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. – A father in the Air Force first brought Steve Keirn to Tampa Bay – he never left.
His family set up roots when fighter pilot Richard Keirn was stationed at MacDill Air Force Base - Steve was in the sixth grade at the time.
“I went to Sidney Lanier Elementary School, Monroe Junior High, Robinson High and I am a graduate of Hillsborough Community College,” recalled Keirn. “I love Tampa, it’s a big part of who I am.”
In 1965, Major Keirn was deployed to Thailand as part of the United States military force stationed in southeast Asia for the Vietnam War. On July 24, Major Keirn filled in for a pilot who was on sick-call – it was his fifth combat mission of the war.
He was flying near Hanoi when he was shot down by a surface to air missile. Both of his ankles were seriously injured, he suffered burns to his face, hands and shoulders and a piece of shrapnel was imbedded in his leg. Major Keirn was captured by the North Vietnamese a day later and became a prisoner of war for the second time in his military career.
“My dad was my hero,” Keirn said. “He was the only man to be locked up in a POW camp in two different wars.”
Major Keirn was detained for most of his son’s formative years. To fill the void, Steve gravitated to a classmate – Mike Graham. His father, Eddie Graham, was a professional wrestling legend and promoter of the Tampa-based Championship Wrestling from Florida.
“The Grahams kind of took me into their family; Eddie gave me odd jobs to do around the [wrestling] promotion – it was a great learning experience in many ways,” said Keirn of his introduction to professional wrestling. “Did I envision being in the business as long as I was? Probably not, but that’s how it worked out.”
He made his debut in 1972, working for Graham with CWF. Early on, Keirn spent most of his time working tag-team matches. He held one half of the Florida Tag Team Championship 12 times with a variety of partners including Mike Graham, Brian Blair and former WWF World Champion Bob Backlund.
In the early 1980s, Keirn started focusing on singles matches. He captured regional titles in Florida, Tennessee and Georgia, but when he ventured back to tag-team matches, he worked with Stan Lane to form one of the most popular teams of the decade – The Fabulous Ones.
Keirn and Lane dressed like Chippendale dancers and were among the first grapplers to use music to announce their presence.
“I look back fondly at those days, seeing the pictures and the videos and it’s like looking at an old yearbook,” he says. “We had some good times, made some good money and we got to see the world pretty much.”
Keirn participated in two Wrestlemania events during his career in the ring. After he retired, he began training young hopefuls at the Professional Wrestling School of Hard Knocks in Hillsborough County.
Among his proteges – Mike Awesome, Diamond Dallas Page, Tracy Smothers and Dustin Rhodes – son of the American Dream Dusty Rhodes. Keirn also spent time working for World Wrestling Entertainment in variety of roles.
“Behind the scenes, I probably worked an additional 10 or so Wrestlemania events,” Keirn said.
These days, Keirn spends time with his four grandchildren and says he does whatever he can to keep his mind sharp. Currently, he’s taking guitar lessons and learning a foreign language.