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Ex-pro wrestler takes on Democratic commissioner

By BILL VARIAN, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 23, 2002


TAMPA -- As Brian Blair tells it, he was 7 years old when he found religion.

TAMPA -- As Brian Blair tells it, he was 7 years old when he found religion.

He had heard a preacher talk about the power of prayer. So he prayed to be Superman.

He got the tights, though they would come years later and in a bumblebee pattern. And during a nearly 20-year career in professional wrestling, he at least got to pretend to be a character much tougher than he really is, most famously as part of the duo, "the Killer Bees."

Now, like Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura before him, Blair has hung up those tights and is running for office. A Republican, he wants to unseat Hillsborough Commissioner Pat Frank, a Democrat.

Blair, 45, is running on a platform that emphasizes family values. He has blasted Frank for supporting gay rights, medical marijuana and county funding of public access television, as well as her opposition to Internet filters at public libraries.

But Blair's life has not always been a Norman Rockwell painting. By his own account, his first marriage ended with his throwing punches at another man and dodging bullets. Later, he was investigated by Hillsborough sheriff's deputies when an ex-girlfriend reported he beat her. He calls that incident a fabrication.

He also was a central figure in a 1990s steroid scandal in pro wrestling. He says he was an innocent bystander who was never prosecuted.

Blair, who owned several successful gyms before selling them in 1998, said of the first marriage: "We all go through trials and tribulations. The point is, if you persevere and try to grow in your faith, you can accomplish anything."

* * *

A native of Gary, Ind., Blair moved to Tampa with his family at the age of 11. His parents divorced soon after. He says he remembers being embarrassed that his family used food stamps. Eventually, he moved out, spending his final two years at Tampa Bay Technical high school living with friends.

After two tries at college, Blair began showing up at the Sportatorium, a training center for wrestlers on North Albany Street that was founded by Eddie Graham, a state legend in the business. Blair would soon be joined there by Terry Bollea, later known as Hulk Hogan, who was then a bass player for a local rock band called Ruckus.

Blair, a former football player and high school wrestler, impressed his trainers, who ushered him into the arena of scripted pro wrestling. Before long he was performing around the country.

"He was a good guy," says wrestler Michael Graham, Eddie Graham's son. "Everybody liked him.

In 1979, Blair ended up in Tulsa, Okla., wrestling for promoter Leroy McGuirk and dating McGuirk's daughter, whom he soon married. But the marriage lasted only a year, ending when Blair heard a rumor that his wife was seeing another wrestler.

The breakup is described in the book Wrestling with God, published last year, which tells the stories of 10 wrestlers who, in the book's words "came face to face with their Creator." According to the book, Blair confronted his wife's alleged lover in McGuirk's office.

"I wasn't sure if him and (my wife) were having an affair, but I had heard that they were," Blair is quoted as saying. "He looked at me, and I just couldn't stand it, so I hit him. I hurt him real bad. There was blood all over the office, and some of Leroy's pictures were broken."

Blair said he decided to leave Tulsa, though not before he was shot at by an angry McGuirk. Blair wasn't hurt and says now he knows enough to walk away from a fight.

Before returning to Tampa, Blair had traveled the country and the world wrestling.

Back in Tampa, he fell into another difficult relationship, this time with a chiropractor. On Sept. 25, 1984, the woman told a Hillsborough sheriff's deputy that Blair beat her during an argument inside her apartment, according to the deputy's report.

The woman said Blair had been drinking, threw her over a sofa, punched her 10 to 12 times in the head and pulled out a clump of her hair. Hair was retrieved as evidence. The woman said Blair also took more than $2,000 worth of gifts he had given her during their relationship.

The report indicates Blair was slated to be charged with battery and grand theft after an Oct. 29 deposition at the State Attorney's Office. The report notes that no attempt was made to pick him up because he was out of the country.

Blair was never questioned, arrested or charged, though he returned to the country a few days later. He was also in the country for more than a week after the alleged incident.

Blair acknowledges an unpleasant breakup, but says he was never violent.

"The whole thing was fabricated," Blair said. "I absolutely swear to that."

Attempts to reach the woman who filed the report were unsuccessful. She is not being identified because of the nature of the allegation.

In the ring, Blair was known as a "baby face," wrestling parlance for one of the good guys, said Dave Meltzer, longtime editor of the Wrestling Observer newsletter, considered the bible of wrestling news. Fellow wrestlers considered him a good guy outside the ring, too.

He gained a measure of acclaim in the mid to late 1980s. That's when he teamed up with a wrestler known as "Jumping" Jim Brunzell, forming the tag team called "the Killer Bees." They headlined some of wrestling's marquee events at a time when the business was at its peak, and they were commemorated with action-figure dolls.

In 1991, Blair was one of five wrestlers who testified against a Harrisburg, Pa., urologist, George Zahorian, who was convicted of 12 counts of selling steroids for nonmedical purposes. Blair acknowledged that he had received steroids from Zahorian.

The scandal led to widespread reports that steroid use was rampant in the business. Blair said recently that Zahorian, who worked as a doctor to many of his fellow wrestlers, prescribed small amounts of steroids to help him rehabilitate injuries suffered in the ring.

Blair said he never used the drugs improperly.

"I was never a muscle guy," he said.

* * *

By the time of the trial, Blair was moving away from wrestling. A year earlier, he purchased a Gold's Gym in Tampa and later expanded to three additional locations.

As he campaigns for the Hillsborough commission, Blair frequently refers to how he built the gyms into an operation that grossed $3-million annually.

"I can't say what kind of commissioner he will be, because I don't really know what a commissioner's qualifications are," said Steve Keirn, a former wrestler who was a partner in one of Blair's gyms. "But his integrity was of the highest. When he said he would do something, he did it."

After about eight years, Blair said the gym business began weighing on him. He worked most days and would get calls at all hours. By this time he was raising two sons with Toni, his wife of 17 years,whom he describes at campaign appearances as the prime minister of his house.

Blair says he prayed for an out, and not long after, he and his partners sold the business for an amount he won't disclose.

In Wrestling with God, he said he had about $80,000 in the bank before he bought his first gym. He lists his net worth now in campaign disclosure reports as just shy of $1-million.

Blair still does some wrestling events and promotions. He has an action figure Killer Bee doll of himself that he sometimes carries in his briefcase. Last year, he published his own book, Smarten Up! Say it Right., billed as a fan's guide to understanding the lingo of wrestlers and picturing a bloodied wrestler on the cover.

Blair said he's running for office because he wants to help shape the community for the better for his boys growing up. He said he got to see every state in the country through his wrestling and has seen how other places do things.

"I don't need a job," he said. "I want this one."

-- Staff researcher John Martin contributed to this report, which includes information from the Los Angeles Times.

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