The Model Citizen Redux
2023’s prodigal son returns to prove that 2008’s hottest athlete was just the beginning. Will audiences and success follow the Model Citizen into a franchise reboot?
by Jen Brathwaite ⎹ July 20, 2023, 7:30 AM EDT
Chandler Tsonda operates like a perpetual motion machine. We’re in what passes for his stomping grounds: the back half of a converted boxing gym near Carlsbad, California. In the front, crossfit geeks box jump and struggle through eternal planks. They are here for something different than Tsonda and his few chosen acolytes. The canvas groans as Tsonda’s spine makes contact with the wrestling ring that dominates the space.
The 47-year-old has several partners for the early morning workout session. It undersells their expertise, but to my unpracticed eye, their balletic work doesn’t change the fact: they’re kids, playing pretend with one of their heroes. And their hero shows no sign of giving them an inch. Hip tosses, powerslams, rolling pin combinations are among the combos he works into these grapple-spar sessions.
“Don’t write this to make me sound like a pedo creep,” Tsonda admonishes me during a water break. “I’m serious. Old goat training with kids born in 2006, I know what it’ll sound like on paper. Don’t use the word ‘apprentice.’ That makes me sound like some medieval kid diddler. These cats are hungry to get into the business, and unlike my peers, they don’t make a bunch of excuses about how hard it is to find the time to get in the gym. I’m not doing charity, and they’re not my blood boys. Fuck Peter Thiel. Can I say ‘fuck?’ Sure hope so. Great word. Anyway, the little homies all get better, and I get better. It’s a bunch of professionals sharpening each other’s skills.”
“It’s like a dream,” Jaime Aguilar, 17, tells me while he watches from the ring apron. “This guy? You seen his match against Wade Elliott at Colossus VI? That guy is a legend! So I love learning from him.” To Aguilar, Chandler Tsonda is a living legend, and he recites to me several other key career milestones of Tsonda’s that he remembers watching at his San Diego home on PRIME’s old flagship show, ReVolution.
The Model Citizen does the niftiest work of this training session against Jasmine Jeong, 19. The sparkplug teenager beats him in a footrace to the far ropes, bounces off, and gets a step on him, only for Tsonda to feint left, wrong-foot her, and then roll her up in a tumbling pile of bodies for a “mouse trap” pin. It’s clear Tsonda’s athleticism has faded from its peak, but his guile has improved, and he remains sharp. In his words, he’s in the league of fellow Father Time resistants like Ivan Stanislav, Brandon Youngblood, and upcoming opponent, Coral Avalon. But, Tsonda says, he’s well aware of the key difference between him and those big names.
“I went away,” he says as we walk out of the training grounds. “And you know why? Some things deserve to be good and dead. I said I was happy with Chandler Tsonda’s grand finale. With PRIME’s grand finale. And then Lindsay Troy went grave-robbing and found the cadaver of PRIME in nice shape. I’m sure a corpse bride like her is right at home in a cemetery,” Tsonda adds with a sly look. He implores me to leave this in the piece so that he can see Troy’s reaction when she reads it. I advise him that my editor gets final cut, and he grins as if knows something I don’t.
We get into Tsonda’s Hyundai Kona, and the question comes up: what took him over a year to come back once PRIME reopened? “What do you want me to say? I wasn’t happy seeing other people play with my toys. I thought I was happy on the outside, and then I watched through the glass and saw the shiny inside of my petty black heart. I don’t like any era of PRIME that doesn’t have me in its first Wikipedia paragraph. I’m here to fix that.”
• • •
On the Thursday that I spend with Chandler Tsonda, we are hours away from the first public screenings of Barbie, and weeks removed from the most recent reincarnation of Indiana Jones. Brands like Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, Air Jordan, and Transformers all have recent movies that rely on the “familiar-but-new” aesthetic. Nostalgia is vogue.
“Fuck no,” Tsonda says, when I ask if he considers himself a legacy act. “Fuck that. You can say a lot of shit about me — trust me, nobody’s crueler than my own inner voice when my head hits the pillow — but I’m a worker. If I ever get to a point where my biggest moments are my entrance music hitting, and I can’t back it up the ring, just take me outside behind Argyle position and put a bullet in me. A couple bullets to be sure Lindsay Troy can’t bring my dead body back to do marketing hits.”
Every time Tsonda brings up the fedrunner, his former rival-turned-frienemy, he has the look of young boy thieving a cooling pie off a sill. His expression and tone quickly become subdued as we drive down the Pacific coast towards his compound. “I’m still deadly at this, and your relationship can be that you grew up watching me, or that you turned on ReVival for the first time this month, or anywhere in between: You’re watching the best to ever do it.”
The Model Citizen seems genuinely convinced of this, despite his mediocre win-loss record in this era of PRIME. His confidence overflows, even if he remains cool and distant from those around him, oscillating between hard-to-read and brazenly emotional.
“That’s just Chan,” according to his cousin, confidante, and business partner, Aubrey Calvino. She’s more than a decade younger than Tsonda, runs his Tsuperstar Enterprises business arm, and she’s one of the few people comfortable razzing the legendary wrestler. “He’s just super neurotically obsessed with seeming totally chill.”
Calvino saves her unvarnished thoughts for the moments when Tsonda isn’t around. He steps out for a costume change and a shower after the morning workout, and Aubrey Calvino addresses me at the marble island in Tsonda’s kitchen.
“He’s the most stubborn person I’ve ever met. And I’m Italian; I know stubborn like my grandmother’s pasta recipe. He makes up his mind, and you either let him go do what he wants to, or you check yourself into the insane asylum right then and there. And he wanted to come back.”
Calvino glances at her smart watch. It’s not clear if she’s worried her cousin will walk in on our conversation, or that we’ll miss his next scheduled appearance. But she doesn’t reject the premise that Tsonda’s second act is, no pun intended, a revival.
“I think it’s gotta be really hard to be the world’s most famous wrestler, a decade and a half later. Chan doesn’t talk about how that weighs on him. He just works like an absolute madman to be as good as he’s ever been.” A coping mechanism? An admission that he’s chasing the ghost of an old high? “I dunno about that,” Calvino says, pulling on the gold bangles around her wrist. “When my aunt died, something changed.”
Glancing down again at her watch, Aubrey Calvino reaches the limit of her patience and yells upstairs to her cousin.
“The car’s leaving in ten minutes. I’m sure your hair looks fine. Hurry up, Chan.”
• • •
Tsonda cannot avoid taking over the conversation. In the spacious hotel conference room, he makes his opinion both loud and clear.
“Not a fucking chance,” he says. The pair of writers on the other side of the table don’t seem phased. The writers asked not to be named in this story; they are striking WGA members, and while they assured me their spec work with Tsonda does not cross the picket line, they are wary of backlash. The 26-year-old woman and 33-year-old man have writing credits for terrestrial TV and streaming services, bona fides that got them in the door with Aubrey Calvino, who connected them with Tsonda.
If everything is intellectual property, then so it seems, are Tsonda’s decades in the ring. The pitch these four have been working on is a television series built around a handsome male wrestler and a coterie of rivals. One does not have to wonder at their inspiration. Calvino later confides to me that she is trying to set up some structure for her cousin’s inevitable life after wrestling.
“Why not?” one of the writers asks, back in the conference room.
“It’s just not done. It’s bad fucking etiquette,” Tsonda says.
“Chan,” Calvino says, her voice like a soft touch on the arm to calm him. Over the past hour of discourse, Tsonda has batted down ideas like King Kong does airplanes. In doing so, he has several times defended the unwritten honor code among wrestlers, to equal parts amusement and chagrin from his colleagues.
“So help me understand this, Chandler,” the female writer says. “It would be fine to win if the referee stops the match, but you’d never ask the referee to stop the match if your opponent was badly injured?”
“Humor me,” the male writer cuts in. “What if your opponent was having a heart attack?”
“I’d get an easy win.”
“Be serious,” Aubrey Calvino cuts in. She serves as meeting facilitator in between frantic tapped dispatches on her iPhone.
“We’re not samurai,” Tsonda says. “I’m not pretending we live by bushido, but I’m telling you that no wrestler alive, not the lowest guy on the totem pole, not the guy lower than that whose name is Tony Gamble, nobody quits on their opponent’s behalf.”
The writers impress upon Tsonda that they’re looking for something dramatic, a way to signal pathos to the audience about two foes whose respect for each other wins out over their bloodlust. It sounds soapy and melodramatic and undeniably entertaining.
“This week, it’s my job to go out and fight Coral Avalon. A guy I uncomplicatedly like. Forehead from here to fuckin’ Tijuana, but a hell of a worker, and a standup dude. Type of guy you’d ask to hold your drink while you take a leak, and he’d put a coaster on it just to be a mensch. A little Boy Scout-y, sure. I think he’s Canadian. They’re sort of just like that up there.”
“I thought you said you liked him,” Calvino observes, not looking up from her phone.
“Like I said, a good guy. And he can match anybody in the ring, on any night. Probably has a future Universal Title run in his future before he hangs it up. And I tell you, hand to God, that if he lets up for one solitary second, and drops his hands at the wrong time, I’ll put a boot into his nose so hard he’s spitting up bone. And I hope, I genuinely hope, he’d do the same to me. Ask for no quarter, for none shall be given. BYO white towel if you’re scared.”
If anyone has noticed the former champion’s bluster edge towards shades of grandeur, no one mentions it. The conversation, in our time together, has veered towards the perceived flimsiness of wrestler mortality. Gallows humor arises often in conversation.
“Coral knows, just like I know, that neither of us will stop until the hammer smacks the bell. And if I lay there, gutshot and dying in the ring, and he tried to have Ashley Barlow stop the match for my sake, I’d fucking kill him.”
• • •
“It’s just something Aubrey wants me to do,” Tsonda says nonchalantly as we move from the de facto writers room to the next engagement of his day. “I doubt this thing ever makes it to TV, but I like thinking about the business like they do. The poetics of it, the iconography. I can only think about it like a real sicko: bumpy plane rides to dusty hotels to lukewarm catering to living and dying on wins and losses. I like their way better,” he says, with a wince and a smile. It’s one of the few moments where the facade drops, and illuminates the weariness of the life Tsonda has chosen.
On the subject of whether he would ever work on the operational side of the business, Tsonda scoffs. “I can’t be Troy. Or Wade. I mean, Jordan never coached after he played, and was an impatient brat of an owner. I’d like to think I’m at least smart enough to understand a little about why.”
“Don’t be so dramatic,” Calvino says from the passenger seat of the Kona. “He wants so bad to be the last gunslinger in the West.”
The topic of age comes up, especially in relation to the ostensible main event competitors for Ultraviolence: the aforementioned Youngblood and Stanislav.
“They’re plenty good. No Tsonda, but good.” He smiles, and that momentary flash of doubt is nowhere to be seen. Neither wrestler could be reached for comment, and a call to a number allegedly associated with Stanislav just played a loop of the Soviet National Anthem at top volume.
• • •
In the layoff between PRIME 1.0, and PRIME 2.0, Tsonda’s mother passed away. He grieved privately. He shares skepticism that my piece can capture any of the significance of her life, though he offers sincere condolences when I share that my father suffered from Alzheimer’s and eventually died from it.
“Having a dead mom isn’t a personality. It’s the world’s shittiest and most mandatory amusement park ride.” Gallows humor.
“Chan is extremely proud of her,” Calvino cuts in. Eye contact passes between them, and it’s hard to say if Tsonda’s cousin is coaxing him out of his shell, or making a subtle professional request that he play nice with me.
“The best thing I ever did was give her a better life,” he reflects. “Bought her a big house. She wanted a Lincoln. The most unwieldy fucking car in the universe, basically a guarantee that she would scrape it in the grocery store parking lot. And she did. She fucking loved that car.”
“He won’t get rid of it,” Calvino says.
“Hey,” Tsonda calls to her, sharply.
“People should know. It’s on blocks on the back of his property.”
“Watch your mouth.”
During the editing of this piece, my editor expresses genuine concern that Calvino and Tsonda staged much of this interaction. I admit the concern is warranted, but decide to lobby for its inclusion. Only Tsonda and Calvino know its authenticity.
• • •
Children and parents crowd around the new installations. A pair of teenagers stop to admire the climbing wall, running their hands over blue and yellow lumpy footholds. We are here to open a youth rec center named after Tsonda’s mother.
“I asked her, ‘don’t you want something cool, like a castle on the beach, or a giant telescope, to have your name on forever?’ I couldn’t convince her before she died, so now I’m stuck with this.”
“Chan.” I am growing familiar with the sound of Aubrey Calvino’s voice when she chides her cousin.
“Kidding. Make sure you write that I’m kidding and that Aubrey’s very good at her job. She has to be CEO of Tsuperstar Enterprises after I drop dead in the ring and all that’s left of me is my name on a castle on the beach and a giant telescope. So I need people to know she’s good at her job.”
The ribbon-cutting of the Sam Thi Ngo Boys & Girls Club goes according to plan. Tsonda and the regional executive director are joined by Padres franchise outfielder Juan Soto, whose polite but brief moments at the center include a private side conversation with Tsonda behind Soto’s wall of security. Notably, Tsonda travels with no security, other than his general disdain for intimacy. During our time at the rec center, he is polite but muted while signing autographs. A fanbase and fame seem more material to the Tsuperstar than individual fans.
Soto arrives at 5:15, and he is long gone by the next time I look down at 5:27. The photo opp is effective, and Tsonda seems genuinely appreciative of the baseball star’s time.
“My mom loved the stupid fucking Padres,” he laughs. “Couldn’t tell you a single scintilla about the game of baseball, but I love that team with all my heart because she did. It’s complicated, you know. First generation moms think that whatever dumb city they land in is literal Christian heaven. I spent a lot of hours putzing around in a building like this, and she was grateful. Now she’s got her name on it, in the home she adopted. It’s cool.”
As to Tsonda’s own legacy, and what he plans to leave behind in greater San Diego, he has no strong opinions. Outside of the rec center, he points to the edge of the parking lot: “Yeah, maybe right there, they’ll put up a statue of me squeaking by Bobby Dean at Tropical Turmoil.”
If Tsonda is concerned about the thorn in his side that Dean and Jake Nguyen, known to PRIME fans as “Doppeltsonda,” present, he doesn’t show it.
“The world needs plenty more very mid Asian actors. That’s the dream of equality through representation. Jake should mind his business, and tag along to whatever movie Ali Wong is making next and beg to play her himbo boyfriend.”
Nguyen, initially at Tsonda’s behest, and now behind the shroud of dark money, has begun to make his own name in the questionable area of what appears to be Tsonda’s intellectual property. Tsonda demures on his own role in muddying the Chandler Tsonda brand; he hired Nguyen in the first place. “Yeah, yeah, I created my own worst enemy, and it’s actually just my own mirrored reflection. Real smart mark philosophizing. I don’t buy it. That pale imitation of me only makes the real thing more valuable.”
In addition to a surprising amount of televised PRIME appearances, Nguyen showed up at last weekend’s SoCal WrestleCon and signed autographs under the name Doppeltsonda. $25 could be exchanged for a crisp, glossy 8×10 of the actor. Aubrey Calvino closely watches Tsonda when he talks about his distaste for Nguyen.
“I don’t care about the money,” Tsonda clarifies. “If he needs to do shitty cosplay to feed his equally shitty family, no skin off my back. They’ll bury me in my money like Scrooge McDuck. But my name, the name my mom gave me, it does mean something. There’s a reason I don’t have a ‘wrestling name.’ There’s only one guy in me. His name’s Chandler Tsonda, and he’s kind of a dick, but he’s also God’s gift to wrestling. Classic win-some, lose-some. There’s exactly one actor who’s allowed to play me, and his name’s BD Wong, and he’s got my cell number. BD, hit me up. And fuck Jake Nguyen and the rickshaw he rode in on.”
Tsonda takes a breath.
“Did I just waste a platinum promo on a magazine interview? Ah shit.”
• • •
Knowing that our time together nears its end, I see if Tsonda will address the question circling his personal circumstances: who does he keep leaving tickets for at each PRIME show? It’s a well-known secret among PRIME staffers, often murmured but never spoken out loud. Tsonda does not take the bait.
A request for clarification is greeted with tight-lipped silence from the Tsuperstar. Aubrey Calvino shakes her head and looks down at her phone.
• • •
Perhaps the only thing Chandler Tsonda has in common with the average American worker is that retirement is a fiction. But he’s not back because he’s worried about a 401K running out. He’s back, he says, to simply get back to the work of being a superstar. A legacy that was once settled, and enshrined in various halls, is now reopened, and subject to the pinfalls, submissions, interference, and nutshots of pro wrestling, live on TV every other Friday night.
Jason Snow, Danny Ferguson, and Devin Shakur are gone. Lindsay Troy is an executive. Some things deserve to be good and dead, but Chandler Tsonda insists there is story left to tell.
“I shook off the cobwebs. I’m not coming back anymore, I am back. I got some phantom dickhead paying to throw me off my game. I’m gonna knock his block off. I’m gonna bust through Coral and be a champion again. What’s more pro wrestling than that?”
Jen Brathwaite is a feature writer for The Ringer, and author of the forthcoming book “Starstruck: How Sports Re-Invented Power and Fame.” She can recite the dates of each Lindsay Troy title reign, and lives in Los Angeles with her dog, Caesar.