The Anglo Luchador
Hey Wingtips, before I finally get my pound of flesh from you at Colossus, I just wanted to thank you. You helped me see the light.
“Let me see your chest, sweetheart.”
Joelle Battaglia was in her 60s and had been an empty nester for years now, but maternal instincts never left her, even for her oldest and most self-sufficient son.
“Mom, it’s okay. Ivan didn’t leave a mark.”
“But I’m still worried, son. All that brutality, and he was supposed to be your partner!”
“Yeah, and he was a shockingly good one, hard tags aside. But I’m glad you’re still watching me on TV.”
Her shoulders sank as she put her hands on her hips and shot her son an icy glare the likes only a mother could send towards her offspring.
“And why would you think we wouldn’t continue to watch you? I am so proud of you, Tommy.”
Tom sighed. “We… watch,” but “I am… proud.”
“So only one of you are proud of me.”
Her freezing stare melted and turned to preemptive fire in an instant.
“Don’t you dare think about picking another fight with your father, Tommaso.”
For reference, using the Italian form of his name was just as damning as if any other mother gave their child the first name-middle name-last name address treatment.
“Do you really think I want that agita today, Mom? Besides, you know I’m usually not the instigator anyway.”
“Yes, but this is your biggest match since, what, WrestleVerse III? I don’t need you getting riled up. I don’t need him getting riled up either.”
“I should still go out and say ‘hi’ though. He is my father, after all.”
The constant beratement, the attacks, the barbs… most would write them off as the ravings of a hater. Maybe you are a hater, Wingtips. Satisfaction eludes some people because they are greedy. Or they’re hurt and mistrustful. The number Devin Shakur did on you left incalculable damage, didn’t it? True perception, however, requires cutting through bad faith like overgrowth with a machete to find constructive truth.
Lorenzo Giampaolo Battaglia loved sitting in his backyard, concreted except for the elevated retaining wall surrounding his fig tree. He would sit and feel the breeze on his aching joints, the price he paid for a decades-long career as a top professional wrestler up and down the East Coast. The unusually balmy weather in December in Philadelphia allowed him to sit in his wheelchair outside without a jacket or a blanket covering him. Retired life and a son and a daughter-in-law with more money than they knew what to do with allowed him infinite moments of peace, but contemplating life in the increasingly quiet South Philly air was one only he himself could break.
As the storm door from the house creaked open, he found the opportunity to indulge his belligerent side.
“So I hear you’re jerkin’ the curtain at the Garden,” he barked with the rasp of six decades and counting on his voice.
“Hello to you too, Dad.”
In one motion, Tom descended the concrete stoop while resting his posterior on it, next to his father whose wheelchair was backed all the way up against the brick face of his South Philly rowhome.
“You know,” Tom continued, “The opening match isn’t derogatory anymore, especially on a pay-per-view.”
He tried his best to keep his tone of voice from becoming too agitated. Defend yourself, sure, but don’t give into the old man’s goading.
“Whatever helps you get to sleep at night, kid.”
The rudeness was making it hard for the old luchador to conceal his defense mechanisms against his even older father. He took a deep breath, sighed, and rose to his feet.
“You want a beer, dad?”
The patriarch turned his head to look his son dead in the eye.
“No, who drinks this early in the afternoon anyway? The only thing I want from you is to stop this charade. It was bad enough back then, making a mockery of wrestling with this dinga-danga bullshit you do, but you’ve got a family now. You’re going out and making an ass of yourself every other Friday, and for what? When have you gotten a World Title shot last?”
“I’m ranked number one in the entire company, Dad.”
“Yeah, and that only reflects worse on everyone else in that company. Lettin’ some fugazi lucha bean rack up wins against ‘em. Then they give the important matches to everyone else.”
He sighed and looked down, thinking of a response that wouldn’t throw either one of them into a frenzy but would assert himself. The coffers were empty at this point. Defeated, he looked over at his father, but what he saw chilled him to his core. He swore he saw a scar running up his father’s cheek in the shape of a grin, terminating at devilish eyes resting below slicked-back black hair. It wasn’t the Italian Stallion looking back at him; it was The Permascar Superstar. The jolt nearly threw him off the stoop, but he composed himself in time, rubbing his eyes.
“Are you okay, kid? You seen a ghost or something?”
His father’s gruff voice caused him to take a second glance over. The visage of Tony Gamble was gone; it was just Lorenzo Battaglia again.
“Can’t see a ghost if they’re not dead, y’know.”
“Nothing, Dad. Nothing.”
Never let it be said that I don’t give the devil his due. Folks like Paxton Ray and Vickie Hall might obscure your evil nowadays, Wingtips, but you are a devil. You spoke right into my heart when you told me I was looking for a reason to mean something to someone, a crass attempt to fit in. Maybe you went overboard; no, scratch that. You definitely went overboard. But all good villains have a kernel of righteousness at the heart of their wicked ways. I was looking for a reason to stand out.
But I had one in front of me the entire time.
The hustle and bustle of an active indie wrestling venue can be overwhelming in its claustrophobia. It’s not Madison Square Garden or even the Grand Garden Arena, but the Chaifetz Arena filled with hundreds of wrestlers, trainers, onlookers, and fans could compress the entire big room experience into concentrated adrenaline. Even before the event organizers let the fans in, the palpable energy permeated every corner of the arena, the locker rooms, the hallways. It reminded Tom of his earliest days, scraping in bingo halls, before the lucha companies came calling, before A1E signed him to his first television contract.
Of course the man who started him on his journey was right there too, as if to bring the weekend full circle. After all, one of his students was competing.
“Mano! I didn’t expect to see you here!”
Pedro Santamaria hobbled over to the most successful student to come from his ramshackle academy in North Philly, cane supporting his robust post-retirement frame.
“I didn’t expect to see you here, pops,” the luchador exclaimed, throwing his arms around his old teacher. “Shocked TSA didn’t confiscate that cane of yours.”
“I guess you’re also here to support Miranda,” the teacher said, breaking his embrace. “She’s got a tough task ahead of her.”
“You can say that again, Teach.”
“And so do you, Mano. Hall of Famer at Colossus. Your toughest challenge since the Time Lord.”
“Yeah…” his voice trailed off as the image of the smushed amalgam of his father’s and Gamble’s faces popped into his mind in the most intrusive way possible.
“I know that look,” Pedro replied after a beat. “You been talking to your padre again about the biz, haven’t you?”
Tom nodded with melancholy in his eyes.
“I didn’t even want to talk about it, but he just assaulted me with his shit, right off the bat.”
He took a beat and turned away from his teacher for a moment.
“What do I have to do to win him over?”
“Come, let’s not talk about this in the arena.”
Student and teacher walked to one of the green rooms set up for staff, trainers, and non-wrestling personnel. There were water coolers, ice chests filled with sodas and seltzers, and three coffeemakers in this particular room, one of which had the ol’ Jolly Roger drawn in sharpie on a yellow pad taped to it. Sitting next to it was an otherwise unmarked can with a paper sign crudely taped to it that read only “XXX.”
“Forget the cane, pops, I can’t believe they let you bring that on the plane.”
“You’d be surprised how lax they are with checked bags, Mano.”
Pedro poured the coffee from his claimed maker into two styrofoam cups and sat down at one of folding tables. His student followed suit.
“I know why you crave his approval, Mano,” Pedro started. “He’s tu padre. You followed in his footsteps, even if he don’t see it like that.”
The luchador sighed mightily before nodding.
“But,” Pedro continued after taking a sip of his coffee without flinching, “after some time, you gotta realize that blood or no blood, he’s Lucy. You’re Charlie Brown, mi hijo. How much longer are you gonna let him pull the football away?”
“It’s not just that, Teach. Every time he runs his mouth, I hear Gamble. They’re both saying the same things, in different voices, but after awhile…”
He took a beat and slugged enough coffee in one sip to give him a good jolt.
“Wow, even stronger than I remember. Shit.”
He shook the cobwebs out.
“After a while, the criticisms just pierce the veil. I’m sitting here wondering what my role in all of this is, why I came back, why it bugs me that I’m always on the outside looking in. If I can’t impress my father…”
Pedro put his hand on top of Tom’s.
“Mano, you know none of what you’re sayin’ is true, right? So you’re not in no posses? You ain’t impressed everyone, neither have I. Neither has your dad or that two-bit gangster wannabe. You know full well why your dad keeps buggin’ you.”
The luchador sighed. “Because I fell in love with lucha and not his brand of wrestling.”
“Yeah. And Gamble’s just playing mind games.”
The look on Tom’s face was unchanged. Stone-faced and pale.
“I know you don’t believe me,” Pedro continued, “But you worry too much about winning everyone over. There’s only one person you gotta win over. That’s you. After that, everyone else who matters will fall in.”
“Are you saying my dad doesn’t matter?”
Pedro rolled his eyes.
“Not saying that 100 percent. Just saying maybe you don’t gotta listen to him about everything.”
Pedro struggled to his feet.
“Besides, if you don’t focus too much on the people who ain’t see you for who you really are? You’re gonna miss everyone who is.”
Tom took another sip of his coffee.
“Hey,” Pedro continued, “I’m gonna go talk to Miranda before she masks up. You wanna come?”
“I’ll talk to her after I stop vibrating. I seriously underestimated how strong this shit is.”
Pedro laughed heartily as he patted his former student on the back.
See, Wingtips, you helped me realize something. Way back when, around this time last year, I didn’t decide to come back to wrestling because some supernatural force said I could save lucha libre. I didn’t come back to heal an old wound from my deep past. I didn’t return to take a mask off an ex-football player or especially not to be liked and adored by people, most of whom I hadn’t even met yet. I came back because my legacy was incomplete. People didn’t remember my name with the respect I wanted it to. I could’ve stayed retired, been a happy house husband, and raised a family like I’d been doing for the last several years. I wouldn’t have been complete though. I wouldn’t have been fulfilled.
I came back for me.
There were a shocking number of cars parked in the ballfield up the street from Tom’s house in Malvern for mid-December. He thought nothing of it as he parked the Shitty Green Ford Explorer™ in his driveway and approached his front door, bag slung over his shoulder. No sooner did he walk in the door and turn on the lamp closest to the foyer than he was shocked out of his shoes.
A litany of people sprung from their hastily taken hiding spots. His house was spacious, and the sheer number of people who packed it surprised him. A single tear fell down his cheek as he looked for one person and one person only. There he was in his wheelchair, right by the Philly Pretzel Factory tray, loading his plate up with rivets and the cinnamon sugar dip his doctor told him he wasn’t allowed to eat too much of. The room moved in bullet time around him as he approached his father, finding the words he wanted to say to him, to close the loop, to put it to bed once and for all. In his haste, however, he bumped into someone.
“Oh Jesus, I’m sorry… I…”
“It’s okay, Tom,” replied Shweta Kallemullah. “And happy birthday.”
Tom and Shweta hugged for a moment before she continued.
“Jon really wanted to make it but…”
“Yeah, I know. It’s gotta be hard with the extra added difficulties. I’m just happy that you’re here and…”
He looked around the room and started spotting people. First was his brother, Mikey, who helped whip his ass into shape when he stared down the Tower of Babel way back in February. Then there was Pom Shinjoku, a woman with whom he had a blood bond. Over by the drink cooler was Miranda Dos Casas, aka Peach Backshots, aka Milagro DC, the other best student ever from Pedro’s school and The Anglo Luchador’s number one superfan. Timo Bolamba was grooving to the curated playlist Zo had made. His newest and most on-edge friend, Charles Beckett from the legendary tag team Crash and Burn, kept trying to get past Captain Suleimon to get at the coffeemaker. Dusk was sharing war stories from a Hall of Fame career over by the picture window with a rapt Steve DelVecchio, Agent to the Stars. The only thing missing from the old luchador was a literal lightbulb going off over his head.
“…and everyone else who made it too.”
“When your wife called, Jon couldn’t say no. That’s why I had to come if he couldn’t. You’ve done so much since PRIME’s reopened…”
“And I still have a lot left to do.”
Wingtips. Tony. You’ve run up quite the tab on me since you waltzed back into this company in July. You know something about tabs, don’tcha? Part of one of the many legitimate businesses you guys use as a front for your racketeering shit. I don’t have to tell you what happens to people who don’t pay their tabs. You know what your kind does. Broken legs. Scars. Maimings. Lucky for me, all of that’s not only legal in the Intense Championship division, it’s encouraged. Unluckily for you, I’ve got the motivation.
It’s no secret you’ve gotten under my skin, but the depths of what you’ve taken from me without paying are unconscionable for a man like me who holds a title like this. You tainted my original title win. You kept trying to undermine me while I had an unholy beast waiting for me at Ultraviolence. Your goons attacked me, and then you had the temerity to say I deserved it because you were slightly annoyed by how I acted. There are people in this company who’d have given you the Mussolini treatment by now.
But I’m also a patient man, Wingtips. I don’t need to take a piece of your soul in the corridors of the MGM Grand during a live broadcast on the ACE Network. I was happy to wait until now, at the world’s most famous arena, to carve you up and hang you in my window like a porchetta. And I’m not doing it to get Sykes or Youngblood to notice me. I’m not doing it to be a symbol. I’m not doing it to fulfill some legacy that some people close to me think I should have.
I’m going to do it because I need to.
The party hadn’t ended yet, but Tom found his way to the front porch after everyone sang “Happy birthday” to him. If you haven’t ever heard Dusk’s singing voice, well, you’d be missing out. He slouched back on his wicker couch, a bottle of the special mezcal from that secret distillery in Oaxaca in one hand and a Cohiba in the other, a real one from Cuba that men of his celebrity could acquire.
“Seat taken, Thomas-san?”
“There’s always a seat for you, Pom.”
The joshi legend plopped down next to her former tag partner.
“So, all those people here for you, and you’re out front. What gives?”
“I had to get a little clarity.”
“Your mom told me what your dad said. Fucked up if you ask me.”
The luchador gave a muffled laugh.
“It’s been like that since day one…”
He paused to take a drag from his cigar.
“…but I think I got it figured out.”
“Oh well then, let me hear your grand plan to get your dad to stop talking his stupid dad shit.”
Tom turned to stare his friend dead in her eye.
“There isn’t one.”
Her eyes opened wide.
“I had a revelation today, when I saw you, Craig, Tariq, Shweta, everyone who came in. Like… everyone I proved myself to, they don’t need proving.”
He took a pull from his liquor.
“And the people who need to be convinced. If they ain’t convinced by now, what more can I do?”
Pom laughed and nodded.
“Wise words for a guy who gets bashed in the brain for a living. I’m impressed, Thomas-san.”
She snatched the bottle of mezcal from her friend’s hand and did her best Dana Jacobsen with it until there was nary a drop left.
“You’re lucky I have three bottles left of that. You know that distillery only operates between March and May.”
“I don’t give a flying fuck about your liquor, Luchador. I give a fuck about you.”
He shot a knowing smirk and threw his head back.
“But you gotta tell me,” she continued, “What is your plan?”
He histrionically lifted his head back up and turned it towards Pom.
“I’m going to batter the hell out of that rat bastard Gamble until I’ve had enough of him. He’s gonna pay for everything he’s done to me for a whole half-a-year. And after that, who knows.”
He took another drag off his cigar, slow, savoring.
“Maybe I’ll fuck around and win the Universal Championship. Tommy Two Belts. How does that sound?”
“Pretentious as fuck,” Pom replied with a laugh. “But it suits you.”
She slapped him on the shoulder.
“Yeah, I’ve been called worse. I don’t care anymore though. I think this year, I lost focus on what’s really important.”
“You have, but you haven’t, really. You’ve grown a lot, Thomas-san. I think everyone in that house knows it. Even your shithead father.”
“I love him, but he’ll go to his grave never admitting that I did the right thing by following my heart. And that’s okay. The old man gave me enough that I don’t need his blessing anymore.”
Pom smiled and rose from the couch.
“You’re everything I knew you’d become. But no matter how good you are, it’s quite rude to hide out here when the party is for you. Get your ass back in there.”
Tom chuckled, put his cigar out for the moment, and rose to reenter his home.
As much as I want to ruin you, Wingtips, I couldn’t have done any of this without you. I had to believe you at face value to cut through your bullshit. December 17. Madison Square Garden. I will give you your reward in person. It isn’t the gift you want, but it’s one you deserve. And after I tattoo my thank you card on your chest in your own blood, maybe you can have your own epiphany. Lord knows you need one with the path you’re walking.