The Anglo Luchador
I always look at Justine Calvin with a bit of a side-eye. Inspirational story, yes. Phenomenal wrestler who deserved a shot at the spotlight a long time ago. But anytime you come into a locker room full of merrymakers and position yourself as “the only adult in the room,” hall monitor energy exudes from you like vapor sublimating off a block of dry ice. It was only a matter of time before someone thought they’d make an example of her by cutting down the sensible yang to Jared Sykes’ light-hearted, some would say spastic even, yin. It’s not victim-blaming, mainly because in nearly any other circumstance where you’d come for her, she’d square you up. Daughter of a boxer, dominant tag team wrestler. There are no damsels in a modern wrestling locker room.
Two men, one of which held the bulk of two or more, cornering anyone in a locker room to their surprise would be cause for concern. You’d have to be paranoid like Erik Black or utterly fearsome like the Malice-masked John Kennedy Royko for that situation not to catch you off-guard. The sheer optics of it – intimidate Sykes’ fiancee, claim ignorance as to your attentions, attempt gaslighting anyone calling your shit out into thinking they were sexist goons – admittedly were a masterstroke. If post-Stalin Soviets were as good at governance and abating the capitalist machine as they were at propaganda, the world would still have a Cold War on its hands at best.
Putting this much worry on Jared was unfair. If you want a fight, pick the fight. Ivan is strong enough to make up for Alexei’s deficiencies, but for someone as physically dominant as he is, he hides behind semantics and weasel-words far too often. Forget the years before, a history that I am not terribly familiar with outside of conversations overheard. I don’t pry. Maybe that’s my fault for not trying to be a better friend. Maybe he’s just guarded by nature. I don’t need a full life story to know the shit hand he’s been dealt in the last year-and-a-half. And all of it has been done in the name of protection. Even at his most flamboyantly outrageous, the tasers, the mannequin, the Labyrinth-era David Bowie cosplay, he was always trying to do the right thing, a paladin, a tecnico, a man driven by kindness and empathy, not by greed or spite.
Whether it be Jon Rhine or Mark Lemon or Justine, his shield was always at the ready, his blade sharp. It’s the kind of mentality I have tried – and, let’s face it, ultimately failed – at cultivating. I hate myself sometimes, no matter how many times I seem to learn lessons and promise myself that it’s what I’m going to do to be better. That’s what makes going up against him so goddamn difficult. He’s the man I want to be, and I don’t want to fight that man.
But I have to. Even if a shot at a shot at the Universal Championship weren’t on the line, this is the fight I’ve always wanted, even if I never admitted it.
“This is great, hon, another shot at the Universal Championship.”
“Eh, it’s a chance to get in another match with five other dudes,” he said, downplaying his wife’s enthusiasm.
“Why can’t you look on the bright side of things? You used to be so fun,” Tam replied with a laugh belying the concern in what she’s seen in her husband for the last 18 months or so. Yeah, she promised to stay on the ship, help plug the leaks, keep it on course for port, whatever port that would be. But it was still difficult, frustrating even, to see him struggle. It wasn’t the losses, but it was the glassy eyes fronting a hollowness developing in his soul.
“Here’s where I’d say there ain’t much fun to be had, but man, just…”
Tom trailed off, shutting his eyes in resignation and slowly but deeply exhaling. Tam remained silent. She wanted to give him space to explore his feelings.
“Did you see ReVival?”
She expected him to grouse about yet another loss.
“Did you really think that sicko Pleasant didn’t intend violence on an eight-year-old kid? Or at least imply it?”
“Oh,” she thought to herself.
“HIndsight is 20/20. Of course he was trying to fuck with me. And I know I shouldn’t make judgments about…”
“Let me stop you there, hon. This is real life, not some stupid fucking app that it was a mistake for you to go back on. No one here is doing dialectics with you over his intentions. He trapped you in a locker room and cut the lights. You absolutely do not have to hand it to him.”
The sharpness in her tone cut right to the core of Tom’s being.
“Sometimes,” she continued “A gaslighter is a gaslighter. You have to push past the bullshit, but you did the right thing. You protected someone who couldn’t protect himself. Arthur Pleasant…”
“…is not going to stop until he gets whatever he wants out of my head,” he interrupted.
“Yeah, but Arthur Pleasant isn’t your opponent at 29.”
“I know. Even if Jared wasn’t probably the best fuckin’ wrestler in PRIME right now, it’d still be a lot tougher.”
Most mirrors are pieces of glass or polished metal that we use to look at ourselves for various reasons. Most of them reflect in a one-to-one scale, what you see is what’s there, unless you’re a vampire. You laugh, but 15 years ago in the community PRIME belonged to, there was a good chance you or someone you knew was an actual undead creature sustained on blood. Carnies innovated ways of making mirrors distort the reflection to make the person gazing into it look like a Munchkin (Dunkin’ Donuts, not Wizard of Oz) or a beanpole. My therapist says self-examination with severe depression is a lot like looking at yourself in one of those funhouse mirrors.
The strangest ones, however, aren’t mirrors at all; they’re other people. I couldn’t protect Pom Shinjoku. He couldn’t protect Rhine. Nefarious forces threatened his fiancee. I had to jump between a breathless goon in a Gorbachev mask and Craig Hamburgers. We both have run afoul, or continue to run afoul, of Paxton Ray for reasons other than suicide-by-redneck. Jared and I aren’t a one-to-one comparison. For one, I’m not sure what his family situation is outside of the brother whose memory he fights for. Straight analogues only exist in shitty, slanted writing anyway.
In this regard, Jared Sykes is like looking at the best kind of funhouse mirror. The right people hold him in highest esteem. The wrong people, those whose opinions I can use as a negative calibration for my own, see him as a goofball. We both won our titles at the same show, but he never lost his. As an aside, congrats Anna. Shame you couldn’t get the crack at me like you earned way back when you beat me at ReV 12, but sometimes, it do be like that. I’m getting off-track here.
He’ll tell you he’s fucked up plenty, but from my vantage, any perceived failure on his part is overblown, at least in the last 18 months. You can’t truly fail if your heart is in the right place. So how can I really want this fight? Why would I rally into this battle against someone I’d rather team with against the ever-growing number of scoundrels in this company? Why would I want to fight the best version of myself? If you gave me the chance to wrestle me from 20 years ago, I’d want to kick my ass. Wrestle me from today? Okay, there’d definitely be FAR less venom but I’m not where I want to be yet.
Jared is where I want to be, at least as a wrestler.
“Well yeah,” Tam replied. “He’s been pinned, like what, once?”
“That’s not really what I’m saying. It’s hard to pin that little shit TAB, but wrestling him and the impending fight with Pleasant feel the same. Snide fuckers. Easy to hit. And I swear to God, if I have to hear him talk about ‘appropriation’ like he just heard about it and looked it up on Wikipedia again one more time…”
He trailed off and snorted before closing his eyes to recenter himself. Out with the destructive. In with the constructive. So what if his dad’s and grandad’s skins were both thinner than tissue paper to have fucking legal action over some podcast comments?
“Again, you don’t have to worry about him until Ultraviolence – it is still called Ultraviolence this year, right?”
“Good. That’s a good show name. Both last year’s and this year’s summer events have bad names.”
Now it was Tam’s turn to get off-task.
“Names are irrelevant though.”
Tam shot her husband a glower before realizing he was just pushing her back onto her train of thought.
“Anyway, my question is, why is this tougher? You wrestled Youngblood…”
“…before I knew who he really was.”
“…let’s not talk about him.”
She rolled her eyes.
“What makes Sykes so different?”
“There’s a rift in my mind, y’know? I’ve been sent every cocky bastard, lowlife asshole, creeper, and sociopath lately, and then you had Rock last show. Good guy, but I wasn’t in the right frame of mind for that. I’ve just been trying to hit people so hard lately, and I look at Jared, and…”
He trailed off. Tam focused her gaze, hanging on what he’d say next.
“I don’t want to treat him like an Intense Championship challenger or a shithead I hate, but…”
He trailed off again, sighing and leaning back on their sofa.
“I need to beat him.”
Tam’s eyes widened. She always considered wrestling the modern gladiatorial combat arena, sans the thumbs-down execution at battle’s conclusion. Combat meant scrapes, welts, hematomas, cuts, et cetera, et cetera. If death represented the wages of sin, the wages of battle certainly took the form of pain.
“Sounds to me like you gotta hurt him then, if just a little bit?”
“I don’t know. That’s my dilemma.”
“Don’t you think Santo and Blue Demon hurt each other a little bit though? And they were friends and starred in all those movies and…”
“Wait,” he said, cutting his wife off. “What did you just say?”
She rolled her eyes.
“Are you going to luchasplain me? Because I thought you were a fem…”
“No, no, no, I. Well. I think I just got an idea.”
When I say as a wrestler, I don’t mean I want to be this master of neckbreakers that he is or whatever. I did the head-drop thing a long time ago. I thought it’s what won matches, but I never felt as comfortable as I did doing the thing Pedro and my other teachers over the course of decades taught me. I mean I want the respect, the lineage, the hushed tones when Nick Stuart speaks my name. I want people like Ivan Stanislav and Arthur Pleasant to regard me with scorn not because they mock me, but because they feel threatened. I kinda already get Richard Parker making snide comments about me, but hey, I never said I didn’t accomplish any goals in this company yet, right?
Fans and journalists alike love to equate totally destroying a wrestler as the measure of how hard they were beaten. The tolls enacted on people who engage in wars of attrition would be written about in epic poetry if society at-large didn’t treat wrestling with the scorn they reserve for other “redneck” or “white trash” arts. But the ones who watched didn’t think that Youngblood suffered a grievous defeat at the hands of Phil Atken, even if that misguided kid didn’t interfere. Only the most fervent eGGheads thought Cancer Jiles, in all his sadistic glory, humiliated Julian Bathory at their bloodbath at Ultraviolence last year. You know what losses stand out as the most pathetic? Ones where the victor has the win secured under a minute, sometimes without a single damaging move executed by either party.
I would love to tie Jared up in a neat package and get beating him over with in under a minute, but that only happens in dreams or with action figures. He’s one of the best for a reason. Luckily, the thing I grew up loving and learning has the way forward. Lucha libre is equated with flips and dives and arm drags, but that’s only one part of the equation. The arm drags especially represent the core and soul of that martial art. The key is the transfer of momentum, using your foe’s velocity against them. Think of it as judo, except with more separation between the thrower and the throwee.
Huracanrana. Tijeras. Monkey flip. Take all that a step further, bring the opponent in with less space, and give them no option for easy escape. La Magistral, Puente Olimpico, La Flashina, Cazadora cradles – you might be able to kick out of them, but you’ll expend more energy to get out than you would even combining shooting the half with a hooked leg. The submissions follow the same suit. All of them hurt a little bit, but the physical pain isn’t the point compared to Japanese traditions or modern MMA philosophy. You don’t tap in seconds to prevent a broken arm; you tap after a minute out of claustrophobia. It’s psychological. The escape is so close but you can’t wriggle free, no matter how close your fingertips are to the ropes or how close your hand is to slipping under the fulcrum, undoing the wriggling Gordian knot of human flesh without unsheathing a blade.
Yeah, psychological desperation might sound worse than physical pain. As with most things, the reality of the situation often clashes with real world applications. It’s the difference between a checkmate on a sweet backdoor advance that takes arcane knowledge of the chessboard and the hours-long game where the players take turns sweeping knights and bishops off the board, ending in a painfully climactic ending leaving the loser aching with the regret of moves they made that ended up in metaphorical pain. It’s a difference I know from experience in the ring. If someone gets me with La Crucieta Tapiata, I get up, shake their hand, and say “good game, amigo.” When someone drops me on my head, if I can remember what happened afterwards, well, that’s a different story.
“Do you think you can outwrestle him though? I know how you get when you’re frustrated.”
Tom nodded in resigned agreement, closing his eyes momentarily.
“It’s always easier said than done. Do you think it’s easy to become a full lucha troll on Jack Owyns? No, he made it here. He made it to the bigtime. But I gotta have a plan I can see through, at least until he punches me in the mouth.”
“That’s always a possibility. Do you think he sees Ivan or Paxton in all his opponents?”
“I don’t, but I also don’t know what he thinks of me, whether he cares or not I end up with a concussion or a broken bone or a torn ligament. The big prize is the big prize. Everyone wants it, whether or not they admit it.”
“So, Mike Tyson, what’s your plan for when you get punched in the face?”
He thought on that for a second.
“Maybe I don’t need a different plan?”
His eyes widened big as saucers.
“The essence of lucha libre is twofold. One side has all the grimy brawls that guys who hate each other enough to wager their mask or hair have. The other is this beautiful push-and-pull of counters and counters-to-counters, like, when two skilled luchadores get in the ring, it’s one thing. The beauty of this martial art, however, is that because it’s so based on momentum and shifting and countering, I can assert it over any other wrestler except maybe a judoka.”
Her eyes lit up. Few people knew that Tam wasn’t only The Anglo Luchador’s bubbly valet, Lollipop, in the olden days. She was quite a skilled analyst and strategist too.
“Let me play the other side here for a second though, hon. What happens when he hits you enough times to get you off your game. Shouldn’t you be flexible?”
He squirmed in his seat, knowing that question ate at him, especially with the lack of success he’d had lately.
I don’t know exactly what Jared thinks about me. Maybe it’s better this way. I do know when I was protractedly breaking down last arc, he was one of the only ones to check in on me. His fiancee chose to make jokes, sub-dad joke-level quality at that. Maybe that’s why I am quicker to notice her massive School of Rock factotum energy than most. I’m only human. Bias is bias. Objectivity is a lie.
If he’s anything like the image of him I’ve built in my head, no matter what the result is, if I extend my hand to him, he’ll accept it. If he’s not, then my imagination will have run wild. Wouldn’t be the first time. There’s still a trace of humor in building up these people in your mind to levels that, if you’re not careful, no one person could ever meet. I don’t think his shit doesn’t stink, mind you. I probably wouldn’t have invited Bobby Dean on a forklift ride, not because he’s a quote-unquote bad guy, but I heard about what he did in the elevator that one time. Hell, I think I smelled it.
But the difference between pegging someone for who they are and lionizing them is a sharp focus on reality. Too many people here still see him as the blithering idiot who drove a forklift. I see him as the guy who acts with empathy and compassion in a business where people mistake its soul as legalized combat for a reason to spread their sociopathy far and wide. He’s a good man, but all idols exist only to be knocked down lest they inspire mindless hero worship.
That’s my motivation. Jared Sykes is a great wrestler and an even better human being, and that’s why I have to defeat him. I need to show the world I can stand with the titans, that I too can knock them down, or else what the ever-loving fuck am I doing here? But the thing is, I don’t want to destroy the idol. Walking the edge of the knife will leave you with bloody feet if you do it wrong, but I’m not about to keep fuckin’ up. When I’m done knocking Jared down, I hope to do it in a way that leaves him whole so I can pick him back up without needing to glue the pieces back together.
I gather he’d be a hell of an ally one day.
“Flexible is good, babe, but at some point, I need to start imposing my own will here. What do you think people think when they remember ‘The Anglo Luchador’ match?”
“I’m not the person to ask because I’ve been with you the whole time.”
“Okay, think PRIME only. It’s the barbed wire-ropes match, right?”
She nodded with an air of reluctance.
“That can’t be sustainable,” he continued. “I’m so much more. I have to believe that or else…”
As he trailed off, she plopped next to him.
“I know how you feel, maybe not in terms of wrestling but…”
“Of course not,” he interrupted. “You were in the process of saying it yourself earlier. I’m a feminist.”
She playfully hit him with a throw pillow before starting in again.
“I mean, it feels good to beat someone at their own game, but to do it on your terms and make people notice you. That’s an attitude you didn’t have when I first met you.”
“Ha, ‘my gimmick is gimmick infringement,’” he replied laughing.
“Yeah. If you don’t think the fans or your peers or Lindsay think you’re anything special, you gotta show them you are. Make a statement. In your voice.”
As she nuzzled in, Tom relaxed the tension in his shoulders and slinked further down the couch.
“Yeah, that sounds good. On my terms.”
Justine Calvin might be “the adult,” but Jared Sykes is the engine, not just of Eminence, but of PRIME. Taking him down is a tall task. Taking him down on my own terms is even taller. But if I can’t commit to trying at least, there’s no place for me here. Whether or not he realizes it though, he needs me here. PRIME needs me. And I need to be the best version of Tom Battaglia, The Anglo Luchador, I can be.
The version I see when I look at the mirror that is Jared Sykes.