From the manuscript of the memoir “Renewed – The Rises and Falls of Jonathan Rhine” – to be released in Fall of 2027
They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but the person who first said that either hadn’t met me, or maybe 36 isn’t actually old. In any case, I was impressed with the amount that I had changed since meeting Paxton Ray.
I’m sure to most people it wouldn’t sound very impressive; after all, these emotions I felt were natural human emotions, and as previously stated I was generally young enough that growth and development as a human made sense. However, when you think about how much I was in stasis before meeting him and joining PRIME, I think my pride in myself was more than appropriate.
I had done things since retiring in 2010 and losing my girlfriend, of course. I took over a wrestling academy. I bought a new house, then sold it and moved into the top floor of said wrestling academy. I had friends, went to those friends’ kids’ birthday parties, gave a few speeches at local area wrestling schools.
But I was barely there. I was sleepwalking through existence. I hadn’t bought new clothes in a decade. I stopped reading books, barely watched any shows or movies. I used to voraciously consume media because I thought it was the best way to not only grow, but to interact with people who are enjoying the same thing at the same time. But that all went away when I gave up all those years ago.
Meeting Paxton changed that. He opened my eyes to real struggle. And I don’t mean that my pain wasn’t important, or that he had it worse. But the way he dealt with it is what stuck with me. He didn’t give up. He didn’t freeze in time (although I’d be surprised if he bought new clothes in a decade either). He worked to persevere, to fight to keep his daughter alive. And seeing that changed my life and my perspective.
So with that in mind, with everything he had taught me over those few months, I felt it was only right that I try to teach him things as well.
My first lesson: how to talk to other people.
Las Vegas, NV
“I ain’t goin’ out there. Ya can’t make me.”
Paxton Ray leans against the door, shaking his head. His tag team partner, Jonathan Rhine, smiles, his hand on the door knob.
“I won’t make you do anything, Paxton, but let’s face facts. You’re…rough with people, to put it politely.”
“And that doesn’t work in your new job. We have coworkers. And bosses. And people you have to talk to and interact with.”
Paxton spits into the trash can. “That’s what you an’ Shway are for. You handle business, I handle punchin’.”
“And for the most part that’s fine,” Jon says. “But today we have a party. The Foundation put this Easter thing together and a lot of the roster showed up. Your daughter’s name is on the banner outside. You have to at least eat some food and talk to some people.”
Paxton looks at Jon. “What kinda food?”
“All kinds. An Easter brisket. Pigs in a blanket. Gumbo.”
“Gumbo?” Paxton asks, his eyebrows raised.
“Good gumbo. Real gumbo.”
After a few seconds, Paxton shakes his head. “Fine. But I ain’t sufferin’ no idiots.”
Paxton wasn’t a bad person. He was rough around the edges, but it makes sense. All he knew in his adult life was fighting and struggle. He didn’t attend galas, or events, or parties with a catering staff. This was all new to him.
I felt bad for him in that regard. Yes, in other regards too, but even as I felt that Shweta and I were helping, I knew that it made him uncomfortable. This isn’t what he had signed up for when he joined a wrestling academy.
But we thought we were helping. And part of that was maybe softening those edges a bit.
“So I gotta talk to everybody here?”
“Not everyone,” Jon says, looking out at the lobby. It’s filled with bright pastel colors, tables of all sorts of food, and people. Lots of people. There’s Impulse and Calico Rose, David Fox and Mushigihara, Timo Bolamba, and several others milling about, having conversations, or signing donation slips at the table where Shweta is sitting. “Sup, Knox,” Jon says to Impulse, giving him a light fist bump as they pass. “The way I see it, we do this in three steps. Easy conversations first, and then progressively less easy.”
“All conversations are hard,” Paxton says, looking for the gumbo stand.
“Not if we frame it in the right way. Let’s start with a good person you have something in common with. Then we’ll go to a good person you don’t have anything in common with. And then we finish with someone who…well, maybe is a good person, but someone you don’t like.”
“I don’t like most’a these people.”Paxton stops, looking at Jon quizzically. “Why does this sound like we’re playin’ a game?”
“Because conversations might be hard, but games are easy to play.” Jon eyes the room, then sees someone and smiles. “Now this one is simple. Coral Avalon is a good guy, and he’s on our team.”
“Whaddaya mean? I ain’t ever seen him before.”
“You’ve probably seen him with a Blackberry mask on.”
Paxton gapes. “…That’s the other weird fruit fuck?”
“He goes by Baron Von Blackberry, but yes. And he wants the same thing we do, for Team V.I.A.G.R.A. to win the second challenge. Talk to him about it.”
“‘Kay, dad,” Paxton grumbles as he walks over to Coral Avalon, who is staring at the party’s gumbo station intently. “Hi. I hear you’re a blackberry.”
Coral Avalon looks up in surprise. “Yeah. That’s me. I, uh… didn’t expect the gumbo station, you guys really went all out for this thing, huh?”
“Yeah, an’ don’t worry, it ain’t Vegas gumbo. I don’t even know if Vegas gumbo is a thing, but I’m sure it’s disgusting. This is from my hometown. Jon flew a buncha chefs up here…he really cares about makin’ you guys happy for some reason.”
“Hadn’t had it in a while, myself,” Avalon says, nodding. “I’m from Louisiana, but haven’t been back in a while. You’re Paxton, right?”
If Paxton were a bit better at conversing with strangers, he would take this opportunity to bond with Avalon over being from the same state. As it is, Paxton only nods, grabbing a bowl and putting rice in it. “Yep, and you manage my, uh, ‘teammates,’ I guess. Winds ‘a Change. The idiot and the powerbomb guy. I kinda like the powerbomb guy, bein’ honest. He seems t’know how to get stuff done. By hurtin’ people.”
Avalon shrugs. “They’re my students. Idiots, both of them, but they mean well. And I got asked to help organize the next Survivor event, so leave it to them to keep me busier than usual.”
“At least you don’t seem like an idiot, so the event will prolly go better’n the boulder bullshit. I ain’t got much time for puzzles, but I put some together from time to time. I just can’t wait to fight again.”
Avalon nods. “Oh, that’s good. I had a few extras. Maybe I could gift one to Nora?”
Paxton nods. “Yeah, yeah. She’d like that.”
“Cool. Maybe I could sign it for her. Oh, is she here?”
Looking down at his gumbo, Paxton shakes his head. “Nah, she ain’t here. Traveling is tough.”
Avalon nods, “I understand. Maybe we could do FaceTime? Go full Blackberry? I’m good with kids like that.”
“Hey, Blackberry,” Paxton growls, putting his gumbo down. “Let’s talk ‘bout something else.”
Avalon nods, “Sure.”
After a long, awkward silence, he asks, “So, is the Foundation going well?”
Before this sentence, Paxton was ready to pick up his gumbo. However, now he uses his hands to grab Coral Avalon at his collar. “Why you askin’ so many goddamn questions?”
Avalon holds his hands up innocently. “It’s how I make conversation? Sorry. Worded that as a question.”
This conversation is at an end, however, as Jonathan Rhine zooms up to grab his tag team partner. He separates the two men and awkwardly flattens Coral’s collar. “Sorry, Coral. He’s…his aggressiveness is an asset in the ring!”
Coral smiles politely, and nods, “It’s alright. No need to make a mess out of me.”
“I disagree,” Paxton grunts as he walks away, looking at his bowl of gumbo that has been abandoned on the table.
I told Paxton early on that I was angry too. That my anger manifested itself much in the way his did.
But as time went on I realized he was much angrier than me.
He had a right to be, of course. But he could barely get through conversations with a stranger without trying to throw hands. That may have been fine in his old life, and outside observers might feel it’s a good thing in professional wrestling.
But we were dealing with more than just wrestling. We had a Foundation, a public facing organization. And even with its ties to a sport that most people see as brutal, it doesn’t do to have one of its members scuffling every time someone mentioned his daughter’s name.
“Let’s try this again,” Jon says. “Over there, by the finger sandwiches. Do you know who that is?”
Paxton follows Rhine’s finger pointed in the direction of The Anglo Luchador and nods. “Yeah. Ol’ lucha. ‘Won’ at Culture Shock against the big fuckhead.” Jonathan smiles at Paxton’s tone at the word “won.”
“You should do color commentary,” Jon says with a chuckle. “He’s a good guy. Donated a bit to the foundation. Go talk to him.”
Paxton looks up suddenly. “About what?”
“That’s up to you. Talk about his match if that makes it easier. Talk about the food, the weather. That’s how these conversations work.”
“I’ll show you how a conversation works,” Paxton mutters, slapping his hand against his fist, but he walks up to The Anglo Luchador anyway. “Hey. Anglo.”
“Oh, cool, Paxton? What’s up?” The old luchador extends his hand to the rougher member of the tag team. “And you can call me ‘Tom,’ Anglo sounds… clunky?”
“Right, Tom.” Paxton shakes his hand, then looks around, scratching the back of his head. Then he settles on the plate to the right of them. “My hands are too big for these sandwiches.”
The old luchador gives a yikes look almost like out of a cartoon. “Okay then. So, anyway, how are you enjoying PRIME? Probably a big shift from your first venture into this stuff, huh?”
Paxton grabs a sandwich and looks at it. “Yeah. This place has bells. Refs. Rules. The Mud Pit just had a bunch of blood.”
“Blood is good. You know, I wrestled a few deathmatches in Japan. Lots of blood there too. Really makes you feel alive. That’s why I’m gonna start making a big push to get into that Intense Title match.”
Stuffing the sandwich in his mouth, Paxton nods. “Bet the Intense Title matches don’t have countouts. Musta felt kinda lame to win that way against the big fuck, huh.”
The old luchador is taken slightly aback. Remembering his vow not to alienate people if he could, he replies back after a little pause, “Paxton, let me be real with you, bud. When you get to a certain age, you tend not to care how you win as long as you do win. Work smarter, not harder if you can.” He pauses again before continuing, “Besides, have you been in the ring with John Boy? I mean, I know you shouldn’t co-mingle with the eGG nerds if you can help it, but Cancer Jiles will corroborate. He doesn’t feel pain the way you or I or any other normal person in this fed does.”
“Hm. Not really the way I do it. But yeah, y’all been here much longer than me. Guess I can respect my elders or whatever.” Paxton smiles. “And I ain’t been in the ring with John, but I bet I’d find a way to bring that big fucker to his knees.”
The old luchador has no choice but to be impressed with Paxton’s swagger, so he nods and smiles. “I don’t share the same outlook as you, but man, with that attitude, you could bring a god to his knees. Just beware of tasers out there in Survivor.”
“Anyone tries to take a taser to me I’ll take that hand a’his and…” As Paxton growls his rebuttal, several things happen at once: Paxton reaches forward to grab The Anglo Luchador’s hand, who steps back in surprise, and Jonathan Rhine runs forward to lock Paxton’s arms behind him quickly.
“Paxton, no punching at the party! Sorry, Tom,” Jon shouts as he starts to take Paxton away. “He gets excited!”
“No worries! Good luck, guys!” The old luchador exclaims as Jon forcibly extricates Paxton away from the conversation. “Ooh! Pigs in a blanket,” he’s heard saying as Fighting for Nora walk away.
We are professionals in this business. And we can’t behave the way people expect us to.
Yes, we fight for a living. Yes, we are strong and angry, and that anger helps us in our job. Yes, perhaps putting a couple dozen of these types of people in a room is asking for a fight.
But Paxton’s daughter had a serious illness. And in order for us to help her, we needed the Foundation to raise money. Foundations survive on donations, mostly from larger companies. Companies care about public image. They will not give money to a Foundation, no matter how great the cause, if the image is negative. We’ve all seen how celebrities in scandals lose sponsors at the drop of a hat.
So we need to act like gentlemen. We need to be able to survive conversations. We need to handle ourselves with dignity.
“Not him. Anyone but him.”
“Come on,” Jonathan says, his hand gently nudging Paxton’s shoulder. “This is an important step. Probably the most important step.”
“The most important steps are the ones we climb t’slide down with fuckin’ puzzle pieces to win the fuckin’ Survivor. This is just talkin’ to an idiot.”
That idiot, by the way, is Jared Sykes, known professionally as King Blueberry, and there’s a decent chance said idiot has heard Paxton’s outburst.
King Blueberry stares at Fighting For Nora, points to his ear, and shrugs.
“Hey, Jared, sorry about that,” Jonathan says, grimacing. Turning to Paxton, he nods his head in the King’s direction. “Apologize, Pax.”
“Hol’up. You’re forcing’ me t’talk t’him, you damn sure ain’t gonna tell me what I can say.”
“Fair enough,” Jonathan says, holding up his hands. “I’ll go get some gumbo. You two talk. Later, Jared.”
“I wanted some gumbo.” Paxton shuffles up to Blueberry, who is standing by a plate of cocktail weenies. Paxton looks down at the plate, then up at Blueberry, then back at the plate again. Grabbing about sixteen weenies, he stuffs them in his mouth. “Sup?” he says to Jared, his mouth still full.
“This is fun. Dad just dropped you off at your first high school dance and now you’ve gotta make friends. Big ‘go get em, sport’ energy here. Been a while since I was one of Jon’s social experiments.” The Blueberry King chuckles. “When he comes back you should ask him about the crazy girl with the green hoodie.”
Paxton’s response is low, almost a growl. “He says I gotta talk t’people ‘cause it’ll help me be a better partner or somethin’. An’ that it’ll help for Survivor. Don’t make sense t’me, since you’re the enemy in Survivor.” Paxton looks down. “Speakin’ of…I hate that mannequin a’yours, but I bet it’s a bitch to fix, so…sorry ‘bout that.”
“I don’t know if I’d go as far as to say ‘enemy’, but it’s fine. I’m not a fan of it either, but it’s what I got so-” Jared gives another shrug. “I’m sorry about what your daughter is going through; what you’re going through. It’s hell on a family.”
Paxton looks down. At first his hand shoots out to grab another cocktail weenie, but he stops, then grabs his beard, pulling down on his face and sighing. He looks into Jared’s eyes, looking for the angle. He finds nothing but sincerity. Finally, he nods. “Thanks. It ain’t easy.” He shoots a look over at his tag team partner, who is speaking with Shweta near the gumbo stand. “He’s just tryin’ to get me outta my comfort zone. And this…” Paxton gestures to all of the professional wrestlers wearing pastel colors and eating non-holiday-appropriate food. “Bout as far out as y’can get.”
King Blueberry laughs. “Yeah, I’m not surprised. Jon’s not a bad guy, he’s just got… how do I say this politely? Very strong opinions on the way people should do things. If it makes you feel any better this isn’t really my jam, either. But things kinda went to hell real quick when I got home from the last show, so here we are.” Jared looks over by the dessert table, where The Anglo Luchador is talking to Timo Bolamba. “That why things with ‘Angelo’ get outta hand?”
“He tol’ me to beware of tasers and it made me angry,” Paxton says, staring daggers at King Blueberry.
“You’re really going to hate the leaf-blower, then. Sorry about that.”
Paxton forms a fist. He looks back at Jon, who looks over and shakes his head, eyes widening. Jared noticed the fist too, but only smiles. Paxton looks down and sighs. “My solution has always been punchin’ people. And you’re worth punchin’. But I’m tryin’ to be better, so…I’ll deal with you an’ the leaf-blower at the show, where I can punch you all I want.” He grimaces as he walks away. “The cocktail weenies got too much sauce, don’t bother.”
Paxton walks over to Jon and Shweta, staring at his feet. “I ain’t good at this, but at least nobody got punched.”
“That’s always a good thing,” Jon says, smiling, as the elevator dings. Then the elevator doors open, and Jon’s smile vanishes.
Walking onto the floor and looking around the room is a man who Jonathan Rhine hasn’t seen in almost a year. His hair is unkempt, his shirt baggy, his jeans drooping off his waist. He has seen better days, but Foster Nackedy, Jon’s former trainer and the former owner of Gray’s Wrestling Academy, still smiles as he sees his protege.
“Jon,” he says. “And Shweta! Good to see you!”
“Foster! What are you doing here?” asks Shweta, but she doesn’t get an answer.
Without responding, Jonathan Rhine walks up and punches Foster square in the nose, causing him to crumple to the floor.
“Jon!” Shweta shouts, rushing to Foster’s side. Looking over her shoulder, she finds Paxton. “Go bring him to the room while I handle this.”
Paxton turns to Jonathan, who is looking at his hand in bewilderment. “Come on, Mr. ‘No Punchin’ at the Party’. Let’s get outta here.” Jon doesn’t resist as Paxton ushers him towards their room under the eyes of all of the guests. “Nice swing. So, what was Blueberry talkin’ about with the green hoodie?”
Of course, I ended up being a big old hypocrite the day of the Fighting For Nora Easter party. But believe me, Foster Nackedy deserved that punch more than anyone in that room. I’ll get to that story in a later chapter.