The 2016 Scenic City Invitational (sponsored by Wrestling With Words!) has attracted the attention of wrestling fans, pundits and insiders alike in its second year of existence. Through the power of social media, awareness of the event has expanded far beyond the borders of the greater Chattanooga area (“the Scenic City” being the official nickname for Chattanooga; now you know where the name came from!) Fans are travelling from across the country, and even from Canada, to attend the event. Some are coming in early and/or staying an extra day to catch other wrestling cards in the area, most notably Atlanta Wrestling Entertainment’s Season 3 Premiere on Sunday August 7th and the WWA4 card on Thursday August 4th. As a member of the booking team for the tournament this year, I can’t tell you how excited I am to see so many people talking about the SCI, and it’s mind-boggling to think how many people are coming from great distances to see our “lil rasslin show”.
This is nothing new for wrestling. Fans from all over the world flock to WrestleMania every year, with many of them also attending numerous independent events and conventions being held nearby. Every weekend, fans are travelling long distances to attend cards from their favorite promotions, be it PWG, AIW, Evolve, NXT or any number of “super-indie” promotions. In fact, the very same weekend as the SCI there will be a fanfest in Charlotte hosted by NWALegends.com honoring the legends of the Mid-Atlantic region.
So how did this all begin? My research uncovered fan gatherings dating back to the first Wrestling Fans International Association convention in 1969 in Pittsburgh. Interestingly enough, Bruno Sammartino, promoter of the wrestling event that evening, told his wrestlers not to attend the convention, and only Killer Kowalski and announcer Bill Cardille were present. But if we’re looking for the first fan convention to be organized via the Internet, I’ve got three letters for you … ECW. When I first discovered the rec.sport.pro-wrestling forums back in 1993, ECW was talked about frequently by posters to the forum. People like Dave Scherer and Jeffrey Amdur would post recaps of the live events they attended, and the promotion grew a cult following that allowed them to expand into new markets.
An “Internet wrestling fan convention” was organized for the weekend of July 1st, with a card that night at the ECW Arena and the night before in Jim Thorpe, PA. At the time, I had worked for a local independent promotion in western North Carolina as timekeeper, but was a little under two months away from making my debut as a pro wrestling manager. I decided to attend the ECW convention, and drove to Pennsylvania with New Frontier Wrestling Alliance (which was the precursor to OMEGA Wrestling) announcer Ted Hobgood. A bus was chartered to take fans to Jim Thorpe for the Friday night event (which featured a title change, as Raven & Stevie Richards beat The Public Enemy to win the ECW Tag Team titles). My memory is a bit hazy, but I believe at one point the bus actually got stuck trying to drive up a very steep hill leading to the venue. Other recollections have Rocco Rock & Johnny Grunge, who were riding with the ring truck, stopping to talk to us before the bus was able to continue on. Ted had brought some videos of NFWA shows to play during the bus ride, which was probably the first exposure to Matt & Jeff Hardy for many fans outside their handful of appearances in squash matches on WWF programming.
Prior to the event the next night at the Arena, a Q & A session was held in the afternoon at the hotel. Weeks prior to the convention, in a chat on the online service Prodigy, Woman (Nancy Benoit) had requested that fans bring t-shirts from their hometowns. I dutifully purchased an “Asheville NC” shirt and presented it to her during the Q & A. Months later during another online chat, I asked her if she still had it. She responded with “of course I do, I slept in it last night”. Now, I’m pretty sure she was ribbing me (okay, TOTALLY sure), but 24-year old me was oh-so-smitten at the thought of her sleeping in the shirt I gave to her.
I met a lot of people who, up to that point in time, I had only conversed with via a keyboard and computer monitor. While that is pretty common nowadays, in 1995 it was still very new. I remember a guy named Larry, who I think was from Chicago, picking up the blood-and-broken-glass-covered hand wraps off the ground after Ian Rotten and Axl Rotten faced off in a Taipei death match. He intended to take them home as a souvenir. However, he left the wraps in the hotel room when he checked out! Can you imagine the poor hotel maid discovering those and wondering what may have happened in that room? Or the phone call Larry made to the hotel asking them if they kept them? I never found out if he did get them back.
Interestingly enough, my memories are more of people I met and specific incidents than the matches themselves. At the hotel, Ian Rotten overheard me mention Buddy Landel (who was working for the local indie I was timekeeper for) and proceeded to cut a long shoot promo on Buddy and on me for bringing up his name. I had to go online to find complete results from the ECW Arena card, remembering only the aforementioned Taipei death match and the debut of the Dudleys (not Buh Buh Ray & D-Von, the first incarnation with Dudley Dudley & Snot Dudley) vs The Pitbulls. But I’ll never forget the excitement of driving hours and hours to attend a wrestling card and meeting people from around the world (including Japanese super-fan Hisaharu Tanabe and so many others).
I really hope that the folks who come to the Scenic City Invitational this year go home with similar memories. They’re definitely going to get 2 (or more, if they go to WWA4 and/or AWE) great nights of wrestling action, but hopefully they leave with a lot more than that.