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



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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."

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