TAMPA — Before he was one of the biggest stars in professional wrestling, Roman Reigns was simply Joe Anoa’i.
He dreamed of playing professional football, but his career was cut short before it ever really began. After standing out as a defensive lineman at Georgia Tech, he had brief offseason stints with the NFL’s Vikings and Jaguars, then played one year in the Canadian Football League for the Edmonton Eskimos.
His football opportunities dried up quickly, so Reigns found himself traveling from his hometown of Pensacola to Tampa, where he trained to become a professional wrestler in WWE’s developmental territory, Florida Championship Wrestling.
“It feels like yesterday I was making that drive down from Pensacola,” he said.
Reigns is one of several WWE stars on this weekend’s WrestleMania 37 card who cut their teeth in FCW, which was based in Tampa from 2007-12, when WWE moved its performance center to Orlando and made NXT its new developmental league.
FCW has been gone for nearly a decade, but when WrestleMania headliners such as Reigns, Drew McIntyre, Daniel Bryan, Seth Rollins, Sheamus, Big E, Kofi Kingston, “The Fiend” Bray Wyatt and Natalya step onto pro wrestling’s biggest stage this weekend at Raymond James Stadium, they’ll be doing so just 5 miles down Dale Mabry Highway from where their WWE careers took shape at the FCW Arena in South Tampa.
“Just thinking about Tampa and thinking about FCW, it makes me proud,” said Reigns, who will defend his WWE Universal Championship against Edge and Bryan on Sunday night. “It’s where I came from, being this terrible awkward and shy, introverted mess, not knowing anything.
“I didn’t know how to do anything within a ring, with public speaking, any of it. I didn’t have a tool, let alone a box to put anything in. And now to fast forward almost 11 years later and to see the experience and the knowledge and skills that I developed, it makes me really proud.”
Tampa has deep wrestling roots dating back to the 1960s, when Championship Wrestling from Florida was founded. During the company’s heyday in the ′70s and ′80s, wrestling was huge in Tampa, with shows at the former Fort Homer Hesterly Armory on Howard Avenue drawing crowds every Tuesday and a popular weekly TV show shot at the old, cramped Sportatorium off Kennedy Boulevard.
“There was only one thing here in Tampa in the ′70s,” said Steve Keirn, a Tampa Bay native and former wrestler-turned trainer. “We didn’t have baseball, we didn’t have football, we didn’t have hockey. Plus, we weren’t covered with uniforms, we didn’t wear helmets.
“So every Saturday and Sunday you saw me, whether you wanted to or not. The choice was you either watched wrestling on Sunday at 1 p.m. after church or you watched Meet the Press. So that was a slam dunk for the people that I grew up with.”
When Championship Wrestling from Florida shuttered in 1987, many of those involved remained. And when Florida Championship Wresting was born, several, including Keirn, Dusty Rhodes and Dr. Tom Pritchard, played a big part in molding today’s WWE superstars.
“I really appreciate how lucky I was to have demonstrators and someone like Dusty, who is such a freaking legend in Tampa, being in charge of me finding myself and helping with my speaking ability, which he was known for,” said Drew McIntyre, who wrestled in FCW in 2008 and 2009. “Above all else, it just really was a special time of my life. You learned everything there. With the trainers that were available, if you couldn’t learn in FCW, you just weren’t going to learn it.”
McIntyre, whose match with Bobby Lashley for the WWE heavyweight title headlined Saturday’s matches, came to FCW as a fresh-faced 22-year-old whose only experience was in Europe. He had to learn an entirely new style of wrestling in the United States and speak more clearly through his thick Scottish accent. He had to develop his character and play to his audience and said Rhodes, a former independent circuit and WWE superstar nicknamed “The American Dream,” was the perfect teacher.
“I wasn’t exactly Mr. Confident at the time, and I knew I had a lot to learn,” said McIntyre, who currently lives in St. Petersburg. “And really, if you wanted it enough and you worked hard enough, they would really get behind you and build your confidence and build your repertoire and build your tool belt.”
Keirn — who has trained wrestlers since the early ’80s, saying he realized it would be his best way to stick in wrestling — said the industry has become more of a spectacle. There are more high-flying and high-risk moves. Keirn, 69, joked that if he tried to jump from the top turnbuckle in his day, he would be at St. Joseph’s Hospital that night. In his day, young wrestlers would take their lumps and get beat up. Keirn remembers explaining to his mother why he was coming home with rug burns on his face.
But what hasn’t changed is the importance of instilling confidence in every wrestler, something that was important at FCW.
“You have to do the walk from wherever you come out from the curtain like you’re worth paying money to see,” Keirn said. “You’ve got to stand up and look at your audience, and when somebody is trying to look at you and challenge you, you’ve got to look them right in the eyes and say, ‘Come and get me.’”
Reigns said he still thinks about how many WWE headliners took the same path as him through FCW to stardom.
“No matter how far we all go or how deeply we all get separated, if I see some of the boys that I haven’t seen in years tomorrow, it’s like I saw them yesterday,” he said. “It’s that type of connection where it’s like you don’t miss a step. It’s seamless.”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at email@example.com. Follow @EddieInTheYard.