Backyard wrestling ... it has such a rugged, wholesome sound, like roughhousing or barnraising. I imagine Teddy Roosevelt probably did it. I can hear Donna Reed calling out the back door, "Boys, when you're done backyard wrestling, come and get some lemonade and cookies in the kitchen."
But according to Time magazine and Sports Illustrated and a very concerned Sam Donaldson on ABC, backyard wrestling is something else. It's not just headlocks and body slams, it's breaking lightbulbs on your best friend's chest for the camera. It's smashing your opponent with a chair or jumping off the garage roof onto a flaming card table. Backyard wrestling has sent more than a few kids to the emergency room.
Backyard wrestling is cruel and unusual -- and it's also apparently very popular. Who does backyard wrestling -- and, for goodness sake, why do they do it? I tried this question out on my family, and before my husband could say, "Who cares?" our son said, "Yeah, I did that."
A deep, almost spiritual silence settles over the conversation.
"You did what?" I ask.
"Backyard wrestling. It was cool," he says. "Josh dropped Zain on his head."
We stare at each other, and I blink first.
"Can I ask a mom question?"
"Is Zain OK?"
|Do not attempt this in your backyard. These guys are professionals.|
My insides are doing an Ozzy Osborne. "What else happened?" I demand. "Was fire involved? Were there lightbulbs?"
There's a long silence. "I don't remember. It's on the tape."
Ozzy inside is screaming, "Tape! Where is the tape? I am your mother, and I demand to see that tape!" I take a deep breath, "Cool. Could I see the tape?"
As it turns out, no. The tape never appeared. First Woody had it, then Trevor. Then maybe Alex or Steve, but they couldn't find it. I tried the direct approach, and failed. I tried disinterested curiosity, and failed. I tried bribery and extortion. I tried indirection. I confessed a collection of the stupidest things I ever did as a teen, hoping he would top me with backyard wrestling stories. I had to call that contest off. It's one thing in middle age to accept that that toboggan accident was your own damn fault, and if you flew off the road and got stuck in a tree that probably saved your life. It's another thing to listen to similar stories from the person who you raised to within spitting distance of what some call maturity.
Growing more desperate, I tried grammar: I used the conditional mode. "If this tape existed, and if I saw it, might I see ...?" Nothing worked.
Undeterred, I called the one person I know who knows lots of teenage wrestlers, the high school wrestling coach. A man, a father, and, if I'm any judge of character, a former daredevil, coach Black volunteered to put his ear to the ground trying to find the nest of backyard wrestlers. But they hid from him like they hid from me, two authority figures who are way too old to be trusted. "I've been asking around," said the coach, "and the kids say they're not doing it. I don't believe kids are as stupid as we think they are. Once they start fooling around with this, they understand how dangerous it is -- and they stop."
|A lot of kids just can't resist the chance to try out the holds they see in pro wrestling.|
The coach was on a roll: "The backyard stuff isn't wrestling. It's nothing but thrill-seeking and mimicking what they see on TV. That doesn't mean it's not fun to play act. Real wrestling is something different. It's the last surviving combat sport, the most physical, the most aggressive." He concluded, "Every culture has its own homegrown wrestling style. It's even part of chimpanzees."
Finally, a clue: chimpanzees. Backyard wrestling begins to make sense. I understand its appeal. It's a primitive male urge, like chest beating. The same impulse that makes men run into burning buildings and fly fighter jets prompts them to jump off garage roofs or headbutt their best friends with grins on their faces.
I gotta find these guys.
Mom on a mission
||Wrestling is like Santa Claus and the tooth fairy. You want to believe as long as you can. But even when you find out, you still like Christmas. ”
||— Johnny Malice, UIWA wrestler
The case of the backyard wrestler was at a dead-end. I was stonewalled by high school omerta. Worse, the backyard wrestlers I knew had suffered an attack of common sense and given it up.
I needed a new trail to follow. I tried the 21st century shortcut, the Internet. If you can find Cipro and animated kiddie porn on the Internet, it must be a safe haven for backyard wrestlers.
Put backyard wresting in your search engine, and sit back. There are dozens of sites. Pictures, too. Everything Sam Donaldson warned me about: Boys hitting each other with chairs, powerdiving into burning tables.
On the Internet, I also found independent professional wrestlers. Not "Stone Cold" Steve Austin or The Rock, but the hometown version, Vince Ross and Doc Marlee. No, they didn't backyard wrestle. Maybe once they backyard wrestled, and they knew some young men who used to be backyard wrestlers. We'd meet after dark in Long Beach, where Doc Marlee's fed, UIWA, was holding a SuperShow. (Children 3 and under FREE!)
Surely, extreme wrestlers, people named Crayz and Al Katrazz and Johnny Malice, must know the kind of teen outlaws who abuse lightbulbs and thumbtacks in their back yards.
It was after dark when I arrived at the Long Beach Boys & Girls Club. I knew I was in the right place, because the official's T-shirt said, "UIWA -- We don't need no lame ass slogans."
Inside the gym was a giant ring, surrounded on three sides by ranks of well-used brown folding chairs. There were about 40 of us gathered to see 10 matches. Everyone had a clear line of sight. I checked my watch, the clock, and waited for the bell.
|Sometimes the ring cannot contain the action at a UIWA event.|
Seven-year-old Melanie, a young woman with a firm grasp on the difference between sport and entertainment, spotted me as a newbie and brought me up to speed. She was there with wrestler Randy, Master G. "I'm called Partner G," she said. "Wrestling always starts late. But the good thing is you can yell at them and say bad words. Girls can only be valets. They come out with the wrestlers and are girlfriends." What about danger, pain, injury? "There are blades under the ring to make them bleed, but it doesn't hurt." She didn't know any backyard wrestlers.
I took my seat with a group of enthusiastic fans, a sassy band of 12-year-olds -- Rakeem, Randall, Larry, Desmond, Keith, Michael and Ryan. Why do they come out for extreme wrestling? "It's tight. I like the hits, the moves, the booms and the bangs."
The first match pit The Hardkore Kidd (who's a kid like I'm a nymphette) against Frankie The Future Kazarian. The Kidd came in yelling that every time someone flushes a toilet in the state of California it winds up in Long Beach. He ranted like Howard Beale. The boys loved it. So did I.
In order to help me, the boys called out the moves -- headlong, arm drag, drop kick, nut crunch, head bash, ax kick, flying clothesline. "Stunner," said Michael, "s-t-u-n-n-e-r." A better speller than most wrestlers and the management of the much-missed XFL.
|UIWA fans, officials and wrestlers take time for the national anthem.|
For the second match, the boys left their seats, circling the ring like a flock of birds, following the action. When the wrestlers moved too close or jumped out of the ring, they fluttered away, shouting and laughing.
The third match was a tag-team affair. The bad guys came in, and the boys booed lustily. One wrestler turned on them scowling and said, "That's not nice." Desmond cocked his head and replied to my astonishment, "That's not what your mama said last night." The rest of the fans applauded him.
I worked my way around to backyard wrestling. "My cousin backyard wrestled at a party," announced Ryan. "He got hurt with nails. He can't walk too much any more." I was saved the embarrassment of believing this horrifying story by the hoots of his friends. Rakeem reminded us solemnly, "You need to be trained in wrestling."
I asked the wrestlers. Johnny Malice didn't know any backyard wrestlers, but he understood why boys want to wrestle. "Wrestling is like Santa Claus and the tooth fairy. You want to believe as long as you can. But even when you find out, you still like Christmas."
If I got near a backyard wrestler, I never knew it. I met ex-backyard wrestlers and friends of backyard wrestlers. I saw pictures of backyard wrestling on the Internet -- but on the Internet you can see Bert hobnobbing with Osama bin Laden. Maybe there are no more backyard wrestlers. Maybe the one thing backyard wrestlers fear is a mom on a mission.
Still, I'm beginning to warm up to wrestling. I think the lightbulbs, thumbtacks and lighter fluid might be a mistake, but in the Long Beach Boys & Girls Club, the show had its moments. Call me crazy -- and I'm sure you will -- but I had a lot more fun there than at a Dodgers game where the fans really mean it when they boo.
Cheering, booing, grunting, sweating, trading insults and body slams. This is good family fun. In fact, if you think about it, it's not that different from most family Thanksgivings. There's a show coming up in Anaheim. Maybe I can convince the heir to come with me and see what real wrestling is like.
Deborah Hudson is a writer who lives in Santa Monica, Calif., with her husband, Bob, and her son Matt, 16.
|Some of the wrestlers in the UIWA display some serious athletic ability.||