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WWE’s WrestleMania comes to Orlando this year, but pro wrestling has always been a force in Florida 

Things were spiraling out of control for father-and-son wrestling tandem Eddie and Mike Graham.

Tuesday night was wrestling night in Tampa. Long before the Orlando Magic or Tampa Bay Buccaneers, professional wrestlers were some of Florida's biggest heroes. And the Grahams were Florida wrestling royalty, the good guys (or "faces") squaring off against a pair of bad guys (or "heels") in front of a 6,000-strong audience at the Tampa Armory on a spring evening in 1974. The Grahams had ruled Florida wrestling for over a decade, but this night would be about the birth of a new legend.

The match is tough and even though it's choreographed down to the very ending, it feels real. Wrestling in Eddie Graham's promotion, Championship Wrestling From Florida, always blurs the lines of realism, just the way Graham likes it. So far the heel team of Pak Song and Dusty Rhodes, accompanied by manager Gary Hart, is winning.

During a pivotal moment in the match, when all seems lost for the faces, Dusty Rhodes looks suddenly indecisive, hesitating as he watches Hart strangle Mike and Song put Eddie in his "Iron Claw" finishing hold. The roar of the crowd grows a little louder. And then, in one of those classic wrestling moments that straddle soap opera and athletic competition, Rhodes shuffles his feet, does a little wiggle, and turns on his partners, saving the Graham family by leveling Song and Hart with his patented bionic elbow. The crowd, naturally, explodes.

That night, Rhodes would become the "American Dream" and rise to the level of wrestling superstar. Over the next 40 years, he would headline numerous CWF shows and other Jim Crockett Promotions events all throughout the South during the '70s and '80s, before being finally signed away by Vince McMahon and his World Wrestling Federation empire (later WWE or World Wrestling Entertainment). When Dusty finally turned up on WWF television programs in 1989, WWF officials outfitted him in hideous black and yellow polka dots and made him film a series of ridiculous skits poking fun at his "blue collar" persona (including one with Rhodes as spokesperson for the "Americana Butcher Shop," somehow delivering the line "you sure can't beat my meat," without dying on camera). It felt like the end of an era.

Rhodes' babyface turn in 1974, though, was a high-water mark in the history of CWF, before the promotion faded away in the mid-'80s with the death of its leader, Graham, and as McMahon's WWF began to sign the big talent away from regional wrestling territories to come "up north." But while Rhodes and Graham have faded into wrestling's past, and the sport no longer fills small arenas across the state every week, Florida can still be seen as very much the home of wrestling's present and future.

This Sunday, April 2, the WWE, the biggest wrestling promotion in the world, returns to Orlando with their signature event, WrestleMania. It's the third time in nine years that WWE head Vince McMahon has decided to hold WrestleMania in Florida and the second time it has been in Orlando. WWE sits unchallenged atop the bones of the conquered regional wrestling territories that McMahon raided in the '80s and even rebranded "wrestling" in its own image as "sports entertainment." WrestleMania is a symbol of that success, WWE's annual victory lap.  

click to enlarge Mike and Eddie Graham - PHOTO COURTESY OF RUTH OMAN & BRIAN BERKOWITZ
  • Photo courtesy of Ruth Oman & Brian Berkowitz
  • Mike and Eddie Graham

Back in the days before the WWE was the top dog in the yard, wrestling comprised a bunch of smaller regional and mostly autonomous territories. Every part of the country had its own wrestling promotion, with the majority of them operating under the loosely organized National Wrestling Alliance banner. The territories included World Class Championship Wrestling in Texas, American Wrestling Association in Minnesota and the northern states, and Florida's own Championship Wrestling from Florida.

Wrestling at its core is live theater, but with characters costumed in spandex and the stage a 20-by-20-foot canvas with three ropes and four posts at each corner. While experiencing WWE's brand of wrestling today is akin to going to the Technicolor spectacle of an arena rock show, its core elements are still the same as 40 years ago; the hero versus the heel. Perhaps nobody understood this better in wrestling than Eddie Graham, head of Florida's original wrestling territory, Championship Wrestling From Florida, during the glory days of the '70s and '80s.

With a shock of white hair and a deep tan, Eddie Graham looked like he had stepped off the set of a Hollywood feature.  Graham came to Florida in 1961 after years of wrestling in the northeast, a stint that included tag team championships on one hand and a match wrestling a turkey on the other. Graham helped run CWF with owner Clarence "Cowboy" Luttrall until taking it over completely in 1971. It was a good time to be a wrestling fan in Florida with Graham running the show.  The promotion ran events regularly throughout the entire state, drawing upward of 9,000 people to their bigger matches. On Sundays, CWF would stop by Orlando and perform at the Eddie Graham Sports Complex. For the marquee shows, Graham was able to bring in outside attractions like Harley Race, Andre the Giant and Ric Flair.

click to enlarge Gerald and Jack Brisco - PHOTO COURTESY OF RUTH OMAN & BRIAN BERKOWITZ
  • Photo courtesy of Ruth Oman & Brian Berkowitz
  • Gerald and Jack Brisco

"There is no comparison to what the live shows were like back then to how wrestling shows are nowadays," remembers longtime Florida wrestling fan Barry Rose. He fondly recalls the first time his father took him to a wrestling show at the age of 8: "The arena was filled with cigarette smoke, the AC didn't work so you could feel the heat from the wrestlers. People had their legs hanging from the rafters. It all added to the aura and ambience."

CWF's successful live events were bolstered by its TV show, which featured the golden voice of professional wrestling, Gordon Solie. Solie's dry and technical style of announcing gave professional wrestling a credibility that fit perfectly with the realistic style that Eddie Graham was aiming for in his matches.  Graham was so adamant about keeping the realism of wrestling intact that he forbade any of his feuding wrestlers to be seen with one another outside the arena. And if one of Graham's wrestlers was challenged to a fight by a local drunk at a bar, Graham would rather his wrestler prove his toughness with a punch than walk away from a fight.

It came as a shock and a surprise to all when Eddie Graham committed suicide on Super Bowl Sunday in 1985. After Graham's death, CWF was run by a committee which included Mike Graham, his brother Skip Gossett, and wrestlers Dusty Rhodes and Buddy Colt.  The company struggled to keep up with the changing nature of the wrestling business as fans began to favor the spectacle and bright, cartoonish characters of the WWE over the grittier wrestling that Graham's promotion was known for.  

click to enlarge Barry Windham and Blackjack Mulligan - PHOTO BY DUANE LONG
  • Photo by Duane Long
  • Barry Windham and Blackjack Mulligan

In 1987, with the company losing money, as well as many of their stars, to WWE, and their live show attendance dwindling, Mike Graham sold the floundering business to Jim Crockett Promotions.  CWF became another casualty in WWE's '80s crusade to dominate wrestling on a national stage and put all regional territories out of business. Graham would later sell the CWF tape library to the WWE in 2007.

In a tragic, almost Shakespearean twist of fate, Mike Graham and his son Steven would also commit suicide. The Graham family tragedy closed one chapter on wrestling in Florida, but the story didn't end; it continues at Full Sail University with NXT.

Every two months, hundreds of people fill Full Sail University's largest live venue to watch the legacy of the American Dream. Dusty Rhodes has been dead for a couple of years now, but his influence in NXT lives on. Rhodes made his biggest latter-day impact at Full Sail, training the upcoming crop of hopeful WWE superstars. After Rhodes passed away in 2015 of stomach cancer, WWE created a yearly tag team tournament in NXT fittingly named the Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic.

At an NXT show at Full Sail Live, there is an energy and buzz that comes from thinking you are about to witness the next big thing. As an official WWE developmental brand, NXT has consistently touted itself as the future of professional wrestling and as "a revolution."

Before NXT was the place to find the next sport-entertainment prospects, potential WWE superstars honed their craft at Florida Championship Wrestling's facility in Tampa. FCW had a brief five-year run as one of WWE's developmental territories. Although FCW was not around for very long, its alumni are a who's who of WWE superstars. Roman Reigns, Dean Ambrose, Seth Rollins and Cesaro are just a handful of the wrestlers who fine-tuned their craft in Florida. "The FCW Arena was a small warehouse in Tampa," recalls Cesaro.  "FCW had two rings, 50 chairs, and no AC during the Florida summers. It felt shuttered off from the rest of the world."

An NXT card feels like a mix of the current WWE product and a scrappy independent show. There is an abundance of the lights and loud entrance music and bright characters that the WWE is known for.  But the crowd size is less than 1,000 strong - diehard fanatics who will gleefully chant "N-X-T" in approval of a good match - and the wrestlers take time to meet the fans before and after matches. The WWE Performance Center in Orlando now allows the public to take tours of the facility for a chance to see where their wrestlers train.

If it feels like Orlando is becoming a second home for the WWE, there is something to that. "We have a strong relationship and we value their partnership," says Kirk Wingerson, marketing manager for City of Orlando Venues. "The NXT performance center shows they have faith in this market and it's been a successful operation for WWE. That this is all happening in our backyard is a real boon for our city."

click to enlarge Andre the Giant - PHOTO BY PETER LEDERBERG
  • Photo by Peter Lederberg
  • Andre the Giant

Head NXT trainer Matt Bloom has been with the WWE off-and-on for 18 years. He did a lengthy stint wrestling in Japan, where he won several championships in tag team competition. Bloom retired from in-ring work in 2014 and became a trainer for NXT. "I'm helping the talent in NXT become the best that they can be," Bloom says of his role. "We have talent from all over the world with different backgrounds. We have fitness buffs, bodybuilders, former football players, and I have to bring the absolute best out of them."

Bloom and his team have done an impressive job. There are a staggering 17 wrestlers on the WrestleMania card who first trained in Florida at either FCW or NXT before making the jump to the main WWE roster. Roman Reigns, Seth Rollins, Dean Ambrose, and Cesaro all started in developmental territory FCW while Kevin Owens, Charlotte Flair, Sasha Banks, Enzo Amore, Big Cass and Neville all cut their teeth in NXT.

If NXT is the place for wrestling's future and Florida is home to wrestling's past, then Orlando is ground zero for wrestling now over the next few days. This weekend, wrestling's biggest event is coming home to Florida again. There are 12 confirmed matches on the card, including eight bouts with championship gold on the line, a WrestleMania record. Wrestling fans will no doubt get their fix as critics are predicting the show to run an astounding five hours.  

The WrestleMania main event features WWE Universal Champion Goldberg, who returned to WWE in November after a 13-year hiatus, going up against former WWE & UFC Champion Brock Lesnar. Despite the combined age of these two warriors being 89 years, the buildup has been as intense as any WWE main event in recent memory. The grizzled veteran Goldberg has gotten the best of Brock Lesnar in every match between the two, including their first encounter in 2004 at WrestleMania 20 and a quick, one-sided affair back in November that was Goldberg's first match back from retirement. The disastrous November bout shocked fans, and the two legends have been on a collision course ever since.

Other high-profile bouts on the card include WWE Champion Bray Wyatt against third-generation superstar Randy Orton – whose father, Bob Orton Jr., got his start in wrestling as "Young Mr. Wrestling" in CFW.  John Cena is teaming up with his longtime girlfriend, Nikki Bella, to go up against another wrestling couple, The Miz and Maryse, in a mixed tag match. The Women's Championship will be defended in a triple-threat match between three women, all of whom got their starts in NXT: champion Bayley, Charlotte Flair and Sasha Banks. And in one of the more anticipated matches of the evening, The Undertaker will be competing in his unprecedented 25th WrestleMania event when he goes up against Roman Reigns.

click to enlarge Ric Flair - PHOTO BY DUANE LONG
  • Photo by Duane Long
  • Ric Flair

While WrestleMania is no doubt the reason why an estimated 100,000 fans are making the trek to Orlando, there are at least 20 other wrestling-themed events happening during the week. In addition to WWE-sponsored events like the WWE Hall of Fame ceremony on Friday night at the Amway Center, WrestleMania Fan Axxess at the Orange County Convention Center, and NXT Takeover Orlando on Saturday night, there are dozens of independent wrestling promotions that will be riding on WrestleMania's coattails.

Wrestling fans will get a chance to see fresh new faces that may one day be performing under the WWE umbrella. Independent wrestling promotions Ring of Honor, Chikara, and What Culture Professional Wrestling – also referred to as WCPW – will all present wrestling cards in Orlando during WrestleMania week. The U.K.-based promotion WCPW is less than a year old and has never put on a show in the United States, but they see it as a great opportunity to get in front of new fans.

"You can say we're an ambitious company," says WCPW founding member Adam Blampied. "We are bringing a card of great wrestling, trying to compete in the huge circus that is WrestleMania weekend. This is the best weekend of the year to be a wrestling fan."

Despite all the other events happening around town this week, WrestleMania is the reason for the season, and city leaders have touted the good this will do for Orlando. "We are the American Dream," Mayor Buddy Dyer said recently at the unveiling of a giant WWE replica belt in downtown Orlando, according to the Orlando Sentinel.  "It's like a Super Bowl, with people from around the country and around the world coming to be part of the experience," gushed Dyer.

Last April's WrestleMania in Dallas generated $170.4 million in economic impact from visitors to the city and surrounding areas, according to figures released by the mayors of Dallas and Arlington, Texas. That number is the highest of any event in WWE history, but with an extra day of WWE programming as well as the ancillary events happening throughout the city, that record could fall in Orlando.

The old-school territories are long gone. A housing development now sits where the old Eddie Graham Sports Complex used to be. And despite how huge wrestling has grown in the last 40 years, some of the old fans swear that it's just not the same. The magic that filled smaller venues seems to have been forgotten in today's WWE. "There was a believability factor in the old days that just isn't there today." says Barry Rose. "The WWE wrestlers are better athletes than what we had in Florida in the '70s but they can't tell a story in the ring like they used to."

But whereas old-school fans scoff at today's WWE for not having the same heart as the wrestling that they grew up with, today's wrestling fans are giddy with excitement for the week ahead. "The coolest thing about WrestleMania week is that every corner of the city will be taken up with some sort of wrestling." says WCPW's Adam Blampied.  "If you explore, if you broaden your horizon, you can discover your new favorite wrestler. That's the best thing about this week. When you scratch beneath the surface, you can find hidden treasures everywhere."

click to enlarge Dusty Rhodes - PHOTO BY DUANE LONG
  • Photo by Duane Long
  • Dusty Rhodes

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