AS I SEE IT
Pro Wrestling: Between the Sheets
There was yet more news this week about a longtime wrestling venue closing, as Dave Meltzer reported the news that Baltimore residents alraedy knew for the last two weeks or so…that the Baltimore Civic Center (aka the Baltimore Arena and First Mariner Arena) is to be torn down and replaced by a new arena with luxury boxes and the usual nonsense designed to bring in people with more money than most readers of this column have.
Under current plans, this would leave the Baltimore market without a venue for wrestling, music and other events for as long as three years, as the new venue would be built on the site of the old Civic Center. The closest venues to Baltimore for the remainder of the decade and beyond would be in Towson, MD and Washington, D.C.
The Baltimore Civic Center opened in 1962 with a Paul Anka concert, and moved on to concerts including The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Elvis Presley, Jim Hendrix, Grateful Dead, Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Frank Sinatra, the Supremes, Britney Spears, Janet Jackson, Toby Keith, The Eagles, and U2. It also hosted a 1966 address by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
But its professional wrestling history is rich with both WWWF/WWF/WWE and NWA/WCW major events taking place at the venue over the last 36 years.
Notable WWE PPVs included the 1994 King of the Ring, No Mercy 2003, No Way Out 2006 and Backlash 2008.
Title changes at the Civic Center included Superstar Billy Graham defeated Bruno Sammartino for his WWWF belt on April 30, 1977 and Tito Santana defeating Greg Valentine for his Intercontinental Title on July 6, 1985.
NWA/WCW came into the market in the mid-to-late 1980s and became a legendary Four Horsemen playground with post-show meals at Sabatino’s restaurant, and in later years, post show fun at the Safari Club at the BWI Marriott.
NWA/WCW title changes at the Civic Center included: Sting defeating Ric Flair on July 7, 1990, Ron Simmons defeated Big Van Vader on August 2, 1992 with Vader regaining the title at a Civic Center house show on December 20, 1992, Bret Hart defeating Goldberg at a December 20, 1999 Monday Nitro taping
Overall, the Civic Center was a major venue for WCW with eight Great American Bash PPVs (the real bigtime Bashes, not the watered down WWE versions of recent years), including the 1988 Great American Bash, in the infamous Maryland Commission-ordained screw-job finish of NWA champ Ric Flair over Lex Luger when the Commision “stopped the match due to Lex Luger’s cut”, the 1989 Bash with the classic Terry Funk-Ric Flair match, the 1990 Bash where Sting defeated NWA champ Ric Flair for the title, then the infamous “Where’s Flair” 1991 Great American Bash on July 4, 1991 that saw east coast fans turn on WCW after news of Flair’s firing by Jim Herd made its way from city to city over a weekend of Bash events (and saw Luger’s WCW title win). Under Ted Turner, WCW also ran Bashes in 1996, 1999, and 2000 and hosted SuperBrawl V on February 19, 1995.
The Civic Center hosted a historic truly wrestling moment on August 2, 1992, when Bill Watts booked the first World Heavyweight title change onto an African-Amrerican, with Ron Simmons defeating (Big Van Vader). If you can find the video of the moment on YouTube or your old tapes, you’ll see the Baltimore Arena go absolutely berserk, and hear one of Jim Ross’s most classic match calls ever. I still remember the camera catch a striking shot of a black fan in the front row crying tears of joy in one of those memorable visuals that can’t be set up no matter how hard you try.
I went to lots of WCW shows at the Baltimore Civic Center, and the post-show festivities at the Marriott, featuring who else but… Ric Flair and friends, as mentioned in previous columns.
But the two memories in Baltimore that stand out the most, though, are about former WCW referee Brian Hildebrand. Back in October 1997, I saw Eddie Guerrero saying a prayer at the Baltimore Airport Marriott bar/restaurant before his post-show meal, to find out later from friend Kathy Fitzpatrick that they’d all gotten the news that Brian had received his initial cancer diagnosis.
Just under two years later, Brian died, with many of us remembering him in Baltimore, also at a WCW show.
I wrote about it in the September 11, 1999’s AS I SEE IT, not realizing that very day would be tragic for very different reasons only two years later:
Last night at the Baltimore Arena, WCW ran its first show since the death of their friend and co-worker Brian Hildebrand on Wednesday. The show began with David Pinzer announcing the news to those who hadn’t read the news online or seen the FAR too brief mention on Thunder…then signaled for the traditional 10 bell salute given to those who have fallen in wrestling and boxing. Personally, attending this show was far more special, as I was at this show with several that knew Brian well, including my brother John, and friends Kathy Fitzpatrick.
Many of those working the show wore black armbands in tribute to Brian. Charles Robinson, who was with Brian and the family when he passed away Wednesday night, as well as Scott Dickenson were given special greeting by those of us who knew their relationship with Brian. The group of us made sure that we gave Dickenson his traditional joke greeting about donuts (one that Brian gave us to rib him with at the first Philly Monday Nitro). Our seats were close enough that he clearly saw and heard it. Then late in the show after a Chris Benoit-Bam Bam Bigelow US Title match, Shane Douglas, Chris Benoit, and Dean Malenko came out and dedicated the evening’s show to Brian with heartfelt words for their friend. It may have only been a WCW house show for most of the relatively small Baltimore Arena crowd last night. But it was a way for those of us who were there together to say goodbye to Brian in the most appropriate atmosphere possible…a wrestling show.
So I’ll remember the Civic Center for those moments, and many of you will remember them for lots of others. Please feel free to e-mail in any of yours to me.
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