Image via Wikimedia Commons
Image via Wikimedia Commons
Professional wrestling doesn’t have many actual physical landmarks. For a few years, the WWE has made noises about building a Hall of Fame museum, which would be awesome, but doesn’t seem likely to happen anytime soon. Michigan’s Pontiac Silverdome played host to Wrestlemania III, the single biggest event in the fake sport’s history, and plenty of important moments have gone down at Madison Square Garden or the Greensboro Coliseum. But those buildings have their own long, proud histories, and most of their big moments have nothing whatsoever to do with pro wrestling. As for wrestling-specific locations, we’ve got the WWE office building in Stamford, Connecticut, with the big logo-flag that you can't help but notice when you drive from New York to Boston, and we’ve got the ECW Arena. Or, at least, we had the ECW Arena.
In 1993, the Philadelphia-based independent company Extreme Championship Wrestling began running shows at the Arena, a dingy building in what’s reputed to be an awful South Philly neighborhood. Originally a warehouse, the building had more recently hosted the South Philly Vikings Club. At least according to Wikipedia, the local mummers club would practice for its annual parade there, and it also hosted bingo nights. When WWF announcer Jerry Lawler feuded with ECW during a fun interpromotional storyline, he’d derisively call the company's headquarters “the Bingo Hall,” and ECW fans picked up that name and started using it as a badge of pride.
Teenagers like me, kids who discovered or rediscovered pro wrestling in the ‘90s, looked at ECW with something like awe. This was the company that changed things. In ECW, wrestlers would cuss and bleed and dive off balconies onto each other and throw each other into the audience and stab each other with forks. In ECW, guys who’d disappeared from the bigger companies—Cactus Jack, Steve Austin, Bam Bam Bigelow—would reemerge as snarling badasses who would invariably get snapped back up by those big companies once they’d gained their own ECW cults. The company would bring in Japanese or Mexican wrestlers, or North American wrestlers who’d mostly been working in Japan or Mexico, and give them chances to have crazy acrobatic matches in front of appreciative audiences. And the company had its own perennial goon gallery—steely-eyed submission monster Taz, high-flying stoner Rob Van Dam, scarred-up lunatic Sabu—who seemed like visitors from another, more violent dimension.
As the company’s legend grew, so did the legend of the building itself. If you were lucky enough to locate Hardcore TV, ECW’s weekly show, in some late-night corner of your cable package, you’d see the building itself, with its rickety seating, and its bootleg-ass set, and its bloodthirsty fans. ECW fans were notorious for doing dickish but funny stuff, like taunting even the wrestlers they liked, chanting “You fucked up!” at guys who had just fallen on their heads after botching top-turnbuckle moves. You’d see certain fans over and over, like the one guy with the Hawaiian shirt who was always in the front row. It didn’t seem possible that the ECW Arena was an actual physical place that I could visit, that it would be perfectly reasonable to road-trip from Baltimore to Philly to see some of these shows. The Arena seemed more like a violent concept than an accessible location.
After too many bounced wrestler paychecks and bad business decisions, ECW finally flamed out of existence, in 2001, but the venue remained. It went through a bunch of different names over the next 10 years, but it stayed open. Most recently known as the Asylum Arena, the building hosted all sorts of off-brand boxing and MMA fights. It also stood as maybe the most important venue on the emerging American indie wrestling scene, a scene that really kicked into high gear around the time ECW died.
Virtually every important indie company has run shows out of the ECW Arena, many of them quite recently. The venue was the home to Combat Zone Wrestling, a company that came along in the wake of ECW and ramped the bloodshed up even further, with wrestlers mutilating each other with light tubes and weed-whackers. If you saw The Wrestler, you’ve seen a piece of a CZW show at the Arena; that’s where Mickey Rourke and real-life CZW mainstay Necro Butcher brutalized each other with staple guns and broken glass. On the paradoxical flipside, the Arena has also been the home to Chikara, a fun and cartoonish company that prides itself on being goofily family-friendly entertainment. Ring of Honor, Dragon Gate USA, Jersey All-Pro Wrestling, New Japan Pro Wrestling, and plenty of other important companies have also run big shows out of the Arena. In this insular little world, a show at this building is a big deal.
But recently, the owners of storied Philly music venue the Trocadero bought the Arena, and they’re planning on shuttering it for repairs and reopening as another music spot. Nobody’s made any official announcements yet, but the ECW Arena probably won’t host any more pro wrestling. So what could be the last wrestling show in the building’s history went down on Saturday night: An internet pay-per-view from the relatively new indie company Evolve Wrestling. Evolve, which recently merged with the Japanese/American co-venture Dragon Gate USA, has a rep for being one of the more dependable places to see a hard-hitting/high-flying style that has more to do with big-ticket Japanese wrestling than with anything you might see in the WWE, or on old ECW tapes. I can’t speak to whether this show lived up to the company’s rep, since I haven’t been able to watch it yet because of problems with Evolve’s internet streaming.
But by all accounts, Saturday was a fitting sendoff for the Arena. Evolve did their thing, and a quick tribute to the building’s ECW history was stapled on at the very end. The final match in the building wasn’t the advertised main event between technical specialist Johnny Gargano and fauxhawked high-flyer Ricochet. Instead, it was an impromptu contest between two aging, scarred ECW veterans, Sabu and Justin Credible. So the building went out the only way it really could: With two mutant relics slicing each other’s foreheads open with screwdrivers.