Jeff Wessmiller is the Vince McMahon of his own back yard.
Wessmiller, a 17-year-old high school junior, is the founder, choreographer, Webmaster, and, whenever he chooses, holder of the world championship belt of the Intense Backyard Wrestling Federation (IBWF). Buddies from his Springfield, Va., neighborhood and classmates from Annandale High make up its stable of wrestlersor workerswho go by alternately humorous and ominous handles; the yard of his parents’ home serves as the set for its Webcasts, shown at www.angelfire.com/hi2/ibwf. The IBWF doesn’t have a ring, unless you count the skanky mattress Wessmiller plops on the grass on match days.
“We don’t put a lot of money into this,” laughs Wessmiller, who uses Sliver as his nom de guerre, “because we don’t have any money. This just started as a bunch of friends messing around in my back yard, and then somebody gave us a camcorder. It’s gotten bigger than I thought it would.”
The IBWF is but one of literally thousands of rasslin’ clubs that have sprung up, mostly in suburban back yards, in recent years; they are now to pro wrestling what garage bands are to arena rock.
Backyarders are generally depicted as high-risk, low-IQ characters, thanks to the compilation videotapes of blood- and injury-filled matches that are hawked on cable-television ads aimed at the Jerry Springer set. On those rare occasions that the pastime is mentioned in mainstream publications, the context is invariably tragic.
Last week, a Mineral City, Ohio, man was indicted for child endangeringa felonyfor not preventing his 16-year-old stepson from plunging 18 feet off the roof of his house onto a burning, lighter-fluid-soaked card table as part of a backyard wrestling stunt. (He came out of it burned but alive.) Sadder still, a 13-year-old Broward County, Fla., boy was sentenced to life in prison on Jan. 25 for killing a 6-year-old neighbor in his yard with repeated body slams. At trial, the assailant’s defenders claimed that he had merely been imitating what he had seen pro wrestlers do on television.
Imitation is essentially what backyarders, including self-confessed WWF devotee Wessmiller, are all about. An IBWF match tends to have the same sort of flips, trash-talking, and exotic-sounding finishing moves found in a typical Smackdown fracas. Last week’s featured Webcast between Sliver and his chief rival, the Headliner, ended after Wessmillerer, Slivergot KO’d by a body slam that the mattress-side announcer dubbed “a front-page face-lift.”
The Webcast won’t, however, have anybody jumping off the roof or being tossed into bails of barbed wire, or any of the life-risking moves favored in the retailed videotapes.
“We won’t staple dollar bills to each other’s faces,” Wessmiller says, “but that’s the kind of thing that really does go on in some back yards. I did some crazy things when we first started. I didn’t want to get sued, so if anybody had to jump off the ladder into a table during a match, it was going to be me. But once, when I was diving off the back deck onto something, I just said to myself, ‘Maybe I shouldn’t be doing this.’ I know I was scaring my parents, too.”
So Wessmiller, wanting the IBWF to evolve into something of a thinking-man’s backyard wrestling promotion, toned down his routine and began spending as much time on his video-production techniques as he did on his wrestling moves. Now, the violence is either simulated or accidental.
“If you see somebody on fire diving off a roof in one of our matches, that means we paused the camera and brought out a stunt dummy, lit it on fire, and threw it off the roof. And if you hear our announcer screaming, ‘Oh, my Godhe’s got a brick!’ it’s just a sponge painted red. And we use an awful lot of ketchup. Sometimes what we end up with just looks stupid instead of dangerous, but it’s usually pretty funny.”
John Hucks, a founding member of IBWF and now a freshman at Northern Virginia Community College, appreciates Wessmiller’s approach. Hucks originally wrestled as Graham Cracker and was partnered with a character Wessmiller came up with, Marsh Mallow, to form the S’mores. The tag team taunted opponents after matches by yelling, “You want s’more?”
“Jeff’s the idea man,” says Hucks. “We’re not into the crazy stuff, which takes little or no talent. I’m not real good as a wrestler, but people seem to like to see me get my ass kicked. I call myself ‘the most downloaded wrestler in IBWF history,’ and I have to use interviews to get over.” (To “get over,” in ring parlance, means to garner fan approval. IBWF stars talk like the pros.)
Other IBWF workers include Bio-Hazard, who, according to his official, Wessmiller-penned biography, became emotionally deranged because of exposure to radiation while growing up on Three Mile Island; Phil “the Forearm” Briggs, whose hands are so “lethal” that “the IBWF has ordered him to wear boxing gloves” in matches; and Hombre del Queso, yet another masked grappler who calls the country of “Pantalones” home and, in interviews, sounds a lot like Wessmiller faking a Spanish accent.
The Web site, which displays workers’ bios and features a match of the week, has given Wessmiller’s organization the exposure it needs to, well, get over; he says it now gets a few thousand hits per week and that the response from surfers has been overwhelmingly rewarding. “The only downside,” Wessmiller says, “is we occasionally get pedophiles telling us, ‘I think you should wrestle naked.’”
Most kids at school know about Wessmiller’s IBWF exploits by now. He says the staff at Annandale has been supportive of his unsanctioned extracurricular activity: His driver’s ed teacher showed a tape of IBWF’s greatest hits to his classes last year. The school paper ran an article about him and his group.
That publicity inspired dozens of classmates to inquire about getting involved. Fearing the administrative headaches and parental wrath that could come his way if his backyard group grew any larger, Wessmiller politely turned all wannabe rasslers down. But some wouldn’t take no for an answer.
“The worst,” Wessmiller says, “was this short dude who kept saying he wanted to wrestle as the Asian Sensation. I finally told him, ‘OK, but you’re not the Asian Sensation; you’re Bald Crotch: the Dickless Ninja.’ I was sure that could get him to leave me alone.”
“Oh, this guy’s eager, even more than I thought,” says Wessmiller. “Now I better come up with some headgear for him. I bet he’s gonna do it. This could be pretty big.” Dave McKenna