Monday, September 20, 2010

In Which I Rant About the Civic Arena

As Dennis Miller used to say once upon a time, “I don’t want to get off on a rant here, but…”

In about a month, the Pittsburgh Penguins will play their first regular season game at the brand, spanking new Consol Energy Center, a venue that was completed this year to replace the decrepit and totally outdated Civic Arena. For those of you not from around here, you have no idea what it took for this to happen. Once upon a time, those of us who are Pens fans were afraid that the Pens would be headed out of town to Kansas City or Vegas or anywhere else but the Burgh. Then Mario Lemieux swept in, bought the team and worked out a deal with the city to build a new arena right down the hill from the Civic Arena. Said new arena was completed earlier this year, and by all accounts, it’s going to be a spectacular venue for hockey, basketball, concerts, pro wresting and so on.

End of story, right? Er, not quite.

Before I get into this story, let me take you back in time about 10 years. The powers-that-be finally decided that Three Rivers Stadium had to go. It had become a dinosaur like so many of the multi-purpose stadiums built back in the early 1970s. It was old and decrepit with an Astroturf surface and little in the way of amenities that modern sports facilities have. Few people could have argued with this, but when the time came to finance what would become PNC Park and Heinz Field by adding 1% to Allegheny County’s sales tax, you would have thought that the county was asking for people’s firstborn. There was that much uproar.

Look, I’m a conservative. I hate new taxes, but if it meant that Three Rivers Stadium would go buh-bye and we’d get two new, state-of-the-art facilities in its place, then I’d bite the bullet and just deal with it. And deal with it I have. Every time I set foot into PNC Park and see one of the best ballparks in America, I’m more than happy to continue to pay the added sales tax (though it would be nice if the Buccos were actually, y’know, good, but that’s another rant for another time). The same can be said for going to Heinz Field for Pitt and Steelers games. The fact that the Steelers have won two more Super Bowls since moving into Heinz Field hasn’t escaped me, either.

Yet, over a decade later, there are still people who bitch and moan about the respective costs of the stadiums. But think about this – when one stadium became two, that opened up jobs for the people who work at PNC Park and Heinz Field. And best of all, the city finally developed the space between the two stadiums with restaurants and office buildings and hotels. Before that, there was practically no where to have a bite to eat or a beer before a sporting event. Now there are upwards of 10 different restaurants around and between PNC Park and Heinz Field to go to before or after the game. Think of all of the jobs that the restaurants and hotels have provided, especially in this troubled economy, and tell me that the stadiums weren’t worth it.

Fast forward to today. With the Pens moving into Consol Energy Center, the Civic Arena is just taking up space. The city and the Stadium and Exhibition Authority (the SEA) want to tear down the Arena and develop the former Arena site and the land around it. Great idea, right? Well, not according to some of the anti-progress naysayers who live around here. Because the Arena has great historical value (and it does, don’t get me wrong), these people want it saved and repurposed. Great. Who’s gonna pay for it? I don’t think it should fall to the city or county to pay for the upkeep (rumored to be around half million dollars a year), so I ask again: who’s gonna pay for it. I also ask: what are you going to do with the Arena other than let it stand there as a giant eyesore?

Trust me, outside of a rather tiny (yet still awesome) bar called the Souper Bowl and a bar/restaurant inside a hotel, there’s pretty much no where to go before or after an event at the Civic Arena to have a meal or throw back a few brews. People come to the events and do everything they can to get out of there ASAP because traffic can be a real pain, especially if you’re from out of town and don’t know how to navigate the streets of downtown Pittsburgh (most of which are usually under construction). There have to be more places to go, more places for people to spend their money, more places to build revenue.

The Arena holds a lot of memories for me. I saw my first concert there (Huey Lewis and The News). I was in attendance when Chris Benoit, Eddy Guerrero, Perry Saturn and Dean Malenko left WCW and showed up on Monday Night RAW. I was there when Jaromir Jagr scored in OT to beat the New Jersey Devils in what some people believed could be the last game at the Arena (this was when the Pens were in bankruptcy and were not 100% going to still be in town). And I was there in the very last sporting event at the Arena when the Pens beat the Canadiens earlier this year. I love the Arena, but it has to go. It’s cramped, smelly and so antiquated that you’ll wonder how the city managed to draw any sort of concerts or wrestling events to it.

My guess is that many of the naysayers are the same people who didn’t want a new arena in the first place. Look, people, I realize that much of the city of Pittsburgh is still stuck in the 1980s and hates progress of any kind, but we needed a new arena, period. It’s not just for the Pens (who only play there a maximum of 50-60 times year); it’s for musical acts that have been skipping over Pittsburgh because the Civic Arena was a dump. It’s for WWE who, while still holding TV tapings in Pittsburgh, have not had one of their big four PPVs here because the Arena is a dump. It’s for the NCAA to hold first and second round NCAA Men’s Basketball tourney games (and maybe even a regional eventually). It’s for the Frozen Four. And both of these things wouldn’t be coming back to Pittsburgh if they still had to use the Arena because the Civic Arena is a dump! Period.

Do I trust the city, county and SEA to do the right thing with the development of the (hopefully) soon-to-be-vacant Civic Arena lot? Not necessarily, but I see the job that’s been done on the North Side between PNC Park and Heinz Field, and I’m encouraged. I think of all of the jobs it might create, and I’m again encouraged.

Some people are complaining about the lack of transparency behind the whole vote on what to do with the Arena (which is pretty funny considering our President’s failed promise to have the most transparent presidency in history), but you know what? I really couldn’t care less, especially when I read that people were shouting “Gestapo!” during the vote. Way to play the Nazi card, people. *eye roll* Deal with it, people, unless, of course, you want to come up with the money to pay for the upkeep of the Arena, that is. And if you expect someone to come swooping in to save the Arena from demolition, then I think you’re gonna have a long wait.

I was watching from across the river the morning that Three Rivers Stadium was imploded, and I was happy to see it go. It was a giant, concrete ashtray that had no individuality or personality. Yes, there were plenty of good memories from the old dump, but that doesn’t mean that new memories can’t be created at PNC Park and Heinz Field, like Brian Giles’ walk-off grand slam to beat the Astros several years ago and Pedro Alvarez’s walk-off three run homer to beat the Rockies earlier this year. Or how about Troy Polamalu’s mad dash to the end zone against the Ravens in the AFC Championship to sew up the Steelers’ second trip to the Super Bowl in four years.

New memories will be made at the Consol Energy Center. The Civic Arena will be gone but not forgotten. And as much as people are going to bitch and moan and protest and complain about the (inevitable) razing of the Civic Arena, progress will go on, whether they like it or not.

So, when I go to the Consol Energy Center later on this year (probably for the annual City Game between Pitt and Duquesne on December 1st), I’ll look up to where the Civic Arena sits and salute the old girl and think fondly back on all of the good times I had there. However, I’ll also look forward to the restaurants and shops that may be there some day. Right now, I hope it’s not matter of if, but a matter of when.



Friday, September 3, 2010


Can TV shows have a “feel?” If they can, then this past Monday’s 900th episode of Monday Night RAW sure didn’t feel like an anniversary show. It felt more like, um, a 721st show, if that makes a lick of sense. I guess that’s my convoluted way of saying that the show pretty much sucked. WWE had been promoting the hell out of Monday’s 900th show of the “longest running episodic show in television history” (TM Michael Cole), but they really dropped the ball.

Where to begin? How about the Divas tag team match that lasted all of about 2 minutes and only featured two of the participants. All it really did was set up a unification match at Night of Champions between Melina and LayCool. I don’t have a problem with that, but at least let Eve Torres and Michelle McCool actually, y’know, participate in the match. What a waste of time.

Speaking of wastes of time, did anyone actually think that Bret Hart and the Undertaker would actually wrestle one another? Please. Bret can’t wrestle anymore. Period. And Taker… well, Taker has seen his better days, to be sure. Look, when the total combined age of the two participants is around 100, you have to wonder who’s trying to fool who. The match was never going to happen, and the clustermess that happened after it with the Nexus and Kane just made me wonder why WWE even bothered teasing the match. The whole lights out thing could have happened at the open of the show and saved time that could have been devoted to an actual match. Though I do have to admit it was nice to see a veteran like Taker put over the Nexus.

As a quick aside, am I the only one who really isn’t thrilled about Undertaker vs. Kane Part 100? I really thought that WWE would have enough sense to not trot out that relic of a feud again, but lo and behold, they proved me wrong. Sorry, but I just don’t buy that Kane still feels like he’s in the Undertaker’s shadow anymore. Kane has been a multiple time World Champion and has always been over whether heel or face. I hope this feud ends quickly.

One of the matches that the Undertaker angle took away from had to be the blink and you’ll miss it tag team match between John Morrison, R-Truth, Cody Rhodes and Drew McIntyre that degenerated into a double-DQ brawl in less than two minutes. The match was ostensibly to determine a challenger for the Hart Dynasty’s tag team titles. I thought that’s what the Usos were brought up for, but once again, WWE is back to all but ignoring the tag team division. I could go on and on about the death of tag team wrestling on a big league scale, but that’s another rant for another time.

The triple threat tag team match was cool, if only because I got to see my two favorite wrestlers on the WWE roster – Daniel Bryan and Kaval – team up. WWE could do worse than just keeping those two together as a duo and have them try to jazz up the tag team division. At the very worst, I suspect that Bryan will beat the Miz for the U.S. Title in the near future.

Another segment that went on way too long was CM Punk’s mocking of some of the “most despicable acts” in RAW history (among them is Stone Cold’s famous drenching of Mr. McMahon with a beer bath). And while it was cool to see some older clips like that, they should have been presented in a manner that didn’t feel like a throwaway. I would have devoted at least one whole segment to wrestlers past and present reflecting on 900 episodes of Monday Night RAW, something that was sorely lacking Monday night. In the end, Big Show came out to further his yawn-inducing feud with Punk and the Straight Edge Society. Even Show’s dead-on Hulk Hogan impression couldn’t save this segment.

The main event (an elimination match between Cena/Edge/Jericho/Orton/Sheamus vs. the Nexus) wasn’t bad, but it started way too late and as a result, felt rushed. I will say that the most interesting thing to come out of the match was how Sheamus acting during it. Both Edge and Jericho took themselves out of the match rather quickly, but Sheamus remained in the match before succumbing to the numbers game and being pinned by Heath Slater. Could the fact that Sheamus didn’t bail on Cena and Orton be a sign of a possible face turn? Probably not, but it was an interesting development, nonetheless. Oh yeah, Wade Barrett was the sole survivor of the match, pinning Orton with his incredibly lame “Wasteland” finisher (basically a fireman’s carry forward slam).

I certainly expected more out of Monday night’s show, and I’m surprised and disappointed that it wasn’t a three-hour extravaganza celebrating the history of Monday Night RAW. Where was Stone Cold? Where was The Rock? Where was JR? Heck, where was Mr. McMahon? Ever since he was punked out by the Nexus, Vince has been off TV. At the very least, I thought he would have made a cameo appearance last night, even if via satellite or on tape. His presence was sorely missed Monday night, as was any number of former RAW superstars who helped make Monday Night RAW the longest… well, you know the rest.

There was no surprise factor, no wow factor. It felt like, well, like just another run-of-the-mill Monday Night RAW. If I were Vince, I’d be steamed at how poorly the show came off, and if USA refused to give them the time to do a three-hour show (which is purely conjecture on my part), I’d be pissed at the network, too. Whatever the case, Monday night was not a night that WWE fans will be talking about for some time. Here’s hoping that the 1,000th episode of Monday Night RAW (which will approximately take place in July of 2012) is a much better show.

Anyway, on to the finale of season two of NXT. We all know that wrestling is fixed in some way or another, yet I gotta be honest – in my wildest dreams, I never expected that Kaval would be the winner on Tuesday night. I thought for sure that either Alex Riley (who has the look of a prototypical WWE wreslter) or Joe “Michael McGillicutty” Hennig (a third generation wrestler) would prevail over the uber-talented yet uber-small Kaval. If Kaval was picked by the powers-that-be to be the winner then kudos to WWE for picking a wrestler who doesn’t fit the WWE cookie-cutter look. But if he wasn’t, and the fans did pick him and the vote was legit, then I’m surprised it wasn’t fixed so Riley or Hennig won. If Kaval is destined to be the WWE’s Next Breakout Star, then he’s going to have to be pushed on his in-ring talent, not his size, which is something that WWE doesn’t do very often, if at all. The Era of Kaval sure didn’t get off to a good start as he had the stuffing kicked out of him by the rest of the NXT season two cast. Not exactly how I would have put over the winner, but what do I know. Whatever happens to Kaval going forward, I’m overjoyed that he won because it’s a testament to the ten years he spent on the indy circuit wrestling in high school gyms and armories and fire halls all in the hopes that he’d make it to the big time. Every wrestler on the indy circuit who dreams of making it to WWE one day can take a look at what Kaval did and believe he has a chance to do the same thing. Kudos to Kaval!

Well, that’s it for now. I’m two and a half hours away from the start of the three day Labor Day weekend, and for once, the weather is supposed be below 90 degrees. Woohoo! Have a good weekend folks!



Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Rise of the Indies

Last Saturday night, I had the privilege of attending my 5th Chikara Pro Wrestling event, this time in Reading, PA, for the second night of Chikara’s annual Young Lions Cup tournament. Every year, indy wrestlers (aged 25 or younger) from across the country (and even from Japan) come to Chikara to compete for the prestigious Young Lions Cup, which is basically the top singles title in Chikara.

I would run down the competitors in this year’s tournament, but to be honest, outside of Chikara mainstays like Lince Dorado, Frightmare, Amasis and Ophidian, I hadn’t really heard of any of them. But that was what I enjoyed the most. Y’see, with the wrestling scene pretty much dominated by WWE, it’s nice to be able to see some wrestlers who I’ll probably never see again unless they come back to Chikara or somehow, some way make it to the big time. These are the guys who wrestle because they love the business. Nearly all of them have day jobs and travel across the country (usually on their own dime) to wrestle in front of crowds that usually number anywhere from 50 to 250 – a far cry from the thousands of fans who attend your average Monday Night RAW broadcast.

I’ve always had a particular affinity for independent wrestling, and WWE and TNA wouldn’t be where they are today without the indies. If you look up and down their respective rosters, you’ll see more than a few wrestlers who got their starts on the indy circuit.

Take CM Punk, for example – he was a big player in ROH long before he because the Straight Edge Superstar in WWE. Triple H toiled away in a variety of Northeast indy promotions before going to WCW and then to stardom in WWE. I could go on and on, but independent wrestling is the lifeblood of the industry, and it’s nice to see that independent wrestling has made such a tremendous comeback in the past decade. Heck, even NXT Season Two winner, Kaval (a/k/a Low-Ki) cut his teeth on the indy circuit.

Prior to the then-WWF’s national expansion in the mid-80s, wrestling operated as a series of “territories” spread across the country. The WWF ran the Northeast. Jim Crockett Promotions ran the Mid-Atlantic. Verne Gagne’s AWA ran the Midwest. Bill Watts’ Mid-South Wrestling promoted Louisiana. Championship Wrestling from Florida controlled the Sunshine State. Georgia Championship Wrestling and its national TV show had control of the Peachtree State. The Von Erich family had a huge following in Texas with World Class Championship Wrestling and even a national following thanks to its nationally syndicated TV show.

These are just some of the promotions that dominated pro wrestling in the 70s and early 80s. When Vince McMahon took the WWF national, the territories started to dry up one by one until they were all gone, leaving WWE as the wrestling super power. NWA/WCW gave WWE a run for its money in the 90s, but it’s long since gone. The rest of the territories just couldn’t compete with the money McMahon could offer and went away. And for quite a few years, there wasn’t much wrestling outside of WWE, WCW, and (briefly) ECW. Now, though, indies are thriving again, and I’m starting to think that we may be in for another wrestling boom in the next five to ten years.

Think about it: no matter how much I rag on TNA and think that its product is god-awful, it still has a following and a national TV deal. If Dixie Carter ever gets her head out of her ass and actually hires some people who know how to book a good wrestling show, then maybe TNA will actually start to thrive instead of just treading water as it’s been doing pretty much since its inception. Of course, I think it wouldn’t take much to fix TNA, and one of these days, I’m actually going to sit down and come up with an easy-to-follow plan (step one: Get rid of Hogan, Bischoff and Vince Russo).

ROH Wrestling has gained a reputation for excellent in-ring wrestling (something lacking in both WWE and TNA) and an old school booking philosophy that’s sorely been missing in wrestling since the territories dried up. It also has something of a TV deal on HDNet (which, unfortunately, my cable company doesn’t carry – stupid Comcast).

There are even rumors running rampant of a new national wrestling company being started by one of Fred Wilpon’s sons (Wilpon owns the New York Mets). I, of course, will believe this when I believe it, but it does show that there’s someone out there who thinks that the time may be right to try to compete with WWE.

Look, as much as I do enjoy watching WWE, I realize that it has some serious flaws, not the least of which is overdoing it with a PG product, and I do understand why they’re doing it, I can’t help but wonder if there’s a way to get closer to the edginess of the Attitude Era without falling back into the Crash TV booking Vince Russo made famous (and then subsequently ruined when he went to WCW).

My solution is very simple – more wrestling. And that brings me back to the indies. Your average indy match is significantly longer than a WWE TV match and features a degree of innovation rarely seen in your average WWE match. Yes, I know that a lot of indy matches are nothing but spotfests. I’m not advocating matches like that; they just don’t work very well in the long run. However, some of the innovates moves and non-cookie cutter matches you see on indy cards would be much welcomed by me (and other fans, I surmise) in WWE.

Let’s face facts: pretty much every John Cena match is the same. On the rarest of occasion will you see him pull off a move that’s not in his usual repertoire. My challenge to Cena (and to every WWE wrestler) is for him to find a move or two that he can pull off and occasionally add them to his matches. Maybe it’s a new submission move or a suplex variation or a new kind of power bomb. Whatever it is, put it into the match and make the fans go “Oh!”

In Japan, every wrestler has a variety of signature and finishing moves, any number of which can be used to end a match. The matches are also more athletic and more competitive. WWE has plenty of wrestlers who can wrestle this more athletic “strong” style. Your average WWE wrestler might have two finishers and often over-rely on punches and kicks. Longer and better matches are the answer. Well, I think it’s the answer, anyway. I’m not in the business nor will I probably ever be, but I really think that WWE needs to try something new. Without the edgy storylines that people used to tune in to see, you’re left with having to rely on a PG product to draw in viewers or to bring back old ones. More wrestling, better wrestling, more competitive and athletic wrestling – this is what WWE needs.

When WWE was in trouble during the early part of the Monday Night Wars, it took a page from the edgy product of ECW, and the Attitude Era was born, a period of some serious money-making for WWE. I think WWE needs to look toward the indies again to find a new identity that will help them regain the audience it’s lost since WCW went away. Look to ROH and Chikara and IWC and PWX and AIW and PWG and all of those tiny promotions that operate out of firehalls and sports complexes and high school gyms. Look to the wrestlers who bleed and sweat for the love of the business, not movie deals or merchandising opportunities. Bring wrestling back to the fans, and they’ll come back to you. All you have to do is watch one night of a Chikara show to see this. Trust me on this; people are dying for a product that’s not a cookie cutter.

Well, that’s all for today. I will hopefully be back tomorrow with a review of Monday Night RAW’s 900th show (and it ain’t gonna be pretty) and the NXT season finale. Can’t wait to hear how many times Michael Cole will say that RAW is “the longest running episodic program in the history of television.” I’m sure it will be close to ten.