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Most social scientists agree that American kids grow up faster these days. But turning 18 is still a major deal. On his big day, which came two weeks ago, Jeff Wessmiller bought Lotto tickets and a pack of cigarettes, just because he could. Finally.
The highlight of Wessmiller’s entry to legal manhood, however, came when he filled out the application that the law requires of boys, er, men of his age who want to fight for a living. No, not the Selective Service Administration’s draft-registration forms: His country doesn’t need him just yet, and he promises he’ll get those done in due time. Rather, it’s a professional wrestler’s license that Wessmiller desires ASAP.
“I’ve been waiting for this for a long time,” Wessmiller tells me. “This is big.”
Alice Cooper, the Marilyn Manson of his day, scared parents in 1971 with his rock anthem “Eighteen,” which found him confessing over power chords: “I’m 18, and I don’t know what I want!”
Wessmiller, now a senior at Annandale High School, knows exactly what he wants: He wants to wrestle. To many parents, that would be even scarier than Cooper’s dilemma.
“He’s always liked to entertain people and make people laugh, so I figured he’d be something like a stand-up comic,” says Debby Wessmiller, the prospective pro’s mother. “But his interests have turned, well, elsewhere. I worry about him getting hurt, of course, but a part of life’s lessons is to find what you love and then do it. His passion is wrestling.”
Wessmiller’s desire to participate, rather than just watch, began when his family moved to Saudi Arabia for his father’s government job. Because of local customs, there was no wrestling on TV for young Jeff to watch.
“They’re not into wrestling over there for some reason,” he says with a chuckle. “I missed it.”
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Wessmiller made up for lost time when the family returned to the United States and settled in Northern Virginia. As a high school freshman, he founded a wrestling organization in the yard of his parents’ house: the Intense Backyard Wrestling Federation (IBWF). Wessmiller’s “federation” relied on humorous characters and story lines, rather than the nihilistic Jackass-type stunts featured by more stereotypical backyard wrestling troupes (Cheap Seats, “He’s Out Back,” 2/2).
The group even garnered some attention from one of Wessmiller’s ring heroes, Mick “Mankind” Foley, who expressed admiration for the IBWF’s low-risk ethic and flair for fun to a television reporter doing a story on backyard wrestling.
Toiling out back, Wessmiller built up his pain threshold and began preparing for the day he’d be able to make a living, or at least get paid, in the sport, or whatever you want to call it.
Virginia likes to boast about its lack of regulation, and outgoing Gov. Jim Gilmore has cultivated the Old Dominion’s image as a place where any yahoo who can find a gun can own one. But for all its freedoms, the state clamps down on folks who want to wrestle pro. It’s right there in the state code: “No individual shall engage or offer to engage in the activities of a…wrestler, as defined in Chapter 8.1 ( 54.1-828 et seq.) of Title 54.1 of the Code of Virginia, without first possessing a valid license therefor.” Minors and felons are among the groups prohibited from gaining such a license.
(Barbers, auctioneers, and cemetery operators must also file the proper papers before doing business in the state. And Virginia is known by ring workers as a “no-blood” state, meaning the law states that wrestlers who bleed intentionallya common practice in the pre-HIV eraare subject to fine and forfeiture of their professional licenses.)
So even though Wessmiller has believed that he is physically and mentally prepared to make the jump from his back yard to the pro circuit for about a year, he couldn’t get wrestling work in the state until this month. Now that he’s of age and has paid the $20 licensing fee to the Virginia Department of Professional and Occupational Regulation, the prized piece of paper should be arriving any day. Work, he hopes, will follow.
Virginia’s licensing law didn’t entirely prevent Wessmiller from wrestling pro. But it did force him to hunt for jobs in out-of-state rings where promoters weren’t required to card the talent. A North Carolina federation was looking for somebody to play the part of Jabar the Iranian Butcher, and it let the eager youngster, though fair of skin and hair, fill the schticky part. (The demand for Middle Eastern no-goodnick characters, Wessmiller says, is particularly high in wrestling these days. Go figure.)
“I went to a costume shop and said, ‘I’m supposed to be an Iranian butcher. I don’t look very Iranian. What can you do?’ And the woman behind the counter threw me a mask,” Wessmiller says. “Now I’m an Iranian butcher. That’s wrestling.” He has also wrestled in Carolina under the name Lumberjack Jack Jackson, a character whom one promoter announced to the crowd as being 6-foot-10, 300 poundsor about 7 inches taller and 140 pounds heavier than Wessmiller.
So he’s been making the infrequent road trips for ring work for about a year, all the while counting the days until he’d legally be able to grapple somewhere between his back yard and North Carolina.
Now that day has come.
“My parents know that my decision about where to go to college will revolve around wrestling,” Wessmiller says. “I want to find a school within driving range of a federation that I can work with.” The Richmond area, which has several universities and independent wrestling promotions, is the leading contender at this point.
Most ring observers believe that 2001 is not really a great time to craft a wrestling career. Big-time wrestling, like the national economy, is in a slump. The skid started last year, when Vince McMahon’s WWF got so successful it put longtime rival WCW out of commission for good. The quality of the product has gone down, pro-competition capitalists will be happy to hear, ever since the WWF’s monopoly took effect. TV ratings and pay-per-view grosses have followed suit.
But working in the majors, even in Wessmiller’s dreams, is still years away. As a student of the game, however, he’s betting that by the time he is ready for the big show, the pastime’s popularity will be resurgent. He’s also convinced that fans of the future will embrace the types of characters he’ll bring to the ring.
“People won’t want to see hard-core death matches anymore,” Wessmiller says. “They’ll want to see a stupid guy in a mask. I’ll be that guy.”
And if the wrestling doesn’t work out?
“I figure that no matter what, I’ll still be able to fall back on what I learned in the ring,” he says. “I could be, you know, a lumberjack, or a Middle Eastern terrorist.” Dave McKenna