To step inside the muggy, homely dirt-floored Dallas Sportatorium was to step inside a monument to the art of pro wrestling.
The tin barn-turned-wrestling temple that stood on the corner of Industrial Boulevard and Cadiz Street in Dallas, Texas, lacked the architectural handsomeness that modern arenas do, but for decades, it housed the biggest names in the business. Wild brawls unfolded as cheers echoed off the metal walls. Blood dampened the mat; beer soaked through the bleachers.
The Sportatorium was an intimate building, one that put the spectators and the stars uncomfortably close together.
The wrestlers who battled inside it remember the building fondly. It remains a symbol of the way industry once was—regional, gritty, brimming with passion.
To hear some of the ring warriors reflect on their memories there and bemoan the fact that the place is no longer standing, one would think they lost a member of the wrestling family.
The story of that family member started in 1936. The original Sportatorium hosted National Wrestling Alliance matches, boxing fights and eventually the Big D Jamboree country music radio program.
In May of 1953, it looked as if the Sportatorium's story would end abruptly. William Theodore Moncrief and Roy Tatum conspired to burn the place to the ground. Moncrief hired Tatum, who climbed to the building's roof and proceeded to torch it.
Tim Hornbaker explained in National Wrestling Alliance: The Untold Story of the Monopoly that Strangled Pro Wrestling, "Tatum cut a hole in the metallic wall exposing the room, and spread gasoline to guarantee its obliteration."
Jail time soon awaited both men. And a rebuilt Sportatorium would soon rise from the ashes.
It's hard to pinpoint just what inspired the arson. The prevailing theory is that it had something to do with the ongoing, territorial fight for the Dallas area between rival promoters.
No matter, a new and improved Sportatorium was up and running in six months' time. It soon owned the Dallas wrestling scene.
Fritz Von Erich took over World Class Championship Wrestling in 1969. The Sportatorium served as the promotion's heart, the home field for Von Erich's stable of stars who also happened to be his own sons.
For years after that, wrestling fans converged inside this A/C-less arena for all the action that unfolded on Friday nights.
The Sportatorium could house 4,500, and it often hit that number, packing throngs of loud fans inside a building where everything echoed off the tin walls.
Outside, it had a standard rectangle shape. Inside, the wrestling ring sat in the center of an octagon.
The bleachers were stacked in such a way that there was no bad seat. It allowed little space between the wrestlers and those watching, too. When a grappler made his way down the aisle, one had to be aware of overactive hands in the crowd.
Ron Bass, in an interview with Everywhere Legends Video, remembered having his hat grabbed and his mask pulled:
Of the building itself, he said, "It sure wasn't fancy."
That was being kind. Writer Dan O'Sullivan called it in an essay for Jacobin, "a low-hanging mess of shingles and rickety bleachers, filled from its dirt floor to exposed rafters with beer, popcorn, and hooting."
It wasn't the look of the place that pulled folks in, but instead the feel of it. The Sportatorium was aesthetically at home with all the seedy bars nearby. Energy-wise, it was a powder keg.
Appearing on Chris Jericho's Talk is Jericho podcast, Steve Austin called it "One of the greatest wrestling buildings in the world" and "pro wrestling personified from an arena standpoint."
This was moments before talking about how filthy the place was, about rumors of rats infesting it, of grease in the concession stand he didn't believe was ever changed.
Cigarette smoke saturated the air. It stank of spilled beer. But it was hard to notice all that.
The buzz created by wrestling's stars striding in there, ready to do battle in the building's snug confines overshadowed the Sportatorium's warts.
The Stars, The Action
The Sportatorium served as the official battlefield for the long-running war between The Von Erichs and The Fabulous Freebirds.
Fritz's sons were the local heroes, the knights in wrestling tights who looked to push back the invaders from Georgia. Michael "P.S." Hayes led a trio of showboating bruisers who sometimes sauntered into the arena to the tune of Willie Nelson's version of "Georgia on My Mind."
Kerry Von Erich was the biggest heartthrob among the brothers, but Kevin and David had their adoring female fans as well. And the Sportatorium faithful always treated them like rock stars.
Comparing the reception The Von Erichs received to when Elvis Presley had played there in 1955, John Spong wrote in Texas Monthly, "The frenzy that greeted the King seemed sleepy compared with the bedlam wrought in the eighties when Fritz’s three golden-boy sons, Kevin, David, and Kerry, would stride into battle."
Their feud with The Freebirds is, in some minds, the best wrestling has seen. The buzzing energy that the Sportatorium provided surely aided it, making it feel like part college football rivalry game, part territorial war.
When the heels stole a victory, as Terry Gordy did against Kevin in 1983, the crowd often grew restless, yelling, gesturing wildly, flinging debris toward the ring.
When dysfunction threatened the Freebirds, the Sportatorium played host to that, as well. It was the site where Gordy and Hayes brawled backstage, where Hayes thought his partner Buddy Roberts was trying to double-cross him and so pegged him with a series of right hands to the brow.
The Sportatorium saw a long list of wrestling royalty enter its doors beyond The Von Erichs and their Confederate flag-waving rivals.
Gorgeous George strutted into the Dallas arena in the '50s, his valet not far behind. Buddy Rogers wrestled there a decade before that. Harley Race defended the NWA world title there in April of 1980 against David Von Erich in an hour-long Broadway.
Pioneers in hardcore wrestling, Danny McShain and Bull Curry collided there for the NWA Brass Knuckles Championship.
Bill Hines, maintenance man for the building for over 30 years, remembered a match on par with that one in terms of gore. He told the late Percy Pringle on the manager's website, "The bloodiest match I can recall had to be between Fritz and Johnny Valentine. Fritz took one of those wooden chairs and put 30 stitches in Johnny's head!"
Fans watched as Blackjack Mulligan, Judy Grable, Bruiser Brody, King Kong Bundy, Shawn Michaels and Jake Roberts all went to work on the canvas in that beloved tin barn.
It was the site of Ric Flair's rematch for the NWA World Heavyweight Championship after he lost it to Kerry in '84. Kerry triumphed, a result that infuriated Flair and left the Sportatorium fans whistling and howling in celebration.
Long before he was Stone Cold, Steve Austin got his start in that arena. He battled mentor Chris Adams there as a rookie wearing football pads and a North Texas State jersey.
Of the bout, he told WWE.com, "And I'll be damned if we didn't have the most entertaining match."
It was Mick Foley's training ground as well. In the late '80s, he wrestled in the Dallas wrestling hub as Cactus Jack Manson, a wild man in Skandor Akbar's stable of wild men.
As WCCW slowly folded during the '90s, other promotions slipped into the Sportatorium. The Global Wrestling Federation aired their TV shows there. The United States Wrestling Association got a foothold in the building, too.
None of those partnerships would last, though. The Sportatorium was near death.
Fire attacked the Sportatorium again in 2000. No one rebuilt it.
As David Shoemaker wrote in Squared Circle: Life and Death in Professional Wrestling, "The wrestling crowds had diminished to the point that it hardly seemed necessary."
The building bore a smoke stain along its face afterward. But it was not the fire that left it unseemly. Bare wires ran along the walls, its rafters were exposed, homeless people had begun to squat inside it.
Doyle King recalled in an interview for Wrestling Epicenter, "That building was so old, decrepit and rundown and dirty and nasty and just filthy."
The city deemed it a hazard. Demolition came next. The Sportatorium's last days arrived in 2003.
Mark Longoria, the supervisor of the demolition crew that put the building to rest, had often attended wrestling matches there. He told the Fort-Worth Telegram (h/t MyPlainView.com), "It's ironic that I'm the one tearing it down. I have a hard time doing it."
Before it fell, Kevin Von Erich entered the Sportatorium, revisiting the pride of his father's kingdom, the center of his glory days.
The wrestler poked round. He found abandoned bibles, empty bottles of liquor and trash left on the floor.
The Sportatorium was nothing more than a ghost by that point.
Kevin's voice grew somber at points during the tour. He would clearly miss the place and all the memories it housed.
Despite its wretched state by that point, there was still a feeling among some that it should still stand, that it be preserved.
Nothing speaks to the divide between the ideal and reality of the building like listening to the former WCCW stars talk about it in The Triumph and Tragedy of World Class Championship Wrestling.
After Gary Hart and others wrapped up discussing how much of a dump it was, other wrestlers chimed in, wondering aloud why anyone would tear it down.
Likely what they wanted saved more than the building is what happened inside it.
The Sportatorium was no grand architectural accomplishment. It was no magnificent structure. The energy that it contained as fans clamored inside of it was what made it special.
The sheer number of Hall of Famers who grappled between those tin walls and its key role in the Von Erich-Freebird war make it a key part of wrestling history. And history over time has a way of changing as memories fade and legends overtake the truth.
The smell of spilled beer fades. So does the sound the ramshackle bleachers made.
What's left are all the memories of gladiators balling their fists, the fans standing on dropped popcorn, getting lost in the battles before them.
Match information courtesy of ProFightDB.com. Chad Brinkley deserves a special mention as he shot so many of the clips seen above.