Bob Roop, a great professional wrestler with outstanding amateur credentials, will go down as one of Florida wrestling's finest heels. Roop attended Southern Illinois University-Carbondale from 1965-69, majoring in political science, and was a collegiate wrestling standout with a win-loss record of 66-18, including a 16-3 record during his senior year. Roop didn't wrestle during the 1966-67 season as he prepared for the 1968 Mexico City Olympics to compete in the Greco-Roman heavyweight division, a team that was coached by amateur wrestling legend Henry Wittenberg. Roop, weighing 270 pounds, and another SIU product, Larry Kristoff were the two heavyweights representing the U. S. Roop finished in seventh place, losing to Anatoli Roschin of Russia.
Roop made his professional wrestling debut in Florida in 1969 as the "All-American." He quickly adjusted to the different style of working as a pro wrestler, and became a favorite of CWF promoter Eddie Graham. Roop won the Southern Tag Team Titles with veteran worker Buddy Fuller in February of 1970, then defeated Dale Lewis in June of 1971 to win the Florida Brass Knuckles Title, and Ole Anderson to capture the Florida Television Title in December of 1971. He was also a former Florida Tag Team Champion, capturing the belts with Professor Boris Malenko in May of 1972. Roop was a young, clean-cut, handsome babyface in a territory already loaded with the likes of Jack Brisco and Mike Graham. He had won numerous Championships while wrestling for CWF, but never the state's biggest prize, the Florida Heavyweight Championship.
By late 1974, Roop had pushed aside the adoration of the fans as well as mid-card status. He was now a full-fledged main event heel, under the guidance of his manager, "Playboy" Gary Hart, and a charter member of "Hart's Army," the top heel group in the state. The turn proved to be successful for the former Olympian, as Roop captured the Florida Heavyweight title in July 1975, defeating Cowboy Bill Watts on the Championship Wrestling From Florida television program.
Bob Orton, Jr. was a familiar name to mat fans in the Sunshine State. Orton, Jr. had been around Florida wrestling rings since the early 1970s, first working as a referee, because promoter Eddie Graham had deemed him too small to compete. By 1972, after extensive training from Graham, Jack Brisco, and Hiro Matsuda, Orton, Jr. made his pro debut. Veteran journeyman George McCreary got a rare win on September 2 in Lakeland, Florida, defeating Orton, Jr. in the opening match. Orton Jr. would wrestle in Florida, on and off, for a couple of years, before settling in Georgia and becoming one of the territory's top heels. Orton, Jr., along with partner Dick Slater, held the Georgia and U.S. Tag Titles in 1975, and formed one of the great teams in wrestling history. But, by December 1975, Orton, Jr. returned to Florida, where he formed an alliance with Bob Roop, and the two men proceeded to rule the state's wrestling rings.
Upon entering the state, Orton, Jr. worked the undercard against wrestlers such as Abe Jacobs, Ron Starr, and others. He quickly moved up the ladder and entered in a rivalry with another second-generation wrestler, Mike Graham. Both Graham and Orton, Jr. had known each other from their days of amateur wrestling in Tampa, and both had gotten their starts in Florida wrestling rings in 1972. A rivalry between them was a natural. Orton, Jr. aligned himself with Karl Von Steiger, who was feuding with Graham over the U.S. Jr. Heavyweight Championship. But, as Von Steiger's push seemed to be coming to an end in CWF, Orton, Jr. formed a new team with Bob Roop, and together they began their domination of Florida wrestling rings.
In mid-January of 1976, on a televised CWF match, Bob Roop and Bob Orton, Jr. faced off against Erwin "Rip" Smith and veteran wrestler Abe Jacobs. With Abe Jacobs knocked from the ring, Smith was tied up in the ropes while Orton, Jr. hammered him with punches. Mike Graham, declaring that Smith looked like he was in danger of serious injury, jumped into the ring and tried to free him from the ropes. Orton, Jr. and Roop jumped Graham, and gave him a piledriver outside the ring, causing Graham to suffer a "neck injury" and wear a cervical collar. This also put Mike's future as one half of the Florida Tag Team Champions, along with his father, Eddie, in doubt. "I see no reason why Orton and I shouldn't move right in on the Grahams and take the Florida tag Team Championship," Roop commented in the weekly Florida wrestling program. "I'm presuming, of course, that Michael will recover sufficiently from his unfortunate mishap and that he'll be able to defend. I know it would break his old man's heart to have to forfeit the belts."
Roop and Orton, Jr. dominated all teams who stood in their way, and on January 27 in Tampa, they captured the Florida Tag straps, defeating Eddie Graham and Big Bill Dromo, who replaced the "injured" Mike Graham. Dromo, a capable veteran with many years of experience and a former Southern Heavyweight Champion, was no match for Roop and Orton, Jr., and was pinned by Roop after a shoulderbreaker. Roop and Orton, Jr. faced several stiff challenges the next few weeks as Mike Graham recovered and sought revenge. Mike teamed with Eddie, as well as Steve Keirn and Jerry Brisco, but was unable to recapture the belts. Other teams such as the Brisco brothers and Jerry Brisco and Dino Bravo also received title shots, but none were able to unseat the champions.
In early March, Bob Orton, Sr., a legend in Florida wrestling rings and generally credited with inventing the piledriver hold, returned to the Sunshine state. But, in sharp contrast to his son and Roop, he chose to compete as a popular babyface. Orton, Sr., from Kansas City, first appeared in Florida wrestling rings in November of 1950. He was a former Southern Heavyweight Champion, holding the belt six times from 1963-72, the last two reigns while wearing a hood as the Zodiac. Orton, Sr. also held the Florida version of the NWA World Tag Titles twice with Eddie Graham in 1966. Orton, Sr. faced several heels over the next few weeks in Miami Beach, losing to The Missouri Mauler on March 10, defeating Ali (Ron Pope) Pasha by disqualification on March 17, and beating Karl Von Steiger on March 24.
"Well, I like the looks of his win-loss record," Orton, Sr. commented about his son in an interview in the Florida wrestling program, "but there are some other things that I'm not all that crazy about. I particularly don't like the attitude he seems to have developed." When the suggestion of Orton, Jr.'s association with Roop being the cause of the attitude change, Bob Sr. spoke frankly. "That could be, and I must say that I was disappointed with Roop, whom I had always considered to be a good scientific wrestler. But Roop isn't my concern - Bobby is. I know that I've done a few things in my own time, but there's a difference. I wanted Bobby to have nothing but the best-College, Amateur wrestling, the works. I did a few things I'm not proud of to see that he got the best. I also know that Bobby is no longer a kid, and that I have no right to treat him like one. It leaves me in a rather difficult position."
In a match on March 23 in Tampa against Eddie and Mike Graham, Roop suffered "extensive ligament injuries" as well as a "badly fractured left knee," compliments of the figure four leglock. Paramedics immobilized Roop's leg and he was stretchered out of the ring. Bob Orton, Sr. offered this account to the Florida wrestling program. "Bobby was Roop's tag team partner in that match. It could have been him that got hurt. Regardless of who got hurt, I don't like to see it happen. I've been sidelined with injuries a few times myself. But how are you going to keep the injuries down when people like Eddie Graham and his son can cripple an opponent-it looked deliberate to me-and get away with it? I don't know what it is with Graham, but I don't figure on going to the hospital because he's decided that injuring his opponents is what wrestling is all about. Nobody is going to make a patsy out of me, or out of Bob Jr. Blood is thicker than water, and this time I may have to concede that the kid had the right idea."
The NWA passed a ruling that Orton, Jr. could retain the Florida Tag Titles and choose a new partner. Not unwisely, Orton named his father to share the championship, and the elder Orton's "heel turn" was now official. The Ortons would face several quality teams the next few weeks. They would defeat Mike Graham and Steve Keirn by count-out on March 31 in Miami Beach, as well as beating Abe Jacobs and Tom Jones on April 7 also on the Beach. On April 17, in St. Petersburg's Bayfront Center, The Grahams defeated the Ortons in a non-title match. The Ortons drew with Hiro Matsuda and Jerry Brisco on April 28 in Miami Beach, then defeated the same combination in a rematch on May 5.
Roop, recovering from legit cartilage surgery on his left knee, was still making his presence known at arenas throughout the state, as well as sitting next to Gordon Solie during tapings of "Championship Wrestling From Florida." Roop was adamant that he was permanently injured and his wrestling career was over. "I'll be lucky to ever even walk again! The Grahams used that (expletive deleted) figure four leglock to deliberately cripple me! Well, they may have put me out of action, but I can still cramp their style, and that's just what I'm going to do. It is a point of the National Wrestling Alliance policy that any hold which can be used to permanently injure an opponent will be banned from competition. My wrestling career is ended, thanks to the Graham's and the figure four leglock. That hold has got to be banned for the future in the interest of keeping professional wrestling above the level of barbaric combat. My family attorneys have already started work on this case. We are going to the NWA, present them with the facts, and then they will have no choice but to outlaw this barbaric hold once and for all!"
Within a couple of weeks, the NWA passed a ruling deeming the figure four an illegal hold. If and when Roop could return to active competition, the hold would be reinstated as legal. Roop, now using a cane for assistance to his damaged leg, was still insisting that his in ring career was finished. "I'll never wrestle again," stated Roop. "My doctors think I'll be able to walk-eventually-but competitive sports are out of the question. I may not even be able to bowl, or play golf, or ride a bicycle - things which most people take for granted. This is a crushing blow to me because wrestling has been such an important part of my life, but I intend to gut it up and take it like a man."
Eddie Graham chose a philosophical approach to the banning of his finishing maneuver. "The way I look at it," remarked Eddie Graham, "it's sort of like watching your mother-in-law drive your new car over the cliff. I've made a lot of good use out of the figure four, but I can get along without it. I can also get along without Roop. Either way, I'll take it as it comes. Roop is the guy who has the problems-he brought them on himself, and he's'welcome to them. All I can say is that, if he ever does decide to get back in the ring, I'm going to give him a few more!"
Six weeks after Roop's injury, a masked wrestler, named The Gladiator, was beginning to make his presence felt. There had been a masked Gladiator (Ricky Hunter) who had wrestled in Florida in 1969, but it was obvious that this was an altogether different competitor. The Gladiator quickly aligned himself with the Ortons as they continued feuding with The Grahams. On May 12, in Miami Beach, The Gladiator and The Ortons defeated The Grahams and Steve Keirn. Steve Keirn and Bob Backlund would wrestle The Gladiator and Bob Orton, Sr. to a draw also on the Beach on May 26. The Gladiator was a skilled athlete who used the shoulderbreaker as a finishing maneuver, the same shoulderbreaker that Roop had used to win many matches during his career. In fact, The Gladiator was the same height and weight as Roop, and fans throughout the state shouted "ROOP" in every city the masked man wrestled.
Eddie Graham was positive who was under the mask, and on the last Championship Wrestling From Florida television program for the month of May, Eddie, as well as Mike Graham and Jerry Brisco, interfered during a match involving The Gladiator. As Mike Graham held his arms, Eddie ripped the mask off revealing Bob Roop. "I had a pretty good idea who was behind that mask," said Eddie Graham. "A wrestler knows another wrestler by his moves, not his face. That's why I decided it was time for the mask to come off, so that everybody could get a good look at the man behind it. Well, Roop got the figure four leglock-the hold which laid him up-barred temporarily, pending the outcome of the injury. I'm not trying to substitute my judgement for that of the NWA, but I did think they should know what was going on, and I thought the people of Florida were entitled to know what the score was, too."
Bob Roop explained his version of the events. "I have been the subject of rather a lot of criticism for wearing a mask and wrestling at a time when most people thought I was still disabled. I don't think this is fair, anymore than it was fair or sportsmanlike for three people to gang up on me and pull the mask off. I wore the mask for several reasons. First of all, I was going against doctor's orders by wrestling again this soon. The injury to my knee was very severe and would have kept an ordinary man on crutches for months, perhaps years. Most important, I wanted the figure four leglock to remain an illegal hold. You can credit me and my doctors with my recovery, but don't ever get the idea that the figure four is not a dangerous, crippling hold that should remain barred in the best interests of the sport. Having achieved a ban on this maneuver, I certainly wouldn't have wanted my miraculous recovery to have become the basis for reinstating this hold. I wore the mask for the good of professional wrestling. I can only hope that the NWA will realize this and that they will make the ban on the figure four leglock a permanent part of the rules and regulations for the conduct of professional wrestling matches."
By early June, the NWA reversed it's decision and reinstated the figure four as a legal hold, despite the protests of Roop. Bob Orton, Jr., clearly a rising star, would score the biggest victory of his career, defeating Jack Brisco for the Florida Title. Claiming that the demand of defending two belts would be not in his best interests, Orton, Jr. requested permission from the NWA to relinquish his half of the tag team championship to his former partner, Roop, who had not been defeated for the title in the first place. The NWA granted the request and Roop and Orton, Sr. became the Florida tag team champions, holding the belts for several weeks, until dropping them to Steve Keirn and future WWWF Champion, Bob Backlund.
Bob Roop, who turns 60 in July, works as a lunchroom and playground supervisor at a school in Michigan, as well as being a den leader, cub scout master, and day camp supervisor. A website devoted to the career of Roop is currently in development. Roop is also working on a book, a mystery novel that is set in the wrestling ring. Roop's first novel, written over ten years ago and called "Death Match," remains unpublished.
At 52 years of age, Bob Orton, Jr. still makes an occasional appearance in wrestling rings, with his last high profile match at the Legends Of Wrestling Pay-Per-View event in 1999, where he faced an old nemesis, Jimmy "Superfly" Snuka. In his spare time, Bob can be found on golf courses throughout the Midwest. His son, third generation wrestler Randy Orton, is currently competing in the WWE.
Bob Orton, Sr., who turns 73 on July 21, retired from wrestling in 1980 after a thirty year career. Orton, Sr. is currently living in Las Vegas, Nevada, his home for the last 13 years. He and his wife recently celebrated their 52nd wedding anniversary this past January.
Barry Rose (Championship Wrestling from Florida)