AS I SEE IT - 6/11/2002:
Wrestling Memories from One of Its Most Infamous Buildings...
The ECW Arena
by: Bob Magee
Sometimes events have a way of making of making you feel old. But then, upon reflection, they remind you of some of what once was...and while you still feel old, you feel good.
A group drove down from Montreal to see CZW's Best of the Best at the ECW Arena and the Premier Wrestling Federation's Lockdown in Pottstown (PA) shows this past weekend, largely to see Jodie Fleisch and Jonny Storm who gave fans two tremendous matches at these shows.
Anyhow, one of the members of the group made the statement as he was waiting to get into the ECW Arena "I've been waiting to see a show in this building since I was eight years old"...a nice thing to hear when you've just turned 45, as I have.
But after I thought about it, he made me remember that he could indeed have been waiting that long. Because May 14, 2003 will bring the
tenth anniversary of professional wrestling at the ECW Arena.
I was at that first show at the ECW Arena back on May 14, 1993 when Eddie Gilbert scheduled his first show of Eastern Championship Wrestling in a nondescript looking bingo hall in a section of Philadelphia that former Strictly ECW head Tony Lewis once described as "West Hell".
What was then called Eastern Championship Wrestling started after Tod Gordon picked up the remains of Joel Goodhart's Tri-State Wrestling Alliance in February 1992. The fledging ECW ran its earliest shows at the Philadelphia Original Sports Bar, the Chestnut Cabaret, the Tabor Rams Youth Association, and finally Cabrini College, the site of the promotion's first TV taping on March 1993 for a small part-time sports station called SportsChannel Philadelphia when 60 people gathered there at Cabrini College in suburban Philadelphia on the eve of a massive snowstorm that left three feet of snow in Philadelphia.
We went into that building for the first time, saw the Bingo equipment up on the walls, saw a place that looked nothing like any wrestling venue we'd ever been to, and thought "What in the hell is this?"
How little we knew....
We found out that strange looking building was Viking Hall, and was the home of the South Philadelphia Viking Club, the neighborhood Mummers group that practiced there for the yearly Philadelphia tradition called the Mummers Parade.
We also found out that they did Bingo there to fund the group.
Even those of us used to shows in flea markets, bars, schools, and even parking lots thought..."a Bingo Hall?"
From May 14, 1993, until the promotion's last Philadelphia show on December 23, 2000... Eastern Championship
Wrestling... then Extreme Championship Wrestling... created unparalleled magic in one of the most improbable locations ever to hold wrestling on a regular
basis... the building that became the world's most famous Bingo Hall... the building that truly became the ECW Arena.
On May 14, 1993, we couldn't ever have known what was to come.
If someone had told us that this fledging wrestling promotion, owned by a center city storefront pawnbroker would make its home in this building... be seen nationwide on cable television... go on nationwide PPV from it in four years... would have fans around the world chanting
"ECW... ECW... ECW..."
If someone had told us that it would feature talent ranging from New Japan stars Eddie Guerrero, Dean
Malenko, Chris Jericho, and Chris Benoit to lucha stars Rey Misterio, Jr., Juventud
Guerrera, La Parka, and Psicosis... to Horsemen and Midnight Express members Arn Anderson and Bobby Eaton... to All Japan stars Steve Williams, Terry
Gordy, Dan Kroffat and Doug Furnas, and Gary Albright... to Japanese lucha style stars Great
Sasuke, Gran Hamada, and TAKA Michinoku... to wrestling legends like Stan Hansen, Abdullah The Butcher, Jerry Lawler, Terry and Dory Funk, and Kevin Sullivan...
If someone had told us that it would see the creation of the most memorable new character of the last
decade... a man called Raven... and that it would change the direction of the professional wrestling industry... if someone had told us ALL these things would happen and more...
We would have looked at you, and told you that you were in need of serious psychiatric help.
All we regulars knew was that ECW had a new home after Cabrini College decided they didn't want wrestling in its gymnasium any longer, and that this was ECW's new home.
We went in that May evening to see a promotion featuring Eddie Gilbert and his Memphis flavored product, eventually with an accent of Japanese hardcore.
What became regular faces in the front row and those Section C (TV side) bleachers were seen by fans first on SportsChannel Philadelphia, then on MSG Network, then slowly across the country. There were people like John Bailey (seemingly known everywhere as "Hat Guy"), his brother George, Mike Johnson, "Sign Guy" Paul Mellows (from whom Paul Heyman took the Sign Guy Dudley gimmick), Lennie (the Rob Zombie
lookalike), along with yours truly, and many others whose faces would unintentionally become familiar.
What we all became a part of was history.
Here are some of those moments from my memory. Those of you who shared the ECW experience undoubtedly have your own as well.
- Eddie Gilbert and Terry Funk go at it in the "Texas Chain Match Massacre" to give ECW what was its largest crowd in history as of that date, with the match seen across the country via the first of many ECW commercial tapes
- In August 1993, many ECW fans got their first live exposure to Japanese wrestling through
W*ING workers The Headhunters, Miguelito Perez, Crash the Terminator (aka Hugh Morris), and Mitsuhiro
- September 1993's Ultra Clash brought Stan Hansen, Abdullah The Butcher, Kevin Sullivan, and The Dark Patriot (Doug Gilbert) against JT Smith in a Scaffold Match.
September also brought an end to the Eddie Gilbert era and the beginning of the Paul Heyman era in
ECW; as Gilbert left the promotion due to disagreements over a prospective involvement with a Jim Crockett-run promotion. Gilbert, however, did an unannounced run-in of sorts, and told fans to keep supporting the promotion despite his departure.
Some of the other names we saw in ECW during that year included Kevin Christopher (Lawler), Herve
Rinestro, Don E. Allen, Jimmy Snuka, JT Smith, Tony Stetson, Larry Winters, Tommy Cairo,
Rockin' Rebel, Sandman, Don Muraco, Sal Bellomo, Stevie Wonderful, Super Destroyer, Johnny
Hotbody, Chris Michaels, and Hunter Q. Robbins III.
- There was a January weekend from hell of ice storms that cut off power to 350,000 in the Philadelphia area...and yet ECW drew a crowd of 200 to see Terry Funk and Shane Douglas set up the original "three-way dance" on February 5, 1994 with "The Night The Line Was Crossed" featuring Sabu vs. Shane Douglas vs. Terry Funk.
- The April night Arn Anderson and Bobby Eaton invaded the ECW Arena unannounced in one of the best kept secrets in wrestling history. The TV of that night shows one of the wilder crowd pops in ECW history.
- The Public Enemy-Dory/Terry Funk barbed wire match that took place at Heat Wave 1994 in a full house despite indoor temperatures within the Arena estimated at as much as 130 degrees.
- Cactus Jack's ECW debut in July 1994..in what became one more chapter in his love affair with the Philadelphia fans...that made his "anti-hardcore" program, that included shoot comments directed at the Philadelphia fans all the more memorable
- The NWA Title Tournament in August 1994 featuring Dean Malenko, Chris Benoit, Osamu Nishimura, Shane Douglas, and Two Cold Scorpio, a show that would be better remembered for Shane Douglas trashing the NWA Title, then declaring that the promotion was no longer NWA Eastern Championship Wrestling, but EXTREME Championship Wrestling...
- The October-November 1994 Sandman "blinding angle" that was voted Angle of the Year: so well done, it had the late Brian Hildebrand calling me to ask if it was a work.
Some of the other names seen in the ECW Arena during 1994 were 911, Chad Austin, Mr. Hughes, Sal
Bellomo, Tommy Cairo, Sandman, Pitbull #1, Public Enemy (Rocco Rock and Johnny Grunge), The Sheik, Pat Tanaka, Road Warrior Hawk, The Bruise Brothers, and Mike Awesome.
- February 1995 gave fans both the "Double Tables" show featuring the main event of Sabu and Tazmaniac against The Public Enemy, Chris Benoit vs. Al Snow, and "Return of The
Funker" featuring Terry Funk's return after a six month absence later in the month.
- April 1995 had the debut of the two and a half year storyline of Raven and Tommy Dreamer the first match actually billed as a "Three Way Dance" with The Public Enemy vs. Chris Benoit/Dean Malenko vs. Tazmaniac and Rick Steiner (replacing the no-show
Sabu, who the Arena faithful turned on in a heartbeat). Another Arena show one week later brought the first of the classic Eddie Guerrero-Dean Malenko matches that we were able to enjoy for the next five months.
- The spring also brought the psychotic bloodletting of the Axl Rotten-Ian Rotten matches, with matches involving barbed wire baseball bats all the way to the Taipei Death Match in July, with each man having glass glued to his hands.
- On August 29, 1995, the Dean Malenko-Eddie Guerrero farewell match happened...with an entire evening of the smartest wrestling audience in North America in tears (not to mention Guerrero and Malenko themselves)... chanting "Please don't go...please don't go" with a heartfelt passion from a full house befitting two departing world class talents and world class people.
- September 1995 featured one of the top matches in Arena history in a best 2 out of three falls Double Dog Collar Match for the ECW Tag Team Championships with The Pitbulls vs. Raven & Stevie Richards.
- November to Remember 1995 was one of the best top to bottom shows ever in the Arena with such matches as Rey
Misterio-Psicosis, Terry Funk/Tommy Dreamer vs. Cactus Jack/Raven
- Autumn 1995 also brought lucha fore the first time to Philadelphia with Rey
Misterio, Jr. Juventud Guerrera, Psicosis, Konnan, and La Parka.
Some of the other names seen in the ECW Arena during 1995 were Hack Myers, Al Snow, Osamu Nishimura, Tully Blanchard, Paul
Lauria, Mikey Whipwreck, The Young Dragons, Stevie Richards, Hector Guerrero, Marty
Jannetty, DC Drake, Jason Knight, Ron Simmons, Vampire Warrior (aka Gangrel), Dudley Dudley, and Dances With Dudley.
- January 1996 featured the first of many Rob Van Dam-Sabu matches, Raven and Sandman battling for the ECW Heavyweight title, and the
- March 1996 featured Rey Misterio, Jr. and Juventud Guerrera giving a lucha clinic in a best 2 out of 3 fall match. It also featured the emotional farewell of Cactus Jack, who defeated Mikey
- Chris Jericho debuted in ECW at the "Matter of Respect" show in May 1996 against Mikey
Whipwreck. The summer of 1996 also featured the wars of The Eliminators against The Gangstas in a "steel cage weapons" match.
- Heatwave ‘96 gave us a tremendous four way ECW TV Title Match Scorpio-Chris
Jericho-Pitbull #2-Shane Douglas.
- Autumn 1996 featured such world class tag team action as Terry Gordy and Steve Williams against The Eliminators and Sabu and Rob Van Dam against Dan Kroffat and Doug
Furnas. It also featured one of the sickest scaffold matches in history in October at "High Incident" with Tommy Dreamer throwing Brian Lee off a "scaffold" attached to the roof of the ECW Arena, into a ring full of tables.
Some of the other names seen in the ECW Arena during 1996 included Mr. Hughes, Judge
Dredd, The Blue Meanie, Too Cold Scorpio, El Puerto Ricano, Bad Crew, The Headhunters, Big Titan, Damien Kane, Little Guido, Brian Lee, Beef Wellington, Devon Storm, and the Samoan Gangsta Party.
- Barely Legal- The moment that ECW fans had waited for since the last year's worth of rumors had started finally arrived on April 13, 1997. Even with the usual pre-show atmosphere at the ECW Arena...this was something special. Fans waited outside the ECW Arena from early on that morning.
The Arena was filled as full as physical space would allow, forget those pesky fire laws. The atmosphere was electric.
At 8:00 pm Eastern Standard Time, in the most improbable of locations: the converted Bingo Hall that staff had painted and fixed up on their own, down the street from a bargain basement store and vacant buildings... the home of a wrestling promotion founded by a downtown storefront pawnbroker, started with little more than hopes and dreams... the impossible dream came true, as "Barely Legal" went hot and started the era of ECW on PPV to the United States.
The show itself included The Eliminators defeating ECW Tag champs D-Von & Buh Buh Ray Dudley for the ECW Tag team Titles, Rob Van Dam-Lance Storm, Taz over
Sabu, Great Sasuke/Gran Hamada/Masato Yakushiji wrestling TAKA Michinoku/Dick Togo/and Terry Boy
(aka Mens Teioh), and Terry Funk defeating Raven for the ECW Heavyweight Title.
- The 2 1/2 years of the most creative character in recent wrestling history ended within
ECW, as Raven lost a loser leave match to Tommy Dreamer at Wrestlepalooza 1997.
- In what was likely the single most violent match in ECW history, Sabu pinned Terry Funk in a barbed wire match at August 1997's "Born to be Wired", to a point that even Paul Heyman was reported to be sickened in the promo for the show's commercial video tape. He wasn't acting.
Some of the other names seen in the ECW Arena during 1997 included Tommy Rich, Tracy Smothers, Chris
Chetti, Bam Bam Bigelow, Louie Spicolli, Big Dick Dudley, Spike Dudley, Balls Mahoney, Tom Pritchard, JC Ice and Wolfie D, Paul Diamond, and Tommy Rogers
- January 1998 gave us the first Stairway To Hell Match with Sandman taking on
- Japanese talent returned to the ECW Arena throughout the year with names like Gran
Hamada, Gran Naniwa, Atsushi Onita, Masato Tanaka.
- The pairing that gave a ECW Match of The Year nominee two years running gave Arena fans a match to behold on August 8, 1998 as Jerry Lynn took on Rob Van Dam.
- The first of many Masato Tanaka-Mike Awesome matches happened in August, matches that took the phrase "stiff" to a whole new level.
Some of the other names seen in the ECW Arena during 1998 included Danny
Doring, Amish Roadkill, Bobby Duncum, Jr., Doug Furnas, Super Nova, Mike
Lozansky, Jack Victory, Ulf Hermann, Big Sal Graziano, Rod Price, and One Man Gang.
- 1999 saw the ECW Arena featured around the United States and Canada as TV tapings were done for TNN at the Arena, allowing fans to see what the Arena experience was all about.
- Lucha and Japanese talent again made their way into the ECW Arena as Antifaz Del
Norte, TAKA Michinoku, Super Crazy, El Mosco De La Merced, Yoshihiro Tajiri, and Mr. Aguila
(aka Papi Chulo). This gave us matches over 1999 such as Jerry Lynn-Yoshihiro
Tajiri, Super Crazy-Antifaz Del Norte, TAKA Michinoku-Papi Chulo and a series of Super Crazy-Yoshihiro Tajiri matches.
- We got a Match of the year nominee for the second with Rob Van Dam-Jerry Lynn on August 28, 1999.
Some of the other names seen in the ECW Arena during 1999 included Skull Von
Krush, Bill Wiles, David Cash, Uganda, Tom Marquez, Kid Cash, Bo and Jack
Dupp, and Ikuto Hidaka.
Even with all the obvious financial problems and the fact that attention was often elsewhere most of the time, there were still a few classic moments left in 2000 for
ECW fans at the ECW Arena.
- March 2000 featured a great Raven/Mike Awesome-Masato Tanaka/Tommy Dreamer Tag Team Match.
- April 2000 gave the ECW Arena the one and only appearance of Dusty Rhodes at the Arena as he took on Steve
- August 19, 2000 gave us the 2000 ECW match of the year as the returning Psicosis took on Yoshihiro
The last ECW show at the ECW Arena took place on December 23, 2000. With all that had been happening and that had been reported online, many fans going inside that night suspected that this might be the last show, although nothing was ever announced or even acknowledged to that effect.
The final ECW match at its home, the ECW Arena, was Steve Corino defending his ECW World Heavyweight Title over The Sandman and Justin Credible.
Some of the other names seen in the ECW Arena during 2000 included Rhino, Christian York and Joey Matthews, Scotty Anton, Prodigy, Pat Tanaka, CW Anderson, Simon Diamond, Johnny Swinger, Da Baldies
(DeVito and Angel), Carl Oulette, Vic Grimes, Jado and Gedo, and Erik Watts.
The ECW Arena sat vacant for several months, until Frank Iaedevia of Jersey All-Pro Wrestling ran the Arena during winter and spring 2001.
Combat Zone Wrestling has been the most successful of the independent promoters running the ECW Arena since ECW's departure, given that the promotion has local TV in the Philadelphia market. CZW debuted at the ECW Arena in December 2001 with the Cage of Death III show, and has been running monthly since then, including last week's Best of the Best junior heavyweight tournament.
The 3PWrestling promotion has also been running the Arena, with some small degree of success, with another show scheduled for Saturday, June 29th. They've done so with a mix of local indy talent, IWA Mid-South workers, and former ECW talent, such as Sandman,
Sabu, Public Enemy, and The Blue Meanie.
With all these memories, it would be nice if the often-warring independent promoters of the Philadelphia-New Jersey region could find some sort of way to put aside their differences for one night and run a ECW Arena Tenth Anniversary on May 14, 2003 (or the closest possible date), or even for one promoter to do it if getting promotions together isn't possible.
We'll see... but it was nice to relive the old days. I'm sure many readers have their own memories to add to mine. Feel free to send them in.
Until next time...
(If you have comments or questions, I can be reached by
e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org)