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The savage saga of backyard wrestling (continued)

THOUGH MANY of the wrestlers pitch in, Glen Elias is mainly responsible for making the USWF run smoothly. Elias, 21, is short with a thick goatee and he has a sharp sense of humor. He loves Tupac, but isnít afraid to admit that his favorite song to sing karaoke is Mandy Mooreís "Candy." Heís thinking about going to school at some point to learn more about TV production, but in the meantime heís planning barbed wire tattoos for both his wrists, "to symbolize the hardcore aspect of backyard wrestling," he says.

When matches resume, Elias will be solely in charge of deciding which wrestlers fight, who wins, and what the storyline will be for each fight. Before the abrupt halt in action last fall, he was also responsible for editing the video footage of each weekís matches, which typically aired on cable public access at midnight on Sundays. He carries a big spiral notebook with him, constantly jotting down ideas for new rivalries and plot twists. "Iím thinking about it all day," he says. "Sometimes Iíll be at work, and Iíll think of something and just crack up."

The Elias household, the closest thing the USWF has to a corporate headquarters, is located on a quiet street in East Providence, just off Warren Avenue, a few miles away from the leagueís former wrestling ring. Itís the kind of street where residents lean on their porches on spring evenings and look suspiciously at cars they donít recognize.

The Eliases live in a small house with peeling paint and lavender shutters. A wooden plaque on the door greets visitors with a short prayer. "Lord and Master" it says, "protect this house and everyone who goes in and out." The inside is cluttered with a weird combination of religious paraphernalia and action figures. Thereís a framed portrait of the pope above the kitchen table, looking benevolently over a toy wrestling ring with shirtless dolls in aggressive stances. A sullen-looking middle-aged woman answers the door, and inside, two sullen-looking adolescents watch wrestling on TV.

A small crew of wrestlers sometimes gathers upstairs in Glen Eliasís room, adorned with hip-hop and Sopranos posters, preparing commentary for cablecasts of matches. Most of the guys are in their early 20s.

Thereís Glen, his brother Kevin "Kevin E." Elias, Matt "Even Stevens" Adams, Greg "Jimmy Starbucks" Vogt, Mike "Loverboy" Romano, and Matt "Lariat" DeGraide. The wrestlers are arrayed around Glenís TV as he cues up footage of a recent round of fights. Once Glen starts the footage, the guys pass a microphone and comment on the action. They make fun of the wrestlers on tape, who often include themselves. Acne problems, ugly clothes, and bad theme music are among the staples. "Their flesh is embedded in the mousetraps!" Kevin jokes in disbelief as he watches George Flynt throw Glen Elias into a table covered with mousetraps. They continue such banter for the duration of the two-hour program.

If Glen Elias is the brains behind the USWF, his older brother, Mike, a 27-year-old wrestling fanatic, a big guy who weighs almost 300 pounds, is its heart. Posters of wrestlers cover the walls of Mikeís room and the tiny space overflows with VHS tapes of different events. Glen calls his brother "a human dictionary of wrestling," and indeed, he can name any wrestler and any event they wrestled in, whether professional or backyard. He can recite quotes from interviews more than 10 years old. He eats, sleeps, and breathes wrestling.

According to Glen, Mike is a devout Christian, attending church every Sunday without fail. On his dresser sits a large porcelain figure of Jesus, a testament to his faith. A poster of the wrestler Macho Man Randy Savage looms on the wall behind it. Against one wall, almost buried in the clutter, is a small glass terrarium with a hamster in it. "Heís named Copa," says Mike, "after one time when I sang ĎCopacabanaí at the karaoke."

Mike has been a member of the USWF since 1994, almost from the inception. He got involved through a public access show he hosted, Power Bomb: The All Rassliní Talk Show. While at a pro wrestling event in Providence, he met some of the founding members of USWF, including Travis Savage, who invited him to wrestle with them in Savageís backyard in Warwick. Elias soon became a fixture in the league, and his brothers, Glen and Kevin, followed close behind.

Mike works in the parking lot at Samís Club, but he has greater ambitions. He hopes to publish a book about his USWF experiences. Heís also taking a class at CCRI, with an eye toward one day attending Rhode Island College. "Right now, Iím seeing if itíll work out and everything," he says, referring to college. Though all the wrestlers take the USWF seriously, Mike is by far the most earnest. "No matter the situation," he explains, "I like to take pride in whatever match or story line Iím doing."

BACKYARD WRESTLING, which came of age around the same time as the WWE changed course, is cast very much in the same mold. However, while the WWE is a worldwide marketing phenomenon with a corporate structure and a centralized leadership, the hundreds of backyard wrestling leagues across the US tend to be homegrown and operate independently of each other. They consist of small groups of friends who grew up loving wrestling and want to emulate their heroes.

Taking a folding chair to the back is no different to them than shagging a few grounders or playing one-on-one.

In spite of its ultra-violent nature, everyone in the USWF is surprisingly fastidious when it comes to safety, or at least tending to injuries and the detritus of battle. During a "light bulb" match last year between Drew "Greg" Cordeiro and Matt "Millhouse" Carpenter, the two competitors smashed dozens of fluorescent light tubes against each other in a variety of moves. The maneuvers included the spine-buster (where the opponent is lifted by both legs before being slammed back-first on the mat), and the shining wizard (a jumping knee to the head). About a half-dozen spectators then donned surgical gloves, proceeding to dab antiseptic solution on the bloody arms of the wrestlers, before carefully bandaging them up. Others painstakingly combed the yard on their hands and knees, picking up stray pieces of glass and depositing them in cardboard boxes.

"Youíre not supposed to use these ícuz of all the chemicals," admits Cordeiro, a senior at LaSalle Academy in Providence, of the fluorescent bulbs. "But I got a hot teacher I wanna impress." Bleeding from numerous cuts in both arms, which other wrestlers wrapped in gauze, he said this as if he didnít have a care in the world.

It may seem unusual to see two men gingerly apply iodine seconds after smashing each other with hazardous glass tubes, but the USWF manages to pull it off without the slightest bit of irony. The league members say they could care less if people find them weird, amusing, or disturbed. "We do it for ourselves," Glen Elias says. "We donít change anything for anybody."

When theyíre not beating each other senseless, the backyard grapplers say, they are just regular guys. Every Sunday, a group of them go out to dinner, and every Friday, they sing karaoke at a bowling alley in East Providence. They like cheap beer, R-rated movies, and the Jerky Boys.

And even though their favorite way to spend their Sundays may make parents cringe and non-violent types shake their heads in disbelief, Mike Elias insists that the USWF and its members are not crazy. "You hear a lot of WWE people saying, ĎDonít try this at homeí " he says. "Thatís their opinion and theyíre entitled to it. But I think it should be the personís choice. If theyíre old enough, and they want to take part in backyard wrestling, then they should do it."

Besides, he adds, itís not like thereís no common sense involved. "If you suplex a guy off a roof," says Mike Elias, "youíre just asking for trouble."

Sam Slaughter, a 2003 graduate of Brown University, is a freelance writer in New York whose favorite karaoke tune is "I Canít Go For That (No Can Do)" by Hall & Oates. He can be reached at samslaughter215@hotmail.com.

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Issue Date: February 6 - 12, 2004
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