The Anglo Luchador
“Bless me, father, for I have sinned. It’s been six months since my last confession.”
The air in most South Philly churches lingered stagnantly, a mix of must and frankincense loosed from the rector’s thurible once a week. These smells were almost engineered into the halls of worship by intelligent design. Catholic dogma has always laid the guilt on with heavy hands, the kind of touch you’d find your drunken uncle deploying with the lighter fluid on his hibachi before singing his eyebrows off that one Fourth of July. Pleasant smells were not conducive to sinners feeling the true hand of God on their shoulders, urging them to get their lives on the right path. If a church, the building, smelled like lilac or potpourri or freshly baked cinnamon buns, would the message of self-introspection and deserved introspection find its target as truly as it would if the building smelled like some eldritch medieval washhouse?
St. Monica’s Church, Philadelphia, PA. Sometime in 1994.
“Six months, hm, why so long, my son?”
Thomas Francis Xavier Battaglia struggled to find a good answer to that question. Sixth graders aren’t exactly known for foresight and piety unless they’re utter wieners. Tom wasn’t an utter wiener. He was a lot of things. A boy who intentionally exposed himself to the wrath of God on earth at times when requirement for him to do so was not present was not one of them. He wasn’t a rebel by any means. He just wasn’t a wiener kid either. He followed the rules but looked the other way if someone swiped a pen from the Staples or ditched class in the time between morning lineup and ingress into the school. His job at St. Monica’s Catholic School was simple. Go to class. Get good grades. Stay on the good side of the popular kids, even if they didn’t want to hang out with you. Don’t get noticed for the wrong reasons.
“Do I need to come more than when the teachers bring us over?”
“Ideally, yes. What if you die with a mortal sin on your soul in between confessions? You’re not going to get into heaven.”
Of all the heinous shit Catholic priests have perpetrated over the years, threatening fresh teenagers with the prospect of eternal damnation should be near the top, but everyone knows it wouldn’t crack the top 100, just to give one an idea of the width and breadth of the atrocity that is the Roman Catholic Church.
“What sins do you think I’m actually committing, father? I’m 12 years old. Do you think God has bean counters enumerating all the times I backtalked my mom?”
“You’d be wise not to commit any more sins here in the place you’re confessing them, my son.”
The anonymity of the confessional gave Tom a little license to escape the pocket, but reminding him of stepping out of line, ability to see his face or not, was enough to close the valve on the adolescent sass. He started confessing various sins, using the s-word, talking back to his parents, hitting his little brothers.
“Is that all, my son?”
“I mean, yeah? To the best of my knowledge.”
A pregnant pause exerted osmotic pressure in the invisible barrier between priest and confessor, so much so that young Thomas thought the blind screen might burst.
“There was an incident in the schoolyard, returning from recess. One of the members of your class tripped while carrying books. He skinned his chin, dropped the books everywhere. Not one soul helped him.”
“But I was told by my teachers not to get out of line after the recess bell rang. I followed the rules.”
“Do you think rules are hard and fast, my son?”
“Uh, you live next door to the nuns who teach me. I think you know they don’t take kindly to their breaking, father.”
“My son, do you understand what you did wrong by following the rules? What all your classmates did, to be honest.”
The dam was about to burst between beats from the priest.
“Jesus said ‘Whatsoever you do for the least of my brothers, you do for me.’ The inverse is also true. Whatsoever you neglect to do for the least of His brothers, you neglect to do for Him. Sin of omission. You did not help a classmate when he needed it.”
“I wasn’t the only one though.”
“Oh, of course not. All of you in that line sinned. I want you to reflect upon what you can do more to help your fellow man.”
“That’s my penance? Reflection?”
“Oh no, my son. Your penance is three Hail Maries.”
Tom rose from his knees and exited the confessional. The smell of mildew and incense infiltrated his nose more strongly than it did when he first walked in the building. The overbearing odor of decrepit dogma followed him as he made his way to the pew to atone for his sins.
“Am I one of your sins?” Ria Lockhart stood in front of him again, as she has been every time he would fall asleep. The same question, over and over. It was worse than the towering specter of Balaam. By at least one order of magnitude.
“Bless me, padre, for I have sinned. It has been… too long since my last confession.”
In the liminal space between arena and siesta exists devout piety for the average luchador. Mexico is and has always been a staunchly Catholic nation ever since the mighty Hernan Cortes slew Cuauhtémoc and thus thrust the pantheon of the Aztec and Mexica into disuse. Athletes in America have always been a religious bunch. The same went for the ones who manned the ring south of the Rio Grande. Some luchadores and promoters took their faith more seriously than others. Larger promotions were more hands off with their competitors’ social lives. The promoter of Lucha Potosi was a little more invasive.
Iglesia del Saucito, San Luis Potosi, Mexico, sometime in 2002.
“You assume too much, that I know English.”
“You do, padre.”
“Typical gringo. Now, what is on your mind.”
Mandatory confessions for luchadores consisted of but one component that Senor Jacinto required for all wrestlers who worked under his purview. Luggage checks for condoms. Confiscations of booze. Strict fines for anyone who cursed during promos. The God-fearing fans of lucha libre in San Luis Potosi did not want to see sinners, not even among the rudos.
“Well, I have been…”
“Wait, I recognize that voice. You’re Jerichoholic Anonymous, right?”
“Padre, the bond of confession is anonymity.”
“Si, you’re the gringo who sinned bad last night. You’d better confess what you did.”
The young luchador exhaled deeply, a sigh capable of sending legions of mothers and wives to their fainting couches.
“I don’t understand. I wrestled a match. I followed all the rules. The violence was sanctioned and even consecrated, probably by you beforehand.”
“The way you won, it was despicable. You should have ceded the match after you saw that your opponent was on the mat by a move not of your doing.”
The events started to dawn on him, even if he was groggy thanks to his head bouncing off an exposed turnbuckle. He heard the crowd gasp overlaid the shuffling of wrestling boots in a hurried trample down the well-tread floor of Arena del Angel. He rolled over, holding the welt on his head forming underneath his mask, and the sounds were even more familiar, the thump of human flesh bouncing off the plywood canvas, the lusty jeers of the crowd growing from dull white noise to a full-throated call for blood and justice. He didn’t see what happened, but he knew what happened.
“It was not right.”
“What did you want me to do? Winners get more money, and I have bills to pay that don’t get paid through 100 percent morality.”
“You used El Fuego del Inferno to win though! You may not have realized it, but did you thank him after the match? No! Did you apologize to El Paladin after? No! All you gringos are the same.”
The young luchador grew more impatient.
“This is why I do not like the lucha anymore,” the priest continued without allowing Tom to speak. “Too many tecnicos…”
“I mean, technically, I’m a rudo.”
“So you think that means your sins are allowed?”
“I’m just not seeing where I committed a sin here. It’s not my job to…”
“Not your job. Shirking responsibility. I suspect this isn’t the first time you’ve used someone for your own personal gain.”
Leading the witness. In courts, even in Mexico, that would be grounds for objection. God’s interpreters in the church, however, were infallible. No objections. Just interpretation, in the heart of Mexico as it was in South Philadelphia.
“You know what, padre, I don’t need this.”
“You don’t need this payday, I assume? You know I report to Senor Jacinto.”
“Again, that seems to violate the compact between confessor and sinner with God.”
“Do not speak to me of dogma, gringo.”
“You know what, I don’t need this payday. Peace.”
Tom exited the confessional and had one foot literally out the doors of the church when it hit him. The extreme example of his match the night before, the one the priest made such an unrealistic mockery of, was not really that much of an outlier, was it. He ghosted Mikey F’n W and Liquid Snake and Cannibal after things went south with their stable in A1E. Maybe ghosting wasn’t a strong enough term. Either way, there was truth to the accusations, but the truth was meatier than the priest knew about, Tom thought to himself. Guilt began to wash over him like a swollen breaker off Cancun set from the first big storm of the year. He went back into the church, back into the confessional.
“Padre, I’m ready to confess.”
Silence from the other side. No one was in the confessional anymore.
“I said I’m ready to confess. You’re right, padre.” One last stab to see if it was a test. He banged on the screen. No reaction. The priest retreated back into his vestibule.
“Man, fuck this.”
His mind was set. He wasn’t doing anything wrong. Wrestling was what it was, a business not for the faint of heart. Use or be used. His path was clear.
“I am one of your sins. There’s no escaping it now.”
The relatively demure visage of Ria Lockhart changed dramatically. The hair color, the eye shadow, the clothing, the demeanor. The violence inside. A switchblade knife in her hand as she stalked towards a paralyzed luchador, defenses down and unable to be activated. Swift strides. A knife to the neck. It all happened so fast.
“Time for penance.”
“Bless me, father, for I have sinned.”
It had been decades since the old luchador attended mass that was not attached to a funeral or a wedding. He was as much a Catholic as he was a Chippendales dancer at this point in his life. You can take the boy out of the church, but you can’t take the fantastical feelings of guilt out of the boy. Ria Nightshade was a far more persistent and powerful sleep paralysis demon than Balaam the Mask of Malice had ever been, and the times she had jolted him awake from slumber were getting too numerous to count.
24th Floor of the MGM Grand Casino Hotel, Las Vegas, NV. Early morning hours of May 21, 2022, after ReVival 8.
He got up off the messy bed and stalked over to the glowing white sheet that was the curtain in his hotel room. Behind it glowed the fluorescent splendor of the Las Vegas Strip, enough artificial light to keep awake a city designed never to sleep. From there, he moseyed over to the desk, empty save his lucha mask, in front of a mirror to which a faded color photograph of Fray Tormenta had been taped. The link between Catholicism and lucha libre was so strong that one of the most famous among them was Tormenta, a priest whose heroism in the squared circle helped save his parish, an orphanage, and his own life.
“I’m ready to confess, Padre Fray.”
A man who had seen ghosts expected the picture to talk back to him. It did not. He rolled the pleather office chair over a few feet to a cabinet where he’d stored his liquor. A bottle of mezcal, from a distillery in Oaxaca so exclusive that they only produce 1,000 bottles a year. He removed the cork stopper attached to a cap made of jade from the bottle and took in deep the aroma. It didn’t smell like mezcal. The odor was familiar, not alcoholic.
It smelled of mildew and frankincense.
The telltale aroma of guilt found him in his hotel room. Was he dreaming again? He rose from his chair and ran full bore into the window.
Las Vegas hotel room window engineered to prevent shattering. Reality was real. He wasn’t dreaming anymore, but Ria Nightshade was still with him, not physically, but mentally. Pom Shinjoku was there too. The two so inextricably linked in his mind, the reason for his psychosis, but not malignantly. You can’t be blamed if the so-called victim is using you, after all. They needed to be cloven in twain. The old luchador, rubbing his leading arm from the collision, ambled back to the desk.
“I’m sorry, Padre Fray.”
He tore the picture from the mirror, scotch tape and all, staring soberly into his reflection.
“Bless me, father, for I have sinned. This is my first confession.”
His reflection spoke back at him. “Very well, Thomas. May the peace of the gods be with you. What is it you wish to get off your chest?”
It wasn’t the weirdest thing to happen to him since joining PRIME. It probably wouldn’t reach the top ten. I mean, he spent time in a room with Mega Job, after all.
“I have a nasty habit. I use people as a means to an end, and those ends generally are personal enrichment. The last time this happened, it might still be ongoing. Maybe I’m not manipulating anymore since it’s all out in the open, but I used an innocent but angry person as pawn to gain insight, knowledge, power into conquering an unholy foe. This person, she’s part of an at-risk demographic, one that isn’t kind to them even if they weren’t in the cruel wrestling industry.”
He tailed off for a moment.
“Have you more to add, Thomas?” the reflection asked warmly, almost contradictorily from any other similar experience. “I am not here to judge. You’re doing a good job of that yourself anyway.”
The corporeal luchador continued. “I hurt her, not in the way I hurt people sanctioned by man and god. I used her, and she’s not the first one. She’s just the first one I admitted it to.”
“So,” the reflection replied, “are you confessing because you admitted it to her and it has shaken you to your foundation?”
It took a minute for the old luchador to find an adequate answer. So much time spent masquerading as a good and moral wrestler, a loving father and husband, a paragon of the community, and the fortress came tumbling down as the walls around it disintegrated against the converging artillery. Balaam and Hoyt Williams. The troll on Twitter who drew him back. Brandon Youngblood and Impulse and Phil Atken. Running a campaign. Spreading himself too thin. His brain, his Catholic school learned morality, the daggers from Ria’s eyes all cornered him. He had no choice but to surrender.
“Does that make it invalid? That I only acquiesced because I was caught?”
“I mean, it’s not ideal,” the reflection spoke. “You’d be surprised though at how many people get caught and think they can run the same grift over and over, unabated. Look at Cancer Jiles.”
“I’d rather not. Internal bleeding gives me the heebie-jeebies.”
“You know that’s not what I mean. But I guess the real point is that how many people in this world are the ideal anyway? People pretend all the time. The difference between those who succeed and those who continue to fail morally are the ones who recognize their Come to Jesus moments.”
“Jesus? Are you sure this isn’t Catholic?”
The reflection laughed. “Thomas, it’s an expression. Quite a good one if you ask me. Besides, Come to Huitzilopochtli doesn’t have the same ring.”
“This is still all too overwhelming,” the old luchador got the confession back on track.
“I know, but no one says true penance is easy. Which brings to your penance.”
The old luchador perked up slightly. “I’m ready.”
“Your penance… I know you’re expecting some prayer, but I’ve always found the Catholic method of reconciliation to be performative. Oh, you’re forgiven for putting your churro in a married woman’s cinnamon dip by saying the rosary. What a crock.”
The old luchador chuckled a bit.
“Your penance,” the reflection composed himself, “is to give of yourself without expecting in return. Live a life of selflessness. Change yourself, your mind, your heart. Flush the greed out and think before you act.”
“That’s pretty vague,” Tom replied. “What happens if I falter again though? What happens if I commit a mortal sin before confessing again?”
“You Catholics and your rigid adherence to protocols!” the reflection laughed. “Life is not about following the rules to the letter. If you err, it just means you’re human. You must recognize when you falter and get yourself back on the path. It is not about hand-waving sins. It’s about recognizing them and fixing them. You’ve done the first part. You admitted to yourself you have a problem. Now how are you going to change?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, I can’t tell you how, no matter how much I look or sound like you right now. You realized what has to be done though. What you do next, make sure you keep that epiphany in the front of your brain. Adios, Thomas.”
The old luchador waved his hand in front of the mirror, and the reflection behaved in a way that suggested that the mirror was no longer possessed by… whatever had possessed it in the first place. He felt a weight lifted off his chest for the first time. He lifted the bottle of mezcal to his lips and took a swig, collapsing back. Something was still amiss to him. His nose twitched. He still smelled musty incense, like a South Philly church on an especially humid day. A faint scrunch of his nose gave way to relaxation, acceptance. Reminders, after all, were good things. He was a 40-year-old luchador, after all. CTE had already started its devil’s work. No matter how unpleasant, any reminder was welcome to him now, even if olfactory.