By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Chris reached into his backpack and pulled out two VHS cassettes — one with a computer-generated label that said, “Best of Mr. Fantastic,” the other with a hand-scrawled label that read, “Best of Backyard Wrestling, Vol. 1.”
“It’s not on there,” he said. “It’s on my ‘Whatta Man’ video. Me as a 16-year-old to ‘Whatta Man’” — the song by Salt’n’Pepa:
My man is smooth like Barry, and his voice got bass A body like Arnold with a Denzel face What a man, what a man, what a man What a mighty good man
HERE COMES GREATNESS
For more than two years, filmmaker Matt Luem and his partner Greg Fiering followed Chris Jackson and his friends for an extensive documentary project called Here‰ Comes Greatness. Luem and Fiering discovered the kids the same way many of the kids found out about each other: on the Internet via a Web site for the Backyard Wrestling Association. Curiosity soon bloomed into full-blown obsession: Luem claims to have 2,500 negatives and 140 hours of footage; Fiering has created a 600-page transcript of dialogue from the videotapes. They probably qualify as the phenomenon’s reigning experts.
I caught up with Luem at a Santa Monica editing facility where we viewed some of the best incidents he and Fiering had caught on tape: Andre “Youth Suicide” Verdun touching dollar bills to his bloody forehead and handing them out as souvenirs; Verdun attending to a friend’s head wound by Super Glue–ing it shut; Ryan Rage poised to jump off a rooftop holding a championship belt made of cardboard and tin over his head. In one clip, a dusky Latino boy named Eric Trejo is dressed as a masked, lucha libre–style wrestler with a safety-orange baseball cap. His name, Super Chunty, is a play on a typical ethnic slur.
“I actually see a lot of racial unity in backyard wrestling,” Luem said as he finished with the highlights. “Here in California a lot of this is happening in very mixed neighborhoods, very ethnic neighborhoods. There aren’t a lot of kids who will assume other ethnic identities when they’re wrestling, but it has happened.” Another of Eric Trejo’s characters, Luem told me, was named Tasteless Tony 80s. He was a white kid from the ’80s who thought he was a black kid in the ’90s. It was a roundabout send-up of “wiggers” — suburban white kids hooked on rap music and black urban culture. ‰
“You certainly can’t do something like that in sports or even necessarily in theater unless you’re writing the plays,” Luem said. “I think a kid like Chris Jackson is just incredibly bright. If it wasn’t for this kind of phenomenon, I don’t know if he would have ever found an outlet for his creative performance side. In some strange way, wrestling works for him. He can create this character and then use the qualities of that character — the toughness he’s learned, the irreverence — and he can use those qualities to inform his normal life.”
Luem’s background is in punk rock, and he feels a certain affinity between his own passions and those of the backyarders. “The kids are not violence junkies,” he said. “They are adrenaline junkies. They don’t want to hurt each other. In fact, a lot of them have said to me it’s much better to actually be on the receiving end of the blow. Why? Well, think about it: Why would you stand in the front row of a punk rock concert without earplugs when they have those huge speakers? That could be interpreted as a pretty violent experience, but in fact it’s more about the rush of that moment, and the adrenaline you experience as a witness or a participant — if there’s any difference. At punk concerts most of the people watching the bands were in bands themselves. When I went to backyard-wrestling shows, it was usually just other wrestlers.
“What these kids have is a desire to be something that they’re not,” Luem continued. “They want to re-create themselves, particularly at the age when most of them start. They are at that period in their lives where they are thrashing through adolescence and trying to figure out who they are. Physically, they’re changing. Mentally, they’re changing. Their home lives might be unstable. It’s almost like they have inherited this idea of the mutable personality from day one. I call them the post–Mick Foley, post-Madonna generation. When I was growing up, I never thought of just reinventing myself, taking a totally different name and re-imagining myself. Even if I did, I never would have had a place to go with that name. I think the wrestling provides them with a stage for that persona.”
I asked Luem about the kids’ incessant videotaping. “It’s a form of journaling,” he said. “They are journaling their way through adolescence. It is a process that builds some self-awareness. Through backyard wrestling, their lives start to tell a story, and conversely, they use their characters to tell a story about their lives. Previously, these kids didn’t have any narrative that made any sense to them, and they took control of that. They bring in humiliation and redemption. They bring in triumph and defeat. They bring in all these kind of mythic processes and then apply them to their lives. I think that’s one of the most amazing things about it.”