We Wanted to Be Stone Cold; We Nearly Killed Ourselves

Credit: WWE

Done right, the German suplex is a fusion of power and grace—slick, dynamic, impressive.

I had not, in fact, done it right. With my hands curled around my friend James’ torso, I lifted him off the front lawn and thrust both our bodies backward. His shoulders crushed my face into the ground, and his body weight expelled every ounce of air from my lungs. I lie there on the grass, mouth agape, a gangly prone statue. Until I was able to breathe again a few moments later, it felt like I was drowning in the thick afternoon air.

This is certainly not what it looked like when Vader hit the move. Or Dean Malenko. Or Chris Jericho. Or any actual trained pro wrestler. But I was far from that. I was seventeen, scarecrow thin, and a theater nerd.

I can’t remember if this was our first attempt at recreating pro wrestling, our second, or our fifth. I mostly remember the uneasy crowd of fellow teenage boys that formed around me, the fear that I may never breath again, how still everything felt in that moment. And after my body resumed its normal functions, I jumped back into the fray.

It was the late ’90s, in the heart of the ratings war between the WWF and WCW, the thick of the Attitude Era, and the apex of pro wrestling’s mainstream popularity. Stone Cold Steve Austin stomped down to the ring, kicked his boss in the gut, threw up middle fingers, and doused his goatee in chugged beers. The king of the WWF was an adolescent fantasy come to life.

And every few days or so, a mishmash group of high school friends gathered to poorly emulate Austin—to live out the fantasy of being a wrestler, to just break up the monotony of the school year.

We were 15, 16, 17. We were dumb and bored and surging with testosterone. Some of us watched Monday Night Raw every single week, like devotees of a church of violence. Some of us had drifted away from wrestling when Hulk Hogan was still telling us to say our prayers and eat our vitamins. Some of us only knew the bulking heroes and villains of the ring through the 16-bit versions of them in our video games.

The sessions started on my uncle’s lawn. Our group, a gaggle of theater techs, grunge kids, and various outcasts, later congregated at my mother’s second floor apartment. Or else, we met up in the drama room after school where he covered the tile floor with a blue wrestling mat.

My idea was to create a merger of collegiate wrestling and the over-the-top stuff. We would play characters and have gimmicks, but the outcomes would not be predetermined. The action would be all sport and the presentation would be all spectacle. I hadn’t yet discovered Universal Wrestling Federation in Japan or similar promotions or I would have realized that someone else had already invented shoot-style wrestling. Someone who knew what they were doing.

We did not. I spent a good amount of time trying to help by buddies come up with ring names, but I gave zero thought to what we should do if someone got hurt. Same for liability issues.

“I remember you being so incredibly sweaty that it was impossible to get a grip on you, which spawned my suggestion that you go by ‘The Worm,’” my friend James told me recently.

We dubbed our buddy Andrew “California Caliboso.” The state where he grew up plus his last name with bonus alliteration. James called himself “The Lumberjack” in a tribute to his Canadian roots.

James, tan and frustratingly handsome, seemed to view our wrestling operation as an extension of drama class. He could embody a character and toy with a new theatrical medium. The Timber Toss and the Sabre Saw were among the signature moves he dreamed up though neither of us can remember if he actually pulled any of them off in a bout.

Jay viewed our meetings on the mat as perhaps a stepping stone to doing this for a living. He was a reserved, quiet guy with a soft smile, not exactly someone you would expect to become a wrestler. But he was the most serious about what we were doing. He didn’t miss an outing just as he didn’t miss an episode of Raw. Grappling and grinding on those mats and in the grass toughened him, he’s since told me. Our bootleg version of wrestling inspired him to do the real thing. When our high school later started an amateur wrestling team, Jay and Caliboso were among those to sign up. Jay lettered in his senior year, earned a silver medal at the district level, and battled his way to regionals.

He and his friend Vincent had serious plans to travel to WCW’s Power Plant training center in Georgia, before it closed for good in 2001.

For most of us, though, we weren’t nearly adept enough at this endeavor to build on it. Our wrestling matches rarely lasted more than five moves. They were frantic bursts. We awkwardly flailed, smearing sweat on the mat, entangled, and grunting. You might see a takedown and a headlock, maybe a crude armbar. Little else. Two minutes in and we were spent—heaving, desperate creatures with reddened faces.

But our technique being blobfish ugly didn’t matter. Our lack of endurance and absence of training didn’t dampen the joy we took in our stupid activity. We cheered each other on with pure ardor. We were hooting denizens of an imposter fight club.

Blame our age or enthusiasm but we sure as hell didn’t reflect on the danger of what we were doing. Any thought of worst-case scenarios weren’t enough to burst our sense of invulnerability.

We laughed off bruises and sprains, near-misses, and smarting ribs. The scares came often, but we pushed past them and onto the next battle.

“The first day, he (Jay) suplexed me on your living room floor, knocking the wind out of me for at least 10 seconds,” James said.

“One guy put me in a reverse DDT and dropped me smooth on the back of my head and I was dazed,” Jay recalled. “I had tingling sensations in my lower extremities.”

I can’t remember who it was, but one of our friends took a DDT straight onto my mom’s floor and went limp. Whoever he was fighting went to roll him over a pin but stopped short. A teenage boy now lie face down, unconscious, maybe the victim of some terrible neck injury. Time seemed to stop. It got so quiet I could hear every beat of my heart as if it was pulsing in my ear.

When he came to and sat up and looked groggily at the concerned dudes circled around him, I wish I could say that was the moment we realized we were in deeper waters than we could swim in. I wish I could say that smartened us up and we retired the whole idea on the spot. But we only sighed with the greatest of relief before hopping back into the action.    

Had our wrestling club gone on longer, we may have left ourselves broken. Had we been less lucky, one of us would have a wild story to tell from our wheelchair. It’s easy to laugh it off now that we stepped away from it unscarred. Many of us still fondly remember details of our foolish enterprise some 20-plus years later, a stretch of time marked by the rush of endorphins, by becoming animals ramming our horns together for the sake of play.