Back in the day, only the toughest of the tough could break into professional wrestling. Steve Keirn was one such survivor.
Although he found success for many years as one-half of the famed Fabulous Ones tag team alongside Stan Lane and later became the second version of Doink the Clown and the alligator hunter from the Florida Everglades, Skinner, his path was a brutal one.
“I was getting my a** handed to me every day!”
– Steve Keirn
Steve Keirn: Making a Difference in Professional Wrestling
When starting in Florida in the early ’70s, veteran Eddie Graham and shooters like Hiro Matsuda and Bob Roop mercilessly stretched Steve Keirn. They ensured that if the youngster was to become a wrestler, he would first learn to respect the business and earn his spot.
But these harsh lessons at Tampa’s Sportatorium served Keirn well.
He would forge a wrestling legacy lasting more than four decades, becoming trainer and president of one of WWE’s official developmental territories, where he would help train many wrestlers, including Diamond Dallas Page, Mike Awesome, Dustin Rhodes, Tracy Smothers, and Roman Reigns, among many others.
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Tragedy Strikes Early
Steve Keirn recently spoke on The Hannibal TV, opening up about his career highlights and the bumps he faced along the way.
Although Keirn grew up in sunny Tampa, Florida, dark skies washed over his family when he was barely a teenager.
At 13, a colonel from nearby MacDill Air Force Base informed him that his father had perished when his F-4 Phantom II fighter jet was shot down in Vietnam.
He and his mother bore the brunt of the news, and with his innocence now wrested away, Steve learned to be the man of the house.
Fortunately, a shocking revelation came three months later after learning that his father had miraculously survived but was, unfortunately, being held as a POW (prisoner of war).
According to Keirn, his father is one of only two men in history who have been a POW in two wars. Before Vietnam, at age 19, his father was shot out of a B-17 heavy bomber over Germany and was held captive for nine months.
The constant uncertainty of his father’s well-being weighed heavily on Steve’s mind for eight years. Thankfully, his father finally came home in 1972 safe and sound.
The Door Is Opened
Steve Keirn had befriended many local Tampa wrestlers, including promoter Eddie Graham and his son Mike with whom he’d gone to Robinson High School.
Around 17, Keirn began working for Eddie, where he mainly picked up wrestlers at the airport.
Although a fan and very close to Eddie, who he saw as a father figure, Keirn doubted he had the resolve to become a wrestler. So, when the opportunity arose, he went to college.
But after his first year away, the 160lbs young man improved his physique and returned with a solid 245lbs of muscle.
Without second-guessing, an impressed Graham exclaimed, “We need to break you in!”
The young college freshman was taken aback and nervously replied, “Whoa, whoa, whoa. I don’t know if I want to do this.”
Eventually, he fell in love with the business, but it was anything but easy.
Training and Paying His Dues
Despite the years of friendship with the Grahams, Steve Keirn broke into the business like any aspiring greenhorn.
“Eddie had a system,” Keirn began. “It was designed to give wrestlers respect for the business and protect it through kayfabe.”
He continued, “When I first started, Hiro Matsuda was in charge of my exercises, and then there were guys like Bob Roop, Karl Gotch, and others like Jack and Jerry Brisco who’d come in and shoot with us. But there was no work; it was all shooting! Jack Brisco was my idol at the time too.”
Keirn revealed more details about his arduous training.
“I’d come home to my mom and have mat burns on my forehead, cheeks, elbows, knees, whatever. My mom would look at me and say, ‘Where’d you get those?’
“I’d explain that I was learning how to wrestle.
“She’d answer, ‘I thought that was all fake!’
“Then, I’d look at her and reply, ‘I did too! I don’t know what I’m learning, but it isn’t the same as what I see on TV.'”
Keirn went through six months of such torture and considered quitting.
He further elaborated.
“The back of the Sportatorium (AKA the Snakepit) where I learned in the middle of the summer was just like a microwave oven.
“There were no windows, no ventilation, and no air conditioning. And when they turned the ring lights on, it just heated it up worse, so you’d be working out in 100-105 degrees [Fahrenheit] and dying.”
“And then you’d have someone stretching you on your back, rubbing your face in the mat, whatever. I kept saying, ‘I’m gonna quit, I’m gonna quit,’ but I was too embarrassed to do it because I just wanted to make Eddie happy. I had gone long enough where I felt I had to stick it out and see where it all went.”
But relief finally came to the game youth.
“Then, six months in out of nowhere, Eddie came up to me and said, ‘Well, we’re gonna smarten you up now, kid,’ and then the whole dynamics of my training changed.”
Keirn continued, “I was puzzled at why I was put through the other stuff for so long. But that was Eddie’s MO and was always about protecting the business.
“He was strict: No heels or babyfaces riding together, separate dressing rooms all the time. Nobody was to be publicly seen together when working angles or you got fired.”
Hulk Hogan and His Start
The biggest name amongst the many wrestlers Steve Keirn worked with and who he even knew previously from school would have to be Terry Bollea.
Terry, of course, later became an icon in wrestling, better known as Hulk Hogan. He was two years younger than Keirn but only one grade level behind at school.
Keirn talked about Hulk Hogan’s start in Florida.
“This [training] was nothing like what I was seeing on TV, and instead of tapping out, you’d scream, ‘I give up! I give up!’
“It even got to a point when Hulk Hogan started, he didn’t give up once, and [Hiro] Matsuda broke his leg!”
When Keirn started wrestling in 1972, Hogan was a big fan and, according to Keirn, would sit in the same seats every Tuesday night at the Armory to watch the matches.
On the weekends, Hogan incessantly bugged Keirn and urged him to help him get into wrestling.
But Keirn insisted Hogan would be better off applying himself to music and continue playing bass guitar for the rock and roll band Ruckus, who had noteworthy success in the Tampa area and beyond.
“I repeatedly told him he’d never make money in wrestling. Since then, I’ve eaten my words often about that! There was nothing exceptional about Terry when starting out, except for his size,” says Keirn.
But he sure made the most of it.
After his debut in 1977, Hulk Hogan soon fashioned one of the most marketable images in wrestling history. He became a mainstream name outside of wrestling, which is still a rarity today.
Eddie Graham’s Wrestlers and Their Reputation
Ultimately, Steve Keirn gained unbelievable respect for the wrestlers and protected the business for the rest of his career.
He explains that if you’d broken in Florida under Eddie Graham, you had a reputation and got respect from the talent in other territories. And those dangerous shoot wrestling techniques came in handy, mostly with fans trying to prove themselves to the wrestlers.
It was embedded into them that under no circumstances were they to be beaten up in public.
Later, when helping students break in and asked to be a little rough on them, his favorite holds he’d use on newcomers were the Front Face Lock, Cross Face, and even the Sugar Hold, but only when necessary.
But, of course, basic holds like a well-applied snug Front Face Lock often neutralized untrained troublemaking fans as well.
Steve Keirn: His Wrestling Career and Beyond
Steve Keirn made a name for himself from 1972-1982 in Florida. He held the NWA Florida Tag Team Championships with various partners, including Bob Backlund, Jimmy Garvin, Brian Blair, and Mike Graham.
He achieved his most tremendous success teaming with Stan Lane by forming The Fabulous Ones in 1982. The duo obtained various championship tag titles, mainly in Tennessee’s CWA and Florida’s CWF.
They also took on the Road Warriors in the AWA in several memorable encounters until the Fabulous Ones went their separate ways in 1987, with Lane joining Cornette’s Midnight Express and becoming “Sweet Stan” while Keirn returned to Florida.
In the following years, they worked on and off together until as late as 1991 in the USWA.
In Tennessee, where they started, Jerry Jarrett wanted to revamp the Fargo Brothers concept but update it for the MTV generation with vignettes, quick cuts, and rock music.
Although dressing somewhat like male dancers who rode around in limousines and motorcycles just living the good life, after Jackie Fargo gave them his seal of approval by saying, “These are my boys,” the fans accepted the team.
They took off in popularity. Women already swooned over them, but the male fans also learned to cheer for the flamboyant, sharply-dressed men. It was a career-defining moment, and both shot to superstardom.
The unpredictable Moondogs gave them trouble in 1984 when the teams faced off in a series of wild, hardcore matches in Memphis.
Some notable teams that many say took some attributes of The Fabulous Ones and made them their own include The Rock ‘n’ Roll Express (Ricky Morton and Robert Gibson), The Rockers (Shawn Michaels and Marty Jannetty), and The Thrillseekers (Chris Jericho and Lance Storm).
The Fantastics, comprised of Bobby Fulton and Tommy Rogers, also adopted a look similar to The Fabulous Ones and were excellent ring technicians and popular babyfaces. They even tried to replicate the rivalry The Fabulous Ones had with The Moondogs by taking on the sadistic Sheepherders in 1986 in several memorable yet violent brawls.
Becoming Skinner in the WWF
In 1991, Steve Keirn became the dreaded alligator hunter from the Florida Everglades called Skinner in the WWF.
Looking like a swamp man with a mean disposition, he constantly chewed tobacco (actually black licorice) and often spat in opponent’s faces, notably the Ultimate Warrior, even though in the locker room he’d told him not to!
Unfortunately, Skinner was a terror in the ring but didn’t get the major push within the company he would have liked. As a result, he never obtained nearly the success he saw as a tag team specialist.
Portraying Doink the Clown
By the middle of 1993, he was gone from the WWF but not before throwing on a clown suit and helping the original evil Doink (Matt Borne) defeat Crush at WrestleMania IX held at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas.
To accomplish this feat, he convinced Vince McMahon and had to hide for five and a half hours underneath the ring.
He says that management treated him well and provided him with an easy chair, beverages, and a monitor to relax and watch the show. He even had a small porta-potty in case nature called!
After nefariously interfering in the match, he had to return to hiding underneath the ring.
Once the show ended and everybody had left the venue, they let him out from underneath the ring.
In recent years, Keirn claims most people remember him as Doink’s doppelganger more than any other gimmick he portrayed, including The Fabulous Ones.
Steve Keirn’s True Legacy
Perhaps Steve Keirn’s greatest legacy he’s provided wrestling is his passion for the sport and how he’s tried to pass on the values instilled in him when breaking into Florida and later working in Tennessee.
“I’m the last guy who made anybody pay their dues,” stated Keirn unabashedly when talking about his former school in Florida during his Hannibal TV interview.
A taskmaster, he had his students “driving and putting up cards, being gone all day in the town they would go to in two weeks, and putting up posters.”
Keirn added, “Or I’d have them set up the ring, tear it down and clean the building afterward. But I made them all work.
“I made them do every job in wrestling that they didn’t think about. This was because I wanted them to respect all the people it takes to get that show on.”
He believes this helped his former students appreciate the opportunities that were later rewarded, not given to them.
While in Tennessee as one-half of The Fabulous Ones and with Jerry Jarrett’s permission, he began running a small but successful wrestling school. Tracy Smothers was even amongst the first group of students.
Much later, in Brandon, Florida, he called his school “Professional Wrestling School of Hard Knocks.” This one became incorporated into the WWE as a developmental territory called Florida Championship Wrestling.
There, Keirn and a group of trainers led by Dr. Tom Prichard prepared future grapplers.
Keirn also served as president and implemented his old-school methods but with the understanding that the WWE couldn’t wait as long for talent to be developed as was the custom.
Keirn wanted his students to pay their dues but avoided the extreme methods he’d experienced in Florida in the early ’70s that essentially dared students to quit after enduring excruciating training sessions.
FCW was an actual promotion with TV tapings, traveling, and everything in between, not just a school. It became the blueprint for the WWE Performance Center, which opened its doors in 2012 alongside NXT in Orlando, Florida.
But in many respects, the WWE’s way of doing things differed from Keirn’s old-school methods.
Keirn believes that doesn’t bode well for wrestling’s future and that many students now just show up for a paycheck, but he’s happy that he helped train many of today’s stars.
Keirn only wrestled into his 40s because he didn’t want to be seen as an old wrestler embarrassing himself in the ring. And he didn’t want to kill off any good reputation he’d built throughout his career.
While working as an agent for WWE, his last match was on December 10th, 2007, in a Battle Royal at the 15th Anniversary of Raw.
Former Head of Talent Relations John Laurinaitis (Johnny Ace) asked him to work the match. At first, Keirn was adamant and refused until Laurinaitis wrote down an offer he couldn’t refuse on a piece of paper.
And so, he ended his career as Skinner and got paid handsomely for it.
Ultimately Steve Keirn flourished as both a wrestler and trainer, leaving the strongest of legacies in the business he so loves.
These stories may also interest you:
- Doink The Clown – A Troubled Life For the Man Behind the Paint
- Championship Wrestling from Florida: The Wrestling Territories
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