And Another Thing: The New Backyard Wrestler
Posted by Hyatte on 01.23.2001
Before the Internet, there was the “Apter Family”. A group of magazines, all owned by one company, that treated the in-ring drama of wrestling as real life.
Before the Internet, there was the “Apter Family”. A group of magazines, all owned by one company, that treated the in-ring drama of wrestling as real life. Gimmicks and Angles were treated as 100% true. Sometimes, in order to help sell the “magic” of wrestling, a columnist would write a fictional tale about a particular subject that helped to enrich the Worker’s particular gimmick or angle. It was silly and intellectually offensive; but sometimes... these stories were pretty damn entertaining. The following is a homage to those type of columns from the days before the Internet... the days when Kayfabe ruled.
There is nothing as unnerving as dawn in suburbia.
I'm a cityboy, myself. For me, nighttime means the city quiets down just enough so we can hear the bullets. In the suburbs, however, it's dead quiet. I turn the car radio up a bit louder, a local classic rock station pumps out a block of Tom Petty to help drown out the morning silence. Petty tells me that I don't have to feel like a refugee. Oddly enough, I find this comforting.
Still, I can't get over the peacefulness of a suburban sunrise. This is where the millions of drones who clog up my city's streets, subways, and sidewalks go to rest, play, and be human. In the city, they dress in suits, walk with stern looks of concentration on their faces, and do their best not to make eye contact with anyone else. How would they behave here in their homes? Would they look at you? Wave hello? Smile? Do I even want to find out?
I pulled over in a deserted Drugstore parking lot, marveling at the sight of the closed building's doors and windows. Don't get me wrong, stores close up for the night in the city too, only the owners drop steel gates and fences over the doors and widows. Nobody does that here. Why didn't they just put a sign on the window saying, Break Me! Come And Take Whatever You Want!. And where was the graffiti? What self-respecting business doesn't have at least one mark of the Latin Kings spraypainted on their wall? I was only about twenty five miles from the city, but I might as well be a million miles away. This was not my world. This was the Planet of the Middle Class. I pulled my roadmap out of the glove box and doublechecked the directions. Yeah, Bryson Ave. should be just a few miles down this road here. Take a right and it'll be the seventh house on my left. I restarted the engine and pulled out of there. On the radio, a fresh block of the Who just started to roll. Roger Daltry told us that the exodus is here. Boy, he ain't kidding.
Houses... you don't count houses to get anywhere in the city.
165 Bryson was a nice enough home, two stories, two car garage, complete with basketball net hung over it--no doubt painstakingly mounted high enough to suit NBA regulations. Finely cut green grass surrounding two young, strong trees that were sipping on their Breakfast morning dew. Red brick walkways leading to a swept, freshly painted front porch. This was the kind of house you see in the brochures. I believe the term is All American. It's the kind of house that Yuppies bought in the eighties with dreams of raising their families. As I pulled into their perfectly rectangular driveway, I wondered if they even bothered to lock their front doors at night. It wouldn't have surprised me if they didn't.
I stepped out of the car and deeply inhaled the morning. Not bad, cleaner than I was used too. Even though my radio was off, I still heard music... softer this time, yet vibrant all the same. This music wasn't coming from any radio though, it was coming from the trees. Dozens, if not hundreds of birds were waking up in their evergreen homes, all singing their morning songs to each other. I had to smile at that. In my world, we've got angry pigeons that try to peck out nice, gaping holes in your legs and feast on the running faucet of blood before moving out of your way, and none of them sing. Okay, the suburbs win this one. They definitely have the cooler wildlife.
Just as I was deciding whether to ring the doorbell and wake up the entire Werner family, or sitting in my car and waiting for someone to remember that this silly interview was arranged for 5:30 am, a voice to my left asked, "Are you from the magazine?" I half turned and looked at a boy, no older than 13, dressed in a blue spandex singlet and a wrestling head pad.. All elbows and knees were padded up. He had a fine coating of sweat on him, a tough feat here in the chill of a spring dawn. We eyed each other suspiciously, him because I was a stranger and me because I've never seen a boy who's day was so obviously well underway before the sun even touched the sky.
"Hi", I said, smiling broadly to project friendliness, "I'm from the magazine. Is Aaron up yet?"
"He's in the back," the boy jerked his thumb behind him, "He's training."
Training? For a backyard fed? Backyard feds are nothing more than drunk kids bashing each other with various small appliances for an hour until one of them has to go home to supper. Backyard feds are universally despised by professional wrestlers, mostly because the moment some kid becomes a paraplegic after getting a cinderblock dropped on the head, the first thing Mom, Dad, and Mom & Dad's lawyer will blame will be whatever wrestling show the kid was watching on Monday nights. To the business, Backyard wrestlers are untrained jerks who watched too many Mick Foley matches. Emphasis on untrained. I gave this sweaty kid another once over, noting that he actually had well-defined, semi-cut muscles, and asked him his name.
"Michael Benjamin", was his short response.
"Shouldn't you be sleeping, or something, Mike?" I asked. "It's awfully early for a wrestling match."
"It's never to early to train, sir, that's the first thing Aaron shows us." he said. "Now excuse me, but I have to study for Math class today." The boy then pulled his pads and head guard off, slipped a warm-up jacket on, stuffed his gear in his pockets, and began bounding down the road in a fast jog. I watched him go, trying to assimilate what I had just met. At that age, boys should be reading comic books, trading baseball cards, and driving their parents crazy by blasting Marilyn Manson in their rooms. No 13 year old boy should be concerned with studying Math after a pre-dawn training session. As I headed for the backyard, I started to understand why my Editor would send me to check this out. "There's something funny going on in a Jersey Backyard fed," were his exact words before handing me this address and the magazine's Mobil gas card. I just figured I got this stink assignment because he was sick of seeing me hang around the office doing nothing other than bombarding the Wrestling Interview writer with my endless well of Starrcade trivia, (and if you want to impress the babes, ask them who did Superstar Billy Graham fight in his only Starrcade match, then dazzle them by proudly answering, "Why, Wahoo McDaniel, of course!"). As I walked down the side of 165 Bryson Ave., and saw Aaron Werner for the first time, I began to think that maybe my Editor was onto something.
The backyard was a simple one, a no frills square plot of land that used freshly mown grass to indicate where the property lines were. Off to the right side stood a gazebo large enough to hold two small couches, a round table, and a BBQ grill. To the left stood a giant willow tree, looking old enough to tell of days when Dinosaurs lifted their legs to it. Sitting squarely in the center or the yard was a large, square mat with a perfect circle painted in the middle. It was clearly a wrestling mat. There were three boys there, all dressed identical to the kid who greeted me at the driveway. Two of them were off to the side of the mat. One was next to the willow tree, upside down on his hands. His legs were bent back so his feet were planted on the tree. He began doing handstand push-ups. The other was sitting on the ground, twisting and spinning his legs around his body as fast as he could. Now, I don't know all that much about amateur ("real") wrestling, professional wrestling reporters needn't know such stuff, but I knew enough to see that the kid was practicing his sit outs. The third boy was standing in the middle of the mat, balancing on top of a 2X4 raised on either side by what looked to be bricks. He wore a look of intense concentration on his face as he crossed his arms high across his chest and slowly started to bend his knees and lean himself backwards. He bent and leaned himself back further and further until he was running perpendicular to the ground. Then he leaned back even further, slowly descending backwards until the top of his head touched the ground. I stood there, vaguely aware that my jaw had dropped down to my chest. The boy stayed in this impossible position for a moment, his thigh muscled quivering with tension, then he slowly began to rise, reversing his course until he was standing straight again. I looked at the other boys in amazement. Neither one of them seemed to have noticed what this kid had done. The boy took a few deep breathes, then repeated the process. After the third time, never once losing control or balance, the boy stepped off the 2X4, and walked over to me. With blonde hair and ultra bright smile that made his blue eyes twinkle off the approaching sun, the New Backyard Wrestler stuck out his hand and said, "I'm Aaron Werner. It's great to meet you!"
Aaron wanted to work a few sparring matches before we talked, so I sat on the grass while he and his two friends sparred off each other. The routine was that two guys would grapple with each other for two minutes, then whoever had the least points would roll out and the third guy would run in and continue for two minutes. The trick was to stay on the mat and grapple for as long as you can before fatigue wears you out. The sparring session lasted for a good 30 minutes, and not once did Aaron roll out of the ring. The kid was a dynamo, a literal tornado of lightening fast takedowns and lock-ups. His partners weren't slouches either, they knew their stuff, but this kid was just amazing. The way he knowingly positioned himself. His sense of balance. The way he turned his opponents muscles and weight against them. I am the last guy you'll want to describe an amateur match. I only care about the professional stuff, but it didn't take a novice like me to see, this kid had amazing skills.
I got to talk to Aaron's two partners, Stan and Donald, during their two minute intervals. As it turns out, Aaron holds these pre-dawn training sessions every morning, but with a different set of kids each day. Between gasps of air, I realized that they were not exactly Aaron's friends, they were more like Aaron's followers. Stan, a short kid who bore a decent resemblance to Tazz explained to me that this Backyard fed that they were in used to be the typical garbage crap like all the others. Just a bunch of kids from around town getting together after school and on weekends and goofing around and hitting each other with whatever they found in various junkyards that looked cool. "No one really worked at it, " he told me. "It was just talking trash and copying what we saw on TV." Then Aaron took over the fed, and Aaron had some plans. "Aaron went up to all of us and dared us to try it his way," Stan told me. "He asked if we really wanted to make a mark and change the rules." Stan told me that half of the group walked, and most of the remaining group quit the program after the first week. "In the beginning, there were only six of us left. But after a few cards and Aaron started recruiting from other towns, we got stronger and stronger. Now there's seventeen of us." Stan didn't hold back his pride about this. "Every Saturday night, practically the entire high school shows up at Wilson Field for our card. And after every night, Aaron gets at least eight kids wanting to sign up. And now a real wrestling magazine is doing a story on us, we really are blowing up!" Before he was about to relief Donald and go back for 120 seconds with Aaron, he looked at me and asked, "when are you gonna tell him about us?" When I asked who, he answered, "Angle, of course. Who else?"
Kurt Angle? The WWF champ and Olympic hero? What did he have to do with this?
Donald was another young kid, and clearly new to the program. He spoke of Aaron in tones of sheer awe. "Aaron showed me how to live." he announced to me, with no trace of embarrassment. "He taught me how kindness gets more done than demand, and how you achieve your goals more with a smile and than with a frown." Donald carried on about how he wakes up every morning excited to work out, and goes to sleep at night mere seconds after his head touches the pillow. "It really works. Training really makes you better. Wrestling makes you better. Helping people out without question just makes you feel better!" Even after every two minutes of being twisted, stretched, bullied, and slammed down on the mat by his idol, Donald always came back to me with a fresh bundle of energy ready to be channeled into exalting the philosophy of Aaron Werner.
In between raves, I asked Donald what he thought of Kurt Angle. Donald stopped for a moment, sighed deeply, and said, "He's what made all this possible. Kurt is what Aaron bases everything on. That's all there is to it."
"Is it?" I asked.
He didn't answer. He just watched his hero grapple with Stan on the mat. I was about to repeat myself, Aaron hooked his arms around Stan's one last time and drove his shoulders into the mat. He kicked the mat with a free foot and called, "MATCH!" Aaron bounced up to his feet and helped Stan to his with a hand. He looked at both his partners and said, "Good work, guys. Go home." As his followers began to put on their windbreakers, Aaron said, "Remember to help someone at least once today for no reason. You can tell me about it during Saturday's card." Both Stan and Don nodded enthusiastically. Like Mike Benjamin did before, they stuffed their gear in their pockets and began to jog up the yard towards the street. Aaron watched them go before turning to me and asking, "Mind if I stretch while we talk?" I told him to go ahead. He gracefully sat on the ground, stuck out his leg, and began reaching for his toes. Before I could ask a single question, he started to speak.
"Idiots, " he began, "there were nothing but idiots flopping around the ground before I took over."
I asked if he meant the backyard fed here. He nodded, "I've always wanted to be a wrestler, you know? I mean, since I was six years old and watched Bret Hart and the Bulldog go at it in Britain. Remember that one?"
Of course I did. Summerslam at Wembley Stadium. A mat classic. Some say it was Bret's zenith. It was definitely Davey Boy's
He told me of how he found this backyard fed a year ago, soon after he and his family moved into town. He went into the thing looking for boys with similar goals and ideals... to work and work and work until one day the phone rings and it's the WWF calling. That's what Aaron wanted... and he was naive enough to think it was just that easy.
"I was stupid," he said. "I knew what I wanted, but I was just clueless as to go about it. I joined this backyard fed and watched all these guys break lightbulbs in each other's faces. I saw them climb to the top of roofs and plunge into broken down dog houses and termite chewed picnic tables." He looked at me while sitting back under his bend legs and said, "One day, this kid hooked jumper cables to a car battery and kept zapping the heck out of his opponent. The kid actually soiled his pants. It was right there, I knew this was not the way. No wrestling company is impressed by a jerk who gets put headfirst through flaming tables. It's a lazy, one trick attempt to break into the business. I knew that in order to get attention, you needed something more."
Aaron Werner tilted his head back and soaked in some of the morning sun. His face broke out in a wide grin as he said, "Then Kurt Angle won the world title, and it all clicked for me. It's true." He smiled wide, enjoying the little irony.
"But, why Angle?" I asked. "There are plenty of wrestlers who..."
Aaron waved me off and said, "Because he's the dark horse. In a sea of wrestlers who are all about personality and getting a crowd response. He's the guy who prescribes to a set of values. He also made it into the sport the way you should... through years of work and perseverance and intensity and intelligence and integrity." He looked directly into my eyes and added, "I realized that the three 'I's meant something more than just a nifty catchphrase. They sent a message. I was lucky enough to catch it and believe in it."
I kept our eyes locked and said, "But Aaron. He's a HEEL. You're supposed to boo him!"
The boy laughed, "He's only a heel because he lives by a certain code and challenges people to accept and adopt them as their own. All great leaders do this. Many have died for them."
I broke away from our staredown and asked, "Are you willing to die for this code?".
Aaron Werner bounced to his feet, placed his hands on his waist, and slowly started to roll his torso in a clockwise manner, "I doubt it will come to that, but I just look at Kurt, who won the Inter-continental title, the European title then unified them. He won the King of the Ring, and then won the World title and defended it against everybody. He accomplished all this in his first year. Most guys barely make it out of the middle of the card if their lucky. This guy is a main event player... and he's still a ROOKIE!! I looked at what he did and I fear nothing." He stopped twirling and stared at me with a look of dead seriousness, "nothing."
We talked some more. He told me about how it was tough to recruit kids to his fed, and how very few stick around after a few training sessions. "It's okay though, I only want the strong. I want the superior. The heck with the inferior!" He told me that he plans on enrolling in the wrestling program when he finally gets to High school, "That Coach is in for the shock of his life," he said, hitting me with a good natured wink. He plans on getting to a good college based on his skills. "Full scholarship all the way," he said. "There is no doubt in my mind that it'll happen. The three 'I's will serve me well with this."
Then after that? "The Olympics," he said. "I don't know if I can win as much Gold as the Master did, but I won't be able to look in the mirror if I don't at least try to live up to what he expects of us all."
The interview wrapped up when Aaron noted the time and said that it was time for him to prepare for school. We shook hands. I promised him that I would try to make it to a card soon. He dropped his gaze a bit and for the first time, actually acted like a fourteen year old as he asked, "Well... do you think that... maybe... you could..."
I knew where he was heading, so I let him off the hook and said, "Well, you know that Kurt wrestles almost every day in different towns. So it's hard to find him." I could almost see his heart break, so I added, "but I promise you, he'll hear about this." Aaron brightened up considerably and cheered, "Great! I just know he'll want to see us. He's gonna be so proud of this!" He ran back into his house, I walked back to my car. The singing birds in the trees had grown quiet. I guessed it was time for them to go forage food or something.
Suburbia came alive as I drove out, but I hardly took notice. My thoughts were on Aaron Werner and his plans. I had no problems believing that he would be in the Olympics one day, fighting the good fight and striving to please his Hero. I also had no problems thinking that there were a lot of kids out there looking for the kind of guidance their Counselors at school could never dream of giving them. I thought of what Aaron told me about his plans for expanding his backyard wrestling fed throughout the state, maybe the country. One huge backyard federation throughout the country, adhering to the disciplines and axioms of a young boy. The kid was a natural leader, I couldn't argue with that. He had the chops to actually make it work.
And yet, something made me edgy about Aaron Werner and his goals.
"It's okay though, I only want the strong. I want the superior. The heck with the inferior!"
I hit the interstate and sped my way towards the city. My Editor was right, there was something funny going on in the suburbs of Jersey. I started to wonder how long it'll take before "Jersey" gets replaced with "America". And how would Kurt Angle really feel about what he is spawning?
Intelligence, Integrity, Intensity. Inspiration?
Maybe it was time for Kurt to add that fourth "I".
Somewhere deep inside, I hoped that he wouldn't.
The sun shone brightly on the Manhattan skyline. It was going to be a beautiful day in the city.
This is Hyatte too