WWE toasts 30 years of body slams at Joe Louis Arena
For the final time, ‘Monday Night Raw’ comes to Joe Louis Arena, the home of many WWE highlights over the years
In July 2016, World Wrestling Entertainment Chairman Vince McMahon pulled up to Joe Louis Arena for a live taping of WWE’s flagship program, “Monday Night Raw.” Stepping from his limousine, he was asked on camera by WWE personality Renee Young what he was doing there.
“I’m here because of that” — he paused and took a deep breath for dramatic effect — “the smell of that Detroit fresh air! That’s why I’m here.”
That Detroit fresh air has kept the WWE coming back to Joe Louis Arena for more than 30 years. Now, as the Joe prepares to take its final bow later this year, WWE will bring “Raw” to the Red Wings’ home one final time on Monday.
Since the then-World Wrestling Federation debuted at the Joe on Dec. 2, 1984, the pro wrestling company has staged more than 100 events at the riverfront arena, from house shows to pay-per-view events to tapings of “Monday Night Raw” and “Smackdown.” Greats like Hulk Hogan, Randy Savage, Ric Flair, George “The Animal” Steele and Andre the Giant have entertained audiences there, and some of the company’s top performers have enjoyed career highlights underneath its blue rafters and inside its white walls.
“It was the start of my career,” says Kurt Angle, the former Olympic gold medalist who made his WWE television debut at Joe Louis Arena at the “Survivor Series” Pay-Per-View in November 1999. That night, Angle’s good-guy character was met with a hearty round of boos by the Detroit crowd, a reaction that helped shape his character going forward. “I have to give credit to the fans there at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, Michigan, that night at the ‘Survivor Series,’ because that’s what made me who I am today,” Angle says.
Detroit has always been a strong wrestling town, going back to the 1970s and the bloodletting battles between Ed “The Sheik” Farhat and Bobo Brazil (Houston Harris) at Cobo Hall. WWE carried on that legacy, and without the Joe — which opened its doors in 1979 — many WWE Superstars’ highlight reels might look a little different.
At the first “Raw” at Joe Louis Arena in September 1998, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin drove a Zamboni through the backstage area out to the ring, bumping the ring back several feet upon impact and whipping the crowd up into a frenzy that rivaled any Red Wings playoff game. Austin then climbed over the top of the Wings’ ice cleaning machine, dove off its front end and tackled McMahon, a clear nod to Hockeytown that still ranks near the top of Austin’s greatest hits.
Other Joe Louis high points include Shane McMahon’s shocking return to WWE after a six-year absence in February 2016; Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and “Stone Cold” taking their fight to the streets outside Joe Louis in April 1999; and the Undertaker’s (Mark William Calaway’s) first heavyweight championship win at the 1991 “Survivor Series.” Those moments were made immortal by the the Joe Louis crowd’s electricity.
Angle, who will be inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame at a ceremony in Orlando, Florida, later this month, has a lot of appreciation and reverence for the Joe and its fans. That first night at the “Survivor Series,” Angle was a 30-year-old ex-amateur wrestler billed in a needling fashion as a “real athlete” and made out to be overly wholesome, an actual hero in an era known for its anti-heroes.
“It was nerve-wracking, because a Detroit crowd is one of the most passionate crowds. They can be your best friend or they can be your worst enemy,” says the eventual four-time WWE champion, who fought Shawn Stasiak in that initial bout. “Once I earned their respect, they turned it around. The one thing about them in Detroit is they know talent when they see it. If you prove to them that you’re that good, they’re going to appreciate it. They’re some of the smartest fans in the world.”
Angle returned to Joe Louis Arena several times over the years and remembers seeing the Red Wings championship banners and nods to the team’s history throughout the building. He also remembers fans showing up early in the day and staying long after an event just to catch a glimpse of their favorite wrestlers.
“I’ve only been to three arenas that are like that: Madison Square Garden, the one in Baltimore and Joe Louis Arena,” Angle says. “That’s what I remember most, is seeing 5,000 fans still out there an hour after a show just to say ‘hi’ to Kurt Angle, who’s going to be leaving in 10 seconds. But they’re still out there because that’s how much they care.”
Current WWE grappler Big Cass wrestled at Joe Louis Arena for the first time last year but knows the building’s history from his days as a WWE fan.
“It has a very loud, honest fan base,” says Cass, born William Morrissey. “I always loved it when they would go to Joe Louis Arena.”
During his first visit to the building last year, he went out to the ring area early and took pictures of the empty building as it was being set up for the event. That night, Cass was involved in a match where he and his tag-team partner, Enzo Amore (Eric Anthony Arndt), took on the three-man team of A.J. Styles (Allen Neal Jones), Luke Gallows (Andrew “Drew” Hankinson) and Karl Anderson (Chad Karl Allegra). John Cena (John Felix Anthony Cena Jr.) made a surprise appearance during the match and came to the aid of Enzo and Cass, and brought the house down upon his arrival.
“That place was rockin’ when he came out,” says Cass, 29. “The roof came off the place.”
When The Palace of Auburn Hills was opened in 1988, WWE started splitting its time between the Joe and The Palace, and the company brought its annual “Summerslam” event to the Detroit Pistons’ home in August 1993. But by the late ’90s, the Joe became WWE’s Detroit home, and it hasn’t returned to The Palace since.
WWE Hall of Famer Jake “The Snake” Roberts wrestled at Joe Louis in the late 1980s and early 1990s against opponents like Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat, King Kong Bundy (Christopher Alan “Chris” Pallies), Kamala (James “Jim” Harris), Rick Martel (Richard “Rick” Vigneault) and Ted DiBiase (Theodore Marvin “Ted” DiBiase Sr.). He remembers being backstage before a match one night when George “The Animal” Steele came through with several Detroit Lions players. Later that night, Steele relayed that out of all the wrestlers in the back, the players were most impressed with Roberts, whose pre-match ritual consisted of sitting in a corner alone, smoking a cigarette, wetting down his hair, slapping himself silly and then hitting the curtain.
“That guy knows what he’s doing,” they told Steele, Roberts recalls.
“I’ve been in so many wonderful arenas,” says Roberts, 61. “Walking into those buildings, you could hear voices. You may not think you could, but you could hear voices, man.”
“Some of these buildings, it kills me that they’re ripping this stuff up, when my God, it’s only been around a few years. Then you look at Wrigley Field, how long’s that been around? For-ev-er,” Roberts says.
“Maybe that’s progress, but man, I sure like the flavor of those old buildings and the history that’s there. If the athlete is honored by being there, that’s gotta count for something.”
Joe Louis Arena may be on its way out, but it still has a few body slams left in it. And even when it’s gone, there’s one thing that’s not going anywhere: That Detroit fresh air.
‘Monday Night Raw’
7:30 p.m. Monday
Joe Louis Arena,
19 Steve Yzerman Drive, Detroit
or (313) 471-7000