Enter The Arena, Hit The Lights

One of the biggest news stories impacting the business right now is the state of Florida being very close to giving the green light to allow fans to attend live wrestling events again. How will this look? Who knows. In Florida’s aggressive state of reopening positive COVID cases seem to be rising but it seems most are ready to try and resume their lives put on hold by the pandemic. This affects the two biggest promotions right now as WWE is in Orlando and AEW is in Jacksonville. Kind of makes it feel like the rebirth of the territories doesn’t it?

It’s hard to say how this will impact the smaller independent promotions but the fact that the big shows are very close to allowing the returns of fans is a step in the right direction. As a fan here’s hoping they can bring back that intoxicating atmosphere a wrestling show can only bring while applying the proper safety protocols. With all this being said it will still be quite some time before either promotion can tour outside of Florida or even their respective cities for that matter. Back in the height of this pandemic in the spring WWE was threatening to completely cut out its live event or non-televised ‘house-shows’ to absorb the financial blow due to COVID. The company lately seems to have back peddled on this stance and is hopeful that it can become a touring entity in the distant future, at least in the regional United States.

When that day comes however WWE does need to make some changes. It’s no secret that in the last couple of years non-televised live event attendance has gone way down. There are various reasons for this but I would like to focus on one. That reason being that people have been conditioned for years to understand that these shows are exhibitions that rarely (if ever) contribute to on-going storylines. So yes, it is fun to see the larger than life characters and get the rush of their entrance but the wins and losses don’t matter as much. While it was a great source for scoring your favorite wrestler’s merchandise some of the cards could be flat or just downright boring while waiting for an electric main event. 

However this is not always the case as every so often you will see something hilarious or even wonderful, what fans consider a ‘mark-out’ moment. Performers tend to like ‘house-shows’ better than TV because they don’t have to rush and they can experiment and amuse each other without Vince yelling at them through the earpiece of the referee. Chris Jericho came back to WWE in 2015 and only did house-show dates because he could basically pick his opponents and take his time in the ring. Mick Foley’s books have incredibly hilarious stories of shenanigans pulled by himself, Owen Hart, Davey Boy Smith and others during these non-televised live events that couldn’t have gotten a green light to go to air.

So my argument for this edition of The Grand Slam is that there are reasons why buying a ticket to a live-event can actually still be worth it. Over the years I have gone to several WWE non-televised events in Toronto. Most of them were at the height of the Attitude Era where independent wrestling wasn’t as abundant, Youtube didn’t exist, and the online shop for merchandise was available but not reliable (that’s another story for another day). So going to live events in the era that personified ‘anything can happen in the WWE’ spawned some great surprises for me as a fan that I wouldn’t have been able to get otherwise just sitting at home. So I will conclude this writing with my top five WWE house-show moments I experienced as a fan. This writing also has a special shout-out to MCW regular Bill Chase who just started a podcast chronicling his past- live event experience debuting with a Superstars taping at Hamilton’s Copps Coliseum in 1992. With that being said my countdown being further back in the annals of the Golden Era…

5) Maple Leaf Gardens: The afternoon of November 22, 1987….just being there!

First of all I must give a shout-out to www.thehistoryofwwe.com. This site has an abundance of live event results where I got refreshed on these shows and I couldn’t have done this writing without their detailed information. This show was a matinee with a paid-attendance of 17,500….in the craziness of the 1980s travel schedule this same crew would work an evening show in Hartford, CT in front of 8000 people….don’t know how they did it back then!

It’s really cool realizing that my first ever live event was days before the inaugural Survivor Series. When I looked this up I was surprised at the date because I was certain it happened later in 1988. The WWE ran MLG so much back then and I could understand why as it was always a sellout crowd or pretty close. They inherited the loyal fan base of Frank Tunney’s Maple Leaf Wrestling and the Gardens became one of the true hot spots of this era.

My parents hated wrestling but wanted to do something nice for my brother and I. Growing up around 90 minutes outside of Toronto made this and all other trips a big deal. I don’t remember much of this card because I must have been five or so but Sensational Sherri defended her Women’s Title, Macho Man teamed up with the Bulldogs against Honky Tonk Man & The Hart Foundation and Hulk Hogan squared off with Ted DiBiase in the main event.

Pretty stacked card for that era…but what does this writer remember? Being in awe of the ring and the neon ‘no-smoking’ sign on the Gardens scoreboard watching the opening match of The Young Stallions against the Conquistadors. Yeah…random and strange I know but I also remember being able to pick one t-shirt from the merchandise stand and that was my main man at the time Ko Ko B. Ware. Ko Ko would thank me later in the afternoon by losing to Outlaw Ron Bass. Go figure….but what’s important is that I still have memories of being there which can’t be said for people who never got to experience this amazing era in person.

4) Moving’ On Up At The Kitchener Aud: January 15, 2005

Although the WWE ran Kitchener on a semi-regular basis on the Golden Era they would only come back every few years in modern times. I’ve lived in Waterloo Region for nearly two decades now and I believe this was the last time they ever did an event at the Kitchener Auditorium. I had originally intended not to go because it was a Smackdown only live event and at the time the blue brand wasn’t quite what it used to be….then something happened…

My good friend who worked in local radio at the time scored some tickets for me and believe it or not I was accompanied by Nicky Martin. Yes…this was pre-MCW before Martin completely lost his head and became the egocentric monster that you know him as today. I did enjoy his company at one point in time.

The Aud has been expanded in recent years due to the popularity of junior hockey in the city. Back in 2005 it was smaller so Nicky and I had really good seats. But about two matches into the show our friend comes up to us and says he has two ring side seats at the guard rail waiting for us. This amazingly nice gesture from my friend (you could learn a thing or two Martin!) had me sit the closest to a WWE ring that I had ever been. A truly unforgettable experience considering the show as not that well attended.

As for the card itself it was up and down. We did get treated to a hot opener between John Cena and Kurt Angle (my buddy who’s not even a fan got his picture taken with both of them backstage noless!) and the main event between JBL and the Big Show was better than I had anticipated. Got to see a lot of cruiserweight action with the links of Nunzio, Scotty II Hotty, Paul London, Chavo, Funaki and Spike. Unfortunately we had to suffer through Kenzo Suzuki and Heidenreich (remember them???) but the coolest part of the night was seeing the Bashams against the tag champs Eddie Guerrero & Rey Mysterio. I even got a high-five or more like a low-five from Rey during his entrance as I stood in awe to see how much shorter he was than me and that made me respect his abilities even more. Also the agent for the show Fit Finlay walked by us and repeatedly ignored our requests for high-fives….one can always try I guess.

3) A Regal / Malenko Classic bores the ACC: October 28, 2000

From 1999 to 2002 I must have checked out every WWE live event that came to Toronto for the reasons I listed earlier in this writing. This show didn’t have a whole lot on the card that stood out other than the electric atmosphere. The main event was Rock & Austin vs. the oddly paired team of Chris Benoit & Rikishi. Also a six-person intergender match with Edge, Christian & Jackie vs. The Hadyz & Lita.

Like most cards in 2000 this was loaded with talent (a Kurt Angle / HHH match that I oddly have no recollection of) but had its share of ups and downs. The one match I have a distinct memory of is what I considered to be the match of the night and the majority of this capacity crowd in Toronto….hated.

Match one has Too Cool against the Right To Censor. Too Cool was hot and people just hated the RTC show that match serves its purpose to heat up the crowd. Then it is followed by another hot babyface tag team, the Dudleyz taking on Test and Albert. This was also a Tables match which was something you didn’t always see during non-televised events. So two matches in the crowd is really hot and needs a break. There is a concept in putting wrestling shows together that the first match or two come out to get the crowd real hot and your matches that may not be as well received go on in the 3rd or 4th spot, generally speaking.

So my brother and I are expecting match #3 to be the proverbial let-down (and more often than not it is) and we get Dean Malenko vs. William Regal. Malenko had only been in WWE a few months and Regal was hot on the comeback trail after getting back into wrestling from a horrible state of exile fuelled by drug addiction.

Regal was now sober and getting some great ‘heat’ as WWE’s Goodwill Ambassador. Malenko was still trying to connect with the crowd but could have great matches with anybody and seeing these two elite mat technicians was a real treat because I don’t believe they grappled much before and not since. I figured since Toronto crowds appreciate good wrestling and Regal was over as a heel they would be into this match….boy was I wrong.

A good chunk of the crowd headed to the concessions to cool off and buy stuff from the first two matches. Also for some weird reason that I do not remember Debra (married to Steve Austin at the time) was the guest ring announcer….maybe that had something to do with it.

So to put in some context, one month prior I was lucky enough to attend the only ECW show to ever run in Canada at Mississaug’s Hershey Center a month prior. That crowd would have loved this match but at the ACC the two just got indifference and some ‘boring’ chants. All this while the westling purists were foaming at the mouth due to the scientific nature of the match. It was one of the most bizarre things I’d ever seen. Two great workers putting on a clinic and nobody cared. Sometimes It just shows how doomed you can be by being placed in a certain spot on the card. Live Audio Wrestling played a nice joke later that evening commenting on this same issue by playing Counting Flowers On The Wall by The Statler Bros….insinuating that was what the crowd was doing during this match. I swear after this evening this bizarre set of circumstances was never spoken about again as I don’t recall these two tying up in a WWE ring before retirement.

2) A Strong show is enhanced by surprises: ACC….June 16, 2001

This stage of 2001 was an odd time. WWE had their best show ever at the time (WM X-7) and were looking to get their brand back on track publicly after the embarrassing failure of the XFL. They had also bought this small company down south called WCW and now owned all its assets. Also the influential ECW had gone out of business and its former promoter (Heyman) was now announcing on RAW. Steve Austin just turned heel and people weren’t sure what to think but they were going to pair him up with a newly turned  babyface HHH for the summer. HHH got hurt for the rest of the year and the company needed something so the much anticipated WCW Invasion angle got underway not too long before this event….more on that later…but I want to say top to bottom this was the best non-televised live event I ever saw and I will present the card in full:

Jeff Hardy vs. X-Pac
Trish & Jackie vs. Molly & Lita (Guest Ref. Jerome Williams of the Raptors)
Matt Hardy vs. Justin Credible
Chris Benoit vs. Rhyno
Test vs. Albert (Hardcore Title)
Kane vs. Kurt Angle
The Undertaker vs. The Big Show
Edge & Christian vs. The Dudleyz
Steve Austin vs. Chris Jericho (Steel Cage)

A great looking card on paper and in person. However that Undertaker / Big Show match has to be disqualified as let’s just say that night was not exactly their finest moment. So the strength of this card alone would put it on this list but they did a little something extra. During the Benoit / Rhyno match we got not one, but two run-ins from people who hadn’t wrestling a match in WWE yet further planting the seeds for the Invasion storyline.

A couple of weeks prior to the show RAW was in Calgary and the Invasion storyline kicked off with hometown hero Lance Storm super-kicking Perry Saturn and costing him a match. Lance was representing Shane McMahon’s WCW and he would do a surprise run-in during the Benoit/Rhyno match. Really cool to see as he hadn’t been fully introduced or wrestled on television yet but was making an impact on a major market’s non-televised show. But if that wasn’t enough my brother and I would get a complete shock when we would see ECW alumni Yoshihiro Tajiri sneak to the ring at the end of the match. My brother and I were close to the aisle guard rail and he yelled his name in excitement and I will never forget the visual of Tajiri looking in our direction and putting his finger to his mouth to sshhhh us….unforgettable.

The reason we ‘marked-out’ for that was unlike Lance Storm who appeared on TV already, Tajiri wasn’t even on the radar and his arrival in WWE was a complete surprise. Still in awe they did it in a hardcore wrestling market like Toronto without him debuting on tv first. Tajiri would not be booked as the intimidating badass in WWE that he was in ECW however at that time he still had that ‘dangerous’ aurea about him. He would however have a good run with the cruiserweights and the odd-couple tag team with William Regal. This example shows that when thought it put in these non-televised events can produce some major excitement. Bigger names like DDP and Booker T. would debut at the KOTR in the coming days but I love that they gave some extra surprises for the Toronto fans.

1) A delayed flight leads to home-town gold: Skydome: July 24, 1999

If you’re wondering about the venue, there was a point in time when the WWE’s brand name and business were so hot that they could hold RAW tapings and live events in the Dome. This was the height of the Austin era and was the night before a major PPV in Buffalo the following night. This was Fully Loaded which would provide closure to the epic Austin / McMahon feud and pave the road to Summerslam. However on this hot summer afternoon ( I think it was a 4:00pm start) I would see a moment that would forever be etched in my wrestling memory and is something that can rarely be duplicated in this manner. First a little bit of background…

Austin and HHH headline as they thought this would headline Summerslam ‘99 (another story for another day) and Undertaker and Big Show had a cage match that wasn’t nearly as bad as their stinking the joint out affair of 2001. The Rock fought the Bossman in a Nightstick on A Pole Match plus Road Dogg & Billy in a dog-collar match. This was still the Vince Russo era so a lot of gimmicks. But two tag matches really stood out Edge & Christian vs. The Acolytes and the emerging Hardy Boyz vs. Kane & X-Pac which was looking to be match of the night.

On what would be a ten match card match number six would be IC champion Jeff Jarrett vs. Ken Shamrock. Jeff was with Debra and were a hot tandem together. Shamrock was solid in the ring and I expected a decent match with Jeff retaining because he was going to fight Edge at the PPV the next night. But stop the presses as Howard Finkel (he did a lot of the house shows back then) has a special announcement. It seems Ken Shamrock missed his flight and was stuck in Detroit so they named an immediate replacement for Jarrett to defend his title against….after moments of curiosity that man turns out to be…Edge!!!

Edge and I are from Orangeville, however he lived and cut his teeth with training in Toronto so it’s basically like a second home to him. Now this wasn’t exactly the thunderous pop of his return to the Royal Rumble in Houston but this was pretty damn loud. Most fans in attendance knew of his roots and that this would be a big opportunity. At the time he was just starting to click with Christian as a tag team wrestler. Going for his first singles gold in Toronto was cool but there was just no way he could win right? Right?

I mean he got his ass kicked by Faarooq and Bradshaw, he had a title match the following evening in Buffalo, these things just didn’t happen. But sometimes the impossible does manifest and in his first singles match for WWE gold (like The Fink says) you’re winner and NEW Intercontinental Chapmion…Edge!!! Even though he would lose the title back to Jarrett the next night his future Hall of Fame career was set in stone. He would hold that title five more times but I’ll argue none of his IC title wins were as cool as that one. I believe Copeland has gone on record saying that he found out he was winning the gold as soon as he was told to fill in for Shamrock. So the whole thing was spontaneous, organic and turned a negative into an overwhelming positive.

I remember walking through Union Station after the event and overheard people saying ‘hey did you hear Edge is the IC champ?’ This was making the rounds on the streets of Toronto somehow…pre-Social Media! So in closing, I hope you enjoyed my experiences and feel free to share some of yours at mcwmagazineshow@gmail.com or comment below. You just never know what you might expect to see if you buy a ticket cause Vince has been saying for years ‘Anything can and will happen in the WWE’…and you know what? Once in a while it really does!

%d bloggers like this: