Rocky de Leon
- a person who has defeated or surpassed all rivals in a competition, especially in sports.
- a person who fights or argues for a cause or on behalf of someone else.
— 🦖 —
5/19/2023 BALL ARENA, DENVER, CO – Lindsay Troy found Stu Weiler feverishly typing in the locker room. She smirked as she walked up next to him, thinking he was so deep into his data that he hadn’t registered her presence. She resisted a jump at his voice, “Good evening, Ms. Troy. What can I do for you?” He closed the laptop, nudged his glasses into place, sat up straight and faced the PRIME progenitress.
LT circled behind him and pointed at the television. “Your boy trashed Tom.”
“That was… surprising, to say the least. He never ceases to outperform my models and expectations.” Weiler’s voice welled a bit, betraying a hint of pride through his otherwise stoic demeanor.
She smirked again, “Yeah, well, let’s see if he can do it again in two weeks.”
Stu blinked. “Excuse me?”
Troy tossed a copy of the ReVival 28 card into Stu’s lap and left the locker room. With a red sharpie, someone had crossed out 28 and written 29 above it. Further down the card, the Alias Championship line was circled. The name Eddie Cross was struck out, and SKREE in all caps was written next to it in the margin.
“Well,” Stu swallowed, “Shit.”
— 🦖 —
“Again!” Stu’s eyes remained fixed on his screen as Rocky continued an onslaught of knees to the gut of the unfortunate dummy in the center of the ring. His inanimate opponent’s head had been sharpied to give the appearance of wearing a half-face mask of black with teal outlines around the eyes that looked like a dollar store Spider-man rip off.
“No.” Rocky relented, much to the relief of Dollar Tree Mort. “I need a break.” A white cotton band prevented the sting of saline in his eyes, but Rocky would need a substantial influx of fluid to replace what left his body during this session. He chugged nearly a quarter of the jug of Gatorade sitting by the ring for that purpose. “We need to talk strategy sometime, anyway. Might as well be now.”
Stu paused, his central processing unit calculated the provided input slower than usual as his memory buffer was still full of efficiency data. “Acceptable. Mort, regardless of what alias he uses – no pun intended – is undeniably a different breed of wrestler than you’ve faced to date. He is, thus far, without peer in terms of size, eclipsing your previously largest opponent by more than 20 pounds. He has nearly 30 on you. In short, you’re fighting outside your weight class.”
Rocky patted his belly, “Understood. Time for pizza!” His glib remark elicited a giggle from Cindy as she passed on her way to the office while sipping bubble tea, but Stu was not unlike the concrete wall behind him.
“More focus, less levity, please. We are woefully short on time and you are regrettably underprepared.”
“Stu, come on – lighten up a little. I just beat a former PRIME Universal Champion, I think ‘regrettably underprepared’ is a bit harsh.”
“One – Intense Champion, not Universal. Don’t go inflating your record or your ego when both will manage on their own. Two – You cannot extrapolate past victories for the purpose of assuming others, Rocky. Mort is uncharted territory and will require even more attention to energy management than usual. You can’t afford to let him lay hands on you given the mass disparity.”
Stu’s words were calm and calculated, but Rocky knew his handler. His fingers were neither flying across keys nor sitting still in his folded hands. Rather, they picked at his cuticles as he spoke. His eyes were uncharacteristically wide, and his enunciation oddly sloppy. Don’t think Rocky missed that contraction, either.
He placed a hand on Stu’s shoulder. “Ok, Stu, I’m sorry. I promise I’ll take this seriously.” Rocky felt a small amount of tension leave Stu’s body, though his posture remained ruler-straight.
After adjusting his glasses, Weiler focused on his screen and continued his lesson. “Now then, to combat the mass differential, you’re going to ha-”
Send lawyers, guns and money! …dad, get me outta this!
Rocky picked up his phone and quickly accepted the call, “Sorry, Stu, gotta take this.” He left the gym, leaving Stu wide eyed, mouth agape.
It is a well known rule amongst theoretical physicists that for the maintenance of universal balance, when one luchador leaves a gym, another takes its place. As such, Stu was perhaps less surprised than he otherwise might have been when Arturo de Leon high fived Rocky on his way out the door.
“Mr. de Leon. To what do we owe the pleasure?”
Arturo smiled and the entire gym felt 50 lumens brighter. He laughed, and any tension in the air dissipated. “Meestair Weiler. Stuart. Stu. May I call you Stu? I hope so, because I’m gonna. Stu, come, we need to have a chat.” He wrapped an assuming arm around Stu and led him toward the office.
Stu found himself halfway to the office with Arturo’s arm around his shoulders before he realized his laptop was packed up and in his arms and his folding chair had been put away against the wall. As they entered the office, Cindy handed a mug to Arturo, “Two sugars?”
Another 75-watt smile. “You remembered! Always a pleasure, Miss Cindy.” Arturo took Cindy’s hand, kissed her knuckles, and made a small bow, which elicited her second giggle of the day.
Cindy walked out of the office and shut the door. Arturo waved Stu toward a vacant chair near the one he’d claimed. “We have much to discuss.”
“I’m afraid you have me at a loss, Mr. de Leon.”
“Arturo, por favor.”
“Arturo. What do we have to talk about?”
Arturo crossed his hands in his lap, leaned forward, and lowered his voice, “You’re training my nephew wrong, and if you don’t adjust he’s going to get murdered by that 245-pound bitchlord.”
— 🦖 —
I wouldn’t blame you for wondering where I went, even if it is a little nosy. Really, I just needed privacy – everything echoes in the gym. I stood just outside the concrete building. The smell of sweat and steroids was detectable even beyond the confines of its walls. The pungency had become familiar, like home almost. The caller from thirty seconds earlier, however, was a figment of a former life. He wanted something.
“Carlos, I know you’re taking a break-”
They always want something. It’s never “Hi, Carlos, how are you? Saw you on TV – that was a hell of a flying squirrel!” It’s always “Carlos, look into this,” or “Carlos, can you put together a story about that?” Comes with the territory, I guess.
“Retired, Shane. I’m retired.”
“-retired, right, sure, for this wrestling thing. That’s swell, but I’m desperate for help. You’re the best freelancer I ever worked with, you’re already local to the story, and the only staff writer I have that’s not already on assignment is Jensen. You’d be doing me a huge favor.”
He was buttering me up. Smart. Always easier to get someone to do something you want when you make them feel needed. Even more when you make them feel like they’re doing you a favor. Jensen was a good man, but he was sloppy. Shane knew I didn’t abide sloppiness. He was trying to manipulate me. It was working.
“Look, Shane, I’ve got a huge match coming up. It’s not that I don’t WANT to help, but it’s really not the best time.”
It wasn’t a lie. Not really. The timing wasn’t great. My manager was falling apart at the seams worrying about this big galoot I had to take on. If we didn’t find a way for me to knock his block off, I’d be up a sewage filled creek without any way to navigate it. I’d watched the guy sucker punch an unsuspecting girl a couple months back and lay her out. That same girl had literally thrown me from the ring a few weeks before. The worst part? She thought they were friends.
It was hard to tell what hurt her more – the hit or the betrayal. It was a cheap shot, real dirty. Almost as dirty as the work he did for Gamble after his recent title defense. I think Dante would say that jumping the opponent you just defeated and placing them in the hospital would land you at least the fourth circle of hell, one cell over and two circles down from the dude who decided hot dog buns should be sold in packages of eight while hot dogs are sold in packages of ten. I wanted to take the Alias Title from him for that alone, nevermind my own ambitions.
“Carlos, Rocky, buddy, come on. One last job. It’s just over in Sugar Land, we’ll pay you per diem.”
He said the magic words.
“Fine, Shane, fine, twist my arm. What’s the angle?”
“He’s selling snake oil, Rock.”
“Sure, sure, but what is the stuff and what does he claim it does?”
“You don’t get it. He’s literally selling snake oil. It says it right on the flippin’ bottle. ‘Snake oil. Superb healing powers. Not FDA Approved.’”
Shane wasn’t the type to tell jokes, but I couldn’t be sure.
“Are you putting me on right now?”
“Hand to god, Rock. Look up his Cuckoo profile. @snakeoilsam.”
I left the call with Shane running. Poked the button to put him on speaker and opened the Cuckoo app. Cute thing, mildly to moderately addictive – people upload short videos and some computer magic feeds you as much of what you like to watch as it possibly can. I pulled up the name, and damned if it wasn’t exactly as Shane said. Samuel Crabthorn, entrepreneur, health and wellness coach, and literal snake oil salesman. 3.7 million followers, all of them watching Sam and his lovely assistants demonstrating the healing powers of snake oil. Somehow, Sam was using 21st century tech to push a 19th century scam, and I was one. Hundred. Percent. Here for that story.
“Gimme the address, Shane, I’ll send you my updated checking account details.”
— 🦖 —
Arturo’s smile was gone, though the laugh lines of his face remained. His eyes betrayed no humor in his words, if any was intended. Stu was certain he was serious. “It is as you say. We must prepare Rocky so he does not get demolished by a substantially larger opponent. This is why I have him working on stamina, speed, and short power burst exercises.” Stu began to open his laptop. Perhaps Arturo would understand if he saw the spreadsheet.
Arturo’s hand gently rested on the lid, preventing Stu from opening it further. “Data will not tell you what you need to know, Stu. You are missing the, how you say… forest for the bushes.”
“Yes, the trees for the bushes. Stu, you must understand, Rocky is not a wrestler. Rocky is Lucha.”
Stu had no patience for anyone delivering information he already possessed. “Yes, Arturo, just so, I am quite aware of my protege’s wrestling style. Now, if you’ll excuse me…”
“I am not talking about his style, Stu, I am talking about his being. Carlos is part of a long line of Lucha. Have you noticed, perhaps, that Rocky at times has much more energy than you expect, and other times inexplicably less?”
Stu was, however, always available to discuss actual data. “Of course, but his physicality and moveset are so rapidly evolving that it’s hard for my models to keep up. I expect that to settle over time.”
“You are correct that your model cannot keep up, but it is not because of evolving movesets. You’re missing a key variable.”
“I sincerely doubt that.” If smug and derision could have an emotional love child, it would be Stu’s face.
“Oh, so then you’ve accounted for audience size, volume, and positivity?”
And just like that, Stu’s face was a blank canvas. “Come again?”
Arturo’s teeth were almost impossibly white, and they dazzled Stu as his grin widened. “As I tried to explain, Rocky is not a wrestler – he is Lucha. He is a storyteller. Wrestlers wrestle. Lucha spin tales using the ring as their stage. Legends are born through the emotions of the audience. The more the audience reacts to Rocky, the more emotion they show and feedback they give-”
Stu’s eyes widened, “The more energy Rocky has and the stronger he becomes.”
“So… if the crowd loves him…”
“He will give them a reason to love him more. The loop will continue until either Rocky falls from grace or becomes legend, but in either case it will be spectacular.”
— 🦖 —
Sugar Land. Home of oil barons who were too good for the hustle and bustle of Houston proper. Every lawn, perfectly manicured. Every picket fence, perfectly white. It felt like driving through Stepford, Connecticut. Thankfully, I didn’t have to stop in Sugar Land so much as drive through it. My target was just outside city limits.
There it was – a forty acre “farm” sitting 20 minutes South from Sugar Land, not too far from Brazos Bend State Park. A wooden ranch-style fence surrounded what was visible of the border. Chicken wire lined the inside of the fence which was clearly designed to keep things in, not out. A large wrought iron gate sat beneath an arch of the same material with an ouroboros at its apex.
I drove up to the gate and pressed a red button on a dusty white box intercom on a pole. A fast food drive-through quality speaker buzzed.
“Welcome to Serpentia, can I help you?”
…Serpentia. I was at a pretentious snake farm. Wonderful.
“Hi, I was hoping I might be able to talk with Sam.”
“Do you have an appointment?”
“No, I’m just a fan, was driving through, and hoped he might have a minute to talk with me.”
“Mr. Crabthorn doesn’t really take walk-ins, but I can ask. Name?”
“Carlos de Leon.”
The gate swung open. I guess he was taking walk-ins today. I drove the Volvo down the dirt road into Serpentia. Scanning the scenery, it looked… empty. Nary a tumbleweed, even. Just padded dirt as far as the eye could see. The landscape was almost as dirty as Mort and just as empty as his soul. I was glad my windows were rolled up. Dust always gave me sneezing fits.
A half-mile down the driveway, a large stucco home appeared. A fountain in the front had an eight foot tall cobra statue spitting water into the air. Through the massive front windows, I saw a room filled with fog and laser light with the Godsmack logo emblazoned on the wall. Pretty people danced inside.
“Guess I’m in the right place.”
Out the passenger window I saw a smaller chicken wire fence encompassing a circular area about 50 feet in diameter. Inside the circle, two sexy 20-somethings were filming each other with cell phones while they played with snakes and held little black vials. Leaning against the fence was a man about 5’9”, balding, in linen pants, linen shirt, and sandals.
I killed the engine, but left the keys in the ignition. Never know when you’ll have to make a quick exit. I approached the fence-leaner. Seeing as he was the only person visible that didn’t seem to be hamming for a camera, I hazarded a guess.
He turned to look at me through a pair of Raybans that hadn’t been in style since a series of movies about aliens and the US government were en vogue.
“The one and only. How do you like my farm, FDP?”
He knew me. I don’t like it when my mark knows who I am. It tends to put them on edge, makes it hard to get answers.
“How’d you know?”
“I’ve been known to study paleontology. Also, the cameras at the edge of the property before the gate picked up your license plate. Ran that before you even buzzed. Google got the rest. I don’t imagine you’re here to get me to do a spot for PRIME, so I’m guessing you’re here for a story. Who talked you into doing this so close to your title match?”
Though, the way this was going, Shane might lose that title soon. I felt oddly nervous. Or maybe it was my lunch coming back to haunt me. I have a love-hate relationship with chorizo.
“Man, some friend, ha! I can only imagine the stress you’re under right now. Hopefully you find your visit restful. So, what would you like to talk about? I’m an open book.”
Sam’s smile was disarming. Luckily, I work with a pen and not a sword.
“You don’t believe this snake oil heals people do you?”
“Of course not.”
Didn’t expect that.
“I don’t believe that it does. I know it does. I can see you’re skeptical. I can also see that you have a fairly nasty bruise on your right arm. Was that from a blow from another wrestler? Or maybe suffered during training? Either way, it’s painful by the looks of it.”
“It doesn’t feel great.”
“Wait here a moment, please.”
I watched him walk into the house. When he returned, he was holding a white cloth and a black vial. He poured the contents of the vial onto the cloth, turning it brownish-yellow where it absorbed the liquid.
He gestured at my arm. I nodded.
“Mr. de Leon, I know you’re skeptical. Who wouldn’t be? Maybe this works, maybe it doesn’t… but either way, I am confident you’ll feel better in a moment.”
He placed the salve-soaked compress against my skin. It was warm, and the warmth seemed to penetrate through to my bones. I don’t know if it was the heat, the pressure, or literally anything other than the snake oil, but I had to admit I felt relief.
“I just want to help people, Rocky. Maybe the oil works. Maybe they just think it does. Either way, isn’t that enough?”
Of course it’s not enough. Selling water as a cancer cure is no better than pretending to be a champion. You’re just… a fraud.
“Maybe so, Sam. I think I have what I need. Thanks for your time.”
The drive back to Freer was calm and traffic free – ideal for thinking. Kind of a dangerous habit, thinking, but one I was all too eager to engage in from time to time. Sam was detestable, but he taught me something. To get people to support and show their love for me, I have to sell them more than just an idea…
— 🦖 —
Rocky all but sprinted to the office on his return to Donnie’s gym. Stu approached him as rapidly with his laptop in hand. Neither waited for the other before opening their mouths.
“- need -”
Rocky and Stu blinked at each other before laughing and walking to the chairs in the office. Stu was the first to return to the English language. “We need to help the audience engage with you to give you an energy feedback loop.”
“Gotta pump up the crowd. Get them going to get you going.”
Stu turned the laptop and displayed some mock ups. “I am not a graphic designer, so these are clearly subject to change, but the messages are good. I will reach out to Ms. Daniels to see about commissioning some graphical work. My personal favorite is the foam head crests. I want to see more of these in the stands than cheese heads at a Packers game.”
“We should send a complimentary set of shirts to the Green as it Gets ladies.” Rocky practically vibrated with anticipation of the fight with Mort. The idea of a sea of ROCK ME ROCKY and FDP shirts had him amped, but something niggled at the back of his mind. “…should we have some limited time merch digging at Mort?”
Stu did not hesitate, “No.”
“Because they do not love Mort. They love to hate Mort. You don’t need to give them a reason to do that any more than they already do. You just need to get them focused on loving you more than hating him. Besides, what would we sell? Chocolate covered cockroaches with his face on the box?”
Stu was right. In the end, fans will see Mort for what he is – a false champion. A snake oil salesman. A con man. Con men get found out eventually. What better way to expose the fake product than by giving the people the real thing? By any definition, Mort is not a champion. I’d give them a real champion – someone who truly fights for them, and when they’re screaming EFF DEE PEE at the top of their lungs? He will change his name again from Mort to Muerte.