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Go down fighting

The band of backyard wrestlers who make up Port Tampa Wrestling are starting to grow up and move on, but not before one last bout.

By RON MATUS, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published August 2, 2002


PORT TAMPA -- It's 6 p.m. on a balmy Friday night, and Port Tampa's version of professional wrestling is in full swing.

[Times photos: Krystal Kinnunen]
Steve Davis, left, and Jason Castell, both 17, go airborne during last Friday's installment of the backyard wrestling federation known as Port Tampa Wrestling. The PTW, started in 1995, faces extinction as organizers head off to college and parents evict the matches.
Steven Furrow, 16, and Steven "Blade" Davis, 17, slug it out in front of an amped audience of four, including the father of another wrestler.

Davis, lanky as a heron, picks up the smaller Furrow and slams him to the mat, which consists of carpet padding on top of particle board on top of mattresses.

Think extra-firm tofu.

"Oh, no!" says the announcer, Mark "The Mark" Ingram, recognizing the move. "The gourd buster!"

"Furrow's knee's not supposed to bend that way," he says.

"Ooooh," the crowd groans.

And so it goes at Port Tampa Wrestling.

Instead of Hulk Hogan and The Rock, fans get Redneck Rob and The Mark. Instead of a 10,000-seat arena, they get folding chairs in a lot next to the fire station. Instead of busty babes with big hair and leather pants, they might get an all-girl metal band.

High tech it's not. Nor high society.

But it's all free, even the Sam's Choice sodas, when someone remembers to bring them.

If you want your gratuitous violence to be as cartoonish as possible, there's no better show around.

"We're low-budget entertainment," Davis says.

Backyard wrestling is a national phenomenon.

There are hundreds of "federations" like the one in Port Tampa, mostly teenage boys with video cameras, slick Internet sites and a love for professional wrestling. In some cases -- the ones that make the news -- they take daredevil stunts to absurd levels.

PTW, as enthusiasts call Port Tampa Wrestling, began in 1995 but got seriously organized two years ago.

Thirty wrestlers have come and gone. But three of the four founders -- Furrow, Ingram and Phillip Lybrand -- have stuck with it.

"It's fun . . . a chance to be creative," said Ingram, who edited the student newspaper at Robinson High School and is headed to the University of South Florida this fall.

If not for wrestling, Furrow says, "I'd probably be sitting around watching TV and eating."

photo
Steven Furrow, 16, holds up the PTW championship belt after the July 26 match.
The fourth pioneer, Steve Baker, got a job at a Ford dealership. His kid brother is "Redneck Rob" Baker, who makes it to the ring now and then.

"Some of us have girlfriends," said Paul "Jason Fury" Whitehouse, 16. Rob responds with a sheepish grin.

Nobody's sure whose back yard was first. Most recently, they've used Furrow's.

At one point, the ring was banished to the woods. It moves according to the ire of parents and code enforcement. People still show up -- something of a feat considering the sporadic schedule, advertised by word of mouth. Sometimes wrestlers knock on doors minutes before a match.

During one stretch, PTW had events every few weeks. But when fans got oversaturated, they scaled back to every few months.

On a good night, 15 to 20 fans show up. (The wrestlers have videos to prove it.)

They chant. They heckle. They throw empty soda cans.

The wrestlers slap high fives with the crowd and flex their muscles. Then they do their thing.

"Oh, this hurts so much," one wrestler wails.

Some call this grass-roots entertainment. Some call it goofy.

Others say it's dangerous.

"A growing underground of teenage boys who just want to stomp the daylights out of each other," began one alarmist report on network TV last summer.

One "best-of" video hawked on the Internet promises "an orgy of total violence." It quotes Oprah Winfrey: "I can't believe what I'm seeing."

The hype even prompts a rebuke from the pros at World Wrestling Entertainment, which says on its Web site that it is "adamantly opposed to the concept of backyard wrestling."

The reaction from Port Tampa: Please don't lump us in with those idiots.

Nobody here, they point out, wrestles on top of moving cars, or dives off second-story buildings, or stages what the "best-of" video calls "bloody, barbed-wire death matches."

Nobody here runs cheese graters across foreheads.

"We put on a show," says Lybrand, 18. "They're just trying to get a reaction."

PTW guns for a reaction, too.

Most events start with the referee, Lunchbox, dancing a jig in the ring. Picture the Snoopy dance set to a poppy punk tune, performed by a beefy kid in a mask.

From left, Chris Munger, 18, and Gary Lybrand watch as Phillip Lybrand, 18, jumps onto Mark Ingram, 18, during a backyard wrestling match July 26.
There's no bell, so Lunchbox starts every match by shouting, "Ding! Ding! Ding!"

Next up: Blade vs. Jason "El Scorcho" Castell.

As the wrestlers go at it, The Mark keeps up a steady cadence: "A rolling DDT . . . a kick to the stomach . . . a Canadian knife sharpener."

The acrobatics follow. El Scorcho throws Blade over the top rope and out of the ring. Blade flips in the air and appears to land flat on his back.

The crowd winces: "Ohhhh."

Some of the Port Tampa guys aspire to be professional wrestlers. Most have worked out with professional trainers. One of their own, David Oliverio, successfully made the move to the independent circuit, a step below the pros.

"We know what we're doing," Davis says.

Translation: He can still walk after getting flipped out of the ring.

He broke his nose in a match, his collarbone in a practice. Lybrand nearly snapped an ankle.

They shrug it off.

Lybrand's dad doesn't.

The events used to be held in Lybrand's back yard, until the ankle incident "set me off," Gary Lybrand says. PTW got a swift kick into another location.

Of course, he still watches, while jeering at his son.

"They're having fun," he says from ringside.

Last week's event had been billed as the end of an era.

An "extinction level event."

The grand finale.

Translation: Founders Lybrand and Ingram are leaving for college.

Translation: After city code enforcement cracked down on yard clutter, Furrow's mom is giving them the boot.

There are tales, all false, of a rival wrestling federation buying out PTW for $1-million. Hamming it up, Furrow tells the crowd that he has signed the paperwork.

Someone else will have to step up.

Ingram, the announcer, is optimistic.

"Some of the younger guys will probably find a way," he says. "They used to have it in the woods. They could go back."

"There's not much else to do around here," Furrow says.

* * *

In the meantime, Phillip Lybrand creates his good old days.

For the heavyweight championship, he's supposed to wrestle Jason Fury. Instead, the match turns into a three-way, with Furrow in the mix.

Phillip Lybrand, 18, at right, pushes Steven Furrow, 16, onto Paul Whitehouse, 16, who hit the ground last Friday during what is probably the last match for the loosely organized Port Tampa Wrestling match.
Fans derisively call Furrow "Emo," after a type of overly emotional punk rocker.

"Shut up," Furrow whines.

The crowd rips into a chant: "E-mo. E-mo. E-mo."

Action is furious. Lybrand gets clanged with a folding chair, then somehow recovers enough to throw Furrow out of the ring and against what The Mark instantly dubs "the tool shed of doom."

Then comes the moment the crowd has been waiting for.

Lybrand picks up Fury and, after a dramatic pause, drops him across a table. It splits in half, leaving Fury in a crumpled heap.

The crowd roars. Lybrand's dad laughs.

"Not bad," he says.

-- Ron Matus can be reached at 226-3405 or matus@sptimes.com.

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