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Saturday, February 4, 2023

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The Night New Jack saved Dayton

By B.J. Bethel

Dayton, Ohio is a pro wrestling town.

It’s the home of the Wright Brothers, funk music, the Air Force, two universities, innumerable research institutions, more patents-per-capita than any city for much of the 20th century, indie rock and the peace accords.

It’s also where the first Summer of Punk began, where Bret Hart returned all those years after Montreal, and where Hulk Hogan and Ric Flair wrestled for the first time.

It was also close to home for Jerome “New Jack” Young, who died at the age of 58 on Friday from a heart attack, who lived in Southwest Ohio during the late 90s wrestling explosion. While a figure of controversy elsewhere, he cemented himself as a local favorite and later a figure of local legend.

During the myriad of indie wrestling shows in Dayton during the period, New Jack was a constant presence. I remember watching several ECW talents at an event and New Jack was there in typical fashion – a constant mob of kids and fans wanting photos and signatures. He leaned against a table, holding a gold knife shaped like a Russian sickle, while conversing with Logan Caine, a talented wrestler and brother of Al Snow, or some students from a local wrestling school. These smaller shows were always indicative of New Jack’s local celebrity. People in Dayton identified with him, and I believe his controversial past was part of that.

It was at a much larger show in town where New Jack took more notice, but not in the way he had in the past.

Heatwave 1999 took place at Hara Arena in August. The previous year, the pay-per-view was held at the same location and brought the largest crowd in company history. Hara was a current home for WCW, which aired Nitro and several PPVs at the arena, and was also a major arena for the WWF in the 1980s, so the accomplishment wasn’t lost on ECW’s wrestlers and fans. With such a success, returning the next year made sense.

Except this wasn’t the same ECW as the year before. Already gutted by both the WWF and WCW for talent, the roster was beginning to show holes. To make up for this, the Dudley Boys tag team and their entourage would burn 20 minutes with their own pre-match introductions and promos. This wasn’t enough for Mark LoMonaco aka “Bubba Ray Dudley,” he began inciting and taunting the crowd, and when that didn’t get the results he wanted, he poured straight verbal gasoline on it instead.

Dayton has always been considered a hub of smart and passionate fans. But Bubba berating a crowd that was five or more beers into the night, and then insulting a mother and daughter (whether they were planted there by the company or not) at ringside with accusations of oral sex lessons lik wasn’t going to go over well whether the fans were on beer one or thirty.

I was in row six, just to the right of the mother and daughter, when the riot started. Bodies came hurling down the aisle ways, security was running, people were trying to climb the aisles.

Hara Arena didn’t have individual seats on the floor. Like many places at the time, it welded metal chairs into rows for ease of movement. I was stuck in one of these rows when I had my legs taken out. I crashed to the floor with a couple WWF fans in Steve Austin shirts, who came to the show to “see what the hubbub was about.” They were in a panic. I was lucky, being dumped on my head on the concrete kept me from getting hit by the hundreds of beers that were being thrown at the ring.

Bubba Ray Dudley is a wrestling tough guy but this was a Northwest Dayton crowd that probably had more priors than a county jail and had more warrants than any other single area in the city that night. It’s a Midwestern city, and one of the tougher Midwestern cities. When Indianapolis hosted the Super Bowl several years ago, local volunteers were being constantly berated and harassed by New York and Boston football fans who came to the game. Local sports columnist Bob Kravitz was stunned and worried enough about the behavior to give a warning to any travelers to the city, “Midwesterners are very polite – and also very armed.” Indianapolis was no Dayton – this was a city where the favorite wrestler was New Jack.

The match finally started, and I was only on my feet for the end. The Dudley’s opponents – Ballz Mahoney and Spike Dudley – defeated the bad guys and won the tag team titles. But the Dudleys got their revenge with the infamous “flaming table power-bomb”, something wrestling fans who can’t remember the 90s should immediately find on YouTube. Unfortunately, the crowd was roiling again, and as Dave Chappelle once said, the milk had gone bad.

Thank God for New Jack.

The musical sample of a gunshot whistle fired over the house sound system, and the fans recognized it immediately, like they heard it thousands of times before – it was the intro to Dr. Dre and Ice Cube’s “Natural Born Killaz.” New Jack was back.

Where was he? He had been off a large portion of 1999 because of the Mass Transit trial. New Jack had been acquitted, and came strutting out the ring entrance with a shopping cart full of weapons and a “Not Guilty” sign taped to the front. I was in no position to argue the moral dubiousness of the moment, because I was happy, we weren’t going to have another riot.

New Jack was charismatic, unique, could carry a crowd in his hand, and could get heat in Antarctica, as one wrestler once told me. He could also play conquering hero like John Wayne when he wanted and could deliver comeuppance like a high plains Clint Eastwood.

Whatever garbage New Jack organized into his cart always made for a substantial and entertaining arsenal to beat the Dudleys with and to say he was a man of quite creative skill would be an understatement. Tapping on the keyboard with a pair of eyeglasses was an old favorite before cracking someone in the head. I once saw him take an entire computer tower to someone’s crotch. I always wondered what opposing wrestlers thought when he was putting his collection together in the back. How do you react? Do you try to hide some of thes tuff? I’m not completely sure what all he did to the Dudleys, but it was enough to bring the crowd to deafening cheers.

The Dudleys took their beating, and New Jack remained in the ring to soak in the roar with Mahoney and Spike.

So much of New Jack’s career is myth and work, I’m not sure he knew the difference or even cared. Contrary to what’s been said and documented, he did not use a Taser on Vic Grimes, and toss him off a barricade in an attempt to kill him. It was a planned spot in the match, where Grimes guided himself off the platform, and even feigned shaking like he was shocked by the taser.

Some were much too real, such as the blading and beating of Eric Kulas, one of the most gruesome moments in wrestling history, one I’m not sure if he ever even regretted

New Jack was smart. He wasn’t going to wrestle for WCW or WWE, so he made his own legend along the way. In that matter he is the greatest student Jim Cornette ever taught.

He was too ahead of his time. While ECW was the pro wrestling Seattle of the 1990s, The Gangstas were its Def Jam in Smokey Mountain, bringing current events into a wrestling world that only just now allows wrestlers in some places like AEW to wear Black Lives Matter arm bands or make political statements on social media, a quarter century later.

Whether by accident or not, Paul Heyman booking New Jack to save the day in Dayton saved more bad headlines from a potential riot. It also confirmed how forward thinking Heyman was. Theme music had been a key ingredient for wrestlers for years, but no one had ever beat up their opponents or wrestled while their music continued to play, giving an action movie soundtrack feel to the card and adding a dash of something different.

It was riveting, but it wouldn’t have been with anyone else. It had to be New Jack. He represented the best and the worst of an era in an industry that’s still reconciling the bodies that were left behind, an era that almost killed the wrestling business entirely in more ways than one. He is a rarity in that he out-lasted many of his contemporaries, even if he only made the age of 58. I hope he finds forgiveness; I hope he has escaped the pain from an unforgiving business and I hope he found peace.

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