By Colin McGuire, ProWrestling.net Staffer (@McGMondays)
And so, there it stood, tiny by national standards but huge in my mind. The Erie Civic Center in Erie, Pennsylvania. I couldn’t have been 10 years old and my grandfather was taking me downtown to see the show.
As it went, the show included television tapings of “Wrestling Challenge.” This, of course, was in addition to the card that was previously announced. I think Bret Hart might have been there. The Undertaker, too. For the first time in my life, I saw cameras perched in the crowd and I instantly began looking for Bobby “The Brain” Heenan doing color commentary somewhere.
How did it go?
EVERYTHING IS LINEAR … RIGHT?
It was good. It was fine. It was everything I hoped it would be.
For whatever reason, the only visual that stuck with since then was that of The Beverley Brothers, who I saw more than once that night. Ahhh, yes. Seeing someone more than once in one night at a wrestling event. This was something with which I was unfamiliar. Until that point, all I knew about wrestling was what I saw on television. There were never any edits, right? And everything we saw that was aired on syndication was precisely how it went down the evening of the taping, correct? Plus, if one week showcased four matches in one arena, then the next week showcased three in a different arena, no?
Well, yeah. No.
Turns out, this was the night I was smartened up to how wrestling companies taped television shows back then. If there was a taping, those matches were designated to air over a series of weeks. Imagine my confusion when I witnessed a very unexpected title change and then nearly cried 20 minutes later when the public address announcer said that due to some unforeseen rule and/or circumstance, the title change didn’t actually count and the reigning champion would keep his belt.
I didn’t realize until I saw the episodes air that the title change happened in front of us so the belt could held by a guy who came out a few minutes later live for another match — with the belt in tow — because the match they were taping was set to air after the guy who won the belt “officially” won the belt in front of the masses. If that makes sense. It probably doesn’t. Either way, it was as disorienting as it sounds, but it was also the first time I started to question the authenticity of the wrestling business.
AN ERA OF SPOILERS
I’ve been to some TV tapings since that fateful night. WWE has since found a much more palatable way to conduct these things. Come for a live edition of Smackdown, stay for a quick episode of 205 Live. Bell time for Raw is actually 7 p.m. because they need to tape a couple WWE Main Event matches ahead of time. It all kind of works out in the end and nothing feels overwhelming or contrived in the ways it used to when a phantom title change would occur for the sole purpose of showcasing a new champion on television some two months after the show was taped.
The world is different these days, though. The World Wide Internet has changed the game 10 times over with how quickly people can share information and how easily results of pro wrestling tapings can be spoiled. If the Internet existed after I attended that taping in Erie, Pennsylvania, I could have emailed Jason Powell right away to tell him a title change was coming and it would have been on Dot Net before I could grab another cup of Coke.
It makes the notion of a television taping that much more complicated in the 2020s than it was in the 1980s. Not everybody has the budget of a WWE, and not everybody has the television exposure that WWE enjoys. It’s all to say that if you can book a venue and you can knock out four or five weeks worth of television — be it through a network deal or even only on YouTube — in one night, that’s just what you do. It’s a matter of practicality more than anything.
And so, when I drove up I-95 and attended the MLW Fightland tapings this past Saturday, I knew that if nothing else, I was in for a treat when it came to in-ring work. The Opera Cup matches were set for the card and there were a few awfully enticing matchups in that tournament alone. The four-way for the MLW Middleweight Championship promised to be a lot of fun, and then, of course, there was the highly anticipated main event between MLW World Champion Jacob Fatu and MLW National Openweight Champion Alex Hammerstone, during which the two went title vs. title. And it was while thinking about that last one when my mind really started turning.
I arrived in Philadelphia around 3:30 p.m. because media check-in was set for 4 p.m. Within the 4 p.m. hour, the media was offered a few scrums, which was great, because not every company promises these things, and when they happen, they always seem to peel back a layer that’s almost as essential as anything to covering this stuff. Fast-forward to about 4:30 p.m. and Hammerstone was speaking to the us media types.
He talked about a bunch of stuff, including Alex Shelley stating that he wanted to work with Hammerstone one day. “It’s a huge honor,” Hammerstone said earnestly. “The first time I met Alex Shelley was about a year ago and he gave me that reaction, really genuinely, in person. It was really cool because he’s someone I’ve looked up to and now that I’m getting to the place where a lot of the guys I looked up to become friends of mine and vice versa, it’s just a great honor. It shows that all the hard work I’ve put in has paid off.”
When it came to who he thought would win the Opera Cup tournament, he essentially said it was too close to call. He also said that if he were to win Saturday night, he wasn’t sure if he’d unify the titles or defend them separately because he’s a big believer in not hoarding opportunities from those who want to wear gold in MLW. And above all else, he talked repeatedly about how much the match that night between him and Fatu meant to him, calling it one of the most important of his career and admitting that he was dealing with some nerves going into the event.
Now, his job was to sell the match, so let’s not get carried away here and claim that he was baring his soul for the 15 or so of us media members there with cell phones, video cameras, and recorders in his face. That’s not to say I think he didn’t mean the things he said; maybe he did, maybe he didn’t. Maybe he believed them a little bit, maybe he believed them a lot. Only Mr. Hammerstone himself knows that.
But here’s what I couldn’t wrap my head around …
A RESTLESS CROWD
… By the time Fatu and Hammerstone left the ring after their match, it was Sunday morning.
Eight hours had passed between when Hammerstone spoke to the media and his main event match hit the ring. There was a time — let’s say, 8 or 9 p.m. — when the 2300 Arena in Philadelphia looked legitimately full. Most of the chairs had butts in them and the crowd — especially for Bobby Fish, mind you — was loud, engaged, and happy to watch some wrestling on a Saturday night.
But as the night wore on, and we got into the 13th and 14th and 15th matches, those seats looked more and more empty. One side of the crowd started chanting “your side sucks!” to the other side during the last few bouts and those once-impressive pops became half-loud smatterings of cheers. Once Fatu and Hammerstone got in the ring, the last thing the crowd seemed to want was a lengthy slug-fest (though to be fair, the crowd did rise up to the occasion by the time the match ended).
What hit me most, however, was that lack of butts in seats by the time midnight rolled around. While the Opera Cup will sell itself to some fans, and some fun names like Savio Vega, The Blue Meanie and Tajiri will entice others, I was under the impression the biggest selling point of the Fightland tapings was the Hammerstone vs. Fatu showdown. Not only was it title vs. title, but it was also a very intriguing match between two very intriguing MLW stars.
That’s why I felt bad for them as they made their ways to the ring. Actually, I didn’t just feel bad for the wrestlers, but I felt bad for MLW, too. Flightland on Vice TV is a big deal for that company, and the last thing you want is to have a camera accidentally reveal a section of seats that sits empty while the main event is taking place. Granted, my guess is that a little focused editing will ensure that doesn’t happen when the episode airs, but either way, Fatu and Hammerstone deserved better.
It all led me to wonder …
MOVE THE MAIN EVENT?
… What’s the solution?
If this is all on delay anyway, why wouldn’t you position the taped main event at a more opportune time in the evening, if only for television’s sake? There would have been nothing wrong with having Fatu vs. Hammerstone hit the ring at 9/9:30 p.m., smack in the middle of the action and right when the crowd is at its peak. Sure, that risks having what ends up being the final match of the might come across as a dud on TV, but if we’re weighing what means more to the presentation of a show, I have to guess that a main event with a hot, full crowd would mean more to the bigger picture than a basic crowd half-popping for a 12-man tag match to end the evening. Shoot. If you don’t like the 12-man tag because the crowd really lets it down, who says you even have to air it?
Instead, Saturday night felt like a marathon — and not just because I was there early for media stuff. Don’t get me wrong. I understand that TV tapings are a grind, especially for the smaller promotions. Wrestlers are working two or three times in one night and you’re looking at a minimum of a five-hour show no matter how you cut it, which can weigh everybody down. But if you want to maximize your opportunity, especially when it comes to getting on a real live television station, like MLW is about to do with Vice TV, it might be an idea to spruce up the main event as much as you possibly could, which could mean moving its place on the card.
Weighing heavily on me now is my next trip up I-95, which is coming in two days for AEW’s Dynamite and its subsequent tapings. Will two hours of Dynamite, an hour of Rampage, and who knows whatever Dark: Elevation matches will be there finally do me in? It’s possible, even if I’ll be there as a spectator and not in an official capacity. Reviewing Rampage for this site, there are taped weeks when it feels like the crowd is barely there, presumably due to how spent they are, and I’m curious to see if Philly can rise up for it, the fabulously ruckus wrestling town that it is. Or, for that matter, perhaps Philly will just bail because … I don’t know, the ladder match’s surprise entrant isn’t cool enough?
Either way, and no matter how it turns out, one thing I was reminded of as I took in the MLW tapings this weekend is that attending a pro wrestling TV taping has never been for the faint of heart and it never will be. Sometimes, as was the case with injuries and angles that were shot Saturday, the experience can be confusing as things unfold that weren’t previously announced. Sometimes, the girth of the card can weigh it down.
And as I learned when I was 10, sometimes, unexplained, unrecognized title changes can happen for the sake of only one random match that may or may not make air somewhere down the line. But that’s the beauty of it. That’s the beauty of pro wrestling. And that’s why sometimes, six hours of straight wrestling on a Saturday night can be worth the drive — even if a quarter of the crowd doesn’t appear to agree.