Wrestling fans in 2019 have a cornucopia of choices at their disposal to satiate their auditory appetites. Between Chris Jericho’s jolting Talk is Jericho, Edge and Christian’s clever E&C Pod of Awesomeness, and Bruce Prichard’s polemical Something to Wrestle with Bruce Prichard, there is seemingly an option for every admirer of the grappling game. One particular podcast, however, originally presented as part of the terrestrial radio medium decades ago, has recently resurfaced in a unique way.
Pro Wrestling Spotlight Then & Now, the brainchild of utility man John Arezzi, whose extensive biography in the industry includes everything from ringside photographer to convention promoter to even a VERY brief stint as a professional wrestler, largely differs from other current similarly themed broadcasts on the business due to one important factor – nostalgia.
Initially launched in 1989 on WNYG (AM), a low-range station on Long Island, N.Y., before morphing into various different incarnations, Pro Wrestling Spotlight was one of the first programs of its type to analyze wrestling in an honest manner. While most coverage in the 1980s maintained the practice of kayfabe, or the portrayal of wrestling as a legitimate athletic contest, Arezzi produced a show that didn’t insult the intelligence of the audience. Now, 30 years later, PWS has evolved into PWS Then & Now – and Arezzi is poised to take pro wrestling by storm yet again.
The new tiered venture, co-hosted by Brian Last, also a former listener of Arezzi’s, looks back at the early programs, mixing classic content with current commentary, while paid subscribers receive the full, unedited radio shows, many of which were rarely heard at the time due to modest range, for only $5 a month.
Away from the wrestling business for nearly a quarter century due to a series of negative incidents that soured the former radio host’s outlook, Arezzi’s self-imposed exile came to an abrupt end late last year following some key long-lost discoveries in his attic after putting his house up for sale. “I was throwing stuff out and came across a bunch of wrestling memorabilia I’d saved over the years,” recalled Arezzi in a recent chat with Royal Flush. “Old Pro Wrestling Spotlight tapes, 8mm films that I shot at Madison Square Garden, photos from when I was a photographer. I thought to myself, maybe I have something here.”
A loyal subscriber to the WWE Network from the over-the-top streaming service’s inception in 2014, he never stopped following the wrestling industry even during his time as an outsider, but he admits to what his true passion is – its history. “I love that there’s a lot of old content on there. So I contacted WWE’s archives department, sent them some samples, and after a few meetings, they seemed really interested. But as time progressed, there was no movement on anything,” Arezzi explained. He wasn’t in a rush to sell or license the content, but Arezzi also didn’t want to remain stagnant, especially in the current wrestling climate, which has seen a resurgence in interest over the last few years, largely because of companies such as New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW) and All Elite Wrestling (AEW), the former a long-time foreign powerhouse now gaining popularity in the United States and the latter an upstart with tremendous buzz formed by billionaire sports executive Tony Khan and arguably the hottest group of wrestlers around today in Cody and Brandi Rhodes, Matt and Nick Jackson (The Young Bucks), and Kenny Omega.
Another key element in Arezzi’s comeback came about as the result of his past partnership with an individual that he’s probably more associated with than any other, despite the relationship lasting a mere three months in early 1992.
Ex-World Wrestling Federation (WWF, now WWE or World Wrestling Entertainment) and World Championship Wrestling (WCW, now defunct) controversial head writer Vince Russo, before becoming one of the most polarizing figures in the history of wrestling, got his start in the business in what was thought at the time to be a mutually beneficial collaboration with Arezzi. Russo, an avid follower of the sport, owned a couple of video stores on Long Island, while Arezzi was faced with the costly financial burden of keeping his weekly radio show afloat.
After a fateful introduction between the pair by the one-time fan club president of legendary manager (and self-professed Russo loather) Jim Cornette, the duo would eventually experience one of the nastiest, most volatile, splits in the annals of wrestling lore. Occurring in the thick of the infamous WWF drug and sex scandals of the early 1990s, a dark period for the industry in which several of the promotion’s top stars, including kingpin Hulk Hogan, were investigated for steroid use, while simultaneously several company officials were being accused of sexual harassment, including the abuse of minors, the two partners very quickly discovered their philosophical differences in covering the news stories of the era.
Although reporting on the sordid daily details essentially eliminated any chance of a working relationship with the WWF, Arezzi’s journalistic integrity prevented him from ‘playing softball’ with the group. Russo, conversely, felt that the WWF was being unfairly persecuted and furthermore, intended to use his clout to get his foot in the door in the form of a gig with the company, the top player in the game.
As far as Arezzi is concerned, taking the route Russo did was never an option for him. “It wasn’t in me to do that,” he insisted. “What would’ve happened to the trust I built up with the thousands of people who listened to my show each week? They were counting on an objective point of view.” And while Arezzi concedes that he would’ve embraced having a regular role in the WWF or WCW at some point, a feat that Russo achieved, he realizes that wasn’t the time. “It was just a bad industry back then,” he affirmed.
It was last November when Arezzi’s nephew, a fan of wrestling thanks to his uncle, informed him of some disparaging comments made by Russo about him on his own podcast, Vince Russo’s Truth With Consequences. Between that and derogatory commentary written by Russo in his autobiography that Arezzi felt was inaccurate, he’d had enough. Only a month later, the ex-friends agreed to air everything out, resulting in a riveting face-to-face discussion on YouTube that lasted over two hours. Arezzi was pleased with the outcome.
“I was finally able to tell the whole story from my perspective, and it was a good conversation,” Arezzi believed. “No yelling or screaming and we treated each other with respect. Then, around Christmas, we went out to breakfast. It ended nicely.” But despite settling their differences, don’t expect the two to work together anytime soon. “Never say never, but I can’t see it happening and that’s okay,” he added.
Nowadays, fan conventions are commonplace in wrestling circles. But when Arezzi held his inaugural ‘Weekend of Champions’ meet-and-greet in 1990, it was the first of its kind, and instantly became an anticipated yearly event for northeast grappling buffs as well as fanatics who had no problem traveling from all over the world to attain autographs and take pictures with their idols. And it’s likely what the pioneer is most remembered for.
“I really thought the ‘Weekend of Champions’ concept was great. They were ahead of their time,” Arezzi stated. While he acknowledges the fact that he promoted them a bit too much like a fan rather than a businessman, overloading the events with too many performers to generate a profit, he believes he’s learned from his mistakes and is toying with a possible 30-year anniversary show in 2020. “It’ll be on a much smaller scale than the ones years ago,” he clarified. “I might even do it in Queens, where the others were and where many of my early listeners were from,” he continued.
Arezzi names Ric Flair, Buddy Rogers, Bruno Sammartino, and Lou Thesz as the guests he’s most proud of booking on his ‘WOC’ spectacles. “Definitely the Original Sheik, Ed Farhat, as well, because he never did an appearance like that. And he stayed in character the entire time,” he recalled. “Here’s a guy who was stabbing his opponents with pencils and throwing fireballs in the 60s. I was petrified of him,” he laughed.
Another mainstay of Arezzi’s conventions was Nancy Toffoloni, better known as the sultry Woman, manager of her one-time husband Kevin Sullivan. After their divorce, Toffoloni went on to marry Chris Benoit, a name that, unfortunately, even non-fans of the sport are familiar with. In 2007, Benoit murdered his wife and young son before committing suicide in the worst tragedy to ever hit professional wrestling. Arezzi was devastated. “She was such a sweet person. Smart, easy to work with, and I loved her dearly,” he reflected. “To this day, Kevin is one of my best friends in the business.”
The horrific incident is something that Arezzi feels would be worthy of further exploration, perhaps as part of the Dark Side of the Ring documentary series, created by Evan Husney and Jason Eisener, that’s been universally praised for its accurate and respectful investigations into some of wrestling’s most fascinating tales, including the Von Erich family saga, the complicated relationship between Randy “Macho Man” Savage and his wife/manager Elizabeth, and the killing of Bruiser Brody. “I think it needs to be talked about, and I have a lot of footage of Nancy that can be used,” he offered. “But there’s an endless supply of stories to be told.”
Since reemerging, Arezzi has been overwhelmed with support and encouragement by a slew of performers from his past. “Mick Foley has always been there for me. I’ve known him for so many years. Sean Waltman, Konnan, Kevin Sullivan, and so many others,” he beamed. “It’s really been heartwarming.”
And as if a new podcast and a potential revisit to the convention world aren’t enough, Arezzi also plans to add ‘author’ to his eclectic résumé as part of his comeback. An autobiography is in the works and it will cover much more than his wrestling career. “When I left the business, I was burned-out. I changed my name, moved to Nashville, where I’ve been for 20 years, and worked in country music,” he said matter-of-factly. “I’ve worked with some big names and helped discover Kelsea Ballerini, who’s huge today. But something lured me back into wrestling. It’s like an itch that you can’t scratch away.”
It’s clear that Arezzi is excited about the future. But even if he was to leave it all behind again one day, his legacy is apparent.
“It’s always been about the fans,” he declared. “I’ve always tried my best to take care of them and to give them the opportunity to meet their larger-than-life heroes. For the longest time, I put wrestling in the rear view. I didn’t want to be found. Some people thought I died, and others thought I was in witness protection,” Arezzi joked. “But I still have more to contribute. And I think the timing is just right.”