Chicago’s wrestling tradition grows even richer with WWE Payback
Chicago will make sports-entertainment history on Sunday, June 16, when WWE Payback debuts from the Allstate Arena, and as any astute member of the WWE Universe knows, there is nary a better place to host an inaugural pay-per-view event than The Windy City.
The squared circle is as much a part of Chicago’s DNA as the Daley family, blistery conditions and Vienna Beef hot dogs (untainted by ketchup, naturally).
With one of The Second City’s favorite sons, CM Punk, making his in-ring return against Chris Jericho on June 16, the timing and location of WWE Payback seem almost too good to be true for Punk loyalists. Yet, the arrangement is one that stands to benefit WWE Universe at large, too, thanks to Chicago’s famously boisterous atmosphere, which always seems to bring out the best in Superstars and Divas.
“There’s only a handful of cities where it’s great to work every time and Chicago’s one of them,” said the normally hard-to-impress World Heavyweight Champion, Dolph Ziggler. It is not yet known whether The Showoff — who is still recovering from a concussion suffered in May — will be cleared to compete in time for WWE Payback, but that didn’t stop him from explaining the unmistakable charm of Chicago’s passionate, albeit demanding, fan base.
“It’s like a New York crowd, where you get cheers for ‘bad guys,’ sometimes, but there’s such a good crowd that it’s so fun to perform there,” he said. “I always have a blast.”
Vocal though they may be, the Chicago faithful are not always the most hospitable spectators. It’s well-documented that Chi-Town is home to some of the world’s most diehard sports enthusiasts, as well as some of the most unforgiving, as Cubs fan Steve Bartman found out the hard way when he errantly reached over Wrigley Field’s left field wall in 2003.
“Chicago, in general, is a great sports city, and they have their own identity as fans,” said Brodus Clay, who remembers watching The Road Warriors tear opponents apart in their specialty match of choice, the Chicago Street Fight. “It’s basically a home-field advantage for you if you’re loved by Chicago. If you’re not loved by Chicago, you’re going to know it.”
It was also in Chicago that Dick the Bruiser & The Crusher ran roughshod over competition. The brawlers spent their free time tossing "dem bums" out of saloons on Halsted Street, the same north-south boulevard that One Man Gang called home.
“Chicago is synonymous with ‘tough’ and I think the fans there expect Superstars to be tough,” Matt Striker said.
Over the course of its more than century-long love affair with wrestling, fans in The Second City have developed particularly discerning tastes and dauntingly high standards for in-ring action.
In turn, it may came as no surprise that Chicago has been the site of more than a couple epic clashes: Bret “Hit Man” Hart vs. “Stone Cold” Steve Austin’s Submission Match at WrestleMania 13; the first match in Ricky Steamboat and Ric Flair’s three-bout series in 1989 (and, five years later, another Steamboat-Flair duel at WCW Spring Stampede 1994); and perhaps most famously, CM Punk’s WWE Title win over John Cena at Money in the Bank 2011, after which The Second City Superstar absconded with the championship through the Allstate Arena crowd.
Of the many dream matchups that have taken place in the Chicago area, Flair vs. Steamboat at Chi-Town Rumble 1989 takes the cake in the World Heavyweight Champion’s eyes.
“The crowd really gets behind Steamboat, and Flair is just an awesome general and the crowd was so great in that match, like Chicago always is,” explained The Showoff. “It’s just a great town to have an event, especially sports-entertainment-wise, and for that match to be for the [NWA] World Championship and for Steamboat to get revenge at the end with a rollup out of the Figure-Four ... it was awesome.”
Loud, responsive and unyieldingly loyal to their favorites, Chicago fans are held in rarified air by many inside the WWE locker room.
“The people are very appreciative — electric, almost,” Curt Hawkins commented. “I remember going there my first time and thinking, ‘Wow, it’s cool. This lives up to the hype.’ They’re rabid wrestling fans and excited to be at the show.”
That bodes well for June 16, when WWE Payback debuts in a city that's used to breaking new ground. WWE’s first pay-per-view, The Wrestling Classic, was held in the Rosemont Horizon, now known as Allstate Arena. (The building, which many still refer to by its former name, is technically located in Rosemont, Ill., a village that neighbors O'Hare International.) When Jim Crockett Promotions was looking to bring its annual mega-event, Starrcade, outside its home base for the first time, it was The Windy City that won hosting rights.
“Chicago is richly steeped in great history and magical moments,” explained Striker, before making a declaration that’s sure to ruffle the feathers of his fellow New Yorkers. “Everyone says New York fans are the best and the craziest, and I hate to upset my brethren, but Chicago is the epitome of a wrestling town.”