In December, news broke of a management and direction change, concerning the "most famous bingo hall in the world," the Asylum Arena, better known as the ECW Arena. With that impending change, rumors began to swirl about a makeover to the legendary building on the corner of Swanson and Ritner streets, in South Philadelphia, PA. Speculation turned into reality when new lessor, Joanna Pang confirmed plans to renovate The Arena, starting in February, 2012, by adding a sit-down restaurant and a stage for concerts. While the blueprint for the future included chicken quesadillas and Metallica cover-bands, important items such as, turnbuckle padding, wooden tables, and folding chairs were missing. Pro wrestling event-related items were not necessary to a building that after January 14, would cease hosting pro wrestling events.
When the Extreme Championship Wrestling movement began getting noticed and cementing an underground legacy in the mid-90's, the ECW Arena was as much a part of the entire hardcore experience as the wrestlers, personalities, fans, booking and cutting-edge TV production were. It wasn't uncommon for fans to refer to being in the Arena as a "religious experience," after attending a live ECW event. This small time, low-budget, independent, local promotion had developed a cult-like following en route to becoming a national promotion and the ECW Arena was their compound. Legendary performers such as Steve Austin, Mick Foley, Terry Funk, Rey Mysterio, Jerry Lawler, Rob Van Dam, Eddie Guerrero, Chris Benoit and Chris Jericho have all made their presence felt inside that venue. Monumental moments such as Shane Douglas throwing down the NWA title, Raven being crucified, New Jack diving off the balcony, and Brian Pillman's surprise appearance, while under contract with WCW, took place inside the ECW Arena. The classic Malenko/Guerrero, 2 out of 3 falls match, the bloody and gruesome Sabu/Terry Funk, barbed wire match and the cringe-worthy Tommy Dreamer/Brian Lee, scaffold match all emanated from inside the Arena. After the original ECW shut down operations in 2001, the Arena kept it's doors open for other promotions such as Chikara, Dragon Gate USA, Ring of Honor, Combat Zone Wrestling, and even the WWE's version of ECW. On the final event set for professional wrestling to be held in this historic building, EVOLVE 10: "Tribute to the Arena" Open The Freedom Gate Champion Johnny Gargano defends the title vs. Ricochet in the main event.
Gargano is a student of the game and over the past several years, he's worked on WWE TV, headlined iPPVs, been an integral part of many well-respected promotions, wrestled in Japan, received critical acclaim and grown into the role as one of the top performers in the sport. He commented to "Off The Air" about the significance of this upcoming match, "It's the last official match in the history of the most respected, well known, independent professional wrestling building ever. Everyone knows about the ECW Arena, whether here in America or Japan or wherever, everyone knows that arena. The magnitude of the situation is not lost on me, it's a huge deal."
Many great careers have started in that old warehouse on Swanson and Ritner, such as Taz and Team 3D. After years of underachieving, Steve Austin and Rob Van Dam saw their careers resurrected in the ECW Arena, which carried over to major success in WWE. Eddie Guerrero, Dean Malenko and Chris Benoit were three of the best wrestlers in the world, but it wasn't until they performed in the part-time bingo hall, that they began to attract attention. Johnny Gargano is ready to add his name to the impressive list of performers who have walked out of the Arena on a different level.
Gargano is well aware of all the memorable matches that have taken place in the Arena. He understands the importance of performing there, as this isn't his first appearance in that building. Questions have been raised if he and Ricochet will have a match remembered as one of the all-time greats, able to be mentioned alongside Malenko/Guerrero, and worthy of closing the book on wrestling there. Gargano is confident they will as he explains, "Ricochet and I have been in the ring together many times, whether here in America or over in Japan. Tag matches, 6 man tag matches, you name it and we've been in it. We've only had one singles match though, which was way back at EVOLVE 3, in early 2010. If you look at that match and look at us now, we're two completely different wrestlers. I feel we've grown into two of the very best wrestlers in the world today."
For a performer dealing with the stress of living up to extremely high expectations, Gargano's demeanor is surprisingly calm, yet excited. There's no downplaying the spot he's in, nor does he deny the pressure that comes with his position. He's exactly where he wants to be. "There's pressure, but I love that feeling! I work best when the pressure is on. When someone says, 'Johnny, this is THE match, the one everyone wants to see' - I love matches likes this, it's why I'm a wrestler. I don't want to be just be a guy, I want to be THE guy." Johnny recalls a fateful moment that makes his title defense on Saturday a logical next step in the progression of his young career, "My first time in the Arena was for Dragon Gate USA's first show. I was super excited as it was always a goal of mine to wrestle there. I watched the show from the balcony and the atmosphere completely blew my mind. From the crowd, to the action, it was electric. I knew one day that I'd be in that top spot." Wrestling the biggest match of his life, in the final match of the most influential and respected independent wrestling venue, Johnny Gargano is focused and ready. Why shouldn't he be? He's been preparing for this moment his entire life without even knowing it. When the bell rings to signify the end of the match, it will also signify the end of professional wrestling in that building and Gargano vows, "I will pour my heart out in that ring, to do that spot and that building justice. I can guarantee you that!" The story is supposed to be that Johnny Gargano will have had the honor of wrestling the final match held in the Arena. Sunday morning the story could be that The Arena will have had the honor of Johnny Gargano wrestling the final match held there.
*Follow Johnny Gargano on Twitter: @johnnygargano. Watch him Sunday on Sports Time Ohio's PWO TV and on AIW:Intense TV available Sunday on youtube.
*http://youtu.be/oSkPJIQ7UmA -EVOLVE 10 hype video.
*Follow Aaron Maguire on Twitter: @FairToAar