By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
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By Jill Stewart
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They gave themselves names — one of the kids came as Jewberg, a character closely tailored after a popular World Championship Wrestling champion named Goldberg — and called their “federation” Upland Hardcore Wrestling, or the UHW. After the school project was handed in and done, they just kept on doing it.
Chris laid out the essentials: “Spare tires. Spread two layers of tires, about 25 in each layer. Put some plywood on top, then lay down some carpet and some little foam pads, maybe a few pillows, whatever. Put a tarp over it. Cement wooden posts into the ground and wrap some ropes around it, and that’s basically about it. What makes backyard wrestling is the violence. It’s the light tubes, it’s the glass, it’s the thumbtacks, it’s the fire.”
What Chris and his friends were up to was much more than a local phenomenon. At the time they were staging their matches, backyard wrestling was widespread enough that it began to get national media attention. Much of the coverage focused on the scene in Southern California. The articles only fueled the kids’ interest — and ambitions.
In 1999, 20/20 ran a story largely focused on the exploits of Ventura County’s Andre “Youth Suicide” Verdun, a muscular blond with a quick manner and a predilection for self-inflicted violence. With his media bona fides in place, Verdun became a leader and inspiration to Chris and his friends. Teenagers from Ventura, San Bernardino, Orange County and the Inland Empire began wrestling each other in ad hoc federations with names like the SCWA (Southern California Wrestling Alliance), the RWF (Real Wrestling Federation) and the EEW (Evil Empire Wrestling).
That’s when things got interesting. Chris and his UHW friends began to think of their activities as the equivalent of the minor leagues. Backyard wrestling became more than a class project, more than an after-school activity, more than a hobby. It became a kind of pseudo-career, a way of life. Or a way out of life.
Chris had to get back to work, so we strolled through the mall. Free-floating TV monitors flashed images of skateboarding teens and advertisements for a video called Spray: An Adventure in Waterboarding. A promotional poster for Ontario Mills featured a modified image of a diapered baby lifting a barbell. “What is it about the shopping and entertainment at The Mills that changes people’s lives for the better?” it asked. The answer: “We call it . . . THE MILLS EFFECT.”
Back at the Pro Wrestling Shop, Chris showed me their selection of videotapes. There was a surfeit of material by or about Mick “Mankind” Foley, a Rocky-like “people’s champion” and backyard wrestling’s greatest inspiration. In 1998 the WWE broadcast the Dude Love tapes, which documented amateur matches Foley staged with friends while attending college in upstate New York. In the first of his two best-selling autobiographies, Have a Nice Day!, Foley discusses his first impulse to make the tapes, after he’d broken up with a girlfriend: “I decided to handle this problem the way I handled the all-important events in my life. ‘Get the camera, let’s document this thing . . .’ In much the same way I would react when my ear was torn off in Germany, I wanted visual proof of the important events in my life.”
“People are pretty sick,” Chris said, his tone fluttering between admiration and disgust. “The number-one question I get is, ‘You guys got that event where Owen Hart falls 50 feet and dies?” (Owen was the youngest member of the Hart family wrestling dynasty. In 1999, during a pay-per-view event in Kansas City, Hart fell to his death while preparing to enter the ring on a cable.) “Sometimes I make ’em feel like real assholes. I mean, why would you want to see that?”
Of course, anyone who’s ever pondered the possibility of televised executions could answer the question. I pointed out to Chris that he’d been sprained, bloodied and beaten in the ring — even if it was with his consent, even though much of the action was pre-scripted, where did the line lie between acceptable and unacceptable violence?
“It’s if I can do it and walk away from it,” he said, riffing on his earlier comments like a well-rehearsed pro. “There’s a point where there’s no way any human can survive. You could die. You could be crippled. You could be stuck in a wheelchair for the rest of your life. When it gets to that point I’m just like, nahh, I don’t think I’m going to take that.”
When I asked him about his worst injuries, Chris didn’t cite the match documented in the photo on the cover, the image of his angel face covered in what the wrestling trade refers to as a “crimson mask.” That was merely cosmetic damage. Instead, Chris mentioned a match where he got a concussion and a bruised or broken rib. (He isn’t sure which. He rarely seeks out a doctor’s opinion.)
“The funny thing is, when I sprain stuff, I don’t sprain just one thing,” he said. “Once I had a guy throw me across the ring, I landed weird, and I sprained from here to here.” He indicates the length of his body, from shoulder to knee. “I made a tape, and you can actually see my elbow go in and out.”