A PAINFUL PASSION
BY GREG ST. MARTIN
Leaping from his porch, Steven Marino soars like a bird, then falls like a rock—ten feet from his deck to the ground. He lands with a crash on top of his friend Joe, driving his elbow into his opponent’s sternum with striking force. Steven stumbles to his feet, clutching his arm, as his buddy spits up blood all over his own clothes. Hooking Joe’s leg beneath him, he goes for the pin, and their referee slides on his belly across the moist November grass, counting 1, 2, 3. Steven is the champion.
At least in this league he is.
Steven is only one of hundreds of guys across America who routinely thrash each other in their own backyard wrestling leagues. To them, this wrestling phenomenon has become a way of life. Clearly, some of pro wrestling’s loyal fans have misread the disclaimer, "Don’t try this at home." According to Steven Marino, his backyard wrestling league, martial arts training and religious viewing of all weekly wrestling programs are all just steps in his relentless pursuit of stardom.
"I like hurting myself," says Marino. "When I see those guys kill each other on TV, I want to be there too. When I see someone jump off a ladder, do a flip, and crash down on another guy, I say, ‘Whoa!’ But then I think, ‘Hey, I could do that.’ So I grab my brother, and we go outside and try."
The fearless Marino, 21, is a product of the WWF’s skyrocketing success in recent years, and he happily embraces the tremendous pain of backyard wrestling. Steven attributes his new obsession to watching the World Wrestling Federation (WWF), which has been a hobby for the last four years.
"I was over at my friend Gerry’s house, and he and Joe were watching a video tape of this crazy match from Japan," said Marino. "It was Cactus Jack vs. Terry Funk, and they were using barbed wire, they were using tacks, they had explosions in the ring. They both came out bloody as hell, and I knew right then that I was addicted to this stuff."
Marino said he then started watching WWF on television and has been hooked ever since. He and about ten of his buddies gather each week to watch the televised programs, and they aren’t the only ones tuning in. WWF’s "Raw is War," which airs on TNN from 9 to 11 p.m. on Monday nights, is cable’s #1 program, consistently gaining approximately a 6.0 in the Nielsen ratings each week for the last year. Between the WWF, World Championship Wrestling, and Extreme Championship Wrestling, there are normally 16 hours of televised wrestling each week for the millions of loyal fans to tune in to. For many, if they are forced to miss a minute of it, they make sure their VCR doesn’t.
Many wrestling fans take each program very seriously; they cheer for their favorite wrestlers, curse when they disagree with the storylines and literally come to blows when one accuses a wrestler of ripping off another guy’s signature move. However, most of their bickering is settled in the ring—their ring.
It is in a ring made up of blue gym mats, bungee cords and wooden posts that participants in Steven’s backyard league, SCW (Steven Championship Wrestling), settle their disputes with ferocious intensity. Not only do they wrestle, they tape the action as well. They have costumes, gimmicks, storylines and angles, and they even give their own interviews. After all, the storylines attract most of wrestling’s viewers each week, and SCW tries hard to mimic pro wrestling’s soap-opera style. The only difference is that the videos they make aren’t publicly broadcast; they are made purely for the participants’ own enjoyment.
But don’t think Steven, or The Steven as he is known in SCW, is bashing his brains in on a regular basis just for kicks.
"I will be in the WWF someday, I know it," says an enthusiastic Marino. "I’ve done the training, I’ve traveled around watching all sorts of matches and studying them. I know I can do the stuff most of those wrestlers do. It’s just a matter of getting the opportunity."
Marino has indeed done the training. He has taken martial arts classes at various centers in his hometown of Randolph, MA, becoming a black belt this past summer. While he continues to spar regularly, Marino has turned his focus to the art of wrestling. This summer he hopes to attend Killer Kowalski’s Wrestling School in Malden, MA, a world-renowned training school that has produced many of today’s top wrestlers like Triple H, Perry Saturn and Prince Albert, as well as former wrestler Big John Studd.
It is 10 a.m., the day after Thanksgiving. On a chilly Friday morning, I wait with Steven on his front lawn. One by one, cars begin to pull up in front of his house. As the final car arrives, Steven says, "No, Boyd, pull your car up on the grass over here. We’re gonna need it today." Then turning to me and smiling, he rationalizes, "It’s a piece of shit anyway." Right then, I knew these guys were serious about "putting on a good show" each time they wrestle.
Looking over the group, I notice some of them are hung over. A few clutch their coffee cups. As Steven begins to round them up, he discusses the booking schedule (the planned matches and outcomes for the day). Joe will drop the SCW title to Steven, and Dan and Mitch will successfully defend their tag team titles against Anthony and SOS. Meanwhile, Jim, Boyd, Gerry and Brian will be pitted against each other in a "No Holds Barred, Hardcore, Falls Count Anywhere, No Disqualification" contest, one of SCW’s most popular match styles.
SCW is about to begin. As their friend and cameraman Mike films the show, Gerry and Dan sit at the "broadcast booth," a foldout table with a laptop on it, to play the wrestlers’ chosen theme music.
Suddenly, Steven’s mother, Betsy, arrives at the porch door in her robe. Yawning, she says, "Jesus, guys, again? Just don’t kill each other. That goes for you too, Steven." She then vanishes behind the door’s curtains. Later, Steven explained she was referring to the three occasions when his brother, Anthony, was sent to the hospital as a result of the backyard wrestling. One of those times, the doctor informed Steven that he had actually caused his brother’s nervous system to shut down for about 15 seconds.
During Steven and Joe’s match, the two pull out all the stops. In the opening minutes, Joe slams Steven with thunderous chair shots to his head and back. However, Steven counters these with a "Tornado DDT" and a "Frankensteiner," two technically challenging wrestling maneuvers. Toward the end of the match, the two take their fight to Gerry’s Ford Bronco, inside which the pair ends up breaking the rear view mirror and two cup-holders.
Steven’s devastating elbow smash wins him the match and causes Joe to spit up blood, but Joe just shrugs it off.
"We hurt each other all the time," says Joe. "It’s usually accidental. We all understand that we could get hurt, and we’ve all agreed to not get upset about it. It usually looks better on tape when we actually hurt each other anyway."
Even though the guys practice their moves several times before they tape the real matches, there is one move the group never attempts off camera: "The Doomsday."
"We do practice almost every move we do to each other, just to make sure we can do them. We didn’t for ‘The Doomsday,’" says Jim. "We didn’t want to kill Boyd before we got it on tape. He’s nuts for agreeing to take it in the first place."
For the grand finale of the "No Holds Barred, Hardcore, Tornado…"(you get the idea) match, Jim stations himself on top of Boyd’s car as Gerry holds Boyd on his shoulders. Jumping feet first, Jim kicks Boyd in the chest, causing him to do a back flip and land on his face. This move, a variation of "The Doomsday," allows Jim to pin Boyd for the win.
"The Doomsday" comes only after Mitch and Dan run into the ring, wielding a folding chair and whiffle ball bat, respectively. As Dan crushes Brian with a head shot from the bat, Mitch smashes the chair over Boyd’s head, allowing Gerry to hoist Boyd’s limp body on his shoulders for "The Doomsday." This interference would eventually cause a showdown between Dan, Mitch, Boyd and Brian at the next event.
After this suicidal match, Mike records Dan and Mitch’s interview before their fight. Behind them, I catch a glimpse of Steven slouching down in a lawn chair, clutching his left leg. Clenching his fist, he begins cursing softly to himself. He was supposed to take it easy on that leg.
Sixteen months earlier, Steven broke his leg in two separate places, the fibula and tibia. He shuffled around on crutches for seven months as a result of the injury. Steven can barely muster the story behind his accident.
"We weren’t even in a match, we were just messing around," Steven complains. "That dumb bastard [Joe] screwed up when he suplexed me. He didn’t wait until I was ready. He just hoisted me up and dropped me straight back, and my leg fell under both of us."
But none of what has happened so far has made Steven put an end to SCW.
"We’re pretty safe. We have a good time. We may bleed or get dizzy from something once in a while. If someone got seriously hurt from SCW, we might all give it up. But until then, we’re gonna continue having fun."
While Steven does have lofty goals, his desire to succeed never gets in the way of one of his most important philosophies: Don’t take yourself too seriously.
"I’m really goofy most of the time, actually," says Steven. "When I’m wrestling in a match, I’ll make a crack about how stupid Joe looks, or how badly Dan messed up his move. I mean, we wrestle around in my backyard…There’s no fun in it when we can’t joke around."
Over the last four years, Steven has traveled all across the country following the wrestling superstars he idolizes on television. In all, he has met 17 wrestlers, including Sting, Bret Hart, and his favorite, Mick Foley. He has attended countless live wrestling events, most notably the WWF’s Wrestlemania 16, which he got to see from a 3rd row seat after scoring a ticket from a scalper for $1000. The ridiculously inflated cost proved to be worth it, however, when wrestlers Edge and Christian brushed beside him as they made their way to the ring through the crowd.
"It was incredible," says Steven, speaking of the whole experience. "When I felt all the fans desperately reaching over me, trying to get to them [Edge and Christian] as they ran through the crowd, I actually got goose bumps. I can’t wait until it will be me running to the ring."
Steven’s patience, along with his drive and charisma, has fueled his relentless pursuit of becoming a star. Years of martial arts did not come easy to him, and he knows honing his wrestling skills will take time.
"I love wrestling in my backyard with my buddies, but I can’t do it forever," admits Steven. "There are so many wrestling schools out there and so many guys trying to break into the WWF. I will soon have what it takes, but so will a lot of other guys. The thing that will separate us is desire and resilience."
Two of those guys, Tony Jones and Mike Modest, were profiled in last year’s Beyond the Mat, a documentary directed by Barry W. Blaustein. Not only did the film take a remarkably in-depth look behind the scenes of professional wrestling, it also devoted a lot of screen time to a small independent league, All Pro Wrestling (APW), based in Haywood, CA. Steven said he was particularly fascinated to watch two of the APW’s wrestlers, Tony and Mike, get a tryout with the WWF.
"The movie hit me with some harsh realities," says Steven. "They showed that guys in independent leagues might only make like 25 bucks a night. But seeing those two guys get a shot at the WWF gave me real hope. I just have to keep working hard."