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TNA fan fest a real Hardcore Celebration
By RANJAN CHHIBBER - SLAM! Wrestling


Fan Nick Bittrolff with Bill "Fonzie" Alfonso. Photo by Meghan Pollinger

ORLANDO, Florida -- For a company that has long since ceased to exist in its original form, ECW continues to attract a fan following unlike any other in wrestling. Many wrestling companies have capitalized upon this loyal fan-base, the latest being Spike TV's TNA Wrestling.

At Hardcore Celebration, the fan festival in Orlando's Universal Studios the night before TNA's ECW reunion Pay Per View, Hardcore Justice, fans crowded the NASCAR Bar and Grille to show their support for their Hardcore Heroes. The doors to the fan festival opened at 8 p.m., but the lineup stretched long and far. Throngs of Universal Studios patrons observed the Hardcore Fans with interest: as in the days of the original ECW, the fans were sometimes just as interesting as the wrestlers in the show, because they were very much a part of it.

This evening, it was no different. While fans lined up to take photos and get autographs from their favorite ex-ECW stars, they also showed a camaraderie amongst themselves, exchanging stories about what ECW meant to them and why some of them spent a great deal of money to come to Hardcore Justice.

Nick Bittrolff and his girlfriend, Meghan Pollinger, came from New York State to attend the event. Bittrolff has been an ECW fan since the mid-'90s, attending their events at the Elks Lodge without fail. He says with pride, "I attended the final original ECW PPV. Now I'm coming to Hardcore Justice." When asked if he attended the WWE produced ECW One Night Stand PPVs, Bittrolff takes great offense at the question: "I watch nothing that is put out by WWE."

After a few hours, TNA's Jeremy Borash inaugurates the fan fest to great applause. He invites Mick Foley to speak first. Foley charms even the non-wrestling fans in the audience. Meghan Pollinger says, "I got into wrestling through Mick Foley. That's who I'm here to see." She echoes most of the female fans who spoke with this reporter at the fan fest; it appears Foley is wrestling's chick magnet -- The Hardcore HBK, perhaps.

Foley's biggest pop: announcing a new tag-team that will be formed for the Hardcore Justice PPV: Terry Taylor (TNA's Head of Talent Relations) and Balls Mahoney. Obviously joking, Foley continued, "They'll be called Balls and Cock!" Taylor, at the event, took the joke in stride. Curiously enough, Taylor was the sole non-ECW wrestler at this event. Although it was meant to be an ECW alumni night, Taylor and other TNA officials no doubt hope that the ECW fans who attend Hardcore Justice can be persuaded to give TNA Wrestling a try.

A CALL OUT TO PAUL HEYMAN

TNA's Hardcore Justice is just a few hours away. While many hoped that ECW's "mad scientist" (as Mick Foley calls him), Paul Heyman, would have showed up for the PPV, and still others wished that he would take over the Creative Reigns of TNA Wrestling, this does not seem to be the case.

Many participants in the PPV shared some of their memories of Heyman the night before the PPV. Even in his absence, Heyman was the talk of the talent at the NASCAR Bar and Grille.

As Mike Bucci, otherwise known as HOLLYWOOD NOVA of the famed blue World order told SLAM! Wrestling: "Paul E. gave a lot of young talent their start."

JOEL GERTNER: "Thank you for being such a major influence, Paul E. I hope I contributed as much to your creation as you contributed to my success."

AXL ROTTEN: "The atmosphere of Hardcore Justice reminds me of the atmosphere created by Paul Heyman back in the 1990s in Philadelphia. He created the greatest era in pro wrestling, and it feels like it's back here in Orlando."

TOO COLD SCORPIO: "Without Paul E., 2 Cold wouldn't be where he is today. He taught me how to cut wrestling promos."

Others under full-time TNA Contracts also had positive things to say about Heyman, but did not want to speak on the record.

Taylor would not have to work hard to persuade one ECW fan to watch TNA. U.S. Army Specialist Tomme Buttafuoco (Ret'd) has watched ECW for years and is also a TNA fan. "I used to watch ECW in the '90s, as a tape trader. I was hooked immediately." A real American hero who served in Iraq, Buttafuoco looks up to the ECW and TNA wrestlers as his heroes. He has a message for TNA, on behalf of the brave soldiers he served with: "TNA should do USO tours because many servicemen and servicewomen are huge fans. We deserve to have the choice that TNA brings, rather than being stuck with just watching one company's wrestling shows."

As the evening wore on, the former ECW wrestlers showed no signs of fatigue. As more fans showed up, even at 11 p.m., they always took a break from their food or drinks to take photos with fans, or sign autographs. One of the largest line-ups was for Stevie Richards, who took the time to speak with the fans, as well.

Clare Barr, who is part of NASCAR Bar and Grille's Event Services, marveled at how down to earth the wrestling superstars like Richards and others were not only with the fans, but the staff at the restaurant. "I'm not a wrestling fan.I mean, I'm a girl! I played with Barbies when I was young!" she says. "But I have to say that compared to other NASCAR Celebrity Events, TNA wrestlers always show great gratitude to us. They don't have an attitude."

Making an appearance towards the end of the evening was TNA President Dixie Carter. She did something that no one else that evening did: she walked throughout the bar, reaching out to the fans, as if they were the celebrities, and she their biggest fan. In an act of touching humility rarely seen in the wrestling business, she personally shook hands with and thanked as many people as she could at the event.

While the fan fest was fun and peaceful, one drunk and out-of-control fan had to be thrown out of the event for disorderly conduct. Who saved the day? None other than Atlas Security, who also prevented unruly characters from ruining the show for the rest of the fans many a time in the 1990s for ECW. While outsiders might say that the unruly fan tarnished what was otherwise a fun and peaceful night, ECW fans might say that this was just like old times -- or a Hardcore Celebration.

Ranjan Chhibber is a former WWE Writer with a Ph.D. in Film History, and award-winning academic, who has taught Film Studies at various universities across the United States and Canada. Dr. Chhibber used to regularly attend ECW events at the Bert Flickinger Arena in Buffalo, NY, in the 1990s. He can be reached through his publicist, Ms. Jaclyn Allmon, at jaclyn@cinemasinner.com.