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MANHATTAN CENTER MEMORIES: THE EARLY DAYS OF MONDAY NIGHT RAW

By Mike Johnson on 2013-01-14 08:52:47

With the 20th anniversary edition of Monday Night Raw set for tonight in Houston, Texas, it's only fitting to look back at the launch of the show in January 1993 and the venue that defined the series, New York City's Manhattan Center. 

On August 25, 2000, I wrote the following piece looking at the history of the venue and the early Raws.  Enjoy this look back:

MANHATTAN CENTER MEMORIES

The wrestling industry is in the toilet in 1993.

WCW was pathetic and basically running TV tapings only,

ECW was running bars.

Memphis was running and the TV show was still popular locally, but they were hardly drawing major houses anymore.

SMW was just starting.

The WWF was on top, although their business had dropped considerably and they were on top because there was no one else. The group was still reeling from the McMahon steroid case against the Government (as if you didn't know, Vince won). They had also adjusted their product away from the larger, lumbering performers to the smaller, athletic wrestlers of the promotion with Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels leading the way.

Looking for something to spice up it's rating on the USA Network, the WWF decided to cancel Prime Time Wrestling and run a weekly one hour live show from downtown NYC in...you guessed it, The Manhattan Center.

The ballroom the show was held in was a nice cozy little place. The seats were all interconnected and cushioned. There was a balcony that had an awesome view. Bleachers on one side of the building, across from the stationary WWF cameras sitting on a makeshift wooden platform behind the fans. For a promotion that ran Pay-Per-Views in huge Arenas, this was quite the step back..

Waiting to get into the building was always a pain. All the seats were general admission, leading to fans actually lining up the night before for choice seats. There was even a rumor once that a fan arrived on a Saturday afternoon in order to claim he was first on line. Years later, I would hear of fans lining up for the new Star Wars film a month in advance, so perhaps in hindsight, that guy wasn't too mentally defected. As you can imagine, 1,500 New Yorkers pushing and shoving was quite the sight to behold. I often wondered how the building's security, which usually covered taped concerts and corporate meetings , felt about this mass of insanity.

Then there was the next problem. Once you got into the building, there was only one problem: getting to the Ballroom the shows were taking place in. It was on the eighth floor. You had two choices:

1 - Wait on line for one of the two elevators

2 - Run up eight flights of stairs.

Try to imagine 1,500 wrestling fans trampling each other up eight flights of stairs for a chance to lean against the guard rail and touch a sweaty Mr. Perfect. Now imagine repeating the process every week or so...and that was just the tip of the iceberg for this deranged group of fans.

THOSE FANS

I say deranged in the nicest sense of the word. The audience at these shows were almost the precursor to today's ECW Arena, without the vulgar language. The same characters were there and in a sense, were as much a part of the show as any WWF Superstars.

There was the notorious Vladimir, a well known muscle bound fans never seen without his white tank top, with an almost orange-colored tan. He was always arguing with someone, be it fan, wrestler, security or WWF employee. It never failed.

There was Stewart, an African-American fan in his bright yellow "BOB BACKLUND WWF CHAMPION" T-shirt that he wore every show to the point the audience would chant "Wash that shirt." Stewart received his fair share of abuse but got to proudly give it all back when Backlund turned heel and actually regained the belt nearly 15 years after he lost it to the Iron Sheik.

There was Johnny, an Italian kid from Brooklyn who showed up dressed like Doink the Clown week after week. There were countless others, trust me. But it was all in fun in a sick demented way. You had to love a crowd that would give Barry Horowitz a standing ovation.

It was waiting on line to get into these tapings where I met some people, most of whom I still attend shows with today (I guess I haven't learned). Others however, scared the heck out of me upon first sight.

TOMORROW'S STARS, TODAY!

OK, I ripped that off from Ohio Valley Wrestling, I admit it.

When I wasn't marveling at the audience, the building gave me a chance to see some of the stars of tomorrow.

The official first match to take place in the building before the fans saw Bob Backlund pin Damien DaMento.  No music.  No pyro.  None of the pomp and circumstance you see on WWF today.

The second featured a masked performer named Cheetah who wrestled a young Cajun named Johnny Rotten. The two would go on to great heights at the top of Extreme Championship Wrestling as those infamous hoodies, Johnny Grunge and Flyboy Rocco Rock, before leaving the nest and spiraling downward to this day. To be honest, that singles match wasn't very good, but looking back, it's kind of cool to have seen a "dream match" of sorts.

I'll never forget the night a young enhancement performer named PJ Walker was backdropped by one of the Headshrinkers, landing on his head and being knocked cold in the center of the ring. He later rebounded with an upset win over Mike Rotunda's Irwin R. Shyster character. Of course, Walker today is the ECW World Heavyweight champion, Justin Credible.

One night Tatanka was wrestling an enhancement guy from Massachusetts. Being that a lot of the matches on the shows were squashes, one could easily lose interest. I distinctly remember getting up to go for a walk, and turning just as Tatanka hiptossed the performer from the ring over the ropes to the floor. For 1993, this was pretty damn impressive, considering he didn't even touch the apron. Every time Scott Taylor came out after that, I marveled at the great bumps he took. He dropped out of sight shortly afterwards before being reborn as Scotty Too Hotty of Too Cool fame years later.

There was Duane Gill, who later went on to become cute comedic character Gillberg. A young and chubby Tony DeVito was taking his licks too, years before he dropped the excess weight, shaved his head and became one of ECW's Baldies. Jason Knight did jobs to Mr. Hughes, which amuses me looking back since his initial ECW protégé was....Mr. Hughes.

The stars of the future weren't just in the ring. If you were there or if you know where to look on tapes of the shows, you'll find quite a few current ECW and WWF performers watching Raw from the crowd. I'll not mention them to protect their innocence (not to mention my well being!) You might also catch a younger Shane McMahon pumping up the audience so they were making noise behind the announcers.

CLASSIC MATCHES...

You want great wrestling matches? While the bulk of Raw was squashes, interviews and angles, we got to see quite a few during the WWF's run there. Marty Janetty jumped out of the crowd to challenge Shawn Michaels for the Intercontinental championship and won the belt. Michaels would be a mainstay of the building, having great matches with everyone from Hacksaw Duggan (I'm not kidding) to Jannetty to Max Moon (Paul Diamond doing a futuristic robot gimmick). A rematch between Shawn and Janetty in July 1993 was off the charts awesome, with Michaels retaining the belt only after the help of a WWF newcomer by the name of Diesel.

Want another one? How's Ric Flair vs. Mr. Perfect in a Loser-Leaves-Town match. One problem- the audience didn't know they had watched a match with that stipulation until after they left the building and watched the episode that aired live. It was Flair's swansong on WWF TV and he didn't disappoint, having a great match before falling to the Perfectplex.

Bret Hart, then the WWF champion also had some great matches in the building as well, highlighted by title defenses against Fatu (now Rikishi Phatu) and Bam Bam Bigelow.

1993 was during the Steiner Brothers' short run with the WWF, and they brutally killed opponent after opponent in the Manhattan Center. The Steiner's suplexes looked brutal enough on television, but in the cozy confines of the Manhattan Center, they were downright homicidal. I can recall one brutal match between the Steiner and the Beverly Brothers (Mike Enos and Wayne Bloom) where they just basically pulverized the former AWA champions.

One of my favorite memories of the building involved a dark match between Jerry Lawler and Curt Hennig. Having seen their classic AWA title match in Memphis, it was a lot of fun to watch the heel/face roles reversed as Lawler berated the crowd and Hennig played total babyface.

....AND CLASSIC ANGLES

I said before, there were a ton angles on the Raw tapings and I'd be remiss without recounting a few of my favorites. One of the most heated angles actually didn't take place in the building but outside the building. Shawn Michaels was entering the building as the crowd went nuts when Curt Hennig, who he was feuding with, attacked. He and Shawn brawled on the sidewalk of 34th Street, culminating with Hennig hiptossing Shawn into the windshield of the car he had just pulled up in. The windshield was shattered. It turned out later the car was brand new and belonged to ring announcer Howard Finkel, a rib on poor Finkel who had no idea it was coming.

I was there when Sean Waltman, known today as X-Pac made his WWF debut. Sent out to no ring music, most of the crowd recognized him immediately as Independent sensation the Lightning Kid so for the next 5 minutes he was serenaded with a "Here we go Lightning, he we go" chant.  When the crowd finally quieted down, Doink the Clown was sent out to promptly kill the Kid. Twice. Why twice? There must have been a flub in the first match, so out they went later that night, the same match from start to end. Poor Lightning, the fans all complained to each other. Week after week, Waltman was getting killed. To put it in its proper perspective, it would be like Rob Van Dam debuting, getting a standing ovation, and promptly losing to Sho Funaki in three minutes. The magic of the WWF's booking soon made all the complaining and whining passé however, as "The Kid" would go on to pin a stunned Razor Ramon with a moonsault. The building erupted and Waltman was in for the ride of his life as his career took off before our very eyes.

Of course, there was the infamous angle where Jerry Lawler harassed Stu and Helen Hart as they watched their valiant son Bret face Bam Bam Bigelow. To this day, one of my friends who sat with me at the show laughs hysterically at the mere mention of Lawler saying to Stu, "Why don't you turn your teeth backwards and eat yourself to death?" Bret could take no more and abandoned the match, racing to the balcony to defend his elderly parents.

Some angles weren't as memorable. Jerry Lawler once broke the late Tiny Tim's ("Tip Toe Through the Tulips") ukulele on an edition of Lawler's interview segment, the King's Court. I remember it being as sad as it sounds writing it. Barry Darsow, as Repo Man, once stole Randy Savage's cowboy hat to set up a match the next week. Yes, 1993 was a different breed of angle to be sure.

Not all angles were bad in concept as they were in execution. Brutus Beefcake did an interview talking about his legitimate parasailing accident and his facial injuries. Then he spoke about his wife leaving him. Then one of his parents passing away. It was to get babyface sympathy but was too much sap and the New York hardcores weren't happy at all. "So Kill yourself!" one yelled, causing Beefcake and Vince McMahon to stop and glare at him. Another began screaming that Beefcake had lost everything but his Icopro.  No matter how hard they tried, the fans couldn't have cared about Beefcake in the bit.

ALL GOOD THINGS COME TO AN END

Eventually, the WWF left the building. It was a really costly rent, and I recall hearing rumors about the wrestlers not being too thrilled having to deal with NYC expenses weekly when they were getting a small stipend for the show. There were always rumors about a return, but nothing happened in that regard.

NEW KID IN TOWN

Then in February 1994, an upstart group titled the World Wrestling Network announced a television taping for the Manhattan Center. Booked by Paul Heyman with Jim Crockett involved, the new venture was to be filmed on High Definition Television and to have major syndication behind it. Heyman was leaving his position as booker of ECW to run the company.

As you can see, the WWN lasted long. Really long. As in the end of the night. I guess it all worked out in the end, as who knows where ECW would be if it hadn't.

The taping was a fun night for anyone who was there. It was a mix of former WWF stars like Jake Roberts, Nailz and Sherri Martel with ECW performers that were picking up steam like Sabu, The Public Enemy, Tommy Dreamer and The Tasmaniac. Then they topped that roster off with the one and only Terry Funk.

Anyone who knows me at all knows I consider Funk the greatest of all time, and it was at this taping I witnessed what I consider to be the greatest match I've ever attended live. That covers hundreds of shows and dozens of Pay-Per-Views: Terry Funk vs. Sabu.

The match ended in a no-contest but was to put it bluntly, insane. Funk broke a glass bottle against a ringpost. He dumped Sabu into a dumpster and charged across the building with it. Sabu and Funk brawled through a crowd, a major rules infraction with the NY Commission at the time. Sabu was at his peak, extremely fast and agile while the Funker did what he did best, have incredible matches when there was no logical way he was able to physically. They destroyed two tables just as the act was hitting its stride, and afterwards when Sabu couldn't find one to moonsault onto, he attacked the concession stand. As you can guess, the stand lost and Sabu brought the table to the ring and moonsaulted it, destroying the table and his own shin as blood stained his pants.

Underneath, angles included Road Warrior Hawk feuding with a member of his former street gang in Chicago, 911. Shane Douglas declared he would be the "Franchise" and first Heavyweight champion of the WWN, complete with a squad of cheerleaders dancing to his theme music. He then unveiled his "Head cheerleader" Missy Hyatt. A youngster named Mikey Watson was destroyed in several matches, a foreshadowing of his eventual ECW debut as Mikey Whipwreck.

However, that was just one show, and the Manhattan Center was silent again, devoid of all wrestling. They reopened another part of the building in mid-1995, the cavernous Hammerstein Ballroom, a former concert hall. The first show held there was one of my all time favorite bands to see live, Luscious Jackson.

When I walked in, I immediately thought "ECW"and even told ECW's New York promoter about the venue. I was told it was too expensive for ECW.  Little did I think that ECW would end up running the place just a few years later. Before ECW got it's chance to run in Manhattan though, they did invade the Manhattan Center….

RAW COMES HOME

One January afternoon, my telephone rings. It's one of my best friends calling me from the WWF show at Madison Square Garden.

"You are not going to believe this!" he screamed.

"What's the matter?"

"Howard Finkel just announced Raw was going back to the Manhattan Center on the house mic!"

For the next hour, I was sure it was a joke, but nope, Raw was going home, and in a sense so were we. One month later the WWF brought Raw back the Manhattan Center. Same fans, including Stewart with his Bob Backlund T-shirt. One problem with that - the promotion was on tour in Europe that week and they only had a skeleton crew.

Somewhere in all this, the WWF had decided to help ECW promote its first Pay-Per-View Barely Legal. Jerry Lawler insulted an ECW fan and tore his sign up on Raw, then invited ECW to prove they were any good. Paul Heyman accepted the challenge and brought a bevy of ECW performers the next week to New York.

The funniest thing to me that night and even today was the WWF broadcasters calling the crowd live in New York "partisan" ECW fans who had invaded the building. In reality, the show sold out in about an hour a month earlier. Anyone who was there was already going to Raw before the angle. It just turned out they were all ECW fans and weren't shy in showing it, because while everyone called ECW a Philly promotion, the core guys were New Yorkers and NYC fans loved the company's TV show on the MSG Network.

Looking back at ECW's performers who showed up that night, it really was a coming of age for that roster. It was the first national exposure for Tazz, Tommy Dreamer, the Dudley Boyz, Little Guido and Stevie Richards. All of their segments, while toned down from their usual style still received huge reactions from the crowd.

The Sandman racing through the crowd to open a cold brew and rescue Dreamer from The Dudleys received a reaction louder than the return of the Road Warriors that night. The Sandman's reaction was blown away by the Blue World Order hopping the rail earlier in the evening. As an ECW fan, you couldn't help but love every second of it.

I'm still waiting for someone to explain why the WWF helped ECW out, but it made for a memorable show.