AS I SEE IT: The Exciting History of the Original ECW
Pro Wrestling: Between the Sheets
ECW, originally known as Eastern Championship Wrestling, ran its first show on Tuesday, February 25, 1992 at the Philadelphia’s Original Sports Bar in center city Philadelphia in front of over 100 people. The first match in ECW history was a 20-minute broadway between wrestlers Jimmy Jannetty and Stevie Richards.
Much like ECW, the Philadelphia Original Sports Bar doesn’t exist any more…the site of the Sports Bar is now occupied by a Ross: Dress for Less discount store. Neither does the other site for early Eastern Championship Wrestling shows, the Chestnut Cabaret.
The ECW Arena, as such, doesn’t exist either…although there’s been talk of the person who took over the venue, and has kept it vacant for a year being evicted, and the venue being restored to a boxing/wrestling/MMA venue. Fans are still waiting for more definitive news on that.
ECW ran in Philadelphia as a local once-a-month indy promotion, founded and backed by Tod Gordon with shows at the Philadelphia Original Sports Bar, the Chestnut Cabaret, and other small venues in the Philadelphia area during February 1992 to March 1993, when it taped and aired its first TV show. This TV taping saw 60 people gather at Cabrini College in suburban Philadelphia on the night before a massive snowstorm that left three feet of snow in Philadelphia.
March to September 1993, Eddie Gilbert brought Paul Heyman, Terry Funk, and a product with Memphis and Japanese influences, which began to catch the notice of people outside the Philadelphia area.
Then, in September, 1993, Paul Heyman took over booking ECW.
That night began a period where ECW became THE promotion in the United States if you wanted creative, unpredictable angles; an exciting in ring product, with talent yet unseen by most American audiences. It was a time when a fan could come to an ECW show, and realize that (unlike the overly predictable WCW and WWF of the time) they didn’t know what was going to happen at a show that night. But they knew the odds were good they’d be talking about it the next day.
ECW’s reputation spread far beyond the fans who attended the first bar shows, as the promotion’s television first aired in the Philadelphia area on SportsChannel Philadelphia beginning in 1993, first available locally (and on satellite) for five years until SportsChannel Philadelphia went out of business, when Philadelphia’s Comcast SportsNet went on the air. ECW TV then moved locally to WPPX Channel 61, before all Paxson stations changed to the “family-oriented” PAX TV… which has now itself changed to being called ION TV, which airs, among things, MMA.
ECW’s Philadelphia TV then moved to its last Philadelphia home, WGTW, Channel 48….which sadly, no longer shows wrestling…or anything except 24 hours a day of programming dedicated to a right-wing version of evangelical Christianity.
In a way unique at the time, when the Internet looked nothing it does now with social media consisting of message boards or online chat rooms (no, not that kind), people actively promoted ECW online and by word of mouth, with TV expanding to New York’s MSG, then Florida’s Sunshine Network, then many of the PRIME affiliates (most of which eventually morphed into the Fox Sports Network that broadcasted TNA at one point). Along with PRIME’s national feed, ECW’s TV was syndicated nationwide on the America One Network, as well as on numerous other independent stations.
ECW then was picked up by TNN (now known as Spike TV) in August 1999, in a move that initially looked promising…but may have helped speed up the demise of the company, which had already been going through major financial problems including bouncing checks to everyone that were wrestlers to broadcast affiliates.
I have a lot of personal memories coming out of ECW…
May 1993 to 1995, I sat in the front row of section C (the on-camera section with John “Hat Guy/Hawaiian Shirt” Bailey and company) the first two years at the ECW Arena, before the Club ECW plan was devised. Since I’d been burned by former Tri-State Wrestling Alliance promoter Joel Goodhart for a similar plan, I refused to put out the money for the “4-packs”. It turns out that wasn’t such a bad idea, as the seats I’d regularly sat in with my brother, were the very seats that were involved in the 1995 Terry Funk-Cactus Jack “fire incident”. So I moved up with the “bleacher bums” in Section C.
As I sat there, I was fortunate enough to see ECW at its best during its golden era. I also was able to gather many other memories until December 23, 2000, the last ECW show at the ECW Arena.
Here are memories of ECW, memories many of you in the United States and around the world have seen via TV and tape…
The first show on February 25, 1992 at Philadelphia’s Original Sports Bar, which saw the fledging Eastern Championship Wrestling pick up the ashes of Joel Goodhart’s Tri-State Wrestling Alliance…a promotion which was in a sense, ECW, before it WAS ECW. The TWA had gone out of business only a month before the night of what was to be their biggest show of all.
In 1992, ECW founder Tod Gordon avoided the trap that Joel Goodhart fell into…over booking his shows with name talent. The only major names early on in the first days of Eastern Championship Wrestling were Jimmy Snuka and Don Muraco along with a lot of the TWA talent, which included Sandman and JT Smith.
Some of the names of those early days included Jimmy Snuka, Johnny Hot Body, Don Muraco, Tito Santana, The Super Destroyers, Larry Winters, Tony Stetson, Glenn Osbourne, CN Redd, Jimmy Jannetty, Tommy Cairo, and Don E. Allen.
About a year later, Tod Gordon was ready to take things up a step with local TV on the part-time Sports Channel Philadelphia, and brought in Eddie Gilbert to book, with brother Doug. With Gilbert also came Terry Funk, who had recently done an interview in the Pro Wrestling Torch about his idea for a “hardcore” style wrestling TV show. Along with these two came a well-known loud mouthed manager named Paul E. Dangerously. How little we knew or suspected what was to come…
The first TV taping at Cabrini College on March 13, 1993 before about 60 people. This small crowd came despite a snowstorm that dumped two feet of snow on the Philadelphia the next day.
The Texas Chain Match Massacre with Terry Funk vs. Eddie Gilbert on June 19, 1993 was the first ECW show sold on tape commercially, with what was then the largest crowd in the young promotion’s history. These two gave the fans at the Arena an old school all-Arena bloody brawl of a kind not seen anywhere in Philadelphia, save Gilbert’s own program in 1991 with Cactus Jack in the ECW’s predecessor, the Tri-State Wrestling Alliance.
Some of the names seen in ECW during 1993 included Eddie Gilbert, Doug Gilbert, Kevin Christopher, Samoan Warrior, Paul Diamond, Pat Tanaka, Ivan Koloff, Herve Renesto, Chris Michaels, Hunter Q. Robbins III, Miguelito Perez, Crash the Terminator, Stan Hansen, Chad Austin, Rockin Rebel, Todd Shaw, Kevin Sullivan, and Sal Bellomo.
150 fans making their way into the ECW Arena through a January TV taping, which was postponed a day because of an ice storm that kept 350,000 people without power…via nothing more than a phone line that operated out of the home of ring announcer Bob Artese.
The Night The Line Was Crossed, Shane Douglas vs. Terry Funk vs. Sabu, February 5, 1994- The original “Three Way Dance” (although it wasn’t referred to as such at the time) was a one hour long match that put the cartoon shows that masqueraded as professional wrestling of the time to shame. Between the blow-away effort of the three wrestlers, Heyman’s booking had fans going with a match that told a story in creating the storylines that moved along the three pivotal characters of the golden era of ECW.
An April 16th ECW Arena angle that saw Arn Anderson and Bobby Eaton do a run-in that resulted in one of the loudest pops in Arena history…a run-in that was kept 100% quiet in those pre-Internet days…so quiet that some of the workers and staff had no clue what was going on.
The October-November 1994 Sandman “blinding angle” that was voted Wrestling Observer 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, Mr. Hughes, Sal Bellomo, Tommy Cairo, Sandman, Gary Wolf, Matt Borne, Ray Odyssey, 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.
April 1995 had the debut of the two and a half year storyline of Raven and Tommy Dreamer, and the first match actually billed as a “Three Way Dance” with The Public Enemy vs. Chris Benoit/Dean Malenko vs. Tazmaniac and Rick Steiner. Another Arena show one week later brought the first of the classic Eddie Guerrero-Dean Malenko matches we saw 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 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 by the crowd worthy of 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 held in the Arena with such matches as Rey Misterio, Jr.-Psicosis, and Terry Funk/Tommy Dreamer vs. Cactus Jack/Raven.
Fall 1995 also brought lucha libre to Philadelphia for the first time with Rey Misterio, Jr. Juventud Guerrera, Psicosis, Konnan, and La Parka appearing.
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, 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 Gangstas-Eliminators feud.
March 1996 featured Rey Misterio, Jr. and Juventud Guerrera giving a lucha clinic in a 2 out of 3 fall match. It also featured the emotional farewell of Cactus Jack, who defeated Mikey Whipwreck.
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, 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 during early on that morning.
The Arena was filled as full as physical space would allow, well beyond anything permitted by city or state 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 by 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/Terry Boy (aka Mens Teioh), and Terry Funk defeating Raven for the ECW Heavyweight Title.
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. Having seen the match in person, I can safely say he wasn’t the only one.
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 Sabu.
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 an 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, 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 time 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 Corino.
August 19, 2000 gave us the 2000 ECW match of the year as the returning Psicosis took on Yoshihiro Tajiri.
The last ECW show at the ECW Arena took place on December 23, 2000. With all that had been happening and all that had been reported online, many fans going inside that night suspected that this might be the last show at the ECW Arena, although nothing was ever announced or even acknowledged to that effect.
The final ECW match at 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, CW Anderson, Simon Diamond, Johnny Swinger, Da Baldies (DeVito and Angel), Carl Oulette, Vic Grimes, Jado and Gedo, and Erik Watts.
Since those days, many have come to appreciate what ECW brought to wrestling on national level: namely, qualities that had been missing in wrestling such as unpredictability, excitement, an outlaw spirit, coherent booking, and wrestling shows that feature…wrestling.
ECW had sex (and lots of it) in its presentation…but it didn’t feature sex as a main event segment. Paul Heyman was smart enough to use sex as the sizzle, and not the steak. Many wrestling fans wish certain wrestling promotions were smart enough to do the same today.
ECW didn’t feature bookers or management putting themselves over at the expense of the talent….or family members and in-laws doing the same. Many wrestling fans wish certain wrestling promotions were smart enough to do the same today.
ECW didn’t care if someone on the undercard outworked the main event. They weren’t punished for it. Hell, most of the time it was encouraged. Many wrestling fans wish certain wrestling promotions were smart enough to allow their workers to do the same today.
Along with the very public memories shared by many via tape or TV…there were the memories that came out of being at the ECW Arena in person:
Those Sunday morning TV tapings in 1993-1995, when we stumbled into the Arena half-awake after too little sleep following the preceding evening’s show and the post-show “festivities”…and Mark Shapiro (aka “McGruff”) telling us to “please fill up the bleachers”… in order to make the crowd look respectable for SportsChannel and MSG, the two stations carrying ECW at the time.
A small discount store next to the Arena in between the Arena and the Forman Mills discount clothing store selling cheap breakaway frying pans, with the slogan, “Give them to your favorite wrestler to hit someone”…
As said before…the “bleacher bums” of section C with some of the most creative (and sometimes unprintable) chants imaginable, along with their summer pre-show afternoon cookouts and beer bashes. One of their best sets of off-color chants came the night of the Malenko-Guerrero farewell as they took shots at WCW by making up certain hilarious and obscene chants that offered graphic suggestions about Hulk Hogan and Eric Bischoff’s…um…personal habits.
The Mutants in Boston, who regularly traveled down to ECW Arena shows…foreshadowing by years the fans of promotions like Ring of Honor who travel amazing distances to see a quality wrestling product, which seems as unavailable now in the mainstream as it was then.
The people who made the dream happen in the earliest days… a group of hardworking people behind the scenes, who would do nearly anything for the company, people that we all got to know like Bob and Lex Artese, Jay “Six-Pack” Sulli, Larry Gallone, Kathy Fitzpatrick, Kathy Donahue, Steve Truitt, and Matt Radico…
Along with them in the stands were unique Philadelphia characters like “Stan The Fan”, John Bailey (known everywhere as “Hat Guy”), his brother George, Mike Johnson (later of 1wrestling.com and PWinsider.com) and the Bleacher Bums, “Sign Guy” Paul Mellows (whom Paul Heyman took the Sign Guy Dudley gimmick), Lennie (the Rob Zombie lookalike), Gary Walter (now of Smart Mark Video), JAPW promoters Ray Sager and Frank Iadevia and many more…
And for longtime fans…names on the other side of the rail that only we fans who were there live would remember: Doug Gilbert, Kevin Christopher, Don E. Allen, JT Smith, Tony Stetson, Larry Winters, Tommy Cairo, Hack Myers, Salvatore Bellomo, Stevie Wonderful, Johnny Hotbody, Chad Austin, Dudley Dudley, Dances With Dudley, and Pablo Marquez.
I also have to remember that there are also those in the ECW days that have left us and wrestling far too soon: Mike Lozansky, Bobby Duncum Jr. and Terry Gordy who worked briefly in ECW, as well as ECW regulars Anthony “Pitbull #2” Durante, Louie Spicolli, John Kronus of the Eliminators, Ted “Rocco Rock” Petty and Johnny Grunge of The Public Enemy, Big Dick Dudley, Chris Candido, Bam Bam Bigelow, Sensational Sherri Martel, and Mike “Awesome” Alfonso.
I wish you could have been there to see what we all got to experience in person. I suppose I’m glad fans are getting to see them in the adulterated form shown on WWE Classics. Vince McMahon is making the money out of these memories, and not the workers who gave world-class performances even when paychecks were bouncing toward the end. But I wish you could have been there…and that you’d been able to see the unvarnished version of what was the real ECW….not the TV show that airs on Tuesday nights because Vince McMahon owns the legal rights to its name.
Because we’ll never see it’s like again.
Until next time…
— Bob Magee