- On their game: PlayStation 2 celebrities MDogg 20 and Josh Prohibition.
When the mailman arrived at Josh Piscura's home one October day, he came bearing a copy of the new PlayStation 2 game Backyard Wrestling: Don't Try This at Home. Piscura quickly ripped into the package and found his own image staring back at him.
Piscura, you see, is the star of Backyard Wrestling. The game's cover depicts him scrapping with longtime friend Matt Capiccioni. Together, "Josh Prohibition" and "MDogg 20" are the Shaq and Kobe of backyard wrestling, that redneck blend of WWE and Jackass that has spawned numerous videos and emergency-room lines. In the game, the two shirtless badasses battle the likes of El Drunko and the Mad Horndog. In stores around the country, they appear on promotional posters and cardboard cutouts. They're in ads on MTV and ESPN, in Maxim and Revolver. They've been flown to New York, Los Angeles, and London in the past month alone.
They are backyard wrestling's It Boys. Not that you would have heard of them.
The titans emerged from Piscura's tongue-in-cheek Brecksville Wrestling Federation -- the backyard league held at his parents' home, where he still lives. Initially afraid to leap from three-foot porches, they soon graduated to a series of vaguely idiotic stunts, which usually involved ladders, rooftops, and fire.
"We'd say, 'Well, we jumped off this and we didn't get hurt. Think we could jump off this?' Before we knew it, we were jumping off the roof and running through flaming boards," says Piscura, a 24-year-old baseball-school instructor with perfect teeth, piercing blue eyes, and a bulbous nose that appears to have absorbed the force of an airborne chair or two.
Capiccioni is a 22-year-old slab of granite, a construction worker and former gymnast who looks the part of a big-time wrestler. He favors T-shirts that are only incrementally looser than his skin, as well as studded belts and twin bracelets that add an unintentional air of '80s glam.
Though the Brecksville league hosted only a handful of events, its legend flourished over the internet. By 1999, the two were approached by Backyard Wrestling. The L.A. company wanted to launch a line of home-video compilations -- and wanted Prohibition and MDogg to star in them.
"They were like 'Wow, you guys have the best stuff we've seen in the whole country,'" Piscura remembers hearing. "Then we saw what they had, and we said, 'Wow, we are the best.'" Piscura signed a contract to hand over his footage in exchange, essentially, for nothing. "It doesn't hurt as much if you know there's gonna be a million people watching it," he says.
While video sales took off, Piscura and Capiccioni took wrestling lessons. They began performing on the regional circuit, driving as far as New York City for weekend matches. By the time software maker Eidos began creating the game, Prohibition and MDogg were stars.
"We became poster boys for backyard wrestling, partly because we were good at it and partly because we weren't too bad-looking," says Piscura. "Plus, most backyard wrestlers don't finish high school."
The game opens with the cyberlikeness of MDogg body-slamming an opponent, then roaring his trademark Yeahhhhhh! from atop the Eidos logo. Game play is unrelentingly brutal, with no shortage of spurting blood, broken glass, and lead-pipe whacks to the face. Players select from 30 different wrestlers, though Prohibition and MDogg are among the few based on actual performers. The grunts and wails are their own.
Neither of them, it turns out, is much into video games. They try in vain to execute moves they've mastered in real life. After only a few minutes of trading onscreen abuse, they are delighted to put down their controllers -- even more so, once Piscura mutes the obnoxious nü-metal soundtrack pouring out of the TV. The house returns to silence, except for the bounding of a smallish gray cat across the hardwood floor.
Fortunately, the early consensus in the gaming world is decidedly more enthusiastic.
"From rooftops to elevators, nothing is off-limits," raved British entertainment mag FHM, which bestowed a four-star rating.
"Backyard Wrestling is taking the sports entertainment world by storm," wrote PlayStation Magazine.
"You could be looking at the next Tony Hawk," said Electronic Gaming Monthly.
The glaring difference, of course, would be in the size of Tony Hawk's royalty checks. The legendary skateboarder has built a multimillion-dollar empire off his name. Piscura and Capiccioni have mostly enhanced the wealth of others. For their starring role in the game, they earned a free copy of it.
"Josh and Matt have been the flagship guys for the game," says Mike Schmitt, a producer for Eidos. The company would love to market its stars, but is unsure how to proceed. After all, there is little precedent for selling cyber-superheroes based on everyday guys from Brecksville.
"They've never really had Ms. Pac-Man sign autographs," offers Capiccioni.
On a recent Eidos-funded promotional trip to London, the duo received the rock-star treatment, their every whim indulged for seven days. At a wrestling demonstration, fans went crazy.
"You could give me $2,000 and a map, and I wouldn't know where we are, but everybody around me is screaming Mad Dogg, Mad Dogg, Mad Dogg," Capiccioni recalls, enacting a British accent that turns Dogg into Doag. "People there ask us, 'Can you even drive around your own town? Do people wake you up at night?'"
So far, that hasn't been a problem.
The $150 or so they pull in for weekend matches is being squirreled away for college loans and production equipment -- they dream of selling their own videos and clothing someday. For now, they'll gladly kick back while the hype machine kicks in again. On October 28, Backyard Wrestling released its first in a series of legends-of-the-game biography videos. The subject: Josh Prohibition and MDogg 20. The two earned a small fee and, for the first time, will receive royalties based on sales.
"I think it's a good mix," Piscura says of the video. "It's not just violence, violence, violence. There's violence, then you'll laugh. Then there's more violence."