Another Perspective On Pittsburgh’s Mellon Arena

Matt Boone

Thomas Leonard sent along the following:

The May 10 edition of WWE Monday Night Raw was the last professional wrestling event scheduled for Pittsburgh ’s Mellon Arena. The Arena, a Pittsburgh institution since the early 60’s, deserves some due for its importance to professional wrestling.

First, it should be noted that much more than pro wrestling shows were staged there. Through the years the NHL Penguins have won three Stanley Cup Championships while calling the arena home. Many of the biggest names in the history of popular music have entertained there, a list so long and diverse it includes The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Tom Jones, Frank Sinatra, Celine Dion, Billy Joel, Kelly Clarkson, Reba McEntire, Neil Diamond, Bon Jovi, Faith Hill, and Bruce Springsteen among others.

In relation to wrestling, the arena and the Pittsburgh market as a whole proved huge to the early success of the WWWF, later known as the WWF, today known as WWE. In the 1960’s when pro wrestling was largely a regional based commodity, major organizations basically dominated certain areas of the country and that was typically the only wrestling fans in those areas saw in person or on TV. Pittsburgh was not a part of the Minnesota based AWA or the Carolina based NWA but it instantly became a huge part of WWE when native son Bruno Sammartino was chosen as the company’s first real champion upon their formation in 1963 (Technically Nature Boy Buddy Rogers was the first WWE Champion but he was awarded the title upon the company’s opening, Sammartino was the first champion to win his belt in the ring). There was already some locally produced wrestling shows airing on Pittsburgh TV in the early 60’s with characters such as “Jumpin” Johnny DeFazio and Ringside Rosie but it wasn’t until Sammartino’s climb to the top that Pittsburgh had a major promotion vying for it’s attention.

WWE held numerous events at the arena in the 60’s and early 70’s, often selling out due to Sammartino’s immense popularity. It’s been said that Bruno in his heyday sold out Madison Square Garden more times than Hulk Hogan. I’m willing to bet he sold out Mellon Arena more times as well. Having Pittsburgh as a successful touring destination was a big boast for the fledgling company in its early days, moving them closer to the boundaries of some of the NWA’s territory and allowing them to make money outside the confines of the New York/New Jersey area.

In the 1980’s, when Vince McMahon Jr took WWE national and Jim Crocket Jr did the same with the NWA, Pittsburgh was a huge battleground for the companies. McMahon had forced arenas in areas such as Chicago and Philadelphia to sign exclusive agreements with his company, barring them from promoting any other wrestling shows than his. The NWA was extremely popular in these areas but couldn’t get into the major arenas. McMahon was unable to work out such an agreement in Pittsburgh for several years, and in the mid to late 1980’s we got the best of both worlds, nearly every other month we were treated to house shows packed with stars like Hogan, Randy Savage, Ted DiBiase, Ric Flair, Dusty Rhodes, Sting. I was there for a sell out crowd of 17,000 when Flair and Rhodes battled for the NWA Title in October 1986. Over 17,500 fans (an all time attendance record for the arena) turned out to see Rhodes win the Bunkhouse Stampede in February 1987, an action packed card that saw Rick Rude & Manny Fernandez retain the World Tag Titles against the Rock & Roll Express and “The Russian Nightmare” Nikita Kolloff come up short against Ric Flair for the NWA Title.

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We were lucky in that we got the best of both worlds during this time, an unprecedented time of growth and popularity in the wrestling business. I’ll never forget marveling at the absolute insane showmanship of Terry Funk when he battled Flair in a No Holds Barred, Last Man Standing, Texas Death Match, which let me just say was one heck of a match for a non televised house show. It’s amazing those two guys are even alive today.

In the 90’s with the advent of Pay Per View Pittsburgh occasionally lucked out and got a big WWE show. I was at the SummerSlam when “HBK” Shawn Michaels had his Ultimate Re-Match with Razor Ramoan, aka Scott Hall, in a Ladder Match, just like they had done at that years WrestleMania, back when no one in their right minds were doing Ladder Matches. Of course, Pittsburgh and the Mellon Arena were the site of Mick Foley’s infamous Fall To Hell against Undertaker in their legendary Hell In A Cell Match in 1998. I personally was fortunate to witness one of the first ever Flair-Sting matches back in January 1988, three months before their legendry Clash Of Champions tilt that marked Sting’s ascension to superstar status. I saw Hogan vs Flair, Savage vs Jake “The Snake” Roberts, I watched “Rowdy” Roddy Piper brawl with Sid Justice, I saw one of the last matches the great Wahoo McDaniel ever fought, a tremendous show stealing, bloody bout on the undercard of a 1986 show against Tully Blanchard, too many really good moments to re-count. The Fabulous Freebirds, The Midnight Express, The Rock & Roll Express, Demolition, The Road Warriors, Hart Foundation, British Bulldogs, Blanchard & Arn Anderson, I saw them all perform here over the years and rarely was I ever disappointed.

That old arena held some fantastic matches, legends of the business, great moments for all who were there. It was also a cornerstone in establishing WWE as a major player in the pro wrestling business, a fact many people do not realize. From the perspective of a long time wrestling fan, it will be a little sad to see it go. There’s 40 years of wrestling history in that building, fantastic history likely never to be duplicated again. The Arena, The Civic Arena, Mellon Arena, whatever you wish to call it, for the better part of 5 decades you served pro wrestling fans well. We owe you thanks, thanks for the good times, thanks for the memories, though the building will be gone those moments will live on.

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