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Extreme Championship Wrestling once tried to take on WWE. Its story begins in a Philly pawn shop.

Tod Gordon launched ECW, which produced wrestlers like “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, Chris Jericho, Mick Foley, and more.

Tod Gordon poses for a photo of the ECW mural at the 2300 Arena in South Philadelphia.
Tod Gordon poses for a photo of the ECW mural at the 2300 Arena in South Philadelphia.Read moreTyger Williams / Staff Photographer

Before the bingo hall, there was the pawn shop. Before Paul Heyman, there was Tod Gordon. And before ECW could thrive, the Tri-State Wrestling Alliance had to die.

“It started from the ashes,” Gordon recently told The Inquirer.

The TWA ran shows in eastern Pennsylvania, Delaware, and South Jersey before it ran out of money early in 1992. A few weeks later, three men — TWA’s ring announcer, its sound engineer, and its creative director — met Gordon, the owner of Carver W. Reed & Co., at the corner of 10th and Sansom Streets.

Gordon was short, bearded, and balding. Typically dressed in a dark suit and white shirt, he met the trio in his dimly lit back-room office, outfitted with a drop ceiling, bamboo-covered walls, and a desk wrapped in black glass.

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The three workers enjoyed having an outlet for their passion and wanted to keep it going. But they needed someone else who had the collateral to secure a bond and obtain a promoter’s license.

“Not to be crude, but we needed the money man,” said Bob Artese, the ring announcer, now 70. “But the meeting was so positive because I think Tod, deep inside, was a wrestling fan, too.”

Gordon, a Drexel Hill native who had previously worked with the TWA and its promoter, found their passion inspiring. He didn’t need much convincing. And from that meeting spawned Eastern Championship Wrestling.

During the pro wrestling boom in the late 1990s and early 2000s, ECW would rise to become the third-largest wrestling promotion in the country. It grew into an ultra-violent brand of sports entertainment — where any weapon was legal and often brought from home by bloodthirsty fans.

Before WrestleMania 40 descends on the city at Lincoln Financial Field on April 6 and 7, here’s a look back at the Philadelphia-based promotion, founded in that Center City pawn shop in 1992, where Gordon endeavored to create something new.

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The beginnings

Before Xfinity Live!, there was Market Street Live!, a one-stop entertainment mall set inside the historic Lit Bros. building at Eighth and Market Streets. The 33,000-square-feet complex included five distinct establishments, including Michael Jack’s, an informal restaurant named for the Phillies’ great, who was an investor.

And on Tuesday night, Feb. 26, 1992, ECW set up an old ring on the dance floor of the Original Sports Bar and held its inaugural show.

It was a six-match card, held in front of about 80 people sitting on folding chairs set on two sides of the 16-foot ring, which Gordon borrowed from a wrestler.

“If you stood on the top rope, you would smack your head on the ceiling,” said Gordon, who lives in Penn Valley and turns 69 in June.

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There was a bar on another side, and tables and chairs on the other.

“It was very intimate,” Artese said.

They would add more and more recognizable talent, gain local television programming, and begin selling VHS tapes across the country on their way to gaining national exposure.

Gordon went through two creative directors, laying out storylines and matches on his own, before turning over that side of the company in 1993 to a former manager who came though the promotion while between gigs: Heyman.

Mainstream wrestling, at that time, was little more than family friendly entertainment. ECW started bringing adult storylines, a grittier presentation, and an intentional lack of tradition. It embraced heart, humor, hard landings, and bloody faces.

For its television tapings, the company moved into a large warehouse at the corner of Swanson and Ritner Streets in South Philly, which was used by the Vikings Mummer group as storage and rehearsal space. It also served as a super competitive midnight bingo hall.

Heyman wanted to “create so much noise out of that bingo hall that fans of WWF and WCW [World Championship Wrestling] not only notice, but start clamoring and demanding the style that we were implementing,” Heyman said.

“And to his credit, I never had to sell Tod on it,” he added.

That warehouse would go on to become one of wrestling’s sacred sites, better known as the ECW Arena, routinely packing 1,500 wrestling fans into a building that was supposed to hold only 500.

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The fans, who demanded both a competitive performance and a hard-working attitude, wanted to see a hard-fought battle, predetermined or not. And their chants of “E-C-W” became part of the television product’s aesthetic.

“Everybody else wanted to tell you who to like and not to like,” Gordon said.

But Philly fans told ECW who they liked.

“They got it,” Gordon said. “And so they became part of it.”

The promotion began to mix in more prominent names like Mick Foley, Taz, Dudley Boys, Tommy Dreamer, Sabu, and Mike Awesome. It would later feature names like “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, Chris Jericho, Rey Mysterio, Eddie Guerrero, and Rob Van Dam.

And at Paul’s suggestion, in 1994, the company changed its name.

They called it Extreme Championship Wrestling.

The legacy

After some turmoil in 1995, Heyman bought out Gordon, taking full control of promotion.

“I wish we would have walked before we ran,” Gordon said. “The growth became so overwhelming. I couldn’t run my business here and run what was going there at the rate it was growing. It was just so fast.”

At the turn of millennium, ECW scored a national television show on the TNN network, now the Paramount Network, and thereby solidified its spot as the No. 3 wrestling organization in the United States. But the boost couldn’t fix its extensive financial issues, and the promotion folded in 2001.

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Ultimately, ECW was a niche product that, while disruptive, couldn’t broaden its appeal in time to stay ahead of the bill collectors. WWE, which had changed names from WWF, bought the company’s assets out of bankruptcy and hired Heyman, who will be inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in a ceremony on April 4 at the Wells Fargo Center.

Chants of E-C-W can still be heard in arenas during violent matches or appearances by former ECW stalwarts, as fans continue to shout the name of a company that started in the back room of a Philly pawn shop.

And 32 years later, with the entire wrestling world set to descend on Philadelphia next week, Tod still sits behind that same black-glass-wrapped desk in that same office with the bamboo-covered walls.