I steady myself atop the stepladder and drape the last length of tinsel over the picture frame. Silver Aberdeen cloaked in winter’s snow, a deliberate contrast to the SoCal perma-summer we live in now. I stare at this painting every day, and it looks even better wearing this festive tinsel scarf.
“Funny time of year to be thinking about punching lads in the face, right?”
A few uneasy steps take me down the ladder and back to solid ground.
“Most folks are already winding down for Christmas,” I say. “They’re thinking about golden-skinned turkey and Christmas pudding. Mulled wine, Mariah Carey and Miracle on 34th Street.”
I’m thinking about those things too, but I’ve so much more on my mind.
“I don’t get to ‘switch off’ this year. I don’t get to put my feet up and forget about the rest of the world for four or five days. I don’t get a ‘normal Christmas,’ because I don’t live a normal life…”
I take a look around the house. Not to pat myself on the back too much, but I think I’ve done a good job decorating the place. There’s just enough tinsel around edges and fake snow sprayed on the windows to transform this San Diego beach house into a winter wonderland.
“I’ll spend some time enjoying the company of those closest to me,” I continue. “I’ll unwind and get into the festive spirit. But while everyone else is stuffing their face, I’ll be eating turkey and vegetables – no gravy, no trimmings. While my brothers sit on the couch necking whiskey and wine, I’ll be sipping water and setting a 6am alarm for my next gym session.”
The UTA never sleeps, the grind never stops, and I can’t afford to unsharpen my focus, even at Christmas.
“Why? Because three days from Christmas, on December 28th, I face one of the most decorated wrestlers in UTA history.”
I let myself fall back into the couch and put my feet up, taking a well-earned breather.
Andy’s been out with his son all-day, and the decoration box had been sitting unopened in the kitchen for a week, just begging to be opened.
It had to be done.
“Now don’t take me for a complainer. I’d love to put my feet-up and rest for a couple weeks.” I pause, letting the mind drift a little. “But as much as I love Christmas, I love my job even more.”
The phone slides from my pocket, so I swipe the unlock pattern and hold it up. Already got next week’s Victory poster on my background. “Who’d have thought this would ever happen? Little old Cayle Murray, right there beside Madman goddamn Szalinski! Makes me wanna pinch myself.”
I used to watch this guy dazzle the world and rule the roost as UTA World Champion. That was back when I was just a humble Gaijin grafting his way through Japanese undercards: now, I get to face the guy, one-on-one.
Remove everything that’s happened over the past few weeks and it’s comfortably the most exciting match of my career.
Thing is, I can’t just remove the externalities.
“I had goosebumps, Madman. I’m not above admitting that. You were a megastar when I was scrubbing dojo floors: a champion when I was no more than a card-filler. This should be an honour, and hell, maybe it would been…
If the old Madman wasn’t dead.”
This match is so much more than just the old hero vs. the new hope.
Madman Szalinski aligned himself with Eric Dane and Colton Thorpe. He joined The Pantheon. That, by proxy, makes him my enemy.
It makes him someone I have to stop.
“As soon as I think about who you’ve become, awe and excitement go out the window. Fire and conviction take their place, and this match becomes another battle in my war on The Pantheon.”
Just thinking about these guys and their $75,000 suits and $30,000 shades makes my skin crawl.
$75k? Put all my worldly possession in a pile, tally-up the value, and you’ll be lucky if total amounts to a tenth of that.
“… and while we’re being honest, I’ll confess, Madman: you shook me up last Monday. I spent the whole night expecting some kinda sneak attack but the last thing I expected when I flicked those locker-room lights on was to see you sitting there, waiting for me.”
I shake my head.
“I damn near jumped outta my skin, in fact. If that was the goal then congratulations, you succeeded.
But here’s the thing about me, Madman: I’m no timid little mouse, I’m a lion. I get knocked down, then I get back-up again. I get shaken-up, but I straighten myself out again. Every. Single. Time.”
The words get hammered home with a few finger points.
“Remember the man you used to be, Madman? Remember the guy who stood against Dynasty at every juncture? Whose convictions ran so deep he put himself in a goddamn coma fighting for what he believed in? The guy who embodied all that was admirable about this crazy, crazy game, no matter how much it tested him?
I looked up to you, lad, I really did. But here’s the thing: I’m not tryn’a be the new Madman Szalinski, I’m tryn’a be the first Cayle Murray.
And Cayle Murray does NOT abandon everything he stands for when a Svengali like Dane comes along.”
I hear the sea sloshing through an open window, and sunshine pours in through every pane of glass. It’s not exactly a perfect winter picture, but it’s precisely where I need to be at times like this.
Times when I’m tested, and my back’s against the wall. As I continue my charge through the UTA and my issues with The Pantheon deepen, having such a calming base of operations has become increasingly important.
“I’ll tell ya now, Madman: that new mask of yours may as well be coloured yellow, not black… because you didn’t climb the ladder when you sided with Dane. You didn’t move forward. You didn’t ascend.
You ran away.
You stopped being someone I could look up to, and became something I hope to never become.”
Thinking about this takes me back to Victory, and that conversation in the locker-room. Goddamn, the idea of that guy waiting for me in my darkened locker-room still creeps me out, put his point has relevance. His words carry weight.
I pull my feet off the table and adjust my posture. “You look at me and see the old you. You tell me I’m ripe for corruption, and that this game’s gonna chew me up and spit me out, just as it did to you.
And you’re not wrong, lad. I can’t sit here and call foul, ‘cause I already know about this game’s darkside. I’m well-versed in this trade, and the trials, pressures, aches and pains of dedicating a life to it. Don’t believe me? Ask your new buddy Colt, he just loves trawling through my history...”
… and lord knows I don’t fancy telling those tales again.
Not for a while, anyway.
“You don’t need to warn me about Shit Creek, Madman: I’ve fallen in before… and I almost drowned, Madman. Almost.”
I slam a pointed finger down on the table, letting some of that energy loose.
“But I didn’t. I came back from the brink, and grew into the man I am today precisely because of the things you’re tryn’a warn me of. I recognised the monster I’d let myself become, and when it tested me the most -- when it pushed me to my mortal limits – I didn’t exactly what you didn’t. I fought back.”
I take a breath.
“Because the game didn’t make me a monster, Madman. I made me a monster, because I wasn’t yet strong enough to withstand all the temptations it threw at me.
It didn’t make you a monster either.
You made you a monster.
You found yourself facing hard times, and instead of fighting back like you used to, you let them become you. The bitterness, hatred and paranoia swirled through your head, and this time, you let it win.”
A man’s gotta take responsibility for his actions, and until he realises that, he’s just a piece of driftwood floating down a stream. Lost, directionless, and at the whim of the world. Carried through an existence he has no say in; stuck on a course he can never change.
“The world didn’t force you to give up the good fight, Madman: you decided that yourself.
You gave-up on standing-up and fighting your cause.
You gave-up on every fan who ever sung your name or wore your t-shirt.
You gave-up on yourself, Madman. And that’s the saddest thing in the world.”
“The creature you’ve become is no better than the Dynasty worms you once lived to destroy, and I’m the guy who has to try and stop you. I’m the guy who has to be the 2014 Madman Szalinski. Not because I’m trying to be a ‘hero,’ but because I’m trying to atone for shitty things I did to this business five, ten years ago…”
Leaning forward again, I run my right hand through my black mane and make a mental note about getting it cut.
“I don’t this to cultivate some noble, courageous image of myself. It’s got nothing to do with self-gratification or needing a crowd to scream my name.
It’s about making it up to the fans, and everyone else I spent the first three-quarters of my career shitting on. I strive to be worthy of their respect every time I step through that curtain, because I know just how privileged and fortunate I am to have their support.”
I stand up and pace towards the corner of the room where Andy keeps his career’s mementos. One photo takes pride of place among title belts, trophies and certificates. My big brother, stood in the middle of the ring, bowing for a sold-out crowd.
A picture of the man I could’ve been had I not wasted my early years.
A picture of the man I can still become if I don’t let men like Madman drag me back to the old days.
“I carry memories of the monster I used to be every time I step inside the ring, Madman,” I continue. “I am whom I am because of those mistakes and missteps, and I own every last one of them.
I dedicate my every heartbeat to doing better by this sport, and I will NOT let you drag me back into the mire. Whatever you throw at me, know I’m gonna throw it right back, with every last drop of strength and resolve I’ve built since starting this crusade.”
I pause, and let the words hang.
“Thinking about a dark future doesn’t fright me, Madman: it drives me to do all I can from preventing it never becomes a reality.
On Monday night, you find that out first-hand.”
"I'll cut him down to size. Be sure of that."
- La Flama Blanca