After receiving some shocking news about a co-worker’s major health crisis this Friday, it brought my thoughts to life and death subjects within wrestling, and I realized we’re coming up to some sad anniversaries, including the anniversaries of the passings of Curt Hennig and Eddie Gilbert.
As the eleventh anniversary of Gilbert’s passing comes up, I think it’s important to remember the man who is truly responsible for all that has happened in the venue that those of us in Philadelphia will always think of (regardless of ownership and management changes or Vince McMahon’s copyright lawyers) as the ECW Arena…”Hot Stuff” Eddie Gilbert.
Eddie Gilbert was brought in by ECW founder Tod Gordon in 1993 to take what was nothing more than a once-a-month bar promotion to a higher level. Eddie Gilbert and Mick Foley, helped bring the tradition of hardcore wrestling into Philadelphia in 1991 with their legendary matches in Joel Goodhart’s Tri-State Wrestling Alliance, including the legendary best of three falls match between the two at Philadelphia’s Convention Hall. Gilbert brought instant credibility to this upstart promotion. With Eddie also came Terry Funk, who had recently done an interview in the Pro Wrestling Torch about his idea for a “hardcore” style wrestling TV show.
Gilbert also brought in Paul Heyman, the man most identify with ECW’s success. Many newer fans have conveniently forgotten the fact that without Eddie Gilbert bringing Heyman in, Heyman would have never had the opportunity to create the vision for ECW that took them to PPV and to TV coverage in the United States and Canada.
Way back then, Eastern Championship Wrestling took what was a giant step…going on TV on SportsChannel Philadelphia, a new tiny part-time basic cable channel. Eastern Championship Wrestling held its first TV taping at Cabrini College in suburban Delaware County in front of an audience of 60 people. But even then, the signs were out in the crowd…”Eddie’s Championship Wrestling”.
With Gilbert’s popularity, the small promotion quickly attracted attention far out of proportion to its size, including mention in major Japanese wrestling magazines. In May 1993, ECW moved its shows from Cabrini College to a Mummers club/bingo hall that no one could find on a map at first… the place that’s since been called “the world’s most famous Bingo Hall”, Viking Hall… otherwise known as the ECW Arena.
Then, in June 1993, when Eddie Gilbert and Terry Funk went at it in the “Texas Chain Match Massacre”; the promotion had what was then its largest crowd in history, with the match seen across the country via the commercial tape that followed of the show. In August 1993, many ECW fans got their first live exposure to Japanese wrestling through W*ING workers The Headhunters, Miguelito Perez, Crash the Terminator (WCW’s Hugh Morris), and Mitsuhiro Matsunaga.
What some ECW fans remember best, though, is not just Eddie Gilbert’s Memphis-flavored in-ring product; but the humor Eddie featured on TV, and his sense of humor in person. My personal favorites are the times he went to Philadelphia’s South Street and Delaware Avenue’s Katmandu club posing as the “King of Philadelphia” in full gimmick.
Another classic was Eddie’s weekly on-air torturing of co-host Jay Sulli that left Sulli with the nickname “Six Pack” that has lasted him to this day. One of his last classic ECW TV moments was his “match” with former Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Ron Jaworski at Jaworski’s “Eagles Nest” restaurant…
On a more serious side, some of those who worked in ECW remember Eddie’s lessons on loyalty. Eddie had a last lesson to teach, in the way he left ECW in September 1993 over personal and professional differences with Tod Gordon and Paul Heyman. His last appearance was at UltraClash, where he made an unannounced farewell from the ring. Gilbert had the perfect opportunity to air dirty laundry and to bury the still-young company in the eyes of its fans. He didn’t. Instead, he explained that he was leaving, but told fans to keep supporting the company. There should be no question in the mind of any intelligent wrestling fan that what Eddie Gilbert did paved the way for the later successes of ECW, its entrance into the PPV market, and this coming Friday’s TV debut throughout the United States and Canada.
Eddie Gilbert was never a saint. He’d be the first to tell you that. His excesses are well-known, and require no comment. But Eddie’s death in 1995 left many who loved him and his style with a empty feeling in their hearts that will never be truly filled. It can safely be said that no one of his generation loved the business more than Thomas Edward Gilbert, Jr. did. I can say that personally from all the people I know who worked for and with Eddie. I can also say that he touched those people with his lessons of staying loyal, of always remembering to laugh, and of always being a fan of the business he worked in.
Time, of course, has passed. Many more recent fans don’t remember Eddie Gilbert. It was interesting to see what resulted when I responded to an item on a message board that asked who should be inaugurated into the ECW/New Alhanbra/”The” Arena Hardcore Hall of Fame. When I suggested Eddie Gilbert, I heard comments like “he’s over-rated”, and denials of how much he and Mick Foley brought the hardcore wrestling tradition into Philadelphia. I never thought I’d feel like the old fart who thinks “what do these younger fans know”….but I guess I was at that moment.
If you’re a long-time fan like me, or just someone who’d like to read more about him, go to Eddie Gilbert.com. The website is a fan-run website that’s been kept up all these years..
As for Curt Hennig, AS I SEE IT’s flagship site, PWBTS, featured a lot of comments and reports on the death of Curt Hennig from people within those in the wrestling business when I wrote about Hennig’s passing in 2003.
Here are two Hennig memories of mine that most people outside Philadelphia won’t recall…
I remember seeing Curt Hennig in one of my favorite venues, the ECW Arena…as one of the few bright spots of the Main Event Championship Wrestling fiasco on August 11, 2001, working a young Chris Harris (yup, that one).
Hennig evidently expected the worst from the notorious ECW Arena crowd, and had a surprised look on his face as the crowd popped like crazy for him at his introduction, and all the louder as he snapped off each of his trademark spots throughout the match. He left the Arena with a smile on his face.
I was also there for Hennig’s final time in the Arena, as he worked for 3PW on October 19, 2002 against Jerry “The King” Lawler in an old-school match with Lawler going over. In a sad irony, this was the 3PW Rocco Rock tribute show where the Hardcore Hall of Fame banner with “Rocco Rock – Ted Petty 1953-2002” was unveiled on the wall of the ECW Arena.
Back in 2003, I wrote a column after Curt Hennig’s passing. Here are just some of the thoughts readers shared with me.
Steve Goss shared the following:
“Somewhere, in a box of old treasures tucked away in a dusty corner, there is a program from a live WWF — yes, ‘F’ — house show in the old Hartford Civic Center. The performer we would all hear later in life espouse his perfection was a ‘preliminary’ wrestler in those days. A jobber named ‘Young Curt Hennig’ whose primary purpose in life — at the time — was to put the Killer Khans and (still fat) Magnificent Muracos of the world over. By simply ‘doing the job.’
As we grew, so did this ‘young’ man…into, quite simply, one of the best and most gifted, if underrated, in-ring performers of our modern time. With the rise of Rick Rude, Mike Rotunda, Barry Windham, Rick Martel, and Curt Hennig, professional wrestling entered its transition time — an era when pure athleticism and the ability to entertain dominated over the size of the man in the fight. And yet, no one even then knew how good these guys could be. Curt Hennig could have been as much a man of ego outside the ring as his ‘Mr. Perfect’ character was in the ring.
But Curt never forgot where he came from…and never failed to honor the business. Even though he didn’t always get first-class material to work with — even though the pain was sometimes more than a common man could have gotten out of bed with — Curt Hennig did what fans expect when they see ‘Wrestling’ on the marquee. Quite simply, he entertained. He ‘did the job.’
He was, in many of the best ways, ‘perfect.’
Go with God, ‘young’ man…
Rick, Brian, Rodney [Anoia] and Owen have an empty locker waiting for you.”
From Michael Alva:
“Who could forget the memories of seeing Mr. Perfect walk out into the arena with his towel, spit the gum out and whack it away?
Who could forget the vignettes of Mr. Perfect slamming a home run, or tossing the ball into the basket….backwards and from far away?
Who could forget him turning on Ric Flair and Bobby Heenan to partner up with Randy Savage, being the ‘Perfect Partner?’
Who could forget his classic match with Bret Hart at SummerSlam?
Who could forget the classic screwjob against Lex Luger during Wrestlemania X for ‘shoving’ the ref?
It’s clear Heaven needed yet another champion.
I, for one, will never forget the entertainment Curt Hennig brought into my home and into my life. He will be sorely missed by not only those in the business, but those out of the business as well.”
From “Random Hero” from Canada:
“I truly am sad to hear of Curt Hennig’s passing, he was underappreciated everywhere he went. Except for one single night.
Luckily, I was there that night, and from reading people’s reactions to Curt’s death, I bet they wish they were there too. The show was WCW Invasion, a rather forgettable night, whose only memorable moment was the Hart/Benoit title match.
However, I remembered that night for a different reason.
That night Curt Hennig faced off against Buff Bagwell in a retirement match. According to WCW bookers, this was a no-brainer, with the fans cheering Bagwell, who would send Hennig off into the sunset, another buried legend. The bookers were wrong.
It should be known by now, in Toronto, all bets are off. All match long we cheered Hennig on, and when he lost, we gave him a massive standing ovation in appreciation of what he had done. He felt it, you could tell. He was genuinely moved by our reaction, as were the bookers, who kept him around after all despite his “retirement”. I was proud of what we did that night, I felt we extending his “televised” career. However, after yesterday’s news, I feel even prouder that we gave him the sendoff he deserved. RIP Curt Hennig, I’m glad I was able to tell you in person what you meant to me.”
Until next time…
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