"That was it," recalls Jackie Piscura. "I said, 'You guys are crazy. You can't do this anymore.'" She forbade Josh and his friends from ever wrestling in the backyard again.
It was a banishment that shook the foundations of the entire backyard wrestling world. Josh couldn't make her understand that to hundreds of kids, he wasn't just Mommy's little demon. He was Josh "Prohibition," a relentless bad guy who loved the taste of his own blood. And without a backyard, he was all washed up.
Unbeknownst to Jackie, Josh and his little brother, Dave, had been engaging in neck-breaking activities regularly for the past two and a half years, right under her nose. Joined by Josh's buddy, a frustrated gymnast named Matt Capiccioni, they'd started calling themselves the Brecksville Wrestling Federation. Their triumphs and head injuries had caught the attention of a California wrestling video company, which immortalized them in The Best of Backyard Wrestling 1 and 2. The naive country cousin of snuff films, the video series features youths from across the nation piledriving their friends into the hoods of their dads' Chevy Novas.
"When they started, they would just kind of mock-throw each other," explains Jackie. "I have four boys, so that was nothing new." The barbed-wire ladder and the old mattresses, they'd told her, were just props for their "role-playing games."
Now that the jig was up, however, they had to clear the garage of all their painstakingly amassed wrestling appurtenances: the broken chairs and card tables donated by a friend whose grandpa owned a party center; the loose lumber scavenged from construction sites; the bells and the wheelchair.
The purging ceremony got them thinking. The family's manicured two acres gave them some notoriety, but that was kids' stuff. They were ready to head-butt each other before paying crowds.
They'd already tasted fame: On their Brecksville Wrestling Federation website, they got about 10 e-mails a day from kids. "Most of them are not very smart," notes Josh, a clean-cut 21-year-old with killer dimples. "There's a lot of spelling mistakes."
One devotee even sent them some homemade action figures he'd fashioned in their likenesses. "They're pretty detailed, too," marvels Matt, known in the ring as the friendly, non-homophobic gangsta rapper MDog-20. "He drew on facial hair. Mine has a cloth bandanna. He actually sewed a vest for him. How do you acknowledge that? 'Thanks' doesn't cut it."
Beneath the plastic chandeliers of venues like the West Park Party Center, though, they could freely pack in 200 to 300 pizza-chomping, beer-drinking, admission-paying people. And they didn't have to worry about their parents pulling up in the driveway in the middle of a thumbtack showdown.
The payoff was in popularity only, however. All the green went to an independent promoter they'd hooked up with before the fateful (but not fatal) fire stunt with the neighbor boy, says Josh. The crowds flocked to the Normandy High School gym, where Matt did an aerial somersault off the balcony, crashing through a table that Josh was lying on. And they poured into St. Michael's Hall, where all that barbed wire gave Matt a gash that required stitches.
But just as success beckoned, Josh got a concussion that landed him in the hospital. Sobered by the injury, they decided to try going pro. Unlike backyard wrestling, they reasoned, professional wrestling involves fewer full-force folding chairs to the noggin and more feigned, choreographed stunts. Plus, making it big wasn't impossible: The World Wrestling Federation's Hardy Boyz had done it, snagging a contract after only six matches on a homemade trampoline.
"I'm trying to get away from backyard wrestling," declares a reformed Josh. "That was all just goofing around."
Now, Josh and Matt are learning legit moves like the "Half-Crab" and the "Single Leg Shoot" at the Cleveland All-Pro Wrestling School. Housed in an old garage on West 46th Street in Cleveland, the place is a haven for all manner of big men -- from sinewy and athletic, like Josh, to 400 quivering pounds of Jell-O, like "The Canadian Bad Boy." Neighborhood kids ride their tricycles up to the open doorway to peek in, lured by the blasting strains of Rancid on the boombox.
So far, Josh and Matt are the only veteran backyard wrestlers earning their Ph.D.s in pain tolerance at the school, where tuition is $1,200 a year. But it shouldn't take them too long to graduate, says their teacher, James "J.T. Lightning" Haase. They're his two quickest studies. They're also proficient enough to perform at public matches for the school -- their next big blowout is June 16 at the West Park Party Center. What's more, J.T. doesn't even screw them over and keep all the money. Matt gets about $90 a match; Josh earns "gas money."
Most of J.T.'s clientele come in from off the street -- "I'll take anybody," he says. J.T. himself rakes in a measly $70 a night when he wrestles for a semi-pro federation (the WWF and World Championship Wrestling are the only two pro leagues). "I make $42,000 in my day job" as a distribution manager, he says. "You do the math."
Meanwhile, Josh's brother, "Creeping Death" Dave, has stayed hardcore. Now a charter thug in the Parma-based Extreme Wrestling Federation, he's free to attempt those spontaneous high jumps onto hard surfaces. But not for $90. He says he's always told he'll be paid, but never is. "It kind of sucks," he says. The fact that the promoter's name is Johnny Rotten should be Dave's first clue that he's gonna get stiffed.
When the going gets really tough, nothing beats a round of good old-fashioned whupass, says Dave, now 19. "I've also done backyard wrestling where we fight each other full-contact in the face," he says. "We tape that, too, but we really don't invite people to that, because it's just something we do for fun once in a while."
Who knew knuckle sandwiches could be such a delicacy?