Watching the WWE pay-per-view emanating from Verizon Center in Washington, D.C., last Sunday reminded me of the good ol’ days of being a wrestling fan. When I was growing up, "house shows" were a monthly event at the then-Baltimore Civic Center.
Each month, the World Wide Wrestling Federation would bring a card — usually seven or eight matches — to the Civic Center. If you were lucky, you got the monthly flyer from the Capitol Wrestling Corporation, the promotional company run by Vincent McMahon Sr., whose son now owns the WWE.
This was back in the day of the regional territories in wrestling and McMahon controlled the northeast’s big cities — D.C., Baltimore, Philly, New York, Boston, etc. Ironically, the weekly WWWF TV shows were taped in small-town Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
But once a month, if you were lucky (read: no bad grades on your report card or failing rest results), dad would schlep you down to the Civic Center, you’d buy elevated ringside seats and you’d revel in the ultimate morality play, pitting good against evil.
There were preliminary matches — veterans like Joe Turco, Tony Altamore, Lee Lassiter. You saw mid-carders like Victor Rivera. And there was always a tag-team match featuring Chief Jay Strongbow and his partner du juor. Of course, the highlight of the night was a title match — which usually meant Bruno Sammartino or Pedro Morales — against the evildoer of the month, guys like Spiros Arion, Buggsy McGraw, Stan Stasiak and the like.
I was third-row ringside (and can see myself in the YouTube video) the night Sammartino dropped the title to Superstar Billy Graham. I stared into my trashcan-sized beer (yes, I got served even though I was not old enough) and kept muttering, "Jesus H. Christ, he won." I was stunned, like much of the crowd. I mean, Bruno just didn’t lose, and not to some musclebound hippie.
Most nights, the title bout would go off around 10:40 p.m., which made for a typical finish. The city curfew was 11 p.m., and that meant the other wrestlers gathered on the Civic Center stage about 10:55 p.m. to stage the run-in that would end the night’s card. With, of course, just enough animosity between combatants that you’d be lured back to the next month’s rematch.
Mega-cards, pay-per-views and WrestleMania changed all that. House shows became a less-frequent event; when they did happen, it was so the then-WWF could tape a month or more of TV shows. I like wrestling, but five or six hours at a clip was taxing.
Now, I gather the guys together in my basement a few times a year for pay-per-views. We order pizza, offer up our predictions and enjoy an evening’s entertainment. But long ago, every month, we went to the action, not the other way around.
Luckily, there are small independent promotions around, like Maryland Championship Wrestling. If you’ve got nothing to do this Sunday, head over to the North Point Flea Market and catch the action. Arrive early, since you’ll likely have to wait on line for tickets. But it’s the closest I’ve come to the excitement, showmanship and unabashed fun of those wonderful days back in the 1970s and 1980s when we made the pilgrammage to Howard Street, cheered on Mrs. Krieger to torment the bad guys and ate cardboard pizza and swigged overpriced beer.