PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) -- The corner of Swanson and Ritner streets in South Philadelphia may not be well-known to everyone. But if you're a wrestling fan in Philly, you are aware of it.
That intersection has been the setting for match of the year candidates, outrageous character debuts, and unforgettable moments in the world of pro wrestling - or sports entertainment.
What stands there now is known as the 2300 Arena, but once upon a more extreme time it was known as the ECW Arena.
In the 1990s, Paul Heyman, current WWE on-screen advocate for Brock Lesnar, brought an anti-authority, rebellious vibe to the arena with his Extreme Championship Wrestling promotion, turning what once was known as a bingo hall for Mummers into a prime destination for diehard wrestling fans.
Heyman, along with wrestlers like Tommy Dreamer, Sabu, and Rob Van Dam, and the arena made ECW a true contender in the late 90s wrestling wars against Vince McMahon's World Wrestling Federation (now WWE) and Ted Turner's World Championship Wrestling.
ECW folded in 2001, but the arena remained. It has gone through a number of name changes, but it has never stopped showcasing wrestling. The 2300 Arena was even featured in the film 'The Wrestler.'
"It's a classic old school wrestling feel in that building. It's much more intimate than the huge venues, where you can't get really up close to witness the action. Any seat is a good seat at the 2300 Arena. Also, the fans just come alive from the moment they step through the doors and take that enthusiasm home with them. It's just a great experience," renowned wrestling reporter Bill Apter, whose magazines were one of the few means fans could stay informed prior to the dawn of the internet, told 6abc.com.
MLW Brings SuperFight to 2300 Arena
This Saturday night, wrestling fans will flock to the 2300 Arena as they did over two decades ago for ECW.
Major League Wrestling is hosting its SuperFight event, tickets available at MLWGo.com, and founder Court Bauer is welcoming the history.
"The 2300 Arena is unlike any other building for wrestling in America. When I first walked into the 2300 Arena, I could feel the ghosts of wrestling's past. It's hallowed ground. Like walking into an old ballpark, you get goosebumps. The 2300 Arena is a special, special place. It's been the epicenter to some of the sport's most historic and momentous moments ever," Bauer said.
During its ECW days, the arena was the place where Stone Cold Steve Austin was able to practice his gift of gab prior to making it big in the WWE. The arena was where legends of the ring like Rey Mysterio and Chris Jericho perfected their moves. And it was the location where the world first got to meet ECW original Tommy Dreamer, who was considered by many to be the heart of the promotion.
Dreamer will be among the fighters, as they are called, taking part in MLW SuperFight.
"Tommy is the heart and soul of pro wrestling. I've now worked with Tommy in two companies and the professional pride and work ethic he has is unmatched. A lot of veterans aren't giving of their time to mentor and invest in young guys, yet Tommy has immense passion and enjoys teaching the next wave of wrestlers. He also has a sense of duty when it comes to the sport and its fans that is incredibly inspiring. He may be known as the innovator of violence, but he's really one of the most noble and giving people I have ever had the pleasure of meeting," Bauer said.
Teddy Hart, a member of the famous wrestling family, will be vying for the Tag Team Championships, alongside with his cousin Davey Boy Smith, Jr., collectively known as the New Era Hart Foundation (an homage to the original versions in the 80s and 90s WWE). He, too, has a lot of respect for the veteran Dreamer.
"Gives some of the best advice to young guys that I've heard. Really breaks down where you need to fix things. He doesn't have to do that. He's a successful guy. The fact he takes time to help out the young guys, tells you the kind of person he is. He's a wonderful human being," Hart said.
The Hart Family Legacy Continues in MLW
Wrestling fans in the 1990s came to know about the Hart family and the training methods of patriarch Stu while watching his sons Bret and Owen compete in the WWE.
The Harts didn't learn the ins and outs of wrestling in a state-of-the-art Performance Center, like WWE has in Florida and the newly opened location in the United Kingdom, or a wrestling ring of any sort; it was all taught in the Dungeon. A basement in Stu's massive home that had no ring, no ropes, but mats and lessons to be taught.
Along with Bret and Owen, many other famous alumni survived the Hart Family Dungeon, including the British Bulldog Davey Boy Smith, Brian Pillman, Edge, Christian, and Mark Henry.
Teddy Hart was among the final graduates of the Dungeon, along with Stu's granddaughter and current WWE superstar Natalya and her future husband Tyson Kidd.
"We have a certain kind of code that if you came out of the Dungeon you really know how to wrestle right. You kind of learned all styles, and credibility too. It's a pretty serious place to come out of the dungeon," Hart said.
Since his training ground was not the typical pro wrestling setting, Hart decided to purchase his own ring to practice and learn high-flying moves and other styles that were not fitting of the Dungeon setting.
Hart, who turns 39 a few days, considers himself to be in the top echelon when it comes to inventing moves in the business.
Bauer calls Hart one of the best wrestlers of his generation, and he's seen his fair share of wrestling.
MLW is Bauer's Court
Court Bauer has been around the industry since he was 18-years-old.
It was 1999 when the teenage Bauer applied for an internship, like many his age were doing. However, this particular opportunity happened to be in Allentown, Pennsylvania, working for the promotion belonging to future WWE Hall of Famer Afa Anoa'i and his family - relatives of Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson.
"I actually entered an online contest where fans were asked to send in a script to be a fan matchmaker. I won and was elated! One thing led to another and before I knew it, I was designing posters, designing their website, then rebranding the name of their promotion and writing their TV show," Bauer said.
After working with All Japan Pro Wrestling, Bauer's resume and connections led him to the WWE in 2005. There he would be working side-by-side with McMahon and daughter Stephanie on the creative side of TV wrestling.
"Working directly under Vince McMahon was akin to getting my MBA at the Harvard of Pro Wrestling. When you are around Vince 24/7/365, it gives you an exceptional skillset and level of experience unlike anything... and in retrospect it planted the seeds for MLW's success today. I'm 24 and working side-by-side with a world class executive and promoter," Bauer said.
One of Bauer's favorite accomplishments during his tenure in WWE was working on WrestleMania 23 - the event that saw McMahon feuding with current U.S. President Donald Trump.
WWE was not where Bauer's heart would lead him, ultimately. A few years prior to joining WWE's creative team, he was working on the origins of what would be Major League Wrestling, along with Anoa'i's son-in-law Gary Albright. It was originally imagined to be an American extension of All Japan Pro Wrestling, but then the wrestling landscape shifted.
Bauer said All Japan underwent management changes that shelved the MLW idea. Then in 2001, WWE purchased its biggest competition, Turner's WCW.
"There was only one company in the US and pro wrestling was in a nuclear winter. Yet the appetite for something different was there, but who and what would enter the market? I saw an opportunity to introduce a league that showcased different wrestling styles from around the world," Bauer said.
A Wrestling Boom
MLW's various styles - from lucha libre matches, to hardcore no holds barred battles, to technical contests - suits Hart perfectly. He made sure to learn all kinds of techniques in ways that would probably surprise most wrestling fans.
He went to a trampoline park to learn how to do a backflip.
He watched synchronized swimming to learn to work in tandem with another person.
He took notice of choreography in movies to find the best way tips for acting.
And he was even a viewer of 'Dancing with the Stars.' He did not say if it was during Chris Jericho's season.
"A lot of guys said I would be in a wheelchair by the time I was 30 and I would probably be a flash in a pan because of my style," Hart said.
Both Hart and Bauer are proud of the success of MLW. Last week, web hosting company GoDaddy signed on as a sponsor for the promotion.
"Today, Major League Wrestling is the fastest growing wrestling promotion in the sport and a lot of that has to do with the foundation built during my time in WWE at a young age," Bauer said.
MLW is not alone in its fight to make a mark on the multi-billion-dollar industry.
There's of course WWE, which has branched out to create its upstart NXT and NXT UK divisions. Then there's the 'independent promotions,' the leagues that not as mainstream as WWE: such as Ring of Honor, New Japan Pro Wrestling, Impact Wrestling, Lucha Underground, Evolve, and the original National Wrestling Alliance, now owned by The Smashing Pumpkins lead singer Billy Corgan.
Most companies, like MLW on beIN Sports or New Japan on AXS, have their own television programming. MLW's Fusion broadcasts are commentated by the former voice of WCW Tony Schavione. The show in Philly is a taping for a future TV broadcast.
Apter, who now hosts his own podcast at TheApterChat.com, hopes this wrestling revival may lead to the return of the "territory days" of pro wrestling, back when wrestling promoters would agree to share talent while each carved out a section of the country for their shows and wrestlers.
"Right now, there are so many promotions out there. I'd love to see them band together and create a territorial system like in the 'old days.' Yes, this is a boom period for sure and I've got the fever to be part of it from a reporting and fan perspective," Apter said.
Recently, former WWE superstar Cody Rhodes, son of wrestling legend the late Dusty Rhodes, and the popular indy tag team The Young Bucks, with the financial backing of Shahid Khan, the owner of the NFL's Jacksonville Jaguars, announced the creation of yet another wrestling company - All Elite Wrestling (AEW). Hart gave the move high praise.
"Cody Rhodes has done an amazing job taking a really serious name, the pressure he had coming out of that family, to get to where he is now, to be successful after leaving WWE and now to be a major player in a new company that started, that sounds like they're going to give wrestlers a really fair chance to make money and to be on another network," Hart said.
Hart sees this renaissance not only giving fans a choice of what to watch, but giving wrestlers a better chance at living their dream.
"The fact that wrestling is making a resurgence right now is really cool and exciting to be part of it. WWE is the leader, but now because of wrestling being so big, there seems to be room for other people to have companies and to grow. That's exciting for all the young talent that want to get into this. There's a lot places for you to hone your skills and showcase yourself," Hart said. "We just want a place to practice and to have fun and live our dreams and give us purpose. That's something that any TV show opportunity really let's happen."
Bauer takes it a step further saying Major League Wrestling specifically is offering fans something completely different from WWE; he says it is a product for today's fans.
"Pro wrestling is like anything else in pop culture: you have the glossy, mass produced product like WWE that plays it safe and then you have MLW which is something different. Something a little underground and raw that reflects society and is more culturally relevant," Bauer said.
Ready for Philly
The arena's history is one thing, but the Philly fans are another. Philadelphia wrestling fans are called a lot of things, but most of all, the word used is 'smart.' When a wrestling show comes into town, fans are ready to let the wrestlers know what they like and what they don't.
Hart says it's all about those high pressure situations and showing what you are made of. He feels being in front of the Philly crowd will only make him stronger as a performer.
"That's the measure of the man. To be put in a pressure situation where it's the big game on the line. And this is a big game on the line. Any time you get to wrestle in that building in front of these people, they've seen it all. They definitely let you know if you made a mistake. And if you've done a great job, they're the nicest people after the show," Hart said.
Bauer is ready to bring his fighters to that famous South Philly intersection and put on a show for the ages.
"Philly fans have a super high wrestling IQ and know the sport better than most in the game. They're also super passionate when it comes to sports be it wrestling, the Eagles, Flyers - you name it! You better bring it or face their wrath. Philly fans set the bar high and it is up to the athletes and franchises to delivery," Bauer said.
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