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Tampa lands top wrestling event

Brandon High School wrestling coach Russ Cozart said he has felt cheated for the past decade. He has been unable to see the best wrestlers in the nation grapple in the Tampa Bay area. No university here features wrestling, the world's oldest Olympic sport. So the state, a breeding ground of outstanding high school talent, has been a wasteland for any competition beyond that level.

Until now, that is.

The USA Open International Wrestling Tournament, expected to draw participants from 20 countries, will be held in Tampa for the next two years, beginning this summer (June 21-23) at the Curtis Hixon Convention Center.

The first two days of the three-day event will be televised nationally on either ESPN or WTBS. The final day's matches, known as the North American Challenge Cup, will be broadcast on ABC.

"This is a real coup for Tampa and the United States as a whole," said Lamar Williams, director of convention marketing for the Tampa/Hillsborough Convention and Visitors Association. "It's just unbelievable we've been able to land something like this."

Cozart is even more ecstatic about the possibilities.

"For the wrestling enthusiast, to live in Florida has been tough," said Cozart, one of the organizing committee members to land the tournament. "But this is the United States' premier wrestling tournament and now we have the chance to see the best right here.

"Not offering wrestling in the colleges is one of the quiet tragedies. I've had a lot of good wrestlers who just retire after high school because they don't want to travel out of state. I hope this helps the colleges see they're missing out."

Herb Weller, director of the Sunshine Open Wrestling Tournament and coach at Seminole High, agreed that the meet might provide role models for the area's high school wrestlers and inspire them to go on.

But perhaps more important, Weller said, it also gives the sport's supporters the opportunity to educate the public.

"There isn't a great deal of wrestling publicity," he said. "We need that. The opportunity to be exposed to the best in the world is a tremendous opportunity to showcase our sport."

In 1991 the tournament, first held last year in Colorado Springs, Colo., will move to the Tampa Convention Center that is now under construction. It may be here longer than that, however.

"We're looking for long-term relationships with cities," said Robert Morris, director of national events for USA Wrestling, from his office in Colorado Springs. "Events run better when they're run in the same city. We'd like to see this develop into something longer.

"It's quickly becoming a premier event and certainly finding a home gives it the potential to be something really exciting. It gives the athletes top international competition, and the exposure on television, well, you can't ask for more than that."

Tampa beat out a number of cities, including Salt Lake City. Local organizers expect more than 5,000 fans to attend the tournament and the preliminary clinics this year.