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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.  

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