My First ECW Arena Experience

Pillman, Malenko, Heyman, Cornette, & Coraluzzo On a Historic November Night in 1994

When I made the trek from sunny California to freezing upstate NY to attend college, there weren’t many things I was looking forward to for the next four years of my life. One of the things I WAS excited about, however, was the possibility of seeing ECW live and in person.

ECW didn’t make many big noises in late 1993 under the booking of hardcore legend Eddie Gilbert. It wasn’t until Paul Heyman took over that things really started shaking up. If you remember how bland the US wrestling scene was in late 1993, you’d understand my desire to see something new and different. Once I heard about what was happening down in Philadelphia, I just had to get my hands on some tapes.

As a freshman in college, I had almost a year worth of ECW viewing under my belt. Eastern Championship Wrestling had just died and morphed into Extreme Championship Wrestling. Shane Douglas had just won the newly created Extreme/NWA version of the belt, in a tournament that featured the famous double-cross on Dennis Coraluzzo. They were renegades. I sure wasn’t, but at 17, I thought renegades were cool.

And on November 19, 1994, Coraluzzo and Heyman were running shows head-to-head in the same area. One way or another, I was going to be there for one of those shows. But as a loner wrestling fan hundreds of miles away with no access to a car, how was I going to get there?

So in late 1994, I read in the Observer that cult wrestling radio show host John Arezzi was organizing a bus trip designed just for wrestling fans. I only knew Arezzi from his 1992 appearance on “Donahue,” in which he set up Dave Meltzer to totally clown Vince McMahon in one of the all-time great television moments regarding Vince’s alleged disappointment in Hulk Hogan’s lying on the “Arsenio Hall Show.” This bus trip would first head to Cherry Hill, NJ for a wrestling convention before the Coralluzzo show, and then right over to ECW Arena for their show that night. I was psyched.

I took a bus down to Huntington, Long Island, all alone, and was dropped off in the middle of nowhere in the pitch black middle of the night. I was young and naive, and looking back, it’s amazing I’m alive to tell this story. I was lucky enough to stumble into a building with lights on, and kindly asked directions to the local hotel I had reserved myself for. Fortunately, it was only a few blocks away, so I walked and made it there just fine.

Morning came, and I walked back to the bus stop and waited for Arezzi’s bus. Arezzi did show up in the car, and true to his word, a bus showed up a little later. Before long, a bus full of about a dozen ECW fans was headed to New Jersey!

During the bus trip, a VCR and TV treated us to recent episodes of ECW television shows. The shows were pretty revolutionary at the time, and all of us sat in silence and paid 100% of our attention to that TV screen. Tommy Cairo’s humorous promos on Sandman were a particular favorite with the crowd. But nothing compared to Shane Douglas’ post-NWA title win speech, in which he threw down the belt and declared himself the new Extreme Championship Wrestling champion. That interview is an underground classic that sparked a new era of critical acclaim for ECW.

What is interesting to note is that the convention in Cherry Hill was at the site of a show that was being promoted later that night by Dennis Coraluzzo. Remember, he had just been double-crossed and was understandably bitter about it. At the convention, I ran into Dennis and told him that a friend of mine wanted him to call him. I didn’t know Dennis and he didn’t know me.

Dennis then asked if I was attending his show tonight. What could I say? I would love to have seen his show, but I lived far away and was on an ECW bus trip. I told him this, and he grew visibly upset. He asked why I would want to go see those guys, when everything I’d want in a show would be presented at his. Looking back, I probably should’ve lied and said I was attending his show. When Dennis died several years later, I was saddened that my only interaction with him was a negative one.

The rest of the convention was great. Jerry Lawler and Jim Cornette politely signed autographs for me, which was a surreal experience for me. But the nicest was Ricky Morton. Unlike Coraluzzo, Morton understood my decision to attend the ECW show, and not only wished me a good time, but said to say Hello to his good friend Shane Douglas. Mr. Morton was pure Southern hospitality! Also spotted was the man with the world’s most famous speech impediment: Howard Stern Wack Pack member Fred the Elephant Boy.

The bus finally left and it was off to ECW Arena. Arezzi’s trip included front row tickets, which was a sweet deal. To someone who had never seen ECW live before, being ringside was a dream come true.

I had only seen the ECW Arena on television. In person, well, it’s South Philly. It’s small, dirty, and houses the world’s stickiest floors. The fans were rude, loud, obnoxious, and extremely hostile. But I didn’t expect anything less, and I was somewhat satisfied that their horrible reputation was well deserved. Three matches into the show, I was hit with a sandwich from across the arena. Hardcore indeed.

The show was awesome. In the Observer the following week, it was written:

“By most accounts, the 11/19 ECW show, which drew its largest crowd to date with 1,100 shoe-horned into the 850-seat building, was one of their best shows in a string of hot cards.”

Steve Austin, who would later go on to lead the WWF into a new generation of record-setting profit, was supposed to appear on this show courtesy of WCW. WCW claimed he had an injury, but with the way things went down, many in ECW were skeptical. WCW agreed to send ECW some talent as an out-of-court settlement for WCW using the phrase, “When Worlds Collide” for their AAA PPV show, which ECW had the rights to. In exchange for not sending Austin, WCW sent Brian Pillman and Kevin Sullivan. The irony of those 2 being selected is incredible on so many levels. Sometimes I wonder if it was during this trip to the ECW Arena when Pillman and Sullivan planned their plot in WCW that would play out a year later.

I was really bummed about Austin not being there, as I had been a fan of his since 1990. But the surprise appearance of Brian Pillman, whom I was an even bigger fan of, more than made up for it. I look back and ask myself, if I had the choice of seeing either of those 2, whom would I prefer? Austin went on to be a humongous star and icon worldwide. But Pillman was an underground, ground-breaking work-shoot manipulator who died a very tragic death. I’d have picked Pillman, because at least I can always see Austin again. With Pillman, I’ll never get that chance again.

Pillman teamed with Shane Douglas that night and lost to Ron Simmons (Farooq) & 2 Cold Scorpio. After the match, Shane made a bunch of anti-Flair remarks, which later turned into a real feud in WCW.

On the undercard, Kevin Sullivan teamed with Cactus Jack and went to a non-finish with Public Enemy. Being front row, seeing the brutal and sick frying pan and chair shots was really captivating. While such antics are passé today, they were really novel back then, even to longtime traditional wrestling fans like myself. Sullivan turned on Jack toward the end, which brought out Mikey Whipwreck to make the save.

Another highlight was a rare US appearance by Joe Malenko, as he teamed up with brother Dean to lose to Sabu and Taz. A wild brawl after the finish involved Jason, 911, and Public Enemy. I have a vivid memory of seeing Rocco Rock moonsault Paul Heyman through a table. Rocco was extra careful and Heyman was scared to death, as he clearly raised his arms to help soften the bump. Sabu also did an insane dive onto Johnny Grunge outside the ring that needed to seen live to be believed.

The buzz on the bus after the show was dynamic. These weren’t garbage FMW-style matches that backyard no-talents practiced with home videos. Well okay, maybe Public Enemy falls in that category, but at least they gave good promo’s. Those of us on the bus REALLY thought this ECW thing was going to take off. And if we didn’t think so, we hoped so. And so did all of you.

But it was just an incredible night. Before the show even started, I was still trembling from the experience of meeting Cornette & Lawler. I was in the right state of mind, and being front row at ECW Arena for a main event with Brian Pillman was way, way more than any wrestling fan could ever ask for. Nothing or nobody can take those cherished memories away from me.

In a future post, I’ll talk about my experiences backstage at an ECW show in 1995 that totally blow away anything I’ve ever witnessed as a wrestling fan. I’m talking about the night Terry Funk caught fire and nearly burned alive in front of our very eyes.