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Pro Wrestling Returns To Its Tampa Tuesday Home

From the 1960's to the 1980's, Championship Wrestling from Florida (CWF) brought a who's who of pro wrestling into living rooms around the state - names like Eddie Graham, Terry and Dory Funk, Jack and Jerry Brisco, Dusty Rhodes and Ric Flair.

And every Tuesday, those superstars and, to quote legendary host Gordon Solie, "a host of others," performed in a packed, smoky arena in West Tampa where the 4,000 to 5,000 fans in the seats sweated as much as the competitors in the ring.

It was the Fort Homer W. Hesterly Armory, as hallowed a ground to wrestlers and fans alike as New York City's Madison Square Garden.

Jody Simon - better known by his ring name, Joe Malenko - was one of those wrestlers.

"If you go to a place and it's smoke-filled and it's hot as all get out and it's 110 percent humidity and people are crowded in shoulder-to-shoulder, I mean that doesn't sound too spectacular, but it was, there was a magic to that place," Simon said.

"I would describe it as hot, sweaty, loud," Jonard Solie said. "The way the people got so involved in each match - it was like they were in the ring themselves."

Credit Jody Malenko Simon & Creative on Main Street Studio
Jody Malenko Simon & Creative on Main Street Studio
Haystacks Calhoun and Boris Malenko, a.k.a. "The Great Malenko," a.k.a. Larry Simon

Both Simon and Solie are the sons of Florida wrestling legends: Simon is the son of the late Larry Simon, a.k.a. Boris Malenko, one of Championship Wrestling's best "heels" - wrestling terminology for "bad guys."

"I had a guy come up to me once, he goes, 'Yeah, I met your dad," Simon said. "I'm like, 'Oh, where'd you meet him?' He goes, 'Well, I didn't really meet him - I threw a Coke on him.'"

And as much as fans hated Simon's father, they loved Solie's: famed announcer Gordon Solie. 

"There were times I'd pull into a gas station and I'd go in and get something to eat and he'd be in the car," Solie said of when he used to drive his father to wrestling cards around the state.

"When I came out, the car was surrounded by people, and I asked him once, 'Do you ever get tired of that?' And he said, 'No, they pay my salary, so I owe it to them to sit down and talk with them.'"

(Hear more of Solie's memories of his father in an interview at the bottom of the page)

While both men are now gone: Malenko died in 1994 at the age of 61, Solie in 2000 at 71, the Armory is still there on North Howard Avenue; its bright white, art deco facade preserved as part of the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.

It's no longer the venue that once hosted wrestling, as well as Elvis Presley and John F. Kennedy. It's now the Bryan Glazer Family Jewish Community Center, which holds fitness classes, weddings and bar mitzvahs.

However, on Tuesday, the Center will once again welcome gladiators of the squared circle and the crowd that loves some of them, and hates others.

The event, "Wrestling Returns to the Armory," will feature a half dozen "pier six brawls" (another Solie catchphrase).

Among the competitors are two local firemen who moonlight as wrestlers, Big Joe Bucks and Pepe Prado. And pharmacist Jody Simon, 61, will once again lace up the boots as Joe Malenko when he fights in the opening tag team match.  

"I'm the only idiot going to climb back into the ring and hopefully I can climb back out," Simon said with a laugh.

Malenko retired from wrestling in the late 1990's. His younger brother, Dean, still works behind the scenes for the WWE after his own lengthy career in the ring.

In addition to the matches, there are a number of other purposes for the event.

One is to raise funds for the JCC and the creation of a wall celebrating the center's wrestling history.

Speaking of history, a camera crew will be there to capture footage for an upcoming documentary, "Lords of the Ring: The History of Championship Wrestling from Florida."

Local filmmaker Lynn Marvin Dingfelder has done similar features on a Tampa band, the Fabulous Rockers, and President Kennedy's 1963 visit to the area.

"Some people, in doing this documentary, have called it a male soap opera because you would have all the characters and the schtick and who was fighting who," Dingfelder said.

Credit Mark Schreiner / WUSF Public Media
WUSF Public Media
Jody Simon, who wrestled under the name "Joe Malenko," is producing the event, while Lynn Marvin Dingfelder is producing a documentary on "Championship Wrestling from Florida."

And similar to what she did with the Kennedy documentary, Dingfelder and her production company, Creative on Main Street, are seeking people who have memorabilia related to CWF's glory days. 

"We are looking for home movies, Super 8's or eight-millimeter films, photos, old programs, any great stories that people might think would be good to include in this," she said. "We would love to be able to digitize whatever they have, give it back to them and use it in the documentary." 

They'll also be honoring around a dozen former wrestlers at the event, including Jerry Brisco, Steve Keirn, Sherri Lee and Buddy Colt.

In addition, Jonard Solie will get in the ring to close the show with his father's famous sign-off: "So long from the Sunshine State."

"That's probably the one thing: the memories it will bring back of my dad and his voice," Solie said. "And just the way he treated people, he was always a nice person to anybody."

But the main purpose is to do what Tuesday nights at the Armory did for decades: bring a community together.

Michelle Patty's mother was a nurse at the Clara Frye Hospital, the only African-American hospital in Tampa at the time. Patty, who's now a local activist and minister, said her mom would work double shifts every day except Tuesdays, because that was when she'd take Patty and her seven siblings to the matches at the Armory.

"There were everyone crammed in, no matter were you black, white, it wasn't a difference on that night," Patty said. "Everybody got along, it was a good time and we had great times."

And while segregation was still the practice of the day in the 1960's and 70's, with African-Americans limited for years to the upper deck of the Armory, people still joined together for the experience.

"We went to separate churches, we went to separate schools, but on Tuesday night, we came together as a community and we walked, we had no fear of walking at night to the Armory," Patty said. "It was a sense of pride that we had in the community to have the wrestling and people came from all over to attend those matches."

"This is a link back for a lot of people to the their family," Simon said. "Friends of mine who talk about the Armory and Tuesday night wrestling, they say, 'This is where I went and I sat in the same seat every Tuesday night and in the seat next to me was my dad or my grandpa.'

"These were memories every week that they were able to carve out a little bit of time with somebody that they loved who's not around any longer."

The opening bell rings at 7 p.m. Tuesday, with a VIP reception at 6 p.m. Ticket information can be found by clicking here.

Mark Schreiner is the assistant news director and intern coordinator for WUSF News.
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