By Jay Kirell
Before I was a veteran, before I was a newspaper reporter, my first job writing anything was for a professional wrestling website.
This was back in the late 90’s, while I was in college and the WWE featured the likes of Stone Cold Steve Austin and The Rock and seemingly everybody you knew was suddenly into wrestling again.
Fifteen years ago this week, while I was writing for my wrestling website, something legendary happened in pro wrestling that I witnessed live.
And to understand the importance of what happened 15 years ago this week in pro wrestling history is to understand the importance of the IWC.
The letters IWC stand for Internet Wrestling Community.
It commonly refers to the segment of a pro wrestling audience who visit websites, blogs, social media and message boards that traffic in rumors and behind-the-scenes intrigue in the world of professional wrestling.
It has existed since approximately 1995/96, when dial-up Internet became popular in most households. Some would say it reached new heights during the Monday night wars between WWE and WCW, back in the days when fans used to bring signs to the arenas promoting their favorite website like they would their favorite wrestler.
SCOOPS was started by a standup comedian from Long Island named Al Isaacs, who grew up a huge fan of the business and in his travels as an entertainer, met many wrestlers and backstage people associated with wrestling promotions across the country. He became intimately close with the likes of Diamond Dallas Page, Mick Foley, Bret Hart and other insiders, who helped feed him backstage info that kept SCOOPS one of the major go-to sites for backstage news.
The rise of SCOOPS coincided with the rise in popularity of pro wrestling in general in the late 90’s. A boon period for the business by any standard, the late 90’s saw the head-to-head clash between then-World Wrestling Federation and World Championship Wrestling, as well the nudging of Extreme Championship Wrestling into the mainstream as the clear number three promotion.
Ratings were through the roof. Attendance was at an all-time high. Money was being thrown at anything somewhat related to pro wrestling, including its online news sites.
It seemed like anything was possible in the industry.
So it was with that backdrop that Al Isaacs, founder of SCOOPS, took his background in entertainment and his connections in the industry, and started to make a few phone calls.
He called Independent wrestling promotions from across the country.
He wanted to put on a wrestling show. But not just any wrestling show. An Independent Wrestling Super Card the likes of which hadn’t been seen before.
At any other time in history the idea of a guy who runs a wrestling website putting on an actual, physical show in front of actual, paying customers would have been laughed off as absurd.
Most wrestlers and those in the industry considered rumor websites, or “dirtsheets” to be nothing more than losers in their mothers’ basements stirring up controversy with no factual basis behind it.
But Al Isaacs wasn’t just some guy with a website. He was known and respected in the industry, not only for the connections he had and the information he published, but the information he refused to publish because it could be detrimental to one of his friends in the industry. That earned him goodwill across the wrestling landscape, and one by one the promotions he called started to say yes to the idea as long as he could book an arena and guarantee a certain gate.
When Isaacs ended up booking Viking Hall, otherwise known as the ECW Arena in Philadelphia, for Saturday night May 15, 1999, even his biggest skeptics started to take notice that this “Independent Super Card” might end up being a big deal after all.
He would end up calling it “Break the Barrier” as a way to show that Indy performers could come together and put on shows as good as any you’d find in the Big Two (WWE and WCW) and “break the barrier” between rival promotions.
Twelve promotions from across the country responded:
Allied Powers Wrestling Federation (APWF)
Combat Zone Wrestling (CZW)
Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW)
Independent Pro Wrestling (IPW)
Independent Professional Wrestling Alliance (IPWA)
Maryland Championship Wrestling
Music City Wrestling (MCW)
NWA New Jersey
New Dimension Wrestling (NDW)
Southern Greatest Wrestling Fans (SGWF)
Steel City Wrestling (SCW)
World Legion Wrestling (WLW)
World Wrestling Organization (WWO)
SCOOPS promoted the event relentlessly, calling it “The Biggest Independent Wrestling Card in History” and that was only a slight exaggeration by wrestling standards. The talent Isaacs managed to sign for the event quickly led to a sell-out crowd:
Shane Douglas, former ECW champion.
Stevie Richards, former WWE hardcore champion.
Abdullah the Butcher, legendary extreme brawler.
Tom Brandi, former WWE star Sal Sincere.
Headbanger Mosh, former WWE tag-team champion.
The Pitbulls, former WWE tag team.
All were on the billed card along with up-and-coming tag teams who would later go on to work in WWE such as Phi DeKappa U (who had a cup of coffee as Gymini in WWE in 2006) and The Badstreet Boyz (later gaining fame as Christian York & Joey Mercury).
As a SCOOPS contributor, I drove down from Long Island to observe it all and help the boss out with whatever he needed that day. When I arrived at Viking Hall I remember walking into the building – which really was a bingo hall – and seeing an old gray ring in right there in the center. Rows of chairs 15-deep were set out on all sides and on a platform riser in the back was the camera crew setting up to record the event for eventual DVD sales.
The “locker room” was just a tarped-off side of the arena, where Al and other SCOOPS staff spent most of the show running around trying to make sure everything went off without a hitch.
Hours before the show started I walked around and mingled with some of the talent who would be performing that night. They seemed excited to be there, if a bit unsure about how the whole thing would come off. I spoke with this young kid just breaking into the business and nervous about tonight’s show. He said it was the biggest he’d ever done. My friend and co-contributor to SCOOPS, Carrie Messantonio, who had traveled the independent scene for years and knew the kid since he was 18, said he would be fine. That he was one of the best young talents she’d ever seen.
She must have been right, as that kid ended up being a then-23 year old Mike Quackenbush, who would go on to debut in CZW a month later and found Chikara three years after that.
Quackenbush, for those not familiar with his work, is a high-flyer with some mat skills not unlike today’s Sami Zayn. He was deemed too small by WWE standards at the time, but ended up making a nice living on the Independent scene, where he holds victories over both current WWE star Cesaro and former WWE champion CM Punk.
After speaking with a few more performers, I took my seat and watched as Isaacs, his wife Theresa, and Douglas get into in the ring with kids from the Children’s Miracle Network and take some photos.
Following the national anthem, Isaacs welcomed everyone to the start of the show and promised everyone a night they wouldn’t forget.
And he wasn’t kidding, as even before the first match was announced, Douglas, the former ECW champion, came out and cut one of his more famous shoot promos. He stood there in the ring and berated his current employer, ECW, as well as its head of operations, Paul Heyman. Douglas, who was scheduled to work ECW’s Hardcore Heaven PPV at the Mid-Hudson Civic Center in Poughkeepsie, NY the next night, announced he was quitting the company.
That shock of an opener set the tone for the rest of the night’s action, as the opening match was a three-way-dance for the APWF Heavyweight Championship between Champion Jimmy Cicero (former tag partner of Balls Mahoney in ECW), Tom Brandi (who most remember as the guy Marc Merro called a kayfabe-breaking “jobber” live on RAW), and former ECW and WWE star Steven Richards.
Before the match started, Brandi got on the mic and reminded folks that the last time he was in that arena was back in 1994 when he was part of the ECW Tag Team Champions with Tommy Dreamer. He then said: “You know, you might as well rename the ECW Arena as ECW Titanic. What are you jackasses gonna do when you don’t have New Jack to jump off the friggin balcony anymore? ECW is nothing but a bunch of whores and there are plenty of whores in this room but we’re not! You won’t see any of us jump off that balcony. You know why? We’re not stupid. Hey, you look at ECW. They’ve ruined every superstar they had, including one Shane Douglas.”
A chant of “Asshole” began to fill Viking Hall.
Brandi responded: “”Yeah, I got one and you can start lickin’ it any time!” He also proceeds to tell everyone in attendance that if Paul Heyman were in that arena, he would “beat the Jew out of that sonofabitch.”
Needless to say, Brandi got instane heat in the ECW Arena.
And it was a hot opener, with Brandi laying into both with vicious chair shots and Richards spending most of the match in his underwear after having them pulled off by Cicero. Richards ended up pinning both men to capture the APWF Championship in the first of three title changes that night.
The next match on the card was a Falls Count Anywhere match for the WLW Heavyweight Championship between Champion Derrick Stone and challenger Steve Sharpe, neither of whom I knew at the time and neither of whom have Wikipedia pages, so I assume neither did much with their respective careers afterwards. Stone retained the belt, for those who won’t be able to sleep tonight without knowing all the results.
The third match on the card featured two veterans who’ve performed in nearly every city in America, and on this night, their “match” if it could be called that, was for the NDW Brass Knuckles Championship, in which the champion “The Beastmaster” Rick Link battled challenger Manny Fernandez. Rick Link, old time fans may remember, was a long-time thorn in the side of Jerry Lawler back in the Memphis days, and even had a hand in the famous Lawler-Andy Kaufmann feud. Fernandez was a former Florida Heavyweight Champion, defeating Terry Funk as well as a former tag team champion with Dusty Rhodes. Link retained the Brass Knuckles Championship on this night when both men fought to a double disqualification.
Next up was The Pitbulls (Pitbull#1 and #2) taking on champions Phi DeKappa U (Biff and Chaz Wentworth) for the IPW tag team championship. The Pitbulls were able to grab the gold in a match featuring four guys who had cups of coffee in the WWE.
Headbanger Mosh retained the MCW Heavyweight Championship when he defeated Romeo Valentino, a longtime mainstay of Independent scene in Maryland. Mosh emerged from the back to Adam Sandler’s “At a Medium Pace” as his entrance music.
The Tennessee Volunteerz (Reno Riggins and Steven Dunn – one half of former WWE tag team Well Done) defeated The Badstreet Boyz (Christian York and Joey Matthews) in a regular old tag team match.
In a ladder match for the WWO Heavyweight Championship two guys you never heard of battled each other bloody. Scab (the first guy you never heard of) beat Natrone Steele (the other guy you never heard of) to win the title.
Cueball Carmichael (longtime Indy wrestler and trainer) took on Julio Sanchez for the IPWA Heavyweight Championship. Sanchez’ claim to fame was being a jobber on two different B-shows in the late 90s, WCW Thunder and WWE Sunday Night Heat. Carmichael, who had trained Joey Mercury and Christian York, pinned Sanchez to retain the title.
The next match was by far the match of the night, as a packed Viking Hall saw a Three-Way-Dance for the SCW “Lord of the Dance” Championship. The match featured young Mike Quackenbush taking on “Beef Stew” Lou Marconi and Don Montoya. It tore the roof off the place. The fans were chanting “Quack, Quack, Quack” as the young high-flyer took the title in a match that propelled his career forward tremendously.
An inter-promotional First Blood match between APWF’s Fang and SGWF’s Blade Boudreaux was the next match. It was a quick affair, with Fang getting the victory before exiting the ring quickly. As his fallen opponent lay in the ring, the sounds of “Take The Power Back” by Rage Against The Machine played over the loudspeakers.
And out walked Abdullah the freakin’ Butcher.
Abby waddled (he doesn’t really walk) over to the ring, rolled in, stood up and approached the poor schmo in the ring. With one mighty hand the Butcher grabbed the back of Boudreaux’ neck and tilted his head upward to look him in the eyes. Then the legendary Abdullah dug into his massive trunks and pulled out some sort of foreign object. A evil smile appeared on the Butcher’s face as he drove the object into another human’s flesh. Ripping and tearing, Abdullah worked over Boudreaux’ face like a painter on a canvas. When he was satisfied, Abdullah released his victim, who flopped to the mat like a gutted fish. Abdullah exited the ring and waddled off through the crowd, who gave him a wide birth.
In the semi-main event of the evening, Nick Gage, the first-ever CZW Heavyweight Champion, took on Justin Payne in a Staple-Gun Match/Ladder Match for the CZW Hardcore Championship. While the staple gun only came into play as a bludgeoning device, it was still a pretty damn entertaining match.
Unfortunately, much of the action happened on the other side of the ring from where I was sitting but even through the ring I could see these guys were going through chairs and tables, brawling through the fans and pretty much dismembering everything that got in their way. Not to mention, Payne shoved Cage off the top of the entranceway at one point, but that still wasn’t enough to gain a victory as Gage retained the title.
The final match of the evening was an inter-promotional battle royal featuring all the prior participants of the evening. After about 10 minutes of action, Tom Brandy emerged victorious.
Brandi stood in the center of the ring, basking in his victory, as a table was set up in the ring for the award ceremony. None-other than the legendary Lou Thesz himself came out to congratulate Brandy on his victory and present him with the Break The Barrier trophy (which looked like something you’d get just for competing on your little league team).
Brandi stood in the center of the ring, shook hands with Thesz, was presented the trophy by Isaacs, smiled for photographs with the beaming website creator and standup comic. Then he looked more closely at the trophy itself. It seemed to be chipped a little. He nudged the medallion-like top part and it snapped off, falling to the mat and bouncing twice before rolling out of the ring.
Brandi looked down at the mat, then up at Isaacs, whose face has shifted from pride to fear. Brandi’s face started to turn red as Isaacs turned white. Brandi threw the rest of the trophy on the ground, cursed Isaacs and asked why he would insult him by presenting him with such a cheap prize.
The 6’3″ 270-lb former WWE star then shoved Isaacs down, rolled out of the ring and tried to walk away. Theresa, Al’s wife, took umbrage at the slide against her husband and confronted Brandi outside the ring. Words were exchanged and Theresa slapped Brandi across the face.
From back inside the ring Al Isaacs, webmaster of SCOOPS and creater of the first ever Inter-promotional Wrestling Card put on by a website, screamed “Theresa, no!” but it was too late.
Brandi, incensed, charged back into the ring, grabbed Isaacs by his waist, lifted him up over his head and power-bombed him through the table.
Brandi exited as Theresa hopped in the ring to check on her husband. Several tense moments passed before Isaacs started moving again:
Once he was back on his feet, Isaacs received a well deserved standing ovation from the crowd. His show had gone off without a hitch. He took a bow, along with his wife, and the both exited backstage, where wrestlers congratulated him on taking his first bump.
“I hope I didn’t hurt you too bad,” Brandi said back in the locker room.
“I just hope it came out okay on camera,” Isaacs replied.
It would take a few days, but Isaacs would realize a cruel irony in those words.
Not only did his bump through the table not come out on camera, but nothing else from the show did either.
You see, Al Isaacs had planned out everything for this show, from the venue, to the performers, to the matches and finishes, to making sure the event was hyped so arena was sold out.
The only thing he didn’t account for were the videographers.
Long story short, he ended up hiring two horrible videographers who didn’t adjust for poor lighting conditions inside Viking Hall. Watching footage of the event was like watching from the backseat of a car as it drives down a road at night with no headlights. You can kind of make out the stuff that’s happening, but it’s so grainy and dark more than five minutes of footage made your eyes hurt.
Which is why no DVDs of Break the Barrier were ever released.
Which is why no wrestling historians except those who were there remember the show. (note – Pro Wrestling Illustrated was there and did call it “one of the greatest pro wrestling Super Cards of all-time.” )
Which is why Al Isaacs never made any money off of a show he conceived, hustled, and put together through nothing more than the sheer force of his will. It was a tragedy of epic proportions for the Internet Wrestling Community.
Two years later, ECW and WCW would fold, as would SCOOPS. Contrary to what some might believe, it wasn’t the financial loss of Break the Barrier that did SCOOPS in, but rather the dot com bubble burst of 2000. A few months after the show Isaacs sold the rights to the SCOOPS name, brand and website to a company that went under right at the start of the fall of the Internet boom.
With the rights to his own creation gone, Isaacs chose to leave the IWC rather than start new. He now teaches improv at a local university on Long Island and still travels the country doing standup comedy.
He still watches wrestling occasionally and still keeps in touch with some old friends in the business.
Fifteen years later, he’s one of the few people who remember that night in Philadelphia. The night he tried to change Independent wrestling forever. The night he tried to elevate the respect of the Internet Wrestling Community.
The night he succeeded in putting on a glorious wrestling show that by all rights should have never come together, but one that was doomed to one day be forgotten.
So it is for that reason I write this. To bear witness to an event that occurred that everybody should have a chance to see, but none ever will.
A glorious show, now available exclusively in the memories of a few hundred wrestling fans and one pioneering comedian who dared to dream bigger than a regular old wrestling fan.