Wednesday, September 23, 2009

ROH calls South Philly home

By John McMullen

Philadelphia, Pa (The Phan) - Nestled on the corner of Swanson and Ritner Streets in South Philadelphia is a former warehouse and bingo hall that is world famous.

Elias Stein and Leon Silverman purchased the nondescript warehouse in 1986 and named the facility Viking Hall when the South Philadelphia Viking Club, a local chapter of Mummers, began utilizing it for storage and rehearsal purposes.

The building gained worldwide fame, however,  as the "ECW Arena" when it served as the home base of Extreme Championship Wrestling from 1993 until the promotion's demise in 2001. The weekly ECW television series prominently showcased both the venue and South Philadelphia fans as the company grew from a local promotion into a national and international phenomenon.

Paul Heyman, the brains behind ECW, changed the wrestling world by giving smaller, athletic workers like Chris Benoit, Eddy Guerrero and Oscar "Rey Mysterio Jr." GutiƩrrez their first real exposure in the United States.

Despite a fanatical fan base, ECW didn't have the deep pockets to compete with Vince McMahon's World Wrestling Entertainment or Time Warner's World Championship Wrestling and declared bankruptcy in April 2001. The WWE subsequently purchased the assets of ECW and relaunched the brand as another franchise in June of 2006.

The watered-down WWE version of ECW never caught on with its former fans, however, leaving a huge void to a small but loyal group that thrived on the promotion's "workrate" and action.

"The Arena" stayed as active as ever becoming the unofficial home to a number of smaller promotions, including HDNet's Ring of Honor.

After the death of the original ECW, its video distributor, RF Video, wanted a new promotion to replace its best-seller. So, the company's owner, Rob Feinstein, made the decision to start his own promotion.

ROH's first event, titled "The Era of Honor Begins", took place on February 23, 2002 and included a bout between Guerrero and Francisco "Super Crazy" Islas for the IWA Intercontinental Heavyweight Championship, as well as a triple threat match between Daniel "Christopher Daniels" Covell, Bryan Danielson and Brandon "Low Ki" Silvestry.

The new company took a major hit in March of 2004 when Feinstein was caught in an Internet sex sting set up by Feinstein, who was 31 at the time, tried to pick up a 14-year-old-boy by claiming to be a wrestler with the Los Angeles-based Pro Wrestling Guerrilla promotion. He eventually asked the boy if he could meet him at his home for sex and was met by a local news crew. Although no formal charges were ever brought against him, the incident proved to be a public relations disaster for Ring of Honor.

Cary Silkin, a ticket broker by trade and behind the scenes money man for ROH, was eventually forced to buy out Feinstein and take over the day-to-day operations. Through it all, the business plan stayed the same -- DVD sales to fans obsessed with workrate fueled the company and made it profitable.

Booker Gabe Sapolsky, a Temple graduate, loaded the events with high spots and spectacular workers from top to bottom. The old mentality of building a card and leaving certain things to the main eventers went out the window.

Despite earning Booker of the Year honors from The Wrestling Observer Newsletter for four straight years (2004-2007), some began to grow tired of Sapolsky's methods. His often four-hour marathon cards burned out audiences and the weakening economy hit DVD sales hard.

Silkin relieved Sapolsky of his duties in October of last year and headed in a new direction, naming Adam Pearce, a more conventional booker, his new head of creative.

A national television timeslot on the fledgling HDNet was then secured in early 2009 and the first tapings were held at The Arena in late February. Instead of DVD sales, television -- both domestic and international -- was going to be the new Golden Goose.

Since few in ROH knew exactly what it took to put together a major league production, HDNet brought in Dave Lagana, the former Friends writer who spent six years in WWE's creative department, to help Pearce.

A longtime fan, who learned the business under Heyman in WWE, Lagana thinks ROH can be successful.

"We are not trying to compete with the WWE," Lagana said in a phone interview. "It's a different product with a different audience. This is all about exposing new talent, the actual wrestling and a more intimate setting. It's like seeing a big time rock band before they become stars."

Before the HDNet deal, ROH seemed to be able to cruise along under the WWE's radar but wrestling's 500-pound gorilla has seemingly now taken an interest in the group, inking its two biggest stars, Danielson, who many consider to be the best wrestler in the world, and Steven "Nigel McGuinness" Haworth.

"I don't think they are targeting [ROH]," Lagana said. "Bryan and Nigel weren't under contract so it was kind of expected. I think they [WWE] are more concerned with the [proposed new Hulk] Hogan promotion. We are just going about our business."

The heir apparent to Danielson and McGuinness seems to be Colby "Tyler Black" Lopez, a 23-year-old Iowa native that combines impressive martial-arts skills with the high-flying ability that has become a ROH staple.

"A lot of the guys deserve to be noticed and Tyler certainly has the talent to be a star," Lagana said.

Black is under contract for another year giving Pearce and Lagana plenty of time to build to significant matches.

Ring of Honor will be back in Philadelphia taping for HDNet at The Arena on November 5 and 6.

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