Nerd Culture

WWE Will Rock You: Wrestling's 10 Biggest Moments in Phoenix

Bray Wyatt's WWE Championship win in February 2017 at Talking Stick Resort Arena.
Bray Wyatt's WWE Championship win in February 2017 at Talking Stick Resort Arena. Courtesy of WWE
On a chilly night in Phoenix in February 2017, Bray Wyatt surprised the professional wrestling world. The enigmatic wrestler and bearded hooligan pulled out an unlikely win during a match at Talking Stick Resort Arena and claimed the WWE Championship in the process.

It happened inside the Elimination Chamber — a 26-foot-high structure that’s built from steel, wrapped in chains, and designed to punish — which was set up inside the downtown Phoenix arena and contained Wyatt and five other WWE superstars beating the crap out of each other in pursuit of wrestling glory.

Four others (including John Cena) had already been eliminated, and the match had come down to just Wyatt and AJ Styles. Out of nowhere, Wyatt grabbed his opponent’s head out of the air, wrenched it into a headlock, and then flipped him over onto the mat. (The move is called “Sister Abigail” and it looks pretty devastating.)

Wyatt goes for the pin, and the sold-out crowd inside Talking Stick Resort Arena chants along with the count: “1 ... 2 ... 3.” And then everyone went wild.

Wyatt’s victory was one of the bigger surprises in the WWE’s long history in Phoenix, and shocked many fans. Teek Hall was one of them and loved every second of the match. The local rapper, wrestling fan, and Wyatt devotee was sitting in the second row at the arena that night and had an up-close view of the action.

“We didn’t think that was going to happen, but the fact that it did was dope,” he says. “It was a big surprise. I remember we jumped up, shocked, and was like, ‘What the fuck? This shit was crazy.’ We were just flipping out, like, we couldn’t believe Bray Wyatt won this shit and won it here in Phoenix.”

Moments like that are the reason Hall and others have been so excited that the WWE is bringing one of its biggest pay-per-view events, the Royal Rumble, to Chase Field in downtown Phoenix on Sunday, January 27, surrounded by five days of wrestling mania. The extravaganza was announced more than a year ago.

“It being in my own backyard, I couldn’t wait,” Hall says.

Hall has a major passion for professional wrestling. It permeates his life, in fact. The 34-year-old hosts a wrestling podcast, Mat Mania, along with fellow rapper Mega Ran. His closet is filled with wrestling shirts, and his discography contains a few mixtapes inspired by famed wrestlers like Mick Foley and the late Big Van Vader. He also travels to cities around the U.S. several times a year to attend WWE events, including WrestleMania.

“And, yes, I know it’s scripted,” he adds. “It’s like an action-packed miniseries or soap opera. … It’s the characters that make you love or hate it — the theatrics, the theme songs, the athleticism.”

Wrestling itself might be considered to be fake (since its winners are predetermined and whatnot), but its appeal to its legions of Phoenix fans like Hall is anything but.

“Phoenix, or the Southwest in general, has become a hub for wrestling,” Hall says. “We got the WWE coming through here each year and all these indie promotions happening in town.”

According to the billion-dollar company, the Valley is considered one of its major markets. WWE stages events here every year — ranging from untelevised live events to major cards like Royal Rumble.

click to enlarge WWE fans showing some love for Randy Orton and Roman Reigns. - BENJAMIN LEATHERMAN
WWE fans showing some love for Randy Orton and Roman Reigns.
Benjamin Leatherman
Phoenix has been in love with the WWE for decades, and the affair officially began on July 29, 1984, when Vince McMahon first began bringing his one-ring circus to town. On that sultry summer’s night, wrestling fans crowded into the Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum for their first taste of action from the WWE (then known as the World Wrestling Federation), including an appearance by the late Andre the Giant.

Over the past 20 years, the Phoenix area has hosted countless episodes of weekly television shows like Raw and SmackDown, as well as eight different pay-per-view events, including a WrestleMania. Royal Rumble 2019 will be the ninth. (The festivities will include several ancillary events over five days, including episodes of Raw and SmackDown.)

“Phoenix has always been a great market for us,” McMahon told Phoenix New Times in 2009. “We always feel welcome here.”

While many wrestling pundits may not consider Phoenix to be one of the great pro wrestling cities (heck, it isn’t even in their top 10), the fact remains that it’s immensely popular and the WWE keeps coming back to the Valley. A portion of wrestling history has happened here, including 11 title changes and tons of memorable matches and moments.

Will the Royal Rumble this weekend offer some similarly big moments? Only time will tell.

Here is a selection of some of the biggest WWE moments that have happened in Phoenix:

William Regal versus Spike Dudley
April 8, 2002
America West Arena (now Talking Stick Resort Arena)

Some WWE title matches last upward of 30 minutes or longer. Not so with this lightning-quick contest in 2002 for the now-defunct European title that happened in as much time as it took for you to read this sentence.

The defending champ was dastardly, British-born cad William Regal, who (like all good British villains) cheated to win. And his weapon of choice was a pair of brass knuckles, usually hidden somewhere in the ring or on his person, which he used to K.O. his opponents. On this night, however, pint-sized lovable loser Spike Dudley, all 5 feet, 8 inches of him, dashed to the ring, found the brass knucks, walloped Regal before the match officially started, and went for the pin.

A couple of heartbeats later, pretty much long enough for the ref to ring the bell and make a three-count, it was over — the wrestling equivalent of a drive-by. Bell to bell, it lasted approximately four seconds. Regal didn’t even have time to take off the title. As far as we know, it’s still the quickest title change in WWE history.

click to enlarge WWE legend King Kong Bundy. - COURTESY OF WWE
WWE legend King Kong Bundy.
Courtesy of WWE
King Kong Bundy attacks Hulk Hogan
Saturday Night’s Main Event
February 15, 1986
Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum

Long before shows like Raw or SmackDown were even a glint in Vince McMahon’s eye, many WWE storylines unfolded on television via Saturday Night’s Main Event. The program, which aired on NBC several times a year from the mid-’80s to the early-’90s, featured matches that helped advance whatever grudges and plots that the WWE had going on at the moment. In early 1986, the show set up the main event of that year’s WrestleMania during an episode taped at Veterans Memorial Coliseum.

Let’s set the scene: Then-WWE champion Hulk Hogan had just beaten “The Magnificent” Don Muraco in a title match and was fending off a post-match attack from his opponent. Then, the hulking villain known as King Kong Bundy (basically, a human version of The Blob) waddled down to the ring and began beating the crap out of the Hulkster. The two heels supposedly broke his ribs (in the storyline, at least) and left the champ laying. Revenge in wrestling is best served inside a steel cage, which is where Hogan got his payback during the biggest bout at WrestleMania 2 a month or so later.

Chris Jericho versus Bautista
Cyber Sunday 2008
October 26, 2008
US Airways Center (now Talking Stick Resort Arena)

Chris Jericho’s legendary stint as a heel from 2008 to 2011 is among the best ever villains in the biz. He committed all manner of egregious acts, including decking other men’s wives and cheating his way to the World Heavyweight Championship, all while justifying his actions as a “self-righteous honest man” with deadly calm. Oh, and by the way, we were the ones who were all hypocrites and liars, Jericho informed us repeatedly.

Frankly, he needed a major-league comeuppance, which Dave “The Animal” Bautista (who performed in the WWE as just Batista) delivered in spectacular fashion during the Cyber Sunday pay-per-view that took place here in October 2008. After manhandling Jericho for the better part of 15 minutes, the future Guardian of the Galaxy dispatched his foe with his signature “Bautista bomb” and claimed his World Heavyweight Championship.

click to enlarge Daniel Bryan and CM Punk square off at Money in the Bank 2012. - BENJAMIN LEATHERMAN
Daniel Bryan and CM Punk square off at Money in the Bank 2012.
Benjamin Leatherman
Daniel Bryan versus CM Punk
Money in the Bank 2012
July 15, 2012
US Airways Center (now Talking Stick Resort Arena)

Whenever Daniel Bryan and CM Punk stepped into a ring, it was pure gold. Pure. Gold. Doesn’t matter if it was in the indies, Ring of Honor, or the WWE, the two phenomenally talented wrestlers always produced high-caliber matches thanks to their ample ring skills and undeniable chemistry. And at the Money in the Bank pay-per-view in 2012, they had what would become their final televised singles match. (Punk had an infamous falling out with WWE in 2014 and will probably never return. Bryan, however, is still with the company.)

Bryan and Punk had spent most of 2012 feuding on and off, putting on some absolute classics in the process. This particular contest was a no-disqualification match, which meant anything goes. In the hands of lesser wrestlers, it would probably be a garbage-filled debacle laden with steel chairs and ugly spots. In the hands of two expert hands like Bryan and Punk, it was a near-masterpiece, boasting brutal action and carefully built drama. It earned plenty of praise from wrestling fans and critics alike, as well as big cheers from the sold-out crowd inside what’s now called Talking Stick Resort Arena.

Naomi wins the SmackDown Women’s Championship
Elimination Chamber 2017
February 12, 2017
Talking Stick Resort Arena

When Naomi pinned Alexa Bliss for the SmackDown Women’s Championship in early 2017 inside Talking Stick Resort Arena, it was a significant moment, not just for her but also the WWE in general. It was the first title win for Naomi, who started in the company as an anonymous background dancer five years prior. More importantly, it was the first time an African-American had won the SmackDown’s version of the Women’s Championship.

Local rapper and longtime wrestling geek Mega Ran, who attended the event, appreciated the significance of Naomi’s win. “I savor any victory for people of color, and to see Naomi come such a long way was really emotional for me,” he says. “That place went crazy, because we were truly happy to know that hard work can pay off, even in a predetermined business. I’m glad I got to see that live.”
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Benjamin Leatherman is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times. He covers local nightlife, music, culture, geekery, and fringe pursuits.