Marvez: Asylum Arena a throwback to days of ECW
PHILADELPHIA - World Wrestling Entertainment has dibs on every major arena, including New York City's iconic Madison Square Garden. TNA Wrestling runs almost all of its television tapings and pay-per-view shows at Universal Studios in Orlando, Fla.
But when it comes to grappling's grass roots, there is no busier U.S. venue than a 10,000-square foot converted warehouse bordered by a viaduct, discount clothier and working-class homes here in South Philadelphia.
The newly renamed Asylum Arena was originally a bingo hall best known as the 1990s home of Extreme Championship Wrestling. The Paul Heyman-led ECW was purchased by WWE in 2001, but the spirit of an innovative independent promotion trying to carve its own niche lives on.
Eight different groups will have combined to run 40 shows at Asylum Arena by year's end. The most frequent clients are Ring of Honor, Combat Zone Wrestling and Chikara Pro. But the original ECW's legacy remains so strong that TNA returned in September with a show featuring performers whose careers were launched there like Tommy Dreamer, Terry "Rhino" Gerin and Team 3-D.
"Wrestling fans made this place what it is," Asylum Arena general manager Roger Artigiani said. "To everyone that walks in that's not a fan, they look at it as a warehouse where you can hold sports activities.
"I'm not a diehard wrestling fan, but I can relate it to being a baseball fan when it comes to Yankee Stadium. People here feel closeness (to the performers) because they're right on top of the action. They feel like they're part of it."
Sometimes they literally were. In 1995, more than 100 metal folding chairs were tossed into the ring at the urging of Terry Funk and Mick "Cactus Jack" Foley during a hardcore match against Public Enemy.
But while known for having some of the industry's snarkiest fans -- a Philadelphia trademark for all pro sports teams -- the crowds that attend Asylum Arena shows aren't violent. Since becoming general manager in 2004, Artigiani says there has been only ejection during a pro wrestling show. That involved an actual performer (Jerome "New Jack" Young) who had become belligerent backstage.
If anything, hardcore wrestling fans revere Asylum Arena like a grappling temple. One couple even got married inside the building.
Artigiani estimates that there are "50 to 100" loyalists who attend most of the weekend shows. But drawing sellouts inside the 1,400-seat facility isn't easy. The glut of companies running the same building has forced ROH to flood the market with complementary tickets for its monthly television tapings (shows air at 8 p.m. Eastern Mondays on HD-NET). WWE also siphons away the wrestling dollar by running Philadelphia shows every few months at the larger Wachovia Center.
Artigiani admits wrestling cards alone wouldn't be enough to keep Asylum Arena in business. The venue also hosts boxing, mixed martial arts, concerts, private parties and events ranging from strongman competitions to child fashion shows after roughly $500,000 in renovations.
Without those improvements, Asylum Arena probably wouldn't have served as one of the action backdrops for the critically acclaimed 2008 movie "The Wrestler'' as well as host of numerous cable boxing specials.
I was struck by the remodeling when attending an October ROH taping -- my first show at the arena since 1996. There are newer bathrooms, a giant video board for ring entrances, and a backstage shower and locker-room area for the wrestlers. There also are banners hanging from the rafters honoring a "Hardcore Hall of Fame" that includes The Sandman (real name Jim Fullington), Sabu (Terry Brunk) and Eddie Gilbert.
Artigiani jokes that he initially felt like Tom Hanks in the 1986 movie "The Money Pit'' because of the repair expenses.
"It was a nightmare," he said. "I don't miss the days I would spend loading dumpster after dumpster of everything we pulled out from the electrical wiring to the crow's nest where the bingo was held trying to make the place more comfortable."
The New Jersey-based Asylum Fight League recently purchased the arena's naming rights. The group plans to regularly hold amateur and professional mixed martial arts events.
While his sport involves legitimate fighting, AFL promoter Carl Mascarenhas said he appreciates the pro wrestling roots of a building that helped springboard the likes of Steve Austin, Rey Mysterio and the late Eddie Guerrero toward WWE stardom.
"It's a very nostalgic place," Mascarenhas said. "It's made a lot of careers happen and fulfilled a lot of dreams. We as a company are trying to get our fighters into realizing that everything is achievable. What better place for shows than at the Arena?"
For more information about Asylum Arena and its event calendar, visit www.thearena.biz.
Alex Marvez writes a syndicated pro wrestling column for Scripps-Howard News Service. He can be reached at alex1marv(at)aol.com or followed via Twitter at http://twitter.com/alexmarvez.)
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