By Susan Thurston, sthurston@tampabay.com

Tampa at the center of the pro wrestling ring

At Florida Championship Wrestling's training center in Tampa, wrestlers from all over the world come to perfect their spine-busters, moonsaults and cross body blocks.

They elbow-drop opponents and fly from the ropes in hopes of making it big in the tight field of professional wrestlers.

The lucky few go on tour with major wrestling events, such as the World Wrestling Entertainment's SmackDown on Tuesday at the St. Pete Times Forum. Even fewer go on to become the next superstar like John Cena or Dave Batista.

Tampa has been at the forefront of wrestling since the '60s, when the Fort Homer Hesterly Armory and Tampa Sportatorium packed crowds every week. Promoter Eddie Graham drew the top talent. Gordon Solie gave blow-by-blow accounts on TV.

Jack Brisco and Dusty Rhodes were working-class household names, drawing thousands of fans addicted to wrestling's grit, athleticism and showmanship. Then came Hulk Hogan, whose flashy persona brought wrestling to the mainstream and who remains Tampa Bay's infamous son. Today, wrestlers like Cena, Batista, Chris Jericho and Edge all have homes in Tampa Bay.

Experts credit Tampa's blue-collar roots, warm weather and ease in traveling to other cities for attracting wrestlers and keeping them here past retirement.

"They used to call Tampa the wrestlers' graveyard,'' said Tommy Fooshee, a retired referee. "They did so good there they wanted to stay there until they died.''

Fooshee worked as a referee in Tampa in the '60s and '70s, filling in for refs on vacation. Fooshee, who lives in Houston, traveled by private plane to matches across Florida. On Tuesdays, he refereed at the Tampa Armory, earning $50 to $75 a night.

"The matches were wild. It was crowded and it wasn't air-conditioned, but nobody cared,'' he said. "I was enthralled by it. It fascinated me to be around those people. They were really colorful characters.''

•••

At the center of Tampa's wrestling scene was Edward Gossett, better known as Eddie Graham, who trained under the famous Cowboy Luttrell and joined Dr. Jerry Graham to earn tag team titles.

Eddie Graham eventually moved to Tampa and started promoting for Championship Wrestling from Florida. For years, he ran the Florida territory, booking matches in different cities every night.

"Tampa was a hotbed of championship wrestling thanks to Eddie Graham,'' said Tom Burke, a wrestling historian from Massachusetts. "He became a local hero.''

Graham committed suicide in 1985 after a battle with alcoholism, leaving behind his son, Mike Graham, also a professional wrestler. Two years ago, he was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame.

Eddie Graham's legacy lives on today in a 10,000-square-foot warehouse on Dale Mabry Highway. The Florida Championship Wrestling training facility opened in 2008 as the flagship development school for WWE, based in Stamford, Conn.

Run by former wrestler Steve Keirn, the center discovers and builds young talent for the WWE. It has 58 men and women from 14 countries under contract with WWE, much like minor-league baseball players. Coaches wear T-shirts that say, "Where superstars are born.''

Keirn, 58, grew up with Mike Graham in South Tampa and considered Eddie Graham like a father. Keirn started wrestling at age 19 and, seven orthopedic surgeries later, retired after 30 years. When he opened the FCW training center, he said WWE's Vince McMahon told him: "The whole future of wrestling is in your hands.''

•••

Wrestlers spend one to three years training at the facility, which has three rings and an arena where matches are taped Thursday nights in front of an audience. Only the top talent gets a chance to come to Tampa and, of those, only a few are chosen to tour with WWE.

"My talent is really unknown, but without us, there would not be a SmackDown,'' Keirn said.

Already, the FCW center has churned out winners, from Dolph Ziggler to Jack Swagger, who will be at Tuesday's SmackDown. It also attracts some second-generation champs, including Jack Brisco's son, Wes, and Fiji-born Jimmy "Superfly" Snuka's daughter, Tamina.

Richie Steamboat, the son of Ricky "the Dragon'' Steamboat, arrived in Tampa recently after stints in Mississippi, Puerto Rico, England and Japan, where he slept on rice mats on the floor and did 1,000 squats a day.

"My whole objective was to get to Tampa,'' he said. "If you want to be in the WWE, you've got to come here.''

Richie, 22, tore a knee ligament during a leap off the ropes but plans to get back in the ring in a few months. Ultimately, he wants to go on the road with the WWE and become a heavyweight superstar. Just like his dad.

Today's wrestlers face a different reality from those from decades past. Thanks to cable, there's less sport and more glitz, with fireworks, flaring guitars, bold outfits. Baby faces (the good guys) employ the same dirty tactics as the heels (the bad guys). Matches last 10 minutes, not an hour.

"Back then the focus was on wrestling and competition. Wrestlers walked into the ring in the dark,'' said Scott Teal, who has written about 10 books on professional wrestlers. "Now, it's about show business. The lights are on in the building all the time and the focus on TV is the fans screaming.''

•••

Wrestling has always been scripted, but until about 1980, no one talked about it, Teal said. Fans may have suspected the outcome was predetermined but wanted to believe the rest was real.

Nowadays, matches are staged from start to finish, much like a juicy soap opera. Good prevails over evil. Winners are the fan favorites and personalities who draw the biggest crowds.

That's hardly to say wrestling isn't about athleticism — or pain. The moves take strength and agility. Getting body-slammed by a 7-footer hurts. And the ring isn't rubber; it's a steel frame covered with wood planks (not plywood) and a thin sheet of foam and canvas.

"People have a misconception of wrestling that none of it is real and that we don't have passion,'' Richie Steamboat said. "But when you spend your whole life doing it, when I'm out there in the ring, it's what I believe.''

Wrestling is as much about performing as is it about pushing bodies to their breaking point, Keirn said. Fans come to matches to see moves far beyond their abilities.

"If this is fake, then why did I get hurt so much?'' said Keirn, who has several screws in his ankle.

He used to get upset by comments about how wrestling is rigged. Now, he channels the mindset of Eddie Graham and focuses on finding talent and helping it grow.

As a tribute to Tampa's early wrestling days, he ends every FCW taping with a vintage TV clip of Gordon Solie giving his nightly sendoff. "So long from the Sunshine State."

"That's my touch,'' Keirn said.

He doesn't want anyone to forget.

Contributing: John Martin

Go ringside

WWE SmackDown, with Kane, Kofi Kingston, MVP and a tag team cage match pitting Big Show and Rey Mysterio against CM Punk and Jack Swagger, comes to the St. Pete Times Forum at 6:45 p.m. Tuesday. Tickets are $20-$75, plus service charges, through Ticketmaster. Lineup subject to change. wwe.com

Florida Championship Wrestling tapes live matches Thursday nights at its training center, 4535 S Dale Mabry Highway, Tampa. Doors open at 6:30 p.m.; taping starts at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $10 for adults and $5 for children. Shows are rebroadcast on Bright House 47 at 11 p.m. Thursdays, 6 p.m. Sundays and 11 p.m. Wednesdays. fcwwrestling.com.

Go ringside

WWE SmackDown, with Kane, Kofi Kingston, MVP and a tag-team cage match pitting Big Show and Rey Mysterio against CM Punk and Jack Swagger, comes to the St. Pete Times Forum at 6:45 p.m. Tuesday. Tickets are $20-$75, plus service charges, through Ticketmaster. Lineup subject to change. wwe.com

Florida Championship Wrestling tapes live matches Thursday nights at its training center, 4535 S Dale Mabry Highway, Tampa. Doors open at 6:30 p.m.; taping starts at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $10 for adults and $5 for children. Shows are rebroadcast on Bright House 47 at 11 p.m. Thursdays, 6 p.m. Sundays and 11 p.m. Wednesdays. fcwwrestling.com.

Who's who in the ring?

Wrestling in Tampa has always been about the people and personas. Here are some top names in local wrestling, past and present:

Dave Batista: This WWE star plays a Navy Seal named Big Ronnie (B.R.) in a new action movie, Wrong Side of Town. He reportedly quit WWE May 24. Born David Bautista, he lives in Lutz.

Brian Blair: Tampa's equivalent of former Minnesota Gov. Jesse "The Body" Ventura, Blair wrestled at the Sportatorium with Hulk Hogan and served on the Hillsborough County Commission.

Jack Brisco: The heartthrob of professional wrestling, Brisco drew huge crowds in the 1970s and '80s, along with his tag-team brother, Jerry. Inducted in the WWE Hall of Fame in 2008, he died in February.

John Cena: The reigning WWE champion and a rising movie star, he's active in the Make-A-Wish foundation and takes annual trips to visit with troops overseas. Lives in Land O'Lakes.

Edge: Born Adam Copeland in Canada, this nine-time world champion had a successful tag-team career with Christian Cage. Lives in Land O'Lakes.

Eddie Graham: This pro wrestler turned promoter ran Championship Wrestling from Florida during the '70s. He committed suicide in 1985, and was inducted posthumously into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2008.

Hulk Hogan: Born Terry Bollea, he grew up in Tampa, attending Robinson High School, and achieved mainstream popularity in the '80s for his persona in the ring. More recently, he's been known for his reality show and messy divorce from wife, Linda.

Chris Jericho: The winner of every title in wrestling, he's also an author, musician, actor and former reality show host. Born Chris Irvine, the father of three and WWE star lives in Odessa.

Paul Jones: A "heel'' who held numerous championships, he became legendary for throwing his Florida Heavyweight Title belt off the Gandy Bridge in 1972.

Steve Keirn: This retired pro wrestler who went to Robinson High School owns and operates Florida Championship Wrestling in Tampa, the only development training center for World Wrestling Entertainment.

Brian Knobbs: Best known with Jerry Sags as the Nasty Boys tag team. Born Brian Yandrisovitz, he's known to hang out at Tampa Bay Rays games with pal Hulk Hogan. Lives in Clearwater.

The Great Malenko: The son of Russian immigrants, he was famous for playing the heel at Tampa matches during the '60s and '70s. Died in 1994.

Angelo Poffo: A wrestler in the '50s known for setting the world record for the most consecutive situps: 6,033. He helped his two sons, Randy "Macho Man" Savage and "Leaping'' Lanny Poffo, achieve wrestling fame. The elder Poffo died in March. His sons live in Pinellas County.

Dusty Rhodes: The retired "American Dream'' wrestler from Texas became a superstar in Tampa in the '70s. The WWE Hall of Famer does promoting and producing for Florida Championship Wrestling.

Gordon Solie: The voice of professional wrestling in Tampa for 40 years, known for his deep, gravelly voice and catch phrases for describing the matches. Died of brain cancer in 2000.

Tampa at the center of the pro wrestling ring 06/03/10 [Last modified: Thursday, June 3, 2010 4:16pm]

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