ROAD TO WRESTLEMANIA – On Sunday April 5, 2020, Wrestlemania 36 will be held at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa.
Long before Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Entertainment developed the idea for professional wrestling’s annual signature event, Florida was a hotbed for those looking to make a living in the squared circle.
Over the next 12 months, ABC Action News will profile grapplers with ties to Tampa Bay who left quite an impact on the sports entertainment industry.
TAMPA, Fla. – In 1969, Robert Michael “Bob” Roop graduated from Southern Illinois University with a degree in political science. Soon thereafter, he left home to pursue a career – not in political science but professional wrestling.
A chance meeting with a longtime friend – Larry Heiniemi (ring name Lars Anderson) – led him to Tampa where he got his start. Under the tutelage of legendary promoter Eddie Graham, Roop quickly learned the ropes and was put to work.
“I made my debut in Fort Myers, the next night I was in Eau Gallie,” Roop, 72, recalled during a recent trip to the Tampa Bay area. “Once I learned what I was doing, they started booking me into the bigger towns like Tampa, West Palm Beach and Miami.”
Roop already knew how to wrestle, he just needed an education on the theatrics in this form of the sport. His journey began as an eighth grader in East Lansing, Michigan. A year later – as a freshman - he earned a spot on his high school’s varsity squad.
Unfortunately, things didn’t go well as he compiled a record of 0-22-1.
Undeterred, Roop worked hard to improve his mat skills which he did at a rapid pace.
By the time he was a senior, he was among the most accomplished prep wrestlers in the state of Michigan. During his final year of high school, Roop went undefeated (27-0) on his way to a state championship.
His athletic prowess – Roop also played football - earned him a scholarship to Michigan State University. But after just 18 months, he quit and joined the Army.
Three years later – when his military obligation was through – Roop decided to give college another try. He enrolled at Southern Illinois where he was a four-time All-American wrestler.
In 1968, Roop was selected to represent the United States in the Olympic Games in Mexico City. He finished seventh in the Greco-Roman heavyweight division– his only loss was to the eventual Gold Medal Winner, Aleksandr Medved of the Soviet Union.
“To finish seventh in the world in anything – even tiddlywinks – is quite an accomplishment,” Roop explained. “It was an excellent experience, a lot of hard work and a lot of fun.”
His stint as an Olympian gave professional wrestling promoters a good storyline angle for his professional character – an arrogant villain who flaunted his top-notch amateur accomplishments. The promoters even embellished his story a bit, claiming Roop was an “Olympic Gold-Medal winner.”
“I was against the idea, I hated it. I even asked [the promoters] not to do it,” Roop says of his early days with Championship Wrestling from Florida. “Amateur wrestlers despise guys who make false claims. I was a legitimate All-American and National Champion and to me, that was good enough.”
But as Roop would learn these “little white lies” were good for business and what was good for business filled seats leading to bigger and better paydays for the grapplers. During his prime, he earned as much as $80,000 a year and got to see the world.
He retired from active ring duty in 1988 following an automobile accident in which he suffered a neck injury. At that time, Roop was working with CWF as a booker – the guy who picks the wrestlers and helps script the matches. He was also running a professional wrestling school in Davie.
Among his students was Larry Pfohl, a professional football player and bodybuilder. Roop met him in the Sunshine State at a celebrity golf event and was greatly impressed by his physique. He arranged for Pfhol – who later adopted the ring name Lex Luger – to be trained by Hiro Matsuda, who also trained Hulk Hogan and Paul “Mr. Wonderful” Orndorff.
In 2006, Roop was inducted into the George Tragos/Lou Thesz Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame. In addition to his ring accomplishments, Roop also appeared in a Sylvester Stallone film “Paradise Alley.”
In 2002, he became a published author, writing a book called “Death Match.” Looking back, Roop has no regrets from his days working in and around the square circle.
“Call it [professional wrestling] hokey if you will, make fun of it, I understand. I am a college graduate, but I had a blast doing it for as long as I did, it allowed me to provide for my family and it was quite an education,” Roop said.