The date was September 2nd, 2010. Sin City, the “Entertainment Capital of the World”.
The event was broadcast on worldwide pay-per-view from the sold-out arena at the High Spirit Casino. The name of the event couldn’t have been more appropriate; High Stakes. For Seán O’Neill the stakes couldn’t have been any higher.
Just shy of two years since returning to professional wrestling, after overcoming the odds to beat what many had called a career-ending back injury, he’d been enjoying a solid, if not spectacular run with Global Championship Wrestling. But that wasn’t enough, he hadn’t battled against the odds, endured a gruelling war of rehabilitation for three years, to be “a good hand”. It had taken him to the brink; so many times he’d questioned if it was all worth it. And then at last, progress, slowly but surely he started to recover. He could remember so clearly how he’d felt that glorious morning when he’d been given the “all-clear”. He could wrestle again, the obsession that had dominated his every waking moment since childhood. He’d been so determined that this time, THIS TIME, it was going to be different. This time, he would capture championship gold. This time, he would earn the respect of his peers. This time, he may even earn the support of the fans.
Then it happened, then he happened… Christian Zenith. He whispered poison from his forked tongue; he talked of guiding O’Neill to glorious new heights. Championships, accolades and acclaim waited if he put his trust in Zenith. Had it been naivety? Had he really bought in so blindly? Even now, thirteen years later, he couldn’t say. Perhaps it had been, or perhaps it was simply desperation. Zenith had known exactly what he’d wanted to hear, and so he’d let himself believe it… fool.
“An té a luíonn le madaí, éireoidh sé le dearnaid.”
“He who lies down with dogs comes up with fleas.”
Zenith had his own plans, and Seán O’Neill was just the first pawn to move on the board. He masterfully manoeuvred the pieces until the deception no longer served his purpose, and then he struck. All for the advantage of his real vested interest, a behemoth standing well over seven feet tall, more than three hundred fifty pounds of destruction. Everything Zenith had told O’Neill was true, with one exception, that destiny was never meant for him.
What an idiot he’d been, this is the wrestling business. Betrayal and deception are as common as Arm Drags and Hip Tosses. He’d seen it himself a hundred times, he done it himself a hundred more. He chuckled as he reflected that once, many years ago, he’d referred to himself as “The Manipulator of the Masses”, yet he himself had been played so easily, so completely.
“Perhaps I was blinded by my own ego, but I have failed to break your ignorant, stubborn ways to turn you into everything you could have been. I have finally realized that no amount of teaching or tutelage could make you reach your potential… because you are far too comfortable in being mediocre. You have no drive to better yourself. A man like myself has high expectations and expects far more from a protégé than you will ever be able to give me. You, SurReal, are a loser.”
That’d been the words that had pushed him to the rash decision, he wanted to make Zenith eat those words, wanted so badly to prove him wrong. So he’d made the challenge, he would take on Zenith and if he lost, he would leave GCW forever. Without taking the time to consider what he was doing, he issued the challenge to be a contest with no disqualifications. And although he didn’t yet know it, that had sealed his fate. Of course Zenith’s new monster had interjected himself into the match, and in the end, even unlooked for help from a former rival hadn’t been enough to save him.
“The winner of this matchup… THE LEADER OF MEN, CHRIIISSTIIIIIIAN ZEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEENITH!”
As he kneeled in the middle of the ring, his freshly broken arm hanging limply at his side, the realisation set in. He looked blankly across the ring, where Tempest, his rival of the last few months stood. They had shared a knowing look, a look of respect, as she stretched out her hand to help him to his feet. Despite the wars they’d so recently waged against each other, she alone had tried to save him from Zenith and his monster. But no-one has ever been able to save Seán O’Neill from his greatest opponent, himself. He had placed himself in this predicament, there was no-one else to blame. The dream was over.
He’d gone home to recover from his broken arm, and his broken spirit. Not to his apartment in Albany, he’d really gone home. He’d gone back home to the rolling green hills of Antrim, on the north east coast of Northern Ireland. His hope had been that in being back where he’d grown up would help heal his mental health. At that time, he couldn’t have known he wouldn’t go back to America for thirteen years.
The truth was, he couldn’t face it. He couldn’t go back to wrestling in Bingo Halls and Armouries for the cost of a cheeseburger and a couple of beers. It wasn’t about the money; he’d always managed that well, he could live comfortably for the rest of his days if he never worked another match. Truthfully, he’d always been happy to take any booking regardless of the payday, many times over the years he’d wrestled for free, the experience was payment enough. He’d been so proud to have “paid his dues”. No, it was the shame that kept him away. The shame of being played for a fool for the world to see, the shame of knowing that each time he’d walk out in front of wrestling fans, they’d know he was just some failed wrestler. A guy who’d flirted with the big time, but at the end of the day, he just couldn’t compete at that level. A guy who’d given everything to get back in the ring but when it counted most just couldn’t get the job done. But worst of all, the shame that Zenith had been right…
“You, SurReal, are a loser.”
In time, his arm healed, but his spirit remained broken. He’d thrown himself into coaching aspiring young wrestlers across the United Kingdom and Ireland. Slowly the wrestling industry on these shores began to bloom, a renaissance for UK wrestling. For the first time since the late 1980s, crowds were selling out shows again up and down the country. O’Neill took great pride in watching the youngsters he’d helped train earn their stripes. He worked with countless promotions, lending his experience behind the scenes. He lost count of how many times he was asked to get back in the squared circle himself, but his answer always remained the same, he was retired, he’d moved on. Was he though? Had he? The stipulation of the match was that he couldn’t compete in GCW again; there had never been any mention of retirement. But still his answer was unchanged.
And then, life as we’d always known it, changed overnight. News spread across the globe of a new contagious disease that was going to change everything, the only thing that spread quicker than the news was the virus itself. Covid-19 sent the world into lockdown. People were instructed to stay at home, only leaving in essential circumstances. Over the next few years, almost seven million reported deaths were attributed to the disease, with the number of confirmed infections nearing eight hundred million. The impact on every aspect of daily life was monumental, but in particular for small businesses it was catastrophic, with no customer foot-fall what chances had they of survival?
Let’s be clear, not being able to put on, or attend an independent wrestling show was hardly high on the list of concerns that the world faced. But for O’Neill, it was heartbreaking. Forced to watch everything he and others had put so much of their blood, sweat and tears into building fade into oblivion had hurt him deeply. His spirit, which had taken so long to recover, wavered on the edge again.
After what felt like several lifetimes, the restrictions were lifted, and although the virus hadn’t been defeated, people were free to start trying to rebuild their lives. Still, the thought of standing or sitting in a crowded arena to watch something like wrestling felt like a risk not worth taking to many people, understandably. As the various promotions across the country started to put on cards again, the crowds were massively reduced. A return to the dark days of UK wrestling shows attracting one hundred or less fans looked likely. So this time, when the question came, it came with a plea.
“Please Seán, we need a big-name if we’re going to have any chance of filling the house, we need someone who’s been on TV. You being on the card could be the difference on when we can afford to run another show!”
It was different now; this wasn’t greedy promoters trying to add a little more to the coffers, trying to cash in on a boom period, this was something that could genuinely make a difference. Whilst calling him a “big name” was debatable to put it lightly, in the context of the notoriety of the workers on these shows, it was true to a degree; he was the only one who’d ever wrestled in the “big time”, regardless of his lack of personal success.
“Alright, alright, fine! Aye, I can wrestle a few matches here and there I guess.”
And that, as they say, was that. The real virus he’d always fought was back pumping through his veins, he was wrestling again. The addiction was back. To paraphrase an extremely wise Vulcan Science Officer; Wrestling is Seán O’Neill’s first, best destiny; anything else is a waste of material. A few matches quickly became a few matches per month, which in turn became a few matches per week, and before he could even acknowledge to himself it was happening, he was wrestling a full-time schedule again at long last.
As the weeks and months rolled by, he shook off the dreaded “ring-rust” and his stamina returned. And no sooner had he noticed this, that the nagging little voice on his shoulder started to whisper in his ear once again; America, the biggest pro wrestling market in the world. Sold out arenas, televised events, pay-per-view extravaganzas, championships… One last try to make it. One last try to show the world who he is, what he is. One last try to “get over”.
He pushed back, fought against it. That opportunity had already come and gone. He was happy now, training kids and rebuilding the UK scene. Well, he was happy, wasn’t he? But with every match, he found himself needing more. More competition, more challenges, more crowds, more of everything. He thought about returning to Japan, that was after all where he’d first really put himself on the map. It was there he’d taken his skills to a new level, established himself as someone worth watching out for. But deep down inside, he knew, that wasn’t what he really wanted…
The date is October 31st, 2023.
“Ladies and gentlemen, British Airways welcomes you to New York. The local time is coming up to six thirty AM. For your safety and the safety of those around you, please remain seated with your seat belt fastened and keep the aisle clear until we’ve come to a stand-still. We hope you’ve enjoyed your flight and look forward to having you fly with us again soon.”
O’Neill barely took in the words; his thoughts were lost to thirteen years prior. Specifically he was remembering part of the last message he’d heard on his answer-phone before he left his apartment in Albany.
“Look, I know the stipulation was that you’d leave forever Seán, but come on this is wrestling. Nothing is forever, there is always a way around it, there is always a way back.”
“Always a way back” that was it, the thought that consumed him. Slowly it dawned on him that his flight had landed and people had begun to get ready to exit the plane. He reached for his phone and turned it back on. He scrolled through his contact list and then paused. Closing his eyes and taking a deep breath, he knew that this was it, time to roll the dice. He pressed the call button and took one quick glance at the screen before bringing the phone to his ear.
Calling… Lindsay Troy.