Michael Brannon, Former Pro Wrestler Turned Forensic Psychologist, Locked in Epic Legal Battle With Broward Public Defender
Boos slice through the air as Dr. Red Roberts peacocks around the ring while snapping the straps of his red and white leotard. A comic-book-villain grin peeks out from a thick beard when he jabs his chin at the full house, each jut shaking his messy brushfire of red curls. An excited surf of noise reverberates from the risers, like schoolyard kids ganging up on a bully.
Illustration by Pat Kinsella
It's 1986, inside a drab Miami TV studio. The rowdy spectators are waiting for Roberts' matchup with a 230-pound slab named Ted Marshall. The fan favorite is clear.
"This Roberts is a very, very controversial competitor," says a TV announcer doing his best Brokaw into the mic. "I want to get a chance to talk to this man about some very controversial comments he made last week more or less calling everyone in the state of Florida a mental midget."
After the bell, the two pro wrestlers swap body blows and leg drops. Roberts plays dirty, jamming his finger into his opponent's eye and grating Marshall's face across his white boot laces. "Of course Red Roberts will use about any tactic he can to win a match," the announcer groans. A few minutes later, the redhead is disqualified.
It was that kind of performance -- the smart-ass goon whom fans love to hate -- that made Dr. Red Roberts a staple in pro-wrestling circuits from the late '70s and to the mid-'80s. But hunkering beneath this Mr. Hyde was an actual Dr. Jekyll: Roberts was the wrestling persona of Michael Brannon, who's now a Fort Lauderdale psychologist. While body-slamming his way around the world, Brannon earned his doctorate from Nova Southeastern University. By the '90s, he had swapped the ring for another theatrical battle zone -- the courtroom.
There, he was a financial success, by the mid-'00s earning up to $600,000 a year on the state's dime as a forensic psychologist. His reputation grew as he testified in courthouses in Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties. But after Brannon banked more than $1.5 million, his largest source of income, Broward public defender Howard Finkelstein, cut him off. The fallout was as dirty as any WrestleMania matchup.
"I wanted a system that was more fair," Finkelstein says. "But when he decided to bring his personal anger and resentment into the courtroom before a jury with one of my clients on trial for his life, that's when I was on legal notice."
Brannon sued in a case that has been rumbling through the courts for the past three years and is currently on appeal. He calls the dispute "a real-life death match with Howard Finkelstein." But although Brannon's brawl is with the public defender, the case has put the whole legal system in a headlock -- and taxpayers are feeling the hurt.
Fighting came early for Brannon. Born in Miami to a police officer and a waitress, he took up judo as a kid. By age 6, he had brought home statewide top honors in a martial arts competition. He wrestled in high school and later at Nova University, where he earned an undergraduate degree in 1978 and a master's in counseling psychology two years later.
Brannon began his wrestling career as Dr. Roberts in the late '70s while working as a residential counselor at the Starting Place, a Hollywood youth rehab facility. "All these kids were really big wrestling fans, so I thought, Wouldn't it be great to use an athletic background," he says. "So I created this character, Dr. Red Roberts, [as] the backdrop for a morality play."