“War Games huh? You know, in all honesty bro, I think this could be good for you. I realise it’s only one night, but think about it, when was the last time you were part of a team?”
Seán O’Neill’s brow involuntary rose at the question, or was it more of a reaction to the previous remark? He stirred his English Breakfast Tea, Americans had truly mastered the art of coffee but when it came to tea, none beat the English. Moments before, he’d been thinking about how much the world had changed since he was last an active wrestler. Meet ups with friends had usually been in smoke filled bars, times had moved on though, and here he sat facing his friend in a brightly lit coffee shop. This was a different atmosphere, for a different time. He lounged back in the comfortable chair and crossed his legs before answering.
“I dunno man, I was gone for over a decade, it’s been a long time since I’ve done pretty much anything. I’ve not had a proper partner, per say, since Kaiowas I guess, that would’ve been maybe 2002? 2003? As for random one-offs? I’d guess I probably teamed with someone or other during in my GCW run, but if so I can’t remember who, when or where.”
Across the coffee table, Ryan Minoru spread his arms in a symbolic ‘Well there you go!’ gesture. A Canadian of Japanese linage, Minoru wrestled in the late 1990s and early 2000s under the name Ryan Dynamic, before competing in mixed martial arts under his real name. He’d played a big part in O’Neill’s training, and had gone on to team with him around Europe from late 1998 through mid-2000. Together they’d wrestled as the masked superheroes ‘The Dynamic Duo’ – the gimmick was every bit as bad as it sounded, but it certainly had been fun. In all honesty, it had probably been the most fun Seán O’Neill had ever allowed himself to have. Those were good days.
Much more importantly though, Ryan was one of the very few people Seán O’Neill truly loved. His circle of friends had been so small since he’d left High School, he could count on one hand the people he really called friend and still have fingers to spare. Of those few, Ryan was the only one based in North America.
His best friend since their school days, Logan, had also wrestled professionally under the moniker of ‘The Real Deal’; he’d retired from the sport even earlier than O’Neill had. Retirement suited him though, happily married and raising his beautiful kids back home. Leaving them behind in Northern Ireland had been the hardest part of the decision to sign with PRIME. Sometimes he selfishly wished Logan was still wrestling, he’d likely still be living in the United States, close at hand, in that fantasy. What a terrible thing really, to have such greedy thoughts, he had to reprimand himself each time his mind went there.
And then, there had been the man who had initially trained both he and Logan in the grappling arts. That had been the legendary Jay Phoenix, his hero and inspiration. Over the decades the two had developed a much stronger bond than that of trainer and student; Jay had been more of a mixture of an older brother and a wise old senpai. It had been just over a year since his passing, the wound was still fresh, it felt like it always would be.
Deep down, he knew the biggest factor in his decision to come back to wrestling was the desire to make Jay proud. He didn’t want to be the only black-mark against Jay’s legacy – ‘Sure he was a legend, but what about that waste of space; Seán O’Neill, who he’d trained? He never amounted to anything.’ No, he couldn’t leave things like that. His burning desire was to show the world the potential Jay had seen in him. He owed him that, he owed him so much really, but more than anything, he owed him that!
Family aside, these had been the key figures in his life; the pillars that had supported him for so long. There had been other friends of course, some he still considered friends to this day, but none that he was close with. No offense to the others that had come and gone, as fond as he was of some of them, it’d only ever been these three he’d take a bullet for.
“Look bud, you know this comes from the heart, I’m not having a go at you – but…”
“But?” O’Neill couldn’t help but cut-in, he had the feeling the conversation was about to take a detour. He’d intentionally been trying to keep the conversation light-hearted. That tact seemed to be failing him, and it appeared their chat was veering towards unwelcome territory.
“Well, the truth of it is mate; you’ve never been good on your own.” Ryan had the decency to look apologetic as he said it.
Try as he might, O’Neill couldn’t prevent a bark of laughter at the remark. “Cheers Ryu, that’s just charming!”
“I’m not talking about in the ring Seán; and don’t act like you don’t know that. I’m not talking about ‘SurReal’, I’m talking about you, Seán William O’Neill, and you do not do well on your own.”
…And there it was. The conversation had indeed veered off course; trust Ryan to cut right to the meat of the matter. O’Neill frowned and began rubbing his forehead. There was no reason why he shouldn’t tell this man, beloved friend of the best part of thirty years, everything that’d been weighing him down. No reason why he shouldn’t tell him about the voice he heard every time he closed his eyes. No reason why he shouldn’t reach out for help from one of the very few people on the face of the Earth who he knew would support him without hesitation.
Yet there it was – an invisible wall that stood between them. He agonised internally, part of him screamed to tear the wall down, to confide in this man, this good man, who would do anything for him. And yet every time he reached the decision to do so, that other part of him drowned out the screams. ‘What kind of man was he? Couldn’t deal with his own problems, his own insecurities, needed to go running to his friends to fix him? Pathetic!’
The awkward silence may only have lasted a handful of seconds, but each passing moment felt like an eternity. How could he deflect this? Steer the conversation back to safer shores? Desperately he fell back on his good old trusty crutch – sarcasm. “I’m not on my own dipshit, I’m here with you aren’t I?”
Ryan shook his head sadly. He wasn’t surprised by the response; he’d known all too well it would come. O’Neill clearly thought if he put on a brave-face and made smart-ass quips that no-one would notice what was going on with him, he thought wrong. He was determined though, determined to have this conversation, determined to help his friend.
“Okay Seán, I’ll play along. Yes, right now, you are indeed here with me. Today is the third of February. You came back here in October. Tell me, who else have you met up with in that time? And since we are being so bloody pedantic, let’s not include Lindsay Troy, Rob Williams or Hessian shall we?”
Ryan let the question linger for a few seconds; he knew O’Neill wouldn’t answer, so he continued on. “I bet I can describe your typical day from start to finish. You get up at whatever o’clock, grab some breakfast, go get your work-out in, then you sit in front of the TV watching tape of announced or possible opponents, eat some dinner and go to bed. You maybe see a few faces you recognise at the gym, but it’s not like you speak with them. That’d just be unnecessary distractions, am I right?”
O’Neill made no move to answer this question either, as expected. “You know, when you were a kid, I thought that dedication was really admirable. It certainly made the difference when it came to how quickly you picked everything up, I won’t deny that. But you’re not a kid anymore Seán, you haven’t been for a long time. You know, when you walked away from this life, you know what I thought?”
O’Neill shook his head ever so slightly, prompting his friend to continue. “I thought ‘Good’. I thought ‘Maybe now that he’s left this life behind, he can focus on finding a life, a purpose outside of this stupid sport.’ But you didn’t do that Seán, you just swapped out wrestling yourself with training others to wrestle. I hoped you were going to put yourself out there in the world again, find a nice girl, settle down, start a family, you know… live for once.”
Ryan’s words stung O’Neill, not because that was the intent, but because they rang so true. He shifted his posture uncomfortably, and began to rub his closed eyes with his thumb and middle finger, desperately trying to ease the tension headache threatening to rear its ugly head.
“And when you said you were coming back to the States, to give it one last go. Again I thought ‘Good’ – I thought ‘He’s found a way to have both; wrestling and a life.’ But that’s not true; you’re just doing everything exactly as you did before. You take the business so seriously Seán, far too seriously. Yes, it’s right that you should do that, to a degree! But you’re so far past that point you can’t even see the goalposts anymore. You need to have fun man, you need to enjoy what you’re doing, not torture yourself if things don’t go to plan.”
The Canadian looked at his friend, his face full of concern. O’Neill finished his tea and still silent, nodded in agreement. Ryan was right, they both knew it, nothing that’d been said had come as a surprise. It wasn’t anything that hadn’t already been eating away at him. What could he say though? Having said his piece, Ryan made it clear he wasn’t going to say anything further until he responded. He took another deep breath and then at last, let his defences fall.
“I know mate, I… just… don’t know where to begin, you know? That was the plan, when I walked away, to go find a life outside of this nonsense, but it’s not easy man. This is all I ever wanted, I poured all of myself into it, I don’t know who Seán O’Neill is without wrestling. And I don’t know any other way to approach it than the way I always have. You know me, it’s always ‘all or nothing’, I can’t operate in half measures, I never could.”
There was a small sense of relief creeping in now that’d he’d finally said that out-loud, but in conflict with the relief was the concentration he was now having to assert to hold back tears. Ryan took a second to signal to the barista they’d have the same again and then gave his full attention back to the Irishman.
“Well, that is the problem mate. If you don’t know who Seán O’Neill really is, how can anyone else? I’ve been watching you know, your matches, and I’m sure that most people are buying the “I don’t care what the fans think” thing you’ve got going on, but I’ve known you too long to fall for that. You want them to look at you and see the results of a life spent dedicated to this. I think, and I’m sorry if this hurts mate, I think you want them to look at you, and see Jay.”
O’Neill let his head fall; he’d lost another fight, this one with the tears that now filled his eyes. How embarrassing, crying in public. He needed to pull himself together; he questioned now the wisdom in not having arranged this get together at his place in Albany, or to have gone across the border to visit Ryan in London.
“Maybe they will someday mate, but it’s not going to happen overnight. And it won’t happen at all whilst you don’t know who you are. That’s what’s missing Seán, it’s not about who’s got the soundest technique, it’s never been about that. If that was all it took you’d have been in main events your entire career, you need to make that emotional connection with the fans.”
The barista arrived with fresh drinks for the pair, she looked cheerful as she approached the table but upon seeing O’Neill’s body language she seemed to recognise it would be best to just leave the drinks with them for now. This wasn’t the time to ask how everything was. She set the drinks down, gave a sympathetic smile and retreated.
Ryan continued. “When I was, oh I don’t know, in my early twenties, I was in pretty rough shape.”
O’Neill arched an unbelieving eyebrow in response, which brought a chuckle from the Canadian.
“I know, I know, hard to imagine the Greek God of man you met just a few years later was ever anything but that!”
At that both men enjoyed a fuller laugh, and drying his eyes, O’Neill even managed a smile.
“It’s true though, I was a big kid, I almost hit four hundred pounds at one point, not an ounce of it muscle. I was utterly miserable, couldn’t imagine ever getting a girl looking like that. And my old man, he wasn’t really one for talking about feelings, but I was so low and I didn’t know where to turn, so I asked him for help. What he told me that day has always stuck with me; he said ‘Son, how can you expect others to love you, if you don’t start by loving yourself?”
Unable to pass up the opportunity, O’Neill cut in – “I really don’t want to hear anything about you ‘loving yourself’ thanks Ryu!” They both laughed once more and O’Neill visibly began to relax again.
“You know what I mean smart-ass! The point is mate, how can you expect the fans to look at you and see something that you don’t? Let me ask you something, why when you decided to come back, did you drop the old name? SurReal was at least established if nothing else. Why then drop it after all these years?”
It took a few moments of thought before O’Neill could offer any answer. “Umm, I guess, I just felt like that chapter had ended. SurReal was a product of his time, you remember how edgy everything was at the turn of the millennium, I just felt like it didn’t fit anymore. I guess I wanted to show that I’d changed, that this was the next evolution of who I’d been. Besides, I was really sick of the long hair, you know how much of a pain it was to colour and maintain that nonsense all those years?”
“Could be worse, you could’ve kept those awful dreadlocks! You really were far too far into Soulfly at that time mate.” Ryan grinned across the table; O’Neill smirked and shook his head, flipping his friend the bird. Dreadlocks were cool, even on pasty white Irishmen!
“That’s good though, you changed the name to symbolise this was a new version of yourself. Problem is mate, you need to establish what it is that’s prompted these changes, you need to establish what you’ve changed into, and you can’t do that until you know yourself. You’ve been unlucky mate, the match with Mar and Williams was a close run thing, it could’ve been you with the arm raised at the end of it. And I mean, come on, Hessian? We both know you’d need to be absolutely perfect in there with that monster to stand a chance, the guy is an all time great.”
“It’s funny, you remember when I first read A Song of Ice & Fire, and I told you about the incredible chapter where Oberyn Martell took on The Mountain? Well, after taking on that big fucker, I can safely say I know how Martell felt now!” To add emphasis to his point, O’Neill made a show of rubbing his back, a painful grimace on his face.
“Well, at least he didn’t push your eyes out the back of your skull mate! Seriously though, what you need to work on isn’t wristlocks and elbow drops, you need to find out who Seán O’Neill is in twenty twenty four, and what he stands for. When you can put that together my friend, the wins will come, and seemingly more important to you, the fans will come. Just gotta give it time and work your way through this voyage of self discovery!”
Try as he might, the Irishman found it was impossible not to roll his dying eyes at that phrasing. Ryan continued on, oblivious to the gesture.
“Who’s next? Do you know yet?”
O’Neill nodded, taking a long sip of tea. “Well, yes and no, I got confirmation after last night’s show. Apparently I’m taking on someone called Kennade Starr on the next card.”
“Apparently?” Ryan asked, more than a little confused.
“Well, see, that’s the thing. You know what I’m like, you said it yourself, all I do is scout opponents. But thing is, I can’t find any matches for this person. Every video I could find, was of this big fucker called Mister Bubbles? Not quite as big as Hess, but not far off. But this Starr, she seems to be his manager, tiny little thing, can’t be more than five foot, if even that! And young, really young, like possibly still a teenager. I don’t get it, am I fighting the big guy or her?”
“Well, I guess you’ll have to try and prepare for either?” It hadn’t really been a question, but the inflection in Ryan’s voice certainly made it sound like one. “What’s the big guy like?”
“Seems pretty much like what you see is what you get from what I watched. He seems like a golem or something, zero emotion, doesn’t seem to react to anything. Big old seven footer, gotta be close to four hundred pounds. Not the quickest mover obviously, but does seem to have the ability to move up the gears. If it’s him, I gotta go in with the same strategy as I did with Hess, try and chop him down to my size. Very unlikely I can beat this guy on his feet; if I leave him standing he will throw me around like a rag-doll.”
Ryan pondered that for a few moments, nodding to himself. “Maybe it’s not such a bad time to take on someone like that, right after Hessian. Game plan still fresh in your head n all. And if it is the girl? What then?”
O’Neill shrugged, raising his hands in a gesture of exasperation. “The only thing I could find of her online was social media stuff or Twitch streams of her playing video games. Mate, what the hell are they feeding kids these days? It’s like they’re an entirely different species! I maybe understood one word in ten she said! I mean, back in the day, I was considered a weird kid, trading wrestling tapes with pen-pals all over the globe.”
He went on. “But compared to the young kids now? I just don’t get it. Well, if it is her I’m fighting, she’ll need to be a whole helluva lot tougher than she looks. If she tries to throw me off with those weird little faces the kids make and stupid shit they say, she’ll find out what industry she’s gotten herself into real fast!”
“You know mate, maybe you should try live-streaming! Who knows, maybe the new you is a video gamer! Or a cosplayer! Is she single? Maybe who you are now is a sugar daddy!” Every one of Ryan’s teeth sparkled in his wide grin.
O’Neill was quick to cut him off. “If you utter one more word mate, I’ll have to remind you what industry you got your old arse out of real fast!”
“You sure buddy? There’s still time to get you a lovely smoking jacket and a pipe as a belated birthday present?” Ryan’s face was at risk of splitting in two as his grin got even wider, if that was even possible. He noticed only just in time to duck to avoid the folded newspaper on a collision course with his head as the scene faded. He hoped he’d got through to his friend.