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The savage saga of backyard wrestling
An East Providence-based league emulates the WWEís macho theatricality, spilling plenty of blood in the process

SOME PEOPLE watch football on Sundays. Some go to church. Some sleep in, shovel snow in winter, or go to the beach in summer. For Glen Elias and Mike Romano, Sunday means going to the backyard of a house in East Providence and beating each other with metal folding chairs, golf clubs, and, on special occasions, fluorescent light bulbs.

On one such occasion, Elias stands atop a ladder, suspending a bag of balloons from a rope over a painstakingly constructed wrestling ring. Romano is busy, taping balloons to the poles at the corners of the ring, within easy reach of the wrestlers. The balloons, explains Eliasís girlfriend, Kellie Pemberton, are filled with thumbtacks. "I filled them myself this morning," she says. This is wrestling, Rhode Island-style. No dirty locker rooms, tyrannical coaches, or punishing practices. Nobody starving themselves trying to make weight. No school pride, varsity letters, or college scholarships. Just thumbtacks, occasional mousetraps, and the innate appeal that the participants find in pushing their physical limits and ability to endure pain.

Elias and Romano are proud members of the United States Wrestling Federation, a local collective of about 25 men (and a few women) who enjoy wrestling so much that they founded their own league. The USWF is comprised mainly of working class suburban guys between 18 and 25, although a few high school kids are involved. For almost a decade, league wrestlers have gathered on Sunday afternoons to batter each other with a variety of kicks, drops, holds, and weapons, all out of love for wrestling, pain, and thrills. Elias, who wrestles under the moniker "Mr. Glen," is a supervisor at Target. George "Hit Man" Flynt manages a grocery store. Steve "X-treme" LaFontaine, the current champ, works the deli slicer at Stop & Shop. Two other wrestlers drive forklifts at the Samís Club in Seekonk, Massachusetts.

The United States Wrestling Federation began in 1994 in the Warwick backyard of a wrestler named Travis Savage. Mike Elias, Glenís older brother, joined the league shortly after its inception and his brothers, Glen and Kevin, soon followed suit. After Savageís father kicked them out, the league moved to another backyard in Coventry, and then to its most recent location at the home on Pawtucket Avenue in East Providence of Ken Adams, whose son, Matt, wrestles as "Tewgii."

Each wrestler has their own character, complete with nickname, personality, outfit, and fighting style. The characters range from the narcissistic Loverboy (Romano), the cocky ex-champ who is constantly taking off his shirt, flexing his pecs, and admiring his biceps, to the freakish Tewgii, who wears a black bondage mask and hops around the ring with his legs bent and arms dangling, like a chimpanzee after five or six espressos. The USWF members slip seamlessly in and out of character, moving from spectator to participant as simply as changing outfits. While not fighting, they sit around cheering on whatever match is taking place, making wry comments, hurling insults, and clapping appreciatively when someone pulls off a particularly nice move.

Though the winners of the matches are pre-determined, the action that takes place is freestyle. The combatants occasionally meet before the match to discuss what theyíre going to do, and sometimes they whisper to each other in the ring about whatís coming next. If a wrestler says under his breath, "Power Bomb," it means heís planning to grab his opponentís waist, lifting him into the air with his feet pointing skyward and his head between the holderís legs, before slamming the guy onto his back.

What the USWF wrestlers lack in athleticism, choreography, and training, they make up for in ingenuity. This is where "hardcore" wrestling comes into play. Basically, Glen Elias explains, hardcore means, "less holds, more weapons. You try to see how many weapons you can use, and how creatively you can do it." Hardcore matches can involve chairs, tacks, ladders, glass, metal signs, mousetraps, and barbed wire.

"I tolerate it," says the senior Adams with a hint of a smile, referring to the two-dozen guys who routinely invade his backyard on Sundays to wrestle. Although Ken Adams grew up watching pro wrestling when it was still unheard of among the general population, he doesnít watch his son wrestle. "I usually leave," he says. Good thing. Tewgii has been known to get overexcited in the ring, humping the leg of his opponent, the referee, and anyone within range. These antics provoke laughter and commentary from the crowd of 25 to 30 people, who are mostly wrestlers themselves.

The USWF, obviously, is not for the faint of heart. Nor is it a good place for impressionable children, kindly grandmothers, or anyone with a real sense of moral decency. Backyard wrestling is the love child of testosterone, adrenaline, and suburban boredom. The league, whose matches often end with both competitors covered in blood, is for those who get their kicks from swearing, conflict, and a blurry mix of real and staged violence.

ONCE THE BALLOONS are arranged for their match, Elias (Mr. Glen) and Romano (Loverboy) swagger out in turn from behind curtains spray-painted with the letters "USWF." Loverboy has an entourage of two other wrestlers. Once he emerges, they rip off his pants to reveal boxer shorts emblazoned with lipstick marks. Loverboy flexes and admires himself as the crowd giggles and makes lewd comments. "Lover loves to get naked," says Pemberton. Mr. Glen, meanwhile, emerges to the sounds of Tupac Shakur blaring from a small stereo, confidently smoking a cigarette as he struts to the ring. The crowd boos; Mr. Glenís character has been unpopular since he used a sword to slice an ear from Tewgiiís mask in a previous match.

The wrestlers start in a clinch, sizing each other up. The crowd jeers at the lack of action. Then, Mr. Glen drops Loverboy and smacks his backside, before hocking a gigantic gob of snot on his stomach. Loverboy counters by throwing Mr. Glen into a pole, but Mr. Glen is able to reverse positions and flings Loverboy to the mat. As Loverboy writhes in mock pain, Mr. Glen takes one of the thumbtack-filled balloons from the corner and stuffs it in Loverboyís drawers. Egged on by the cheering crowd, Mr. Glen executes a flying elbow drop onto his opponent, popping the balloon over Loverboyís groin. The audience cringes, but Mr. Glen isnít yet done. He bashes Loverboy with a folding chair and then pulls off his rivalís boxers, revealing a pink G-string. The crowd lets out a collective groan of disgust.

Loverboy counterattacks by breaking a tack-filled balloon on Mr. Glenís head before chasing him onto a wooden porch thatís at least 10 feet above the sunken yard. The ring is covered with tacks by now, so that when the wrestlers fall they inevitably stand with tacks sticking out of their arms and backs. Up on the porch, Loverboy continues to smack Mr. Glen around, until Mr. Glen sends him flying off the porch into a heap 10 feet below.

Loverboy screams in pain, leading his entourage to come and carry him off. Heís grimacing in seeming agony, and although there have never been any serious injuries in the USWF, everyone seems worried that his leg might be broken. It certainly looks like heís hurt, but Loverboy overhears Mr. Glen, strutting about the ring victorious, tell the crowd, "I guess he didnít really want it after all,"

This sends Loverboy into a frenzy. Ignoring the pleas from his crew, he charges back into the ring and throws Mr. Glen to the mat. As Mr. Glen lies prostrate on the bed of tacks, Loverboy climbs the ladder and hurls himself from the fifth rung onto Mr. Glenís chest, driving him into the tacks. It looks like itís all over for Mr. Glen until George "Hit Man" Flynt, who until now has been quietly observing the match with his girlfriend, hurtles into the ring and clotheslines Loverboy to the ground, allowing Mr. Glen to finally get the pin and emerge victorious.

Mr. Glen lights another cigarette, and strolls cockily out of the ring and back through the curtains, to the jeers and boos of the crowd. When he reemerges a few seconds later, Mr. Glen and Loverboy help the rest of the crowd to fastidiously sweep the ring and surrounding yard for leftover tacks.

BACKYARD WRESTLING, as practiced all over the country, is a homegrown version of the pro sport that features such personalities as Bill Goldberg, the Rock, and Stone Cold Steve Austin. Pro wrestling, with orchestrated characters, story lines, and matches, is all theater. Itís sort of a soap opera for boys, replete with drama, feuds, and violence.

The carefully choreographed matches involve spectacular moves, like suplexes, power bombs, and flying elbow drops. In between bouts, the wrestlers and league executives connive and scheme against one another to add more drama. By combining theatrical elements with incredible athleticism, testosterone-fueled pro wrestling has become a highly lucrative staple on television and at arenas nationwide. In many ways, itís the sport perfectly engineered for todayís culture of money, muscles, and supplements. As Glen Elias puts it, "Itís a TV show thatís also a sport. Itís theatrical and thereís girls. Whatís not to like?"

Asked whom he considers a role model, Elias cites Vince McMahon, the millionaire founder and commissioner of what is now called World Wrestling Entertainment. McMahon took over the World Wrestling Federation in 1982, and brought it to prominence through promotion of larger-than-life figures like Hulk Hogan and Macho Man Randy Savage. In 1985, McMahon bet his entire WWF fortune on an event called Wrestlemania, in which he rented more than 100 arenas around the US, and charged fans to watch the event on closed-circuit television within the arenas. The gamble worked, and the WWF won the hearts, minds, and wallets of millions of Americans.

A fundamental change occurred in the mid-í90s. No longer would WWF wrestlers be role models. Instead, McMahon changed them into anti-heroes. WWFís stars would stab each other in the back, guzzle beers in the ring, and hit each other with folding chairs. He introduced sex appeal into the mix, in the form of buxom female wrestlers like Trish Stratus and Chyna. In a masterstroke, McMahon even put himself in the ring, playing the role of the evil boss pitted against Stone Cold Steve Austin, the beer-swilling working class hero. It was this feud that vaulted the WWF ó now WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) ó to the pinnacle of pro wrestling.

Despite its incredible success in celebrating spectacle and the appearance of mayhem, however, the WWE does not advocate the "try this at home" imitation of backyard wrestlers. In fact, the WWE is "adamantly opposed to the concept" of backyard wrestling, says Gary Davis, the organizationís vice president of communications. "Why would someone go and do that?" Davis wonders aloud, sounding not unlike a disapproving parent. "Itís not worth it for the damage you can inflict on yourself."

The WWE goes so far to maintain a Web site that encourages parents to dissuade their kids from taking part in backyard wrestling, and it often airs public service announcements to this effect during its events. In spite of these warnings, though, wrestling continues to be popular in backyards across the US and Canada, not least in Ken Adamsís backyard in East Providence. For his part, Ken Adams has no problem with how his 16-year-old daughter, Becky, hangs out in the backyard with her brother and his wrestling buddies. "These guys are better than most of her friends," Adams says with a shake of his head.

Backyard wrestling, especially the hardcore aspect, is nonetheless widely seen as a scourge of suburban kids raised on Jackass and Fear Factor, an ultra-violent hobby in which the potential for injury is high. Maryland recently passed a law banning backyard wrestling, and there has been increasing alarm among teachers, parents, and child development professionals that wrestling is having an adverse effect on Americaís youth. As Ronald Stevens, of the National School Safety Center, told USA Today, "The problem is that young people are being provided with a violent role model, not simply as a physical activity, but for problem-solving,"

Another concern of parents and teachers is the vulgarity that permeates pro and backyard wrestling. An Indiana University study of WWEís Monday night program Raw showed that over the course of 50 episodes between 1998 and 1999, there were 1658 instances of "grabbing/pointing to oneís crotch," 157 incidents of "giving the finger," 128 sightings of "simulated sexual activity," and 21 acts of "urination/talking about/appearing to."

Such behavior is common to the USWF, and the police have sometimes responded to neighborsí complaints about loud cursing and violence. In fact, the leagueís East Providence ring has been largely idled since late October 2003, when gripes from neighbors and police forced the USWF to abandon its backyard coliseum on Pawtucket Avenue.

Although the league has since been on hiatus, the participants remain enthusiastic. "Everyoneís still interested; everyone wants to continue," Elias says. There are plans to move the ring to Rehoboth, Massachusetts, where Danny Silveria owns some property. Itís in the woods, far from the prying eyes of disapproving critics. April will mark the USWFís tenth anniversary, and Glen is putting together a public access awards show to coincide with the leagueís planned springtime resurrection. And although the old ring sits unused in Ken Adamsís backyard, the leagueís core members still get together on Sundays. Sometime they go to dinner, sometimes they bowl, and sometimes they sing karaoke. But mostly they talk wrestling.

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Issue Date: February 6 - 12, 2004
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