The fliers we find on our windshields generally advertise safe havens: the mom and pop bagel shop, someone’s uncle’s car detailer, or a seafood restaurant/steakhouse that guarantees authentic homemade cooking, even if it’s in somebody else’s abode.
In May of 1999, my brother’s vehicle became an unwitting mailbox for a rather sadistic offering: a wrestling show that promised the employment of chairs, tables, barbed wire, and thumbtacks, known in shorthand as, “The Mick Foley Diet”. The instruments of human destruction were more emboldened than the names promised for the event, all largely obscure outside of Nikolai Volkoff (who wrestled a local gym teacher) and indy mainstay Reckless Youth, whose name was heralded by the internet and ‘Apter mags’ alike, a pioneer of ‘indy darling’-ism.
The event would be the sixth for three-month-old Combat Zone Wrestling, founded by the menacing, heavy-browed John Zandig. Along with a handful of his students, among them brothers Chris and Nick Wilson (fair-minded alter egos of Justice Pain and “Hardcore” Nick Gage, respectively), Zandig presented CZW as the New Jersey appurtenance of Extreme Championship Wrestling, requiring the bloody hook to figuratively turn heads.
Lacking the relative starpower of Sabu, Rob Van Dam, and Taz in his own reinforced ring, Zandig ratcheted up the gruesome displays of violence as a selling point, going places that Attitude-Era World Wrestling Entertainment, and a national-TV-seeking ECW, weren’t able, or weren’t willing, to go.
Case in point: on the night of May 29, 1999, the event in which the flier assured us of eye-bulging carnage 25 minutes from our serene surburbia, the main event saw a surprise appearance from former ECW bulwark John Kronus. He would brawl wildly with Lobo (a physical cross between ‘Gutter’ from the movie P.C.U., and “Stuttering” John Melendez) and T.C.K., an inconspicuous-looking indy worker in either Zubaz or camouflage pants, depending on the functionality of my memory.
At one point in the fracas, Kronus tipped over a ladder with Lobo and T.C.K. perched aloft, sending the duo toward the world’s worst pratfall: onto a table covered in thumbtacks, mousetraps, and a mobius-strip of barbed wire. This wasn’t ECW, but for a couple hundred onlookers, we had needed a means of conveying our blood-satiated approval.
“C-Z-DUB! C-Z-DUB! C-Z-DUB!”
By night’s end, I’d swiped one of the mousetraps that Lobo (the eventual winner of that shuddersome war) had landed on, and had him autograph it. Some folks steal road signs; I stole a mousetrap. As far as my 15-year-old mind was concerned, that was like Wayne Gretzky handing you a signed puck.
Combat Zone Wrestling has held this effect of inclusive tumult, an open worship of the brazenly daring, on its vociferous fanbase for a decade and a half. The company celebrates its fifteen-year anniversary on February 8 in Voorhees, NJ, affording a timely look back at its infancy, the years of finding its footing, while altogether running wild.
“There was a lot of potential, raw talent, a rabid fanbase, and the “it” factor that was missing from all of the other independent promotions at the time,” says Eric Gargiulo, the company’s announcer from 2000 to 2007, when asked about the outfit’s early days.
CZW was chaos-on-demand, attempting to ace the standards of in-ring butcherings that other orgs, notably ECW and Japan’s now-defunct FMW promotion, had set with stoic defiance. Violence, however, wasn’t the only offering on the smorgabord. Dazzling in-ring action was provided by the likes of a young Jay and Mark Briscoe (both still junior high school-age when they debuted), along with the daredevil Backseat Boyz, the squat-but-nimble Ruckus, among others.
“I began training with the company back in 2002 and began to appear on shows in 2003. The atmosphere back then was unreal,” says longtime CZW talent Niles Young, who performs today under the name Sozio. “Being fresh off the other side of the guardrail, I truly felt like I was among some larger than life stars. Zandig, Trent Acid, Johnny Kashmere, Nick Mondo, The H8 Club, Chri$ Ca$h, GQ, Adam Flash, Rockin Rebel, to name a few. Everyone brought something really special to the table, and it came across loud and clear when performing.”
“What made CZW exciting for me when I first started was the fact they were running in the ECW Arena,” says William Welch, best known for his run as ‘The Messiah’, a three-time CZW World Champion. “The night before I made my debut, I watched Cage of Death 3 from beginning to end. I was blown away at the talent they had. I was excited and intimidated at the same time about making my debut. By all accounts, I was only supposed to be in CZW for one match. But after watching Cage of Death 3, I knew I need to step up my game and earn a spot on the roster.”
Nothing demonstrates CZW’s pride in gawk-certain athletic contests like the annual Best of the Best tournament, held every spring. Proven names like Juventud Guerrera, Kevin Steen, Christopher Daniels, Austin Aries, and AJ Styles have flocked to the promotion to participate in the one-night showcase. The list of names reads as a who’s who of in-ring excellence, removing any semblance of the Combat Zone being two-bit.
“I think it simply shows that CZW does good business,” says Maven Bentley, the promotion’s Executive Vice President of over a decade. “One of the most important things in this business is your word. Unfortunately, there are many promoters who do not honor their word in regards to pay. Wrestlers know we honor our word. On top of that, we have a worldwide following, so wrestlers get great exposure.”
Gargiulo agrees that the ‘good business’ easily translates to enjoyable fan experience, adding, “You’ll rarely see a dull show. I would have gladly paid to go to shows if I wasn’t working there. It was an electric atmosphere.”
For owner DJ Hyde, who acquired the promotion from Zandig in 2009, he believes the diversity of the company is its key selling point.
“CZW has something for everyone,” Hyde explains. “It appeals to every fan, as we have every style you could want. Good storylines, beautiful women that can wrestle, high-flyers, hard-hitters, comedy, and of course, the deathmatches.”
That last category, the deathmatches, are CZW’s contradictive beauty mark, its most distinguishing feature. But of course, artful scientific wrestling can take a back-burner in any eye that witnesses Zandig be impaled through the back with meat hooks, or future WWE stalwart Dean Ambrose (then Jon Moxley) take a whirring skilsaw to the forehead, the Shield’s loose screw getting carved like a Thanksgiving gobbler.
The Combat Zone continues to up the ante of their sadistic rites of passage, particularly with annual melees like Tournament of Death and Cage of Death. The macabre monikers assure all but actual demise, employing the use of cinderblocks, staple guns, kenzans (razor-sharp pronged discs used in flower arrangement), fluorescent light tubes, barbed wire (standard by comparison and relative commonality) and even items brought from home by all-too-eager fans.
Among the more imaginative jousting options gifted by an onlooker: a Lucky Charms box wrapped in barbed wire. I witnessed that one first-hand during a “Fans Bring the Weapons” match held as a diversion between matches in last year’s Best of the Best tourney.
“Whether you hate or love the product, I think everyone can agree the promotion is unique,” says Chrissy Rivera, the pint-sized spark of ferocity behind many a villain, most recently the faction ‘Murderer’s Row’. “Being a part of the company for many years, I’ve seen it transition into something great; kind of like a puppy opening his eyes for the first time, then eventually being able to walk, and then run until finally the puppy is no longer a small innocent animal but an older, powerful and wiser dog. Watching it grow has been amazing.”
These days, CZW’s fight club of choice, it’s sanctuary/not-a-sanctuary, is the Flyers Skate Zone, the practice facility of NHL’s Philadelphia bullies, in otherwise-tranquil Voorhees, NJ. When Claude Giroux and Kimmo Timonen aren’t honing their puck-handling fundamentals, and skate-themed birthday parties aren’t being held for spoiled South Jersey youth, the aforementioned mayhem makes its home, the Circus from Hell coming to town monthly.
“The Skate Zone was one of the first venues I suggested to DJ and Maven when we got word that the ECW Arena was being closed,” says Chris Behringer, a production staffer of five years for the company. “I’m glad that’s what was chosen to be CZW’s current home. It’s a great venue in a good area and the staff there has treated us very well. Plus, we get to check out open Flyers practices if we get there early enough.”
Imagine if the opposite were true. Picture scruffy Scott Hartnell watching a CZW exhibition come together, and then try to convince teammates that a concealed kenzan is just the thing to liven up an in-game scrum. Find one Philadelphian that wouldn’t like to see pretty boy Sidney Crosby the recipient of an involuntary blade job.
“It fits our needs,” adds Hyde, of the spacious venue. “It’s large enough, and they allow us to do whatever is needed to get set up. As a fan, it’s in a good area. Plus, if you’re a Flyers fan, you never know who’ll stop by.”
Dynamic aerialist Shane Strickland finds the fans in Voorhees to be just as raucous and scrutinizing as any crowd he performs in front of, saying, “They demand so much from you, but also respect when you deliver. It’s a reward system for sure.”
Some of those who’ve delivered have had their number called by World Wrestling Entertainment and Total Non-Stop Action. Ambrose and Antonio Cesaro (ere Claudio Castagnoli) come to mind first, as well as Brodie Lee (Wyatt capo Luke Harper) and Sami Callihan (maniacal hacker Solomon Crowe). The fact that Ambrose, Cesaro, and Harper populated the 2014 Royal Rumble together in its latter stages is not lost on most loyalists and alums; the star-making potential is there, with industry giants shifting an eye consistently toward the product.
“My time in CZW played a role in being noticed by other higher profile independents,” says Sonjay Dutt, who would go on to become a fixture in TNA’s X-Division. “At that time, CZW had much more of a higher profile on the scene and was very influential on the landscape. So it definitely did help in launching me to other higher profile events/independents.”
“CZW has put me on a stage that I wasn’t on before I began working there,” claims “The Product” David Starr, a two-year pro whom Pro Wrestling Illustrated tabbed the 197th best wrestler in the world, per their kayfabe-minded PWI 500. “(CZW) has international exposure and a great background of taking talent to that next level.”
Male wrestlers aren’t the only artists who get to dabble on the canvas with their figurative inks and oils. Enhanced by a partnership with Women Superstars Uncensored, CZW has batted second in double-headers at the Skate Zone, with WSU taking the stage first. In the mold of promotions like SHIMMER and Shine, WSU is a fine alternative for the women’s wrestler that finds “Diva” among the few taboo four-letter words, an insulting pejorative.
“I think it gives many hard working girls a chance to prove they aren’t just eye candy,” says Rivera of the CZW/WSU collaboration. “It opens a door full of opportunities for them, and I think it was nice that CZW gave them the opportunity to do so. There are so many deserving women out there.”
There are detractors, naturally, but they don’t faze particularly anyone under the company banner, least of all bossman Hyde.
“Most of the critics or naysayers haven’t been to, or seen, an entire event,” Hyde feels. “All they see is Cage of Death, or Tournament of Death. You need to see the company as a whole. It has a stigma, but if you give it a chance, we can show you what we’re all about. But we’ll always have critics who’ll hate what we do, though it will not deter us.”
Indeed, the wheels haven’t stopped turning in fifteen years, largely thanks to a locker room that puts few limits on what they’re willing to do in the name of showmanship and spectacle. Because of the risks taken, that seemingly leads to many of the misconceptions about the group as a whole.
“I think there are still some people who view the company as exclusively “hardcore” or “ultraviolent” when really, that hasn’t been a main focal point in a long time,” Niles Young feels. “Sure, CZW will never be CZW without some of that type of thing, or the annual Tournament of Death, but under no circumstances is everyone on the roster expected to participate in that style of wrestling.”
The bloodlettings and the mat-mastery forge a unique fraternity (with sorority component) among the roster, one that only time and teamwork could create, even in the face of vocal reprisal.
“We really were a family back then. There were no egos in the locker room,” says Welch, who helped pull the cart from 2002 to 2006. “We all looked out for each other. If you came into the CZW locker room back then thinking your s–t didn’t stink, not shaking anyone’s hand or making an effort to say hello, you didn’t last. To put it into one word, we “respected” one another. I’m extremely proud of my time in CZW.”
“The locker room in CZW is like a family,” says Starr. “We’re one big melting pot of styles, personalities, and all from different areas of the country, and sometimes the world. I’d say that CZW locker room has a close knit family environment more than any other locker room I’ve been in.”
Rivera confirms the same view, noting, “CZW hasn’t always had the best image for various reasons, but it is full of very hard working men and women, and we all strive to make that place home.
“I’m a staff member, so I really don’t consider myself part of the CZW locker room. Everyone, however, wants CZW to succeed and grow,” adds Behringer. “Despite having some of, if not the, hardest working people in the industry, it takes a lot for the company to receive credit when credit is due. One thing about CZW is that *nobody* expected this company to last. Yet, fifteen years later, CZW is still kicking.”
Not only kicking, but able to land multi-time TNA World Champion AJ Styles and hardcore wrestling cornerstone Tommy Dreamer for its anniversary gala. All of this two months after lassoing in WWE excommunicate Chris Hero (himself a former CZW Champion) for a World Title match against disdainful champion Drew Gulak. The same night, former Ring of Honor champion-turned-TNA signee Davey Richards made an appearance, losing to Chris Dickinson.
“Nothing in this business trumps experience and the opportunity to make money with notable talent,” offered Alex Colon, whose four-month reign as CZW Wired TV Champion ended earlier in January.
As for Styles, it’ll be his turn on February 8 against titleholder Gulak, whose character leads the campaign, in his words, “for a better Combat Zone.” In the real sense, that’s what the trauma-inflicting troupe has been doing since Zandig and his acolytes first kicked open the doors.
“It means the world to me. I really do work hard at this, it’s almost absurd,” says Gulak, of his matches with Dreamer, Hero, and soon-to-be Styles. “To have the opportunity to face guys with lots more experience than I have is the only way for me to learn and get better. For it to be happening in CZW, during a run as World Heavyweight Champion, is icing on the cake.”
With spring begins year sixteen inside the Combat Zone, and in spite of the whirlwind of carnage, via the ‘wrestling of mass destruction’, the tread on the tires hasn’t worn an inch.
“We plan to take CZW to as many places as possible in 2014 and beyond,” Hyde closes with. “We’ll continue to put out the best product we can for the fans.”
A simple promise, yes, but for 15 years, Combat Zone Wrestling’s fearless fleet has had all of its promises simply delivered.
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