This is the third installment of a four-part series on The History of Empire State Wrestling. Here is Empire State Wrestling Part III.
Mid-way through 2009 proved to be another watershed mark in Empire State Wrestling’s history. This is where we begin Empire State Wrestling Part III. After terminating their relationship with Next Era Wrestling, Mednik and Puma were able to reincarnate the name that they and the rest of the ESW core kept alive in spirit over these last several years: Empire State Wrestling officially returned.
The Brand is Back
Although the Empire State Wrestling brand was resurrected, Mednik did not yet secure the required promoter’s license needed to run events in New York. The first show back titled “Overdrive” on September 19, 2009, under the ESW banner was run in conjunction with Pier 6 Wrestling (P6W), a Rochester, N.Y. based promotion, at the St. Johnsburg Fire Hall in North Tonawanda, N.Y.
Outside the exit of a few of NEW’s main staples, most of the roster remained intact for this show. A few adjustments were made to some of the story-lines but the Tag Team Title Tournament continued and Kevin Grace remained the heavyweight champion albeit now for ESW and not NEW Niagara.
The main event proved to be one of the most noteworthy in ESW history. Chris Cooper and Will Calrissian (then known as Famous) were supposed to face Brandon Thurston and Mike Radski in the finals, but Thurston and Radski were ruled unable to compete by the doctor. This introduced new ESW Commissioner Jimmy Olson to the promotion who ordered Famous to face the team of Puma and Grace for the titles. Famous was victorious and became the new ESW Tag Team Champions. However, Calrissian suffered a fractured skull late in the match and needed to be hospitalized.
This would be the only ESW event ran with Pier 6 Wrestling as P6W’s owner decided not to renew his license. For the next event held on December 5, 2009, called “Unbreakable”, ESW partnered with Maximum Force Wrestling (MFW) – a promotion based primarily in the Southern Tier of Western New York. MFW promoter Warpath teamed with local radio personality and comedian Josh Potter to defeat “The Asian Nightmare” Kwan Chang and Mednik.
A Heartfelt Promo
Calrissian cut a heartfelt promo midway through the night in regards to his injury and left his boots in the ring indicating he may be retiring from wrestling. This proved to be untrue after Puma beat Cooper in a No Disqualification Match in the main event. Calrissian came out to stop Cooper who attacked Puma after the match but swerved the fans and then joined in on the beat down. This prompted Thurston and Radski to come out and save Puma.
The Famous-Thurston/Radski feud continued into 2010 with Thurston and Radski eventually winning the tag team belts at “Reckoning Day” on February 27. Around this time, Grace also worked a program with the returning Ryot before dropping the ESW Heavyweight Championship to Cooper at “Aftershock” on April 10.
ESW’s next event was it’s first under its own name at the Kenan Center in Lockport, N.Y. “Wrestlebash” drew one of the largest crowds for a locally-produced independent wrestling event at the time, with close to 550 fans in attendance. This audience witnessed the crowning of “Inferno” Johnny Adams as the new Interstate Champion after winning a battle royal, a four-star match between Grace and Gabreal Saint (now known as Kamryn Blaque), and World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) Hall of Famer Brutus Beefcake beating Calrissian and shaving Calrissian’s mullet.
The main event featured Cooper versus Puma for the ESW Heavyweight title in ESW’s first-ever cage match. Despite hitting a “Superfly” splash from the top of the cage, Puma was unable to best Cooper who scored the victory.
Empire State Wrestling Part III
The Cage Match Effect
“The cage match with Cooper was a blast,” Puma said. “Not only because of the spectacle and the match but it also gave me a chance to emulate my childhood hero Jimmy Snuka by doing the splash off the top of the cage. It was at that time I actually started thinking about retiring. I had done everything and more than I expected to do with wrestling.”
Cooper held onto the title throughout the rest of the year, with victories against Grace and Thurston. Cooper also held half the tag titles with Calrissian after being awarded the belts due to Thurston and Radski being unable to defend them. Famous dropped the belts in September through to the newly formed tag team of Pepper Parks and Grace.
Adams began a winning streak during this time as he defended his title. He scored wins over Chance Taylor, Freddie Midnight (by disqualification after being attacked by Barry Hardy) and Danny Danger.
Empire State Wrestling Part III
The titleholders held onto their belts throughout the beginning of 2011. Adams’s win streak ended on April 15 when he unsuccessfully challenged Cooper at Cardinal O’Hara High School in Tonawanda, N.Y. On the same show, Saint defeated former WWE star Nunzio and Thurston beat current WWE star Luke Harper (then known as Brodie Lee) in the main event.
The Cardinal O’Hara event also consisted of one of ESW’s most tragic incidents. While competing in a rumble match, Patrick Poison suffered a severe back injury attempting a high-risk maneuver from the top rope. Sadly, Poison’s injury was life-changing and he never returned to the ring.
Empire State Wrestling Part III
Fully Licensed, Bonded & Insured
ESW’s next show on June 4 proved to be a memorable event for multiple reasons. “Meltdown” became the first event in over 5 years in which an ESW branded event was run fully independent of any partnerships without an outside promotion. Creative differences between ESW and MFW management led to Mednik acquiring a promoter’s license in his name. Thus, ESW no longer required the yoke of New York State licensed promoter from outside its core group.
Other milestones occurred at this event. Thurston’s good fortunes continued at ESW’s at Meltdown as he defeated Cooper to win his first ESW Heavyweight Championship. Another title change occurred when The Rochester Wrecking Crew (Hellcat and Rob Sweet) won the ESW Tag Team Championships in a triple threat match versus Parks and Grace and The Peacock Experience (Calrissian and current Ring of Honor star Dalton Castle). After the match, Grace shockingly turned on Parks.
Empire State Wrestling ( for part III) returned to the Kenan Center on September 24. Adams dropped the Interstate title to Saint, who he worked a program with over the last few months. Saint’s new valet, Lady Lala, caused a distraction allowing Saint to hit Adams with a chair. Grace beat Parks and current WWE NXT star Robbie Strauss in a triple threat match to become the No. 1 contender for the ESW Heavyweight title and WWE Hall of Famer Sargent Slaughter and Mednik beat the Celtic Crusade (Mr. McKinger and the McCloud Brothers). In the main event, Thurston beat Puma in a “regain or retire” match which resulted in Puma retiring from wrestling. Shortly after this show, Puma would assume the Empire State Wrestling Commissioner role.
“(I am) very proud of my retirement match due to the fact that Brandon and I were able to put on a match with a little bit of everything along with a lot of drama,” Puma said. “Believe it or not, I actually did think it was the end. At least I lasted over a year before I came back.”
Rounding out the last two events of the year, Thurston beat Grace in singles action in November and then Grace and Parks in a triple threat match to retain the title in December. Also in December, the Rochester Wrecking Crew retained the tag titles against Ron Falco and Bill Collier, while Saint bested James Santel to retain the Interstate Championship.
2012 began with the crowning of a new ESW Heavyweight Champion. At Reckoning Day on January 21, Thurston dropped the title to the undefeated Asylum who was under the guidance of Brother Christianson. After successfully defending the championship against Parks, Asylum yielded the belt back to Thurston in the main event of “Brawlfest” on April 13 at ESW’s debut at the Northtown Center in Amherst, N.Y.
This Brawlfest also featured multiple ex-WWE stars for the first time on an ESW event. Adams defeated Jerry Lynn, while “Bad Ass” Billy Gunn beat Kevin Grace who retired afterward. The Peacock Experience and Koko B. Ware teamed up for a victory of the Rochester Wrecking Crew and Bill Collier.
Empire State Wrestling Part III
Return to the Kenan Center
After a slew of shows at the St. Johnsburg, ESW made its return to the Kenan Center on October 6 in a major way. That year’s “Wrestlebash” event set a new attendance record for the promotion, bringing in an audience of around 700 fans. The matches featuring ex-WWE stars were “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan and Adams beating Barry and Brian Hardy as well as Parks defeating Matt Hardy.
Other matches of note include the Peacock Experience beating the Rochester Wrecking Crew in a cage match to become the new ESW Tag Team Champions. Saint retained the Interstate belt against Coconut Jones. Ryot beat Damien Alexander in a casket match. Thurston lost the ESW Heavyweight Championship to Blackjack Phoenix in a No Disqualification match.
ESW’s last event of the year was on December 8 at St. Johnsburg for “Holiday Havoc”. The card featured two rematches from the last show as Phoenix retained the title against Thurston and The Peacock Experience also retained versus the Rochester Wrecking Crew. After over a year-long reign, Saint dropped the Interstate Championship to Kevin Bennett that night.
“Winning the Interstate Title was a huge milestone for me,” Bennett said. “I was just a young kid at the time and maybe weighed 150 lbs. soaking wet. Despite my lack of size, my determination and consistency went unnoticed. The feeling I had winning my first ESW championship was a feeling like no other. That title win showed me that my dreams were coming true. As a kid, I envisioned myself winning an ESW championship when I used to attend the shows as a fan. Experiencing the reality of it is almost difficult to put into words.”
Bennett recollects fondly on how his fellow wrestlers reacted once he came backstage after his title win.
“I remember going backstage and walking into a locker room applause,” he said. “Everybody was congratulating me, telling me how deserving I was. I will never forget what my opponent Kamryn Blaque said to me. ‘I’ve passed on the torch. 17 minutes, bro. We did the damn thing. It’s, in my opinion, it was the match of the night. You did a great job and I am confident I passed the title to the right guy. Thank you for your hard work.’”
Blackjack held the title for the first half of 2013, including scoring a pair of victories over Collier, before Cooper beat him for the belt in June. Bennett started off the year by beating Saint in a rematch in January, and then former Interstate Champion Adams by disqualification at the next show after Saint interfered. This setup a ladder match between the three at April’s Brawlfest event at the Kenan Center in which Bennett retained. The Peacock Experience beat Order & Justice (Pete D. Order and Dick Justice) in January before dropping the titles to The Flatliners (Asylum and Burns) in June.
All titleholders retained their championships throughout the rest of 2013. Cooper beat Bennett in August then retained his belt in a pair of matches against Parks. Bennett successfully defended the Interstate strap against Colin Delaney at Wrestlebash in November at the Kenan Center. The Flatliners beat the Caribbean Connection (Coconut Jones and Maximo Suave) in September and The Colony at Wrestlebash.
That year’s Wrestlebash once again drew an immense amount of fans for a Western New York independent wrestling event. Nearly 900 fans packed in the Kenan Center. The show was headlined by Kevin Nash. Nash came out at the end to confront The Caesar and subsequently chokeslam him. The confrontation occurred after the main event match featuring Gene Snitsky, Calrissian, and Yuri Koloff beating Castle, Frankie Feathers, and Phoenix.
Empire State Wrestling Part III
DiPaolo Cup Memorial Match
Another important match to note was the first Ilio DiPaolo Cup Memorial Cup match. The winner of the 6-way elimination bout receives the DiPaolo Cup (named after one of the most famous wrestlers in Western New York history) and utilizes the cup-like WWE’s Money in the Bank suitcase. The winner can “cash in” the trophy for a chance at the ESW Heavyweight Championship at any desired time.
Current All-Elite Wrestling star Trent Barretta won the first DiPaolo Cup match. He outlasted current NXT star Johnny Gargano, R.J. City, Thurston, Adams, and Saint. This match also started the tradition of featuring a mix of ESW regulars and nationally-renown independent stars.
In the final notes for Empire State Wrestling Part III, we discuss the DiPaolo match’s effect. In a way, the DiPaolo match was the first signal that ESW was progressing into a new era. This new phase would see the promotion turn. They went from emphasizing storylines and characters toward focusing more on athleticism, younger talent, and more. It was a “super indie” style of wrestling. As ESW entered 2014, it also what could be considered its “modern” era. This deviation in ESW’s creative process would also lead to a split among ESW’s leadership in the upcoming years. This was Empire State Wrestling Part III.