Paul Orndorff, who rose from a hardscrabble east Hillsborough County neighborhood to achieve professional wrestling immortality as the self-proclaimed “Mr. Wonderful,” died Monday, his son Travis announced via Instagram.
Stricken with myriad health issues — including cancer — in his final decade, Mr. Orndorff was 71. A since-deleted YouTube video showed Mr. Orndorff, frail and apparently disoriented, receiving a visit from his son in what appears to be a medical facility.
“He was a leader in the locker room,” said World Wrestling Entertainment Hall of Famer Gerald Brisco, who enjoyed tag-team stardom in Florida with older brother Jack and befriended Mr. Orndorff early in his career.
“There were certain guys that you could have fun with and kind of rip, make fun of in the dressing room. Paul was not one of those guys because he was so damn serious abut his business, and it showed in his work. He was admired and respected by all of his peers.”
A product of divorced parents, Mr. Orndorff was raised east of Tampa in the Clair-Mel City neighborhood and attended Brandon High, where he starred for the Eagles football team and won the Class 2A state title in the discus in 1969. In a 2013 Tampa Bay Times story, he referred to former Eagles football coach Charlie Livingston as the prevalent paternal force in his life.
“He was like a father to me because I didn’t really have one,” Mr. Orndorff said.
A fullback (and later a tight end) at the University of Tampa, Mr. Orndorff was the Mike Alstott of his time, occupying the same backfield as eventual NFL tailback Leon McQuay at one point.
A member of UT’s football Hall of Fame, he amassed more than 2,000 all-purpose yards, starring on the 1972 Spartans team that finished 10-2 and won the Tangerine Bowl. Former Spartans coach Fran Curci said opposing defenses keying on McQuay enabled Mr. Orndorff — who came to be known as “The Brandon Bull “ — to take handoffs up the middle for huge chunks of yardage.
“He was just such an aggressive guy,” said Curci, 83. “He did a lot of things at the fullback position. We had to have him do the things he did, and he was terrific.”
A 12th-round draft pick of the Saints in 1973, Mr. Orndorff’s pro career was snuffed out by a series of failed physicals, but they spawned stardom of another sort.
At the behest of former Tampa Tribune sports editor Tom McEwen, longtime Tampa-based promoter Eddie Graham took a chance on Mr. Orndorff, sending him to the west Tampa headquarters of legendary pro wrestling trainer Hiro Matsuda.
“Tom thought he’d be a great pro wrestler, and sure enough, he was,” Brisco recalled. “Paul was so gung-ho on learning how to be a pro wrestler, it was unbelievable.”
His career began in the southeast, where he achieved considerable success in various promotions including the National Wrestling Alliance, whose territory included Florida. Former wrestler Steve Keirn, who achieved stardom in Florida and later performed in the World Wrestling Federation, was a traveling partner for Mr. Orndorff’s first three pro matches.
“I mean, he was a natural,” said Keirn, a Robinson High alumnus. “He had that physique everybody dreamed to have because he was genetically just proportioned from head to toe. He used to say, ‘I’m a Greek god chiseled out of granite,’ and he was.”
Mr. Orndorff’s career reached another stratosphere when he entered the WWF — now World Wresting Entertainment — in 1983. Brandishing arrogance as broad as his chiseled upper torso, Mr. Orndorff — typically billed at 250 pounds or thereabouts — entered the ring bedecked in floor-length robes with his nickname etched in sparkling sequins on the back.
Flourishing as a heel (or bad guy), he appeared in the main event of the first WrestleMania in 1985, joining Rowdy Roddy Piper (with manager Bob Orton Jr.) in a tag-team match against Hulk Hogan and Mr. T at Madison Square Garden. Mr. Orndorff was pinned by Hogan after Orton interfered in the match and inadvertently struck Mr. Orndorff with the cast on his arm.
A year later, Pro Wrestling Illustrated named Mr. Orndorff its “Most Hated Wrestler of the Year.”
“As much as many of you hated him as a wrestler, he absolutely loved you for it,” Travis Orndorff said via Instagram. “He was an amazing father that showed me more love than I ever deserved.”
After a semi-retirement in the late 1980s, Mr. Orndorff wrestled for several other organizations, including World Championship Wrestling, through much of the 1990s, affording immense respect to the profession he had chosen, and demanding it from peers. Violators were subject to the brunt of his wrath.
“I knew Paul was nobody to mess with,” Keirn said.
“And wrestling doesn’t give you the opportunity sometimes to portray what really happens, but sometimes you go back in that dressing room and you’ve hurt somebody, then you’re going to have confrontations. And I know of several Paul had over his career, and he never came out on the bottom.”
Mr. Orndorff was a 2005 inductee into the WWE Hall of Fame, and was elected to the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame four years later. In 2017, he was inducted into the professional wrestling wing of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in Stillwater, Okla., where his admirers included Olympic gold medalist and University of Iowa coaching icon Dan Gable.
“He was just so proud to be in that Hall of Fame,” Brisco said.