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The legendary life and career of two-time WWE Hall of Famer Ric Flair is the topic of ESPN's "30 for 30: The Nature Boy," tomorrow at 10 p.m. ET on ESPN10/31/2017 - 15:00
The 11 most important American sports-entertainment venues
They weren’t much more than slabs of cement and some corrugated steel. Mostly architectural eyesores in the industrial sections of rough cities — places where you wouldn’t walk around alone after dark. Some were renovated warehouses, others ad hoc bingo halls. One was a ballroom where elegant couples danced on New Year’s Eve before they ripped up the floorboards and put down a wrestling ring.
These were places where fathers took sons to watch the matches after a long week’s work. Where “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, Mick Foley and Shawn Michaels — all still children — sat in the cheap seats and dreamt of one day being in the main event. Where Kiniski beat Thesz, Flair beat Race, where Bruno beat ’em all. A few were demolished. Another moved across town. One is now a church, which is almost appropriate. These were holy grounds, sites where wrestlers sacrificed and audiences worshipped.
Empty, they were only buildings. But when packed to the rafters with thousands of rowdy wrestling fans, they became the 11 greatest venues in the history of American sports-entertainment.
Boston Garden — Boston
The fact that the owners of the Boston Garden had to install netting around the ring to protect the competitors from getting pelted by garbage should tell you everything you need to know about this now-defunct New England institution.
Demolished in 1998 to make way for the spiffy new TD Garden, this no-frills arena was home to notoriously rough teams like the “Big Bad Bruins” and the Larry Bird–led Celtics of the 1980s. Little surprise, then, that the Beantown fans — some unluckily seated behind obstructive concrete pillars — were every bit as ill-mannered as the players they worshipped.
“I wrestled Bob Backlund there and when I went out to the ring, it was like going out to an ice hockey game,” WWE Hall of Famer Sgt. Slaughter remembered. “There were people right there on top of you, grabbing you, doing all kinds of things to get you upset.”
Originally called “Boston Madison Square Garden” when it opened in 1928, the building only hosted one WWE pay-per-view — 1993’s Survivor Series. But rowdy Live Events were a monthly occurrence at the infamous arena throughout much of the ’70s and ’80s. — RYAN MURPHY
Manhattan Center — New York City
In the heart of midtown Manhattan sits a building that has become a true beacon for historic moments in the world of sports-entertainment. Nope, it’s not Madison Square Garden, but it is directly across the street.
In 1993, WWE needed an intimate arena that could capture a rowdy New York energy for the first episodes of a new show called Raw. The 90-year-old Manhattan Center’s Grand Ballroom packed in only 1,000 fans, but it was a perfect fit for the show that would become WWE’s flagship.
In 2000, ECW took over the Manhattan Center for two straight nights of tapings for their weekly television shows at The Hammerstein Ballroom. Once an opera house, the beautiful venue was a surprisingly perfect host for the final two ECW pay-per-views as well as the One Night Stand event that brought the company back to life in 2005. A sequel was held there the next year, and was followed up by an infamous TV taping two months later that featured the debut of CM Punk.
WWE has not hosted an event at either Manhattan Center venue since then, but it has remained a destination for wrestling fans of other organizations. — ZACH LINDER
ECW Arena — Philadelphia
It’s hard to believe that one of the most prominent venues in WWE’s video library was never intended to host live events of any kind. This now-shuttered facility sitting under an Interstate 95 overpass in South Philadelphia was a railroad freight warehouse in the 1970s and a Saturday night bingo hall from the mid-80s through much of the ’90s.
In 1993, ECW — then known as Eastern Championship Wrestling — decided to tape their weekly TV series for SportsChannel Philadelphia in the windowless building. The rest is hardcore history as ECW became Extreme Championship Wrestling and transformed wrestling forever.
There are far too many world famous Superstars who competed in the ECW Arena to list them all here. Abdullah the Butcher, Jerry “The King” Lawler, Terry Funk and Eddie Guerrero are just a few of the current WWE Hall of Famers who dirtied their wrestling boots in the modest venue on the corner of Swanson and Ritner in South Philly. No doubt the list of ECW Arena alumni will only grow with the future WWE Hall of Fame inductions. — JOEY STYLES
Cow Palace — San Francisco
The California State Livestock Pavilion was originally opened in 1941 to house the Grand National Rodeo and, eventually, San Francisco’s professional and minor league sports teams. But the nearly 13,000-seat arena more commonly known as the Cow Palace has a storied history in sports-entertainment that continues to this day.
In the 1960s, Roy Shire’s National All-Star Wrestling was the first organization to make the Cow Palace a regular host of their events with stars like Ray Stevens and Pat Patterson. The venue was also crucial to the AWA’s expansion after the promotion’s split from NWA. One of the most notable moments to occur inside the arena was when WWE Hall of Famer Curt Hennig pinned Nick Bockwinkel to claim the AWA World Title.
As the venue became a premier location for sports-entertainment in the Bay Area, WWE began hosting Live Events there while WCW made it the home of SuperBrawl in ’97, ’98 and 2000. The Cow Palace’s unforgettable moments are innumerable, but few could top the emotion of the night in 2004 when Eddie Guerrero defeated Brock Lesnar to win the WWE Championship. — KEVIN POWERS
Sportatorium — Dallas
By all accounts, the Sportatorium was a dump. The floorboards creaked, rats scurried through the concession stands and, on a July day when that Texas sun got angry, it was hotter than hell.
“It was a metal shed with no air conditioning,” WWE Hall of Famer Kevin Von Erich remembered of the building where he became a Texas wrestling icon. “You can imagine how hot it gets in Dallas at six o’clock at night when it’d been 105 degrees all day. But the people would sit there and take it.”
The homebase of Fritz Von Erich’s World Class Championship Wrestling, the massive, silver monstrosity at the intersection of Industrial Boulevard and Cadiz Street hosted Elvis Presley concerts in the ’50s, but it was the Von Erich boys who made it famous. Described as "Friday night church" by Michael "P.S." Hayes, the Sportatorium crammed more than 4,000 spectators in every week as Kevin, Kerry and David battled The Freebirds and, later, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin made his ring debut. Sadly, all that remains of the historic venue today is a vacant lot, as it was demolished in 2003 after falling into disrepair.
“I still can’t believe they tore it down,” Von Erich said. — R.M.
Olympic Auditorium — Los Angeles
Today, the Glory Church of Jesus Christ stands at the corner of Grand Avenue and 18th Street in downtown Los Angeles. But some 88 years ago on Aug. 5, 1925, that massive concrete building was christened the “Mecca of Boxing” when the doors of the Olympic Auditorium were opened.
Constructed for the 1932 Summer Olympics in LA, the massive venue promoted iconic grapplers like Ed “Strangler” Lewis and Jim Londos on the week it opened. But it wasn’t until 1945 that sports-entertainment became a weekly occurrence. Owned and operated by Aileen Eaton — mother of fight legend and “No!” Lock innovator “Judo” Gene LeBell — the arena became a west coast hub for the top boxers and wrestlers in the world.
“I used to take Muhammad Ali to the wrestling matches,” LeBell told WWEClassics.com “He liked to see Freddie Blassie.”
Indeed, before he became one of WWE’s defining managers, “The Hollywood Fashion Plate” enraged Angelenos alongside “Golden Age” icons like Gorgeous George and The Destroyer. By the early ’80s, weekly wrestling cards were phased out at the Olympic Auditorium, but the venue made history one last time when ECW had its California debut with the Heat Wave pay-per-view in 2000. — R.M.
The Omni — Atlanta
“The Omni was the Madison Square Garden of Georgia,” veteran sports-entertainment journalist Bill Apter said of the downtown Atlanta venue that hosted the biggest stars of Southern wrestling from 1972 up through the mid-90s.
Built as a modern arena for the Atlanta Hawks, The Omni Coliseum began presenting weekly Georgia Championship Wrestling cards in May 1973. In the years that followed, the state-of-the-art auditorium brought in international stars like Andre the Giant, The Funks and Giant Baba. But no matter what big names came to town, the Atlanta fans always remained fiercely loyal to their hometown favorites.
“Back then, the fans in Georgia had an allegiance to the wrestling in Georgia,” Apter explained. “They liked their Georgia Championship Wrestling and they supported everyone from The Fabulous Freebirds to Mr. Wrestling II. History shows that when WWE went into Georgia, the fans reacted negatively.”
As weekly cards gave way to monthly blowout shows in the early ’80s, sellout crowds rocked the 16,000-seat arena as Tommy Rich battled Buzz Sawyer in 1983’s infamous “Last Battle of Atlanta” and Thanksgiving became the most exciting night in Southern wrestling. When The Omni was torn down in July 1997, a major piece of sports-entertainment history went with it. — R.M.
Mid-South Coliseum — Memphis, Tenn.
“The Mid-South Coliseum is the house that Jerry Lawler built,” Michael “P.S.” Hayes said of the famed Memphis, Tenn., arena that “The King” headlined every Monday night for much of the 1970s and ’80s.
The people of River City — long devoid of a professional sports team — looked to the furry chested former radio DJ with a quick tongue and a lethal piledriver as their local hero. Each week, rows of Cadillacs and rusty pickups filled the parking lot of the Mid-South Coliseum as Tennesseans turned out by the thousands to see Lawler battle his latest rival. Whether he was defending his turf against Randy Savage in a “Loser Leaves Town” Match or sending comedian Andy Kaufman back to Hollywood in an ambulance, “The King” always made sure his loyal fans got a good show to start their week.
The Mid-South Coliseum hosted concerts by The Beatles, Bob Dylan and The Who long before it was closed down in 2006, but it will long be remembered as the building where a funny kid from Memphis became “The King.” — R.M.
Kiel Auditorium — St. Louis
It’s gone now, but before the Kiel Auditorium was demolished in 1991 to make way for the Scottrade Center, it served as the home of the National Wrestling Alliance when that organization was at the height of its power.
“It was a special place to work, because you had to be somebody to be there,” two-time WWE Hall of Famer Ric Flair said of the arena where he once wrestled Bruiser Brody to a one-hour time limit draw.
It would be hard to dispute The Nature Boy’s claim. A quick review of the list of classic Superstars who competed for the esteemed “St. Louis Wrestling Club” reveals Harley Race, Lou Thesz and hundreds of other grapplers who stand out as vital pieces of the sports-entertainment puzzle.
The Kiel was the site of a number of major NWA Title changes, including Gene Kiniski’s dethroning of Thesz in January 1966 and Race’s final championship victory over Flair in June 1983. The arena was closed not long after hosting Starrcade 1990, but The Nature Boy summed up its lasting impact like this: “It was one of the best wrestling arenas anywhere in the country.” — R.M.
Greensboro Coliseum — Greensboro, N.C.
Whether the crowds were there to see Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling, Jim Crockett Promotions or WCW, there may not have been a more passionate fan base than the thousands that packed the Greensboro Coliseum every month to cheer on Dusty Rhodes, Magnum TA and scores of other heroes.
The North Carolina venue didn’t have the pomp and circumstance that came with the bright lights of New York City’s Madison Square Garden, but it did have loyal fans that showed up every month and screamed their lungs out. Whether The Italian Stallion or Ric Flair was in the ring, the raucous crowd made every match sound like a WrestleMania main event.
Greensboro got rewarded for its passion. When the National Wrestling Alliance decided to launch its premier event, Starrcade, in 1983, the choice for host venue was easy. The first four Starrcades all took place in Greensboro, cementing The Gate City’s place in sports-entertainment history. — BOBBY MELOK
Madison Square Garden — New York City
There are arenas and then there is Madison Square Garden.
Always considered to be the unofficial “franchise home” of WWE, the sports and entertainment venue in New York City was the site of the birthplace of WrestleMania, the dawn of Hulkamania and “Stone Cold” Steve Austin’s first Stunner to Mr. McMahon. Currently in its fourth incarnation, “The World’s Most Famous Arena” has always had a certain aura and mystique about it — every competitor who ever stepped through the ropes has aspired to compete in the Garden.
With the ardent and passionate support of the New York area fans, the landmark has yielded countless magical and memorable moments that have lasted a lifetime. Bruno Sammartino sold out the Garden an untouchable 187 times during his career and the likes of Bob Backlund, Bret Hart and CM Punk all began historic WWE Title reigns in the arena. From the first WWE Championship change in 1963 to the debut of The Rock in 1996, Madison Square Garden remains the most important location in the history of the sports-entertainment industry. — HOWARD FINKEL