WRESTLEMANIA 37: Tampa’s history in pro wrestling played vital role in developing superstars – past and present (Fox13now)

Posted on 4/06/121 by Mike Informer

Tampa’s history in pro wrestling played vital role in
developing superstars – past and present

By Diedra Rodriguez
Published 16 hours ago
Tampa Bay History
FOX 13 News

The past, present and future of Tampa’s role in wrestling
history are tied together. Eddie Graham in the 60s. The
Brisco Brothers in the 70s. There was also Macho Man and, of
course, Hulkmania.

TAMPA, Fla. - Tampa's wrestling history is like no other,
and has more than once been a springboard for developing
superstars. Since the 1960s, many household names in the
industry have called Tampa Bay their home.

Before Vince MacMahon's World Wrestling Entertainment was
formed, the wrestling world looked a lot different. Decades
ago, wrestlers competed in different regions of the country,
and Tampa was one of those home bases under the name
"Championship Wrestling in Florida."

Big names in the wrestling world thrived in the city -- like
Hulk Hogan and Dusty Rhodes. Tampa was where stars once
competed with each other in front of cheering fans inside
the former Fort Homer Hesterly Armory.

Fast forward to today, when the WWE dominates the business.
Knowing Tampa's legacy makes it even more surprising that it
took 37 years for the city to finally host a WrestleMania,
the biggest pro-wrestling event in the industry.

The late Mike Graham, a professional wrestler who was born
in Tampa, once told FOX 13, "To this day, nobody has turned
out any better, more successful long-term wrestlers than we

Television gives rise to wrestling

Wrestling itself wouldn’t truly have become popular without
television, which played a role in the rise and downfall of
the regional wrestling system and, later on, helped McMahon
nationalize the pro-wrestling business to bring superstars
into living rooms across America.

While Tampa hosted some wrestling matches in the early
1900s, it didn't really get popular until people started
purchasing television sets, explained Dr. Brad Massey, the
curator of public history at the Tampa Bay History Center.

"Once that happens, the business of wrestling really gets
ratcheted up," he told FOX 13. "It’s going to be broadcast
in people’s homes, and wrestlers are going to become
household names."

Color television sets weren’t initially used for
entertainment but as a tool for surgeons and medical
students, according to the Smithsonian. The FCC didn’t
approve the use of commercial color television systems until
the start of the 1950s.

"Before WWII, Florida is the smallest southern state in
terms of population," he explained. "But, you know, thanks
to air conditioning and Social Security and America’s
changing economy -- all of sudden all these people start to
move to Florida. Of course, one of the places that they move
to is going to be Tampa."

The Tampa market was a region that Eddie Graham and
wrestling promoters tapped into. Thus, the Championship
Wrestling from Florida organization was born and thrived.

"It becomes really popular in Florida," Massey said,
"because it’s a marketable product and the population in the
state is increasing so fast."

NWA: The beginning

The National Wrestling Alliance was founded in 1948 and
still exists today, but not as the governing body that it
once was.

Back then, and before its creation, there were regional
wrestling promotions across America. By 1948, a man by the
name of Paul "Pinkie" George founded NWA, along with other

The goal was to consolidate those regional companies and
divide up the promotions into territories under the NWA
brand. One of which was Championship Wrestling from Florida,
based out of Tampa.

The NWA had a World Heavyweight Champion, who would travel
to territories to defend the title against the top pro-
wrestlers across different regions.

Following the invention of television, these professional
wrestling matches were being aired, reaching more fans than

"Then what promoters figure out really quickly is the
audience is more interested in and it’s easier to sell
what’s called 'worked matches,'" Dr. Massey explained.
"These were matches that were choreographed."

Massey acknowledged WWE star Ric Flair's famous quote about
wrestling, "It isn’t fake. It’s choreographed."

"And he’s right," Massey said. "What they figure is that if
they control the time, if they can control the action, they
can make a more marketable product."

Compared to other sports like baseball, wrestling was easier
to capture with early TV technology, he explained.

"You can just point the camera at the ring," Massey said.

"This is difficult when it comes to baseball and football.
When people have TVs, wrestling is one of the first sporting
events that they are going to see in their living rooms."

CWF: "So long from the Sunshine State"

Between the 1950s and 1980s, the regional system was the
dominant structure in the industry. One of those territories
was the Tampa-based CWF.

"The way it worked was Championship Wrestling from Florida
was one of the stops on the circuit. You travel the circuit.
You go to the different markets and you wrestle," Dr. Massey
said. "A lot of wrestlers liked to come into Florida because
the pay was good. There were a lot of opportunities to get

Wrestler Eddie Graham bought the promotion back in 1961.
From then until the 1980s, CWF matches were aired in the
living rooms across the Sunshine State.

During the CWF years, there were plenty of personalities
that came through, including Dusty Rhodes. Many wrestlers
tried to challenge Rhodes -- knowing he was popular among
fans -- to make their own name in the CWF territory.

While there were -- and still are -- some household names
that came through the CWF, there was also the "voice" behind
the territory: Gordon Solie, who was a play-by-play
wrestling announcer. He hosted CWF matches for 27 years.

His signature sign-off was, "So long from the Sunshine

Solie passed away at the age of 71 at his New Port Richey
home in July 2000 after succumbing to brain cancer.

"Tampa is important because of the wrestling circuit here in
Tampa and for Championship Wrestling from Florida is going
to be the Armory," Dr. Massey explained. "That’s where
Gordon Solie is going to do his famous ringside commentary."

Tampa’s Fort Homer Hesterly Armory -- which is listed on the
U.S. National Register for Historic Places -- still stands
today along North Howard Avenue, but is now the Bryan Glazer
Family Jewish Community Center.

Wrestlers at the time were rotated through different regins.
Tampa-based trainers like Hiro Matsuda groomed people like
Hulk Hogan to perform at the Armory.

From 2015: Memories reside inside the Armory

Decades ago, pro-wrestlers would compete with all their
heart inside the Fort Homer Hesterly Armory, including
legends like the late Dusty Rhodes and Rocky Johnson, father
of Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson.

"Tampa’s really this place that puts out a lot of these
professional wrestlers," Massey said, "and it has ties to
wrestlers in different ways."

Enter the McMahon family

The NWA was the largest governing body in the industry, but
its territory system began to falter after nearly 40 years
of dominating the business. By the 1980s, fans were exposed
to the inconsistent storylines between the regional
organizations due to cable television.

"I mean with Championship Wrestling from Florida, you’re
only going to see it if you’re watching TV in the '70s and
you’re in the Florida market," Dr. Massey explained. "We see
this movement of television programs as they become more

In the early 1980s, Vince McMahon began to change the game,
and his moves made a significant impact in Florida's
wrestling environment.

In 1982, he acquired the operations of Capitol Wrestling
Corporation from his father, who died two years later. CWC
oversaw the World Wrestling Federation, which would later
become WWE in 2002.

By 1983, McMahon took notice of the dying regional product
and left NWA to turn his northeastern U.S. territory into
the first national promotion of pro-wrestling. He began to
transform WWF's programming into syndicated television
across the country.

"Vince McMahon never has a true monopoly on wrestling but
he’s able to sign away the talent and he’s able to end the
circuit system and really kind of center the profits in his
own nationalized market," Dr. Massey explained. "You just
see the end of regionalism."

"That will coincide with the rise of particularly Hulk
Hogan," he added, "and the Macho Man Randy Savage, and then
some of the other well-known wrestlers like Chyna."

The Brisco Brothers: Tag Team Champions

Gerald Brisco and his older brother, Jack, both wrestled in
different NWA territories, including in Florida. Together,
they became a formidable tag team and won dozens of
championship titles.

Jack, who is nine years older than Gerald, was the first of
the two to begin his wrestling career. He was described as a
"standout amateur wrestler" and joined the team at Oklahoma
State University in the late 1960s. He was the first Native
American to win the NCAA Wrestling Championship back in

The younger Brisco also wrestled at OSU.

Jack won the NWA Missouri Junior Heavyweight Championship
twice in one year, and was successful during his time in the
CWF. He won several regional championships in Florida before
a brief stint in Japan.

Jack returned to the NWA with his brother, Gerald, who he
trained to be a professional wrestler. That's when the duo
made a name for themselves, winning several tag team titles,
especially in the CWF where they won the Florida tag titles
eight times.

Even individually, they won their own titles. Jack held a
World Champion title and Gerald won the Southern Heavyweight
and Florida Heavyweight Championships.

Jack Brisco -- one-half of the tag team ‘Brisco Brothers’ --
passed away in 2010. At the time, he was a resident of Tampa

In the 1970s, they discovered Hulk Hogan and referred him to
Matsuda, the trainer.

In 1984, the brothers acquired controlling interests in the
Georgia Championship Wrestling territory and sold it to
Vince McMahon. They were, once again, fan favorites during
their time with the WWF, which later became WWE.

In 2008, the Brisco Brothers were inducted into the WWE Hall
of Fame.

In 2010, Jack passed away after suffering from heart

For over three decades, Gerald worked behind the scenes of
WWE, but was released in 2020 from his job as a talent
scout. He currently calls the Tampa Bay area his home.

Homegrown: "Hulkmania is running wild, brother"
One of the more well-known local wrestlers is none other
than Hulk Hogan, whose real name is Terry Bollea.

"Hogan literally grows up here, he’s a product of the Bay
Area. Everybody knows him," Dr. Massey said. "If you’ve
lived here long enough, you’d usually run into him around

His family moved from Georgia to Tampa when he was a
toddler. He attended Robinson High School, enrolled at
Hillsborough Community College and later become a Bull at
the University of South Florida. He dropped out before
earning a music degree.

Bollea was part of many bands, and performed in local clubs
where wrestlers frequented. It was then that the Brisco
Brothers introduced him Hiro Matsuda.

Eddie Graham booked Bollea's first match in Fort Myers back
in 1977. Eventually, he took a hiatus from CWF, but later
rejoined the business and ended up back in the circuit and
wrestled in other territories outside of Florida.

Bollea's earlier stage names were Terry Boulder, Super
Destroyer and Sterling Gordon. He took on "The Hulk" title
when he went on a talk show with Lou Ferrigno, who played in
The Incredible Hulk television show. It was quickly noticed
that Bollea was larger in size than Ferrigno.

In 1979, he was introduced to the owner of the World
Wrestling Federation -- Vincent J. McMahon, the father of
the current WWE owner. Bollea joined the organization.

It was then that McMahon wanted Bollea to adopt last name,
"Hogan," and his rise in fame grew under the household name.
He was featured in the very first WrestleMania on March 31,

Eddie Graham, legendary promoter

Edward Gossett -- also known by his stage name, Eddie Graham
-- was not only a professional wrestler, but he was credited
with helping the CWF thrive as the promoter.

At 17 years old, he began his training for a wrestling
career and competed in Texas for another decade. He even
joined the Capitol Wrestling Corporation promotion, which
served the Northeast and owned by Vincent J. McMahon.

Born as Edward Gossett in Tennessee back in 1930, the CWF
promoter helped ring in professional wrestlers who remain in
the industry today.

In 1960, he headed to Florida to wrestle and took over as
the CWF promoter in 1971. He continued to wrestle and won
numerous championships, including the NWA Florida Tag Team
Championship with partners like Bob Orton Sr., Jose
Lothario, and his son, Mike.

Eddie eventually retired in 1977 due to health problems.

In 2008, the WWE inducted him into the Hall of Fame
posthumously by Dusty Rhodes, one of Graham's former
employees. Mike Graham accepted the honor on his behalf.

Dusty Rhodes, the "American Dream"

Born as Virgil Riley Runnels, Jr., "Dusty Rhodes" was a
professional wrestler who worked in the NWA and also made
his way to the WWE.

He was known to not have a typical wrestling physique, but
he was more known for his rags-to-riches character and was
deemed the "American Dream" or "son of a plumber" -- and
with a personality that shined. WWE says his most famous
quote was, "I have wined and dined with kings and queens,
and I’ve slept in alleys and dined on pork and beans."

He broke out as a wrestler following a 1974 match in the CWF
against Eddie and Mike Graham.

"From Florida to New York City, crowds lined up to see
Rhodes deliver his Bionic Elbow to rivals like Harley Race,
Ernie Ladd and 'Superstar' Billy Graham," according to his
WWE bio.

He held the NWA championship title three times. After
retiring from the ring, he remained a fixture with the WWE
and worked at the performance center in Orlando.

Runnels was the father of two other wrestlers: Dustin and
Cody Runnels.

He was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2007. In July
2015, he passed away.

Dustin has since opened a wrestling academy in Austin --
Virgil's hometown.

FCW: Live from...Dale Mabry Highway

In 2007, the WWE launched Florida Championship Wrestling in
Tampa as a developmental program for potential WWE wrestlers
-- and, yes, there is a reason why its name sounds similar
to the CWF name.

Steve Keirn was a professional wrestler who joined the CWF,
working for Eddie Graham back in 1972, and later on, joined
the WWE. He competed in the ring for two WrestleMania events
before retiring and started educating himself on how to pass
on his knowledge to wrestling hopefuls.

The stars aligned, and the WWE decided to close their other
developmental territories in the U.S. and opened one in
Florida -- more specifically, Tampa. Keirn was the man they
chose to operate. In a WWE documentary titled, "A Future
WWE: The FCW Story," the organization said they believed
Florida would attract more high-profile athletes.

Keirn said he decided to used his past experience to choose
a name from the program.

"I recreated what I had started with. I started with
Championship Wrestling from Florida," he said in the
documentary. "The first thing was a name. I said, 'Well, I
don’t want to use an old name.' So, I came up with – really
creative here right – Florida Championship Wrestling."

It officially launched in 2007, with about 20 talent at the
time, at a place called Hitmaster Sports along Hillsborough
Avenue. Eventually, the FCW moved to a primary location --
4535 South Dale Mabry -- for the next six years, which was
part of a storage warehouse.

Aspiring wrestlers at the time recalled seeing pallets of
peas along with processed and canned foods around the
building. Today, Playgrounds of Tampa operates in the former
FWC warehouse.
The top wrestling trainers were brought in during that time,
including Dusty Rhodes, who was described by the trainees as
a mentor.

"Tampa is not the only place that has wrestling schools, but
early on it is a place where some of the most well-known
trainers based their schools and their operations," Dr.
Massey explained to FOX 13. "I think that attracts wrestlers
to this area and then, I think when you have a wrestling
culture as long as has, you have people that grow up in this
area and they're motivated by seeing Championship Wrestling
from Florida."

The FCW was evidence of that. The developmental program
brought in aspiring wrestlers who are household names in the

"To this day, nobody has turned out any better, more
successful long-term wrestlers than we did."
— Mike Graham, wrestler and son of Eddie Graham

Just to name a few: Charlotte Flair, the Bella Twins,
Natalya, Tyson Kidd, Seth Rollins, Sheamus, Titus O'Neal,
Drew McIntyre, Baron Corbin, Kofi Kingston, Bayley, Roman
Reigns, and Big E, who was born and raised in Tampa.

The trainees would travel to different Florida cities --
like Starke and Daytona Beach -- to practice in front of a
live audience. They were not just performing though. They
also had to clean up and break down rings before and after
each show.

They wrestled in parking lots, flea markets, the Florida
Strawberry Festival and Bourbon Street, a bar in New Port
Richey. They were even at a venue where a wedding ceremony
was taking place next door.

"You learn everything from the ground up," Natalya said in
the documentary. "It gives you even more appreciation for
what we do."

One year after FCW started, they launched a live show that
would only broadcast at homes in the region. It was an
opportunity for trainees to learn how to time cues and work
the cameras. It was not just a training ground for aspiring
wrestlers, but also for referees, announcers, cameramen, and
producers too.

The first premiere episode taped on July 17, 2008 from the
Dale Mabry warehouse. Admission was about $5. Popcorn and
refreshments were $1.

Keirn was once again inspired by his CWF roots, and made
sure to include Gordon Solie's famous parting words at the
end of each FCW broadcast, "So long from the Sunshine

Before FCW came to an end, NXT was launched as a TV show
under the WWE umbrella. It was rebranded in 2012, replacing
FCW's system. The move came after Triple H was named WWE's
executive vice president of talent, live events, and
creative in 2011.

The FCW warehouse was closed in 2013, relocating its
developmental activities to Orlando where the WWE
Performance Center opened its doors later that year.

The new center was a multimillion-dollar facility, with a
gym, medical room, upstairs lobby and kitchen. Keirn decided
against relocating, but thought the move was a good idea, he
said in the WWE documentary.

From 2019: WWE Performance Center gives tools to future

Most wrestling fans will never step foot inside the WWE
Performance Center in Orlando, Florida, but FOX 13 was
granted special access to the state-of-the-art training
center so we could show you what it's like to train with the
WWE superstars.

Many of the trainees described FCW as a "grassroots"
movement and that first step that led to NXT, which
ultimately is a third brand of the WWE, along with Monday
Night Raw and Friday Night SmackDown.

"It was clear that there was a real investment in NXT and
the future and that the company took that very seriously,"
Big E said during the FCW documentary. "But in the same
vein, you know, I have a soft spot in my heart for FCW, for
that little warehouse."

"It’s something that’s just a little bit more organic," he
added. "I guess for me, that’s just a bunch of young kids
trying to make it in this hot environment and I feel like
there’s a beauty in that greatness. Obviously, the
[Performance Center] is the next level. That’s the future."

Finally, WrestleMania comes to Tampa

Today, the WWE is the largest wrestling organization in the
game, with many of its superstars living and working in
Tampa Bay. In fact, Hillsborough residents even elected one
of them to be a county commissioner, Brian Blair.

"I can tell you is that the WWF, which then becomes the WWE,
does a good job consolidating wrestling," Dr. Massey
explained. "Although, it does have some competitors."

Tampa was supposed to host its first WrestleMania event in
2020. When WrestleMania 36 was announced, WWE chief brand
officer Stephanie McMahon said, "It’s amazing to me that we
haven’t been here."

But the pandemic forced the organization to cancel and move
the event to its performance center in Orlando with no live

However, it turned out Tampa just had to wait another year
for the opportunity.

"I’m happy that the WWE decided to come back," Dr. Massey
said. "In a lot of ways, I think Tampa is WrestleMania’s
rightful place because Tampa does have such a rich wrestling
history. I think it’s great. I think the community is really

As for the NWA, it's now its own national promotion and
remains one of the oldest professional wrestling
organizations in the world.

The historical information in this report was provided by
the Tampa Bay History Center and WWE.

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