By Michael E. Miller
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By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
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By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
Gio has potentially the most lasting injury of all. He suffers from bilateral knees -- they've taken so much abuse from his falls that they are curved in a way that suggests deformity. He takes medication for the condition and says doctors have told him he will require surgery in a few years.
The bone-crunching pays off, they say, in larger crowds, who push the wrestlers to new extremes. "Everybody just loves violence," David surmises. "I don't know why, but I know they'll always love it. Our fans just want to see us kill each other."
His penchant for blood notwithstanding, John doesn't have a lot of teenage vices. He spends most of his time at home, doesn't like to fight outside the choreographed backyard performances, abstains from cigarettes and drugs, and seldom touches alcohol. Such distractions would only get in the way of his all-consuming dream of becoming a wrestling superstar. Unfortunately school seems to be another such distraction. His academic performance has declined as his interest in wrestling has risen. He has a D average. School isn't so important when stardom beckons.
John's mother has a dream, too: She wishes she could ship him off to military school.
Carolyn Lister is a 42-year-old single mom who speaks of John with nervous laughter that hints at helplessness. She says she has tried to keep the kids from breaking their bones and slashing their skin but has been unsuccessful. She's overwhelmed by the testosterone, by the boys' wild energy. "Oh, if I'd only had girls!" she exclaims before letting out her laugh.
Lister, as it turns out, is no stranger to the sometimes violent vagaries of young men. While living in Connecticut some 20 years ago, she married a man she now characterizes as an abusive alcoholic. "I fell in love with the wrong guy. He hit me over the head with a bottle, and that was about all I could take," she says. "I took a flight to Fort Lauderdale to be back with my mother and father."
After divorcing she quickly married a Colombian immigrant named Oscar Ulloa, who had a good job as a maintenance technician and a promising future. Ulloa was stable and calm, she says, and they had two sons in successive Augusts, David in 1983 and John in 1984. David, who has blond hair like his mother, was born without a right leg. Wearing an artificial leg kept him from playing most sports but hasn't slowed him down much in backyard wrestling, where he manages to hold his own.
Nothing, meanwhile, could slow John, who has black hair and the dark complexion of his father. "When Jonathan was born, he had a certain scream and a way about him," his mother recalls. "He had to get the attention from the get-go, that one did. It's not like he doesn't get attention at home -- he wants attention from the world. He's a showman, that one."
His motorcycle-riding father is also something of a thrill seeker, and some of John's fondest memories include riding with his dad in a dune buggy. In recent months John and his father have been bonding on a paintball shooting range, where they play war games together. "I love extreme sports, anything that will get the adrenaline pumping," says John. "That's just the way I grew up."
While John was destined to crack his own bones, it was his home that broke first. Three years ago, just as John and David were embarking on adolescence and wrestling was overtaking their imaginations, their parents split up. "He had a midlife crisis and decided to enjoy other things," Lister explains of Ulloa. Her husband (they've yet to divorce) says he left because of a lack of trust. Whatever the reason, both parents agree the split has caused a complete breakdown in parental authority. "I always gave the love and the kisses and fixed boo-boos," Lister says. "My husband always did the disciplining. I always sent them his way. He left at the worst time, when they really needed a fatherly influence, a man."
Asked whether he could stop the wrestling, Oscar Ulloa replies, "It's not my house; I don't live there. I just try to talk to them, to make them understand [the dangers]. At least they are off the streets."
For all her apparent exasperation, Lister sees some value in backyard wrestling; she's even encouraged it by purchasing the boys a trampoline to use as a makeshift ring. "They say in life, you go after what you want," she philosophizes. "When you really want something, you pursue it, and this is something they really, really want. They are so dedicated. It only goes too far when there is an audience to push them. All that bleeding."
Lister says she had no idea the kids were going to have the February 24 show in her back yard and says she just happened to be getting her hair done that day. John has another story. He says his mother knew about the show and left the house because she didn't want to be held responsible if police were called. John, while idolizing his father, clearly holds some deep bitterness toward his mother. "My mom is usually out with her friends, so she's not around much at all," the boy says. "We always make our own dinner. My dad doesn't like it, so he tries to be here. Everybody always says my mom is not really a good mom."