From 1961 to 1987 Championship Wrestling of Florida was the number one wrestling promotion in Florida. At its height, the company ran four to five shows a week throughout the state, from Miami to Orlando to Jacksonville, and boasted a who’s who of wrestling legends, from Dusty Rhodes to Bob Orton, Sr. to the Funks to many more. Although the company spent most of its time entertaining state-wide, there was only one city it called “home”: Tampa.
Tampa had hosted pro wrestling events since the 1940s and the early days of Eddie Graham. After a promotional war in the mid-40s, the city’s primary venue became the Fort Hester Armory, a few miles from downtown. Through the 60s, 70s, and 80s, Championship Wrestling of Florida continued in the Fort Hester Armory and the armory was where most old-time local fans saw their first wrestling show.
Of course, we all know what happened to the territories, for better or for worse. CWF merged with Crockett Promotions in 1987, an NWA Florida was created in 1990, and in 2003 Championship Wrestling of Florida was created as an NWA promotion. Meanwhile dozens of fly-by-night promotions sprung up in Florida – some good, some bad – and the local wrestling market became heavily saturated.
In 2007, the WWE decided to move its main training facility from Ohio Valley to the Tampa Bay area under the leadership of Steve Keirn. They resurrected the Florida Championship Wrestling name and hosted many of their early shows in a bar called Bourbon Street in New Port Richey, Florida, about 30 minutes north of Tampa. For years, Bourbon Street was home to indy shows and its consistent wrestling booking fostered a loyal and passionate fan base, the “Bourbon Street Mafia”.
When FCW completed its training facility in South Tampa, shows were moved from Bourbon Street to the FCW Arena. The first FCW match in the new location in 2008 was between Tyson Kidd and the then-Gavin Spears (now known as Tye Dillinger).
Shortly thereafter, I attended my first FCW show. With shows every Thursday, it wasn’t long until I knew every member of the Bourbon Street Mafia and became part of a second wrestling fan crew, the Afro-Squad. I could go on about how wearing an afro in public and having a grand time at wrestling shows helped me embrace my performing side, while also getting a much deeper understanding of the role of the fan in wrestling, but that’s a post for a different day. Let me just say that through the FCW fan crews, I made friends in Tampa that have lasted for several years and have extended far beyond the arena.
Although attending FCW was the thing to do from 2008 to 2010, eventually people seemed to lose interest. While the first class of stars were main eventing on RAW and Smackdown, the follow-up classes from FCW weren’t as exciting, save for a Bryan Daniels here or a Loki there. As time passed, most of the fan crews started to dissipate – some people moved, some found other interests, and some even tried their hand at their own local indy promotions, sometimes even using former FCW talents in their shows.
In 2012, the WWE joined with Full Sail University and in August 2012 did away with the FCW name, swapping it for the NXT brand. Shows were still held in the FCW Arena, but it was now a satellite location, far from the main hub.
And that brings us to last week’s final show at the FCW Arena and the possible end of more than fifty years of Florida Championship Wrestling.
The writing was on the wall since they took the posters off the walls and replaced them with the stark corporate blackness of NXT. Despite “FCW” still illuminating the front of the building, there were no traces of Florida Championship Wrestling anywhere in the building. Gone were the pictures of former champs, pictures of Gordon Solie, or any traces of the palm tree logo. This was NXT and it could have been anywhere.
But that’s how WWE likes their product. Save for a tip of the cap to Jerry Lawler in Memphis or a few other geographical acknowledgements, the WWE keeps its product as geographically sterile as a Wal-Mart, a McDonalds, or an Olive Garden. You would never know where a WWE event is if they didn’t tell you in the opening of the broadcast. That’s because shareholders like corporate uniformity. And with fans gobbling up spin-offs of the WWE brand beyond the traditional outlets of RAW, Smackdown, and PPVs, tying the product to a location made little sense.
For thoughts on the last show, I’m going to go Magic Bullet Style:
• Great crowd. Absolutely great crowd. Half the chairs were not there, so many stood chair-less the entire show. Steve Keirn mentioned it was a sell-out and I would guess in the ballpark of 300 fans. I am not sure what advertising they did, if any, or if it was just word of mouth, but it was great crowd.
• Being in Afghanistan from early 2012 to mid-2013 took me out of the loop on a lot of wrestling. And wrestling, due to its continuous nature, is very hard to catch up with. Hence I knew very few people on the FCW roster. I did however recognize Gavin Spears and Leo Kruger, but did not recognize their new names.
• The show opened with a great speech by Norman Smiley, a trainer for FCW since it opened. He talked about wrestling in the Fort Hester Armory a few miles away and how to him FCW was the completion of life’s cycle. He mentioned how it was time to move on to bigger pastures. Of interesting note, after he concluded a few fans tried to start an “N-X-T” chant but they were quickly out-chanted by the majority’s “F-C-W” chant.
• WWE has put a lot of work into character development since the early days of FCW. Maybe because NXT means TV and fans know characters much earlier in their WWE careers, but almost every wrestler had personality. Far different from when FCW would parade undistinguishable Randy Orton clones to the ring, leaving fans to ask each other who the heel and face were.
• Best match of the night skills-wise was Solomon Crowe versus Kallisto. Even though I had no clue who they were, right from the start I could tell they had experience outside of WWE/NXT. One of my friends confirmed they were long time indy talents. I was really impressed. I’m looking forward to seeing more of both of them, even if not in person.
• Seeing Gavin Spears (Tye Dillinger) back with FCW/NXT was cool. He was on the FCW roster when I first started going to their shows in 2008. After his release, I saw him wrestle for various indies throughout Florida. Some were even bar shows in front of 50 people. And even then, he still brought it. Good to see him back on the cusp.
• Also bringing back memories was Leo Kruger (aka Adam Rose). He too was on the early FCW roster, although then he was one of the many undistinguishable talents. As Adam Rose, he has character flair and his match with Corey Graves was big on entertainment and in-ring trickery.
• The match of the night was NXT Champion Bo Dallas versus WWE veteran and NXT trainer Billy Gunn. Of course as the challenger, Gunn came out first. I was disappointed he came out to the DX music and not the “Ass Man” theme song, but gotta play to popularity, right? When Gunn did enter however, the crowd went nuts and Gunn did a great job building the crowd’s excitement. That’s a gift most veterans learn – how to build up the crowd. He ran around the ring, slapped hands, and urged fans on one side to chant louder than fans on the other side. It was a lesson in charisma for the young superstars.
• At first the match showed Gunn as the stronger competitor as Dallas bounced off of him, went down hard on punches and clotheslines, and generally built up Gunn through a series of hard bumps. But eventually Dallas reversed the match and built himself back up as a worthy young champion, with Gunn taking solid bumps.
• As part of the no-DQ stipulation, Gunn asked the fans for chairs to hit Dallas with. With an extra afro wig in our group, we passed Gunn a wig, to which he promptly used to pummel Dallas. Best use of an afro since we passed John Cena a wig and he struck a pose with it.
• The end of the match was a gimmick-fest as several wrestlers ran in and gave each competitor a finishing move, depending on whether the interfering wrestler was a heel or face. After even Norman Smiley and Bill DeMott ran in, Dallas eventually avoided a Fame-Asser and pulled off the win.
• After the match, Gunn took the mic and gave a Randy the Ram-like speech thanking the crowd for being there and commenting on his own mortal fragility. Gunn put on a hell of a match for a guy past his prime. Not sure he could mix it up on a regular basis, but he looked good.
• Following Gunn on the mic was Norman Smiley. Again, Smiley thanked the fans for coming out and supporting the product during its time in Tampa. He then asked Steve Keirn and his wife to come to the ring. After thanking them, he presented Steve with a plaque of appreciation.
• Keirn then took the mic and gave a nice impromptu speech. He talked about establishing FCW in Tampa and mentioned Vince McMahon’s request that Keirn supply two talents per year to the WWE roster. Keirn said FCW promoted 116 in six years. That’s almost 20 a year. Keirn then acknowledged the support of his wife in his career. Finally, he concluded that although FCW was done, he wasn’t and NXT represented another chapter.
• After the show, the talent packed up the ring and other equipment and loaded it into an NXT truck, taking with them years of memories.
Although Tampa area fans could possibly make the drive an hour or so to Full Sail University and see their favorite upcoming WWE talents, what will be missed most with FCW closing is the family aspect of the promotion. From the days of Eddie and Mike Graham to the Keirns, FCW has mostly been a family promotion. The wrestlers came and went, but the family aspect stayed. And that idea of family extended into the crowd as well, as regular fans grew closer and FCW became an oasis in their busy lives, a place to meet, socialize, and bond over common interests. Perhaps one day someone will chronicle the slow removal of families from the top levels of the pro wrestling landscape. I think it would make a great story. That’s not to say there aren’t still great lineages in the business, but as time passes, so too does their influence. Shareholders don’t care about family names or fan families.
As for Tampa wrestling, there are still plenty of places for the indy fan to see shows. SHINE and EVOLVE run shows in Ybor City and other local promoters still put on shows headlined by regional talents, including those who had a cup of coffee or two with FCW. And Orlando, with its many promotions is only an hour away. Although fans who know wrestling only from TV will lament not seeing wrestlers they recognize, the underground scene will be fine.
As for the legacy of Championship Wrestling of Florida, perhaps the WWE Hall of Fame will one day include it in exhibit on the history of the territories. Perhaps locally the Tampa History Center may feature a few pieces of memorabilia. And hopefully the Jewish Community Center being built on the grounds of the Hester Armory will acknowledge the many years Championship Wrestling of Florida called the building home.
Names have power and carry memories. Championship Wrestling of Florida and Florida Championship Wrestling will forever live in the memories of Tampa wrestling fans.