15 years ago this past week, the little promotion that couldn't...did.
ECW Barely Legal took place, the one and only PPV ever held from the ECW Arena in Philadelphia on April 13, 1997. Here are some of the moments that led to that day.
Let's start on May 14, 1993. I was ready to go to that first ECW show at this new arena, the Saturday 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 then described as "West Hell".
Even that requires some prelude.
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 Tri-State Wrestling Alliance, best known for its classic series of Cactus Jack-Eddie Gilbert matches that permanently put hardcore wrestling on the map in Philadelphia, blew apart on the eve of Winter Challenge III, a show that would have been the promotion's largest.
The show was scheduled on January 25, 1992; and would have featured matches including "Nature Boy" Buddy Rogers vs. "Nature Boy" Buddy Landel, Steve Williams/Terry Gordy vs. Dan Kroffat/Doug Furnas, Chris Benoit vs. Shiro Koshinaka, and Eddie Gilbert vs. Kevin Sullivan. Goodhart cancelled the show and ended his involvement in wrestling as a whole live on his WIP 610 radio show only days before the Winter Challenge III show would have taken place.
Gordon ran shows as Eastern Championship Wrestling promoter with the local talent from the former Tri-State roster, including The Sandman (who was then doing a surfer gimmick), JT Smith, Tony Stetson, Sal Bellomo, Larry Winters, Glenn Osbourne, and The Super Destroyers, along with names Jimmy Snuka and Don Muraco.
The fledging ECW ran its earliest shows at the Philadelphia's Original Sports Bar (now the basement of a Ross Dress for Less), the Chestnut Cabaret (now a club called the Blockley Pourhouse), the Tabor Rams Youth Association, and finally Cabrini College. A handful of Chestnut Cabaret shows were taped for airing on a local low-power TV station, but EC! W was at that point just another independent. Most notable was the fact that the TV announcer for WWF Philadelphia Spectrum house shows (aired on local cable sports/movie station PRISM) Dick Graham did commentary.
Cabrini College, a Catholic school in suburban Philadelphia, was the site of the promotion's first TV taping on March 1993 for a small part-time sports station called SportsChannel Philadelphia. 60 people gathered there at Cabrini College on the eve of a massive super-snowstorm that left as much as three and a half feet of snow all over the East Coast. Then Cabrini College kicked out ECW after two shows because the college decided they didn't want wrestling. Mind you, not "extreme" wrestling...ECW was nothing remotely near that yet. But at that point, Cabrini College decided that they just plain didn't want wrestling.
Back to May 14th, 1993...
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 o! 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?"
How little we knew.
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 group. 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.
From May 14, 1993, until the promotion's last Philadelphia show on December 23, 2000... ECW 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 fledgling wrestling promotion owned by a center city pawnbroker would make a longtime home in this building... would eventually be seen nationwide on cable television... would go on PPV from this building in 1997... and would have wrestling fans around the world chanting "ECW... EC! W... ECW"....to this very day...
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 Four 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 character called Raven... and that the company 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 Philly 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 knew it was at least near the widely known Tony Luke's cheese steak stand, so we'd at least have a good meal before the show.
We went in that May evening to see a promotion which would start its TV incarnation featuring Eddie Gilbert and a 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 via commercial tapes, and tapes traded by fans all over North America and beyond.
There were people like John Bailey (seemingly known everywhere as "Hat Guy"), his brother George, "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 ECW Arena moments from my memory:
Eddie Gilbert and Terry Funk go at it in the "Texas Chain Match Massacre" to give ECW its largest crowd to 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 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 other names in ECW during that year included Kevin Christopher, Herve Rinesto, 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 of ice storms that cut off power to 350,000 people in the Philadelphia area. Yet ECW drew a crowd of 200 just on word of mouth and from calling the company's telephone hotline in the basement of annoucer Bob Artese's house to see Terry Funk and Shane Douglas work a 45 minute broadway that set up the original "three-way dance" on February 5, 1994 with "The Night The Line Was Cross! ed" featuring Sabu vs. Shane Douglas vs. Terry Funk.
The April night when 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 Championshi p 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, Gary Wolf, 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 Ar! ena 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 from the crowd worthy of two departing world class talents and 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 Mi sterio, 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 Par! ty.
A brief detour here. Things wouldn't have been ECW withour some drama involved.
In 1995 and 1996, the New York-based fan group Strictly ECW got ECW back on MSG TV, almost entirely by itself. It's a fact that Paul Heyman publicly acknowledged more than once. Strictly ECW also played a major role in getting ECW on PPV in the New York market.
The first AS I SEE IT column I wrote dealt with the role Wade Keller and Bruce Mitchell played in attempting to delay or outright prevent ECW from going on PPV through then- PPV provider Request TV. Bruce Mitchell had circulated a tape of the infamous Eric "Mass Transit" Kulas incident from Revere, MA. Mitchell bragged about what he'd done, going so far as to say "someone had to stop them...they should have burned the tape while they had the chance" on the Wrestling Observer 900 line (reeamber those, folks?). The remark was edited off the Mitchell report the same day, but the word had already gotten out about Mitchell's comments.
Nevertheless, drama eventually put aside, ECW was to take place on April 13, 1997.
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 (and then some), 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 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/Terry Boy (aka Mens Teioh), and Terry Funk defeating Raven for the ECW Heavyweight Title.
The fact that it happened at all was a miracle, what happened in the years that followed shaped wrestling for years to come; and 15 years ago the one and only PPV ever out of the World's Most Famous Bingo Hall took place.
Until next time...
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