Private: Jonathan Rhine
From the manuscript of the memoir “Renewed – The Rises and Falls of Jonathan Rhine” – to be released in Fall of 2027
It takes a strong person to admit their weakness. For years I did my best to hide my weaknesses, or even worse to pretend I didn’t have any. I was raised in a masculine hellhole, taught to believe that strength and stoicism were the only necessary outward appearances. I only started to really be honest with myself as my wrestling career took off in the late 00s.
Okay, brief tangent – 00s? Is that what we say? I can’t say late 2000s, because that sounds like it’s happening in 2095, which I know hasn’t happened yet, but it’s still murky. Do I just say “between the years 2007 and 2009?” Because that’s clunky as hell. When I decided to write my memoir I thought it was very important to deliver my thoughts as me, with no editors or agents trying to pretty everything up. But I can tell now that maybe that was a mistake.
Speaking of mistakes, let’s go back to my weakness.
As I said, the first year and a half of my wrestling career was all highs – I covered in an earlier chapter how easy everything felt. You train Saturday through Thursday, you step in the ring on Friday, and you win, simple as that. You feel like you’re unbeatable, like you don’t need anything else in the world.
But my weakness is that I always needed something more, no matter how much I won. I needed validation. I still do. And the biggest part of this weakness is I need specific validation: from the thousands of unnamed faces that come to those wrestling shows every week. I needed to be loved by the wrestling world.
You’ve heard this before, of course. Everyone loves fame and adoration. Everyone loves being given keys to the city, having dead end streets named after you, seeing your likeness in sprite form, in Fatheads, in life size cardboard cutouts. But my problem is that I treasured it and valued it over the things I actually had in my life.
Over the people I had in my life.
And yes, reader, if you picked this book up knowing everything about my life and all of the loss and heartbreak I’ve endured, this is where we will finally talk about Katie Malick.
But first, let’s talk about Paxton Ray.
Jonathan Rhine walks through a dimly-lit hallway of Gray’s Academy, the wrestling school he accidentally inherited about three years ago. His stride slows as he sees large splinters of wood sticking out from one of the walls about ankle height. Frowning, he bends over and inspects the damage, sticking his finger out gingerly to make sure he doesn’t get stuck, though ultimately not gingerly enough.
“Ow!” he mutters, pulling his finger to his mouth and sucking instinctively before taking it out and looking at it. With a few quick pulls he is able to extract the splinter, tossing it aside with a sigh. He gives the wall one last stern look, as if to chastise it for hurting him, then keeps moving, arriving at the open gym at the end of the hallway.
The cacophony of chaos erupts as the sounds of shouting, slapping, and thudding bounce off of the walls of the open space and rise into the vaulted ceilings where championship belts and banners hang, some swaying with every back bump. Jonathan looks at the three wrestling rings, his eyes scanning for short gray hair, wide blue eyes, and a vapid expression, and shouts when he finally finds it.
“Hey Dith! Can you come over here?”
Aaron “Deer In The Headlights” Timble looks up suddenly from his referee role and is immediately clobbered by an errant fist. As he stumbles into the corner, his accidental assailant mutters, “Sorry.”
“It’s okay, Paxton,” Aaron says, rolling out of the ring and walking to his boss. It’s a slow walk; anyone who doesn’t know Aaron would call it a deliberate pace, but those who spend every day with him in Gray’s Academy know that’s just his nature, when walking, when reacting, when talking, when thinking.
Eventually he makes it to Jonathan, his limp finally subsiding over the last two steps. “What’s up, boss?”
“Who made the hole in the hallway?”
Jonathan has become proficient in reading the expressions of Gray’s longest resident student-turned-referee-turned-assistant; it’s why he only went to one of Jonathan’s weekly poker nights, though he has been invited numerous times since. Aaron’s eyes widen, then narrow, then shift about manically as if he believes his eyes can control his body and send him anywhere but under the gaze of the man formerly called The New Life. As it is, he is rooted to the spot, and his eyes finally relax as he gives a confident smile.
The audacity is so much that Jonathan can’t help himself; he bursts into laughter, throwing his hand out to rest upon Aaron’s slender shoulders to keep his balance. “What hole? My god, that’s good.” After steadying himself, he lets his arm come up for a few inches, then slaps Aaron in the back. “No, really. Who made the hole?”
Aaron shuffles a few feet to the right, shrugging his shoulders instinctively. Jonathan sees his eyes shift again and realizes that he is trying his best not to look at the culprit. Jonathan looks down and smiles, knowing he only needs to say one word to get Aaron to crack.
“Okay, okay, it was the new guy,” Aaron says, and both of their eyes go to the man still in the ring, the man who had accidentally hit Aaron moments ago, the man who is leaning against the ring ropes looking into the distance.
“It was Paxton.”
Back to weakness. I hadn’t heard the crowd roar for me in over a decade. And if you think of it like an addiction – and I tend to – quitting cold turkey and going without can be good in the long run, but you never stop missing it. You never stop thinking about it. You never stop hearing it in your head.
I had settled into the Academy pretty easily. I can still go in the ring to show demonstrations, and I hired smart people, so it almost ran itself. And honestly if Paxton Ray never set foot into my building, I’d probably still be running the Academy today, finally losing my build, getting that beer gut my dad always warned me about, maybe even losing my hair…oh wait. That part happened anyway.
But instead, I get this call from Foster, my mentor, the one who trained me and eventually gave me the Academy. And at the time we were icy, so I didn’t really know what to expect. But he told me they found this kid, long and wiry, cuts and scars all up and down his arms, who was just beating the shit out of people. Absolutely destroying them. And I ask where, and he says in the Mud Pits, which really got my attention.
The Mud Pits were run every Saturday around 11PM in a plot of land in the 9th ward that had never come back from Katrina. It was dangerous to get to because the streetlights didn’t work and all the rampant crime, but it was even more dangerous when you got there. This spot was right on the other side of the levee from the Mississippi River, and due to some weird weather pattern shit that I can’t even pretend to understand, this empty lot was always muddy, even when it hadn’t rained in months. The terrain, as the fighters would say, was your second opponent. No referees, no bells, nothing to stop you from beating your opponent to death except for your own discipline. You win a fight, you make a few hundred bucks. You lose? You probably owe a few thousand in hospital fees.
At first I didn’t even want to see him, because if you’re fighting in the Mud Pits, you’re not exactly wrestling material. Sure, you can fight, but can you do so while making sure the crowd cares, so that they pay their hard-earned money to either yell at you or cheer you on? Is your face undamaged enough to be on a billboard? The more I ran the Academy, the more I cared about the money side. Wrestling is important, but so is image.
But Foster told me to just meet him, and let him tell me his story. So I did, and I found out why he was in those Mud Pits. I found out about Nora. I found his – and soon to be my – purpose.
Jonathan stares at Paxton Ray’s hands, covered with fraying tape. More specifically, he stares at his fingers, which are methodically tapping on Rhine’s desk.
“So,” Jonathan starts, but stops because he sees that Paxton’s eyes were looking at the wall. As a doctor has his or her degrees on the wall to promote confidence and validation, Rhine has his degrees on the wall as well: replica belts of SCCW’s Heavyweight Championship and the PRIME Intense Title, printed out articles of Jonathan’s wins and dominance, and one single framed picture: of Jonathan, leaning against a turnbuckle with one arm raising a title bet, and the other around a woman with short blonde hair.
Looking down suddenly, Jonathan wipes his nose. “That’s why we train in the ring, that’s why we fight,” Jonathan says, once again looking up at the wall, though careful to only focus on the replica belts. “To be the best. To win, to create a legacy that we can be proud of.” He looks over to Paxton, who now looks at his feet. “At least, that’s what I tell almost every other student out there. But not you. Because that’s not why you fight.”
Paxton says nothing. “No, you fight for Nora. And now so do I. But if I’m honest, Paxton, I worry about how far that will get us.” And now Paxton looks up suddenly, scanning his partner’s face to understand.
“Whaddaya mean?” Paxton asks.
“Well, let’s talk about it. You fight for your daughter. I fight for her too, and for the foundation, and obviously for myself a little bit. But the best tag teams? The best teams fight for each other.” He waits for a reaction from Paxton but gets none, so he continues. “I look at our upcoming match at Revival 4. We go into battle with three other teams, and while one of those teams is one man and a mannequin–”
“I fuckin’ hate that guy,” Paxton says.
Jonathan laughs. “He’s all right when you get to know him. But the other two teams have something you and I simply do not have yet.”
“And what’s that?”
“A rapport. Friendship. Trust. A reliance upon each other that will help us go toe to toe with anyone. When I was in FUSE, and SCCW, and PRIME, I was occasionally matched up with another singles wrestler against a tag team. And sometimes we won, sometimes we lost. But when we went up against an actual tag team, I knew we were in trouble. Because anyone can tag with each other. Everyone knows how to hold a rope or slap a person’s hand. It takes three minutes to learn to do a double suplex. But the real tag teams, the best tag teams, have a bond. And you and I don’t have that yet.”
“Well yeah,” Paxton says. “We met two months ago. And if ya don’t mind my honesty, boss, we don’t really have anythin’ in common, do we?”
Jonathan breathes in, then leans back, exhaling through his nose. “You might be right. I’m pushing 40; you’re still in your prime. I started wrestling in my late teens, and you were bare knuckle boxing until a few weeks ago. You have a daughter, and I…” he trails off as he stares at the picture on the wall. “And I never married. We’re pretty different.”
“We’re both from Louisiana, I guess,” Paxton says with a snort.
Jonathan laughs, then smiles. “Actually, I may have just thought of something. Come take a walk with me.”
Let me peel back the curtain for you a little bit. When we realized what a gem we had in Paxton Ray, I started calling all of the feds to see who was interested. And when I got to Lindsay Troy and PRIME, a woman I had once fought, I thought this was the perfect place. But Lindsay didn’t want him. Or at least she didn’t want him by himself. She wanted me too, to be a tag team. And despite everything, despite my weakness for adulation, I said no at first.
I said no because I knew what forming a tag team requires. It takes selflessness, sacrifice, doing everything you can for the sake of another person. It requires you to leave your ego at the door, to be part of something bigger than yourself. I wouldn’t be Jonathan Rhine, I would be one half of Fighting For Nora. And that also meant I’d have to make a friend, to get close to someone, when I hadn’t been close to anyone in years.
The death of Katie Malick in November 2009 destroyed me. So much that I put off writing this memoir for years because I knew I’d have to write about it. I haven’t spoken about it to anyone. Not even Foster. Not even my parents. I never felt ready. It was always tomorrow. “Tomorrow I’ll give Foster a call.” “Tomorrow I’ll book that therapy session.” Tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow.
But eventually I changed my mind about teaming with Paxton. Because it had been 12 years, and I hadn’t healed at all, and tomorrow still hadn’t come. Maybe going back to the ring would help somehow. Maybe opening myself up in the wrestling ring would help me open up out of it. Maybe I could stop waiting for tomorrow. Maybe I could learn how to be a friend, and how to depend on someone again.
Maybe, just maybe, I could be a person worthy of love again.
“Where we going?” Paxton asks as he follows Rhine down the hallway, careful to duck his head from the globe lights whose entire purpose seems to be to hit tall people in the head and give very little light at all. Rhine glides down the hallway until he gets to the hole in the wall. Pointing down, he looks at Paxton.
“Why did you do this?”
Paxton puts his hands up and starts to speak, but then he sees Rhine’s face. No anger, no judgment. Just curiosity. That causes the walls of defense to crumble, and Paxton shrugs. “I was angry.”
Paxton looks away. “Lotta things. Nora. Being away from home. Not already in a ring to punch the daylights outta some nitwits.”
Jonathan laughs. “I get it. Let me show you something.” They walk down the hallway a few feet before coming to a part of the wall around shoulder height that looks a little off; the paint doesn’t exactly match the rest, and Paxton can see tape fraying at the edges. “This one was from my first loss in the training academy.” They walk further down to another similarly patched part of the wall. “This is when Foster and I had one of our usual blowups.”
They continue to walk until they get near the end of the hallway. There is one door here, slightly ajar with a broom handle jutting out. Jonathan points to a picture that is hanging up: an old picture of Jonathan and some trainers smiling.
“I bet you found it weird that this is the only picture hanging up in the hallway,” Jonathan says.
“I didn’t find it anythin’. I never come down here because I ain’t the fuckin’ janitor.”
“Fair enough,” Jonathan says, laughing, then takes the picture off of the wall. Beneath is a large hole, larger than the one Paxton made earlier. Paxton nods and raises his eyebrows.
“Lemme guess, you made this one because ol’ Dith dropped the water bottles and got Gatorade everywhere and Foster made ya clean it up.”
Jonathan pulls in his lips, biting on them. “No. I made this hole because my girlfriend died and I wanted to tear the whole building down.”
Both men stand there, not speaking. Jonathan can feel his chest start to heave faster as he stares at the hole. He starts to look away, but then sighs and continues looking at the damage he caused twelve years ago.
“Sorry,” Paxton finally says.
“It’s fine. It’s the only picture here because it was the only hole I didn’t want to patch up. It was something I was always putting off until…” he trails off, then looks at his tag team partner. “Paxton, you’re an angry man. I get it. You have every right to be. And I just wanted to show you this so you know that I get angry too. The world has hurt us. It has pissed us off. And even though we don’t know each other very well, even though we aren’t the best of buds, when the bell rings and you and I are together, we can use that anger. We can channel it, and be in sync. And that’s how we can fulfill our purpose.”
Jonathan then raises his fist up until it’s near Paxton’s face. “Anger bros?”
After a moment, Paxton smiles and daps his fist. “All right. Anger bros.”
Jonathan opens the broom closet and grabs a jar of spackling and a putty knife, then hands them to Paxton. “This week we’re going to beat those other tag teams and we’re going to raise money for your daughter.”
“And I’m gonna break that mannequin over my damn knee.”
Jonathan nods. “Absolutely. But first you’re going to patch the holes. Both of them.”
Paxton frowns. “I didn’t break this one.”
“Being the owner of this academy has to have some perks, don’t you think?” Jonathan slaps Paxton on the shoulder and smiles. “And after you’re done we’re going to work on some of our tag team moves. I know just the person we can test on.”
“Oh Aaaaaron…” Rhine calls out as Paxton watches him, putty knife in his hand.
It felt weird to make an effort to connect after a decade of avoiding all effort. Caring is a muscle, and mine was atrophied.
But it also felt right. I lost everything I had held dear, so I left wrestling. I buried myself in other work, and tried to ignore everything I felt. But the only thing that had happened was I got older and more reclusive.
So when Fighting For Nora started to take off in PRIME, it felt like my life had hit the resume button. Like I had been frozen in place for twelve years, and now I could feel again, I could fight again, I could win again.
I could hear the crowd cheer again. I could feed my weakness.
And everything was going well again until I realized that I had more than one weakness. But that’s for a later chapter.