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At 60, father trains in Tampa as pro wrestler to help son cope with mother's death

Joe Sarracino, 60, trains at the Legendary Professional Wrestling Academy in Tampa for a shot at the ring. Wrestling has helped Sarracino draw closer to his 12-year-old son Joey.
Joe Sarracino, 60, trains at the Legendary Professional Wrestling Academy in Tampa for a shot at the ring. Wrestling has helped Sarracino draw closer to his 12-year-old son Joey.
Published Jul. 7, 2017

TAMPA

On a blue wrestling ring squeezed inside a north Tampa industrial warehouse Joseph Sarracino crashes into the canvas, bounces off the ropes and delivers chops to opponents' chests.

The spartan space is the Legendary Professional Wrestling Academy and most of the students here hope it will help them launch new careers.

Sarracino has another goal, though, measured not by sold-out arenas but by the reaction he gets from an audience of one — 12-year-old son Joey Jr.

"I want to remind him that we can't spend our lives in mourning," said Sarracino, 60. "We have to live life."

After Sarracino's wife Carmella, Joey's mother, died five years ago, attending live wrestling shows together provided an emotional escape for them. That diversion will culminate with Sarracino climbing into the ring.

Plenty of wrestlers have performed into their 60s. But Frank Reyes, head trainer at the academy and a former referee with World Wrestling Entertainment, said he's never come across anyone as old as Sarracino trying to break into the field.

Among Reyes' 15 current students, the second oldest is 42. The others are in their 20s and early 30s.

"It's never too late," Reyes said. "You just need passion and to be in shape."

Sarracino, 5-foot-10 and 235 pounds, jokes that when he started he only had the passion part.

"I've never pushed my body so hard," he said.

Every Saturday, Sarracino drives from North Port for four hours of training then makes the trip again Sunday for another five.

Joey always is at his side.

"He's the one who inspires me," said Sarracino, a maintenance man at the retirement community Bay Village of Sarasota. "If it is 10:30 at night and I haven't been on the treadmill yet, he tells me to get on it."

There is an extra pep in both their steps that had been missing since his wife died, Sarracino said.

"This is 25 percent for me and 75 percent for my son."

Sarracino has been a fan of professional wrestling since childhood. When his son discovered wrestling at age 5, they bonded over a shared love of body slams.

Wrestling became even more important when Carmella unexpectedly died of heart failure in 2012 at age 41.

"Telling Joey was the hardest thing I've ever done. But I promised him that if he trusts his daddy we'll make it through this."

Two months later, Sarracino took Joey to a WWE show in Punta Gorda and informed the organizers in advance about what his son had been through.

Joey was called into the ring and introduced as a boy in need of encouragement after the death of his mother. The crowd chanted Joey's name.

"He went from having his head down to up," Sarracino said. "I cried."

Wrestling became a coping mechanism for father and son.

They attended matches whenever and wherever their schedule allowed. In 2013, they flew to New Jersey for WrestleMania 29.

But it was a performance six months ago in Sarasota that piqued Sarracino's interest in entering the ring.

There, he met trainer Reyes. "Have you ever trained a 60-year-old?" Reyes replied no, but he would.

Joey was excited by the prospect. That sealed the deal for Sarracino.

Sarracino's friend Mike McClaskey, 59 and a retired professional wrestler, suggested he learn to be a referee or a manager instead

"I thought it would be better not to jump right into the fire," said McClaskey, who last Sunday stopped by the academy to help Sarracino train. "But he jumped right in. I'm proud. This is hard. It hurts."

Reyes hopes to have Sarracino ready for a match in front of a small crowd by February. Sarracino already feels like a main event superstar.

"The other day I said to my son, 'I'm not a pro wrestler yet,'" he said. "He just looked at me proudly, and said, 'Yes you are.' That felt great, really great."

Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.