Professional wrestler Johnny Smith, better known as Sweet Johnny Velvet, said his performance this weekend in Orlando will be extra meaningful on both personal and professional levels.
The gay Fort Lauderdale athlete, 36, will participate in “Wrasslin’ Party,” a three-day show by South Florida promoter Fighting Evolution Wrestling (FEW).
Pulse nightclub, where 49 LGBTQ patrons and allies were shot to death last June, is about five miles from the Orlando venue where Smith will be performing at “Wrasslin’ Party.”
“I haven’t been to that city since then,” he said. “Anyone in the Orlando area, be who you are, and I’d like to see my gay brothers and sisters come out and watch me perform. We’ve come far on all different levels. I want to dedicate my matches to those impacted by the massacre.”
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Smith said his family felt the Pulse tragedy personally. “One of the young men that was shot is my second cousin,” he said. “The gay community is strong. That was sad for all those people and it shows there is ignorance.”
Smith is one of only a few LGBTQ pro wrestlers to come out publicly, along with legendary WWE wrestler Pat Patterson and, most recently in 2013, WWE superstar Darren Young of Miami.
The Sweet Johnny Velvet persona is compared to the likes of Nature Boy Ric Flair and the late Dusty Rhodes, two wrestlers who are part of the WWE Hall of Fame and became household name in the 1980s.
Wearing colorful attire, usually including a boa, Smith works the crowd with his charisma. “To know me is to love me,” he said.
Smith has been wrestling since his early 20s. He credits the sport with saving his life.
“At one point, my life was headed in an downward spiral,” he said. “When I met professional wrestlers and trainers Norman Smiley and Alex Gibson, better known as Alex G, they helped me change my life. I wasn’t dedicated. I was running around and doing illegal activities that I shouldn’t have done. I was afraid if I stayed on that route I would have gone a wrong path.”
Smith has been involved with athletics for most of his life. In his teenage years, he ran cross-country and wrestled for Dillard High School in Fort Lauderdale.
Being a fan of professional wrestling, his goal had always been to appear on WWE television programming. He joined the Four Star Wrestling Academy in Broward. To pay for his wrestling gear, he would perform in drag shows.
On a personal level, Smith has never felt any discrimination, he said.
“Back then, it was hush-hush,” he said. “I came along guys who weren’t opened about their personal life. It was hush-hush, but I’ve been blessed to be surrounded by supportive people. I haven’t had any major problems. If you give class, people wont have anything but to give you respect.”
Today, aside from performing in the squared circle, he works as a certified fork lifter.
This weekend, though, Sweet Johnny Velvet has a chance to entertain fans, who are traveling from all over the world. It’s a chance for him to possibly get closer to his dream.
“My goal is to one day become the first openly gay African American to ever hold the WWE championship title,” he said.
If you go
FEW Wrasslin’ Party will be held Thursday through Saturday at the Downtown Orlando Recreation Complex, 363 N. Parramore Ave., Orlando.
Ticket prices and packages range from $25 to $200. For details, visit www.fightingevolutionwrestling.com.