It had been a mere two days since Johnny Graves took the first loss of his CWF career. Two days that felt - to him at least - like an eternity. He replayed the closing moments of his clash with Duce Jones over and over in his head. It was over. He knew it. Everyone in the Broadmoor World Arena knew it. The StarKiller was going to claim another victim and add another victory to his totals. Somehow Jones had managed to slip free. Somehow he managed to save himself from the biggest knockout of Johnny’s career. Johnny would attempt a desperation clothesline and would come up empty as Duce slipped that as well. And then… nothing. He could remember the sudden yank on his arm spinning him around and then blackness. The sound of the fans screaming and cheering on the action that had unfolded before them sounded muffled and far away. He could hear the referee’s hand slapping the canvas and shouting his count. But it was so far away. Too far for Johnny to close the gap and get his shoulder off the mat. When it finally did regain some measure of consciousness it was too late. The match was over and Duce Jones stood victorious.
It was all Johnny could think about.
He had been the one to lay down the challenge. He had been the one that called Duce out on Twitter. He had been the one that instigated the entire rivalry between the two men. And when push came to shove, he had come up short. He had to give props where props were due. Duce Jones was a tough son of a bitch. Tougher than Johnny would have given him credit for before stepping into the ring with him. If you would’ve asked him prior to the close of Evolution 47 he would’ve told he was going to defeat Duce, embarrass Duce, and ride the wave of momentum he had created right into Vertigo. But of course, that was before a headbutt scrambled his brain and a vicious knee turned his lights out.
“It’s not our successes, but our response to our failures that define our greatness, boyo,” Zeek Williams had once told him.
That night, just a couple hours after the show ended, Zeek had called Johnny. Johnny didn’t answer. In fact, he still hadn’t even listened to the voicemail his mentor had left for him. It was probably something comforting. Some wise words a mentor would offer their pupil in order to lift their spirits and keep them going. Keep them focused on the goal and not the path. Johnny didn’t want to hear it. He didn’t want to be comforted. He didn’t want to be offered words of wisdom from a veteran in the industry. He wanted to fight. It didn’t matter where. It could be in the middle of a wrestling ring or the parking lot of some Vegas dive bar. He didn’t care. He just wanted to hit someone. Hard. No, they wouldn’t be the source of his frustration. Duce Jones wasn’t even the source of his frustration. He was.
He had the match won. He had Duce exactly where he wanted him. One knee - just one - and it would’ve been Johnny’s hand being raised in victory. But he had failed. There was no need to sugar coat it. There certainly wasn’t any kind of consolation to the effort he had put in. Sure, he had left everything in the ring, saving nothing in the tank. He threw everything he had to throw that night in Jones’ direction. The war was brutal and Johnny enjoyed every moment of it. It was exactly the kind of hard hitting exchange he had craved since the day he began training. A battle like the one he had at Evolution 47 was the exact reason he got into the industry. But he had failed and that was what ate at him. That fact is what kept him up all night and in the gym all day. He wouldn’t fail like that again.
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A heavy thud rang out in the small gym inside Johnny Graves’ Las Vegas home. His left hand rested on the side of a hanging punching bag. He drove his right elbow in the bag making solid contact. A thin layer of sweat covered his body, his skin glistening underneath the lights of his home gym. He would continue driving his elbow into the heavy bag repeatedly, each strike colliding with the leather with more impact than the one before it. Dropping his left hand, Johnny would take a step back from the bag bouncing on the balls of his feet, his hands up at forehead level in loose fists. He would step forward with his left foot before driving the point of his right knee into the back. He retreated momentarily taking a step back before stepping forward and driving another knee into the bag. He repeated this pattern over and over each time rocking the bag with a sharp strike. His breathing was heavy, exhaling loudly with every strike and sucking in air as he backed off the bag.
“You planning on taking a break and coming up stairs?”
Leaning against the wooden door frame behind him stood Braelyn Kendrick.Her slender hands were tucked into the pockets of her tight fitting jeans and her head was tilted to the side slightly. Her gaze was fixed on Johnny, watching as he brutalized the heavy bag before him. Something she had seen him do more than once. He wasn’t in a good mood. She knew that. She believed it was her responsibility to pull him from this place he’d go to when things didn’t play out the way he planned them to. It was how their relationship worked. Johnny would get upset and she would guide him out of the darkness and return to the real world.
Johnny doesn’t respond to Braelyn’s question. He instead keeps his attention firmly trained on the heavy bag before him as he continues to unleash his rage upon it.
“You’re going to wear yourself out before your match,” Braelyn continued knowing that Johnny could hear her. At least she hoped he hadn’t slipped that far into his own darkness and could actually still hear her. “At the very least. Worse case, you injure yourself and won’t be able to compete at Vertigo.”
“I’m fine,” Johnny growled as he continued driving fists, knees, feet, and elbows into the heavy bag. He wanted his strikes to be perfect. He wanted to ensure no one would ever get the better of him again. Make sure no one would kick out of the StarKiller again.
“Johnny!” Braelyn demanded, her tone raised to nearly a shout. “Stop!”
Johnny sighed and ceased his assault on the bag. He dropped his head and closed his eyes, his shoulders rising and falling heavily insync with his deep breathing. Sweat drips from his arms and face. The gray sleeveless T-shirt he wore was drenched and darkened from his intense workout. He stood in silence, not moving a muscle outside of the motion of his labored breaths.
“You lost, Johnny,” Braelyn would continue in a firm tone. “It happens. It happens to everyone. Everyone has off nights, everyone gets lucky, and everyone in this business loses a match here and there. Whether you like it or not you’re going to lose again. And again. And again. But if you’re going to lose yourself in this self loathing bullshit you’re going to lose at Vertigo.”
Johnny remains silent. He didn’t know what to say. He knew that Braelyn was right. She wasn’t anything overly profound or insightful. He knew everyone lost. He knew he wouldn’t go undefeated in the CWF. But to lose to Duce Jones in the way that he did. After everything that was said between the two. All the tweets back and forth. After Johnny had called him out.
“Say something,” Braelyn pleads with her closest friend.
“I fucked up,” Johnny finally admits. His voice was low. Serious. “I can’t do that again.”
“You didn’t fuck up, Johnny,” Braelyn argues before her lips would curl into a disapproving frown. “You got pinned. Big deal! You went out there and you went to war. You gave that idiot everything you had. You could have easily walked out of that ring as the winner but the ball just didn’t bounce that way. But think about it! You went one on one with the number one contender for the world title and you took him to the limit. You proved that you belong. Not just in the company but at the top. How long has Duce Jones been doing this? Longer than you. A lot longer than you and you took him to the limit. He may have escaped with the win but you proved who the fuck you are!”
Johnny relented. His shoulders relaxed and he opened his eyes, lifting his head once more. He had taken Jones to the limit. He made Jones earn every millisecond of the three count. Despite his personal opinion it was entirely possible that Jones would go onto Vertigo to become the world champion. Maybe it was a victory. A moral victory, sure, but a victory nonetheless.
“I sat in the middle of that ring and demanded that I replace Freddie Styles in the Impact Championship match,” Johnny explained. He shook his head slightly and a breathy laugh escaped his closed lips. “I sat there and said I was the hottest thing goin’ in CWF and then I go out and get pinned by Jones.”
“And your added to the Impact Championship match,” Braelyn corrects. “You may have lost to Duce but clearly you did something to impress management. The fact you can’t see that is because you’re an idiot who doesn’t focus on the facts. You lost to Duce. Sad. But you are in the match at Vertigo. You have the opportunity to become CWF Impact Champion in… what? You’re fourth match?”
“Fifth,” Johnny corrects.
“Whatever fifth!” Braelyn exclaims. “The fact is you’re going to walk into just your second pay per view for this company and you’re going to walk out a champion. You’re going to get what you deserve. You’re going to rule the company. But only if you earn it. And you’re not going to earn it crying over Douchebag Jones!”
Again a breathy laugh would emit from the lips of the man known as the Sin City Saint. He slowly turned around fixing his gaze on Braelyn for the first time. He studies her for a moment. Her observed the concern that shaped her face. The deep worry behind her eyes. He offered a smile in an attempt to reassure her.
“I promise I’m fine,” Johnny offered in a low tone. “You don’t need to worry about me. I’m here. I’m fully aware that in a few days I will be competin’ in the biggest match of my career. I know I have the chance to become a champion. I know this is the most important thing I’ve done in my career and I’m ready. Trust me… I have it all planned out. I will walk out of Vertigo with that strap. I’ve taken measures to ensure my success. Believe me, Brae, I’ve never been more focused and more prepared.”
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“What? You thought I was done? You thought because Duce Jones got a lucky break and picked up a victory against me the Sin City Saint would suddenly have nothin’ to say? You thought I would tuck my tail between my legs and go into hidin’? Never! Duce… I will give props where props are owed. You pinned me in the center of that ring. Legit. You didn’t take the b[beep]h way out like ya boy, Freddie Styles. You stood up like a man. You took everything I threw at you and you threw it back. I beat the s[beep]t outta you. You beat the s[beep]t outta me. In the end you won. And I’m man enough to admit it… on that night you were the better man. But I promise you, Duce, the next time you and I are in the ring together I will put you down. I will knock you the f[beep]k out and it will be me that picks up that three count!
But Duce Jones is the past. I’m told I’m supposed to be talkin’ about the present. I’m supposed to be thinkin’ about my match at Vertigo where I will step inside of a steel cage and go against three men… the winner leaves CWF Impact Champion. Now before anyone runs their mouth about me being a rookie and blah blah blah… lemme be the first to say it. I’ve never stepped inside of a steel cage. I have never once felt that unforgivin’ steel clash with my flesh and bones. I have undergone the brutality that that cage makes possible. Am I scared? Nah. I ain’t scared. I ain’t never in my life been scared of a fight. I ain’t never in my life backed down from a fight. What, you surround with some fencin’ and suddenly I’m supposed to get shook? I have been fightin’ my entire life. I have been fightin’ for pride, fightin’ for money, fightin’ for survival. My entire f[beep]in’ life I’ve been inside of cages. I’ve lived in cages. I’ve spent every day of my life knowin’ that if I didn’t hurt them before they hurt me… I wouldn’t be here anymore. So don’t think for one second that my heart’s flutterin’ at the thought of steppin’ into that cage. If anythin’ I will be at home in that cage. I will relish the opportunity to prove what I can do inside of that cage. Truth is… it’s everyone else in this match that should be scared of what that steel can do and what I can do with it.
So let’s run down the list because that’s what CWF management wants right?
Moe Davis. I punked you out my first night on CWF TV. Management - being the geniuses they are - decided it would be a good idea to put me in the ring with you and your ex lover on pay per view and what happened? I won. You lost. Period. I don’t even need to go into details on this one. I proved that you are not in my league. I proved that you do not belong in the same ring as me! You’re trash, you’re garbage, you’re awful! You’re the dude that gets put into opportunities like this so that the powers that be can say ‘see look! We give everyone opportunities.’ You haven’t earned s[beep]t far as I’m concerned! You haven’t proven that you belong in this match! You haven’t shown that bein’ Impact Champion is somethin’ that’s even in your DNA. My advice to you… lose your plane ticket, forget to grab your security badge, have car trouble, just don’t show up! Because if you step into that cage I promise you I will do exactly what I did at Confliction and I will put your ass down! Word is you’re the dark horse. Word is Styles is so focused on van Owen, and Graves is so focused on Styles and Jones, and van Owen is so focused on himself that you could actually pull this one out. But I got some breakin’ news for you. Whoever said you could be a professional wrestler, lied to you. You’re dreams are a lie. You’re entire career is a lie. You are the most worthless sack of s[beep]t I have even seen in my life! But I’mma end it there while you still have some breath in your lungs. ‘Cause s[beep]t, even I like an underdog story.
Moving onto the two men that actually matter in this match aside from your’s truly.
Zach van Owen. The CWF Impact Champion. The man that captured the title and then what? Disappeared. The man who hasn’t been on CWF TV since I’ve arrived. I’ll be honest with you Zach… I didn’t know you or the Impact Title existed until Styles started cryin’ about it. Don’t get it twisted. That’s not a slight against you. I mean, when a champion isn’t on TV, when he’s not backstage hangin’ with the boys how is one supposed to know that it’s a thing? No, here comes the diss. What kind of champion wears a title belt around his waist and hides? What kind of man has the balls to claim he is one of the best and then hide away from the rest of company, hoarding his belt like f[beep]in’ Golem and the one ring? You’re pathetic! The fans of CWF deserve a real champion. They deserve someone who will carry that title proudly. That will actually show up and defend it. That will actually wrestle day in and day out and prove to everyone why they deserve to be considered one of the best. The fans deserve someone like me. Because here’s the thing… when I take that belt off of you I will be on Evolution week in and week out. I will compete week in and week out. I will defend that belt against anyone deservin’ of a shot. I won’t go into hidin’. I won’t cower in my home, covettin’ the belt like it’s the only thing I have. I’m not you, Zach. I’m not a bitch. I’m a fighter. I will always be a fighter. I will walk into Vertigo as a fighter, I will take your Impact Championship as a fighter, and I will defend it as a fighter.
Now onto the man I know everyone is clamorin’ for me to address…
Boy I always knew you and I would step into the ring against each other again. After the last time we faced off I knew the wrestlin’ world wouldn’t be satisfied until they saw a definitive conclusion to our lil’ dance. But see the sing is, Freddie, the wrestlin’ world is stupid. The wrestlin’ world is filled with a bunch of nerds and overweight as[beep]les who think they know somethin’. While they’re sittin’ there clamorin’ over seein’ a definitive finish between you and I, they’re forgettin’ one thing. You can’t beat me. I know it. You know it. Anyone with half a f[beep]in’ brain knows it. That’s why you did what you did. That’s why you took the coward’s way out. That’s why you hit me with a low blow, got yourself disqualified, and walked away to challenge to van Owen for the Impact Title. Because at least you have a shot of beatin’ him. But now look where you find yourself. Not only do you have to go up against van Owen but you have to go up against the man you know you cannot beat! The man that you is better than you. The man that would’ve knocked your ass out and pinned you: one, two, three. If you hadn’t taken the bitch way out. And this is why I’m excited. This is why I’m lookin’ forward to Vertigo. I’m walkin’ out with the Impact Championship regardless. But what gets my juices flowin’ the most is the chance to get into the ring with you, surrounded by steel, knowin’ that whatever I do to is is completely legal. Styles… not only am I gonna rip away your dreams of bein’ champion. I’m gonna personally make sure that you’re laid up in a hospital bed and never seen on CWF TV for a long, long time!”