This is now the seventh time I've deleted my words and tried to start over. Still, it hasn't gotten any easier. It's been about three weeks since Jim Kettner--the longtime promoter of the East Coast Wrestling Association (and my friend)--quietly slipped out the back door of the Boys and Girls' Club of Newark, Delaware, presumably never to return. After three long weeks, the news still hasn't gotten any easier to digest.
I first became familiar with Jim and his ECWA product when I was invited by a few colleagues to attend my first Super 8 tournament, back in 2007. As an avid reader of Pro Wrestling Illustrated, I was somewhat familiar with the tournament and its historical significance. For those who are unaware, Super 8 has served as a launch-pad for a number of careers. It has showcased men such as Christopher Daniels, Jeff Hardy, Low-Ki, Bryan Danielson, AJ Styles, and, most recently, Consequences Creed, among dozens of other men. For many, it was a first small taste of a lot of the glory that would lie ahead later in their careers.
Despite being somewhat star-struck when meeting Jerry Lynn, Sonjay Dutt, Rob Conway, and Nunzio that night, my most significant memory will always be sitting down with Jim during the show. I'll never forget the sight of Jim with his slick, jet-black hair and now oh-so-familiar red button down shirt and black tie strolling toward me, taking up the vacant seat to my right, and casually telling me my input on the show would mean a lot to him. Here I sat--little more than a casual fan--surrounded by a half a dozen fellow PWI writers, men and women all infinitely more familiar with the ECWA product and infinitely more knowledgeable about what made for good wrestling...and HE took the time to sit down and learn about all that I thought.
It was at that moment that I was hooked.
Over the years, I'm so proud to say that my friendship with Jim has grown with each show. I can remember, in particular, a time of great difficulty for me, personally, in which Jim would contact me almost weekly, and even posted a notice on the ECWA website advising its fans to keep me in their thoughts. Like so many others, I could probably come up with a dozen heart-warming Jim Kettner stories.
I can also look back on many of our conversations and see vague inferences to his tenure starting to wind down, from the passing "I'm getting too old for this" to the not-so-subtle "Do you think the ECWA will have staying power when I'm not around?"
For 43 years, Jim Kettner has served the ECWA and its fans to his absolute fullest. Whether as a wrestler, a promoter, a mentor, or a friend, Jim has been instrumental in so many men and women making it in the wrestling business (or, if nothing else, feeling really good about themselves along the way). The ongoing list of ECWA "graduates" includes Daniels, Christian, Devon "Crowbar" Storm, Andrew "Test" Martin, Bryan Danielson, Low-Ki, and, most recently, Darren Young. After years of thinking about it, I would attribute this recipe for success to one part solid wrestling knowledge, one part caring mentorship, and a dash of family.
Perhaps even more telling than the long and strong list of men who have left ECWA to go on to fame and big-money contracts are the not-so-famous wrestlers, men who have mentored under Jim for any period of time, be it a few weeks or more than a decade. One of the truly unique things about Jim's roster is that it includes a number of dedicated wrestlers who--unlike a lot of other indies--have remained loyal to Jim AND JIM ALONE, despite strong offers to ply their trades elsewhere.
It always comes back to family.
Over the years, the manner in which Jim, his staff, and fraternity of wrestlers have welcomed me, a total stranger, into this extended family is like nothing I have ever experienced. I am guessing this close kinship is pretty much the only reason I've been able to come to terms with the tremendous loss that is Jim Kettner, and why I believe ultimately the ECWA will thrive under its new management. Just as in any family, there comes a point where cooking Thanksgiving dinner becomes too much of a chore for Grandma to keep it going. In that case, there is usually some other family member willing to take on the added responsibility just to keep tradition alive.
In promoters Mike Tartaglia and Joe Zanolle--himself a PWI colleague and, coincidentally, ECWA Hall of Famer--Jim has found two men who care, very much, about many of the same nuances. In less than a year, Mike and Joe have taken their own vision for the revamped Tri-State Wrestling Alliance from a vague idea to a family show that is very similar in nature to the ECWA. Plus, Joe has firsthand knowledge of Jim's magic, having personally stood at ringside capturing images of the faces of the ECWA for many, years.
Recently, Jim sent me an e-mail, telling me about all of the confidence he had in his successors. He certainly must, to walk away from a promotion that has been his since 1967. Everything about ECWA--from its ringside fans, to its yellow-shirted staff, to the very men who sacrifice their health each month in an ECWA ring--resonates with the close kinship that Jim has helped instill.
It is a kinship I know Mike and Joe hold close to their own hearts, as well.
For anyone who has never been to a Jim Kettner-promoted ECWA event, I don't believe things will change that drastically. I recommend giving the company a chance. My heart still aches for the loss of my close friend to retirement, but Jim's very spirit will live on for years in the hearts, in the minds, and in the attitudes of those with whom he was always closest: those he considered family.
Brady Hicks/PWI Contributing Writer