Then, Now, Forever: A mark’s guide to pro-wrestling in Florida

The third annual River City Wrestling Con, which takes place the weekend of June 11-12, will bring rising stars of the industry and all-time legends to the largest pro-wrestling autograph convention in the Southeast. There will be food and drink, panels and discussions, video games and merchandise and a whole slate of actual wrestling, featuring talent drawn from around the country, and from every level of the business. 

The con is conveniently timed for the thousands who will be in attendance, as it coincides with the city’s Bicentennial Celebration. June 10 features a Bicentennial Pub Walk that starts at Bold City Downtown at 7 p.m. and ends at Ruby Beach Brewing at 9 p.m., followed by a game of #Jax200 Bicentennial Trivia (hosted by me). If that’s not your speed, there’s also Tough Junkie at 1904 and The Mountain Goats (noted pro wrestling aficionada) at Intuition Ale Works. Saturday, June 11, sees the official celebration of the city’s 200th anniversary with an all-day block party on Laura Street from Riverfront Park on the river to James Weldon Johnson Park in the heart of downtown. 

With local history on the agenda, the RCWC fits the bill perfectly. The history of pro-wrestling in this area goes back to at least 1895, but the official lineage began when Cowboy Luttrell established Championship Wrestling from Florida (CWF) in 1949. The Fort Homer Hesterly Armory in Tampa was home base for the territory, but they ran a circuit around the state, which included regular stops in Jacksonville, either the Snyder Armory or the old Veterans Memorial Coliseum. (They also did two shows at Wolfson Park in the ’80s.)

Luttrell’s protege, Eddie Graham, bought into the territory in 1961, then assumed full control in 1971. At that point, things really heated up–sometimes literally, since a lot of those buildings had no air conditioning. But 1973-74 was ground zero for the explosion of interest in Florida’s pro wrestling scene, due to two key developments: 

1) Jack Brisco, who won the NCAA championship out of Oklahoma before becoming CWF’s top star in 1969, beat Dory Funk Jr. in Houston to win the NWA World Heavyweight Title on July 20, 1973. Funk reigned for exactly 1,563 days, the second-longest reign among all 55 men to hold that title; this was a time when the industry was presented as 100% real, thus requiring that any man holding the belt best be ready to defend his position in the ring, in the bar, on the streets, anytime—on the spot, legit. 

In Florida and some other territories, it’s rumored that the wrestlers were instructed to never lose a public fight to a non-wrestler, no matter what, or they would be fired on the spot. The stories of drunken fans who fucked around and found out could fill this entire issue. The fact that Funk, a second-generation wrestler whose entire family consisted of genuine hard men who went unbeaten four straight years, was finally felled by a Florida man, was huge news. (Imagine if the Jaguars finally won the Super Bowl next season, and then imagine if they beat Tom Brady to clinch it.) The Funk-Brisco feud was, at that point, the apogee of technical wrestling, a standard not reached until Ric Flair and Ricky Steamboat in 1989. Brisco’s influence put CWF on the map. But there was a second, maybe even bigger factor.

            2) On May 4, 1974, a wrestler called Pak Song Nam made a mistake that changed the entire course of wrestling history. The barefooted South Korean madman was arguably the top villain in CWF, a mercenary hired by his manager, “Playboy” Gary Hart, who was hated even more. On this night they were terrorizing the boss himself, Eddie Graham, who brought his own son Mike to defend the family, and the promotion, in their own hometown. An errant throat chop was intended for Mike Graham, but Pak Song missed and struck his own partner, who fell to the floor, then came up seeing red and cleaned house on everyone. 

That man was born Virgil Runnels Jr., but on that night he was reborn as “The American Dream” Dusty Rhodes, and over the next five years he would become one of the greatest, most beloved and most influential performers in the entire history of professional wrestling, ever. Rhodes did not achieve the mainstream success of people like Ric Flair, Hulk Hogan, Roddy Piper, Randy Savage, Steve Austin, the Rock or John Cena, but all of the above would name him as the industry’s dominant creative force of the past 40 years, second only to (maybe) Vince McMahon himself. Rhodes was the centerpiece of CWF in the ’70s and early ’80s; he and Graham took the territory to a commercial peak rarely seen before or since. 

With great weather and an easy road schedule, wrestlers could work all week, but still be home on most nights, if they wanted to. CWF had weekly TV, and with their reputation as creative geniuses, wrestlers knew that being featured here was a sure way to get your name out to other promoters around the country. They could be certain of working with top talent for really good money, and of course there was no state income tax, so almost every wrestler who worked Florida in that era eventually left the territory with very fond memories, and the word of mouth sent even more talent our way. As a result, almost every major wrestler of the 1970s and ’80s worked here, while others got their start here, including people like Lex Luger, Ron Simmons, Paul Orndorff, the late great Scott Hall and, most notably, Hulk Hogan.

That tradition continued after CWF folded in 1987, absorbed by World Championship Wrestling (WCW), which became the primary competition for WWE in the 1990s. After WWE bought that company in 2001, they officially became the largest and most dominant promotion in history, a position they maintain to this day. But competition has emerged of late, in the form of All Elite Wrestling (AEW), created by Tony Khan in 2019 and based in Jacksonville. This new rivalry is bringing pro-wrestling to newer, younger audiences, and it’s helped give independent wrestlers an unprecedented chance to establish themselves on a national level.

This year’s RCWC will feature at least 10 WWE Hall of Famers, as well as a number of the most loved (and hated) wrestlers of the past 40 years. Bret “Hitman” Hart is making his first appearance at the con, as are Booker T, The Hardy Boyz, Madusa Miceli, Lisa Marie Varon, Dan Severn, Johnny Gargano, Demolition and Diamond Dallas Page. Legends like Arn Anderson, Kevin Nash, Kevin Sullivan, Jimmy Hart, Billy Gunn, Butterbean and Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat are back for return appearances. 

These legends will be joined by top indie stars like Low Ki, Effy, Jon Davis, James Storm, Stunt Marshall, The Gunn Club, King Mo, Malakai Black, Swerve Strickland, Jacob Fatu, AEW Women’s Champion Thunder Rosa and even Danhausen (who was added to the lineup just days ago). Some of these folks will be in the ring, as well, as part of a stacked card of fresh new matchups, scheduled to run throughout the weekend including: 

Jacob Fatu vs. Low Ki

Rey Fury vs. Effy

Culture Inc vs. La Sangre

Jon Davis vs. T.I.M.

Andrew Anderson vs. Vertigo

Sumi Sakai vs. La Rosa Negra

Josh Woods vs. King Mo

Tiffany Nieves vs. Devlyn Macabre

Stunt Marshall vs. EC3

DNC vs. Myles Millennium

Jonah Rock vs. James Storm

Kiki Harris vs. Scoot Andrews

The Renegade Twins vs. Kelsey Reagan and Persia Pierce

 

The assembled roster represents three generations and six decades of wrestling history. It will also help shine a special spotlight on Northeast Florida, where pro wrestling has factored into local culture since the post-war era. It’s a long, somewhat complex history, as one might expect from one of the most creatively convoluted art forms ever invented. It makes perfect sense that a place like Florida would prove to be so crucial to its growth, then and now.

About Shelton Hull

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