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Before WWE and WrestleMania, 11 who were instrumental in shaping Florida’s wrestling history

Tampa’s wrestling legacy was acknowledged during the announcement that WrestleMania 36 is coming to Raymond James Stadium in 2020.
Gordon Solie grins at the antics of Tampa wrestling legend Dusty Rhodes [Times files (2003)] [Tampa Tribune]

During Thursday’s elaborate news conference, in which World Wrestling Entertainment officials said it was was bringing WrestleMania 36 to Raymond James Stadium next year, WWE chief brand officer Stephanie McMahon said it was “amazing to me” that WWE’s signature event had never been held in Tampa.

That is pretty surprising, considering the number of WWE stars who over the years -- and even now -- have called Tampa Bay home. How many have gotten their starts here, and those who built their careers in the small arenas throughout the state (including Tampa’s Fort Homer Hesterly Armory) before moving on to more high-profile stardom with the then-World Wrestling Federation, National Wrestling Alliance, and other federations across the country.

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Many of these stars helped establish Championship Wrestling from Florida as a showcase for some of the nation’s most talented wrestlers.

While we present just a few, by no means is this an all-inclusive list. From Wahoo McDaniel, Bob Roop, Dick Slater, Andre the Giant, CWF founder Clarence “Cowboy” Luttrall, Barry Windham -- and even Hulk Hogan, a Robinson High graduate who got his start here before reaching stardom in the WWF -- they either performed in Florida intermittently, appearing for a few weeks before moving on to other regions, or got their starts here and achieved stardom elsewhere.

Here, we focus on 11 who had long-standing careers who became synonymous with CWF and its stars.

Boris "The Great" Malenko gets ready to take a "bionic elbow" from Dusty Rhodes. [Times files] [JAY CONNER | Tampa Bay Times]

Dusty Rhodes

Dusty Rhodes instructs, from left, Brie and Nikki Bella, and Milena Roucka on how to interact in the ring while being filmed for television. [Times files (2008)] [SCOTT ISKOWITZ | Tampa Bay Times]

“The American Dream” was arguably one of Tampa’s earliest sports heroes. He was the star best associated with Championship Wrestling from Florida starting in the late 1960s, and became a fixture at Tampa’s Fort Homer Hesterly Armory every Tuesday -- and other arenas across the state for the next two decades. Once he turned “babyface” during a tag-team match with partner Pak Song in 1973, the “son of a plumber from Austin, Texas” endeared fans with his Muhammad Ali-like magnetism, bionic elbow and large, rotund frame that didn’t seem to hinder his surprising agility. Rhodes, who died in 2015 of reported kidney failure, was a multiple-time National Wrestling Alliance champion who went on to star in the NWA and WWF/WWE as well as coach future wrestling stars. But he will always be Florida’s favorite son.

RELATED: WrestleMania is coming to Tampa. What other big events have we hosted?

Gordon Solie

Gordon Solie with wrestler Buddy Wolff on Championship Wrestling From Florida. [Times files (1977)] [UNKNOWN | Times files]

He was the voice of Florida wrestling, and next to Rhodes, was most familiar figure in wrestling’s popularity here. He was the master of the deadpan delivery with that gravelly monotone and straight face:

“Certainly no doubt about that, sir.”

“Well, you’ve made your point abundantly clear.”

“He can go three rounds with a buzzsaw and give it the first two rounds.”

Solie, who died of throat cancer in 2000, also doubled as an announcer with Georgia Championship Wrestling, and his interactions with Dusty Rhodes and other stars made the developments at the announce table as much can’t-miss as the action in the ring.

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Eddie Graham stands outside the Sportatorium at 106 N Albany Ave. [Times files] [Courtesy of Nicole Alonso]

Eddie Graham

In the 1960s through 1980s, Eddie Graham was Championship Wrestling from Florida, both inside and outside the ring. As a performer, the blonde-haired grappler with a strongman physique was the ultimate fan favorite who everyone could count on to ultimately defeat whatever bad guy was terrorizing the territory. His iconic feuds include battles with Johnny Valentine, Bob Orton Sr., Tarzan Tyler and, of course, his most famous, the evil Russian Boris Malenko. The victories were never easy. Graham’s blonde hair would often be stained with blood before he overcame the odds to score the win. In the 1970s he became owner of the promotion. Wrestlers who worked for Graham credited his creativity as a promoter as why the top talent from around the world wanted to go to the CWF, making it one of the top territory’s in the nation. Outside the ring, Graham was every bit a hero who was known for mentoring young amateur wrestlers and children in need. One of his most celebrated achievements was initially helping to fund the Florida Sheriffs Boys Ranch in Live Oak, still a residential care facility for troubled boys. Proceeds of the gate at CWF events went to the ranch.

Buddy Colt was considered Florida’s top villain in the 1970s. [Times files] [BUDDY COLT | PHOTO COURTESY OF]

Buddy Colt

The blonde-haired muscle-bound evildoer needed only a thumb to rile up the fans. He’d tape it up before the match and then once he grabbed his opponent in a headlock would brandish it to the booing crowd who knew exactly what was to come. As Gordon Solie would say, pandemonium would then break out when Colt jammed it into his opponent’s throat. In the 1970s he was considered Florida’s top villain and rumor has it that he was slated to win the NWA world title. But in 1975, the plane he was piloting with three wrestler passengers crashed into the water just off the shores of Davis Islands. Fellow wrestler Bobby Shane died. Colt survived but due to injuries sustained he never wrestled again, but later joined Solie at the announcers’ table.

Larry Simon, also known as The Great Malenko. [Times files (1965)] [HANDOUT | Times files]

Boris ‘The Great’ Malenko

In the Cold War era, he was the ultimate bad guy. The evil Russian was so hated that during a match in Virginia, he was stabbed in the abdomen by a fan and required more than 30 stitches. And his role as foil to the blonde-haired All-American good guy Eddie Graham is what put Championship Wrestling from Florida on the map. Among the more memorable moments of that rivalry was when Malenko attempted to gnaw Graham’s ear off. Another occasion, Graham hit Malenko so hard that his dentures flew out. Graham then crushed the teeth under his book. It received such fanfare that they repeated the moment in matches all over the state.

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Jerry and Jack Brisco at their Brisco Brothers Collision And Repair business in Tampa. The Briscos are former NWA tag team champions, and Jack Brisco was the former NWA world heavyweight champion. [Times files (2008)] [Tampa Tribune]

Jack and Jerry Brisco

For a while, it seemed like most every storyline involving tag-team wrestling in Florida revolved around Jack and Jerry Brisco, real-life brothers from Oklahoma. Both also achieved success around the country, winning both individual and tag-team titles while performing in the NWA’s Georgia and mid-Atlantic territories as well as other regions, and Jack Brisco especially enjoyed a stellar singles career that included twice winning the NWA world championship. But they were staples in Florida tag-team wrestling during the CWF’s heyday in the 1970s, combining to win the Florida tag titles eight times. Between their tag-team championships and Jack Brisco’s numerous individual titles (he was the NWA Florida heavyweight champion eight times and also held the TV and Southern heavyweight championships), one or both always seemed to be carrying a belt in Florida at one time or another. Jerry Brisco continues to work for WWE as a talent scout, and Jack Brisco died in 2010.

Mike Graham, left, with Dick Slater during a a television taping at Ft. Homer Hesterly Armory. [Times files (1974)] [GOFF, JIM | Tampa Bay Times]

Mike Graham

The ultimate good guy who seemingly grew up in a Tampa wrestling ring. His father, Eddie Graham, was a founding father of Championship Wrestling from Florida, and the younger Graham was a Robinson High graduate and fixture on WTOG-Ch. 44 telecasts throughout CWF’s run. He had brief stints with the American Wrestling Association and National Wrestling Alliance, but he is best known as a tag-team specialist who paired with Kevin Sullivan and, most notably, Steve Keirn.

Kevin Sullivan

Few “heels” were as compelling, or captivating, as Sullivan. His Florida career was marked by his persona – a Satan-possessed mystic who transformed the likes of Bob Roop and Mark Lewin (the Purple Haze) into his “Army of Darkness” – and he had longstanding feuds with Rhodes and former tag-team partner Mike Graham, among others. But it was his interactions with Solie that helps marked his wrestling legacy in Florida, including his frequent observations that he “sees the darkness” in Solie’s heart.

Steve Keirn, center, coaches wrestler, Kafu, right, as he takes on Mike Kruel, left bottom, in a training match. [Times files (2008)] [GEN YAMAGUCHI | St. Petersburg Times]

Steve Keirn

Likewise, Keirn was a tag-team specialist best remembered here as Mike Graham’s longtime partner. He and Graham won the Florida tag team championship nine times, and he had stints with other pairings, including with Stan Lane (“The Fabulous Ones”) and Jimmy Garvin in other organizations. He branched out into singles competition, and had a stint with the WWF as “Skinner.” But he continues to make his impact on wrestling locally, training future stars at the Professional School of Hard Knocks in Tampa.

Dory Funk Jr., right, arrives with an unidentified woman, to the funeral of Virgil Runnels Jr. the professional wrestler know as Dusty Rhodes, in Tampa. [Times files (2015)] [CHRIS URSO | Tampa Bay Times]

Terry and Dory Funk Jr.

Terry Funk [Times files (1985)]

Next to Ric Flair and Harley Race, the Funk brothers were perhaps the greatest antagonists to ultimate good guy Dusty Rhodes. Any discussion about Rhodes’ most notable matches and feuds will certainly go back to the Funk brothers -- and primarily Terry, against whom he fought for years and with whom he shared some memorable promos (“Dusty Rhodes, you egg-sucking dog!”). While Dory -- who lives in Ocala and still make appearances at local wrestling events -- was the stoic one of the two, Terry Funk stoked crowds with his vociferous hatred for his fellow Texan Rhodes. Both held numerous Florida and world championships, and while the times they spent in the state weren’t always lengthy, they always made the best of their stints here.

Times staff writer Paul Guzzo contributed to this report.