TAMPA — A sailor in the U.S. Navy, stationed in Singapore has worked 37 days straight on the relief mission for victims of the tsunami disaster. He is given a couple of days off for a vacation. So where does he take his new wife for a little rest and relaxation? Australia? Japan? Hawaii? Well if you’re John Mastandrea, you take your new wife for a nice vacation to Tampa, Florida.

Now, not that Tampa isn’t a wonderful spot for a vacation….but….why go halfway around the world to Tampa? Well, you see, a half a lifetime ago, John Mastandrea’s circle of friends used to refer to him as “Handsome” John Mastandrea–old school wrestling fan. So John and his bride made the trek –over 24 hours worth — to come to Wrestlereunion. This wasn’t an opportunity to see such stars as HHH, Randy Orton, Chris Benoit, Chris Jericho or Kurt Angle. This was a chance to see the men that John regarded as the heroes of his youth. Men like Bruno Sammartino, Bill Watts, Jack Brisco & Roddy Piper. There were legendary tag teams like the Midnight Express, the Rock-N-Roll Express, Barry Windham & Mike Rotunda and the Fantastics. These men all gathered in Tampa at the DoubleTree Hotel for the biggest convention in wrestling fan history and their presence meant enough for Mastandrea to travel halfway around the world.

Dusty Rhodes and Baby Doll (Nickla Roberts) in Tampa. Photo by Mike Lano, WReaLano@aol.com

The convention lasted from Friday, January 28 thru Sunday, January 30, and one of the constants was the fans milling around the lobby of the hotel hoping to catch a glance of one of their heroes. There might be a little less hair, or maybe a few more gray hairs, and maybe (for certain wrestling fans also…ahem) a couple of more inches around the middle–but back in what these fans regard as wrestling’s “heyday”, the chance to interact up close and personal with the likes of Dusty Rhodes, Harley Race, Jimmy Snuka and Tully Blanchard just wasn’t there.

One common theme was found on the first day and all through the rest of the weekend was just how unbelievably gracious all the performers were. Oh, the egos were still there, but they seemed to have been checked at the front door.

The only complaint that one could really have, and it was certainly a legitimate one, was that there was a sense of disorganization on the first day–especially during the autograph sessions. The lines moved very slowly, as the event coordinators were plagued by line jumpers, those in search of a quick photo with a star, or those who wanted to violate the mandated two item per star limit. Many events of this type are unfortunately cursed with some people who only want have items signed in bulk so that they can turn around and sell them on a site such as Ebay. This only makes it hard for those fans who are there because they really want to see one particular star or all of them.

After the autograph sessions finished, “Elite VIP” members of the convention (cost $250) were treated to an exclusive question and answer sessions with such former superstars as Ricky Steamboat, Ted Dibiase, Dusty Rhodes, Mick Foley, Kevin Von Erich, Terry Funk, Diamond Dallas Page, Jake the Snake Roberts, Bill Watts, and Jim Cornette and the Midnight Express. The Q&A sessions may have been the highlight of the weekend, with many fans departing believing that just the OPPORTUNITY to speak with these legends may have been worth the cost of the convention. These entertaining “shoot the breeze” sessions featured stories from the road, thoughts on the current state of the business and remembrances of legendary matches and feuds.

Speaking of legendary matches, the fans were also treated to an evening of matches that featured such heroes of yesteryear as Roddy Piper, Jimmy Snuka, Hacksaw Jim Duggan, Bob & Brad Armstrong and former ladies champion Wendi Richter, and such villains as Kamala, the Masked Superstar, Kevin Sullivan, Greg Valentine & former ladies legend Joyce Grable. The legends matches were followed up by matches featuring such current stars as America’s Most Wanted, CM Punk & NWA world champion Jeff Jarrett.

This coming weekend, just east of Tampa, the NFL will present their annual Super Bowl of football in Jacksonville, Florida. Longtime and “old school” wrestling fans got their own version this past weekend, as most fans were proclaiming the weekend–occasional glitches and all–a “dream” weekend and a chance to relive some fond childhood memories. It brought fans from New York, Texas, California, Florida and all points in between. It provided them a chance to say hello to the heroes of their youth and to make peace with the villains of their nightmares. The cost of the convention may have been $250, but to quote a famous commercial, the memories were priceless. Memories that, at least to one fan, were worth traveling halfway around the world to enjoy.

Jeff Bowdren is a longtime fan from Florida.