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Soundtrack of the ring
By MIKE BRASSFIELD
© St. Petersburg Times, published July 29, 2000
Before there was Smackdown or Monday Nitro. Before there were flashpots, fireworks and screaming guitars to accompany every wrestler to the ring.
Before all of that, there was Gordon Solie, a microphone and a collapsible card table in Tampa's Fort Homer Hesterly Armory.
Mr. Solie, whose low-key announcing style was the soundtrack for televised professional wrestling for four decades, was found dead of brain cancer Friday in his New Port Richey home. He was 71.
Pro wrestling was big in Tampa before almost anywhere else. It dates back to the days of the "American Dream" Dusty Rhodes and Eddie Graham knocking bellies at the armory, and Mr. Solie ending his Channel 44 broadcasts from the Sportatorium with "So long from the Sunshine State."
Born in Minneapolis in 1929, Mr. Solie broke into the wrestling business as a ring announcer in Tampa in 1950. Ten years later, he started announcing the Championship Wrestling from Florida television show that aired in the state every Saturday from 1960-87.
Mr. Solie had a deep, gravelly voice. But his true strengths were his catch phrases such as "foreign object," "pier six brawl," or describing the blood spewing from a wrestler's forehead as a "crimson mask," as well as his ability to make the staged mayhem sound like legitimate athletic competition.
"We were a team together in an era that kind of led us to where wrestling is at now," said Virgil Runnels, who headlined the CWF territory for much of the 1970s and early '80s as Dusty Rhodes, a bad guy turned good who pummeled opponents with his "atomic elbow."
"We used to call each other the Howard Cosell and (Muhammad) Ali of wrestling."
Before the World Wrestling Federation began enjoying nationwide popularity in 1985, Mr. Solie was one of wrestling's best-known figures because of the sheer amount of announcing he did.
He hosted Georgia Championship Wrestling on TBS, the top-rated show during the early years of cable TV in the late '70s and early '80s, and wrestling shows based in Alabama and Puerto Rico.
"He could make a guy who was a poor technical wrestler sound like a Greco-Roman champion," said Wayne Coleman, who wrestled for two decades as "Superstar" Billy Graham. "He was so smooth that words were like butter coming off his lips."
Mr. Solie called the matches of wrestlers such as Jack Brisco, The Great Malenko, Handsome Harley Race and Nature Boy Ric Flair. When Championship Wrestling from Florida folded in 1987, he went to work two years later for Ted Turner-owned World Championship Wrestling until 1993.
In the mid-90s, he announced matches via satellite, his commentary translated into six languages and beamed out to Europe, India, Africa, and Japan by Eurosport, Europe's counterpart to ESPN.
His rise from local TV personality to international play-by-play announcer showed just how far pro wrestling had come.
Today, wrestling is a huge ratings draw. Superstars like Steve Austin, The Rock and Mankind have their own action figures, T-shirts and books. The WCW markets its own cologne.
But Mr. Solie wasn't a fan of the WCW and WWF.
"You can't argue with their success. What they do, they do very well," he said in 1997. "It's just not what I call wrestling."
Mr. Solie said he always took a low-key approach to calling matches and let the action dictate his tone, whereas today's announcers seem to scream the entire match.
"I was like a golf announcer, building up to the excitement," Mr. Solie said. " "He moves from the corner and goes for single leg takedown. He applies pressure. ... AND HE TURNS HIM OVER INTO A BOSTON CRAB ... ' "
"Gordon changed the face of wrestling announcing. He called it like a legitimate sporting contest," said Alex Marvez, who writes a syndicated pro wrestling column for Scripps Howard News Service. "Then it became more of a comic-type industry that Gordon didn't care to be a part of."
For a man who called a sport that most people consider fake, the rewards for Mr. Solie were quite real. He and his wife raised five children in a large home on Lake Keystone in northern Hillsborough County. He moved to New Port Richey in 1994. Mr. Solie underwent surgery for throat cancer last year, officially ending his announcing career. "Over the last several weeks, he had been visited by many longtime friends and colleagues," said Tedd Webb, co-host of WFLA-AM 970's popular weekday morning show A.M. Tampa Bay. "His spirits were very high till the end, and he maintained the sharp sense of humor we all came to love him for."
Mr. Solie is survived by five children, seven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. Funeral arrangements are pending, but information will be available at www.nwa-wrestling.com.
- Times staff writer Chuck Murphy, Scripps Howard News Service and Times files contributed to this report.
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