In 1998, John Zandig, who made a name for himself as “The Icon” on the independent scene in years prior, opened a small wrestling school with the hopes of using the training center as a place to sharpen his skills. While The Icon was a spin off of the Ultimate Warrior character, Zandig looked to redefine himself and as he began training students at the school, the prospect of a new company was formed. In early 1999, Combat Zone Wrestling held its inaugural event and in the months that followed, the new group began to generate an underground following for its willingness to push the envelope with matches that often featured chairs, fire, and barbed wire. Along with Zandig, scarred brawlers like Lobo, Nick Mondo, Nick Gage, and others spilled blood and risked serious injury to cultivate a cult following for CZW in its early years. Mostly seen in Japan, the league brought the death match style, which often features light tubes and other dangerous objects to the United States independent circuit, essentially pioneering the ultraviolent genre that became extremely popular in the years that followed.
This Saturday at the Flyer Skate Zone in New Jersey, CZW will present “Seventeen” as a way to celebrate and commemorate the history of one of the top independent promotions in the United States. However, reaching this destination of 17 years of innovate and ultraviolet wrestling was not always an easy path. For the first decade of its existence, Zandig ran the organization through the ups and downs. From record crowds to building shut downs and from stacked events to behind the scenes disputes, the veteran of numerous hardcore battles kept the Combat Zone moving forward.
Finally in 2009, when the pressure of an economic recession affected revenue and personal burn out from running the promotion full time, John Zandig knew his time as the boss of CZW was coming to a close. There was much speculation as to the future of the promotion and few knew what was next. It was announced that CZW competitor, DJ Hyde had purchased the company from Zandig and was the new owner with plans to continue to evolve the product. At the time, DJ was a six-year pro of the industry and he was new to the ownership role, but a master’s degree in business allowed him to feel prepared for the challenge ahead of him.
“There’s always the financial worries like this could happen or that could happen, but there wasn’t anything to stop me, I was pretty gung-ho about it. The business is changing for about the past five years now. Branding is the biggest challenge now. You can’t exactly have a consist roster, even our most loyal guys, you can see within an hour on a different day so it’s a challenge to brand them as our guys. The other biggest one is financial and with the internet and having easy access to things, and finding a way to get around things. It really does hurt the companies, the ones that do it on a short budget, the avenues to make money are getting smaller. You can find people that upload our shows on Youtube,” DJ Hyde said.
One of the hurdles that DJ knew he had to clear during his tenure in the CZW office was the perception that the Combat Zone was strictly a blood and guts type of group. During much of the previous regime, dangerous stunts for the sake of shock value, such as John Zandig hanging from meat hooks, took priority over technical wrestling or storylines. As part of his initiative to diversify the product, well rounded stars like Adam Cole, Lio Rush, Mike Bailey, and others were prominently featured on DJ Hyde’s cards. The ultraviolent aspect wasn’t forgotten though as the Tournament of Death and Cage Of Death both remain staples of the CZW calendar, and allow the “hybrid” style to provide performances within the death match environment. Another important key of freshening up the events was a working agreement with Big Japan Pro Wrestling and Germany’s WXW in recent years, which allowed for a talent exchange among all three groups. Scarred Japanese grapplers like Jun Kasai, Ruyji Ito, and Jaki Numazawa all made notable appearances in the Combat Zone. Along with CZW stars traveling to Japan, they also competed in Europe for co-promoted shows with WXW.
“You gotta be different, you gotta give fans something they don’t see. Everyone is trying to get money and exposure. My concepts are a lot different than a lot of other people. I have a vision of what I believe wrestling should be. My concept when I took over, I wanted to be what I call the buffet table of professional wrestling to give people a variety. If you look at the shows as a whole, there’s something for everyone,” DJ said.
As time went on, the international exposure was generating a renewed buzz for the company and to capitalize on the addition of internet pay-per-view shows in 2011, which allowed fans around the globe to watch the action live from CZW’s home base at the Flyer Skate Zone in New Jersey. While the historic “Seventeen” event will be streaming live online this Saturday, if you can attend the event, you should be there as one of the most valuable performers in the history of the organization is honored. Before Drake Weurtz put on the stripes to officiate thrilling NXT bouts, Drake Younger was one of the sport’s most traveled workers and was known for his ability to wrestle any style. A former CZW heavyweight champion, Drake held the title for over a year and a half. Outside of the ring, Weurtz transformed himself into a leaner, more focused athlete and his positivity remains an inspiration to many that know him. To acknowledge his ultraviolent accomplishments, Drake will be inducted into the CZW Hall of Fame, an exclusive presentation for those in the building and will not to a part of the IPPV broadcast.
“We are the one company out of the major independent companies that do IPPV that haven’t had any problems and we never had a delay in the middle of the shows. We work with Highspots, but my team actually does it. We test it and we make sure it works and then we are going to do it. We make sure we know what we’re doing before we put the product out there,” said Hyde.
Drake Younger is making a one-time return this Saturday, but other mainstays of the north east group recently returned and are looking to reassert themselves in the promotion. Sami Callihan, who made a name for himself in CZW before his two-year stint as Solomon Crowe, returned home in December and is scheduled to battle Canadian stand out Mike Bailey in an anticipated contest. Masada, a nearly 15 year veteran of the industry and one of CZW’s most popular stars, recently returned as well. After wrestling extensively in Japan throughout his career, Masada is known for his versatile style and is booked to wrestle AR Fox in a rematch from a bout that received rave reviews in 2012. The main event will feature “The Bulldozer” Matt Tremont vs. Devon Moore in a ladder match for the CZW world championship.
The CZW owner spoke very highly of his roster saying, “In ring and behind the scene, Sami back here is truly great. Sami and I have a very unique relationship, he’s like my little brother. Masada, as a competitor, is believable and a lot of people don’t know he can actually wrestle since he’s done all the death match stuff. As a person, you want him on you’re team, if there’s a bar fight or a whatever, he’ll say let’s go,” Hyde continued.
DJ had even more praise for his champion, Matt Tremont saying, “Matt Tremont is the heart and soul of CZW, he would do anything for this company and do more than anyone, even me.”
This Saturday at the Flyers Skate Zone in New Jersey, Combat Zone Wrestling will present its 17th anniversary event. From high flying aerial displays to blood baths, CZW has found its way to become one of the most well known independent companies in the world. After over a decade and a half of peaks and valleys, there’s much to reflect on when examining the history of the Combat Zone, but there’s always a focus of the future.
“There are two things that we need to get done in 2016. The number priority is getting TV again and we are working on a deal right now with some people. If you look at the top companies out there, they all have TV and that’s where we want to be. The second priority, not as important as TV, but still a priority is getting our own building, the CZW arena. That way we don’t have to worry about working with other people and we can do our own thing,” Hyde said.
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