There are lot of factors to consider in wrestling. From the actual wrestling, to whether or not a performer has the “it” factor, to star power, storylines, good guys, bad guys, fan reactions, ppvs, production, right down to the gritty backstage politics. Something that often times seems over-looked, though, is where the show is actually emanating from. Yeah, ok, sometimes WWE will cut to an outside shot of the building, hype up the next Madison Square Garden event, and mention where the show is “airing live” from, but unless it’s MSG, not much attention is paid to the locale, let alone it’s historical importance. This is a real shame, considering there are several very special arenas out there. So, in no particular order, and excluding Madison Square Garden, I present you part one of this very interesting series, taking a look at some of those special arenas.
Located on the outer edges of San Francisco, this venue was completed in 1941, but the first wrestling event would not be held here until the early 1960s. Roy Shire became the first promoter to hold a show at the Cow Palace, when he started up his own wrestling promotion, “National All-Star Wrestling,” in Northern California, and made stops at the Palace his “crown jewel” shows (kind of like ppvs today). These shows were the jewels,because the Palace housed 15,000 in attendance. There was doubt that Shire could fill the building up, due to the fact that wrestling had been on a popularity decline in the region and the company was an upstart, but on March 4, 1961, when National All-Star Wrestling ran it’s first show there, over 16,000 fans attended the event. The top draw was the then United States Heavyweight Champion, Ray Stevens.
Around the same time, the American Wrestling Association broke away from the National Wrestling Alliance. The Cow Palace was crucial to the organization’s expansion, as it was in traditional NWA territory, and was in an important wrestling region. They held countless events at the arena, including SuperClash II, where Curt Hennig pinned Nick Bockwinkel to capture the AWA World Heavyweight Championship. I’m sure if you ever watch the AWA on ESPN Classic’s, you’ll see a show emanating from the Palace.
Much like the AWA, when Vince McMahon wanted to expand the WWF out of it’s Northeast territory, he looked to the Cow Palace. The venue housed some of the company’s first West Coast events. A more recent event, that you’re probably familiar with, held at the Palace, was No Way Out 2004. This is most notably when Eddie Guerrero won his first WWE Championship. Even more recently, Ring of Honor has held shows at the famed venue, as well as several other independent organizations, and companies throughout history.
It may not be Madison Square Garden, but the Cow Palace holds it own in wrestling history.
It may not look like much, but the Dallas Sportatorium historically ranks right up there with the Cow Palace. The building was originally constructed in 1935, in an octagonal shape, and could then house 10,000. The first wrestling card to be held in the arena, took place that same year, and was promoted by Burt Wiloughby. He promoted wrestling cards there until 1940, when a man by the name of Ed McLemore bought out Wiloughby. Unfortunately, but adding further wrestling history to it, the original octagon building was partially burned down in 1953, supposedly by a rival wrestling promoter. After that, it was only able to house about 4,500 in seating.
McLemore would form a very significant partnership in 1966, when wrestler Jack Adkisson was brought into the business fold. Adkisson is better known as Fritz von Erich. Two years later, McLemore would begin suffering a series of heart-attacks, and a year later would pass away, leaving the company to Von Erich. Under Von Erich, the promotion would become known as World Class Championship Wrestling; easily the most successful and famous organization to run shows out of the Sportatorium.
Times were tumultuous in the mid and late 1980s, with the World Wrestling Federation quickly expanding their reach into other territories, and making business hard for smaller companies. A few promotions tried to combat the spread by making their own company larger, WCCW being one of them.
In 1986, WCCW split away from the National Wrestling Alliance, for the second time in the organizations history (the first time was in 1953). A bigger reason WCCW left the NWA banner, though, was due to then NWA President, Jim Crockett Jr, making the decision to no longer book World Champion, Ric Flair, in the state of Texas.
WCCW would fold in 1990, due to the changing times, and would be marred by numerous tragedies involving several top stars. The Dallas Sportatorium’s doors remained open, however. The Global Wrestling Federation found a home in it, but the organization only lasted until 1994. After that, various independent companies ran some shows in the arena, but they never drew many fans, and eventually the companies turned to smaller venues. In 2001, the building would once again be stricken by fire, this time causing much more damage than the previous. Two years later, the building would finally be torn down.
Just brainstorm some of the names who came through the region, and you’ll understand the historical significance of the Dallas Sportatorium. Names like Gorgeous George, Shawn Michaels, the Von Erichs, Bruiser Brody, the Fabulous Freebirds, the Midnight Express, Jake Roberts, Gino Hernandez….they and others all graced the Sportatorium’s hallowed halls.
Time to add some international flavor to this article.
Constructed in 1962, in Tokyo, this arena is not only one of Japan’s most famous venues, but the World’s. Though it can only seat 1,800 spectators, it’s hailed as the Japanese Madison Square Garden, for good reason. From All Japan Pro Wrestling to New Japan Pro Wrestling, all of Japan’s major promotions, have run shows in this venue. Smaller promotions, including those now defunct, have also all been showcased at the Kōrakuen Hall. Yes, that means every Japanese promotion, has held at least one show in this arena.
The fans also make this venue special. While the crowds are the traditional, respectful Japanese audience, it’s all but guaranteed that the crowd will be hot, night in and night out. These fans simply love puroresu, which is a good thing considering how many promotions hold shows here.
For wrestlers, Kōrakuen Hall is one of the premier places you want to compete, whether you be Japanese, or foreign to the country. International legends have been born, and have died, here.
While maybe not as famous as the previous three arenas, the Kiel Auditorium, located in St. Louis, Missouri, still has much significant wrestling history behind it.
Built in 1934, the Kiel is most notable here, for holding countless NWA events from the 1950s up until it’s closure in 1991, the most famous event being Starrcade ’90. It’s also worth noting that the NWA World Heavyweight Championship, the famous “10 pounds of gold,” changed hands on three separate occasions, in this venue. This venue, was also in stark contrast to the other prominent arena in St. Louis- The Chase Hotel. While the Chase presented wrestling in a ballroom lit by chandeliers, accommodated patrons, who dressed in high-fashion, with only the very best food and beverage, the Kiel sold hotdogs, to raucous fans, dressed like…well, wrestling fans. Going to the Kiel meant one thing; you were going to a wrestling event. It wasn’t just any random wrestling card you were going to see, though.
St. Louis was not it’s own territory, nor was there a dominant promotion controlling the area, like how the WWF claimed the Northeast or how WCCW had Texas. Now, you might assume that this was a bad thing for residents in the region, however, the region’s centralized location, and abundant monetary funds, drew in pretty much every wrestler you can name. Legends such as Lou Thesz, Bruno Sammartino, Buddy Rogers, the Von Erichs, the Funks, Ric Flair, Harley Race, Billy Graham, Gene Kiniski, Dick Murdoch, and many, many more, all competed in front of Kiel Auditorium crowds. It would be faster, yet more difficult, to name performers who haven’t competed at the Kiel, than it would be to name those that did. Therefore, you were pretty much always certain the card would be a good one.
Similar to the Cow Palace, the Kiel Auditorium was the first major arena the WWF began running shows out of, outside the Northeast territory. This would lead to competition between promotions, who wanted to book the Kiel.
The Kiel Auditorium would be demolished in 1991, when the city of St. Louis decided to build a new hockey arena. The last show ever held at the building, was a WCW event.
Ok, so, while not quite an arena per say, Comiskey Park has held a good number of wrestling events, especially for a baseball diamond. I’m not sure why wrestling promoters like this field so much more than others, but to each their own. Personally, I’d prefer they held events at Chicago’s other ballpark, Wrigley Field; go Cubs, go! Anyway, back to the wrestling…
The first wrestling event held at Comiskey Park, saw Frank Gotch and Georg Hackenschimdt, pitted against one another for the World Heavyweight Championship, for their second and final encounter, in 1911. Besides for the mega-stars involved (and make no mistake, these two are right up there with Hogan, Austin, Rock, etc), and the championship being on the line, this match is remembered for the controversy stemming from it. You see, Frank Gotch may be hailed as the father of American professional wrestling, which he deserves, but let’s just say he was the original “Dirtiest Player in the Game.” In their first bout, Gotch oiled himself up, to avoid Hackenschmidt’s patented move, the Bearhug. In this match, Gotch resorted to paying a Hooker(not what you think it means…) to injure his opponent during a training session before their match. Nonetheless,the match drew 30,000 fans, for a record gate of $87,000. I’m not a math whiz, but I’m sure you can imagine how that figure would relate to today monetarily.
Fast forward to 1961, and another legend in the making, “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers has been voted into a NWA World Heavyweight Championship match, by the NWA booking committee.Rogers defeated Pat O’Connor (who had originally won the belt two years earlier in the Kiel Auditorium) in the bout at Comiskey Park, to win his first World Championship, in front of over 38,000 fans. An attendance record, that stood for over two decades, until WrestleMania III would shatter it. This moment is one of the most significant in wrestling history, as it’s the dawn of a new age for the sport. It marks the change from legitimately good in-ring competitors, to the showman wrestler.
The AWA was fond of holding shows at fields and parks. The company’s most favorite, by far, though, was Comiskey Park. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, several AWA shows emanated from here, including the first SuperClash event, in 1985.
I must express, it seems kind of odd to me to end this article about historic arenas, with a baseball field. That’s not what I originally intended, but once I get going, I can’t stop, and thus had to split this thing into two articles. Plus, these venues truly do have a ton of history behind them, that deserves to be recognized. So, be sure to check back here next week, when the next and final installment of this two-part series drops.
Thanks for Reading,
Reminder: Check out this week’s “J Classic,” featuring a classic Survivor Series match-up.