A 16-foot wrestling ring and 150 rental chairs were set up on the basketball court of the Police Athletic League of St. Petersburg. Concessions were prepared in slow cookers.
It was as far from the limelight as it was in distance from Madison Square Garden.
But for Joseph Sarracino it felt on par with a WrestleMania.
On June 9, at age 61, the North Port resident made his professional wrestling debut in that small gym. Veterans of the business suspect he’s the oldest to ever launch a wrestling career. Guinness World Records is now considering his achievement.
But such an accolade is not why Sarracino was there. It was the culmination of a tragic journey that began with the death of his wife, his son’s mother.
The escape offered by watching wrestling and attending live shows was a coping mechanism for super fans Sarracino and his now-13-year-old son Joey.
When Joey grew excited upon hearing his father had the opportunity learn to wrestle, Sarracino felt he had to give it a shot.
"I can’t ever replace his mom," Sarracino said. "But I can try to be twice the dad."
During 16 months of training, he bruised his ribs and spine multiple times, sprained his right ankle, and woke up some mornings with a body so sore that getting out of bed was a chore. Still, Sarracino said, "It’s all worth it."
After Joey’s mother, Carmella, died of heart failure in May 2012, it took the boy three months to find a smile.
He and his father were in Punta Gorda for a World Wrestling Entertainment show. When promoters heard what Joey had endured, they invited him to the ring. The crowd chanted Joey’s name. And, for a few moments, the boy forgot about his loss.
Six years later, Joey would again step into a wrestling ring, this time alongside his dad at the June 9 Pride of Wrestling event.
Joey led Sarracino down the aisle. Later, he slid his father a weapon: a walker that had been mockingly brought to the ring by Sarracino’s opponent, "Chief Eddie Two Rivers."
"Come on old man, give it up," Rivers shouted throughout the match as he tortured Sarracino with body slams, hip tosses and choke holds.
In real life, the 47-year-old professional wrestling veteran Rivers, actual name Edwin Rivera of Tampa, trained with Sarracino.
"You got this," he told Sarracino in the locker room before the match.
Still, Sarracino had plenty of doubters. So, along the way, the goal of performing for a crowd took on a second mission.
"I want my son to know anything is possible," Sarracino said.
That was also the attitude of Sarracino’s trainer, Frank Reyes.
They met a little less than two years ago at a Sarasota wrestling event. When Sarracino learned Reyes, 66, a former referee with the WWE, taught wrestling, he asked almost in jest if he’d ever trained someone in his 60s.
"I told him that night I’ll at least give a chance to anyone who has the work ethic, desire and passion," Reyes said.
Sarracino then looked to his son and saw awe in his face.
"Okay, let’s do this," he remembers replying.
Twice a week and for 16 months, Joey accompanied his father to hours-long training sessions, first at Reyes’ Tampa facility and later at a ring the former referee setup in Bradenton.
If Sarracino felt too exhausted for his daily routine of weight lifting, running and swimming, Joey cheered him off the couch.
And a few months ago, when retired wrestler Bob Cook offered added tutelage at his Cooker’s Gym in North Port, Joey again tagged along.
Still, for the match’s story line, Cook was in the corner of opponent Rivers while trainer Reyes stood alongside Sarracino.
Sarracino won by reversing a body slam into an inside cradle up for the pin.
An angered Cook then entered the ring and knocked out the referee and Reyes. And when Cook turned to take on Sarracino, Joey ran to his father’s aid and stood between the two.
But as the sold-out crowd chanted Sarracino’s name, Joey slid from the ring so that his dad could relish the moment — the first of many, the son predicted.
"He didn’t do this for one match," Joey said.
That’s fine by Sarracino.
"I’ll keep going," he said, "as long as Joey is with me."
Contact Paul Guzzo at [email protected] Follow @PGuzzoTimes.