Championship Wrestling from Florida had decades of glory years that saw some of wrestling’s finest travel through its doors – not to mention amazing talent grown there. However, it is its ultimate tragic demise that leaves its mark in history.
The Wrestling Territories – An Introduction
Growing up in the days of territorial wrestling was something special for me. I was lucky enough to be raised in a wrestling household where the weekends meant all our televised favorites could be seen.
We lived in the section of Southern Illinois known as "Little Egypt." It gained this name because the convergence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers was just south and that area was well known as a fertile crescent for growing food and wrestling.
There were several thriving companies to see live and on the tube in the ’70s and ’80s. We had The Wrestling Club out of St. Louis, Intercontinental Championship Wrestling out of Kentucky, Jerry Lawler’s stuff out of Memphis, the AWA through the Chicago "Superstation" WGN, and WCCW on the cable.
Later on, after the construction of Cape Girardeau, Missouri’s Show-Me Center, and in the fall of 1987, the WWF would routinely run shows out of there as well. For me, this was the golden era of the live show.
The demise of the traditional territory system in wrestling is well documented. Much vilified as the man that tolled its death bell, Vince McMahon was only the one that made the territory owners "offers that they couldn’t monetarily refuse."
Does this make him a bad guy? Or was he just a smarter businessman who saw the turning of the tides and had the ability to make moves to ensure he came out on top?
When the smoke rolled away, he certainly was the alpha left standing in the U.S. market, but he was not alone.
All over the country, small independent wrestling federations and start-up companies began to emerge.
With all of Vince’s bravado, he had forgotten about what those territories provided to their audience. The value of seeing wrestling at the smaller local level was integral to the training and building of future stars and fostered the spirit of wrestling through their fan base.
If you talk to any great wrestler or someone that has been a fan of this business, they will all inevitably tell you a story of going to see an event at a young age in some small local venue. That experience as a fan sticks in your blood and never leaves you. It never has for me, and I hope it never does for you if you’ve experienced it, too.
In this series, I’d like to look back at the territories that changed the world of professional wrestling, not only for me but globally.
As we delve into this series, I don’t want it to become a "greatest hits" of the pro wrestling business. I want to take time to pay the respects where they are due because, first and foremost, the history of this business needs to be treasured and preserved.
So let’s get started, kids. Our first stop on our tour of the territories begins in Tampa, Florida, and the home that the Grahams made famous.
The Rise and Demise of Championship Wrestling from Florida
"Cowboy" Clarence Luttrall opened the office of what would become Championship Wrestling from Florida in 1949 and joined the newly formed NWA soon after.
The territory started 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 ’60s that things really started to get off the ground in Tampa.
Eddie Gossett started 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.
Now under the name Eddie Graham, he 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.
Graham 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, more ways to book higher profile championship matches 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. Valentine would go on to work mainly in the Mid-Atlantic area.
Did you know? During this time at CWF, 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.
It was a villainous Russian that gave Graham his first serious feud 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. Eventually, he 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 ’50s and worked for Big Time Wrestling in Texas and the AWA, where he first started to see the value of his German heel character in the wake of World War II.
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.
Malenko 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 over 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 sadly passed away in 1994 from leukemia in his home in Tampa. He was 61.
Notable Tag Teams in Championship Wrestling from Florida
The tag team scene was always a hot one in Championship Wrestling from Florida, with the NWA World Tag Team Titles being introduced in 1961 and the NWA Florida Tag Team Titles following in 1968.
The team of The Von Brauners was its inaugural holders, and they held it six times over the next two and a half years while going to war with the teams of Eddie Graham and Ike Eakins, Don Curtis and 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 would also have 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 won that title from Hodge in 1964, after a near four-year reign, at a CWF show in Tampa.
All of this incredible action was set to the soundtrack laid by one of the greatest announcers in professional wrestling history.
Gordon Solie – The Voice of Championship Wrestling from Florida
Born in the chilly north of Minnesota, Gordon Solie relocated to sunny Florida after his time in the Air Force.
Like most greats, his career began modestly as an emcee in the Tampa area, leading him to CWF. He started working in their broadcast department in 1960, soon becoming 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 Championship Wrestling from Florida and stayed there through its entire run, he also worked for promotions all along the East Coast and Continental Championship Wrestling (CCW) in Alabama.
While many look to Jim Ross as the voice of their generation, Gordon Solie was and 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 its 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.
Another man who made his name famous in Florida and throughout the NWA arrived in the ’60s 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.
Brisco showed up in CWF in 1969 and began his pursuit of its 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-’60s.
He won 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 ’70s. Jack was a highly sought-after hand in the ring, and he freelanced out to many other NWA franchises, as well.
Brisco would always return to his home promotion in Florida, 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.
Jack was in and out of the territory for the next several years as he worked time in Georgia Championship and Mid-Atlantic in the Carolinas.
His last Championship Wrestling from Florida run came in 1980 when he and his brother, who had been winning tag titles all over the NWA map, claimed the tag titles there. They would win the NWA Florida Tag Titles a total of eight times. Jack also won the Southern Heavyweight one last time in 1981 before he and his brother ultimately left for the promised land of the WWF.
The Texas Outlaws – Dusty Rhodes and Dick Murdoch
In the late Summer of 1970, 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 its limits.
They finally split and started up singles careers here. 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 his tag partner never matched.
Murdoch was born in Texas, the son of a professional wrestler. He spent his youth watching his father wrestle and 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 Junkyard Dog and briefly in the WWF before he made a run at Flair and his NWA Title in 1987.
Over the next decade, Murdoch worked in the WWC in Puerto Rico and a short run in WCW.
He made a surprise appearance as an entrant in the 1995 Royal Rumble. Sadly, one year later, he would pass away 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.
Rhodes won the Brass Knuckles title twice in the Fall of 1972 and held 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 and others in Hart’s stable.
He also held the NWA Florida Tag Team Titles on several occasions in the ’70s 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.
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-’70s.
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 twisted revenge on his former partner Mike Graham as well. He worked with The Poffo Family’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 (Nancy Benoit), who later took on the persona of Woman. The two were married in 1985 and stayed together for twelve years.
Both Nancy and Kevin left CWF in the ’80s and had careers continue into the East Coast territories.
Mike Graham was born Michael Gossett in September 1951 in Tampa, Florida. He received his training from Championship Wrestling from Florida mainstays Boris Malenko, Hiro Matsuda, and his father Eddie.
Mike started his wrestling career in 1972 and was immediately pushed into 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 and 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 ’80s.
He stayed in the wrestling business for the rest of his life and spent some time in the Offshore Power Boat Racing League, where he did quite well as a pilot.
Eddie Graham was inducted into 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.
The Unfortunate Fate of Championship Wrestling from Florida
Comparisons can be drawn 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 built 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 but one of 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 Eddie’s passing, family and the office circled their wagons and set forth their plans to carry on. The promotion never fully recovered, and it shut its 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 suffered through these losses, 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 its doors, not to mention the amazing talent that was grown there, it is its ultimate sad demise that really leaves its 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.
If you enjoyed this piece, be sure not to miss the following articles on our site:
- A Ghost Story: How a Long-forgotten Territory Still Haunts WWE
- Battle for Atlanta | How The NWA Crushed Ann Gunkel’s Outlaw Promotion
- Eddie and Mike Graham – Triumph and Dark Tragedy
- Hiro Matsuda: The Man Who Broke Hulk Hogan’s Leg!