By Justin Grant
KISSIMMEE — A masked wrestler named Carrion stands atop the ring, setting up for a devastating shooting-star press onto his rival, Blanco Loco, lying motionless on the mat. Nearby, a family cheers between bites of dessert.
It’s pro wrestling dinner theater, which is odd even by wrestling standards. It’s not the unhinged circus clown Chuckles delivering a ruthless beating to a smiling, singlet-wearing Bobby Fonta that does it — it’s the juxtaposition with dinner that makes it extra bizarre.
"There is nothing normal about putting a three-course meal and pro wrestling together," said BryanCaleb Smith, founder of Kissimmee’s Manor Pro Wrestling Dinner Theater. Smith hosts these shows monthly from July to December, with tickets typically selling out well in advance of showtime.
"We love our crowds, it’s always a mixed bag," said Smith. "Some are pro wrestling fans, some are on a family night or date night, and some are just curious to see what Manor Pro Wrestling Dinner Theater is all about."
Only in Florida.
That’s not an exaggeration — Florida has embraced the colorful world of pro wrestling for generations, dating to the sport’s first Golden Age in the 1950s. Tampa-based Championship Wrestling from Florida was one of the major promotions in the United States until it folded in the late ’80s, boasting legends such as Dusty Rhodes ("The American Dream").
World Wrestling Entertainment purchased CWF’s video library in 2006 for its trove of Rhodes footage, reviving the defunct promotion a year later as a developmental territory under the name Florida Championship Wrestling. That evolved into the NXT brand based out of the Orlando area.
Now, one of the bay area’s best-kept secrets are its monthly NXT "house" shows: untelevised events in small venues in Largo, St. Petersburg and Tampa. The shows feature WWE up-and-comers, some of whom go from appearing in Largo’s 120-person Minnreg Hall to soldout arenas and WWE televised Monday Night Raw and Smackdown, which are watched by millions weekly.
These previews of tomorrow’s wrestling stars are a Central Florida exclusive. Being able to catch the action in a modest venue has made NXT house shows a local fixture.
"My favorite live experiences are seeing the future stars," said Michael McClelland, a St. Petersburg native who’s a regular at NXT shows. "I equate it to seeing the Beatles in the Cavern Club before they made it."
The area also is a hot spot for independents, such as the women’s promotion SHINE, which holds semi-monthly shows at The Orpheum in Ybor City, or Full Throttle Professional Wrestling, which migrated to Tampa from South Florida this year.
Fans of these smaller promotions enjoy the intimate vibe and connection with the performers. It’s the difference between attending a concert at Amalie Arena and watching local bands at Crowbar.
"The wrestlers will interact more with the audience, mix with the crowd and even chat with fans before and after the show," said Jay Ritchie, general manager of Full Throttle. "I’ve seen certain particularly colorful regular fans become as popular with some of the wrestlers as the wrestlers are with the fans themselves."
The analogy goes deeper with Zac Romero, co-founder and announcer for Punk Pro Wrestling, a New Port Richey operation that debuted last year and has several local shows scheduled.
Romero’s promotion takes cues from the punk-rock scene, offering an edgier product influenced by WWE’s infamous Attitude Era of the late ’90s and early 2000s.
"We are a very DIY company that still fliers parking lots and sells tickets directly to fans," Romero said. "The wrestling scene in the bay area is growing. We just hope to be able to make memories in the minds of those who come to our shows."
Pro wrestling’s boom in recent years is due in part to the rising popularity of local, untelevised events like the ones organized by Romero, Ritchie and Smith. On any given month, you can find at least two or three shows to attend, and pro wrestling schools from here to Orlando are training new talent.
Whether you prefer punk rock with your powerbombs or dinner with your dropkicks, Central Florida wrestling fans have a choice of main events.
Contact Justin Grnt at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @WordsWithJG