Combing through pro wrestling history, New York City has had an iconic wrestling-friendly venue in Madison Square Garden, notoriously vocal audiences, and countless notable events (including the then-WWF’s very first WrestleMania) to its name. Philadelphia once housed ECW—a rebellious promotion fueled by wild, impassioned talent and equally energized fans—and has served as a hub for several companies and shows since. Atlanta brought us former WWE competitor WCW, and the Detroit ’burb of Pontiac packed in the oft-disputed number of 93,173 people for 1987’s WrestleMania III. In 1980s Dallas, a hometown company called WCCW made local demi-gods out of its stars and put on shows in Texas Stadium (the Cowboys’ onetime home). St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Orlando, and Minneapolis, among others, have their places in wrestling history, too.
Columbus…not so much.
Despite having hosted wrestling shows from key organizations at various times, our city doesn’t have a decorated association with wrestling, and not a ton has occurred or come from here. Yet even though it’s not a hotbed, Columbus has bits of history and trivia hiding in the margins and footnotes. It could make more this month, as WWE holds Money in the Bank on Sunday, June 14 at Nationwide Arena, holding a special event featuring all the company’s stars for the first time since 2004. (A partially related WWE NXT show unfolds one night earlier at the LC.)
Ever wondered exactly how Columbus ties to pro wrestling history?
Probably not, but let’s catch you up anyway.
November 15, 1952
“Macho Man” Randy Savage is Born
Push aside Archie Griffin, the Eagles’ Joe Walsh, Phil Ochs or Shad “Bow Wow” Moss—“Macho Man” Randy Savage is probably the single most famous entertainer or athlete to call Columbus their birthplace. Though billed from Sarasota, Florida, the flamboyant, undeniably iconic talent was born here as Randy Poffo. With his distinctive speech pattern, insanely colorful gear and knack for classic lines, Savage thrived in the 1980s WWF-led wrestling boom. Dying suddenly via a heart attack (and car crash) in 2011, the Slim Jim pitchman has since been enshrined in the WWE Hall of Fame, and his memory lives on through a thousand bad impressions everywhere.
The 1950s through the ’70s
Ethel Johnson Helps Legitimize Women’s Wrestling
In an era when pro wrestling’s legitimacy was still a question mark and cultural norms were vastly different, the early female wrestler Ethel Johnson battled sexism, racism and likely a whole lot of audiences. As part of a group of Central Ohio-based black woman wrestlers, Johnson had her heyday during the 1950s through ’70s, being promoted as a “colored girl wrestler” or “negro woman wrestler.” Having grown up watching matches in “the old Memorial Hall on Broad Street,” as she recalled in a 2006 Dispatch story, she was officially billed from Atlanta. According to a 1952 issue of Jet, she trained two years before becoming the first black American women’s wrestler. Though her story hasn’t been documented in the great detail it deserves, it’s a fascinating part of local history.
April 14, 1984
“Rowdy” Roddy Piper Cracks Frank Williams Good
Wrestling isn’t just a world populated by big-time heroes and villains. Various small-timers float around the fringes, too. Take Frank Williams. The reported Columbus native was a schlubby, bedraggled “jobber”—or perpetual loser—who made his living making other guys look better. His most important career moment came in an episode of WWF television on
“Piper’s Pit,” a storyline-building interview segment hosted by legendary kilt-wearing mouth “Rowdy” Roddy Piper. Piper’s first “Piper’s Pit” guest was Williams.
In the awkward (and improvised) scene, the brash Piper brought on Williams to get to know him—and then humiliate him. After learning about his guest’s hometown, Piper said, “I’ve wrestled in Columbus, Ohio. I’ve never lost a match in Columbus, Ohio. Have you ever lost a match?” Within minutes, the interview turned to Piper needling him for always losing, and then viciously clocking and kneeing Columbus’s working stiff. He wrapped up by delivering his signature line to the camera: “Just when they think they got the answers, I change the questions!” Poor Frankie.
January 6 and January 27, 1985
Andre the Giant Appears in Columbus
The French Alps city of Grenoble is a long, long ways off from Columbus, but what was perhaps its most famous son made it here in the 1980s. Andre the Giant—the towering Princess Bride actor and legendary WWF hero (and villain)—graced our city at least twice. This inclusion isn’t to say that other wrestling notables haven’t appeared here because they have, but Andre deserves a particular shout-out for his mythical aura and stature. Working in an era famed for its grueling traveling schedules, he actually came to Columbus twice in one month: He first teamed with Blackjack Mulligan in a losing effort to Big John Studd and Ken Patera; in the second match, Andre and Mulligan defeated Studd and Patera. The first show (and probably the second) took place at the Ohio Center’s Battelle Hall—what is now the Greater Columbus Convention Center. Andre’s Columbus encounters helped build up his big encounter against Studd—a $15,000 Body Slam Challenge—at the original WrestleMania.
January 27, 1999
Scott Steiner Takes Aim at Ohio Women
In wrestling parlance, “heat” refers to the jeers that heels (pro wrestling villains) earn from audiences. If you’re detestable, the more heat you get, the better. In turn, “cheap heat” means finding an easy soft spot that you know will rile the audience up. On one episode of WCW Nitro—a onetime ratings juggernaut that competed with the-then WWF Raw—filmed at Jerome Schottenstein Center, WCW’s Scott Steiner scored the cheapest of cheap heat.
The freakishly buff, real-life University of Michigan alumna blindsided a guy dressed up as Brutus Buckeye, had one valet bring a U of M flag to the ring, and did a bad rendition of his school’s fight song in the center of the ring. “As you can see, I had to bring my own women from Michigan,” he taunted, “because finding a pretty girl at the state of Ohio is like finding a needle in a haystack!” You can guess the response to all this. This wasn’t his only local appearance, as he has returned to Columbus at least three times since—even wrestling at the Ohio State Fair in 2010 (and somehow being booked as its Grand Marshal.)
June 23, 2002
Brock Lesnar Becomes WWE King of the Ring
Before Brock Lesnar was officially Brock Lesnar—multi-time WWE Champion, UFC Heavyweight Champion, a Minnesota Vikings almost-was, world-class annihilator—he was a rising WWE superstar still earning credibility. Winning the King of the Ring—WWE’s annual elimination tournament—marked a key accomplishment in his early career. That victory occurred at Nationwide Arena mere months after his debut. Also of note: that event marked the final King of the Ring pay-per-view, closing out a storied nine-year-long WWE tradition.
March 5, 7, and 8, 2015
WWE Hangs Out in Columbus
This past spring, veteran WWE wrestler (and now top exec) Triple H was inducted into the International Sports Hall of Fame during Arnold Classic weekend. As part of the festivities, WWE also took NXT, its developmental arm, on the road for the first time, making Columbus its very first stop. Held at the LC, the taped-for-TV show sold out within a matter of hours. The company also brought NXT talent to the actual Arnold Classic show for exhibition matches and autograph signings.
WrestleMania in Columbus?
WrestleMania, WWE’s annual, mega-sized Super Bowl-style event, means huge business. Earlier this year, WrestleMania 31 turned out to be the highest grossing live event in WWE history. These events yield such high returns that cities now bid on the event.
In 2014, rumors surfaced that Columbus representatives pitched WWE the idea of holding WrestleMania at Ohio Stadium—meaning that WWE could theoretically break its own all-time attendance record—but sadly, nothing materialized, and the gossip was shot down. Because of weather circumstances, a Columbus WrestleMania isn’t likely to actually happen, but if it does, the hype and traffic sure means everyone here will certainly find out.
For more about Money in the Bank, visit nationwidearena.com.