Behind the black curtain stood a wrestling ring built to scale. The unique and unconventional stage design struck an immediate tone, one that evokes images of reckless turnbuckle daredevilry. The venue, Atlanta’s 787 Windsor, was quickly filling. Excitement buzzed, knowing that what’s to come has already defied expectations. I’ve seen many live performances, few of which took place away from a traditional stage. Given that Denzel Curry and Red Bull Music’s Zeltron World Wide has been marketed as a no-holds-barred battle, I might have known.

This is not his first rodeo. Last year, Denzel locked horns with Erick Arc Elliot, Zombie Juice, and Meechy Darko – The Flatbush ZombiesThe inaugural event took place in Miami, giving Denzel a comfortable home-field advantage. This time it’s taking place in hip-hop’s vibrant capital as part of Red Bull Music Festival Atlanta. Neutral ground. His latest opponent is once again a native New Yorker, a formidable lyricist, the central force behind a rising Beast Coast Movement. Joey Bada$$, the Badmon. It’s unclear whether Joey is positioned as the evening’s antagonist, though given that the event is Denzel’s brainchild, it’s a fitting a title as any.

In an immersive twist, the battle itself was preceded by a whole wrestling match. Two men, one of which channeled the long arm of the law, faced off in a lengthy battle of body and mind. Though the match itself might have benefitted from a truncated runtime, the homage to wrestling culture did not go unappreciated. Plus, there’s something inherently raw about performing in a ring coated with sweat and possibly even blood. Between two grown men manhandling one another and the DJ’s extremely well-curated playlist (including Bone Crusher’s “Never Scared” is an automatic win), the adrenaline was spiking. By the time Joey Bada$$ entered the ring to a spirited introduction the crowd was in a fever pitch. It’s hard to say, but Denzel’s subsequent ringside entrance appeared to cement him as the favorite – if only by a margin.

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The order was to be decided like a rap battle: heads or tails. Yet Denzel balked at the idea, all but forcing Joey to set it off. The Badmon accepted the challenge without hesitation, bringing an immediate intensity to his set. Having never witnessed him perform live, the translation was incredible to behold; a slick lyricist adept over nostalgic boom-bap production, watching Joey lay down “No. 99” with a rage-addled voice was a pleasant surprise. One of my main concerns was his inability to match Denzel’s boundless energy. Rest assured that Joey quickly put those cautions to bed. Overall, his opening round served to set a tone, to prove he was not about to be overpowered by stamina alone. Denzel quickly countered with his own riotous debut, the Zuu banger “Birdz.” This being my first time seeing Denzel in concert, I was not surprised to see him bringing such intensity. The crowd responded in kind, and the surrounding area quickly transformed into a sea of flailing limbs.

While the performances themselves were both excellent, backing-track free affairs, one of the highlighting factors had to be the transitory trash-talking. “Ain’t this the same n***a I took on his first tour,” rapped Joey, acapella. “If this is your show, then why are they paying me more?” Denzel was equally adept at bandying words, laying waste to Joey’s momentum with recurring schoolyard chants of “FUCK YOU JOEY.” A friendly competition that occasionally dipped its toe in scathing waters, the tension between parties kept the stakes delightfully high. At one point, Joey challenged Denzel’s lyricism: “where your bars at?” Denzel’s counter riposte: “where your songs at?” Though it quickly became evident that Joey and Zel were well matched, the latter’s clutch performance of ”Black Balloons” worked wonders in revealing his songwriting prowess. The follow-up of “Wish” only strengthened the point. The infectious back to back made for an early show highlight, revealing the scope of Denzel’s versatility. As round two reached a close, it felt like momentum was swinging in Zeltron’s favor.

The tides turned at the beginning of round three. In an acrobatic display of agility, Joey Bada$$ scaled one of the ringside poles and obliterated a performance of Beast Coast’s “Distance.” I’ve seen enough videos of rappers clambering to great heights that witnessing it unfold before my eyes earned Badmon some easy points. Another highlight arose as Joey spit bars over the iconic “Joey Fucking Bada$$” chant, steering the fans back into his encampment. Following his impactful round, I felt comfortable in giving Joey the edge. At least, until Denzel retaliated with “Threatz.” A clear fan favorite, the Nostalgia 64 classic swiftly regained momentum in his favor, especially when paired with the equally hard-hitting “Sumo.” Still, Joey’s “where your bars at?” taunt seemed to linger; though there is absolutely no disputing that Zeltron can spit, many of his set’s strongest moments arose through melody and energy.

Jeremy Deputat/Red Bull Content Pool

The fourth round found Joey bringing out local legend Pastor Troy, whose lively presence was appreciated by the hip-hop purists. In a more somber turn, he followed-up with “Infinity 99,” a performance bookended by Triple X’s verse playing out in entirety. As it closed, Joey took a moment to salute his friend and collaborator, promising that new music was coming soon. The homages continued with “Survival Tactics” featuring Captial Steez, closing Joey’s round in bittersweet fashion. The tribute to X did not go unnoticed by Denzel, who shouted out his opponent for honoring his fallen friend. Yet despite the moment of solidarity, Joey had set the tone with the surprise guests and Denzel was forced to match the occasion. Enter Kenny Mason, an Atlanta up-and-comer who impressed with dexterity and Zeltron-worthy exuberance. Afterward, Denzel held it down with my personal favorite performance of the night: “Speedboat.” Letting the beat trail out, Zel absolutely bodied his second verse acapella, revealing lyrical finesse, impeccable breath control, and articulate delivery. His closing declaration–essentially equating to WHO SAID I DON’T HAVE BARS—  spoke volumes.

At this point, the format seemed to change. What began as a grudge match transformed into a full-fledged Royal Rumble. Before long Guapdad 3000, Reese LaFlare, and Jace had flooded the stage, laying down an insane performance of Dreamville’s “Costa Rica.” Though Joey’s “Devastated” made for a strong closer, Denzel’s position as the second performer allowed him to close on an impeccable note. While it was clear that “Clout Cobain” and “Ultimate” were being saved for the final round, that did nothing to dull their inevitable appearance. The former featured additional theatrics as Zel sang the opening verse into a suspended microphone. The Royal Rumble energy returned for “Ultimate,” which was unsurprisingly explosive; Denzel made an emphatic point with an impressive roundhouse kick straight out of Tekken 3. 

The event’s conclusion brought both parties into the ring, a victor to be decided. In keeping with the wrestling flavor, twin belts were paraded by the ring girls on hand. Both Joey and Denzel found common ground as dual champions, with the former taking time to praise Zel’s innovative accomplishment and artistic growth. It was a heartfelt moment, one that really cemented the camaraderie between the young competitors. Perhaps inspired by a late-game alliance, both Joey and Denzel proceeded to challenge the A$AP Mob to the next edition of Zeltron Worldwide, which is set to continue across the continent; Red Bull has already confirmed stops in Miami, Oakland, and New York City on the docket. Yet there remains one particular challenge that must be answered: who is qualified to battle Curry in the first place?

Jeremy Deputat/Red Bull Content Pool

Off the dome, there are several names that come to mind. A$AP Rocky would make for a worthy opponent, one whose catalog is deep enough to match Denzel’s own. “Sirens” collaborator J.I.D is another prime candidate, boasting a live intensity and exceptional technical skill. Qualities such as discography, stage presence, stamina, crowd-control, and more should be maxed out. Ski Mask The Slump God could step to the plate, though he might not have the depth of catalog to back a full-scale assault. Seeing as the adrenaline-fueled match lends itself to a high-intensity delivery, the scope of valid competition is surprisingly limited. Let that be a testament to Denzel’s own dominance, and that of Joey Bada$$, who battled valiantly every step of the way. By my own estimation, Denzel edged the victory ever-so-slightly, though I went in with an admitted bias in his favor. Let it be known, however, that I left with a newfound appreciation for Joey Bada$$ and everything he brings to the game.

It seemed only fitting to end the night in spectacular fashion. The first Uber driver spoke of one particular Atlanta establishment with reverence. The Clermont Lounge, in which strippers of an older persuasion have transformed the club into the stuff of legend. It is said that one woman can crush a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon using the sheer power of her bosom. That impression was seconded by another Uber driver, who did his part in spreading the lore. By that point, the destination had been decided. A final cap-off to yet another journey to the magical ATL. Yet while fortune favors the bold, so too does it punish the dreamer; alas, it was closed on Sunday.