistakes and taken enough wrong turns to fill three or four lifetimes.” The slope’s starting to ease-off, and I don’t have to control my breathing as much as before.
I’m hitting my stride.
“Wrestling for the UTA is huge to me, Mikey, and I’m sure as hell gonna make the most of it. I’m not some wide-eyed, boot-strapping gee-golly-gosher who’s just happy to be here: I’m trying to change the game.”
The forest’s all but cleared now, and I can see the statue’s admission point up ahead. There are a couple of security guards and staffers lurking around, itching to close-up for the night and a few tourists beyond them, but the Cristo Redentor dominates.
“So before you throw that word around again, ask yourself this: when was the last time you said ‘thank you’? Pro-wrestling has made you rich and famous: it’s provided Dynasty’s members with the lifestyles they always dreamed of, but when have you ever, ever, expressed any gratitude?”
They’re still a hundred yards away, but I can tell the guards are already curious about why this pale-skinned tourist is talking to himself on his way up the mountain.
“You’re the most privileged group on the roster! You’ve got it easier than aaaanybody, but not once have I seen you turn around and acknowledge just how fortunate you are.” I unclip the GoPro and point it at myself again: gotta let ‘em know I mean it. “Such is the hypocrisy of Dynasty, Mikey. You are the true ‘ungratefuls’ of the UTA, and you don’t even see it.”
The guys at the top are muttering to themselves in Portuguese when I walk-up, but they soon quieten down when I pull-out my wallet and hand them the entrance fee plus a little extra on-top.
After thanking them, I pass through and stand at the statue’s feet, admiring its illuminated majesty for a moment.
Cast over a pitch black night’s sky, Christ the Redeemer is bloody breath-taking.
“You kneel at the altar of fortune and fame,” I say, putting my game-face back-on, “but the only gods I know are hard work and honesty.”
I slowly pace my way towards the edge of the viewing platform. The city slowly starts to reveal itself.
“You took a shortcut, Mikey. It took years of graft, dedication and humility to get you to where you were, but as soon as you started closing-in on the summit you found-out you didn’t have a head for heights.”
City lights and stars twinkle on the harbour’s still waters, feint outlines of a dozen darkened islands dot the horizon.
There’s a slight breeze up here and the air is cool and crisp: a stark contrast to the forest, and a huge relief to my sweat-sodden body.
“Now that I’m here, it’d be so damn easy for me to do the exact same thing and throw the morals that define me away for a quick buck, but I’ll never do that, Mikey.” I shake my head. “I fight to be the man I am every single day of my life, and I’d rather fail my way than ‘succeed’ your way. Selling-out isn’t ‘fulfilling your potential,’ Mikey: it’s cheating.”
I take a little pause. My water bottle’s calling my name, but I don’t wanna break my flow.
“I take the long road on-purpose. I challenge myself, push my limits, and purposefully put myself in uncomfortable positions at every opportunity because that’s what builds character, prevents complacency, and keeps the ego in-check.
I practice humility and try to set a good example while you turn on your friends and make deals with the devil for a bigger spotlight.
I take the long, tricky route up the mountain while others let a comfortable, air-conditioned train do the hard work.
You say it holds me back? On the contrary, brother…”
My thirst overcomes me and I unscrew the bottle cap. The water’s far from cold, but it provides the sweetest relief on Earth as I pour it down my throat, and splash a little over my face to wash the drying sweat away.
“… it’s everything that keeps me pushing forward.”
It’s time to enjoy the view, and I lean forward against the stone barricade but keep the camera focused on myself.
“I believe in hard work, honesty, staying true to yourself, respecting others: because it’s not just about the destination, but the journey itself.
Maybe it will take me longer to get where I’m going, but Mikey, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Everything feels better when you earn it. The fruit gets sweeter, the water gets cooler, and the views are just that little bit more breath-taking…”
The city glints and glimmers with nightlife, from the beaches to the favelas, and I scan the camera across to give ‘em a taste.
My joints are sore, my Vans are ruined and my muscles are in agony, but I wouldn’t trade this moment for the world.
I’ve earned this.
I put the camera back on myself for the parting shot. “Your success isn’t my success, Mikey. I’m not trying to be a rich celebrity – I’m trying to be a positive role model. I’m not an ungrateful, and I’m not a coward…”
“But you? You’re yellow from head-to-toe, and it’s up to me to figure-out how deep your colours run.”
"There's other people a lot nicer; I call them losers."
- Kathryn Velmont Thomas