Flip-flap. Flip-flap. Flip-flap.
A quick glance at my watch tells me my Asics have been pounding these stairs for the best part of 20 minutes.
Flip-flap. Flip-flap. Flip-flap.
Every heavy step pulses through my body, permeating the tunes on my earphones, intensifying the metronome pounding behind my ribcage.
Flip-flap. Flip-flap. Flip-flap.
My legs fill with lactic acid, my muscles ache. I’m glad it’s the final rep...
Flip-flap. Flip-flap. Flip-flap.
I reach the top for the final time and slump down on the top step, thanking God for the towel and water I’d left there.
My heart’s racing like a runaway train and every inch of exposed flesh glistens with sweat.
It’s in these moments that I find ultimate clarity.
It may come at the end of a long, arduous hike, or standing on the top turnbuckle, ready to fly. It might be stepping-out before a buzzing crowd and sprinting down the ramp, or tearing down a quiet freeway in the dead of night.
I’m hooked; an addict. I crave the adrenaline, hunger for endorphins, and I’m in withdrawal without them. Insider the ring or out, these are the moments when I’m at my best, all the doubt is pushed aside, and I’m ready for whatever lies ahead, no matter how gargantuan the task.
Right now, gazing out across the Coca-Cola Dome’s skeletal interior, I know I’m ready for Abdul bin Hussain, Colton Thorpe and Ron Hall.
I know I can stand toe-to-toe with each one of them and put forth the kind of effort warranted by a main event title shot. It’s the biggest night of my UTA career, the Wildfire Championship’s on the line, and I’m in there with three of the best… and I’ve never felt more prepared.
A quick splash of water cools my skin, and a dab of the towel stems the flow. This is a curious venue, unlike any I’ve seen before, and I take a good, long gaze across its landscape.
The area that’ll eventually house the seating is gigantic and completely flat, with almost no raised platforms, built-in bleachers and executive boxes to speak of. Without augmentation, the Dome’s a far from ideal wrestling venue, but we’ve combatted that by filling the outside edge with rows and rows of temporary bleachers.
Nonetheless, the space allocated to “floor seating” is huge, and even though the seats haven’t been set-out yet, I can just imagine the place pulsing with the energy of tens of thousands of South African wrestling fans.
“I like to think that there’s a little more to our job than ‘just wrestling,’” I say through long, laboured breaths. “Men like Eric Dane will tell you that we’re just wrestlers, and nothing else matters but whose hand is getting raised when the bell rings.”
Brushing a few rogue beads of sweat away, I continue look around the place.
“That’s complete bullshit.”
The barriers, entrance ramp and tron are all in-place: everything’s set-up and ready to go but the ring and seats, but the ring crew are nowhere to be found.
“We can’t neglect the influence we hold, especially outside the ring. I’m out here trying to build the best career I can, and live a good life on my own terms, but I’m just one guy.” I hold a single finger up. “What value is one man’s self-gratification versus a global audience? Like it or not, our words and actions filter through to millions of eyes and ears every single day…”
I lose my breath momentarily and take a moment to recapture it. By my reckoning, I’ve got one of the best gas tanks in the UTA, but running stairs for 20 minutes straight is Iron Man level cardio.
“Nielsen Ratings and viewing figures are so much more than just statistics: they’re human beings. They’re living, breathing, impressionable men, women and children who watch what we do because it affects them.”
The silence inside the dome is equal parts eery and soothing. In a few days time, this building will be throbbing with life and the decibel level will be uncontrollable, but tonight, it’s just me, my voice, and the faint whirr of the air conditioning system.
“On Monday night, every single person in this arena’s gonna live vicariously through every single wrestler who steps inside that ring.” I run my hand through my drenched hair and immediately regret the decision. “For better or worse, they put people like us, who live our lives under the public’s microscope, on a pedestal. They look-up to us, they imitate us, and our actions drive their reactions…”
A long, slow, gasp for air.
My pulse is slowing, and my breathing’s returning. I lose my focus for a moment, then snap back to it.
“I wish you’d understand that, Colt.”
I look down at my feet. There’s a small pool of sweat from where it’s been running down my face and dripping onto the rubber surface.
“You too, Abdul.”
Scrunching the towel into a ball, I wipe the puddle into oblivion, then make a mental note to bin the towel when I get backstage.
“We, as wrestlers, have a duty to set an example,” I tell’em. “We’re role models to these people, and we have to behave as such. Especially here, in South Africa, so close to the heart of the Third World…”
On sore, shaky limbs, I rise to my full 6’1”, taking my water bottle with me.
“Do you even understand the things that this country’s been through? I’ve walked through Johannesburg and Capetown, man. I’ve witnessed it first-hand…”
With my ever-attentive bodyguard by my side, of course.
Fortunately, the arena is one of the few places they’ll actually let me roam without him by my side.
“I’ve stood in Mandela’s cell and reflected on his lifelong struggle and growth.
I’ve walked through the streets of Cape Town and Johannesburg and watched the filthy rich rub shoulders with the disgustingly poor.
I’ve heard terrible, sickening slurs slip from racist, white lips.
I’ve seen apartheid, lads: and if you’ve put as much effort into getting to know this country as I have, you’ll know that it’s very much alive and well in 2015.”
It doesn’t take a genius to figure-out why this country’s ravaged by one of the worst crime rates in the world.
Truthfully, the scars may never heal. There’ll be tension between the rich and the poor, the haves and the have-nots, the light-skinned and the dark-skinned for many generations to come.
I start making my way down the steps, talking as I go. “Bottom line? The people of South Africa have been through a lot: more than you, I, or any other foreign can ever imagine. Their past is bloody, violent and turbulent, and even if they didn’t experience it first hand, they’ll have a mother or father who did.”
Step after step after step, ‘til I’m almost at the bottom.
“A father from the slums saves-up six months of his pitiful wage, just to take his poor, malnourished son to the wrestling show…”
I take a sip of water.
“Don’t you think he deserves to leave with a smile on his face?”
My sneakers hit the cold, hard concrete floor, and I stop in my tracks.
“We might not be able to change the world, fellas: but we can sure as hell do everything in our power to brighten up these folks’ lives for a couple of hours.” My brow starts to tighten. “Ron Hall might agree with me… it’s just a shame about the other two.”
I pick-out the first guy that comes to mind.
“What do you think your actions say about you, Colt?”
Well, who else could it be?
“The answer’s not what you think, lad. They don’t say that you’re a driven, opportunistic go-getter with iron-clad toughness and a Machiavellian straight of ingenuity, no.
They say you’re a man without conscious, heart, and values.”
My glare tightens. Gotta let him know I mean it.
“Colton Thorpe: you. Lack. Honour.”
And then I loosen up, just a little.
“You’ll think nothing of leaving these people disappointed if it satisfies your own needs, and that’s what pisses me off about you the most.”
Through what will eventually be row-upon-row of seating, I start walking again.
“It’s not refusing my handshake, pouring beer at my feet or holding the Wildfire Title in my face: it’s the widespread, wholesale disrespect of an entire goddamn fanbase!”
I reel myself in a little, and prevent myself from getting carried away.
It’s been four goddamned years since I’ve felt genuine anger about something. Thorpe’s dragged-up emotions in me that I thought I’d never experience again, and it’s up to me to find a way to use them against him.
“And you, Mr. Hussain.” I shake my head. “You are no better.”
It’s a long, long walk from the bleachers to the ringside area, but I’m in no hurry to get there. I keep plodding forward, imagining the arena fully-formed, and wondering where the 50 tickets I handed-out in Soweto earlier will be seated.
Hopefully not too far back: I don’t want my goodwill to be countered by a shoddy view.
“If this truly is your last match, Abdul, I congratulate you on a mighty fine UTA career. Your in-ring path is one worth emulating, and most of us will never be half as successful as you’ve been.” I pause. “Unfortunately, that’s where my commendations end.
I’ve already called you a hypocrite: now I’m calling you a fool.”
Thinking about AbH’s latest words, I can’t help but shake my head.
“You’ve spent your career demanding fair treatment and chastising those who resort to using stereotypes against you… and then, when the time comes to talk about Cayle Murray, the Scotsman, look what you resort to.”
I look at the ground, then back to the cameraman’s lens.
“Haggis?” I almost spit the word out. “‘Skirts’?!”
It’s almost tragic.
“You have become that which you claim to despise, Abdul: a man so low on integrity that he dips into the xenophobe’s playbook for insults and putdowns.
And that’s exactly what you are.
I point at the camera accusingly, as if I were blaming the guy behind it.
“Surely even you must see how ridiculous you sound?”
Somehow, I doubt it.
“Now I understand how difficult it is to leave one life behind, travel across the seas, and start a brand new one: hell, I’ve done it myself. But what you’re doing, Abdul, is blaming everybody but yourself for the things you perceive as problems, and that is your greatest flaw.
Finally, I’ve reached the barricade that’ll separate the fans from the superstars.
“You’re a fantastic wrestler, and a smarter man than your diatribes suggest. Resorting to playground pettiness and blatant hypocrisy does you no favours, and as your career speeds towards a screeching conclusion, I hope you’ll realise this and shake my hand when it’s all said and done.”
I swing one tired leg over the barricade, then another, and seconds later I’m stood exactly where the ring’ll be.
The view’s good, but nowhere near as good as it will be when the joint’s packed to the rafters.
The thought alone makes me smile.
“As one career draws to a close, another goes through an Indian Summer.”
Ron MF’n Hall.
The former Champion.
The UTA Legend.
“Again, sir, it’s a pleasure,” I begin. “But I assure you, lad: I’m not overawed by your presence. I admire you, I respect you, but we’re not gonna stand there and hug in the centre of the ring: we’re gonna put up our dukes and throw like our lives depend on it, because while I’m a fan, I’m also a professional.”
Time to start walking up the ramp, nicely and slow.
“Your legacy is often undersold here. What you’ve done for the UTA just doesn’t get talked about enough: I’m one of the guys who will bring it up and acknowledge it, but I’m also the guy who’ll use every last drop of his own grit, determination, athleticism and artistry to try and defeat you at Victory.
Because it’s my job.
Because I know you’d expect nothing less.
And because I’d never do you the disrespect of not giving my all against you.”
The water bottle’s emptied with one final swig, and I turned around, walking backwards up the ramp ‘til I come to the stage.
“So that’s it, man. Time to knuckle down and lock horns, but let’s try and give these guys their money’s worth when we’re going at it, yeah?”
I run my hand across the arena’s horizon.
“I don’t believe in curses, and I don’t believe in luck.
I believe in taking charge, controlling your own destiny, and creating your own ‘luck.’
I’m not a guy who just sits back and lets things fall into place: I’m a guy who tries to live the change he wants to see in the world.
And right now? That change is taking the Wildfire Championship, pulling it from the muck and holding it high and proud as a glistening, shiny reminder that sometimes, the nice guy doesn’t finish last.”
One final smile, especially for my doubters.
“Time to find out if I can back it up.”
"Indeed I did have a relationship with Ms Lewinsky that was not appropriate. In fact, it was wrong"
- Cecilworth Farthington