Lords of the Ring

It’s Not Exactly the WWF, But Backyard Wrestlers Take Their Cues From the Pros

*This story originally appeared in the Lyme Times on December 14th, 2006

You probably have the same reaction as almost everyone else when you see late-night footage of backyard wrestlers getting body slammed through plywood boards: who does this?

Well, a group of twenty-somethings in East Lyme has been doing this for years. Joey Siragusa, a graduate of Mitchell College and East Lyme High School, started Extreme Freestyle Wrestling (EFW) ten years ago when he built a makeshift ring out of mattresses and spare ropes in his garage. Since then, he and a few of his devoted friends have torn through a number of homemade rings, donned hundreds of costumes, and broken dozens of plywood boards.

Throw out your preconceptions of the tattooed, steroid-charged, smack-talking, gorillas you see wrestling on television. The EFW breeds a different type of wrestler. Most of their wrestlers have discernable necks, and weigh well under 200 pounds.

“[Wrestling federations] are a lot less dependent on big wrestlers now,” Siragusa said. “Back in the day you had to be 6’8, 320 pounds. But people don’t want to see that anymore. You can get to the top as a smaller wrestler.”

A professional-caliber wrestling ring, with steel struts and an EFW logo, now stands in place of Siragusa’s old garage. The ring, which has exposed steel poles and plastic-wrapped steel cables (instead of the padded ropes that WWE rings use), looks more menacing than those you might see on television.

“WWE wrestlers get pampered with nice soft ropes,” Morgan Grassy, who started wrestling with Siragusa in 2003, said. “Also, some people think that wrestling rings have trampolines in them. But it’s not a trampoline. It’s a grid of steel and then plywood and some padding. They’re a lot harder than people think.”

How extreme is EFW? None of the wrestlers have gotten tetanus or serious brain damage, or other major injuries you might expect as natural outcomes of backyard wrestling. But they don’t wrestle lightly.

After last weekend’s “Extreme Hardcore Match,” part of a six-fight wrestling extravaganza billed as “Season’s Beatings,” Siragusa’s backyard looked like it bore the destructive force of a cluster bomb. Shards of industrial-sized light bulbs, chunks of plywood, a bent cookie sheet, a driver, and fake blood littered the grass around the wrestling ring. In the ring: a dented and rusty metal chair, a frying pan, a bowling ball, more plywood, and more fake blood.

It was a typical EFW Hardcore match, which encourages the use of weapons, between Headcase and Preston Pedigree, two staple characters of EFW. The fight lasted thirty minutes, and culminated when Headcase, the reining Hardcore champion, rolled a bowling ball into a dazed Pedigree’s family jewels. With “Pedigree” borderline comatose, Headcase finished him with his signature move, a slam he calls “shock therapy.”

These two characters illustrate EFW’s quirky sensibility. Headcase, played by Mike Mafera, hails from a Connecticut insane asylum. He wears torn jeans, uses lots of weapons, and has no fear. Preston Pedigree, one of Siragusa’s characters, stretches the usual boundaries of wrestling personalities even further. He carries a golf club into the ring and dresses in an oxford shirt, a plaid vest, and pleated khaki pants.

Before the match Pedigree made an absurd, wordy, and nerdy case for himself as the Hardcore champion. He announced to the other wrestlers watching and the next-door neighbors:

“I plan to pick apart this degenerate this afternoon … do you really want a man like this representing your federation as the ‘extreme’ champion? I mean, for goodness sakes, we stake our very reputation on the word extreme!”

Pedigree went on to fight in a detestable and backstabbing manner. At the start of the fight, he faked an ankle sprain and pleaded for mercy. When Headcase turned his back, Pedigree hit him with his driver.

Siragusa and his friends stage two to four events per month. These events have around five matches that fall under various categories, a la professional wrestling federations. As part of Season’s Beatings, EFW had a Hardcore match, a Brimstone match (so named because they lit a small grill in front of the ring to add to the intensity of the fight with flames and the provocative possibility of using fire as a weapon), and a World Title match.

Adam Arcovio, who also goes by the name Double A, referees most of the fights. As the first permanent referee in EFW history, Arcovio knows when not to look at illegal activities going on in the ring.

Siragusa’s girlfriend, Kristen Totten, films the fights while she operates the soundboard, a small boom box with the volume cranked up, and announces the action.

“I don’t really know what’s going on,” Totten said. “I just kind of make it up.”

Sometimes Siragusa needs to yell at Totten to put the right music on or to stop the tape. Siragusa then puts the majority of the footage onto his website, efwwrestling.com, in hopes of building a dedicated audience.

Throughout the years, EFW has used dozens of characters played by about a dozen different wrestlers. Many of Siragusa’s original team has moved onto other things, leaving Siragusa and a few dedicated friends to pick up the slack.

He and Grassy play multiple characters. They both play a comical gangster-type. Siragusa plays G-Fresh, a rapper from Cancun, who wears a Jordan jersey and swings a heavy gold chain as a weapon. Grassy plays Screwjeetika, a freestyle-wrapper from Japan.

“It’s kind of funny,” Grassy said, “because you have two white guys pretending to be from Cancun and Japan pretending to be black.”

Grassy’s characters usually have a darker bent. His favorite might be The Major, an embittered, schizophrenic, and racist war veteran rumored to have fought in every war since World War I. He wears tattered army garb and a gray-haired wig. And he stumbles around the ring mumbling obscenities.

“I modeled him a little after my grandfather,” Grassy said.

Grassy also plays Chapel, who wears a blue and black mask, a puffy white pirate shirt, and skin-tight black leather pants.

“I admit I ripped him off from The Undertaker a bit,” he said. “But I purposely left the character a little bit vague … I don’t explain where he’s from or anything … he has a religious angle to his character, kind of a weird sacrificial thing that might be a little creepy.”

The characters all have back-stories that the announcers, Totten and usually another wrestler taking a breather, elaborate during the fight.

During the Season’s Beatings event, Mafera explained Chapel’s unique characteristic of muteness in his commentary: “Chapel can’t talk because when he was young, during the Thanksgiving holidays, he had his tongue ripped out by his dad. And they actually ate it for dinner because they couldn’t afford anything else. So many of Chapel’s issues are due to his terrible childhood.”

Like big time wrestlers, each character also has personal theme music, often some kind of metal or hardcore. Papa Roach, Lamb of God, Alice in Chains, and Metallica blare with regularity around Siragusa’s yard. Totten queues the music when the wrestlers enter the yard, which they do through a small tool shed that Siragusa has decorated with a curtain and ECW insignias.

Less hardcore characters receive appropriate entries. Mr. E., one of Siragusa’s characters apparently addicted to pills and the New London rave scene, enters through a bubble-machine to house music while he noodles his arms in circles.

Siragusa and Grassy also wrestle as themselves, characters they favor against their lesser, more comical ones. As themselves, they don’t wear masks. Siragusa is The Icon, currently the EFW World Titleholder. And Grassy is MG, The Icon’s primary contender.

Due to a lack of quality wrestlers, Siragusa and Grassy doctor EFW’s story lines so that MG and The Icon can fight one another in big matches.

A week after their Extreme Halloween event, in which The Icon beat MG to reclaim the World Title, the two fought again after MG accused The Icon of cheating and demanded a rematch. Icon won the rematch to remain the titleholder. So Siragusa and Grassy decided to throw an interesting twist into the plot. At Season’s Beatings, The Icon believed he was fighting Scewjeetika for the title. After Screwjeetika won, he peeled off his mask to reveal who was actually underneath, Morgan Grassy, or MG.

Unlike some professional leagues, the EFW crew does not take themselves too seriously. They make fun of the budget nature of their federation, their shortage of wrestlers, and their equipment’s shortcomings.

Their humor shows in their commentary. After Headcase insulted Pedigree by insinuating Pedigree’s possible insestual tendencies, Grassy announced, “Oh! An inbreeding insult. That’s always a hot button issue at EFW … I dated an inbred once. Ended badly … ”

The wrestlers do, however, take their wrestling seriously. Siragusa and Grassy are self-proclaimed wrestling nerds. They study as much Independent wrestling (federations outside of mainstream ones like WWE) as possible.

They have an arsenal of incomprehensible lingo, naming slams and holds, which they display when staging fights. Before their matches, Siragusa and his friends spend over an hour planning the crucial moments of their matches and solidifying any storylines that need telling and selling, so that if they ever get an audience it will know what is going on.

While planning the World Title fight, Grassy discussed possibilities with Siragusa on the mat.

“I think I need to throw in a non-homo septon here to save face,” Grassy said.

Siragusa countered by suggesting that he catch an MG “super kick” and then put MG in a “t-bone suplex.”

Although the wrestlers plan moments and the outcomes of matches, they leave much up to their improvisational abilities. Like a deranged play, a fight’s flow and believability depends on wrestlers’ memories (knowing the script) and their abilities as actors. They feign pain. And they adopt different attitudes depending on their character. Even if they don’t deliver many lines, they communicate to the audience and each other with body language. They signal to each other when to connect and when to miss, when to play hurt and when to go for an acrobatic move off the top rope.

It is acting on an extreme level, in which body slams and clotheslines are the punch lines. Siragusa and Grassy both deeply value the improvisational and dramatic part of wrestling.

“Wrestling gives you complete freedom and creativity … you determine what happens. It’s just you and the person you’re wrestling, and you determine how it goes.”

Siragusa and Grassy do not wrestle simply for cheap thrills. The sport means something special to them both.

“I never liked any sports growing up,” Grassy said. “I liked this because it was completely underground … when I first saw it in [Joey’s] garage, I was like, ‘people actually do this!’ They were jumping up on shoulders and flipping people upside down. I didn’t think I had any athletic ability, and I didn’t know I could do it. But I got in there and it was the most fun I’ve ever had.”

Of course, they also love the thrill; wrestling pumps them up.

“When you’re wrestling you’re on top of the world,” Siragusa said, sweating and breathing hard after a fight. “It gives you the biggest adrenaline rush. You can take shots and do things that you’d never think you could do.”

“It kind of numbs you into doing dumb things to yourself,” Grassy said.

Siragusa and Grassy don’t have major delusions about how far wrestling can take them. They want to get EFW on the map of Independent wrestling federations. But they know that they probably won’t manage careers in the sport.

“Unless you’re in the top two promotions in the world, you’re not going to be making money doing wrestling,” Siragusa said, “so you have to have dedication and like doing it just to do it.”

Siragusa is trying to take EFW’s exposure to another level. He is trying to get a promoters license, which will allow him to advertise for EFW. And he is always working on his wrestling ability. This winter he plans to take classes at a specialized wrestling academy in Durham, Connecticut, while the EFW takes a break during the colder months.

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