AS I SEE IT: The ECW Arena returns…
Pro Wrestling: Between the Sheets
It started out as a warehouse at the corner of Swanson and Ritner Streets in South Philadelphia. Over 18 years, it became one of the most well-known wrestling venues on the planet.
There has not been wrestling at the ECW Arena for nearly two years. Tomorrow night, the first show is scheduled to take place in the new Arena, as Extreme Rising show, under the new ownership of Steve O’Neill, runs the corner of Swanson and Ritner. The Arena is clearly still being worked on as I write this, with completion of the renovations scheduled for April.
It’s the intent of Roger Artigiani to bring wrestling back to the Arena, but other events as well. Previous to the Arena’s closing, MMA and boxing cards (including boxing cards televised on ESPN2, Versus (now NBC Sports), and Telemundo. He wants that to return, along with bringing in other events.
Beginning in January, the classic entrance to the Arena will be no more. A new entrance (and very different looking) will be built on the Swanson Street side of the building with ramps. A new lighting system will be installed, the notorious issues with sound will be dealt with as walls and ceilings will be re-done for acoustical purposes. There will be new bathrooms (yes, which will actually work).
This building has had so much wrestling history, that no matter what changes are made to the physical building; the sounds and the memories will always remain in the “world’s Most Famous Bingo Hall”. No matter how different it looked Saturday, and how much more changes will take place by spring; it’s still the ECW Arena to those of us who spent time within its walls.
So…for those who will come to the new venue for the first time, some history…first, with the ECW era…then the independent era.
First, the ECW era.
I have a lot of personal memories coming out of the ECW Arena.
I was ready to go to that first ECW show back on May 14, 1993, the date that Eddie Gilbert and Tod Gordon scheduled their first show of Eastern Championship Wrestling in a nondescript looking bingo hall, located in a section of Philadelphia that former Strictly ECW head Tony Lewis later described as “West Hell”. I was told by friend and ECW employee Kathy Fitzpatrick that this new building was at Swanson and Ritner Streets. In those pre-internet days, I looked up the intersection on a SEPTA map in my office. According to that and another map I looked at, the intersection didn’t exist. But she insisted that was the place.
I found out years later that the members of the Viking Club Mummers group had paved over freight train tracks and created an unofficial extension of a street. Thus, the intersection did exist…sort of. So on the afternoon of the show, after asking around the neighborhood, and finally checking at the local Forman Mills discount store, I asked where the Mummers practiced. The sales clerk pointed down the street. Finding the building, I went inside, and saw the Bingo equipment up on the walls. I went into a place that looked nothing like any wrestling venue I’d ever been to, and thought “What in the hell is this?”
Even those of us used to shows in flea markets, bars, schools, and even parking lots thought…”a Bingo Hall?” We found out that this building was Viking Hall, the home of the South Philadelphia Viking Club, the neighborhood Mummers group that practiced there for the yearly Philadelphia New Years Mummers parade. We also found out that they did “Midnight Bingo” there to fund the Vikings.
This meant that in the promotion’s early years, they were supposed to be out of there in enough time to allow set-up for Midnight Bingo. As we left ECW shows, the “bingo ladies” were out there waiting impatiently to get in.
Well, beginning that night, it became the home for ECW, Eastern Championship Wrestling, and became the home of the most controversial wrestling promotion of the 1990s. It featured incredible technical wrestling, unbelievable violence and some of the most cretaive booking ever.
Here are memories of the ECW Arena, memories many of you in the United States and around the world have seen via TV, tape, DVD and online.
About a year later, Tod Gordon was ready to take things up a step with Sports Channel Philadelphia (its only exposure had been low-power TV clearance on W07CB Channel 7, viewable in center-city and West Philadelphia only) , 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.
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 Matsunaga.
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 Jim Crockett’ s World Wrestling Network (a promotion that, ironically enough, never took off). During the show, Eddie Gilbert walked into the Arena unannounced, acknowledged he was leaving ECW, but told fans to keep supporting the promotion.
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 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, 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 inbetween 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, Steve “Dr. Death” Williams, 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, Chris Benoit, Nancy “Woman” Duas, Luna Vachon, 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….and that you’d been able to see the unvarnished version of what was the real ECW….not the TV show that aired for awhile because Vince McMahon owned the legal rights to its name.
Because we’ll never see its like again.
Next, part 2…the post-ECW era.
— Bob Magee
Editor’s note: Part 2 will be posted on Tuesday!