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JOHN COSTELLO / Staff Photographer
Adam Cole body-slams opponents at the Arena, a "hard-core" wrestling venue in South Philly. It's where Mickey Rourke got staple-gunned.
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Inqlings: Medic who coached Rourke

Philly's own shrine to hard-core wrestling

Win or lose Sunday at the Oscars, Mickey Rourke has a standing offer to perform in tights at South Philly's Arena.

It was in this same venue that Rourke's Randy "the Ram" Robinson was staple-gunned in the chest, lassoed with barbed wire, and ground up like cheap hamburger for scenes in The Wrestler.

Just another day at the office for a brother on the "hard-core" circuit. And to habitues of the Arena - a shrine to "extreme" pro wrestling since 1993 - Rourke, at 56, is a natural. "He could make it in a heartbeat," says foggy-voiced Frank Talent, 74, chief inspector of the Pennsylvania Athletic Commission. "His bumps, his flips . . . he does it all."

Don't forget the blood. "Hard-core" fans demand blood, real or otherwise. There was plenty of both Saturday night at the Arena. About 350 fans shelled out $20 a pop to witness choreographed beat-downs in Combat Zone Wrestling's (CZW) 10th-anniversary show.

On Valentine's Day, yet.

For romantically inclined aficionados of extreme wrestling, it doesn't get any better than this. Especially when the card features "Drew Blood," "Brain Damage" and "Deranged." Those are names, not diagnoses.

A mystery to most Philadelphians, the Arena is a former warehouse tucked under I-95 at Ritner and Swanson Streets. The floor is concrete; the chairs, folding metal. A packed house is 1,000.

There are no windows. Heavy-metal music blares, and colored lights flash as performers make their entrances. They spew obscenities at the crowd; the crowd responds in kind. F-bombs and references to male genitalia dominate.

Rules are few: Wrestlers can't use fire (anymore) and they can't spit. Fans can't throw chairs. The crowd is overwhelmingly white, male and young, but there's a scattering of women with kids.

The atmosphere is Fight Club meets On the Waterfront. Hardly a G-rated evening, but to those in the business, the Arena has the sanctity of a church.

"A lot of wrestlers spend their careers trying to get into that building," says Tyrone M. Scott II (stage name Maven Bentley), 31, promoter of the Philly-based CZW.

Greg Skipper, 26, a.k.a. "Greg Excellent" on weekends, describes the Arena as "the Madison Square Garden of independent wrestling."

In the Garden, however, Vince McMahon's glitzier, more established World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) fills 20,000 cushioned seats. His is a family-oriented brand, recognized throughout the planet.

McMahon "is the Donald Trump of the wrestling world," says Arena general manager Roger Artigiani. "I'm not even a fly on the wall, and I don't want to be. I'm a small-time operator."

Don't tell that to the fans, typically 18- to 34-year-old men who, in the lyrical stylings of promoter Scott, "want to see somebody get the crap kicked out of him."

Or, as Artigiani puts it: "They may not sit courtside at a Knicks game and rub elbows with Spike Lee, but guess what: In my place, they're just as important."

Many of them bring in paraphernalia for wrestlers to use as weapons - car doors, plasma TVs, baseball bats, an occasional dead fish. An office-size copier was wheeled in once.

"Our fans like to be part of the show," says Scott, a Wyncote native with a master's degree in marketing from St. Joseph's University.

Saturday's penultimate "Fans Bring the Weapons" match did not disappoint. A machete, several VCRs, a metal fireplace insert, a printer, a snow shovel, two oars, and several plywood boards wrapped in barbed wire encircled the ring.

Attending every match are a physician, an ambulance, and a representative from the state Athletic Commission, which oversees the sport. Only two performers have needed the ambulance in 10 years, says Artigiani, 50, a Staten Island native and former concert promoter.

In pro wrestling, every smackdown is a morality play. Good guys - called "faces" in the trade - square off against "heels." For Arena combatants, a good payday is $250. Most have full-time jobs.

As for the veracity of the bouts, well, that's been an open secret for years.

"Is the outcome predetermined? Absolutely," says Artigiani. "Wrestlers practice their art. They want it to be as real as possible to sell it to their fans."

The key ingredient is blood. In the end, it's all about the plasma.

"If it's 'hard core,' somebody's going to start bleeding," says Artigiani. "Whether it's good or bad, it's a fact of life. There are no boundaries."

The Arena hosts a dozen such shows per year, along with 30-plus of the mainstream variety. Once 80 percent of bookings, wrestling now constitutes about 25 percent, according to Artigiani.

"If you want to survive, you have to diversify," he says in his cluttered, windowless office. "I'm still totally committed to wrestling. Wrestling is what created this building."

There's also pro and amateur boxing, mixed martial arts, and rock concerts. A three-day pool tournament is booked for June. Midweek ballroom dancing for seniors is on Artigiani's to-do list.

A private fitness center, to be owned and operated by Downingtown's Arena Management Group Inc., is set to open in a corner of the building in three months.

The property has been owned since 1986 by Tobias Stein and Leon Silverman, principals in the Center City law firm Stein & Silverman. The Arena's new lease runs until 2019, Artigiani says.

With only a small, part-time staff, Artigiani basically runs the place by himself. He books events, coordinates contracts, sells ads, sets up and breaks down shows. On occasion, when the toilets back up, he's a plumber.

Wrestler director Darren Aronofsky, Rourke, and crew set up shop in the Arena for three days last February, after having shot most of the movie in North Jersey.

"I never saw a, quote, actor who was so quick to learn," Talent, state athletic commission inspector, says of Rourke, a former boxer.

"I was actually convinced he was a pro wrestler. That's how good he is. He knew exactly what to do and where to go. He listens. He's loaded with humility. Nicest guy I ever met."

Adds promoter Scott: "If he really trained, I could make him a big star right here. I'd make him a bad guy and call him Hollywood Mickey Rourke."

It wasn't the first film shoot at the Arena. Boxing scenes for Sly Stallone's Rocky Balboa (2006) and for The Greek American (2007) were both produced on location there, Artigiani says.

Wrestler fight sequences were shot between real Arena bouts, with real fans interspersed with extras. In one scene, a fan unstraps his artificial leg and hands it to Rourke's "Ram."

His opponent: "Necro Butcher" (real name Dylan Summers), 34, of New Castle, Pa., whose weapons of choice are a Weed Whacker and staple gun. He competes with a bloody five-dollar bill stapled to his forehead.

Other wrestlers from Combat Zone and from Ring of Honor, based in Bristol, appeared in locker room scenes. Scott played the ring announcer.

With ongoing storylines and outlandish costumes, pro wrestlers are actors as well as athletes. Some sing or play instruments in the ring. "Our guys can actually put on an entertaining match," Scott says.

To wit, wrestler Skipper studied theater arts all through high school. In Combat Zone, the 6-foot-1, 265-pound restaurant manager plays Greg Excellent, "a fat guy who drinks Mountain Dew and likes to have a good time."

"That's not too far from who I am. I'm not that good, but I find a way to get it done. The acting comes in handy. I'm really good in front of 500 people. In front of two, I'm not as captivating."

Skipper, a Maryland native, took up extreme wrestling in high school, staging matches with his buddies in backyards. He turned pro in 2003. Like Rourke's Randy "the Ram" Robinson, he lives - and dies - to wrestle.

"All of us struggle with the thought that we won't be able to do this anymore," says Skipper, who's had two concussions. "The only time I feel truly untouchable is in the ring.

"It's the most pure experience of my life. I will do it until I can't walk." 

Venue gets ever more 'hard-core'

Over the years, the Arena has had more name changes than Prince.

In the '80s and early '90s, it was known as Viking Hall, home to the Mummers' South Philadelphia Viking Club and midnight bingo games.

In '93, Extreme Championship Wrestling, the pioneer of "hard core," checked in, and the venue was renamed ECW Arena.

In '04, it became the New Alhambra Sports & Entertainment Center, in homage to the Alhambra Movie Theater, the South Philly landmark that hosted boxing matches in the '50s and '60s.

That was followed by the New Alhambra Arena, Alhambra Arena and finally, in January, the Arena.

- Gail Shister

Contact staff writer Gail Shister at 215-854-5626 or gshister@phillynews.com.

Read her recent work at http://go.philly.com/gailshister.

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