From pro wrestler to Bible teacher, he helps Tampa shelter residents grapple with life

Michael Davis used to slap his head and run in circles. He wore a top hat and a cowbell. He once hurled a pie at Miss Brenda — his enemy's fleabag girlfriend — and waded into a bloodbath with the Great Kabuki. He laughed like a ticklish serial killer.

But on a recent Friday night, the former wrestler known as Bugsy McGraw has only one battle: getting someone to remember the assigned Bible verses.

He turns to a man wearing an AC/DC T-shirt. "AC/DC, Scriptures!"

AC/DC admits he doesn't know them.

"Well, at least you're consistent. You never know the Scriptures," says Davis. "A lot of you say you want to get ahead, but you don't know your Scriptures."

"Verizon?" he calls out to a guy in a Verizon T-shirt. Verizon shakes his head.

Davis sighs. "Guy in Black beside AC/DC?"

"Nah, I don't even know which one you're on."

"Don't have time, huh?" Davis chides.

Guy in Black shoots back: "I've been trying to get a job!"

In the back of the room a woman in a SpongeBob T-shirt folds her list of verses into a paper airplane and lets it nosedive.

This is how Davis, broad-shouldered and slow-moving, has spent his Friday nights over the past year: leading the Bible study at the God Center, a faith-based emergency homeless shelter on N Nebraska Avenue.

He likes to think he's helping people change their lives. He has tried to change his own. And he says he has learned something:

There's usually a fight.

• • •

In the '70s and '80s, when his fans knew him as Bugsy McGraw, Davis wrestled with Vince McMahon Sr.'s company, then called the World Wide Wrestling Federation. He later signed up with Gordon Solie's Championship Wrestling from Florida.

McMahon gave him the stage name. Davis developed the persona: Crazy eyes. Maniacal laugh. Flailing arms. Stomping feet.

The persona let him both channel and disguise his deepest fear: speaking. He had a speech impediment, one that made his face grimace, his head jerk, his words stutter.

"But you hand me a microphone and put me on television and oh, boy, could I talk," said Davis.

A YouTube video captured his Bugsy persona challenging King Kong Bundy in Fort Worth, Texas, years ago.

"People everywhere have dreams," Bugsy says into the camera. "The truck driver that goes down the road has dreams. The housewife tied down at the house has dreams. … But then we all have a reality. And sometimes those dreams have got to stop for a moment and the reality has to come right to you. And my reality I have chosen is in the ring, you understand. Right here in Fort Worth, Texas!"

By the 1990s, however, Davis tired of changes in the wrestling industry and the constant traveling. In 1995, after a nearly 30-year career, he gave up the gig as his main source of income.

He became a nurse and worked at Tampa General Hospital. He flipped houses and bought boats. Now 66, he is retired and divorced and lives near Tampa's Channel District area.

He became a Christian in 1983, reading the Bible all the way through three times. He went to therapy for his stuttering but said the therapists didn't get him. He thinks God helped him more. His speaking has improved, though he still struggles with it, sometimes at his Bible studies.

"I can see the Lord's hand in a lot of things," he said.

Davis was attending a Tampa megachurch called the River at Tampa Bay when he met the pastor's security man, Jimi "Beetel" Ellis. They stayed in touch. When faith-based group New Beginnings tapped Ellis to run its 28-bed emergency shelter at 8535 N Nebraska Ave., Davis paid a visit.

He liked the tough love, the 9 p.m. curfew, the religious requirements at the bright red shelter.

It was here, he said, that he got his first chance — and calling — to teach. "Before long I felt that was where I belonged," he said.

Which is why he shows up every Friday night, sometimes wearing python-skin boots. He parks his Porsche 911 Carrera GTS on the sidewalk. The nearly 30 shelter residents are required to attend his Bible study, and he offers them an incentive: Learn a Bible verse, earn $1.

Ellis says he's the perfect fit for a group like this.

"You have a man who drives a car like that and takes his personal time and says not only does God love you, but I love you."

• • •

After Guy in Black settles down that Friday night, Davis starts talking about problems. Everybody has one. His is a big one — "it's like Godzilla and his brother," he says.

Later, he's more specific with a reporter. Despite the fancy car and boots, he has money problems. But God will sort things out, he says.

"Every day you get all sorts of thoughts," he tells the residents. "A lot of times I have thoughts that are very negative."

He rubs his hands together. "Where's your battleground?" he says. He points at his temple.

A man named Stony Gaskins, who has lived at the shelter for six months, says he wants to earn $20. He can recite 20 verses.

Go, Davis tells him.

Gaskins starts. He stumbles in places but doesn't stop. The residents clap. Gaskins ducks his head, smiles shyly.

"It's not about trying to memorize," he says. "I just meditate on them daily."

Delwin Cole, another resident, speaks up. "Once the word of God dwells in you, you begin to develop a Christ-centered life."

"Right!" Gaskins says. "That's what I struggle with every day."

Davis breaks in. "Yes," he says, "because you're fighting with your flesh!"

He grins and stands up to get the money for Gaskins. One match is over.

Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Reach Jodie Tillman at jtillman@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3374.

Photos by JULIETTE LYNCH | Times

Michael Davis, 66, leads a Bible study at the 28-bed emergency shelter at 8535 N Nebraska Ave. He rewards anyone who can recite all 10 or 20 chosen verses with $10 or $20 out of his pocket.

Davis points out weekly Bible verses to be memorized as Mike Cumbess listens during a Friday night Bible study at a shelter.

From pro wrestler to Bible teacher, he helps Tampa shelter residents grapple with life 09/01/11 [Last modified: Friday, September 9, 2011 3:17pm]

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