WrestleMania Holds A Special Place For Former WWE Wrestlers From The Tampa Area
WrestleMania, WWE’s signature event, is in Tampa for the first time. The significance is not lost on several former wrestlers who have close ties to the area.
The influence, grandeur, importance, and legacy of WrestleMania can be easily found in every state in America and around the world. In 2021, it is coming to Tampa for a two-night event on April 10-11.
World Wrestling Entertainment will be holding its 37th WrestleMania. It’s being held in Florida for the fifth time, and for the first time in Tampa after last year’s event — slated for Raymond James Stadium — was moved to a closed set in Orlando due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Despite Raymond James Stadium being open only at 36% capacity, the WWE, its wrestlers, fans, and city are buzzing with excitement.
“I have been to nearly every WrestleMania since 24 [in 2008],” TJ Wilson said.
Even with nearly 16 years of experience with the company and witnessing the event numerous times, WrestleMania simply “does not get old and does not lose that luster.”
Under the name Tyson Kidd while with the WWE, TJ Wilson — who lives in Tampa — began wrestling for the company in 2006 and continued to do so until a career-ending spinal cord injury in 2015 forced him to retire from in-ring competition. Following a subsequent and hard-fought recovery, Wilson has been working for the WWE as a producer in a backstage role.
Wilson also was backstage for the 60-minute Iron Man match between Shawn Michaels and Bret Hart for the then-World Wrestling Federation championship in WrestleMania 12.
Wilson said that match “blew me away.”
“When I was a kid at WrestleMania 12 and Diana Hart (Bret Hart’s sister) asked Shawn Michaels if he was excited for the [main event] match with Bret Hart, and Shawn said he was nervous,” Wilson said, “I remember hearing those words as a 15-year-old in 1996 and thinking Shawn Michaels was nervous? No way.”
Wilson had his share of accomplishments during his career with the WWE, including tag-team championship reigns with David Hart Smith and Cesaro. Some of Wilson’s personal favorite WrestleMania moments include both of his former tag team partners.
Wilson said one of his other favorite moments was when he helped Bret Hart defeat Vince McMahon in a No Holds Barred match at WrestleMania 26 in 2010. Both Wilson and his partner, David Hart Smith, delivered their tag team finisher to the boss and CEO of the WWE to help Bret Hart win the match. It was while delivering their finisher that Wilson said he “bounced Vince’s head like a basketball.”
Wilson also wrestled at WrestleMania with Cesaro and successfully defended their WWE tag-team championships in a Fatal 4-Way match at WrestleMania 31 in 2015. The match also featured the Los Mantadores, The New Day, and The Usos.
Wilson and Cesaro were also scheduled for another match shortly after their tag team bout, but had some trouble making the trek around the stadium in time.
“To be out there with Cesaro, and with the crowd reacting the way that they did, it was just a lot of fun,” Wilson said. “It was a great group of dudes. Then I had to pull double duty, and we were in a stadium. I had to run all the way around the arena to get back to the gorilla position [backstage area behind the entrance ramp] and just barely making it there in time to go out for the battle royal.”
Wilson said the two weeks leading up to WrestleMania are the most exciting time of the year, but that it is especially exciting now, given how the COVID-19 pandemic has limited crowds.
“I was around all the talent and everyone is super excited for this week and especially Saturday and Sunday,” Wilson said. “This is going to be the first time in over a year for them to perform in front of fans, and a lot of them. It’s going to be an unbelievable experience. This is going to be one of those ones that they never forget.”
Other former wrestlers also look back fondly at their times competing on what is often referred to as “The Grandest Stage of Them All.”
“It was an honor,” said Marc Mero when asked about getting to make his WWE debut at WrestleMania 12.
Mero wrestled in WCW as Johnny B, Badd from 1991-96. He joined WWE later that same year, making his debut at WrestleMania 12. He would then wrestle for the WWE until 1999.
He would continue to wrestle for various promotions, including Total Nonstop Action Wrestling (TNA), until he retired in 2005. Mero is a former three-time WCW World Television champion and a former WWE Intercontinental champion.
Mero debuted at WrestleMania 12 saving his then-wife, Sable, from Hunter Hearst Helmsley, better known as Triple H. He also later wrestled at WrestleMania 14, where he teamed with Sable to defeat Goldust and Luna Vachon in a tag team match.
Following his retirement, Mero founded the Champion of Choices program in 2007. Through the nonprofit organization and program, Mero visits various schools in Central Florida sharing his anti-bullying, warnings of substance abuse, and suicide prevention messages to students.
McMahon had tried once before to bring Mero into the WWE, but Mero opted to stay in WCW after he was offered a guaranteed contract.
McMahon once again offered a contract to Mero after he had left WCW in early 1996, this time meeting Mero’s contract terms. He quickly debuted at WrestleMania 12.
“I always felt like I needed to go to the WWE because going to WrestleMania was like going to the dance. That’s the Super Bowl of wrestling. Having that opportunity to work WrestleMania was an honor.”
One of the most important parts about the history of WrestleMania is how it has become a globally anticipated event. Thousands of international fans travel to WrestleMania annually.
For some in WWE, it is one of the most interesting parts of the event.
“I do all those fan fest events for WrestleMania week, and my favorite thing is sitting at that table and asking fans where they’re from. They’re from all over the freaking world. It’s amazing,” said former wrestler and WWE employee Gerald Brisco, who lives in the Tampa Bay area.
Brisco pointed out that a lot of international fans will be unable to travel to the show this year. He said he is disappointed that Tampa could not experience a true WrestleMania due to the pandemic.
Brisco was trained by his brother Jack – who had great success across the U.S. and overseas — starting in 1967.
Each enjoyed successful singles careers. But they would later team as the Brisco Brothers and become of the most acclaimed tag teams in wrestling history.
“Jerry” Brisco, as he was more widely known, would also go on to win tag team championships with numerous other wrestlers as well.
The brothers would continue to wrestle singles and tag team matches until both retired with the WWE in 1985. Brisco would end his career with more 20 tag team championship reigns.
Brisco joined the WWE in a backstage role as a road agent following his retirement, but was released in October 2020. He says it was a job where he said he felt more pressure and stress than he ever did in the ring. He also made sure to emphasize just how much he loved and appreciated the experience as well.
While Wilson said the weeks leading up to WrestleMania are stressful but exciting, Brisco had a different take.
“Truthfully, I hated it. I could not wait for the week to be over with,” Brisco said. “You can’t explain to anybody, unless they have experienced it, just how much pressure is on us that week, and how little time you actually have during that week. Not only just that week, but a couple of weeks leading up to it.”
But even all of that anxiety and stress washes away as soon as the wrestling starts and the biggest event of the year begins.
“So that night [of WrestleMania] you hear that countdown until we air,” Brisco said. “Now the wrestling starts, and now the pressure is off. Now all you have to do is your job. Once that bell rings, it is the greatest event in the freaking world. And I love it to death.”
Drew Rice is a student journalist attending the University of South Florida Zimmerman School of Advertising and Mass Communications. This story was produced as part of the school’s Basic Reporting class this semester, under the leadership of instructor Vidisha Priyanka.