By his own account, 5-year-old AJ Yagelka is the expert on professional wrestler John Cena.
"I know a lot about him. He's the 'attitude adjuster,' " said AJ, referring to Cena's signature move. "He beat up Sheamus, Big Show. … Man. Maybe he beat up everybody?"
AJ's brief but passionate soliloquy came shortly before one of the most anticipated moments of his young life: a meeting with Cena before the start of WWE Monday Night Raw at the Tampa Bay Times Forum.
This was serious business. At their Wesley Chapel home, AJ and his parents, John and Robyn, and two teenage sisters, Chelsie and Jackie, watch televised wrestling every Monday and Friday night. AJ likes to re-enact many of the moves on a John Cena pillow or, in the absence of that, his father.
The devotion to wrestling developed over the past three years since AJ was diagnosed with chronic granulomatous disease, a genetic disorder in which certain immune system cells can't kill some types of bacteria and fungi.
The condition leads to long-term and potentially fatal infections. In 2011, he underwent a bone marrow transplant. He has spent more than 100 days in hospitals.
The Children's Dream Fund, a Tampa Bay group that helps fulfill wishes for children with life-threatening illnesses, scored tickets for the Yagelka family to the Monday night show at the Times Forum and also orchestrated a preshow visit with Cena.
"He's been going bananas," said AJ's father, John Yagelka.
He wasn't the only one. Actor Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson was making his return to WWE's Raw, his first wrestling performance in Tampa in more than a decade. Wrestling fans milled in front of the Times Forum hours before the nearly sold-out show was scheduled to begin.
They wore $30 T-shirts featuring their favorite wrestlers. They hauled shiny wrestling belts over their shoulders. They spoke in a private language of catch phrases uttered in the ring.
Asked to name his favorite wrestler, for instance, 6-year-old Nate Abner of Orlando jerked his arms up and down and chanted only, "Feed! Feed!" (His mother, Amy, said he was referring to a wrestler named Ryback, whose signature phrase is "Feed me more.")
Back inside the venue, AJ and his family were standing in the VIP Club when, from a dark hallway, Cena emerged. AJ went in for a hug, his body not much bigger than the wrestler's calves.
Cena presented the boy with Cena sweatbands, a T-shirt and a hat. "Nice!" said a breathless AJ, who promised that his family would cheer for the wrestlers they like and boo they ones they don't.
AJ showed the wrestler a drawing he had made of Cena. Cena nodded and called the portrait "very interpretive."
As Cena disappeared into the hallway again, AJ revealed his initial impressions. "He's taller than you!" he said to his father.
AJ has spent nearly half of his life dealing with fevers, getting blood drawn, lying in a hospital bed. But his family believes he has something in common with the best wrestlers.
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Said his father: "Nothing ever puts him down."