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

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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.  

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