Todoroki Gorge is Tokyo’s best kept secret. Hidden away from the hustle and bustle, through dusty shrines and spider webs, it’s unlike anywhere else in the city. An enchanting, peaceful oasis of green spaces, hidden temples and mossy waterfalls. Though stuck deep in the metropolis’ heart, it feels a world removed from Shibuya’s restless chaos and Roppongi’s vice-filled back alleys and dive bars.
If I have a “second home,” it’s Tokyo, and this is one of my favourite spots.
Post-rehab, I took the shattered pieces of my life, flew them halfway across the world and laid them out on dojo floors and Puroresu rings. Thousands of miles from my friends, family and the life I’d left behind, I started putting the puzzle back together.
The strength it takes to stand-up every time I’m knocked down. The restraint I summon every time Colt prods me. The valour needed to thrive in the face of adversity, push through the pain, and keep fighting when all seems lost.
I learned all these things and more in Tokyo, and I’ll be putting every last one of ‘em to use on Sunday night. I couldn’t even get a booking when I first came here over four years ago: now, I’m about to headline the biggest American pay-per-view to ever take place on Japanese soil.
I’ve come full circle.
Things have been hectic since I arrived. Between working-out, game-planning, promotional gigs and catching-up with old friends, I’ve barely had a moment to myself.
All part of the job, of course. You don’t do this for the quiet life, but when these little moments of serenity emerge, you grab ‘em with both hands.
Surrounded by nature but with just enough clearance for the sun to peek through, this is how I chill. There’s a sharp drop-off to the gorge just a few metres away, and the sound of rushing water is all I hear in this minute of calm.
It’s mid-afternoon, and I’m a few paragraphs short of wrapping-up what must be my ninth or tenth readthrough of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. I always keep a few good books in the rotation, and this is one I always come back to.
But I’m not reading for pleasure this time, no. I’m researching. I’m strategising.
I’m tryna get inside the head of a man who’ll sell his soul for a quick buck or an extra ounce of power.
“... sombre under an overcast sky -- seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness.”
I read the book’s last line aloud before closing it.
“You do much reading, Colt?” I ask, straightening myself up. “Up until a few years ago, I didn’t think there was anything a book could teach me that a TV show or video game couldn’t. But there are gems in these words, and this little tome right here says more about human nature than you can imagine.”
It’s a small book, Heart of Darkness: no more than 100 pages in most editions, but crammed with more wisdom than most novels four or five times its length.
“It’s subject, Colonel Kurtz, was a bold, ambitious and charismatic man. He sought wealth and power, and above all else, the freedom to behave like a God, and impose his will on those he considered lower on the food chain.
“Kurtz became a demigod among tribesmen, but his insatiable thirst for more consumed him. Madness took over, the powers of darkness claimed him for their own, the sickness in his mind spread to his body. He entered the country on a riverboat, and left with the reaper himself.”
Having held the novella up, I slip back into my backpack and refocus.
“But it’s not just about a headstrong white imperialist who lost his mind in the jungle: it’s a book about me and you, Colt, and anyone else who’s ever found himself lost in his own greed.”
I take in two big lungfuls of that mild Autumn air as a sharp wind shifts through the clearing.
“We’re all driven by the same urges and compulsions, and it’s up to us to decide how we react to them. The darkness leads you astray. It takes you down a dangerous path, and before you know it, you’re in over your head. You’re lost. Stranded. Disconnected from your former humanity, and plagued by demons and regret.”
That’s how I interpret it, anyway. I’m no psychologist, but I’ve read this damn thing enough times to know what I’m talking about.
“Eventually, something bad’s gonna happen. Something’s gonna hit you so hard you’ll finally snap-out of that trance and realise just how corrupt and depraved you’ve become.
You know what happened to me, Colt. You know what woke me from my trance four years ago.”
In a way, I’m glad of what happened in the hotel room. Maybe I needed to have my senses shaken-up and get those feelings out of my system. Lord knows what might’ve happened if I’d hit rock bottom halfway through the match rather than the other night, and those little voices chimed-in and took control before a worldwide audience.
Now, I can approach International Affair with a clearer head and stronger footing. This is the fight of my life, and I need to be at my very best to make it the fight of his life too.
“Unfortunately, Mr. Kurtz’ moment arrived with his last few breaths,” I continue, “when the madness was too deep in his system, and his disease had become terminal. As he lay dying on a boat’s deck, he uttered those famous last words -- ‘The horror! The horror!’ -- and drifted away into the ether.
That moment’s gonna come for you too, lad, and when it does, I hope there’s enough of your soul left to salvage.”
Reinvigorated by recent trials and tribulations, I'm focused.
“The moment’ll come to you too, Colt. Maybe it’ll come years from now, and you’ve got nothing to tell your kids about other than all the times you stole a win, or attacked someone from behind.
Maybe you’ll be like Kurtz, and it’ll come on your deathbed.
Hell, maybe it’ll come as we’re throwing down on the Sunday…”
I stop myself for a second.
I’m not tryna patronise, and I’m not tryna preach. I gave-up trying to reason with Colton Thorpe the moment he threw my handshake back in my face on my second night in the company.
“But I guess I need to cast that aside for now. I need to sharpen my focus, strengthen my will, and throw everything I’ve got at you, because the stakes are too high now. We’ve made them too high.
You’re not trying to beat me any more: you’re trying to ruin me. You wanna spill my blood and take my soul away, and I’ve gotta be ready for that. I’ve gotta focus on nothing else but standing in your way and countering your every move, because if my foundations aren’t strong enough, you’ll blow my house down.”
I mean every word, no matter what he chooses to believe.
“You’ve been right beside me every step of the way, and you’ve carried hell with you. Every time I’ve spread my wings, you’ve clipped them. Every time I’ve tried to push forward, you’ve held me down. You’ve beaten me down, insulted and humiliated me, but it’s all coming to a head now.
It’s time to jump in the fire, Colt. You and me, one-on-one. Five months in the making. It’s been a long road getting here, and we took a few wrong turns on the way, but the day’s finally dawning. You did everything you could to make sure I wouldn’t even get here...”
I feel a smile forming.
“But here I am, Colt. A little battered, a little bruised,” I say, tapping my ribs, “but here, and stronger than ever before. You’ve damaged me, Colt, but I’ve taken every stick and stone you’ve thrown at me, picked ‘em up, and used ‘em to rebuild myself. I let the bruises shape me and the scars make me, because that’s how guys like me survive, Colt.”
The last few words are almost spat-out. I don’t think I’ve ever felt this passionate about a match, and it compels me to get to my feet. Sitting down just won’t do no more.
“You’re a killer, Colt. You’re tougher than cowhide, as fierce as a wolf, and your Machiavellian streak knows no limits. I know you’ll do anything to put me away, and maybe that does put me at a disadvantage.” I pause for a minute, letting the head drop. “But if I’m the David to your Goliath, I say ‘bring it on.’”
Eyes wide, nostrils flaring, I tighten my brow and let it flow.
“I’ve got heart, Colt.
I’ve got spirit and soul!
Fire and passion!
You’ll never take those from me, and on Sunday, I’m gonna show you what happens when all these things come together. I’m gonna show you the power of a man buoyed by something greater...”
Energy’s flowing through me like electricity, and I find myself pacing back and forth in the clearing.
I’m on a roll now. I can feel it.
“Because I’m not alone, Colt. On Sunday night, I stand for something far, far bigger than our struggle.
I stand for everyone who’s ever been where I’ve been For anyone who’s ever struggled and toiled. For anyone who’s ever been kicked to the kerb and left in the dirt.
I stand against the bullies of the world, and fight for anyone who’s ever been victimised by people like you.
I stand for honour, compassion and kindness, for without those traits, we are nought but beasts.
I stand for the people, Colt, and on Monday night, I shall be their avatar.”
… and hopefully, they’ll be mine too.
“Understand, too, that this this is a real bucket list moment for me. The ‘Wildfire Curse’ is dead. You’ve had the most impressive reign with that belt in as long as I can remember, and I’ve got the opportunity to continue that legacy.”
The Wildfire Championship’s just another reason we fight. Once a symbol of flakiness and ridicule, Colt’s made it something worth fighting for again, and I’d love to make it mine.
“The belt’s a symbol: something for the victor to hold high and proud, and mark his greatest triumph with. But for the loser, it’s something to remind him of that night in Tokyo when he just wasn’t good enough.”
A lump forms in my throat. It’s a sickening prospect, losing to Colt: and not just for my sake.
With all his hubris, Colt represents this company as a champion. He’ll rub our faces in it and sing from his own songbook ‘til our ears bleed. In his eyes, victory justifies every little act of malice and disrespect that he’s committed since arriving here, and things are only gonna get worse if I can’t stop him.
His Kurtz complex will grow, and the UTA will take the full brunt of it. Fortunately, I’m in a position to stop it all.
“My strengths are your weaknesses, and your strengths are my weaknesses. It’s a perfect fight, Colt. We’ve both been through a lot to get here, and I’m ready for the biggest test of all.”
I take a few steps towards the gorge’s edge. Torrents of water shoot violently through the rock below, but I stop just short of peering down into the abyss.
There’ll be plenty of that at the Dome, I’m sure.
“I’ve been to hell before. I know what it’s like to come face-to-face with my own mortality. I’ve seen the end, Colt, and I never wanna go back there…
… but if that’s what it takes to win this fight, you’d best believe I’ll do it.”
He’ll tell you he’s stronger because he’s never been in that situation, but I disagree. True strength comes only when a man’s tested, and grows in situations where he has no choice but to confront his demons face-to-face, but Colt’s still running from his.
I close my eyes, and get ready to launch the last barrage.
“So this is it. The culmination of everything we’ve been from, and the beginning of everything we’ll go on to become. You’re out to destroy me. You’re out to put dark days on Cayle Murray, and send me back into the mire.
But I won’t let that happen.
I won’t let you compromise the man I’ve become, and I won’t let you take my integrity away.
You might pin me, Colt. You might tap even me out. But you’re gonna have to damn near kill me to do so, brother. You’re gonna have to drain my blood, choke every last drop of oxygen from my lungs, break my back and take my legs away.”
“That prospect won’t phase you, but I know something that will.
My values, morals and ethics. My code of honor: my Bushido, my Yamato-damashii. You mock these things because you don’t understand them, but you won’t be laughing when I take them to the Dome.
You won’t be mocking anybody when I summon them to kick-out time and time again. When I keep getting up every time you knock me down, and strike back every time you think you’ve won.
That’s what’ll phase you.
That’s what’ll make you lose concentration.
And that’s what I have to do to beat you.”
The sunlight’s all but gone now. The clouds have rolled-in, and the temperature’s dropped a couple of notches. I look down at the raging waters below and take a long, cathartic breath.
“Once more unto the breach I go. Once more for benevolence, courage and humility: everything I try to embody, and everything I hope you’ll find some day.
Let’s pull-out that heart of darkness, sit it next to mine, and see which beats stronger.”
Thunder rumbles across distant skies, and that’s when the heavens open.
The downpours as sudden as it is torrential, but I don’t run for cover: I stretch my eyes out, look skywards, and close my eyes.
The storm begins, and it won’t end ‘til one of us lies defeated.
"Everyone in Solitary Confinement snaps eventually!"
- Conrad Teller