On May 19, 1915, a purported “international wrestling tournament” commenced at the Manhattan Opera House in New York City. Over the next year or so, such tournaments would feature future legends of the pioneer era such as Wladek Zbyszko, Dr. Benjamin Franklin Roller, The Masked Marvel, and Ed “Strangler” Lewis. On Sunday, January 23, 2022, 106 years and eight months later, that same venue, long since renamed the Hammerstein Ballroom at The Manhattan Center, served host to a Game Changer Wrestling card. Naturally, as a GCW card, it was headlined by The Man, The King, The Fucking God of This Shit: Nick Fucking Gage.
No, The Wrld on GCW at the Hammerstein Ballroom did not have much resemblance to the wrestling that the building first hosted over a century ago. Instead, it was pretty clearly a love letter to the wrestling that the venue has become most closely associated with: ECW, thanks to multiple shows there late in the company’s life, as well as WWE’s ECW One Night Stand reunion shows.
The Hammerstein Ballroom
Before I continue, let’s just get this out of the way: The Manhattan Center is the overarching complex that contains two different ballrooms that have hosted professional wrestling events. On the main level is the Hammerstein Ballroom, the larger room that ECW ran. Up seven flights of stairs is the Grand Ballroom, a smaller ballroom that served as the original venue for Monday Night Raw. The constant confusion over the name among wrestling fans stems from the Grand Ballroom always being referred to as “the Manhattan Center” by WWE.
Both ballrooms are somewhat unusual for pro wrestling: They’re designed as theaters with a stage at the end, and the Hammerstein in particular has some awkward viewing angles in the main balconies. But for anyone short of WWE, AEW, NJPW, and AAA, it is the the biggest venue available for pro wrestling in New York City. Not only is everything more expensive here, but on top of that, there are very few other venues in its size range in the city period, much less that will host wrestling. If you want to promote a pro wrestling show in NYC that can draw about 2,000 people, you pretty much have to run at the Hammerstein, six figure cost to turn the lights on and all. Hence GCW pushing this as their biggest card ever: Sure, Joey Janela’s Spring Break 2 in New Orleans drew a few hundred more people, but ticket prices were, by necessity, scaled higher for the Hammerstein to ensure a financial success.
(For what it’s worth, the 2,025 tickets out figure for The Wrld on GCW reported by WrestleTix is, by all indications, the actual new attendance record for pro wrestling and possibly all combat sports in the Hammerstein Ballroom. Though there were previous sellouts that had a bigger “official” attendance, and the building has remained largely unchanged for many years, GCW added riser seats on the stage. Since, as best as I can tell, WWE, ROH, ECW, and the UWF never did that, it appears to be physically impossible for any past wrestling show in the building to have outdrawn this one)
With ECW having the clearest connection to the building and in the spirit of some other past major GCW shows, were nods to ECW throughout The Wrld on GCW:
- Stephen DeAngelis, who handled ring announcing duties in ECW’s later years, stepped in for a few matches.
- A fan in the upper balcony prepared a “IF CARDONA WINS WE RIOT” banner for Matt Cardona’s match with Joey Janela, an obvious nod to the “IF CENA WINS WE RIOT” sign at the second One Night Stand.
- “Enter Sandman” started playing, an allusion to both Sandman’s legendary entrances as well as his surprise appearance a la GCW’s first New York show, only to turn out to be mashed up with the vocals from Cardona’s usual entrance music.
- Cardona’s match with Janela was an homage to the most gloriously twisty clusterfucks in ECW history like The Pitbulls’ tag title win over Raven and Stevie Richards, but also included other allusions to the long-dead promotion. (Cardona bringing Rhino’s ECW TV Title belt to the ring and Brian Myers cosplaying Edge’s run-in from the second One Night Stand being the most obvious.)
- And the duo of Sabu and Bill Alfonso appeared as surprise backup for Second Gear Crew as they battled back 44OH.
Less lip service was played to any of the other wrestling that the building had held: Sean Waltman appeared and he has one of the most memorable moments in Manhattan Center wrestling history (his upset win over Razor Ramon on Raw), but that connection wasn’t played up. Ring of Honor’s decade-plus history in the building likely would have been alluded to more if ROH Champion Jonathan Gresham didn’t have to cancel his match due to COVID-19 exposure protocols. Very few people ever saw the Urban Wrestling Federation’s shows in the building, while we can also be pretty sure that nobody in GCW had any desire to allude to MLW’s lone show in the Grand Ballroom given the animus between the companies.
The sheer ECW-ness of the show was divisive: The surprises are the type of thing that play better in the building, and playing better in the building seems like it was an issue with the whole show. As someone who was there, I thought it worked, but as it became clear that the audio mixing on pay-per-view was not sufficiently translating the atmosphere to television, it became easier to see the divide. Maybe Cardona-Janela, for example, isn’t your style, but it’s the type of match that’s elevated greatly by the atmosphere. The show climaxed with Nick Gage’s return after being MIA for three months, and that of course is also going to get over a lot better in the building. Everyone seemed to agree, live or 0n PPV, that the lucha libre trios match and Blake Christian vs. Lio Rush delivered big time. And though they were probably the two best-executed matches on the show, they were also the least reliant on the crowd for atmosphere, even if the crowd was reacting loudly.
The WRLD on GCW
Personally? I greatly enjoyed the show, right along the lines of the in-person vs. on TV divide that has run straight through the reactions to it. Some matches didn’t go as smoothly as others, with the ladder match in particular having some big scares when the ladders didn’t know how to work, but the divisive matches, like Cardona-Janela, still worked on the merits of what they was aspiring to be. The big complaint that holds water is with timing issues: With FITE TV electing to offer the show as a traditional pay-per-view event available from cable and satellite providers, the show needed a satellite feed and thus a strictly timed satellite window that ended at 11:00 p.m.
As a result, the issues of imposing such restrictions in a setting that doesn’t normally have them became apparent quickly. During the second match of the main card, the lucha trios match, promoter Brett Lauderdale could be heard on the house mic imploring them to “go home,” wrestling parlance for getting to the finish. After that point, other than Cardona-Janela, nothing on the show hit or passed the 13 minute mark bell to bell. (To say nothing of the long entrances and post-match shenanigans for that match.) The only match that felt particularly shortchanged to me was the main event where Gage and Matt Tremont won the GCW Tag Team Titles from Mark and Jay Briscoe, which went 5:38 bell to bell, but it was also the match with the least to lose by going short.
More curious than the complaints about timing was the negative reaction to there being no slice and dice-style death matches on the show. Even if you didn’t know that the New York State Athletic Commission explicitly bans blading, GCW has run plenty of shows without any death matches, including all of their previous events in New York. Besides, no death matches were advertised. Yes, if you’re a first-time viewer who didn’t bother examining the lineup, it might have come as a surprise, but that’s not on GCW or the wrestlers.
All told, we probably won’t have a good idea how much this show meant for GCW until we see how their next big undertaking, The Collective set of shows during WrestleMania weekend, plays out. With Texas not having New York’s restrictions on death matches, the big GCW shows having a decent likelihood to set new company attendance records, and the pandemic’s many effects on the last two Mania weekends, they’re probably looking to show out in a big way. If this momentum can sustain itself, then we may be primed to see a fully independent promotion hit previously unseen heights.