A poster honoring the late Dusty Rhodes stood in the lobby during a Championship Wrestling from Florida type fan fest and fundraiser at the Tampa Jewish Community Center & Federation in North Tampa on Thursday, June 11.
It was a reminder of a tragic loss to the business as 700 fans and professional wrestlers of various generations packed the facility to help generate money for a Championship Wrestling from Florida Wall of Fame at the Fort Homer Hesterly Armory, which will be restructured by the Tampa JCC.
The event also served as a time of celebration when it came to the career of the “American Dream,” who was one of the cornerstones of the territory.
The bell rang during a moment of silence.
Dusty and CWF stories could be heard in every room of the JCC with fans waiting in lines to meet their favorite stars. The massive signing included J.J. Dillon, Al Perez, Rocky Johnson, Brian Blair, Hector Guerrero, Ron Bass, Bushwhacker Luke, Jimmy Hart, Bill Alfonso, Dory Funk Jr., Kofi Kingston, Ricky Steamboat and countless others. WWE superstar Roman Reigns a big attraction for the newer fans.
A silent auction was conducted throughout the evening with wrestling boots, posters and a host of unique signed memorabilia for bid. Organizer Jody Simon, son of the late CWF legend The Great Malenko, is hoping to raise $250,000 for the wall inside the new JCC scheduled for 2016, inclusive of the shell of the old Armory itself.
For the retired grappler, Rhodes’ passing made the proceedings a much more poignant and pointed effort.
“It’s bittersweet,” Simon said. “Dusty passed away. It’s a terrible thing and reminder that these are great guys who aren’t always going to be with us. A lot of us were given great pleasure in the great Armory back in the day. This is our way to say thanks and remember them. The best way to do that is to put them up on a Wall of Fame.”
Simon was touched at how many of his friends donated their own time for the endeavor. They include Rick “The Gladiator” Hunter and Buddy Colt, who has been battling health issues. He made it to the event from the hospital. Terry Funk canceled all his bookings because of pneumonia, but he appeared for this, because he believes in the cause. Funk can recall the impact the elder Malenko had on his career with the way he could convey a message. He had a similar respect and adulation for his beloved rival, that “dirty old egg-sucking dog” Dusty Rhodes.
“There are a lot of things that I remember about Dusty Rhodes,” Funk said in his best “Dream” impression. “There are so many things that stick out about him. He used to work at my father-in-law’s gas station pumping gas. I went up to Amarillo and got this 1965 Ford Galaxy. He was working at the gas station, and I drove in there one day. He said, ‘I’d sure like to have a car like that. That’s the biggest, prettiest car I’d ever seen in my entire life.’ I said, ‘Kid, you can have one like this one day.’ Hell, he had Cadillac cars and everything there ever was.”
To Fred Ottman (Big Steel Man, Tugboat, Shockmaster, Typhoon), Rhodes wasn’t just a colleague, but family. Rhodes was the Godfather to his oldest son Berkley, who works for WWE.
“He was very helpful like all the other guys that I watched growing up in CWF and Gordon Solie,” he said. “Dusty had a great mind for this business. He had great ideas. He was a personality to a hundredth power. There were very few people on the stick that could do what he does…To see guys like that in their prime, I was humbled to have Dusty. He was easy to talk to, and I could always talk to him about ideas or anything. It was really a family affair.”
Gerald Brisco drove to the venue earlier in the day and saw the sign at the JCC noting the event sold out. That elicited more Dusty memories from Brisco, thinking of him and the draw he was and the man he was.
“Dusty Rhodes was my brother who I’ve known since 1966,” he said. “I’ve traveled throughout the world with him. Something I will always take form Dusty Rhodes is to believe in yourself and believe in what you are doing or don’t do it at all. Dusty Rhodes took an idea that he had and became a globally famous man because he believed it. He was a giver. I love you Dusty and will see you on the other side.”
Simon’s brother, Dean Malenko, was also mourning the loss of a friend. He felt the CWF Wall of Fame cause is most important because of the great history that exists in the area. Malenko views it as a tribute to his dad, the late Great Malenko.
“I remember going to the Armory with him,” he said. “We all just grew up watching wrestling. This was before any real sports teams. You had Championship Wrestling from Florida where you would go watch the shows. This was a great place to live and to work.”
He added: “Dusty’s name will always have a legacy in the state of Florida. Dusty was Dusty. He was the “American Dream.” He was this flamboyant character who connected with the audience. He will be sorely missed. That is what this is all about. Honor those who paved the way. It’s to give back to them and have a wall dedicated to their legacy.”
Among the CWF staples, Steve Keirn, who called Dusty a close friend for nearly 40 years.
“He was like my big brother,” he said. “We were really close these last seven years running the developmental for WWE. I got to work with Dusty real close. It was like having a blast from the past with Dusty being a mentor. He was the man. He was the greatest showman ever in this industry, way past Gorgeous George. That is the only one I can think of that maybe could compare to Dusty. He was the Muhammad Ali of professional wrestling. They ran parallel. I remember Muhammad Ali coming to the dressing room in Miami Beach talking to Dusty about doing interviews. That’s how good he was at his craft. He is the best ever at promos in this industry. Nobody can come close to Dusty Rhodes.”
Miami’s own Norman Smiley agrees.
“I will miss him,” said Smiley, who also works with up-n-coming talent at the WWE Performance Center. “We actually shared an office together for the last few years. Just being around him and being drawn to his charisma and listening to his stories, it’s a tragic loss. I miss him.”
Leilani Kai will never forget how warm and caring Rhodes was to her when her mom died. The veteran ladies wrestler also cherishes the time she spent in the ring with the “Son of a Plumber.”
“I did a mixed tag match with him,” she said. “The girl that I wrestled against, her father was his sponsor and had never been in the ring in her life. He chased me around the ring. He ended up giving me the ‘Bionic Elbow’ as his finisher. That was just exciting to me and meant a lot to me.”
Lanny Poffo was delighted and happy to oblige when asked to attend the CWF fan fest/fundraiser.
“Even though I never worked for [legendary CWF promoter] Eddie Graham, I always wanted to,” he said. “I never got to because the only time I worked in Florida was through WWE. I certainly do love Florida. There was this great heyday that was encapsulated by "The Great Malenko," Dusty Rhodes and all these names. Some of them are here today. I can say this about Dusty. Just like my brother the Macho Man Randy Savage, he was always imitated. When they are imitated, you know you are good.”
Whether it was fan or wrestler, Dusty Rhodes meant a lot to millions.
- Two-time WWE Hall of Famer and Dusty Rhodes rival Ric Flair is scheduled to fly from Cleveland and the NBA Finals for a special signing at the Armory on Friday for those ticket holders who remained in town.
- The CWF fan fest kicked off a fund-raising campaign to pay for a permanent display of photos and memorabilia at the new Tampa JCC, which will be at the site of the Fort Homer Hesterly Armory. The CWF Wall of Fame at the Tampa JCC will celebrate the Fort Homer Hesterly Armory’s wrestling history in Tampa. The Fort Homer Hesterly Armory was the Madison Square Garden of Championship Wrestling from Florida. All the top wrestling stars worked or wanted to work the Fort Homer Hesterly Armory.
Jack Ross, executive director of the Tampa JCC, said he is proud that the son (Jody Simon) of a Jewish wrestler organized the event. While Simon said there is no shortage of photos, fight programs and memorabilia available for display, Ross indicated that the size and prominence of the display will depend on the amount of funds raised.
It’s off to a good start.
For more information on future fund-raising efforts for the CWF Wall of Fame, search “CWF Wall of Fame” and “CWF Archives” on Facebook.
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