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WWE At MSG: “Nostalgia Is More Powerful Than Heroin”

The moments are burned into the memories of professional wrestling fans.

The night Hulkamania arrived in the WWF.

The first time “Stone Cold” Steve Austin delivered a Stone Cold Stunner to Vince McMahon.

John Cena’s surprise return from injury to win the Royal Rumble.

Just to name a few.

It seems WWE loves to save its biggest moments for Madison Square Garden.

Which made me wonder why Saturday night’s “Live From Madison Square Garden” special on the WWE Network will be the first event it will broadcast live from MSG in nearly four years. The last one was the 2011 Survivor Series, headlined by The Rock and John Cena vs. The Miz and R-Truth.

“Madison Square Garden is still very special to WWE.”

Graham Cawthon knows a lot about WWE’s history at Madison Square Garden. He’s the founder and proprietor of TheHistoryOfWWE.com, an incredibly dense collection of professional wrestling history. He’s also the author of six books on the history of pro wrestling, including “Holy Ground: 50 Years of WWE at Madison Square Garden”. He says MSG is the most historic arena in pro wrestling, and the most important for WWE.

So, why did WWE seemingly turn its back on its long, storied history at “The World’s Most Famous Arena”? It all comes down to money.

Back in 2011, while The Rock and John Cena were headlining Survivor Series, Madison Square Garden was undergoing a $1 billion renovation. The project altered WWE’s future at MSG. It resulted in higher rent costs and lower seating capacity. Today, MSG is no longer as profitable for WWE as it was in years past, and the company turned another arena into its top choice in the New York metropolitan area.

Since Survivor Series 2011, WWE has broadcast seven live events from Brooklyn’s Barclays Center. The company gets to draw from the same massive pool of passionate New York fans without paying the high rent at MSG. Also, WWE can pack more than 15,000 fans into Barclays. MSG now tops out around 14,000 (UPDATE: The announced attendance during the “Live From MSG” special was more than 19,000, but paid attendance for MSG events since Surivor Series 2011 was never more than 14,000). It’s a more profitable venture for WWE, which is likely why the company just committed to holding SummerSlam, its third-biggest event of the year, at Barclays Center in 2016 and 2017. There will also be Raw and NXT specials during those weekends.

WWE’s return to Madison Square Garden Saturday night is also the return of Brock Lesnar. He’s had his share of memorable moments at MSG. It began for him back in January 2002. Before Lesnar made his WWE television debut, he made his MSG debut in a dark match before an episode of Raw (It’s the same night Triple H returned from his first quad tear, and received a thunderous ovation).

Less than a year later, Lesnar was back as the WWE Undisputed Champion, but his reign ended when he was defeated by Big Show at Survivor Series 2002.

Then, there’s WrestleMania XX, and one of the most infamous matches in modern pro wrestling history, Brock Lesnar vs. Goldberg. It’s the last time Lesnar was inside a WWE ring at Madison Square Garden. Cawthon was there.

“I loved it. I thought it was entertaining.”

The crowd knew both Lesnar and Goldberg were leaving WWE after WrestleMania XX, and they made their displeasure loud and clear.

“It speaks to that traditional Madison Square Garden crowd. You better give them something they want.”

Cawthon loves the texture fans add to the history of pro wrestling. During the 1970’s, it wasn’t unusual to see famous faces in the crowd at Madison Square Garden. Andy Kaufman and Blondie lead singer Debbie Harry were just some of the regulars, according to Cawthon. Long before the days of “Rock ‘n’ Wrestling Connection”, they made pro wrestling cool.

Cawthon hopes Saturday night’s show at Madison Square Garden is the first of many we see on the WWE Network. He’s dreaming of a live broadcast during the holidays. WWE traditionally holds a show at MSG during the week of Christmas. Cawthon thinks it would be the perfect opportunity for another big special on the WWE Network.

WWE has plenty of reasons to abandon Madison Square Garden, but it may have just as many, if not more, to keep coming back. Cawthon seems to know exactly why WWE can’t let go.

“Nostalgia is more powerful than heroin.”