Arnold Furious: When ECW came barging into the public conscience in the mid 90s they did so with the full backing of die-hard wrestling fans. The WWF and WCW had, for a long time, been incredibly complacent about their roles as the top dogs in American wrestling, and the idea that an upstart Philadelphia regional promotion could make inroads into either promotions’ fan base was frankly laughable. But ECW captured the spirit of the time in a way that neither of the big two could. They took grunge music and angry disenchanted youth and put that in the ring. It was anti-establishment, it was in-your-face, and it broke all the rules. When ECW was really popular I was an angry young man, and it spoke to me. As soon as I learned about a bigger world of professional wrestling, thanks to the growth of the internet wrestling community, the first promotion I really got into was ECW. Soon I was picking up tapes from overseas and lending them to my friends, and pretty soon everyone I knew was an ECW fan. I strongly recall a conversation from the pub, circa 1997, where a guy with next to no interest in wrestling had been converted by New Jack, Rob Van Dam and Sabu. “If only all wrestling was like this.” If you weren’t there it’s hard to describe how important ECW was. Not only as a promotion to watch and enjoy, but also because they took two relatively lazy big companies and kicked them square in the ass. Vince McMahon was forced to change his entire business structure because a little group from Philly was getting chants on his PPVs. This is their story.
Eastern Championship Wrestling
We start our story with Paul Heyman. Not because he was the beginning of ECW, but because before Paul Heyman ECW was just another local Indie NWA affiliate, ran by Todd Gordon and booked by Eddie Gilbert. Eddie was a talented wrestler with a good mind for the business, but he was constantly falling out with people. As a result he seemed to keep missing out on his big break. He was in the WWF just before Hulkamania, he was in WCW but left before breaking the upper card, and he was constantly at the centre of pay disputes and conflicts with management. Eddie had a connection with Heyman as he’d worked with Paul in WCW, and Heyman had been Gilbert’s assistant when Eddie booked for Continental. Gilbert’s story had a tragic ending when he died of a heart attack in 1995. He was only 33.
Heyman’s genius came in hiding weaknesses and amplifying strengths. His first attempt to get traction was with Public Enemy, two rough and ready singles guys who he paired up and made into the most popular tag team in the company. Heyman quickly established Sabu as his top singles star due his scars and “total disrespect for his own wellbeing”. Sabu was innovative, violent and looked legitimately nuts. It was something different to put a man like that on top of the card. Heyman puts over Terry Funk for making ECW’s stars legitimate, because without Terry they were just a bunch of renegades. Funk had the history and the stature of a big star and none of the ego that went with that normally. The Night the Line Was Crossed is the first show to get mentioned, where ECW champion Terry Funk wrestled Sabu and former WCW talent Shane Douglas to a sixty-minute time-limit draw. They called it the return of wrestling. It was the first really good match in the company. “I pretty much told them to go fuck themselves,” offers Paul Heyman on WCW. “He hated WCW and everything they stood for” adds Tommy Dreamer.
Dreamer himself debuted as a rookie in ECW with suspenders and a jock gimmick. The crowd hated him… until a Singapore Cane match angle where The Sandman beat Dreamer and then caned him. It was brutal, and Tommy getting in Sandman’s face saying, “Is that all you got?” with blood pouring down his back was the point where Dreamer was accepted by the hardcore fans. Heyman talks about an angle where Dreamer blinded Sandman and the locker room joined forces to get hot about it, heels and faces together, breaking open the locker room on camera. It had never been done before. Sandman was going to retire, but it was all a swerve. The storytelling was so strong in early ECW. “Some people were offended… but everybody was talking” – Dreamer. ECW had a load of great storylines going with just about everyone including Mikey Whipwreck, who wasn’t even properly trained, but he had terrific sympathy. “We never gave him an offensive manoeuvre” – Heyman.
Extreme Championship Wrestling
ECW was chosen to host a tournament for the NWA Title, which had been vacant since WCW left the NWA in 1993. The chosen champion was the ECW Champion, Shane Douglas. Only Shane had a little surprise lined up for the NWA. He threw the belt down, renounced the NWA Title and declared himself to be the ECW World Heavyweight Champion. The NWA lineage legitimised the ECW promotion and the controversy put them in the spotlight. Poor Dennis Corraluzzo, NWA honcho at the time, found himself a patsy in ECW’s angle to get themselves over. He was convinced by Heyman to appear on ECW TV as part of the angle, only for the NWA to then get a hammering.
Heyman puts over Philadelphia as being the only place that ECW could have been born in due to the fan base in the city and the kind of wrestling they loved. During the mid 90s when Eddie Guerrero, Scorpio, Chris Benoit and Dean Malenko were wrestling there, the company started putting on some genuinely great wrestling matches. Heyman talks about extenuating the positives; the action and the excitement. Why be second best at pyro or production? ECW was the best at crowd interaction and going public on mistakes. They put over the fans, like Hat Guy, as they turned up to every show and even sat in the same seats. You could get away with so much more stuff with that crowd; like throwing Spike Dudley into the front row. The fans even brought their own weapons!
Paul Heyman stops off to put over Raven and what a phenomenal talent he was, as he could do anything that Heyman could imagine and it drove him creatively. The Raven-Dreamer feud was a classic, as they’d known each other since they were twelve and the back story was priceless. Tommy spent three years trying to beat Raven and couldn’t. Another killer feud was Taz vs. Sabu. They’d been tag team partners but they hated each other. Sabu walked out on ECW to take a Japanese booking so Paul fired him in the ring. The feud was in trouble as Sabu wasn’t there, then Taz broke his neck and missed nine months, but it remained simmering away on the backburner and years later was the main selling point for the first ECW PPV; Barely Legal.
WCW cleared out Benoit, Guerrero, and Malenko one after another with the promise of guaranteed contracts and national exposure on Nitro. Eric Bischoff gets to talk on the subject and calls it a double standard that Vince McMahon did the same thing in the 80s and doesn’t get called on it. “Eric Bischoff is full of shit” – Heyman. He goes on to point out all the other talent Bischoff stole, especially those he took to pad out his cruiserweight division. Vince gets a little defensive about the situation and points out that Heyman ended up on WWE’s payroll because they didn’t want to take and take, and run ECW out of business (although it’s not mentioned here, Paul was only on WWE’s payroll because of an agreement over Scorpio joining the WWF in 1996 that resulted in ECW losing sponsorship revenue). The luchadores came into ECW after the initial WCW talent raids, with Psicosis, Rey Misterio Jr., Juventud Guerrera and others given their first big North American matches in ECW and blowing people away.
With WCW stealing ECW talent, ECW thought turnabout was fair play and hired former WCW wrestler Steve Austin. Steve was angry about being fired and Heyman just called and asked him to talk about it on TV. The “Steve-a-Mania” and “Monday Nyquil” promos he did were solid gold. Nobody in WCW knew Austin could talk. Heyman wanted to put the belt on Austin but Steve turned it down, knowing he could tell a better story without winning. Heyman goes on to put over Mick Foley’s anti-hardcore promos from 1995, which he considers the best wrestling promos ever recorded. Foley’s ideas, concepts, and approach to promos were genius. Foley had originally been part of a talent swap with WCW but ended up in ECW full time when he walked out on Atlanta over creative differences.
Hotter and Hotter
While Taz was off injured he completely changed his persona from “rabid” Tazmaniac to an MMA-style fighter, giving his matches a “big match” atmosphere. While that was happening Raven stole the Sandman’s family, turning Sandman’s son against him. It was brilliant booking. Naturally Raven went too far with it, although as a heel you can never go too far. With the company catching fire everything seemed to work, even the Blue World Order, a mockery of the nWo angle. The never-ending Raven-Dreamer angle continued during this era too where Beulah, Raven’s girlfriend, got pregnant by Tommy and they went from there to a lesbian angle with Kimona. “I’ll take ‘em both, I’m hardcore!” – Dreamer. Heyman’s run-on booking was marvellous from 1995-1997, on a par with any great run-on booking in wrestling history. It’s part of the reason why he has such a stellar reputation as a booker.
King of the Ring 1995 was Vince’s wake-up call when the entire WWF audience started to chant “E-C-Dub” during the event, hating what McMahon was presenting. By the time he ran Philly again in 1996 with In Your House Mind Games, the WWF embraced ECW’s individuality and let them get involved in the show. Taz tells a funny story about the ECW boys hanging out together outside because they didn’t know if the WWF wrestlers would jump them.
PPV and Controversy
Raven crossed the line by crucifying the Sandman in an angle, and Paul Heyman ordered him back out to apologise for the blasphemy. Kurt Angle was in attendance at that show as a guest and he was so offended that he walked out and refused to work for ECW. Raven didn’t feel like he should have apologised because he was just getting heat. Oddly enough the WWF didn’t catch anywhere near the same amount of heat for The Undertaker doing the same thing to Steve Austin, though that’s like because he did it on his ‘Taker symbol rather than on a cross, and there was no crown of barbed wire either.
Heyman needed new talent and he needed more revenue, so pay-per-view was the holy ground, because being successful in that market meant ECW would get the kind of income needed in order to compete with the multi-million dollar companies. It was the fans who got them on TV and got them on PPV, by writing and emailing the TV stations and PPV providers. The dream of PPV almost died when New Jack slashed open the forehead of untrained youngster Mass Transit (Eric Kulas) with a knife during a live event. The kid had lied about his age, claiming to be twenty-three-years-old, but he was actually underage. The footage isn’t on the DVD, with good reason, and the PPV was cancelled. The Mass Transit Incident could have wrecked any hope ECW had of securing a PPV, but Paul begged and pleaded until he got back on in April 1997. The whole situation wouldn’t have happened if Axl Rotten had showed up for his spot, as Kulas was a last minute fill-in.
Kulas is yet another of wrestling’s tragic tales. After being wounded by New Jack he went on a three year legal campaign to try and get cash from ECW and New Jack himself. When presented with the full evidence from the situation, the jury acquitted the wrestler of any wrongdoing, putting the blame squarely at Kulas’ feet for lying about his age and level of training. Kulas passed away in 2002 after gastric bypass surgery. He was only twenty-two, never even making it to the age he’d professed to be in order to become a professional wrestler.
In order to sell the PPV the ECW guys appeared on WWF RAW at Vince McMahon’s invitation. The ECW RAW was one of the most memorable and exhilarating TV shows the WWF had put on to that point, and the difference between the ECW talent and their effort and ambition compared to the WWF’s talent was staggering. That RAW was the defining point for me, where I went from being interested in the concept of ECW to a full-blown fan. It helped that the WWF sucked at the time. Jerry Lawler once again bad-mouths ECW and how poor he thought it was. He wasn’t just playing a heel during that run, he really didn’t like ECW.
Barely Legal was ECW’s first PPV and it was a home run. There’s a wonderful Paul Heyman promo from backstage on Wrestling With Shadows where he addressed the locker room, which presumably WWE don’t have the rights to as it doesn’t air. The PPV’s big surprise was Rob Van Dam, who decided to cut a promo after his win over Lance Storm. It’s one of the best promos of his entire career, which shows the benefit of a) being angry and b) improvising. Taz vs. Sabu was the match that the PPV was built around, with them finally meeting for the first time after having feuded for years beforehand. When you build a match for that long and you have a clean finish, you’re onto a winner. The show also had a triple threat number one contender’s match pitting Terry Funk against Stevie Richards and The Sandman in a three way dance, and Terry Funk taking down Raven for the ECW Title to end the show on a feel-good high. The pinfall went down a matter of seconds before the transformer in the arena blew up and took them off the air. It was a case of great timing and better luck.
Not mentioned here are the show stealing efforts of the Michinoku Pro wrestlers involved in a six-man tag (including Taka Michinoku and The Great Sasuke). The match is one of the reasons why Barely Legal is held in such high regard, and it was such a state-of-the-art piece of grappling that it got me interested in checking out other smaller Japanese promotions. I’d already been turned on to the Japanese death matches, All Japan, and the New Japan juniors, but this was yet another style of Japanese wrestling; lucharesu, which you couldn’t see anywhere else. It was smart of Heyman to include it on the card as it made the show stand out. The WWF evidently agreed, and booked Sasuke against Michinoku in a singles bout at In Your House: Canadian Stampede, then hired Michinoku’s Barely Legal tag partners Men’s Teioh and Dick Togo in 1998.
Despite ECW running strong, Raven departed for WCW and on his way out put over Tommy Dreamer, finally, thus ending their years long feud and giving fans another long-awaited pay-off. With WCW repeatedly knocking at ECW’s door and waving cash under the noses of their top stars (the likes of Perry Saturn, Louis Spicolli, Stevie Richards and others soon followed Raven to Atlanta, and all of the Mexican luchadores had already been snapped up by ATM Eric in 1996), the WWF stepped in and bailed the group out by sending over Jerry Lawler (and Jim Cornette) to feud with Dreamer. As far as feuds go it felt real, which is why the crowd responded so hard to it.
The company became increasingly paranoid, and Paul Heyman suggested that Todd Gordon was helping people get moves to WCW. His plan was to do an ECW invasion of WCW, with WCW taking talent like they had done with Scott Hall and Kevin Nash from the WWF. Gordon was given the heave-ho and replaced as ECW head by Heyman. Bill Alfonso had been part of those talks to take people to WCW, and was almost fired too until he saved his job with a bloody and brutal match against Beulah, of all people. It was the story that made the match and they beat the crap out of each other.
Tangent: Interestingly, this was the first ECW match that Vince McMahon ever watched. With the WWF working closely with the company, Jim Cornette questioned whether his boss had even seen the product he was so happy to jump into bed with. Vince hadn’t, because he didn’t (and doesn’t) watch wrestling that wasn’t WWF, so Cornette showed him this match. He was somewhat taken aback to say the least. It is probably no coincidence that the WWF/ECW working relationship became less prominent after that.
We learn that the boys were all part of the running of ECW, with Bubba Ray Dudley doing a lot of the day to day dealing with arenas, Tommy Dreamer running TV shows, Taz in charge of designing, handling, and shipping merchandise, as well as designing logos, and the ECW “Hardcore Hotline” manned by Stevie Richards (under the phoney name of Lloyd Van Buren). Almost all of the boys had an (additional unpaid) office job as well as being a wrestler. It was a group effort.
Drinking the Kool Aid
“Paul E was to me, the David Koresh of pro-wrestling.” – Bubba. Heyman was such an inspirational figure that he brainwashed wrestlers to perform and made ECW a must-see promotion. Anything that started to catch on, like Al Snow talking to Head, was built into the promotion of the shows. So Heyman bought hundreds of Styrofoam heads and handed them out, creating this rave-like atmosphere at the live shows, making them more appealing for people to actually go to. Originally they’d gone after this market by smashing tables and bleeding everywhere and that “New Jack market” continued throughout ECW’s history, but they found other ways to attract fans.
Going into 1998 they started running four shows a week, but Eric Bischoff shoots down the possibility that ECW could have ever become the #2 promotion in America. Although, WCW in 2000 was so completely worthless that ECW, also at its lowest ebb, was a more important promotion. But then they both went out of business, so it’s a moot point. Mick Foley, among others, attributes ECW for the existence of the WWF Attitude Era. 1998 saw the beginning of ECW’s creative decline but the audience was still red hot and the matches weren’t bad either. The entire of 1998 was about Taz going after the ECW Title to the point where he got sick of Shane Douglas ducking him and created the Fuck The World (FTW) Title.
Another act that thrived in 1998 were The Dudleys, who were drawing insane levels of heat and getting into genuine fights with the ECW fans. That and they started doing flaming tables. “We probably went too far every single night” – Bubba. He cites the Dayton PPV show, Heatwave ’98, as when they crossed the line with a, “We got a mom in the front row who taught her daughter how to suck dick,” gag.
During 1998 and 1999 both the WWF and WCW became so cash rich with the wrestling boom that every ECW talent found themselves as potential hires for the big two. Bam Bam Bigelow walked out and went to WCW, and all the regular guys found themselves questioning their positions. Cheques started bouncing as Paul’s cash flow problems got worse. Lance Storm made a point of telling Paul Heyman that he couldn’t take any more bounced cheques, and had his cheques Fed-Exed to his house after two failures on Heyman’s part. Tommy Dreamer went six months without a regular pay day. “Our greatest asset was also our greatest detriment and that was Paul,” – Dreamer.
Paul tried to take on too much and wasn’t sleeping. He got burned out and there was no one to replace him. He ended up focusing on TV deals and the product suffered, in terms of storylines. ECW got on to TNN but soon discovered their TV deal was a curse. Vince McMahon points out that being on TV means you can’t just cater to one demographic as it wouldn’t have crossover appeal. As soon as they got on TV the WWF came in for the Dudleys, and then Taz right afterward. Taz left, or so he says, because the challenge had gone and he felt there was nowhere else to go in ECW. The Dudleys weren’t owed any money, but Heyman felt he couldn’t compete with a WWF offer and just told them to take it. The Dudleys wanted a one dollar raise and Heyman told them the same thing; he couldn’t compete with the WWF. Heyman tried a few booking swerves with the departures and the Dudleys won the tag titles on their last night in the company, only for Raven to walk out on WCW and re-debut in ECW to tag with Tommy Dreamer and win the belts. The return of Raven still gives me chills.
ECW quickly soured on TNN as the network constantly requested changes to the point where Heyman virtually sabotaged his own deal. The solution was Cyrus, the network representative played by former WWF manager The Jackyl (Don Callis), who acted as an onscreen censor and a way to get around the problems TNN created. Heyman is particularly salty about the lack of support from TNN and the production values the network wanted. Heyman cut a promo at the start of one show where he begged TNN to throw him off the air. “We’re dead and we can’t get out of the line of fire.” – Heyman.
ECW’s one saving grace during this period was Rob Van Dam, who had remained loyal to ECW despite his character being a guy who wanted to go to the WWF or WCW. As TV Champion he was the company’s top babyface… until he broke his leg, one month short of a two-year run as champ. Another swerve in the booking came when ECW Champion Mike Awesome defected to WCW with the belt, making him the most hated man in Philadelphia. The WWF came to the rescue by sending Taz back to ECW to beat WCW contracted wrestler Awesome for the ECW Title. It was a landmark moment. Taz was so hot at the time, but what did the WWF do with him? Jobbed him to Triple H on free TV. “I can’t tell you what my frame of mind was at that time” – Vince McMahon, in a round-about way admitting that he made a mistake.
Bischoff blames ECW’s demise on them refusing to change when faced with TV stations, advertisers and special interest groups. Vince McMahon offers a similar opinion. Paul Heyman was in big financial trouble as he needed TV to support his business model and knew he was getting kicked off TNN, but until TNN officially declared their agreement to be over he couldn’t negotiate with anyone else. In the last few months the boys were left with a choice; stay and probably not get paid or find work elsewhere. Almost everyone stayed, out of loyalty to Heyman and the promotion. To the wrestlers the problems made no sense as the promotion was drawing full houses every night and doing great business. Within a month of ECW closing WCW closed and there were a mass of unemployed wrestlers with nowhere to go. Heyman claims if they’d got another TV show before WCW closed they’d still be in business. With the company dead Paul Heyman signed for the WWF and debuted as colour commentator in March 2001, replacing the departing Jerry Lawler. Various wrestlers close out the documentary by talking about the fans still chanting “ECW”, and how the legend of the promotion has persevered.
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