By Jim Phillips, Senior Editor – Classic Wrestling
It’s that time again Bruthas and Sistas. Welcome back to the final four installments of our little history class of wrestling. We’re fresh outta Indy and headed to Tampa, Florida and the home that the Grahams made famous. Let’s go back to a time when America was the strongest nation on Earth, and professional wrestling was about to burst onto the scene.
“Cowboy” Clarence Luttrall founded the organization in 1949, and joined the newly formed NWA soon after. The territory started out small and only showcased the NWA Championship for several years as they built their brand. Luttrall introduced the Florida Television Championship in 1956 to allow his regular roster a championship they could vie for while the main title was on the road to other NWA affiliates. They grew slowly but it wasn’t until the Sixties that things really started to get off the ground in Tampa.
Eddie Gossett got his start in wrestling in his teenage years after receiving his first training from Cowboy Luttrall. He then ventured to Texas and worked under the name Rip Rogers, billing himself as the brother of famed wrestler Buddy Rogers. He moved onto the East Coast and aligned with Dr. Jerry Graham, and changed his name to Eddie, and they formed a heel tag team that ran roughshod over that area for the next two years. He left the team in 1960 and headed to Florida, to start the next chapter in his life.
Graham arrived in Florida and quickly realized the potential in the territory, and decided to put roots there and invest in the NWA branch. He became a partner with Luttrall, and the newly christened Championship Wrestling from Florida was officially launched not long after. He quickly began developing new ideas for drawing fans and building the gates. By adding the NWA Brass Knuckles Title, and adopting a Florida version of the NWA World Tag Team Titles, there were now more ways to book higher profile championship matches that would begin to widen their popularity and bring in more fans. Alongside the Television Title, and the NWA Championship on a regular rotation through the area, their marketability grew, as did their reputation as a desired place to work by the wrestlers in the business.
Eddie was crowned the original Brass Knuckles Champion in April of 1960, and was immediately challenged by “Iron” Mike DiBiase, and then Johnny Valentine only days after his initial defense. In an interesting side note, it was during this time at CWF that Mike DiBiase met his future wife Helen Hild. The two married and Mike adopted her son Theodore, who would become famous under the moniker of The Million Dollar Man, some twenty-five years later. Valentine went on to work mainly in the Mid-Atlantic area, and we will pick up his story there in the next few weeks. It was a villainous Russian that gave Graham his first serious feud there and laid claim to the Brass Knuckles Title for himself.
Born Lawrence Simon in 1933 New Jersey, he made his way through the tough times of that era and eventually found himself doing odd jobs and working where he could until the lure of professional wrestling presented itself to him. He made his debut in the early Fifties and worked in Texas as Big Time, as well as the AWA, where he first started to see the value of his German Heel character in the wake of WWII. He took this idea to new heights when he made it to Florida in early 1962 and played off the tensions he began to see in the Cuban crowds. He developed his Soviet character of Boris Malenko, and it immediately got heat from the fans. He made his first run at the Brass Knuckles Title in 1968 and would hold it on eight different occasions over the next four years. He had memorable battles with Jose Lothario and Chief Jay Strongbow aver the title during this time. Malenko also had a run at the Florida Tag Team Titles before he left for Japan in 1973. His son Dean, better known as “The Man of 1000 Holds”, followed his father into the business and made a name for himself during his time at WCW and later in the WWF. Boris passed away in 1994 from leukemia in his home in Tampa. He was 61.
The tag team scene was always a hot one in the Florida area as well, with the NWA World Tag Team Titles being introduced in 1961, as well as the NWA Florida Tag Team Titles following in 1968. The team of The Von Brauners were it’s inaugural holders, and they held it six times over the next two and a half years wile going to war with the teams of Eddie Graham & Ike Eakins, Don Curtis & Chief Jay Strongbow, and the Assassins. The Fabulous Kangaroos incarnation of Al Costello and Roy Heffernan also held the title in the Fall of 1962. The team of Hiro Matsuda and Duke Keomuka had several runs with the titles between 1962-65. Keomuka is the father of wrestler Pat Tanaka, and his referee brother Jimmy. Matsuda battled “The Man with the Iron Grip”, Danny Hodge for years over the NWA Light Heavyweight Championship. Matsuda took that title from Hodge in 1964, after a near four year reign, at a CWF show in Tampa. Matsuda will be covered more during the International portion of this series later this Summer.
All of this incredible action was set to the sound track laid down by one of the greatest announcers in professional wrestling history. Born in the chilly north of Minnesota, Gordon Solie relocated to sunny Florida after his time in the Air Force was over. Like most of the greats, his career began modestly as an emcee in the Tampa area, and that led him to CWF. He started working in their broadcast department in 1960. He soon became the voice of their flagship Saturday morning television program where, as any fans of his work can tell you, he always signed off with the famous words, “So long from the Sunshine State.” Though he got his start in CWF, and stayed there through its entire run, he also worked for promotions all along the East Coast, and with CCW in Alabama. Though many look to Jim Ross as the voice of his generation, Gordon Solie was, and for my part will always be, the voice of professional wrestling for not only Southern Rasslin’, but for all the epic matches he called throughout the NWA organization. When I close my eyes and think of a wrestling match, any match, it’s his voice that I hear with it’s distinctive rasp and his unbridled use of the English language. The man was a poet laureate of the microphone, who found his muse in professional wrestling. We will follow his career into other territories as we head north along the Intra-Coastal Circuit.
Another man that made his name famous in Florida as well as throughout the NWA, arrived in the Sixties from a short stint in the NWA-Tri-State area. Jack Brisco was born in Oklahoma in 1941. He was a standout in his amateur wrestling days and was the first Native American to win an NCAA National Championship.
He showed up in CWF in 1969, and began his pursuit of it’s other singles title, The NWA Southern Heavyweight Championship. The popularity of this title took hold during an eight year hiatus of the Brass Knuckles Championship that took up the bulk of the Mid-Sixties. He took the title from the Missouri Mauler in 1969, and they fought over it until November of that year when Jack abandoned the belt and left for a run in Japan. He returned in with his younger brother, Jerry in tow, and they lit into the tag team scene. Jack also vied for the NWA Florida TV Title during the early Seventies. Jack was a highly sought after hand in the ring and he free-lanced out to many other NWA franchises, as well.
He would always return to his home promotion in Florida however, and each time he would capture a different title during his stay. He won the Brass Knuckles Title in 1972 after a trip away, and in 1973 he won the “10 pounds of gold” from Harley Race and defended it worldwide over the next two years before losing it to Terry Funk in the Winter of 1975. He was in and out of the territory for the next several years as he worked time in Georgia Championship, as well as Mid-Atlantic in the Carolinas. His last run in CWF came in 1980 when he and his brother, who had been winning tag titles all over the NWA map, claimed the Tag Titles there and he won the Southern Heavyweight one last time in 1981, before they finally left for the promise land of the WWF. They won the NWA Florida Tag Titles eight times while they were there. We will definitely hear more from theses two later on in the series as well.
It was in the late Summer of 1970 that a loud, pair of brawling Texans arrived and hit the tag team ranks like a hard right cross. The Texas Outlaws had been making waves and turning heads for the last two years and when the duo of Dick Murdoch and Dusty Rhodes came to Florida, they did not fail to meet their reputation, nor exceed it’s limits. They finally split and started up singles careers here, and while it was Dick Murdoch that saw the first tastes of Championship gold post-Outlaws, it would be Dusty Rhodes that took his career to a level of prosperity that was never matched by his tag partner.
Murdoch was born in in Texas, the son of a professional wrestler. He spent his youth watching his father wrestle, along with his friends The Funk Brothers, whose father was also working the same area in those years. He attended the “superstar mill” at West Texas University, where he played football and wrestled. After he left Florida he found success in Mid-South where he partnered with JYD, and also briefly in the WWF, before he made a run at Flair and his NWA Title in 1987. Over the next decade he worked in the WWC in Puerto Rico as well as a short run in WCW. He made a surprise appearance as an entrant in the 1995 Royal Rumble. He passed away a year later from a heart attack at the young age of forty-nine.
Dusty Rhodes worked the tag team ranks as well as singles competition after his split with Murdoch. Along with his role as booker he held titles across the NWA gambit in Florida. He won the Brass Knuckles title twice in the Fall of 1972, as well as holding the Southern Heavyweight title five times in the year between September 1973, and June of 1974. He was turned on by Pak Song, and their manager Gary Hart in 1974, and after that encounter he took on the persona of “The American Dream”, and went on a feud with the two men, as well as others in Hart’s stable. He also held the NWA Florida Tag Team Titles on several occasions in the Seventies all the way through his last time in 1981 when he won with partner Andre’ the Giant. He worked the area until 1985 when he headed north into the adjoining Barnett, and Crockett ran territories. We will follow his career over the next few weeks as well in Territories.
The man that would go on to be one of the most sadistic and hated wrestlers of his generation also started his famed heel run in CWF as well, but as a babyface. Kevin Sullivan made his way to Florida early on in his wrestling career, and worked tags with Mike Graham. They held the Florida Tag Titles three times in just a few short months, before they split Sullivan moved on to other territories in the Mid-Seventies. He came back to CWF in 1982, where he manifested his maniacal abilities and gathered a group of heels around him that included Bob Roop and Mark Lewin, creating his Army of Darkness. They terrorized fan favorite Dusty Rhodes, and took a twisted revenge on his former partner Mike Graham as well. He worked with Poffo’s ICW at this time as well alongside Roop and Lewin, who had connections with the Kentucky based promotion. Sullivan worked his matches accompanied by his valet, Fallen Angel, who later took on the persona of Woman. The two were married in 1985, and stayed together for twelve years. Both left CWF in the Eighties and had careers that will be continued on, again as we spread into the East Coast Territories.
Mike Graham was born Michael Gossett in September, 1951 in Tampa Florida. He received his training from FCW mainstays Boris Malenko, and Hiro Matsuda, and his father. He started his wrestling career in 1972 and was immediately pushed in a title hunt by his father. He won his first Florida TV Title only months into his career, and he teamed with his father in the feud with The Army of Darkness. He also held the NWA Southern Heavyweight title in 1981, but it was the tag division that he really found success. He won the Tag Titles twenty-two different with a variety of partners from 1974 to 1990. One of his most regular partners was Steve Keirn, who was very successful in the AWA market in Minnesota. They went to war with several heel teams during those years including, Ivan Koloff & Mr. Saito, The Spoilers, and the return of Mr. Saito paired with Mr. Sato, better known as The Great Kabuki.
Mike also spent time between CWF and the AWA in the Eighties. He stayed in the wrestling business for the rest of his life, as well as spent some time in the Offshore Power Boat Racing League, where he did quite well as a pilot. Eddie Graham was inducted to the WWE Hall of Fame in 2008 and Mike received the award in his stead. Mike worked in the offices at both WCW and WWE during his time in the business.
Even before my research for the CWF Territory, I had drew comparisons between the Grahams and the ill-fated, curse-like demise of the Von Erich Family. Suicide racked both families and left them reeling to pick up the pieces and carry on as family members took their own lives, Both patriarchs began their careers in the old days before the NWA, and went on to build their own promotions up out of the ashes of another. Both men ran shows out of buildings called The Sportatorium, with little A/C, and plenty of heat in the summertime. Both men saw sons struggle to grow out of their father’s shadows in the business. One of the few differences is that while Fritz weathered the storm of losing all his sons, Eddie left ahead of Mike when he killed himself after battling alcoholism and depression in January of 1985, on Super Bowl Sunday. Following his passing, family and the office circled their wagons and set forth their plans to carry on. The promotion never fully recovered and it shut it’s doors in February 1987, when they sold controlling interests to Jim Crockett Promotions. Mike’s uncle, sick with cancer, also committed suicide in the years that followed, as well as his grandfather. Mike was able to suffer through these loses, but it was his son’s suicide just before Christmas 2010 that really put him over the edge, and he never really was himself after that. Mike was found dead by his wife less than two years later in their Daytona Beach home, from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to his head. He was sixty-one years old.
While Championship Wrestling from Florida had decades worth of glory years, that saw some of wrestling’s greatest names travel through it’s doors, not to mention the amazing talent that was grown there, it is it’s ultimate sad demise that really leaves it’s mark in the history of the business. Either way, it will go down in the books as one of the powerhouses of the NWA Territorial system.
I’d like to thank all of you, my wrestling Brutas and Sistas, for sharing this time with me as we run to the end of this series. I realize that the size of the articles can be daunting, and may dissuade the average reader, always keep in mind that I could easily talk all day on the history of this business, have a drink and go back for seconds. So, all in all, you’re gettin’ the condensed version. Hahahaha!
We will see you right back here, same old school time, same old school channel, for you Adam West fans. Take care, and remember…..Our wrestling history is gold….DIG IT!!!