A Brief History of: Empire State Wrestling Part II

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Photo / Robbie Sutter

This is the second of a three-part series on “A Brief History of Empire State Wrestling”. Part one of a brief history of Empire State Wrestling could be read here.

Through the first several years since its inception, Empire State Wrestling (ESW) exhibited substantial growth among its fan base. However, whatever progress the relatively young promotion incurred did not prove to be enough for its owner, Ray Erway, to remain involved with ESW.

During the beginning months of 2006, Erway disassociated himself with ESW. Although the exact reasons why made that decision remain unclear, the tension was building between him and the regular roster. This was caused by Erway’s management and perception of favoritism toward certain wrestlers and unwelcome influence on the booking. These factors contributed to damaging morale. Yet, despite Erway’s disappearance, a core group of wrestlers remained determined to keep ESW’s spirit alive. Members of the roster such as Jonny Puma, “Mastiff” Will Calrissian, Brandon Thurston and Brett Mednik collaborated to determine how to keep the momentum ESW built up going.

Enter Hellcat who was then the promoter of National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) Upstate (now known as Upstate Professional Wrestling) based in Rochester, N.Y. Hellcat started working for ESW in 2005 as a manager and then an authority figure. ESW and NWA Upstate began a cross-promotional feud in the summer of 2005 that ran through the final ESW show in the Erway era in February 2006.

With essentially an “in-house” replacement on hand, the core roster members eventually decided to work with Hellcat to continue promoting independent professional wrestling in the Niagara County area of Western New York. This led to the creation of the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) Empire which basically absorbed ESW. This included NWA Empire annexing ESW’s ring.

The NWA Era

Graphic Credit: Online World of Wrestling

On April 29, 2006, NWA Empire held its first event, at the Eldridge Bicycle Club in Tonawanda, N.Y., called “When Worlds Collide”. The inaugural event included many of ESW’s main fixtures squaring off against talent from the NWA Upstate brand. It also featured a former World Wrestling Entertainment star for the first time in ESW’s stomping grounds when “Grandmaster Sexay” Brian Christopher faced Puma. The main event consisted of future WWE star Brodie Lee (now Luke Harper) successfully defending the Upstate Heavyweight Championship against Mastiff.

The next show in June, also held at the Eldridge Bicycle Club, saw the start of a tournament to crown the first ever NWA Empire Heavyweight Champion. The third show in September was the first held at the St. Johnsburg Fire Hall under the NWA Empire banner, where the heavyweight title tournament continued and, separately, Mastiff was crowned the first NWA Empire Lord of the Dance Champion (a title that was defended strictly in multi-person matches) after defeating Chris Cooper and Damien Alexander in a triple threat match.

At NWA Empire’s November 2006 event, Hellcat defeated ex-Ring of Honor star Kevin Dunn of the Ring Crew Express to become the first NWA Empire Heavyweight Champion. The team of Rhythm & Booze (Buddy Delmar and Frank the Tank) defeated Wrestling Inc. (consisting of Benjamin Smythe and Thurston) to become the inaugural NWA Empire Tag Team Champions, as well.

The next few shows continued to see a mix of the established core ESW roster and wrestlers from NWA Upstate, as well as an influx of independent wrestling from outside of the Western New York area. “Fabulous” John McChesney from Erie, Penn., Sterling James Keenan (now WWE’s Corey Graves) and Heartland Wrestling Alliance products Brian Jennings and Pepper Parks all made appearances.

Of all these talents, Parks made the biggest impact as he captured the NWA Empire Heavyweight title from Lee at NWA Empire’s One Year Anniversary Show on May 19, 2007. Lee won the belt from Hellcat earlier that night after Hellcat laid down without a fight. Also that night, eventual WWE star Colin Olsen (now Colin Delaney) beat Mastiff and Alexander in a triple threat match for the Lord of the Dance title.

The next event featured one of the biggest matches ever held at St. Johnsburg Fire Hall. On July 21, 2007, at “Red, White & Bruised”, a quarterfinal match for the NWA Heavyweight Championship was held with “American Dragon” Bryan Danielson (now WWE’s Daniel Bryan) besting Fergal Devitt (now WWE’s Finn Balor).

You can watch that match here:

 

During the last two shows of 2007, Rhythm & Booze dropped the tag titles to Kyle and Evan McCloud, and Parks began a feud with Puma. The latter’s feud culminated at NWA Empire’s first show of 2008, Blizzards & Brainbusters, at which Puma won the NWA Empire Heavyweight Title belt in a no disqualification match with help from Cooper and Ice.

“Pepper was amazing to work with,” Puma said. “It seemed we were always working each other in at least four different promotions for a couple of years. I was a bit intimidated at first (back when he had the long, wet hair and a huge ‘mid-2000 indie guy’ look). Then before our first match, he leaned into me and asked, “Do like comedy spots?” Next thing you know, we had a road-cone-up-my-butt spot. I love him.”

Also at Blizzards & Brainbusters, Olsen forfeited the Lord of the Dance belt due to his WWE obligations, leading to Stargazer (Hellcat wrestling under a mask) becoming the new champion after beating Super Assassin and Gabe Saint in a triple threat bout.

Throughout the rest of 2008, Puma defeated multiple challengers for the heavyweight title before dropping it to Colin Delaney after his stint with WWE ended. The tag team titles swapped multiple times when the McCloud Brothers dropped the championship to the Ring Crew Express who lost them to Dos Blancos Chicos (El Hijo de Stargazer and Stargazer Jr.). Later, Mean Marcos of the Ring Crew Express and Delaney won the titles after beating Hellcat and Cloudy (who were Dos Blancos Chicos under masks). The Lord of the Dance Championship was vacant until Kevin Grace beat Saint and Zak Atticus for it in August. Grace dropped that belt to “Inferno” Johnny Adams in a triple threat match in December that also featured Tommy Mandrake.

By the end of 2008, change was back in the wind for the old ESW crew. The core group that stuck together after Erway left the scene was looking for another fresh start.  NWA Empire’s event attendance during this time declined. Relations with Hellcat became strained over his leadership style, booking decisions and lack of pay to wrestlers.

“Morale, especially towards the end in NWA Empire, was low for most of the Buffalo wrestlers,” Thurston said. “We often didn’t know what our matches were until the day of the show. We were put in a lot of multi-person matches: scrambles, gauntlet matches. There were barely any storylines that involved the Buffalo wrestlers. At the same time, we were blamed for low attendance because we didn’t make enough direct ticket sales to friends and family.”

Earlier in 2008, Mednik had a falling-out with Hellcat and was no longer a part of the NWA Empire before the end of the year. After his departure, Mednik worked with Thurston and others on a plan to retake the “Niagara County territory”. Puma was brought on as the booker and locker room leader: roles he held when ESW’s morale was at its highest. The former ESW talents were eager, optimistic and more loyal to Puma than Hellcat.

“Puma had a good relationship with most or all of the Buffalo wrestlers and he was the booker in the original run of Empire State Wrestling, which was known for storylines that a lot of thought was put into,” Thurston said. “I’ve learned that leaders that people want to follow don’t need to blame people or make people afraid. Good leaders have a vision and have values that people believe in, and then the only thing that people should fear is disappointing the team around them.”

Around this time, the ex-ESW core began to inquire on how to run New York State Athletic Commission sanctioned wrestling events and Mednik also bought a wrestling ring (which is still the one used by ESW to this day).

As 2009 began, the former ESW core officially brought in new partners, Next Era Wrestling (NEW), which was also based in Rochester.

The NEW Era

Mednik became connected with NEW after wrestling on shows for various other promotions that were running in Western New York throughout 2008. He concluded that collaborating with NEW would be the best fit due to its proximity to the Buffalo-Niagara area and the company’s experience running events. Puma was also heavily involved in the transition as he was the last of ESW’s original leaders that were still associated with this coalition of Empire State Wrestling.

In June 2008, Mednik helped NEW run at the Kenan Center in Lockport, N.Y. This served as a test run of sorts on how Mednik could operate a show with himself at the helm. This was also the first of many “super shows” to run at the Kenan Center over the years that would typically be headlined by notable wrestling legends.

The vast bulk of the roster on this show consisted of NEW’s Rochester talent plus a few stalwarts from the original ESW days such as the Davidsons, Marc Mandrake and Ryot. Former ROH Tag Team Champion H.C. Loc was also booked as well as WWE Hall of Famer “Superfly” Jimmy Snuka.

NEW held another Kenan Center event in November 2008. This time, it was headlined by WWE Hall of Famer the Honky Tonk Man and ex-WWE star Virgil. Also of note, a strong influx of the core ESW crew worked this event. This included ESW mainstays like Mastiff, Cooper, and Puma.

Empire State Wrestling
Virgil (left) and the Honky Tonk Man (right) share smiles at a wrestling event in Lockport, N.Y. in November 2008. Photo Credit: Lockport Union-Sun & Journal

The shows were deemed successes. The draws were some of the highest any independent wrestling promotion ever achieved at the time. Mednik, Puma and NEW decided to move forward and book more regular events at smaller venues and officially form a new brand. This is how NEW Niagara was born. Although NWA Empire continued to run events at this time, the heart of ESW’s spirit jumped to the newly created endeavor.

The first NEW Niagara show was held on January 31, 2009, at The Meeting Place in Wheatfield, N.Y. The date was selected as the next NWA Empire event was booked for February. Puma advocated for the inaugural show to happen the month before so that anyone that wanted to join NEW Niagara could do so before NWA Empire’s next event. Due to the wrestling political landscape in the Buffalo, N.Y. area at this time, wrestlers could only work for one of the companies in the area and not others. The majority of the roster were ESW classics such as Puma, Mastiff, Cooper, Thurston, and Grace. It was supplemented with NEW talent like Kryptic Keegan and “The Grand Pumpkin” Johnny Swift.

“I did love those early NEW days,” Puma said. “We all had fun we all helped each other. There were so many great storylines, promos, and characters to work with such as Caesar’s Legion starting during that era.”

Through the Spring of 2009, NEW Niagara continued to run at The Meeting Place and St. Matthew’s Lutheran School in North Tonawanda, N.Y. During this time-frame, Grace became the NEW Niagara Heavyweight Champion after beating Puma, Mastiff, and Cooper in a four-way match. The bout was set up after the wrestlers were the final four combatants at the conclusion of a rumble match earlier in the night.

“I was extremely proud of the show with the rumble to determine the final four,” Puma said. “The show flowed from start to finish with so many moments and payoffs to our loyal fans.”

It wasn’t until June 2009 that NEW Niagara ran at the St. Johnsburg Fire Hall. This was due to NWA Empire continuing to run there through the beginning of the year until NWA Upstate re-branded to NWA New York and returned to running predominantly in the Rochester area.

However, NEW’s history in the Niagara region ended relatively quickly. The last NEW Niagara show in the spirit of ESW ran on August 2, 2009, at The Meeting Place. A tag team tournament began that day to crown NEW Niagara-branded Tag Team Champions, but that would change soon.

Issues over creative direction and event operations led to NEW splitting from the ESW core. NEW Niagara continued for a few months under NEW’s Rochester-based leadership in the first half of 2010 before withdrawing from the Niagara region. Meanwhile, Mednik and Puma picked up the pieces once again and reestablished something that did not exist in name, but certainly still permeated in spirit over these last few years. They officially brought back the Empire State Wrestling brand.

Stay tuned for the third and final part of a brief history of Empire State Wrestling.