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Preps

The final bell

Longtime professional wrestler Mike Rotunda is ready to trade in the sport for full-time parenthood.

By JOHN SCHWARB
Published February 22, 2004

BROOKSVILLE - Mike Rotunda lived out of a suitcase for the better part of 23 years, earning a living in front of thousands of people.

His duty was to entertain, sometimes with his mouth but mostly with his body, flying around a wrestling ring in matches that were staged yet filled with physical challenges.

Night after night, in arenas all over the world, Rotunda made his living. He shrugs it off as less than difficult, considering what he goes through now as a father.

On the mats, Windham Rotunda, his son, is a Hernando junior on a quest for a state championship.

"It's hard to watch your own kid wrestle," Mike Rotunda said.

Ironic, how standing on the sidelines can be harder than competing in the ring.

* * *

In three months, Rotunda will wrestle professionally for the last time. Periodically for the past few years, he has wrestled in Japan, and partner Steve "Dr. Death" Williams asked him to return next month for a penultimate week of bouts. His retirement match will be in May in Japan. With that, a part of Rotunda's life will officially come to an end.

Since 1981, the Brooksville resident has toiled in the ring, living a glamorous yet solitary life as a wrestling celebrity. Shortly after graduating from Syracuse after wrestling and playing football, Dick Beyer ("The Destroyer") recruited Rotunda to Canada to check out the pro wrestling life. Impressed, Rotunda signed up, was booked to wrestle in Germany, and a long career began.

"It was weird, because I was never a fan growing up in New York," said Rotunda, who knew pro wrestling only as the stuff of UHF channels on Friday nights.

But Rotunda was very good at it, given his strong amateur background that included two AAU All-American years at Syracuse. After returning from debut matches in Germany, he wrestled in Canada for a while, where he was spotted by a North Carolina recruiter who invited him to wrestle in the states.

The booking agent there was veteran wrestler Ed "Wahoo" McDaniel, who liked Rotunda's athletic background. Within six months, he was a television champion in Charlotte, N.C. By 1984, he was in the World Wrestling Federation - and married. Stephanie Windham, working for Delta Air Lines in Texas, was visiting her brother, Barry, in Florida when she met Rotunda. He was Barry's tag-team partner.

"We were married six months later," Rotunda said. "She never went back to Texas."

In 1984, the newlyweds lived in Tampa, then four years later moved to Zephyrhills to start a family. They knew the first boy would be named Windham. Yet it would be years until he saw his father every day. The WWF's popularity skyrocketed in the mid-1980s, and Mike Rotunda went along for the ride. In 1985, he wrestled 300 shows and on March 31 that year wrestled with Barry Windham in a tag-team match at Wrestlemania I at Madison Square Garden.

"It was grueling, but it took off. ... They didn't know how long it was going to last," Rotunda said. "They basically booked any arena they could get in."

It would not be uncommon to wrestle one night in Boston, the next in Los Angeles, the next in Cleveland. For as long as a month at a time without a stop home.

A competing league, the WCW (World Championship Wrestling), also thrived and Rotunda moved there in the late 1980s, picking up the character Michael Wallstreet. A spinoff from the movie Wall Street, the character picked up more steam on a return to the WWF in 1991. As Irwin R. Schyster, also known as IRS, Rotunda threatened fans with audits. Fans hated it and loved it at the same time.

"It was pretty entertaining, the fans' feedback toward me. They didn't like it, but it made my job easier," Rotunda said. "You don't have to be nice to anybody."

* * *

All along the way, Rotunda stayed away from the wild lifestyle associated with professional wrestling. The WWF's growth was stunted by steroid accusations in the early 1990s, but Rotunda never was among the accused.

The 6-foot-3, 240-pounder lived as a loner on the road, avoiding the extreme characters of the circuits and the methods some took to stay on top. "Bigger, faster, stronger, in any sport it never ends. It's just something I never thought of as an option," Rotunda said of the steroid issue.

Rotunda often would rent a car and stay at another hotel. And call home. "We had tremendous phone bills," Stephanie Rotunda said. "He didn't take advantage of the notoriety handed to him. He was very family-devoted."

Except, often, without the family. Mike traveled around the world but the family, once Windham was entrenched in school and son Taylor (now an eighth-grader) and daughter Mika (at Brooksville Elementary) arrived, rarely came along.

"I missed Windham's first 10 years," Rotunda said. "I didn't want to miss any more."

Rotunda suffered a neck injury in 1995 that slowed him for a while, though he returned to the ring once he recovered from surgery. Approaching 40, however, he focused more on occasional gigs in Japan. Finally, he was home for months at a time. Soon, he'll be completely done.

* * *

Ironic, how a man once known for harassing fans to pay their taxes now runs a used-car lot advertising "buy here, pay here." If a customer misses a car payment, will Irwin R. Schyster make a house call in his trademark suspenders, tie and bulging biceps?

"He puts on the repo man hat," Stephanie Rotunda said, laughing.

No, IRS is long gone, alive only in reruns and on the Internet through chat rooms and ebay, where one of his action figures recently sold for $1.88. Mike Rotunda, 45, is back, living a normal life as a parent.

Stephanie and Mike own their own businesses, the Main Street Auto store in Brooksville and a security company. It allows them to make their own hours and keep tabs on all the children's sports. Windham's are at the forefront now, especially in a wrestling postseason.

"It's awesome having him around," Windham said. "It's like having a coach at home. He always knows the situations I'm in, and he's there for support."

Rotunda's professional life, soon-to-be former life, rarely is discussed. The now-racier wrestling world has no appeal to Mike, and it never is on the family TV. The business certainly provided well (at his peak, Rotunda says he made $300,000 a year), but Rotunda has all but completely distanced himself. He's happy to be home.

"It's just one of those things, you do something and you go on to the next thing," Rotunda said. "I'm enjoying my life now."

[Last modified February 22, 2004, 01:45:26]


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