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Learning the ropes

By Jonathan Milton, Times Staff Writer
Published February 22, 2008

Wrestlers slam, sling and pound each other Feb. 15 in a 22-man "Over the Top Rope Battle Royal" at the Florida State Fair. Nick Nemeth, center, tosses crowd favorite Mike "Mighty Mikey" Mondo out of the ring. The last two standing faced off for the Florida Championship Wrestling Heavyweight Championship.
[Melissa Lyttle | Times]
[Melissa Lyttle | Times]
Armando Estrada, 30, left, works through moves with Brandon Groom, 27. Groom is not under contract with World Wrestling Entertainment; he's paying his way through training in Tampa.

[Melissa Lyttle | Times]
Billy Kidman, 33, left, a former WCW wrestler, has his own action figure. Here, he shows newcomer Yamamoto Naofumi, 30, of Tokyo a headlock and a hair-pull maneuver at the FCW training center.

[Melissa Lyttle | Times]
Natalie Neidhart, 25, a third-generation wrestler, turns on the attitude as fans reach out to her as she enters the ring at the fair.

[Melissa Lyttle | Times]
The 24-year-old Bella Twins, Brianna and Nicole, pose for pictures and sign autographs at the Florida State Fair on Feb. 15.

[Melissa Lyttle | Times]
"Big Rob" Terry, 27, a bodybuilder from Wales, recently signed with WWE. "I still have a lot to learn."

Steve Keirn, 56, says he has invested close to $500,000 of his own money to help bring the facility to life.

FAIROAKS/MANHATTAN MANOR - On stage, hearts pounded like drums in a heavy metal rock anthem as adrenaline pumped through veins. A crowd of about 30 peers cheered, their voices echoing off the freshly painted concrete walls of the warehouse. Boom! "Big Rob" Terry had just bounced his 280 pounds of muscle off the ropes and slammed Steve Lewington onto the wrestling ring mat. Yet, the two quickly regained composure and acknowledged one another with smiles of approval. It was only a warmup to six more hours of grueling training that day in a new and unique South Tampa facility. The pain was worth it, they say, if it brings them closer to becoming the next superstar wrestlers.

Escape from reality

Terry and Lewington share their dream with about 35 athletes from all over the world who have converged on South Tampa.

Since August, they have come to the Florida Championship Wrestling training facility, a 10,000-square-foot space inside a larger warehouse where furniture distributors share real estate with grocery store storage space.

FCW president Steve Keirn is the facility's owner and also the trainer, along with former wrestler Tom Prichard. They teach aspiring wrestlers how to maneuver the ring, how to fall properly, how to pretend like they're in pain after opponents create the illusion of hitting them.

The facility is the only one of its kind in the country training wannabes for the World Wrestling Entertainment arena. Keirn's students have come from as far away as Oklahoma, California and even the United Kingdom.

FCW plans to debut its state-of-the-art training and entertainment center to the public soon. Last week, Keirn was waiting on the final touches to be completed, including production equipment that was slated to arrive. He hopes the venue, at 4535 S Dale Mabry, will become the stage where upcoming wrestlers show off their talents.

People from around the county already have heard about the facility; some have poked their heads in to watch wrestlers train.

County Commissioner Brian Blair, a former wrestler himself, has gotten wind of it and says this will be good for Tampa, a longtime hotbed for wrestling.

"I think it's great for the economy to bring the developmental guys from the WWE here to Florida," Blair said this week. "Wrestling seems to do well when the economy's bad. I think one of the reasons is that people go and get their frustrations out at the matches so they can kind of escape reality for a little while."

In the past, the FCW has trained students at various locations in Hillsborough, but the organization had no permanent home until Keirn secured the warehouse space last year.

Developing talent

Keirn's vision was to create a facility where he could train future wrestlers and stage entertaining shows for the community. The idea is that families and fans will come to the 300-seat arena where weekly live shows will be broadcast for local television.

Keirn, 56, spent 35 years in the wrestling business and says he has traveled the world. He has felt he could contribute to the industry's future ever since his early days in the business.

He says he has invested close to $500,000 of his own money to help bring the facility to life. He plans to hire a team of producers, technicians, office staffers, marketing and promoting teams, and others to help run the business.

The FCW recently became the only training facility in the nation that shepherds talent to the WWE. Another facility that nurtured talent for the multi-million-dollar corporation - the Ohio Valley Wrestling centerin Louisville, Ky. - is no longer affiliated with the WWE.

Keirn is the sole owner of the FCW, although he also is employed by the WWE as head of developmental talent. The WWE steers wrestlers who need training to him. "Somebody has to create the talent pool," Keirn said. "We needed more training for the WWE and for wrestlers trying to advance in their careers."

A full-time job

Training for stardom is a full-time job for FCW wrestlers. Many come to the center Monday through Friday. They practice various stunts for hours.

For instance, 24-year-old twins Nicole and Brianna Bella are known for what is called the "monkey flip."

The twins throw their opponents into the corner of the ring, the force knocking their foes off their feet. They then run onto the opponents' thighs and grab the backs of the enemies' heads. The twins drop down to the ground onto their backs and then throw the opponents over their heads back onto the ground. While doing the move, the twins yell, "Double trouble!"

They also put on matches at local venues such as Bourbon Street Nightclub in New Port Richey to sharpen their showmanship skills.

A majority of the wrestlers at Keirn's facility are under a developmental contract with the WWE, which pays for their training. Others pay tuition to learn the ropes of the business. Keirn wouldn't be specific about tuition costs, saying that students pay based on what they can afford.

The facility operates with four rings and currently trains about 35 contracted athletes. Keirn hopes that number will increase to about 70 soon.

Brandon Groom, 27, moved to Tampa about a year and a half ago from Oklahoma. He's not under contract with the WWE, but he still spends much of his week at the facility. Groom says he supports himself with the money he saved up from his previous job as a gym manager and also from helping out at his fiancee's moving company.

"This is all I do," he said. "My saying is to do it now or die trying."

Like a proud father

Students see Keirn as a mentor, father figure and disciplinarian.

Popular local WWE wrestlers including the Big Show, John Cena and Edge have stopped by to lend advice.

The buzz also piqued the interest of wrestling veteran and champ Harley Race, who came from his St. Louis home to take a look. He gave the operation his nod of approval.

Keirn grew up in Tampa and remembers the wrestling scene from back in the '70s. He went to Robinson High School with other wrestling enthusiasts, including Terry "Hulk Hogan" Bollea.

Back then, wrestling was popular, but different. Keirn remembers events at the Fort Homer Hesterly Armory.

Last week, he watched as his apprentices competed at the Florida State Fairgrounds. Like a father at a recital, he stood, panning his video camera across the scene.

The house lights dimmed, and the crowd let out a thunderous yell.

A voice boomed over the speakers: "Are you all ready for some wrestling?"

The music blasted.

Backstage, wrestlers pumped themselves up. Some hit the floor for a set of pushups; others paced and practiced moves.

The time had come to show the fans what they were made of.

Jonathan Milton can be reached or 813 226-3374.

Meet the wrestlers

Natalie Neidhart

Stage name: Nattie

Age: 25

From: Calgary, Alberta

Athletic background: Dance, gymnastics, wrestling.

In training: One year.

Why wrestling? I come from a family of wrestlers. My grandfather was Stu Hart. My whole family was involved in wrestling. I've always been a fan of wrestling. But for me, as far as why I wanted to do this, it's just an indescribable feeling of empowerment.

Nicole and Brianna Bella

Stage name: Bella Twins

Age: 24

From: San Diego, Calif.

Athletic background: College soccer, volleyball (Brianna); track and field, college soccer (Nicole).

In training: Seven months.

Why wrestling? Brianna: When it comes to entertainment, wrestling is one thing, where as a woman, you can be very aggressive, powerful and athletic. At the same time you can still be sexy and beautiful. Nicole: When I looked into wrestling and being a diva, it was almost the perfect thing for me because not only do you get to look hot, but you get to kick other girl's a---- too.

Rob Terry

Stage name: Big Rob

Age: 27

From: Wales, U.K.

Athletic background: Track and field, rugby, bodybuilding.

In training: Three months.

Why wrestling? It's been a dream for me since I was probably 9 or 10 watching the Ultimate Warrior and Hulk Hogan. I always sort of emulated the bigger guys. It's just kind of like the perfect lifestyle to me where I get to do the shows and keep my body in perfect health and shape.

Brandon Groom

Stage name: Brandon the Greek

Age: 27

From: Bristow, Okla.

Athletic background: High school and college wrestling.

In training: Five months.

Why wrestling? Wrestling is something that caught my attention at age 10. It was everything that I was looking for. It became my passion.

[Last modified February 25, 2008, 10:14:09]

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