Giovanni "Gio" Torres climbs the rungs of a 12-foot ladder and stands at the top, towering above a small crowd in John Ulloa's back yard. The 40 or so spectators call out for Gio to jump; they want to see him dive onto his friend, Jason Jelonek, who lies on a table below. The crowd's objective is clear: to see someone hurt.
Gio, a 16-year-old Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School junior who stands five foot seven and weighs about 125 pounds, needs courage. He already has thumbtacks stuck into his head, but that's no problem; the tacks sting only for a moment as they enter the skull. The dive, which he calls a "Senton Bomb," could break his neck. The ground is hard, and he has never jumped from such a height. Gio masks his fear with an inscrutable, determined expression as he surveys the scene. In his mind he pictures a huge man with a beer in his hand. Always a beer in his hand. He imagines the man is watching him from behind a darkened screen next door. The image fills Gio with hate, and that emotion inspires him to leave the security of the ladder, dive out, flip in the air, and crash onto the boy on the table.
The man is his stepfather.
Gio, who goes by "Psycho" when he wrestles in the back yard, lands badly. Only his neck and head strike Jason, yet the impact is enough to break the table. Though he intended to fall squarely on his back before springing to the ground, he instead tumbles violently into the dirt. After lying flat for a moment, he knows he is really hurt. But he doesn't stop the show. Instead he calls to the referee, a bespectacled teen named John Summers, and quietly asks, "Did it look good?"
"Yeah," Summers replies.
It feels good to hear that, good enough to dull for at least a moment the terrible pain spreading through his chest.
Gio finished the February 24 wrestling show, but he hasn't breathed easy since. The pain was constant for two weeks. He still doesn't know why it hurts so much. He wonders whether he cracked a rib or bruised a lung, but he'll likely never know because his mom, Maricela Crofts, so hates his backyard stunts that she refuses to take him to the hospital when he gets injured doing them. She wouldn't even ferry him to a drug store for an Ace bandage to wrap around his chest. He had to borrow one from a friend.
"He got hurt, like, once and I told him, "That's it, if you go over there and you get hurt, don't come crying to me, because you have to learn to deal with it,'" Crofts explains in a thick Puerto Rican accent. "The police have to stop them from doing this before someone really gets hurt."
Crofts wants the cops to stop Gio, because her son refuses to quit. He's as dedicated to backyard wrestling as his buddy and next-door neighbor, John. And like John, Gio saw his family break up years ago. His mother and father divorced when the boy was about ten years old. A year after the split, his mom married William Crofts, who is now 53 years old and retired from Lucent Technologies. Gio has grown up in the couple's beautiful, middle-class Coral Springs home, which has a large and expensive boat in the driveway. He's still growing -- at just five feet seven, he expects to get a little taller. His lips bulge over the braces he wears, and his shoulders and chest have been expanding since he recently began lifting weights. Gio is on the high-school wrestling team but is academically ineligible to compete. He desperately wants to be a full-fledged member of the school team and says he has maintained a B average this year (up from a D last year) in pursuit of that goal. But he concedes that his ventures with Extreme Fuckin' Wrestling are largely to blame for his scholastic woes.
Gio loves the backyard grappling; it's the fighting inside his house that disturbs him.
"[My stepfather] would drink, and he would snap at my mom," Gio says. "Other times he just yells at her and threatens her and throws her out of the house."
William Crofts declined to comment for this article, and Gio's mother says only that such things don't happen anymore. The worst incident, Gio says, occurred on the night of December 30, 1996. "I was in my room, and I heard all this yelling and crap, and I walked out there," he explains. "They were out on the patio, and my dad was drinking beer. He threw my mom in the pool. And then he started yelling at her and said, "Get out of this house!' I've seen him push her, and it pisses me off. But what can I do? I was only five foot two then. He's six foot, 500 pounds."
Gio manages a smile at his exaggeration. His stepfather actually weighs 220 pounds, according to a Coral Springs Police Department arrest report from that night. Gio's mother complained to officers that her husband threw her into the pool, then into the Jacuzzi, then against a wall, and then grabbed her by the hair and shoved her into her daughter's room. William Crofts was arrested for domestic violence and later, his wife acknowledges, was sentenced to probation. (Although the arrest report details the incident, New Times could find no record of the case in Broward courts.)
To try to stop Gio from backyard wrestling, his mother and stepfather threaten to exile him to Orlando to live with his father. But the boy says that just makes him angry. And it makes him want to be more hard-core. "I don't like [my stepfather], and that's why I keep doing the backyard stuff," Gio says. "He keeps getting on my nerves. That's why I get the 12-foot ladder, build a bed of nails, and stick the thumbtacks in my head." He pauses a moment before adding, "That and because I love wrestling more than anything else."
All the EFW members collect wrestling action figures and hang posters of their heroes. Each of them has read Have a Nice Day, the autobiography by Mick Foley, one of hard-core wrestling's original stars. But their love of backyard wrestling is no mere hobby; they want to do it for a living and dream of someday attending a professional-wrestling school to begin the climb to stardom.
Only Rich Teixeira, however, comes close to fitting the traditional image of the professional-wrestling behemoth. Gio and John, who from a distance appear almost like twins, are short and thin. Most pros weigh more than both of them put together. But there is one wrestling star who gives them hope, who is cut in their mold, whose very existence helps to keep them going, and his stage name is LSD.
Extreme Championship Wrestling's Li'l Spike Dudley stands five foot seven and weighs a mere 140 pounds. Dudley, whose real name is Matt Hyson, says he overcame his diminutive dimensions by taking extreme punishment in the ring (he's renowned for bleeding buckets), by diving from obscene heights (he claims his highest dive is from 25 feet), and by training for many years. Now 30 years old, Hyson went to a pro wrestling school in his early twenties and soon began traveling the country on the lowly independent circuit, in which ambitious beginners often perform in poorly attended shows for scant wages. He worked three years before landing his gig at ECW; in this league he has perfected his wrestling persona: a half-witted, burned-out druggie who wears denim suspenders over a tie-dyed shirt. In the past few years, Hyson has realized the EFW members' dreams of good pay and a TV gig. He says he can earn $3000 a night for pay-per-view performances, and while declining to provide a specific amount, claims his annual pay is six figures.
Though Hyson's success story gives EFW members hope, the pro wrestler is not optimistic about the kids' wrestling success. Young wannabes send backyard videos to the ECW every week, and those usually end up in the trash, Hyson says. "They give the business a terrible name," he says of extreme backyard wrestlers. "There is an art form in doing it safely, and these kids have no regard for that whatsoever. We think they're idiots. When I was a kid, we would wrestle around on cushions, but not anything like these guys. They're going to get hurt."
Despite all his training, Hyson has suffered a slew of injuries. Like John, he often cuts his own forehead with a razor blade to amp up the bleeding. "There are subtleties to how far and deep you go with the blade," he cautions. "I've probably had stitches 15 to 20 times, and half of them were not self-inflicted."
He also blew his knee out and once required surgery after flying into a rail outside the ring during a high dive. He claims he was the first wrestler to take a staple gun to the head. "There's a little difference though," he says when told of the boys' adventures. "It wasn't real. There weren't any staples in the gun."
Hyson knows that, as much as he may try to dissuade youngsters from hard-core backyard wrestling, he has helped to inspire it. "My story in the ring is David and Goliath," he says. "I appeal to the children, to the little guy. I'm probably the smallest pro wrestler out there other than the midgets. Any guy who can relate to the underdog can relate to Spike Dudley."
While he knows kids are imitating him, he doesn't feel any responsibility for the dangerous stunts. "It's a show, and if you can't grasp that, then you got bigger problems than pro wrestling," he says. He then mentions Lionel Tate, the 14-year-old Fort Lauderdale boy who was recently sentenced to life in prison without parole for killing a six-year-old girl while imitating pro-wrestling moves two years ago. Tate's actions can't be blamed on pro wrestling, Hyson asserts: "I never went into a backyard and killed someone mimicking something I saw on TV."
Hyson's disdain for EFW dissipates a bit when he hears that small crowds gather for their shows. "Is that right?" he asks with a note of surprise. "Well, that's tremendous. More power to them."
Hyson is definitely wrong about one thing: The EFW members care deeply about the "art form" of pro wrestling. And they have some genuine wrestling skills (especially John and Gio). The members carefully plan and choreograph their matches, have a championship belt, and predetermine who will win it. But unlike the pros' performances, EFW shows have a raw, unpolished feel and exceedingly long and awkward lulls between moves. And far too often they make mistakes, which usually prove to be gory and sometimes downright frightening.
That brings us back to the February 24 match with Gio, Jason, and Edwin.
The match begins with Jason goading the crowd, which has already been warmed up with John's copious bleeding. Wearing sliced-up denim shorts and a white T-shirt, Jason greets the spectators with an Italian salute -- a stiff hand flick under the chin. To make sure they don't miss his point, he shouts: "Fuck you!"
Then comes Gio, who stalks about in the manner of a caged animal. Next Edwin Lebron, whose wrestling name is "Havoc," jumps into the fray, and the bloodletting begins. The beginning of the performance features hard body slams onto a makeshift wooden stage littered with hundreds of thumbtacks. The tacks drive into Jason's back, hands, arms, and legs -- a friend later counts 250 holes in his back, which looks as if it has been attacked by a swarm of killer bees.
Jason then slams Gio's head into the tacks. Gio rises to reveal several thumbtacks in his forehead. Blood trickles down his face. Gio is the only member of EFW who takes tacks to his head this way. It's one of his specialties.
Seeking a little blood revenge, Gio grabs some barbed wire, wraps it around Jason's head from behind, and pulls in the manner of a shoeshine. But the metaphorical shoe is Jason's forehead, and the rag is a strand of barbed wire. Jason's head is cut, and Gio's mission is accomplished; there is more blood. Jason counters by grabbing a can of lighter fluid, dousing a table, and lighting it on fire. Then he picks up the smaller boy and slams him through it. The fire goes out.
Then it's time for Gio's 12-foot dive. Edwin lays Jason, who pretends to be stunned in the classic, cheesy style of pro wrestling, onto the table while Gio climbs the ladder. After a moment of hesitation, Gio, with his stepfather in mind, makes his leap and has a miserable landing. The crowd shouts its approval, and one fan throws an orange at Gio, perhaps in an effort to get him back on his feet.
After a minute on the ground, the boy overcomes the pain. He grabs the orange and throws it at Jason. The crowd laughs. Gio and Edwin then hang Jason upside down from a lower rung of the ladder. Gio leans the bed of nails against Jason's chest, and the crowd loves it.
"Oh shit!" shouts one onlooker.
"Yo, just hit the bitch, yo!" hollers another.
Gio takes a running, diving leap into the back of the bed of nails, compressing them into Jason's stomach. The problem is that Gio doesn't fake it well, and the impact is obviously weak. The lame stunt ends an otherwise memorable EFW match.
The show is officially over, but there's one more bloody fight to go -- and this one is unplanned.
Gio isn't the only EFW member who pictures his father at strange times. Rich does, too, but he does it when he's enraged.
Rich Teixeira is a 17-year-old, dirty-blond-haired boy who carries his 340 pounds on a six-foot-one frame. His size alone intimidates, a fact that pleases him. "I've been in fights since I was little," he says. "That's just me. I've always been bigger than anyone else, and I have always felt I have that little bit of power. It's a power trip."
But something else drives him to violence, he says: his father. Rich moved to Florida from New England with his mother, Regina Teixeira, last March because, they say, his dad threatened them. They also say Rich's father is thousands of dollars behind on child-support payments. Rich contends he feared his dad until his parents divorced when he was about 11 years old. (Despite extensive efforts New Times was unable to reach Rich's father for comment.)
"I know I hate my dad," Rich says. "My mom says he hit me with a closed fist, but I don't remember that. I do remember him beating me with a belt to where I couldn't walk up the stairs. He had a cow whip and used to threaten me with it. A couple of times, he hit me with it. And he had these ninja swords he used to threaten me with, too."
Rich says that, no matter how hard he tries to forget his father, he can't do it. "When I get angry, I start seeing pictures of my father everywhere," Rich says. "I get flashbacks of him beating me as a kid." Before Rich came to Florida, his anger spilled over in high school. He fought another student in the hallway, and the other kid suffered a concussion in the fracas. Rich was convicted of assault, sentenced to probation, and is now undergoing therapy to help him cope with his anger. He says backyard wrestling provides him with an ideal relief valve. "I'm played out on the fighting and violence," he says. "I hate it. All I do now is wrestle."
Rich, who was an honor student in middle school, now ekes out a C average, "just enough to graduate," he says. He attributes his scholastic decline to smoking cigarettes and drinking beer. He says he'll either attend community college or join the army. Like all the EFW kids, Rich has endearing qualities. He's smart, acutely sensitive, and cares deeply about his friends. When something goes wrong during a show -- like the time he accidentally staple-gunned David's forehead or when John seriously injured himself with the razor blade -- Rich is usually the only crew member who shows emotion. At these times he becomes distraught and seems to cry, but with a boyish machismo, he denies shedding tears. "It's a family," he says of EFW. "That's the way most of us look at it. I needed to get friends down here [in Florida], and these guys are like family to me."
At the end of the February 24 show, however, a member of his real family flashed in his mind: his father. And that was not a good thing.
EFW members have a fitting plan for the end of the performance. In the spirit of blending sex and wrestling that works so well in the professional ranks, they are going to propose the girls in the audience participate in a wet T-shirt contest. But Rich has something else on his mind: that orange. He and his friends work way too hard on the craft of wrestling to be pelted with fruit. So Rich confronts the crowd member who he believes tossed the offending piece of citrus, a skinny, dark-complexioned 15-year-old named Frankie. Soon, the two of them square off in the middle of the backyard.
"Fuck you!" Rich yells.
"Like I fucked your mama last night," Frankie shoots back.
Rich gets in Frankie's face.
"Wop!" Rich yells.
"What the fuck are you?" says Frankie, backing off a bit.
"I'm 340 pounds of person who will beat the shit out of you!" Rich replies, his head shaking in rage and his massive belly bumping Frankie backward. Rich then exhorts Frankie to hit him, to provide Rich with an excuse to beat him into the ground.
Some in the crowd seem to believe this is all still part of the show. They laugh and watch in anticipation, perhaps of a body slam onto a bed of thumbtacks. Rich, too, is still caught up in the excitement. He's demonstrative and wild, much like his pro-wrestling idols. Later he admits he was still pumped up from the show and wasn't really prepared for what followed: Frankie, dancing around and appearing understandably nervous, looks away for a moment before shooting a stinging right to Rich's jaw.
Rich, stunned from the blow, stumbles backward. Frankie runs. But the smaller boy winds up cornered between a pool enclosure and a plywood wall. (Almost two months later, Rich will still be a bit hazy about the events that ensued. All he will remember seeing are images of his father.) What the crowd sees is Rich storming up to Frankie, wrapping his huge hands around the boy's neck, and lifting him off the ground. Frankie doesn't breathe. His tongue is forced from his mouth, his feet shake helplessly a foot above the ground, and his eyes roll back into his head.
After a few seconds, Rich lets Frankie fall to the ground like a rag doll. A friend of Frankie's then throws two vicious punches to the same spot over Rich's left eye. Rich falls like a redwood tree straight back into a large bush. The bush doesn't stand a chance; it is broken into pieces.
Frankie gets to his feet and runs onto the street. Rich, as if rising from a dream, stands up and follows him. Blood flows from above Rich's eye. Out on the driveway and street, the two shout taunts at each other.
"I'll lay you out, you fat bitch!" Frankie repeats over and over.
Then three police cars pull up and Frankie escapes down the street. The mere presence of the cops acts as a sedative; the threat of violence recedes. The spectators disperse, and medics arrive. Coral Springs police officer Brian Tarbox finds John; the self-inflicted razor blade wound has reopened, and blood drips down his chin.
Tarbox says there's little he can do to stop the kids from wrestling, so he focuses on John's parents' liability. "Do you know if somebody gets hurt doing this 'rassling thing, their parents are going to own your parents?" Tarbox asks John.
The boy just nods.
"How old are you?"
"Sixteen," John answers.
"Plenty old enough to know this is stupid."
On their radios the police call in medics to treat John and Rich. "This is the stupidest thing I've ever seen," Tarbox mutters. Gio stands quietly in John's front doorway. "I can hardly breathe," he says to one bystander. "I think I may have to go to the hospital."
Officer Rex Kirkpatrick of the Coral Springs gang unit arrived in a bulletproof vest. He announces to EFW members milling about outside: "This is over. You do realize that don't you? You can't do this ever again."
The boys nod.
Medics soon determine that John needs emergency medical care. In addition to the cut, he also has a hematoma on his forehead, likely from a chair shot. The EMTs wrap a collar around his neck, lay him on a backboard, and load him into the ambulance. Rich's mother arrives and tells the police about her son's problems: the threats, the lack of child support, the probation, and the anger.
Finally John's mom, Carolyn Lister, comes home. In a blue spring dress over a bathing suit, she appears to have been at the beach. (She said later that she was getting her hair done.)
"You need to get control of your kids," Tarbox admonishes her.
Lister tells the officers she has tried to no avail. John has taken over the house, she complains.
"Has he hit you?" Tarbox asks.
"No, but he's thrown and broken things," she says.
Before heading to the hospital to see her son, Lister complains the authorities simply don't understand. For her, backyard wrestling isn't a troubling trend, it's an inevitability. So she calls for official regulation. "I just wish the city would get a place where they could do this under some kind of supervision," she says. "They could use fake blood."
In the end Tarbox decides not to arrest anyone. He says he hates what he sees, but since it's all consensual and takes place on private property, he's powerless. With no victim there's no crime, and he believes charging Lister with child neglect is unwarranted.
Though the bloodbaths continue, the Coral Springs Police Department has managed to slow them down. They've been called to John's back yard, mostly following neighbors' complaints, a half-dozen times in the past couple years. Indeed EFW doesn't charge admission anymore because cops threatened to arrest the wrestlers for running an unlicensed business.
The February 24 show went further and got uglier than planned. The wrestlers didn't want the police to come. John didn't want to lose a gallon of blood (though he was determined to lose a cup or two). Gio didn't want to injure his chest. Rich didn't want to get in a fight or gash his eye. He's still a bit hazy about the fight and says he was in a sort of trance when he was holding Frankie by his neck. "All of a sudden, I thought, What am I doing?" Rich recalls of the moment before he let go.
Of the three injured, just John went to the hospital -- and only because the medics gave him no choice. Gio's mom refused to take him there. Rich's mother took him to the emergency room, but after waiting a couple hours, they left in frustration. Rich ultimately opted for butterfly bandages, and now both he and John boast thick scars, lifelong mementos from the show.
Of all the wrestlers, only Rich resorted to violence in the chaos following the show. The others called for order. It's not about hurting anyone, they say. People get hurt only when they screw up. It's about the craft of professional wrestling in its rawest form.
But they won't be practicing that craft before crowds in John's back yard, Lister promises. She says the February 24 debacle led her to ban shows on her property. EFW members say that won't stop them. Just moments after the police left John's house, Jason was already plotting the group's next move. "We won't be able to do it here," he said with resignation, "but we have a great place out in a field where we can have our next show."
It's scheduled for April 21.