SANTA ANA, CALIF. — On Saturdays from 3 p.m. to sundown, the backyards of this working-class neighborhood echo with the sound of body slams.
* Terry Adams, 16, who goes by the nickname "Twisted," launches a "Vader bomb" - a horizontal dive from the third ring rope, landing on his opponent's neck.
* Dirrick Fretz, 18, polishes his "moonsault," a back flip off the corner ring post onto the stomach of an adversary lying below.
* Justin Sullivan, 15, takes direct whacks to the forehead from an opponent swinging a metal folding chair. Later, the chair is covered in barbed wire. At the end of the match, Justin proudly wipes away the blood streaming down his face.
Along with some 50 other aspirants, these teens gather each weekend to wrestle, inventing ever more extreme moves, which they hope will open doors to a future on TV or in front of paying crowds.
This "backyard federation" is one of an estimated 1,000 nationwide that have emerged in the past two years. It's become one of the most seductive new outlets for teenage boys seeking both thrills and a future in big-time wrestling.
But the trend is raising serious safety concerns amid larger questions over escalating violence in society and sport.
To these weekend warriors, the matches offer a combination of savage fun and an outlet for aggression. Many harbor hopes of one day being discovered by talent scouts for the World Wrestling Federation (WWF) or World Championship Wrestling (WCW). The WWF's programming is seen by some 20 million viewers weekly, many of whom are teenage boys, drawn in by the extravaganzas of soap-opera story lines, comic-book characters, and over-the-top stunts that now regularly include flips off arena balconies.
Yet because these backyard federations are unregulated and largely unsupervised, serious injuries are a common phenomenon, as the teens try to emulate their TV idols. On this particular day, a half dozen boys leave the ring covered in their own blood.
"We now have a group of post-pubescent youth coming through the most vulnerable stage of masculinity, bombarded by TV images they feel they ought to be able to emulate," says Alan Klein, a sports psychologist at Northeastern University, in Boston. "Some try to copy [professional wrestling moves] as a proving ground; for others it's a way to gain acceptance; for still others, it's just pure acting out."
The top two leagues these teens aspire to, the WWF and WCW, openly discourage backyard federations. And a growing chorus of parents, communities, and schools is calling for a stop to the activity, even as law enforcement largely looks the other way.
"We are adamantly opposed to the concept of 'backyard wrestling,' " says Bruce Prichard, vice president of talent relations for the WWF. "Any attempt by our fans to emulate our superstars' physicality is extremely dangerous and irresponsible. Backyard wrestling is not a path to WWF superstardom, and we accept no applications or videotapes from those who practice it."
Those comments, and the scarcity of professional league contracts - there are fewer than 250 at the moment, leagues say - are in no way a deterrent to these wrestling wannabes.
"This has been my dream as long as I can remember," says Danny Rivera, a 15-year-old Latino who has been practicing for eight months and wrestles under the moniker "Stray Cat." He points to his forehead, arms, and torso, where scars have been left by thumbtacks, light bulbs, barbed wire, and even fire used in practice performances.
He displays a wide leather championship belt made of a rotary saw blade painted gold and embossed with the title, "Youth Suicide Hardcore Champion."
"I got a reputation for being hard-core right away," says Danny.
Andy "Hair" Johnson, 16, began practicing punches and leg drops on a family mattress five years ago. He wrestles and runs track at his high school, but enjoys this much more.
"This is just pure, out and out fun," says Andy. "This is like my total dream to go pro. People say it's dangerous but that's why we're here practicing, 'cause if someone got really hurt that wouldn't be any fun."
With similar single-mindedness, Andy's colleagues spend the afternoon practicing basic moves known as arm drags, hip tosses, leg drags, and drop kicks. They claim they are under the tutelage of two local trainers who have trained extensively in the pro leagues.
"You absolutely have to have serious training at this or you are going to hurt yourself," says one of these trainers, an 18-year-old named Leroy who asked that his last name not be used.
With a $2,400 loan from his grandparents, Leroy just finished a 12-month course with a local pro-wrestling school he says wishes to remain anonymous. "The big leagues don't like these backyard federations, but I'm here helping out because these guys are all my friends," he says.
The other trainer here, known simply as Andre, is an 18-year-old who has been wrestling since he was 12. Sidelined by a back injury after diving out onto a table covered with barbed wire and light bulbs, Andre recently purchased the group's professional-quality wrestling ring for $5,000.
Until this week, the group had been practicing on wood planks suspended on stacks of old tires. The 50 or so teens are now pooling their resources to start their own league, rent an arena, and charge admission.
Selling the act
As heavy metal music blares out of a dusty boombox, Andre barks out commands like a high school coach, as his friends run through choreographed moves in the ring.
Besides performing several routine maneuvers that include back flips, hairpulling, head locks, and body slams, each is asked to "sell" the act by grimacing in pain, holding body parts as if injured.
Onlookers chant for more as wrestlers whack the mat, wince, quiver, and shriek. As each boy exits the ring, he is asked how it went.
"A lot of people think wrestling is a fake sport, but we get hurt all the time," says Dirrick Fretz, who performs as "Trizzy Dee." "I get really angry when people just think we're a bunch of punks. We're out here practicing regularly just like pros."
The kids say they get encouragement from adults such as Pam Adams, whose backyard hosts the ring, and whose son participates regularly.
"I support the kids a lot," says Ms. Adams, an unemployed mother whose husband was killed in a truck crash one year ago. "People squeal that this is so dangerous, but you can get hurt in hockey and football just as bad. I would rather have these kids here where I can see them than out on the streets doing drugs."
But Andy Gillentine, who teaches the psychology of coaching at Mississippi State University says this kind of wrestling is dangerous, since participants don't use padding and are attempting stunts that are more dangerous than they know.
"These kids have an invincibility complex, like kids in all sports," says Dr. Gillentine, who has conducted three research studies for the WCW. "But they are mimicking moves that have taken years to perfect by seasoned pros."
Indeed, league spokesmen say the majority of wrestlers they put on contract are top professional and collegiate athletes. Case in point is current WWF champ, Kurt Angle. The best wrestler in the US during his college years, Angle went on to win the Olympic gold medal in 1996. When he entered the WWF, he still had to go through two years of training before the league felt he was ready to perform.
The WWF says it has 36 schools in four geographic areas of the US where aspirants can train. But they underline the fact that few ever make it to the pro ranks.
"When you realize there are only about 250 wrestlers on contract in the top three leagues, you realize your chances of hitting the big time are far less than an actor has of making it to Broadway, a football player to the NFL, or a basketball player to the NBA," says Alan Sharp, spokesman for the WCW.
Still, teenagers often think they are the exception. Many hope to be like Terry Funk, a WCW legend who still continues at age 56 - though Mr. Funk wouldn't recommend following in his footsteps.
"I think we have too much violence in wrestling, on TV in general, and society as a whole," says Funk. "If I had a son, I would steer him away from wrestling. It was fun for me, but for most it's not healthy in the long run."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society