Suburban Smackdown

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SCOTT HOUSTON--CORBIS SYGMA FOR TIME

DEVIL MAN: Steve Toth, above, wrestles his buddy Rebel Matt Revel in the Extreme Wrestling Federation

In a leafy suburban backyard about an hour's drive south of Manhattan, a tableau of choreographed violence is taking shape. A dozen boys have gathered on a miserably hot Saturday afternoon. They've set up a video camera, loudspeakers and a wrestling ring. Steve Toth, 16, provided the yard. But his mom Colleen has retreated indoors. She'd rather not watch as the teenagers punch, kick and insult one another, as they do most Saturdays.

It may not be the Rock vs. the Undertaker on prime-time TV, but the high school boys of the Extreme Wrestling Federation of Sayreville, N.J., try hard to make their contests look just as "real." They organize weekly bouts featuring costumed characters, intricate plot lines and the inevitable black eyes and scratches. In the EWF, as in the big leagues, fighters are assigned roles: low-down "jobbers" routinely get beaten up; superstars vie for championship titles. The boys know who will get slammed with a metal chair or smashed on a table. During the interview portions, characters accuse one another of cheating. The ref is jeered and mauled.

Inspired by televised wrestling, similar matches are staged weekly in hundreds of backyards across the country. In South Euclid, Ohio, you can watch a show mounted by the teenage Alliance of Violence. In Poinciana, Fla., the federation calls itself Insane Violent Hardcore Extreme Wrestling. More than 400 leagues have websites. And kids trade bootleg videotapes of their antics.

Just harmless roughhousing? Not according to critics, including many from the pro-wrestling industry. "If I had a kid doing it, I'd lock him in his bedroom," says Verne Langdon, a trainer and owner of Slammers Wrestling Gym in Studio City, Calif. "Pros don't always set a good example."

Among the images on a Best of Backyard Wrestling video: kids jumping onto barbed wire, setting opponents on fire and diving onto mattresses studded with thumbtacks. And the violence seems to be trickling down from teenagers to tots. Last year in Dallas, a three-year-old boy was killed when his seven-year-old brother stiff-armed him in the throat, copying a move he'd seen on TV. Emergency rooms report a rise in injuries among backyard wrestlers. "It's scary," says Colleen Toth. "But my son does everything to make it safe. If he's going to do it, I'd rather it be in my backyard."

The two major pro-wrestling outfits, World Championship Wrestling and the World Wrestling Federation, now run don't-try-this-at-home ads during their bouts. But to the boys in Sayreville, the warnings seem silly. "I wear kneepads," says Donnie Deleto, 16. "We don't crack light bulbs on each other. We don't use cheese graters. We get a bad rap because idiots do that. We're putting on a show." Just like on TV.