The signature across the folded shirt from the golden paint pen in Brandon Youngblood’s hand was a scrawl. Raising the nib, he scooped the shirt up, stacking it to his left on top his locker room table.
Many expected growing pains in the early days of the ReVival era of PRIME. Instead, a renaissance, fueled with a knowledgeable executive team, an expansive array of revenue streams, and a talent roster that was the cadillac of the sport. The Universal Champion played a large role in this, his competitive dominance mirroring the brand.
His focus was on what was in front of him, another ‘Beat Cancer’ shirt, another signature, his victory lap for beating his terminal challenger for a second time. Modern medicine could do wonders for bones and internal organs.
It couldn’t heal lost credibility.
He focused on his work as Angelica Brooks sat across from him, her thumb gliding over the screen of her cellphone, her attention focused on the logistics for her new documentary project, Becoming PRIME. Once satisfied, she put down her phone. Bracing the heel of her hand against her thigh, she broke the silence. “So, Brandon, why did you come back?”
His hand stopped. After a few moments, a warm smile spread across his lips as he drew his gaze to match hers.
Maybe it was time to let the world know.
People peg our match as a mutual admiration society, Randall. The two of us in it for the love of the game. The Good Guys.
But things can change on a dime. Maybe you don’t know it, but I do. You see, Jiles was easy. Guy spews self indulgent shit talk to goad you in and then aims right for your head. Or in my case, your knee. Whatever is a weakness. He said he wanted ‘only the worst for me’. Demanded my blood. And why? Because he failed in the Almasy. Embarrassed. And with the deck stacked in his favor in our rematch, he failed. Again.
I took his blood.
You’re a good guy. Everyone believes it. And I believed it too. But something kept eating at me, and when I get a feeling in my gut, I can’t shake it until I figure out why.
Rituals offer a calm centering to the freneticism of the world, especially before having to tackle a morning show media tour to hype the Great American Nightmare. For Brandon, one of his was Athena Marie Sanders. Seven years old, she was an unfortunate fixture at the Marshfield Children’s Hospital thanks to histiocytosis. She was small for her age, yet it never quelled her fiery spirit. He loved that about her.
That’s why he knew she’d beat this thing.
Three years ago, they became friends. He’d already changed his life, had gone out into his new community to try and make a difference. She loved her braids and looked so adorable trudging about in her Halloween costume, Boo’s monster disguise from Monsters, Inc., her favorite movie. She’d gotten better from those early days, where it was touch and go if she would make it. He told her parents that if they needed anything, he was always a call away.
She didn’t know he was a wrestler, and if she did, wouldn’t have cared ; she liked him because he was big and gave out king sized candy bars. But when he did come back, she took interest. Her best friend was on her tablet. That was cool.
A flare up of her condition brought her back here, to the pediatric intensive care unit, breaking up a routine with her parents of meeting Brandon and the nice redheaded lady with the tattoos for breakfast. Laying down, she played with Sully, her purple and blue octopus plushie, her arm itching because of a saline drip.
For such a powerful man, Brandon’s knock was light. She turned away from her plush, looking toward the door. “Hey Athena!” He dropped a grocery bag onto the seat of a chair and outstretched his arms to her as he drew near. He always gave the best hugs. “You doing okay?”
“No,” she pouted. Nobody could blame her. “My chest hurts.”
“Your mommy said you were feeling very dizzy at the playground.”
“Yeah, we were just running around and I was getting off the jungle gym and was gonna go up the slide because Kevin said I couldn’t and I did but then my head started hurting and I fell and everyone was laughing at me.”
Kids could be awful to each other. He wrapped his arm around the back of her neck, sitting off the edge of her bed. “Look, you need to make sure you hide this…okay?” He reached for the bag, showing her what was inside; a haul of massive Crunch bars, her favorite.
“I can’t hide that!”
“You’re gonna have to! I snuck them in for you!”
“Okay, I’ll try…” she trailed off, reaching in and grabbing one of the candy bars, opening it before taking a bite.
“I’m sorry you weren’t able to go to breakfast with us this week. But you need to take it easy, okay? Then you can climb back up that slide.”
“Can you throw Kevin like those people on your show? He’s a buttface.” she was already halfway through her candy bar. “I’ll let you beat me at Mario Kart.”
He couldn’t suppress his laughter. “That ain’t right. You can’t just let me win.”
“I’ll think about it, okay?” She offered him a piece of the candy, but he waved her off. “I don’t like buttfaces.”
There was no talking about the match, no talking about the Championship, no promo about getting ready. He was focused on being there for her, listening, being whatever it was she needed.
Sometimes, that was more than enough.
In the past, I’d envy that confidence in the man you are, envy it because, for the longest time, whenever I stared at myself in the mirror, I couldn’t do the same. If you have any doubt, Cally is there with the affirmations. Everyone loves her. ‘Tip your bartenders, love’. Time, reflection, effort…it changed me. I had to pay the price for my failings and sins.
But you? Flatness. You haven’t suffered the blood price for your pride. You’re a reflection without self awareness. You think what’s between us is by your hand, that it depends solely on you. Confidence is one thing. I’ve given you your flowers. I’m the Universal Champion. I’m the winner of the Almasy. When you german suplexed me at ReVival 5, it was my shoulder coming off the canvas.
You challenged me as a wrestler…just like you challenge everyone else on what makes them who they are, mocking them with self righteous condescension. Oh, Impulse is a good guy…watch as he talks about facing Rezin and goes on about what it truly means to be punk. He’ll throw down musical references and button it up with ‘the true punks are the conformists’. Calls into question a man’s entire life in some screed of bullshit.
Because he thinks he’s better than Rezin, thinks he’s better than Daniels and Bathory and Palmer, because his life is just as valid as theirs and on their level but on the other hand his is more valid somehow? Some twisting aside only he could give a shit about. I’ve got a nickname for you; Gatekeeper. You stand outside the club, velvet rope in hand, telling them ‘no, you don’t belong’, but you do it in a nice way, without bass in your voice. And when they lower their guard? You slit their throat.
“-well, this is a High Octane city…” Guy Chetterton was the manatee idol for Good Morning Chicagoland, with a chiseled chin and dimples. People never saw him without a suit. He shuffled the papers in front of him at the news desk, his co-anchor, the ever affable former Miss Illinois, Cathy Simmons, in a sleek pencil dress.
“PRIME is a national brand, though,” Brandon responded, trying to defuse the direction the interview was taking. Dressed for the civilized world, he wore a tailored vest and slacks with a form fitting dress shirt offset with tightly rolled sleeves. Over his shoulder was the Universal Championship, held in place in the cradle of his arm. “And besides, PRIME has a long running history in Chicago too.”
“But that was years ago…” she interjected.
Youngblood chuckled, trying to brush it off. “I mean, I love Chicago. It’s where I made it into our Hall of Fame. So…”
“I’m just saying, Brandon. The people here, we take a lot of pride in 97 Red. And they’re just coming off one of their biggest shows, War Games, out in Kyiv–”
“Oh I have some thoughts on that–”
“Well please share.” Guy was persistent.
“I…” Brandon paused, collecting his thoughts. “Look, I’ve been told to be on my best behavior in regards to them by my boss, Lindsay Troy. And I’m not dumb. I’m not about to have a parliament of owls come for me…”
Cathy interrupted again. “Owls?”
“Yeah. That’s…like…97 Red? That’s one of our things.”
“Oh, I see,” she pondered, pinching her chin and nodding.
“There’s more than a few people around here who are thinking a collision is just a matter of time, and given that you’re the top person in PRIME, people can’t help but wonder what it would look like if you were to tussle with Clay Byrd or Chris America–”
“Right, Cathy, I mean, that kid is a phenom. You versus him, the old guard versus the new–”
“Look, it’s fun to run around with fantasy scenarios, but I’m focused on what’s in front of me. Great American Nightmare, this Friday on ACE Network, me and Impulse for the biggest championship in the history of the sport. And we’ve got a lot of other amazing matches on the card too, other championships on the line, and a World Tag Team Championship main event I know I’m looking forward to between Blue Live Crew and Fighting For Nora…”
“Doesn’t one of them have a mannequin?”
“Yeah, but I’ve heard rumblings that the mannequin is going on the sidelines. And while Paxton Ray’s relatively new to the sport, King Blueberry and Jonathan Rhine are both decorated champions in their past, so they have amazing pedigree.”
Chetterton beamed. It was his factory setting. “I notice you said they are the main event, not you. A man in a blueberry mask and a mannequin, and you’re not getting top billing? I know if I was in your shoes, I’d be taking that as a slight.”
Youngblood readjusted the Universal Championship over his shoulder, his back easing into his seat. “Like I said, accomplished wrestlers. They’ve worked hard to get to this point. Done things and humbled themselves in ways I couldn’t. So good on them. Being a champion in PRIME is prestigious. You have to fight to earn it…not get it handed to you because of your last name…”
Cathy spoke up, looking to defuse. “Learning about Calico Rose, I think she’s just a treasure. And her and Impulse are such a breath of fresh air, a normal couple that just oozes this feeling like they’re your next door neighbors. Getting into the ring with good people, it has to be tough.”
“People in the locker room really love Cally.”
Guy had no intention of slowing his roll. “I noticed you didn’t say anything about Impulse right there.”
Brandon sat there for a few moments, chewing on his bottom lip, thinking of what to say without letting his full feelings spill out. “I’ll just say this…”
But as he was about continue, the screen behind the anchors went from its static shot of the Willis Tower to the climax of ReVival 5, Impulse with his arms wrapped around Youngblood’s waist, powering him over in a devastating german suplex where both their shoulders were pinned to the canvas. The roll of Brandon’s shoulder is clear, but the damage has already been done. “There was a great deal of controversy there.”
Seeing the visual crawled under his skin. Dried his mouth. On the outside, he smirked. Inside, pure seethe. “I guess that’s why we have to run it back, right? Because people don’t clearly see my shoulder off the canvas there. And because I have spent the last few months hearing about it. I’m really looking forward to this. What people are going to see is going to be clear…” he lurched from the back of his seat. “Decisive.”
The anchors both nodded, Guy speaking up. “Sounds great. Thank you for your time, Brandon, and folks, remember, July first–”
But Youngblood wasn’t done. “By the way, Guy, remember before the show, in the back, you were commenting on my arms? Said you thought you could take me in an arm wrestling contest…”
A nervous snicker. Chetterton turned to face the camera, his hands fumbling his papers. “Well…”
“Oh really?” Cathy loved seeing her coworker squirm.
“Oh yeah he did.” Brandon put the Universal Championship on the anchor table. With the tenseness of the interview and the showing of the suplex, it was time for him to put Guy on his heels. “I know sports books are open in Illinois, and there’s this rescue mission I like to help out whenever I am in Vegas. Why don’t you put your money where your mouth is? They sure could use your support.”
“Um…well…we have to go to a commercial…”
“Oh…I can wait.”
Youngblood’s elbow was planted firmly against the table.
I’ll give you credit…it’s subtle. But I saw the pattern. When you walked into PRIME, you wanted two people in the Almasy; me and then Nova. Why? We’d been away from the ring for most of the last decade. When you visualized Caesar in that Final, did you see him as he stands now? Balding, chain smoking, fitted with an ankle monitor…or as the clean shaven force who defended the Universal Championship more than anyone in PRIME history?
How did you see me?
They’d taken to calling the cabin in the Pacific Northwest the Bloodworks Compound, a riff off the old train school Brandon used to run in Los Angeles. It was spartan, a welcome reprieve after darting from Chicago to New York to Atlanta to Houston to Los Angeles for morning show appearances. Away from the cabin and the little ditch field he’d filled with tree trunks was a hill with a makeshift storage garage, massive tires and a sledgehammer resting against its siding. Inside was a wrestling ring, as were Dave Gibson and Amy Campbell.
Preparation for a match of this magnitude demanded a hands on approach. Gibson was a veteran of the sport. Though retired, when Youngblood made his return, he’d contacted his old rival and friend to coax him back into shape, both physically and mentally.
A bank of fluorescent lights hummed from the ceiling. There was barely enough space around the outside of the ring. Gibson remained locked with Brandon, both men sweating profusely, trying to slink through with an armdrag out of a tight collar and elbow tie up. Youngblood wasn’t about to give up his arm. The training mindset was driven toward the mat, toward the observations the two had made about Impulse’s ring strengths.
Finally giving up, Gibson broke away, pushing off from Brandon’s shoulders. “Alright. You’re basing solid here. I know the greco had me worried about you giving up your legs, relying on your upperbody too much given his mat technique, but you’re doing fantastic.”
“For now,” Youngblood acknowledged, stooping down to take a swig from his water bottle, swishing it around his mouth before spitting it out. “I’ve been carb cutting to keep light on my feet.”
“He has,” Amy stated from her perch on the top rope. Everyone was dressed in shorts and wrestling shoes, the men topless, her wearing a tanktop. “Gave up flapjacks and everything.”
“That’s good,” Gibson affirmed. “I think the first time, you took him a little for granted.”
Brandon stared him down like a raging bull. Did he? Was that what this was all about? A window cracked open just a tiny bit? Impulse’s platitudes since were a constantly itching scab. Maybe he had. Maybe he didn’t want to admit it given how magnanimous he thought the Marathon Man was. Whatever the case, it was time to cauterize the wound, once and for all.
“My turn,” Amy hopped down, bounding on the balls of her feet. He didn’t notice it at the time thanks to the sweat in his eyes, but her expression was stern.
“Alright, I think this is a good time to get some good looks at that superkick of his. He’s gonna look to snap that off from different angles.” Dave clapped his hands. “Alright, tie up!”
The size discrepancy was massive between them. The two tied up, Brandon easing in, ready to lock out access to his arms. There was no way she could muscle him out of position, same as Impulse if he kept himself tight like this.
Amy had different ideas. In the decade since Global Championship Wrestling had closed, its final United States Champion had adapted, earning herself a black belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. She’d gone to Europe after overcoming substance abuse, versing herself in World of Sport as well as the catch-as-catch can grappling styles. It saved her knees, had brought her ring credibility she’d never had before, becoming a leader and one of the continent’s biggest stars. Her boyfriend was a maraudering suplex tank who smothered and struck his opponents down with uncaged relentlessness. There was no way she could take him down.
Until she did.
Stepping through his legs, she used her leverage to shove him through, hooking her leg against his calf, and in a clumsy show, the Tower of Babel toppled over with a yelp. Quickly, she grabbed hold of his neck with a leg scissor, ready to strike with her elbows. “Don’t you ever think you got him just ‘cause you’re bigger. He almost got you last time ‘cause of that shit.” Her point made, she let go, and he quickly scrambled to his feet, growling.
Gibson clapped. “Well well…”
Brandon shot him a glare. “The fuck?!”
“An attitude adjustment.” Amy was in the corner, her tone sour, her glower as intense as her boyfriend.
“Think she’s a little pissed, Brando…” Gibson combed his hand through his salt and pepper hair.
Youngblood’s eyes shot toward him, his words guttural. “And why’s that?”
“Because you didn’t tell me that Impulse was a hanger on of Eli’s.” Suddenly, it made sense. Ages ago, in the Fans Wrestling Organization. The Rat Pack. Amy Campbell and Brand Frontier and Lance Knight and their leader, Eli Flair. To say things ended poorly between the two was an understatement. “And if you think this is just about your pride or your title, you got shit wrong. Dave told me. And what Impulse says? Way he carries himself? It’s just the same as that old lanky dipshit; it’s a front.”
“Hey, I didn’t think–”
“Shut up,” she cut him off. “Just suplex. Hit him. Break him down. Until he’s paste. You got me? I fuckin’ mean it. We gonna have problems if you don’t.”
“Seems like training went up a notch,” Gibson cackled. “Alright, let’s do it again!” He clapped his hands.
This was going to be fun.
You wanted us because our faces are etched all across PRIME. To become the Ace off of our notoriety. When you challenged me as a wrestler, you painted ‘Ferst Blud’ on my wall just like the Bandits did. And when you took your scattershot approach on trying to figure out why I’m here, now, whether it’s to make good on finally winning ‘the big one’, whether it was to be a vanguard for PRIME…you came up empty. I’m not here for legacy; I’d set mine to stone when I retired in 2010. Getting the monkey off my back? I’ve sold every accolade I’ve achieved to charity.
I’m here to set the standard for the entire sport. The Universal Championship? It’s amazing and lets me give visibility to my passions and causes outside the ring…things I was doing years before coming back. Inside that ring? No one thinking they’re the best without understanding the true cost can walk the same path as me.
I’m beloved and revered because I’m real, not some bundle of quirkiness. I don’t veneer wanting with fake platitudes. You said everyone deserves an answer to our rivalry? I’ve known the answer since the moment the bell rang at ReVival 5. Now, you pay the price. You don’t get to gatekeep anymore. I made Jiles own his arrogance. At Great American Nightmare? I make you own your vanity.
Why did I come back?
Because I could.
Why am I going to beat you?
Because I will.