TAMPA — There was a time when Tampa had no professional sports teams — no Rays charging into another postseason, no Buccaneers struggling to change direction, no Lightning home opener.
But Tampa did have weekly professional wrestling shows.
And it was seen as a legitimate sport back then, when fans had no clue about predetermined outcomes and they cheered in good faith.
When World Wrestling Entertainment rolls into Tampa this month, Oct. 29, to record “WWE Smackdown” at the Forum for a national audience, the visiting superstars will know this is more than another tour stop.
Tampa is sacred ground — in the 1960s and ’70s, the epicenter of professional wrestling.
“The old Fort (Homer) Hesterly Armory was the Madison Square Garden of the South,” said WWE Hall of Famer Dusty Rhodes, recalling the arena that was home to Tampa’s famed Championship Wrestling from Florida during the glory years.
“There was nowhere else like it. And that was because of the fans. They were hot.”
You can see the passion in their faces on black-and-white photos taken by Josie Ritter, who stood ringside in Tampa with her camera from 1971 to 1974. You can see their anger and anguish as their favorite wrestlers were stomped and the elation as a heroic comeback was forged.
Ritter, in her 20s then, has moved from Tampa, taking with her the personal photo collection she calls “Working Class Opera.”
Oh, that wicked thumb.
In today’s world of professional wrestling, the evildoers, known as “heels,” have a vast collection of illegal weapons at their disposal in their quest to defeat their good guy opponents, known as “babyfaces” — steel chairs, aluminum bats, barbed wire and even fireballs.
All Buddy Colt needed was his thumb.
One of the most hated heels of the early 1970s, Colt brandished the appendage for Ritter during one memorable evening in Tampa.
It wasn’t so much the match she remembers but the reaction of a grandmotherly woman sitting front row.
Colt clamped a headlock on his opponent, Tim “Mr. Wrestling” Woods, and grinded it on tight. He often taped his thumb to deliver a little extra hurt when he jabbed it into an opponent’s eye. As he showed his thumb off to the crowd at the armory, telling them what was to come for Mr. Wrestling, the old woman exploded in anger.
She leapt from her seat, curse words and spit flying.
“I thought she was going to climb into the ring and attack him,” Ritter said with a laugh.
Then there was her fan, the type they handed out in church on hot days — a cardboard square on a stick, complete with a portrait of the Last Supper.
With a click of Ritter’s camera, the “church woman” was immortalized.
She’s part of Ritter’s collection beside some of the area’s most beloved and hated grapplers: Colt, “The American Dream” Dusty Rhodes, Bob Orton Sr., “Number One” Paul Jones, The Fabulous Moolah and many more.
Still, it was the crowd Ritter came to shoot.
Eric Solie, son of Gordon Solie, the voice of TV’s “Championship Wrestling From Florida,” sees the heirs to the wrestling crowds of yesteryear in modern-day football fans who paint their faces and scream for four quarters at the top of their lungs.
But imagine how those fans would react, Solie said, if those football fans learned the opposing team cheated to win — and did so out in the open without getting caught by the referee.
“Some of the people getting angry were very educated people,” he said. “My father used to get two- to three-page letters from lawyers and doctors saying that certain wrestlers needed to be kicked out of wrestling because they were bad people.
“And the venom for the referees was even worse when they didn’t see the wrestlers cheating. They thought these were bad people who needed to be punished.”
Tonga Fifita, who wrestled briefly in Tampa in the 1970s before a career in the WWE, said crowds were intense in those days.
“Even grandmas and grandpas would throw things at you or kick and punch at you without thinking twice. I remember thinking how happy I was that some fans did not have knives. Sometimes, they did have umbrellas, though.”
“There was legitimate hate for bad guys back then,” said Roman Reigns, current WWE Superstar and cousin of Fifita. “They wrestled in smaller arenas, but the emotion was thicker.
Ritter wasn’t a wrestling fan growing up. She never saw a show until she was introduced to wrestling 1971. At the time, she was living with her boyfriend and capturing images wherever she went as an amateur photographer.
Live wrestling events at the time were held twice a week in Tampa. Every Tuesday during primetime, thousands of fans would pack the Fort Homer Hesterly Armory. And every Wednesday at 1 p.m., matches were recorded at The Sportatororium for broadcast on TV Saturday nights.
A friend invited her to an event at the armory, selling it as “the photo opportunity of a lifetime.”
“There were these giant hulking characters doing battle under this magnificent lighting,” she said.
But what made the shows interesting, she said, was the relationship between the wrestlers and the crowd.
“It was live theater,” she said. “It was entertainment at its best, and the crowd was as much a player in it all as the wrestlers. They played off one another.”
Solie, a director of the televised events, said he helped nourish this relationship by producing vignettes showing the wrestlers outside the ring.
“Today, that is the norm,” he said. “But we were the first to do it. It used to be that wrestling was just a match between two guys with names you knew. We made these names into people.”
They would film top heel acts such as Ric Flair on his yacht surrounded by 10 girls. Flair would mock the television audience, telling them they were beneath him and would never achieve his wealth and fame.
Solie would counteract that with a vignette of an upcoming opponent, such as Dusty Rhodes. The man known as “The American Dream” was portrayed as the “everyman,” the self-proclaimed “son of a plumber” with true blue-collar roots. He was someone the fans could cheer to destroy the pretty boy Flair.
“Rhodes was bigger than Hulk Hogan at his peak,” said Tampa radio host Tedd Webb, who sold sodas from a wagon as a kid outside the wrestling matches. “He was the biggest celebrity in Tampa.”
Rhodes agreed his popularity in Tampa was due in part to the vignettes. But wrestling promoters took advantage of other media as well. His image was plastered all over city billboards, the Tribune would report on his matches as a real sport, and he lived his wrestling persona 24/7.
Everything from the car he drove to the clothes he wore reflected “the American dream.” He was a real person, not a character, to Tampa.
“When I was hurting, they were hurting,” he said. “When I was making a big comeback and doing great, they were doing great. When I lost, they lost. And when I won, they won.”
Adding to the electricity in the arena, Ritter said, there was no barricade separating the crowd from the ring as there is today.
There was always a buzz in the crowd. They knew they could get to the villains if they chose.
This freedom allowed Ritter to get close to the ring without a media pass.
On the night she captured the image of the church woman, she was as close to the match as a wrestler.
She said most of the crowd reacted the same way the church woman did.
Four aisles leading from the corners of the ring were the way in an out. As the crowd grew angry, people mobbed the aisles. Ritter was trapped, afraid they would storm the ring and injure her.
Seeing no escape, she said, she did what any good photographer would do — captured the moment on film.
The result may be the most iconic photo in her collection.
It’s a collection few others have seen outside the wrestling world of that time. A picture Ritter took of Rhodes found its way onto one of those billboards.
“I have not been back to one wrestling show since I left Tampa in 1974,” she said. “But I always look back at those three years fondly. It was a tremendous time in my life.”
That’s a shame, in the view of Reigns, the current WWE Superstar.
The crowds today are less passionate, he acknowledges, because the illusion of legitimacy is gone.
But they have fun, in Tampa and elsewhere.
“They still get emotional when they count 1, 2, 3 and watch their favorite wrestler win,” Reigns said.
“I’m excited to be coming to Tampa. It has such a rich tradition of history. Anytime I can wrestle in Tampa, it is a great opportunity.”