By Chris Joseph
By Chris Joseph
By Allie Conti
By Chuck Strouse
By Chris Joseph
By Chris Joseph
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
After nearly 30 minutes of applying pressure to the cut to slow the bleeding, John walks out to his back yard, where his club, Extreme Fuckin' Wrestling (EFW), continues its show under the bright Saturday-afternoon sun. His friends slam one another on a homemade wooden stage, which is laden with barbed wire and tacks. The boys leap from the roof and crack their faux opponents over the head with real metal chairs and garbage cans. They crash through burning tables and whack their fellow wrestlers with a barbed wire- wrapped baseball bat. They dive from rooftops and ladders to the ground below. The EFW members are not alone: About 40 kids, all of them yearning to see savage beatings, lounge on the grass to watch.
The barbaric show takes place in what seems a wildly incongruous setting: John's solidly middle-class neighborhood in Coral Springs. Surrounding the bloodletting are large, well-kept homes with an average worth of about $150,000, and bordering the rear of the yard is a wide canal that cuts past swimming pools, freshly painted gazebos, and orange trees.
With his head wrapped in a makeshift white bandage that turns redder with every passing minute, John watches the final competition, the "death match." It features his buddies, Giovanni "Psycho" Torres and Jason "The Sensation" Jelonek, and doesn't disappoint the fans. There's plenty of blood, a bed-of-nails stunt, body slams, and a 12-foot dive, the highest in the club's short history.
But the February 24 show ends in an almost surreal outburst of unscripted violence as the raw, sadistic longings of the crowd and the pumped-up showmanship of the wrestlers collide. Police are called to stop the mayhem. An ambulance arrives and takes John to the hospital as a "trauma alert," which is code for a potentially critical injury. He initially tells the medics his cut was caused by a blow to the head from a folding chair. Later he admits the truth: He cut himself with a razor blade to make sure the crowd and the ever-present EFW video camera got their fill of blood.
EFW is one of hundreds of backyard wrestling clubs that have sprouted up across the country in the last couple years. The participants, who mimic their pro wrestling heroes, say they love the audience reaction and long for stardom. But what distinguishes EFW from the other clubs is that it is truly extreme. Kid Suicide, Psycho, and their compatriots have broken numerous bones and repeatedly been knocked unconscious. Why do they go so far? The answer may lie not in their back yards but inside their homes.
John's obsession with backyard wrestling began, predictably, in front of the television. At about the age of ten, he and David, who is a year older, started watching the World Wrestling Federation. Soon they moved on to Extreme Championship Wrestling, which might be considered the WWF's foul-mouthed, hell-raising, jail-bound cousin. Soon they were idolizing ECW stars such as Mick "Mankind" Foley, Rob Van Dam, and Spike Dudley, all of whom are renowned for spilling buckets of their own blood. The two brothers and Giovanni, who goes by Gio and lives next door to the Ulloa brothers, soon began imitating their heroes and dreaming of staging a show of their own.
At first they practiced simple things like headlocks and fake punches. Then they graduated to various moves, such as body slams, suplexes, and pile drivers. Next it was on to the props of pain. John experimented with razor blades. David practiced taking staples in his head. Gio had thumbtacks stuck into his forehead. They all took shots to the head from metal chairs and learned a trick: If they popped the metal to invert the curve of the seat, it would pop back into place upon impact with a skull to make a louder thwack. To perfect their falls, or "bumps," they slammed one another to the ground relentlessly. The secret to avoiding injury, the boys say, is to spread out the impact as much as possible so the arms and shoulders, instead of the backbone and ribs, take most of it. The same theory applies to the high dives. They jump straight out and flip into the air before landing on their backs. Tables are usually positioned below, and crashing through them shortens the free fall and cushions the impact with the ground. John and Gio, the only EFW wrestlers who venture high dives, started from heights just a couple feet up, then graduated to a 6-foot ladder, then to a rooftop, and now to the 12-foot ladder, which is akin to leaping from the backboard of a regulation basketball hoop. It's equal to dives of some of the top pro wrestlers, who rarely leap from heights of more than 15 feet. John says he doesn't know how high will ever be high enough.
After years of fooling around with such techniques, the EFW held its first show last year, on February 13. Since then they've held about ten more performances, each a little more hard-core than the last. In addition to the founding threesome, EFW has a few other regulars: Jason, a tall and thin 17-year-old who prides himself on how much punishment he can take; Edwin Lebron, who at 18 weighs more than 200 pounds; and Rich Teixeira, a 17-year-old who gives EFW some major heft with his 340 pounds. Another half-dozen teens orbit EFW but haven't wrestled much. Several quit after their first show, unable to take the abuse.
As the EFW grew, an amazing thing happened: People began coming. So many, in fact, that the wrestlers began charging admission, earning more than $200 at a show that drew nearly 100 spectators. John says his performances provide two things he never before had at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School: attention and respect. "Now I'm living it up at school," he says in his smooth voice. John doesn't just talk about wrestling; he sells it. "They say, "You're crazy, man.' I mean, I'm small, but people respect me now. They treat you different. Even gangster kids. They like to watch us, and after the show they have, um, gratitude."
David says the teens who come to watch their performances crave blood and destruction. "They aren't really normal," he says of the fans. "But I like how the crowd goes, "Ooooh' and "Ahhhh.' That's why we do this. Our fans are ghetto. They're bloodthirsty, our fans. They just want someone to get killed."
EFW always has someone on hand to videotape the proceedings. The wrestlers say they'll cherish the tapes forever -- and they hope to sell some of the footage to companies that market the ghoulish stuff. A similar video titled The Best of Backyard Wrestling, for instance, is currently being advertised on cable television for $19.95 a pop. The members of EFW have also created a Website touting their feats.
In addition to making some money from EFW, John dreams of owning a wrestling ring; practicing in a bare back yard is akin to playing basketball on dirt with a volleyball and a peach basket. But a decent ring would cost them about $1500, far more than they can pay. So last fall, when they forged a loose partnership with a Hollywood-based backyard group called Hardcore Champion Wrestling (HCW), they were ecstatic. HCW is the best organized of Broward County's backyard wrestling clubs (there are at least four of them) and has a ring.
It was, however, a doomed marriage from the start, the backyard equivalent of the Hell's Angels crashing a kiddie party. HCW forbids cursing at its shows, while EFW thrives on profanity. HCW doesn't care for bloodletting, bans self-cutting, and employs just a touch of barbed wire, which is mostly for show. Thumbtacks are a rarity.
"EFW has no wrestling techniques," says 16-year-old Nick Mayberry, a wrestler and HCW promoter. "They just hit each other with weapons and go nuts out there. They beat each other senseless and fly off things like they're crazy. Someone always winds up hurt really bad or in the hospital. They think they're gonna get famous, but they're just gonna get killed."
After a few practice sessions and a show last fall, a staple gun terminated the relationship between the two clubs. When Rich shot a thick, half-inch steel staple into David's forehead, HCW banned EFW for life. The stunt was actually a mistake; Rich was supposed to hold the gun away from David's head so it would make only a partial puncture wound and protrude from his head. In the heat of the match he pressed the gun flush against David's forehead. John removed the staple from his brother's cranium. "It took everything I had to pull that thing out," he says, smiling at the memory. Describing the incident, David states the obvious: "It felt like a sharp object entering my skull."
All the EFW veterans have lengthy injury lists and scars all over their bodies that make them unabashedly proud. In addition to the forehead slashing and about 130 shots to the head, David says he's cracked his sternum, tailbone, shoulder blade, and jaw, as well as a few fingers and toes. He's received medical attention for precious few of those injuries. Instead he lived with the pain until, after a few weeks, it subsided. Both his jaw and sternum now make hideous cracking noises if he moves them in a certain way.
"I don't think they healed right," John says. "Pain is no object to me at this point. If you can get past the stinging, I mean, what is pain? It's nothing. You disregard it or whatever."
Jason was knocked unconscious last year when another wrestler slammed him with a folding chair. He's also been hospitalized with a gashed head and recently ripped open his knee when he fell badly on the bed of nails. The other wrestlers sometimes gibe him when he lapses into a stutter or has a memory lapse. Those chair shots to the head, they laugh, don't come without a price.
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."
Lister fervently denies her son's claims and counters that she devotes her entire life to her children. Her only parental sin, she says, may be spending too much time in Internet chat rooms in the evenings. "I don't even date anybody," she explains. "I'm lucky if I sit down on the computer and talk to people that way. Since my husband left, my kids are my world."
But that world sometimes seems about to implode. John, she says, is becoming increasingly aggressive. He demands to have his own way, and if he doesn't get it, he storms about the house, banging on walls and occasionally breaking things. "He's never struck me, but it's getting to that age where I'm afraid of him," she says. "I guess it comes with the territory when you have boys."
Hence her dream."If I had the money, I would send Jonathan's butt to a military school," she says. "That's where he belongs."
John, however, is bent on staying in one place: his own back yard.
On February 24 a racially mixed crowd of about 40 teens gathers in John's back yard. Girls in loose-fitting T-shirts over bikini tops lounge on boys' laps as a CD player rips out Nirvana, Kid Rock, and Metallica. A teen named Parker Tindell is there to videotape the show, which he sardonically terms "an adventure in boredom."
EFW's set consists mainly of a large plywood wall, which the wrestlers have set up next to the screened enclosure around the pool. Other than that, there's the stage, the barbed wire, the thumbtacks (they've purchased 1000 for this show), and their other torturous trappings. A half dozen tables wait to be smashed, and a can of lighter fluid is on standby. There is no parent here, no authority figure; just kids and their tools of destruction.
To open the show, Kid Suicide is scheduled to wrestle his brother, who goes by Extreme D. David begins the damage when he slams John's head with the garbage can. As the younger boy falls to the ground in mock pain, David staggers around, exhorting the crowd. With the spectators diverted, John deftly pulls out a razor blade and slices his forehead. He knows instantly he's gone too deep, but he isn't about to stop the show.
In the next few minutes, as the blood starts dripping down John's face, David pummels him with the barbed wire- wrapped baseball bat. Then David does the unthinkable: He takes the barbed wire in his hands and presses it against John's forehead, right across the cut. David didn't want to do it, he says later, but it was scripted, and John would "hate" him if he didn't follow the plan. Blood is now spurting out of John's head. But that doesn't keep John and David from climbing the ladder to the top of the screened enclosure over the pool, which is a little more than eight feet high. Two tables are stacked below. John, pretending that he's been thrown, dives onto the tables, breaking them in half. As he lies motionless on the ground and blood pools in the grass beside him, the crowd is loving it. A spectator screams, "Holy shit!" John, who landed well and isn't in much real pain, loves to hear it; he knows he's succeeded in making the crowd believe that he's seriously injured.
David slowly climbs back down, and soon the brothers are body-slamming each other, hard, on the wooden stage, leaving dozens of tacks stuck into their arms and back. David finally pins John, ending the match. John then staggers over to the video camera. It looks as if a can of red paint has been poured over his head.
"Intense," Parker mutters from behind the camera.
"Film it!" John orders.
"You just spit blood on me," replies Parker, while dutifully videotaping.
Then John stumbles past his family's pool, which is filled with green, murky water. He enters his house and walks across the bare cement floor of his family room, which his mother has been planning to tile for weeks. From there he stumbles into the bathroom, where he can bleed in relative peace. Other than his brother and a few other teens, the house is empty. Lister doesn't see her son until later, at North Broward Medical Center's trauma unit, where doctors stitch his head back together and nurses stick him with IV needles to replenish his fluids. She's told that John lost about a gallon of blood.
But now, as he sits on the toilet with the blood still flowing, John rests. His performance is done.
The show, however, has just begun.