At the Florida Man Games, big crowds cheer competitors evading police, wrestling over beer

Feb 23, 2024, 10:46 PM | Updated: Feb 24, 2024, 8:36 pm

This image provided by Tyler Watts shows Florida Man Games competitors, from left, Joshua Barr, Mic...

This image provided by Tyler Watts shows Florida Man Games competitors, from left, Joshua Barr, Michael Selvester and Brandon Watts posing Jan. 27, 2024, in Inverness, Fla. The trio signed up to compete under the team name Cooter Commandos at the debut Florida Man Games in St. Augustine, Fla, on Saturday, Feb. 24, 2024. Organizers expected several thousand spectators to cheer on a dozen teams at an event that treats running from police and wrestling over beer like they were Olympic sports. (Tyler Watts via AP)

(Tyler Watts via AP)

ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. (AP) — They rose up by the dozens from across Florida, caricatured competitors in tank tops and cutoff shorts, for a showdown that treats evading police and wrestling over beer like Olympic sports.

Promoted as “the most insane athletic showdown on Earth,” the Florida Man Games poke fun at the state’s reputation for bizarre stories that involve brawling, drinking, gunfire, reptile wrangling and other antics carrying a risk of time in jail or intensive care.

The games kicked off Saturday with the “Star Spangled Banner” played on electric guitar. Then spectators sipping canned beers behind metal barricades cheered and frequently shouted expletives as a dozen teams battled in contests inspired by real events from America’s most surreal state.

James Gordon of DeLand won the first event, wolfing down a plate loaded with barbecue pork and sausage a fraction of a second before his nearest competitor. He chugged a beer to celebrate.

“I’ve lived in Florida my whole life,” Gordon said after washing sauce from his hands and beard. “They’re calling these ‘events.’ I’m calling this (expletive) Tuesday afternoon.”

One event had contenders dueling in muddy water in an inflatable pool, pummeling each other with weapons made from pool noodles and duct tape. Another was a theft-simulation relay in which competitors raced while toting a pair of bicycles, copper pipes and catalytic converters.

Larry Donnelly trained for the relay race by riding a bicycle around his neighborhood with a second bike strapped to his back. It paid off Saturday, when he won his heat after picking up a bike in each hand and running with them.

“I have an absolute disregard for self-preservation. I will do anything,” said Donnelly, 42, who owns a St. Augustine pressure-washing business and serves as captain of the five-man team Hanky Spanky. “When I was in the military, I did a little alligator wrestling.”

Other events involved contenders wrestling sumo-style while holding pitchers of beer, or running from actual sheriff’s deputies while jumping fences and avoiding obstacles. Others faced a scramble to grab cash flying in simulated hurricane winds.

Spectators paid real money — $45 per ticket or more — to watch the games at Francis Field in downtown St. Augustine. Yusuf El Shihibi said he and his wife made the 180-mile (290-kilometer) trip from Port St. Richey “to watch stupidity occur on the grandest, most spectacular scale.”

Organizer Pete Melfi said he expected ticket sales to exceed 5,000. He said he was stunned to find nobody else had beaten him to the ripped-from-headlines idea for a spoof sporting event.

“We kind of give a person an opportunity to live a day in the life of ‘Florida Man’ without ending up in a cop car,” said Melfi, who runs the St. Augustine media outlet The 904 Now. But he had to tone down some racier aspects of the “Florida Man” mythos to obtain a permit.

”There’s typically drugs and nudity,” he said. “But the city frowned on it when I asked for drugs and nudity.”

The “Florida Man” phenomenon seeped into the nation’s conscience thanks in part to a Twitter account that started in 2013 with the handle @_FloridaMan. The account touted “real-life stories of the world’s worst superhero,” sharing news headlines such as “Florida Man Bites Dog to ‘Establish Dominance’” and “Florida Man Tried to Pay for McDonald’s With Weed.”

Florida’s claim to being the strangest state goes back much further, said journalist Craig Pittman, who wrote the book “Oh, Florida! How America’s Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country.” He noted that the first flag to fly over its Capitol in 1845 bore the motto “Let Us Alone.”

Apparently nobody listened. Florida today has 22 million residents, the third largest population of any U.S. state. And they all share roads, beaches and timeshares with more than 130 million tourists per year.

“You cram that many people together, they’re bound to start running into each others’ cars and chasing each other with machetes,” Pittman said.

Pittman noted there have also been plenty of crazy stories featuring Florida women — and plenty of them turned out to watch the games Saturday.

Sally Yarbrough and her daughter, Danielle Yarbrough, got tickets as a Christmas gift from their boss — along with a case of vodka.

“Hopefully more women will be here like us,” Danielle Yarbrough said. “We’re usually the only rowdy ones.”

The only women’s event Saturday was a Florida Ma’am Pinup contest. That should change if the games continue, said Lori “Ice” Fetrick, a former competitor on the 1990s show “American Gladiators” who served as a judge at the Florida Man Games.

“I personally believe we need the Florida Woman Games,” Fetrick told the crowd, which cheered its approval. “Or maybe put women against the men.”

Leading up to Saturday, Joshua Barr and his Cooter Commandos teammates spent time whipping up fan support on Facebook with posts showing the trio chugging Pabst Blue Ribbon beer and jogging in jean shorts and mirrored sunglasses. Their team name comes from a turtle species celebrated by their hometown of Inverness.

The Commandos didn’t stop with online promotion and trash-talking of rival teams. Barr, a 37-year-old movie reviewer and podcaster, said they also printed T-shirts, temporary tattoos and a large custom flag to wave on the field.

“We might be taking it more seriously than most people,” Barr said. “You kind of just have to be a part of the joke at this point.”

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At the Florida Man Games, big crowds cheer competitors evading police, wrestling over beer