wrestling / Columns

Going Broadway 05.29.12 The Curious, Short History of The Empty Arena Match

May 29, 2012 | Posted by William Renken

Gimmick matches have been a part of wrestling as long as faces and heels and have provided high points for any extended feud. The Steel Cage is the classic rendition of the gimmick match with all of its innovations and renovations over the years. The Street Fight, you see that one a lot too, even though it’s sometimes individualized by geographic location. ( A Funkin’ Amazing Feud: The Jerry Lawler vs. Terry Funk rivalry in Memphis, most feuds with the Funks at the time would involve first Dory Jr. entering a territory and putting over the local main evener to build anticipation for a match with Terry for the World Title. In Memphis, this just happened to be Lawler.

When Lawler defeated Dory Jr., he became the number one contender to Terry’s World strap and the two would battle throughout the late 70’s, even going through a Texas Death Match in their feud for the World Title. Lawler appeared to have the belt won in their bout following the Texas Death Match, but the decision was reversed to Funk via disqualification. (This, of course, did not stop Lawler from taking a picture with himself with the NWA belt after the match before Funk could get back to the locker room.)

A broken leg, however, took Lawler out of action until 1981, where he came back as a face in Memphis, battling former manager Jimmy Hart since Hart had referred to his former client as “a horse that needed to be put out to pasture” after his leg injury. Hart would put up bounties for heels to come into the territory to take Lawler out of action. One of Hart’s bounty hunters ended up being Terry Funk, now strapless, but eager to mix it up with Lawler again.

A very bloody bout ensued with Lawler prevailing over Funk via count out when Funk could not return to the ring after repeated chair shots to the leg. Enraged by the loss, Funk would appear in Memphis a couple of weeks later to challenge Lawler to a fight in the empty Mid South Colosseum. You want a hell of a promo, this is it.

Now, to get the full experience of this encounter between Lawler and Funk, you first have to go to Lance Russell’s pre-fight commentary with him first Russell lighting up a cigarette and wondering if either man is going to show. As far as commentators go in wrestling, Russell is supremely underrated and never given enough credit for being one of the best in the business. He takes Funk’s abuse when he arrives first, still claiming some kind of a fix is in in Memphis. But again, Russell sells everything so legitimately, you forget sometimes, even its just temporary, that it’s all a work.

Lawler’s entrance in his full King garb is hysterical for Funk’s instant ridicule, and it’s justified. Lawler looks terrible showing up to a fight like this. The match quickly disintegrates into a brawl onto the outside with the arena chairs getting tossed about. Funk scores a piledriver on the outside that doesn’t look terrific, but Lawler sells it nevertheless.

Eventually, Funk breaks off a shard (similar to Blanchard/Magnum at Starrcade) and goes for an impaling shot to Lawler’s eye that backfires when Lawler kicks Funk’s arm causing the shard to go into Funk’s eye instead. And Funk sells the hell out of it, screaming in absolute pain and horror. It quickly cuts to Russell giving a post match explanation of what happened.

Overall, it’s not much of a match. In fact, you can easily throw it under the bus and call it crap if you’re really critical. But in terms of the storyline and the feud between Lawler and Funk it was great and made for excellent television. And again, a lot of that goes to Russell on commentary.

The Attitude Era was in full swing in the WWE. Stone Cold Steve Austin and Vince McMahon were in the midst of their epic feud as Austin was trying to get back to the WWE Championship after losing it back in the fall of 1998.

Without immediately throwing Austin into a championship match with The Rock, McMahon had Mankind feud with The Rock for the belt, instead, going into the Royal Rumble and St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. Everyone knew Austin and The Rock would eventually lock up at Wrestlemania, but McMahon legitimized the Mankind-Rock feud by having Mankind actually upset The Rock for the WWE Title on Monday Night Raw in early January; a historic moment in the Monday Night Wars with WCW.

After dropping the belt back to The Rock at the 1999 Royal Rumble in an “I Quit” match (where The Rock used a recording of Mankind saying “I quit” to get the victory), Mankind stole a hundred grand of The Rock’s money and used it as leverage to get a rematch for the WWE Title in, you guessed it, an Empty Arena match to be broadcast during the halftime of Super Bowl XXXIII. (Halftime Heat it was to be called.)

Drawing a 6.6 Nielsen rating, the intermission wrestling bout to the Broncos-Falcons game featured not only complete entrances from both wrestlers but a one man commentary by Vince McMahon. Like their Lawler-Funk predecessor, The Rock and Mankind start the match off in the ring but within minutes are on the outside throwing each other into the barricade, the seats, down the stairs, everywhere they can. All the while, McMahon is having a ball on commentary, providing play by play but also completely siding with The Rock’s effort.

The match eventually boils over into the hallways, the catering room, an office (where The Rock takes pause to answer a couple of calls) and finally to the loading dock area, where Mankind finally gets the win after pinning The Rock under a pallet via forklift, becoming a two time WWE champion. (They even have a camera inserted in the pallet when it’s lowered on The Rock.)

Comparing this to Lawler-Funk is like night and day. Easily it is a better match even though it feels more of a Falls Count Anywhere match with the ground it covers throughout the building and the near falls. The Rock is hilarious calling the match himself with each object he throws or hits Mankind with. (Listen for the laughter from the crew when he doesn’t know the fruit he’s hitting Mankind with.)

McMahon’s commentary is interesting because on the one hand he once again demonstrates how able he still was at commentating with his classic strained vocal reactions to certain spots. But what I didn’t realize until re-watching for this piece was how McMahon was truly trying to sell the WWE and the Attitude Era to new fans taking a timeout from the Super Bowl to watch wrestling. Shrewd and well executed.

The finish itself leaves a little to be desired. Mankind pinning The Rock under the pallet still receives a lot of ridicule to this day on many message boards, but it once again kept an interesting secondary main event feud going on while Austin and McMahon were leading the brand.

Mankind throws in a nice call-back to Lawler-Funk back in ’81 when he screams “My eye!” when The Rock throws sauce in his face. A great send up to his good friend and fellow hardcore enthusiast.

In the midst of an NWO-esque takeover angle with the Main Event Mafia, a fissure began to emerge between Sting (the current TNA World Champion) and Kurt Angle.

Their alliance in the stable boiled over during a February episode of Impact where they lost a tag match against Team 3-D. The constant arguing between Sting and Angle finally led to Sting shoving Angle into a roll up for Team 3-D.

Later on that night, they went head to head in the main event of Impact and battled to a no contest. They agreed they needed to settle their differences by showing up to an empty TNA arena the following week.

Just over ten years to the day since Mankind and The Rock had their Empty Arena Match doing the Super Bowl, Sting and Angle showcased their own battle with no audience in the seats.

A key difference right off the bat (in comparing it to Halftime Heat) is the absence of a referee, making it less of a match and more of just a fight and whoever can walk out of the arena under their own power is the the true winner. If only that was this case with this encounter…

Leaning more toward the Lawler-Funk Empty Arena battle rather than Mankind-Rock, Sting and Angle trade many punches and chair shots and even throw each other around for a little while. Angle even takes a fifteen foot spill to the outside that he absolutely no sells and comes back with a trashcan heave at Sting.

The other part of this that has to be mentioned is Angle’s repetition of calling Sting a “son of a bitch” throughout the match. Make a drinking game out of it. It’s hilariously excessive. But for a match that is already half the length of its WWE predecessor, after six minutes, it is interrupted by Kevin Nash and Scott Steiner to break up the fight. A little jarring considering it was understood to be a “score to settle” situation. Angle calls Sting a pussy if he doesn’t hit him with a chair. Nash stops Sting’s swing and he, himself, calls Angle a “son of a bitch” and demands him to “make things right” with Sting.

Of course as Sting and Angle shake hands, the Olympic hero spits in Sting’s face and the brawl kind of resumes until Security (?) appears to break up the remainder of the action. Their subsequent crazed interviews in the back are a farce as they scream about wanting to fight each other again.

Honestly, very sad to watch. Not that anyone would really expect Sting and Angle to do anything extraordinary in a match like this but still it’s a complete waste of time because all it led to was a challenge to a pay per view match. It begs the question of whether or not a promo during Impact could have had the same desired effect.

As I was working on this piece I came across this very well edited WWE DVD-spoof called Silent Pain: The Greatest Empty Arena Matches (kudos to the8bitboy) which hilariously puts into perspective the gilded perception of the Empty Arena Match.

Obviously between the three, the battle between The Rock and Mankind stands out as the most re-watchable and entertaining (although the combination of Lance Russell’s commentary and Terry Funk’s angry disposition make the Memphis encounter very entertaining too), but all three matches suffer the same overall problem: no crowd. And I’m sure from a wrestler’s perspective, the absence of a crowd takes a lot out what you’re trying to do in a wrestling match because there is no one to react to what’s going on, and thus you can’t feed off of that energy.

The overall solution is to just stick to Falls Count Anywhere matches. It’s the same concept, just adding the crowd back in. Hopefully, as big as nostalgia and bringing back the past is in wrestling, the Empty Arena Match will stay confined to its narrow and short sided history.

Bonus Match: I found this later on after I was done. About a year after his battle with Lawler in Memphis, Terry Funk took the Empty Arena match down to Championship Wrestling From Florida and raised the stakes by making it a Texas Bunkhouse Empty Arena Cage Match with Bruce Walkup as his opponent. Like Russell in Memphis, Gordon Solie perfectly sets the match up with his spot on commentary preceding the bout.


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William Renken

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