Friday, July 7, 2017

WWE's first show in Hidalgo

As WWE returns to the State Farm Arena this Sunday night with their ‘WWE Smackdown!’ brand line-up, I thought it would be a good time to look back at the first WWE show I attended.

Before 2003, I had attended local pro wrestling promotions, lucha libre in Reynosa, and a taping of WCW Monday Nitro. WWE hadn’t had a show in the Rio Grande Valley since 1995, when they stopped by at South Padre Island. So this would be their first show here in 8 years, at the then newly opened Dodge Arena in Hidalgo, now named the State Farm Arena.

I was a 17-year-old Senior at PSJA North High School in Pharr, and was bugging (and begging) my dad to take my brother and me to the show. The week before the event, he went to the arena and got us some tickets for the 'WWE Smackdown!' house show (untelevised event) that would take place on Monday night, November 17, 2003.

We arrived pretty early, and teenaged me was so pumped up when I saw Eddie Guerrero and Rey Mysterio Jr. — my two favorite wrestlers at the time and now at 31 years old, I can add "of all time" — approaching the fans as they came out of their rental cars. They started hanging out at the parking lot before the start of the show, autographing everything that was put in front of them. I lent Eddie my pen so he could sign an autograph for me and the other fans that were there in that particular area. After he finished signing autographs, he handed the pen back to me, and said “Thank you” in his natural voice. He was all smiles that day.

Christian Randy Martinez and Eddie Guerrero. 
At the time, Guerrero was starting to become a huge star to Mexican and Chicanx audiences across the Southwest. In 2015, I interviewed Dave Meltzer of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter about Guerrero during this time period for an article I was working on but that never got published.

"I noticed it very early on, it was probably about a year-in-a-half before he started getting the big push,” Meltzer told me during our phone conversation. “At the time, I was getting the quarter hour breakdowns of not just 'Smackdown!' but of 'Smackdown!' in all these different markets. So I noticed that Los Angeles, Houston and Dallas, there were certain markets, where Eddie and Rey, whenever they were on TV, [the ratings] wouldn't just go up, it would skyrocket. Then at the same time, 'Smackdown!' was the number one English language network show in Hispanic homes. So I'm looking at those two things, putting one and one together, so that's when I figured it out. That's when I think [WWE] started opening their eyes, that Eddie was more than just a good [in-ring] worker, that he had that potential."

That night in Hidalgo, Eddie teamed up with his nephew Chavo Guerrero Jr. for a match against the Basham Brothers. It was a really good match, but in that arena on that night, it felt even better than that, because the heat from the crowd was amazing. Super loud, non-stop "Eddie" chants throughout, from beginning to end.

Every minor thing he would do would get a huge reaction. There was a funny moment or two where Eddie asked the crowd to show Chavo some love as well. Which they did for a bit, as we got some "Chavo" chants before the crowd decided to go back to the "Eddie" chants. It's something me, my dad, my brother Christian, my friend Leo Avila, and many other folks who were there that night always remember. The Guerreros lost by disqualification, but most don't even remember that detail, as the Guerreros quickly made everyone forget when they just frog splashed the Basham Brothers and celebrated with a fan's flag of Mexico. 

Los Guerreros celebrating with a Mexican flag. 
In the months that followed, ‘WWE Smackdown!’ became so interesting. There was such a heavy Chicanx and Mexican presence all over the show and the storylines that were presented. In February of that year, "El Maromero" Jorge Paez appeared in Rey Mysterio Jr.'s super corny but pro-immigrant WWE music video "Crossing Borders". Eventually Paez became Mysterio's back up when he was feuding with Chavo Guerrero Jr. and Chavo Guerrero Sr. But more importantly, to me, the whole show started to revolve around Eddie Guerrero.

On February 15, 2004, Guerrero beat Brock Lesnar for the WWE championship at the "No Way Out" PPV at the Cow Palace in California and the main event storylines went on to touch upon racism, xenophobia, and much, much more. Some things could have been handled better but there was a clear attempt to cater to a pro-Guerrero audience. Guerrero feuded with Kurt Angle and JBL, resulting in a blodbath classic with the latter at the “Judgment Day” PPV on May 16, 2004, two weeks before my graduation.

In the years before and after that, I’ve gone to so many shows, from WWE to AAA to TNA to ROH to NXT to EVOLVE, seen John Cena, the Undertaker, Perro Aguayo Sr., AJ Styles, El Hijo del Santo, Ric Flair, Shinsuke Nakamura, Chris Hero, L.A. Park, Daniel Bryan, but that one night in 2003 still remains my favorite pro wrestling-related memory. It's the one I cherish the most, it's the one I've talked about the most. When I did the Pharr From Heaven Photo Exhibit last year at Yerberia Cultura, the exhibit started with the photo I took of Guerrero that night. It was so great, I ended up missing the next day of school since I legitimately couldn’t go to sleep that night from how excited I was about it. What a great memory. 

Autographs of Rey Mysterio Jr. and Eddie Guerrero.