TAMPA — Attorney Dennis Alvarez wanted proof that the professional wrestling hold known as “the sleeper” really worked.
It was the 1970s. Wrestler Steve Keirn was happy to oblige.
Keirn wrapped one arm under Alvarez’s chin, placed the other behind his head, and squeezed. His oxygen supply cut off, Alvarez passed out.
“Great memories,” said Alvarez, 75, a former Hillsborough County judge, in a recent email to the Tampa Bay Times. He didn’t elaborate.
Today, WWE admits that the athletes performing in its wrestling-ring extravaganzas are characters following predetermined plots. The pinnacle of their profession, the annual WrestleMania, had been scheduled April 5 at Raymond James Stadium before the coronavirus hit so now it’s a streaming-only presentation April 4 and 5.
But in decades past, pro wrestlers went to great lengths to persuade fans that their endeavors were real.
They were forbidden from breaking character in public, moaned as if in pain over scripted injuries, even put fans in the submission holds that they delivered in the ring.
In turn, for the most part, fans wanted to believe.
“I am fine with it now but, in the beginning, it was one of the things that really upset me,” said retired wrestler Gerald Brisco, 73, of Tampa. “We worked so hard to make it legit.”
One example: In 1975, a Cessna transporting four “bad guy” wrestlers crashed in the water just off Davis Islands in Tampa. Three were injured. One, Robert Schoenberger, better known as wrestler Bobby Shane, died.
Some fans cheered the news.
“As horrible as that is, it means the fans really believed," said Barry Rose, an archivist of Florida professional wrestling history. “That means they did their job.”
Before the WWE dominated professional wrestling, the National Wrestling Alliance promoted regional events throughout the nation. The alliance worked with Georgia Championship Wrestling, for instance, and World Class Championship Wrestling in Texas.
Across the Sunshine State, it was Tampa-based Championship Wrestling from Florida.
Wrestlers who made regular stops here would later turn the WWE into a global juggernaut — Brisco, Dusty Rhodes, Bob Orton Sr., The Fabulous Moolah, Andre the Giant, and Rocky Johnson among them.
“This was the place everyone wanted to be,” Brisco said. “This was where all the real stars came.”
In Florida as elsewhere, pro wrestling was forged from fact and fiction.
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During a 1940 boxing bout in Atlanta, professional wrestler “Cowboy” Clarence Luttrall was punched through the ropes by former world heavyweight boxing champion Jack Dempsey. The event was booked following an argument between the two at a wrestling show.
“Hard to say if it was real or not,” Rose said. “He and Dempsey were great friends. On the other hand, Luttrall took a severe beating and had health issues later in life directly attributed to that beating.”
Luttrall had to retire from the ring. He turned to promoting and, around 1950, founded Championship Wrestling from Florida, Rose said.
A decade later, Eddie Gossett, also known as wrestler Eddie Graham, joined Luttrall as his partner.
Gossett, Rose said, was a champion of keeping it “real.”
“You look up old school in the dictionary, his photo is right there.”
He recruited the highest caliber of wrestlers.
“All legitimate athletes,” Brisco said. “That is what Eddie looked for.”
Brisco and his late-brother Jack starred as amateur wrestlers in their native Oklahoma. Terry Funk and his brother Dory Jr. were top amateurs in Texas.
Their credentials got top billing when the teams of brothers faced off as pro wrestlers in Florida. The rivalry spanned the 1970s and helped propel all four to stardom, with Dory Funk and Jack Brisco each holding the National Wrestling Alliance world title.
Dory Funk, 79, now lives in Ocala. He says the brothers had genuine skills.
“It was the closest thing to real you could find in professional wrestling,” he said.
A wrestler’s talents had to follow him outside the ring, too.
“The deal was we could go into any bar in town and get into a fight and Eddie wouldn’t mind if we won,” Brisco said.
Gossett minded a great deal if you didn’t, though.
“If you got beat, you better get back into your car and get out of town. We had to be legit.”
What’s more, if fans ever questioned the legitimacy of a hold — whether opponents actually felt the impact — the wrestlers had to prove it to them.
Alvarez, the attorney, got his lesson in a private room at West Tampa’s Fort Homer W. Hesterly Armory, scene of Florida’s biggest wrestling shows and now converted into the Bryan Glazer Family JCC.
Keirn, 68, who lives in Tampa, more commonly provided proof to fans inside the ring.
“Eddie Graham had me doing them at intermission all across the state,” Keirn said. “They had to volunteer. We always picked the biggest guys. The skinny guys are hard to get a grip on."
Once, at a bar popular with the University of Tampa crowd, Keirn lined up nine guys and put each to sleep, he said.
Fans, though, might have been surprised to know that they were the only ones getting the full treatment. Wrestlers had a mutual agreement never to actually choke one another out in the ring.
Funk, who runs the Funking Conservatory Wrestling School in Ocala, and Brisco, a WWE talent scout, recently returned to the Glazer JCC to reminisce. Near a photo wall honoring the building’s wrestling legacy, Brisco allowed Funk to demonstrate the sleeper on him.
Brisco, on cue, wailed, but showed no signs of passing out.
Had they acted that friendly back in the 1970s, Brisco said, “we’d have been fired. We couldn’t ride together. We couldn’t eat together."
Wrestler Don Muraco was Brisco’s "very best friend,” he said. “But when Don was a bad guy and I was a good guy, I couldn’t go around with him.”
Ring enemies Johnny Valentine, real name John Wisniski, and Rolland “Red” Bastien were fired because they were seen barbecuing together, archivist Rose said.
Brisco remembers “suffering” a scripted separated shoulder at 21.
“So, I had to wear this sling everywhere I went, to sell the injury. But I met these two blonde twins and I wanted to help them wash their car.”
Off came the sling, Brisco recalls with a chuckle, and he worked both arms to impress the women. As luck would have it, the main referee with Championship Wrestling drove by just then.
“He went right to Eddie Graham and told him what I did,” Brisco said. “And boy did he tear me a new one. I was almost fired. I never did that again."
Reporters played along, too. They promoted upcoming matchups and treated the outcomes as matters of true consequence.
“Dusty Rhodes kept his unbeaten Texas Bull Rope match streak intact last night," read an item in the Tampa Tribune from June 16, 1976, right there between the winners of golf tournaments and horse races.
“Everybody was complicit,” said Tampa’s Jody Simon, 63, a retired wrestler whose father Lawrence Simon was Florida’s top bad guy while performing during the Cold War as the evil Russian Boris Malenko.
Pro wrestling proved painfully real with some fans.
Simon recalls when a “little old lady” reached over and stabbed his father with a knitting needle. On another occasion, a man "filleted him from his side to his mid-belly” with a knife.
Other adult fans grappled with whether to believe, like children on the verge of outgrowing Santa Claus.
“People would come up to my dad and say, ‘It’s fake,’” Simon said. “Rather than argue, he’d say, ‘Yeah,’ because he knew what would happen next. The same fan would argue with him that it wasn’t fake.”
Once, an “old woman with a walker” approached his father as he strolled Miami Beach.
“She said, ‘I know your name is Larry Simon and you are Jewish and born in New Jersey. You’re not Russian.’ And then later she’s in the audience screaming, ‘Kill that Russian. Kill him.'"
Unable to compete with the WWE as it rose to prominence, Championship Wrestling from Florida folded in 1987.
Shortly thereafter, Rose said, the WWE admitted it was scripted.
By 2001, using a reference to a WWE precursor, the New York Times was invoking wrestling to call out fake development plans: “For now, the rumors are apparently about as real as a W.W.F. match.”
Still, one feature transcends the before and after eras: It takes a real athlete to star in professional wrestling, Funk and Brisco agreed.
“If you look at the very top wrestlers, those guys are really tough guys,” Funk said. “Just look at Brock Lesnar," the current WWE champion who is a former NCAA Division I heavyweight wrestling champion and a former UFC heavyweight champion.
Asked if, when in his prime, he could take Lesnar in a real fight, Brisco jokingly said, “I could take him to the ice cream shop."
Funk had a different reply.
With a scowl, he said, “I’m going to turn that around. Could he have taken me?”
7 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, streamed on WWE Network*
*The event originally was slated to be held in Tampa, but the current coronavirus pandemic prompted the move to a closed set without fans in Orlando.