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The Backyard isn’t safe anymore

By Peter Crimmins Special to the Daily Planet
Friday September 13, 2002

Wrap barbed wire around a baseball bat. Beat a friend with it onto a plywood plank doused with lighter fluid and sparked into a table of fire. Then check to make sure he’s bleeding. 

It’s all for fun and sport in the world of amateur hardcore wrestling, documented in "The Backyard," a film by Paul Hough screening at the Pacific Film Archive Sept 18. 

All around the world teenagers gather in backyards to beat the crap out of each other, using dangerous implements and moves they see on television. Some of them with ambitions to become professional wrestlers see the backyard as a kind of rudimentary training ground. Others do it just because they like it. 

Hough traveled across America in search of makeshift wrestling rings and Pits of Pain dug in vacant lots. A skinny, long-haired amateur who calls himself The Lizard talks the talk of a pro wrestler. He has the cocky showmanship for WWF but not the weight. The movie follows him out of the backyards of central California to Las Vegas where a wrestling promotion company had searched for the next big thing. 

Most other kids don’t have their sights on professionalism. They wrestle for fun and do their best to put on a show. These are not teens who didn’t make the wrestling team at school who are practicing their holds and throws at home. No, these kids use razors and thumbtacks and barbed wire for grandiose scenes of brutality. 

A pair of brothers, Bo and Justin Gates in rural Nevada worked up a whole storyline for their matches. "3 Stages Of Hell" is a three-act drama of increasing pain, wherein two rival brothers – one the mother’s favorite, the other the outcast – battle to the "death," ending with one throwing the other into a sheet of flaming plywood covered in barbed wire.  

The Gates’ mother played the part of the mother. A girlfriend videotaping the scenes cries behind the camera as her boyfriend is thrown into a pit of barbed wire. The scene, and many others in the film, is disturbing. There are no special effects. Later, while drying her eyes, Bo’s girlfriend tells Hough how proud she is of Bo’s accomplishments. 

Some parents like Bo and Justin’s mom support their sons’ hardcore interest. Granted, some wrestling involves only garbage can lids, thin plywood and sheets of corrugated tin to make a big noise. There’s no bloodshed here. But other parents are horrified when they see what their kids do. One distraught mother, after weeping after her son body-checked onto a field of thumbtacks, pleads to Hough’s camera for parents to stop the madness. Her son and his wrestling partner, meanwhile, sullenly pick up their gear and go somewhere else, away from mom’s hysterics. 

This kind of wrestling-as-bloody-spectacle is not new, said Mike Lano, Berkeley-based wrestling journalist, photographer and historian who has been covering the sport for 40 years. With Hough he’ll be presenting the film at the PFA next week. In the 1970s in Memphis, TN "garbage wrestling" became popular on the circuit, involving garbage cans and dirty tricks. Lano said this kind of hardcore wrestling settled in Japan during the 80s and came back into American professional wrestling when promoter "Cactus Jack" brought it to Philadelphia in 1993. 

Wrestling is, of course, more of a choreographed performance than a contest. "A lot of wrestlers are a team, and they are protecting each other," said Lano. The boys in the backyard have agreed to hurt each other. Although they can imitate what they see the pros doing, they don’t know how to protect each other from serious harm. 

The kids tell the camera that they are only inflicting surface damage – just a little blood, but nothing seriously crippling. In England, a group of boys taping their wrestling exploits surreptitiously use razors to cut their foreheads so that blood pours over their faces for the camera. One, while talking to Hough, had a rivulet of blood streaming down his face. "I hit a vein, obviously." 

Lano said there has been no documented case of an amateur backyard wrestler being maimed or crippled. Nevertheless, he predicted "someone is going to die. They’re not properly trained."  

Professional wrestler Rob Van Dam is featured in the film at his home. Although he deplores the potential for serious harm these kids are putting upon themselves, the backyard is clearly a place where there is a lot of enthusiasm for wrestling. Some proud parents say in the film that backyard wrestling is a show that the boys put together and promote on their own, which is better than them doing drugs or crimes. 

While watching the film the question looming over the viewer is “Why?” Why would kids want their friends to break glass over their heads, or to stomp thumbtacks into their arms, or scrap a cheese grater across their foreheads? At the end of the film Hough offers an explanation from one of the Gates brothers, who confesses that his father abused them so now violence is oddly comforting.  

That explanation, though, doesn’t ring true. When Hough asked the kids to explain themselves, their answers are stiff and forced. The truer answer seems to come from the images of the teens at play. The howls of approval at a particularly gory stunt and high-fives and the excitement of putting on a good show for the camera are the more convincing reasons why. 

Like slam dancing at a punk rock show or getting into a bar fight, amateur wrestling violence seems to be part of a young person’s aggressive energy (not exclusively male – there are girls doing this, too). The backyard barbed wire pit is another outlet for it, modeled after the professional hardcore style. 

Lano said the World Wrestling Federation recently retired its hardcore wrestling shows; amateur garbage wrestling is on the decline. "It’s grown in periods when wrestling is really cool," said Lano. As amateur wrestling lives by the sword of professional popularity, it also dies by it. "The business is very cyclical. Right now is the worst down cycle. It’s not cool."