If you’re a pro wrestling fan and in the Tampa area, a stop at the Tampa Bay History Center is a must. That’s because now through January 10, 2021 you can take in the rich traditions and beloved names of the “Sunshine State Showdown: Pro Wrestling in Tampa Bay” exhibit.
The sounds of famous voices like The Rock and Bobby Heenan can be heard from a running video reel complementing the walls adorned with artifacts and bios of names like Dusty Rhodes, Chyna, Judy Grable, the Briscos, John Cena and Ted DiBiase. Visitors will find the foundation of the industry goes all the way back to ancient times and the Civil War and the 1800s with Abraham Lincoln and James McLaughlin to the 1920s and promoter Jack Curley into the television age that brought us Gorgeous George and Mildred Burke.
Dr. Brad Massey from the Saunders Foundation, curator of public history, had the arduous task of deciding what to feature. The idea came about with Tampa hosting WrestleMania 36 and its proximity to the Amalie Arena. Unfortunately, COVID put a damper on WWE’s plans to run at Raymond James Stadium just as the exhibit opened in March. Despite the setbacks, the museum decided to extend its residency so more fans can enjoy the collection.
“We were looking for wrestlers that have ties to Tampa,” Massey said. “People like the Macho Man Randy Savage who played minor league baseball here. People like Chyna who went to the University of Tampa.
Massey was excited to collaborate with WWE archivist Ben Brown on the exhibit. The company provided a number of items found in the museum including an NWA championship from 1973-1986 held by so many greats.
“They loaned us the belt from the territorial period. They loaned us Brutus Beefcake’s shears. It was nice that they were open to partner with us and loan us the artifacts… The belt is great because we profile a lot of wrestlers. If you come to the exhibit, you’ll see Ric Flair. He is on our reel of trash talk. Flair helped make that belt. You have [Kerry] Von Erich, who held that belt for a while. If you look really closely, the archivist Ben showed me where he actually carved his name into the belt. His initials are on the belt.”
There is an array of photographs, programs and other items from the days of Eddie Graham and Championship Wrestling from Florida. Among the other fun memorabilia are robes of Race and Rocky Johnson. A popular photo stop is right at the entrance where part of ring is set up.
“One thing we wanted to do was build a ring,” Massey said. “Ben said I can send you official WWE turnbuckles and send you the mat…People should know those turnbuckles, those ropes, the blue mat. That’s all on loan from WWE.”
Despite speculation that WrestleMania 37 might find itself in Tampa next year, it won’t mean the exhibit stays up past January. However, Massey did say there is the potential of doing a pop-up of some sort similar to that of Axxess. There is still plenty of time to check out the museum and collection though with tickets and reservation times available each day.
Massey admittedly saw his wrestling fandom wane in past years, but curating the exhibit helped him catch up and appreciate newer names like an ODB. It also reconnected him to his childhood. The cross-generational appeal of the topic means seeing visitors of all ages and walks of life enjoy the space together.
“My colleagues would walk by my door and all they would hear is wrestling trash talk for three months. I would watch wrestling trash talk and signature moves. It was a lot of fun and did take me back…It made me nostalgic in that regard,” he said.
“One of the most fun things for me about the exhibit is watching people experience it. This is obviously a museum, and museums obviously have a reputation for being a little stuffy. Somewhat earned, but we try to keep things light and entertaining. But this is the first exhibit where I’ll watch people come in and laugh out loud. They point up at the walls saying, ‘I remember that.’…Watching people experience an exhibit that is very colorful and loud. You can hear the trash talk when you’re walking around the entire exhibit. Watching our entrants react to that is a lot of fun.”
Massey’s full interview aired as part of today’s episode of our podcast, The Wrestling Inc. Daily. Subscribe to get the latest episodes as soon as it’s released Monday – Friday afternoon by clicking here.