Tampa Bay Business & Wealth, and the law firm Shumaker presented this panel discussion with notable wrestlers in the Tampa Bay area and beyond. The discussion included how they were able to enter the business world and create wealth during, and after, their time in the ring.
The discussion was moderated by Michael Dockins, partner at Shumaker, and held at the J.C. Newman Cigar Co., in Ybor City. The transcript has been edited for length and brevity. (Photos below)
• Eric Bischoff, host of the podcast 83 Weeks, former president of World Championship Wrestling
• Thaddeus Bullard, “Titus O’Neil,” WWE superstar
• Marc Hardgrove, CEO, The Hoth
• Joe Gomez, president of Florida Settlement Funding, co-owner of Palazzo Pizza Tampa
Dockins: I’m curious to hear from each of you. How did you guys get into wrestling?
Gomez: I was at a wedding. Dusty Rhodes and Mike Graham came up to me and asked me if I ever thought about being a wrestler. Of course, I said yes. I’ve dreamed about it my whole life. They asked me if I wanted to come down to the school and give it a shot. It probably took me about six months, because I knew that they would bring guys down there and stretch them, as you would call it. A famous story is when [Hulk] Hogan got his ankle broken by one of the guys. It’s a tough business.
Every time Ron Slinker would run into me in town, at the gym, or wherever, he’d ask me when I was coming in. I would tell him, “I’ll be there. I’ll be there. I’ll be there. Sure. Right away.”
I was just a little hesitant and so when I finally went, everything went great. I was very fortunate to wrestle here in Tampa, at the old Sportatorium, where I grew up watching wrestling. It was a big thrill that I was lucky enough to work for WCW.
Hardgrove: I think I wanted to become a wrestler since I was 10 years old. I went to my first match and I saw Tommy Rich, and Buzz Sawyer, in a cage match, which was the main event, and I was hooked.
I wanted to become a wrestler until I became a wrestler. I got to what they call “the enhancement level,” which is back in the day, they used to have squash matches.
It was the 1980s wrestling that drew me in, and I still think had some of the best wrestling that ever existed.
Dockins: Thad, how about you? You’re a University of Florida football player, right? How did you end up in wrestling?
Bullard: Go, Gators. I was getting ready to go back to Florida to coach.
Dave Battista, who’s a former WWE superstar, and now he’s a movie star, he’s one of my best friends, and he used to talk to me about wrestling and I used to tell him, “I’m not doing that.”
I watched it growing up and I was hooked on it, along with my grandma. We used to watch it every Monday.
I was going into Britton Plaza, for those that live in Tampa they know there’s a shoe place in there that I used to get my shoes fixed. I had a taste for Jerk Hut, and there is a Jerk Hut right around the corner from Britton Plaza on Gandy [Boulevard]. When I was driving over there, I saw the building that Dave was talking about. I picked up my chicken, first things first, [audience laughs], and on my way back I called Dave and asked if it was the same place he was trying to get me to come to. He said it was, so I decided to poke my head in and see what it was about.
I saw Dusty Rhodes and Steve Kern. We had a 15-minute conversation and they asked me if I would come back.
They had a show that night. I had to pick up my kids, at the time they were 2 and 4 years old. I picked them up
and asked them if they wanted to go to a wrestling show. They said yes. While we were there I looked over at my 2-year-old, Titus, and I asked him, “Do you think this is something you want to see Daddy do?”
When I was driving home, John Laurinaitis called me. Two weeks after that, I was learning how to become a WWE superstar. I just got put into the Hall of Fame in 2021.
Dockins: Eric, as somebody who wasn’t primarily a competitor, how did you get into wrestling?
Bischoff: I’ve been an entrepreneur all my life. As a kid, growing up in Detroit, I watched professional wrestling on Saturday mornings. My dad worked and on Saturdays, because we only had one car, my mom would take the car, drop my dad off at work and go grocery shopping for the week. That left my brother and me home, alone, to watch whatever we wanted to watch. We had the house to ourselves. And after we got done with Bugs Bunny and the Road Runner and Heckle and Jeckle, boom, at 11 a.m., wrestling came on.
When I was in my 30s, a good friend of mine and I had a couple of beers one night and came up with this idea for a kid’s action game. I won’t go into all the details. But we had 5,000 of these games manufactured. We knew we were going to become millionaires because we were going to have the next hottest kids game in the marketplace. We stuffed them in the garages of our neighbors, friends and family. We didn’t have a warehouse or anything. And I said, OK, now how are we going to sell these damn things?
By that time I lived in Minneapolis, and I wrestled in high school and I wrestled in college, and Verne Gagne, who was [in] Minneapolis, was always a big amateur wrestling supporter. And I thought, I’m going to play the amateur wrestling card and see if that works. I called up Verne. I introduced myself and I said, “Hey, I’d love to have a meeting with you. I’ve got an idea. I’d like to present it to you.” I presented my game and he loved it.
Verne had a show on ESPN Monday through Friday. I thought that was the perfect [time slot] for kids coming home from school watching wrestling. We ended up doing that deal. He eventually, for whatever reason, I guess he knew I was a decent salesperson, hired me to do his sales and syndication. I took that job and, fast-forward a couple of years later, I was working for Ted Turner and booking for WWE and here I am today.
Dockins: How did being in the wrestling business either help you, or hurt you, for life after wrestling?
Bullard: We have three other pay-per-view [specials] that have a significant economic impact on cities including Summer Slam, Survivor Series and the Royal Rumble.
I could have played 20 years in the National Football League and been a 10-time Super Bowl Most Valuable Player, and still not have as much of a platform as I have with WWE. It’s a global company.
We have 1 billion followers on social media. We just signed a $1 billion deal with Peacock, which reaches 33 million homes throughout the country. And then we have our own WWE Network, which is overseas.
When politicians ask celebrities to endorse them, they’re not asking them because they need their money. They’re asking them because they need their influence. Our platform gives people influence.
We have partners, like the Boys and Girls Club and Susan G. Komen, that were able to raise millions of dollars because of our platform.
Dockins: Joe, what about you?
Gomez: My outside interests hampered my career in WCW. Eric was my boss, and was very gracious to me, but he paid me to be a professional wrestler. He didn’t pay me to open up the other businesses that I did. And that was solely on me.
I wouldn’t change anything. I made great friendships, great relationships and had a tremendous time.
Dockins: Eric, in addition to being the president of WCW, for a number of years, and working with Ted Turner, also has had a television producer role and was a writer at an entertainment company. He has produced over 5,000 hours of television. As an executive, how did it help prepare you?
Bischoff: I had to learn the business of wrestling from the ground up. I had to learn why advertisers did, or didn’t, like wrestling. That helped me later on when I worked for Ted Turner because I was able to shape our programming, and our creative strategies, to satisfy the audience but also satisfy advertisers.
Dockins: Mark, what about you? Your route was a little different in that you got to live the childhood dream, but you never relied on the childhood dream for your future.
Hardgrove: My mom said I could go to wrestling school as long as I got my business degree. Once wrestling was over, I started a company and years later that company got momentum. We had the budget to buy brand ambassadors, or sponsors, and my first instinct was to go to wrestlers.
Through my wrestling connection, because these guys get hit up all the time, but the fact that I was in the business, I was able to convince both [Hulk Hogan and Rick Flair] to be part of my company.
The passion that people have for wrestling brings them back to being 15 years old when life was simple.
Dockins: Why do wrestlers keep coming to Tampa? Why is Tampa a good place to put down roots to start a business?
Bullard: First, we have the best airport in the world. And, you know, no state tax definitely [helps]. I came to Tampa in 2004 to play for the Tampa Bay Storm. And my brother-in-law played for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at the time, and we just decided to stay here. We just loved the city and saw a lot of potential.
If you would have told us in 2004 that Tampa would be what it is today, we’d probably be looking at you like you had four eyes and four legs, but Tampa is a really big area that still has a very small-town feel.
Even if you don’t live in the city of Tampa, you can be in St. Peterburg, Clearwater or Odessa. I think we have a community that understands family, we understand business and we like to have a really good time. ♦
Photos by Ryan Gautier