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  • ECW: Twenty Years Dead And Still More Alive Than Ever

    Published on May 5, 2021

    Photo credit: WWE.com

    By Joe Baiamonte

    “I felt the business needed to change in the same way the music industry had changed. Music was all Poison and Motley Crue and all these hair bands and then along came Nirvana and BAM, the whole industry changed. We needed wrestling’s version of Nirvana to come along and just shake everything up, so Todd Gordon gave me his blessing to take over the show. So on September 18th, 1993, I opened up the show at the ECW Arena with an act called The Public Enemy”

    – Paul Heyman, ‘The Rise and Fall of ECW’

    When Johnny Grunge and Flyboy Rocco Rock heralded in the Paul E. era of ECW, helping the Philadelphia promotion become more Extreme than Eastern, very few wrestling fans could have predicted how influential this bingo hall promotion in the North East was going to become over the next eight years. Yet 20 years removed from ECW’s demise, here we are, still witnessing it’s influence on North American pro wrestling on a weekly basis.

    On April 4th, 2001, ECW officially shut up shop, declaring bankruptcy with their owner and cult leader already lending his talents to the Monday Night Raw commentary team, alongside Jim Ross. A little under three months earlier, on January 13th in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, Tommy Dreamer and The Sandman had toasted the crowd for one last time at the promotion’s final show. The wake-like mood in the locker room a testimony to the mindset of most of the roster that, even though a time of death had not been officially declared on ECW, the plug had already been pulled.

    Yet not everyone shared that mentality. One such person being CW Anderson, a relative newcomer to the land of Extreme, having debuted 18 months earlier, in the summer of 1999 and fresh off a killer ‘I Quit’ match with Tommy Dreamer at the company’s final PPV, Guilty As Charged 2001.

    “I was really naive, I was like ‘man, this is ECW, ECW can’t close'” Anderson explained to Wrestling Travel, “The last show, in Arkansas, everybody was in there crying and I’m sitting there trying to be optimistic, saying ‘we’re not closing, man. This is just a down spell, Paul’s gonna pull us through and we’ll come through all this.’ Then that son of a bitch left us high and dry.”

    Like many ECW alumni, Anderson was not only dumbfounded, but apoplectic when Heyman showed up at the announce desk next to Good Ol’ JR on Raw just a few weeks after the Arkansas show.

    “We heard shit like he was in California shooting the movie ‘Rollerball’ when he was supposed to be getting us on the USA Network” lamented Anderson, “I heard on Jim Ross’ podcast the other day, Jim said Paul was on Vince’s payroll the entire time because Jim said he wrote Paul a cheque every time they got paid. So that makes things even more bitter towards Paul, but those last days, they were hard because even when we closed, Paul didn’t have the guts to tell us. We found out we were done when we saw Paul commentating on Raw.

    “I went through an eight month depression spell because I’d worked my ass off for seven years to get to ECW and now I’m back to square zero again. Every one of us took it hard, except the ones that Paul took care of and took to WWE with him.”

    Most notably, an ECW original who made quite the name for themselves when they traded extremism in for Sports Entertainment in 2001 along with Heyman, was the Whole F’N Show, Mr. Monday Night himself, Rob…Van…Dam (it really is impossible to not say his name like that, even when typing it).

    Van Dam would perhaps become most notorious during his lengthy tenure with WWE as being the inaugural champion of the reborn ECW brand, under Vince McMahon’s stewardship in 2006. The former Television Champ and thumb pointing enthusiast paired the ECW World Championship with his newly acquired WWE Title, won from John Cena at the second One Night Stand, only to be devoid of both less than a month later when he failed a Wellness Policy test.

    The recently minted Hall of Famer spoke exclusively to WT about why, even when there was so much interest in his services on both sides of the Monday Night Wars, which saw multitudes of his colleagues leave for larger, more stable paycheques and global fame, he remained with Philadelphia’s finest until it’s dying days.

    “I didn’t leave when so many guys did because I wanted to see ECW grow into a place where we could all make a living staying there. And there was always hope because it was growing, growing, growing until it wasn’t any more. So at that point, I was bummed. It wasn’t out of nowhere, it was kinda gradual. Paul was telling us we were gonna get a TV deal real soon, it was gonna be on USA or it was gonna be on FOX, he was talking to this guy, he was talking to that guy, maybe MTV would take us, whatever the fuck he was saying. 

    “He kept us hopeful because most of us preferred that style and were proud of what ECW was. So when that didn’t happen and cheques were bouncing…for me, I was getting taken care of. I was making the most money I’d ever made at that time. I was on a guarantee, getting paid, but some of the boys had cheques bouncing and at the same time, I wasn’t getting paid some of the money I was supposed to be getting like merchandise, royalties, PPV bonuses and so the longer I stayed there I realised that even though I was doing alright I was also digging a bigger and bigger hole. I knew that hole wasn’t gonna get filled and I couldn’t let it get any deeper, so I jumped ship when they had like one or two shows left and I knew the company was closing anyway.

    “It was sinking and it wasn’t a surprise but it was a disappointment. WWE had bought WCW so that meant there was nowhere else to go if you wanted to be an American wrestler on TV and that was that.”

    The ECW style that Van Dam references was one that, in the United States at least, was eye opening to a mainstream, commercial audience, and not just for the in-ring action itself, heavily influenced by the luchadores imported from Mexico and hardcore ultraviolence from Japan’s FMW. The production was a million miles from the slick, A-List presentations on offer every Monday night from WWF and WCW.

    And it was this grimier, grunge-laden offering that would coax disillusioned fans in their thousands towards Van Dam, Sabu, Taz, Raven and co in the mid-late ’90s. One of whom was Dark Side of the Ring co-creator and Executive Producer Evan Husney, who’s teenage years were transformed by a chance spot of channel hopping in 1998.

    “I remember one night, I was up really late, I was about 11 or 12, and I started flipping channels on the TV and there was this scrambled channel with the noise not coming through perfect. You could hear that it was wrestling but you couldn’t see what it was. So this is like ’98, I’m guessing and I’m a huge wrestling fan at this time. So there’s a wrestler cutting a promo but he’s dropping F-Bombs and it just blows my mind that there’s this other wrestling out there that I don’t know about. I would later find out that was Rob Van Dam doing the ‘whole fuckin’ show’ thing. So even though I didn’t know what it was, I knew there was something more extreme and crazy out there, even though I couldn’t see it on my TV.

    “The production quality of ECW, I know people would Monday morning quarterback the shit out of that like ‘ugh that doesn’t look good’ or whatever but man, you go back and watch the Stairway To Hell match between Sabu and Sandman, which I watch a lot, you go back to the handheld camera work in that, there’s a texture to it, you can almost feel the sticky drinks that are on the floor and get a sense of what it was like to be in that room. That match has a feeling that not many other matches have and it’s all because of the production and how cool and gritty it is.

    “ECW was all about being cool and cutting edge, but not every decision they made was methodical, it was organic. There’s always a documentary quality to what’s going on.”

    The genesis of Evan’s ECW fandom is one all too familiar with those fans who sought something more genuine than a procession of gimmicks leftover from a bygone era. There may have been millions upon millions tuning into Raw and Nitro, but there was a dawning realisation that there was more to pro-wrestling than what Titan and Turner were churning out. As McMahon’s company began to develop more ‘attitude’, they went public with their relationship with their neighbours in the North East, as Heyman’s charges were afforded TV time on not only Raw, but PPV’s as well.

    Firstly, the Mind Games PPV, held in Philadelphia in September 1996 and headlined by ECW alumni Mick Foley challenging Shawn Michaels for the WWF Title, saw The Sandman and Tommy Dreamer escorted from the building after running interference in the Caribbean Strap match between a young JBL and Savio Vega. The next night on Raw, Taz hopped the guardrail with a ‘Sabu Fears Taz’ sign. Just months later, the guardrail hopping would no longer be necessary, as McMahon sanctioned matches between members of the Philadelphia mob, giving up his own valuable TV time to provide an alternative to what his usual audience had become accustomed to.

    And while the 1997 ‘invasion’ didn’t lead to a longterm storyline between the brands, it did generate enough attention towards ECW that a portion of the fanbase now realised they were tired of being spoon-fed ‘good vs evil’ and required a product that wasn’t as insulting to their intelligence or as clean cut as so many of WWF’s cartoonish elements were during this pre-attitude period. As Evan can wholeheartedly attest:

    “It wasn’t until a few months later, there was a shopping mall close by to where I grew up and they actually had an RF Video kiosk in the mall, which is so crazy that they had that. And they had these VHS tapes that I still have, ‘ECW Barbed Wire, Scaffolds and Ladders’ and ‘Extreme Matches Volume 2’ for like 10 bucks. I had no idea what they were or who was on them, but I put this shit on, and one of them has the Terry Funk vs Sabu barbed wire match which, if you’re a kid growing up during the Monday Night Wars and you’re used to Nitro and shit, you’ve never seen anything like that, and that really fucked me up. That match especially really fucked me up and after that it became everything to me. There can only be ECW, I don’t care about anything else.

    “ECW had that ‘90s edge that the decade was all about, pushing boundaries and having that grit and realism. And then you had the music, I got introduced to a hell of a lot of music through ECW, oh my God, ‘Natural Born Killaz’ I played that song all the time, shoutout to New Jack. It really could not have existed in any other era.”

    And if you want to talk about grit and realism, it doesn’t come much realer than the experience CW Anderson had ahead of his memorable ‘I Quit’ match with ‘Innovator of Violence’ and darling of all things Extreme, Tommy Dreamer at the company’s final PPV, Guilty As Charged on 7th January, 2001.

    “Tommy tells me we’re doing the ‘I Quit’ for Guilty as Charged. That show was January 7th, 2001, it was my 30th birthday. I remember I’m driving up there and Tommy calls me and says ‘there’s no barbed wire on the ring truck’, because the finish was he was gonna put me through the table then take the barbed wire and wrap it around my eyes. So I remember Lou E.Dangerously and Chilly Willy walked around Manhattan all day trying to find barbed wire. We couldn’t find it. We actually found some on somebody’s fence, so we rush back, the show’s getting ready to start, Tommy and me ain’t even put our match together yet. So we tell The Musketeer, who was in Simon Diamond’s little flunky group, that the barbed wire is at this intersection at this address. Thirty minutes later he comes back and he’s got this bag with him, saying ‘I got your barbed wire, CW’.

    “So it’s a trash bag and we open it up and I say ‘fuck, Tommy, this is razor wire’. It’s all mangled and everything. So Tommy takes it, cuts it up and flattens it out, then says ‘you can just spine buster me on it’. So he tells me what the finish is gonna be and what he wants and he says, ‘if we have a good match, I’m gonna shake your hand. If not, we’ll just go with it from there. So my driving force for that match was to get that damn handshake. I really wanted to put on a classic because a week before Jerry Lynn and Justin Credible had told me ‘I Quit’ matches are really hard and they didn’t know if we could pull one off. So after the match I get up, Tommy shakes my hand, I’m still selling. He leaves and then all of a sudden the fans stand up and start applauding and chanting ‘C FUCKIN DUB, C FUCKING DUB’. I’m making my way to the back and inside I’m overwhelmed with emotion like ‘holy shit, what did I just do?’

    The last classic. Image: ECW

    “I walk through the curtain and Balls Mahoney is there. First person to greet me. I still see his face right now, god rest his soul, and he’s clapping and tells me ‘CW, that’s one of the best fuckin’ matches I’ve seen in my life’, then he hugs me and kisses me on the cheek. Everybody was putting that match over that night, including Paul. So that memory sums up my time in ECW”

    One of Anderson’s proteges, Chilly Willy, who followed his mentor to Philadelphia in 2000, had witnessed first hand how appreciative the ECW die hards could be when they were treated to a classic between two workers leaving it all in the ring. But as an independent worker from North Carolina, the extreme rookie was taken aback when he made his way North at the turn of the century.

    “I’ll be honest with you, man, I never knew anything about ECW. I was in North Carolina and they were running the Madison Square Garden channel, so you had to have the different channels on your cable box and my mom didn’t have that at the time. I didn’t know about ECW until my trainer, CW Anderson, was trying out with them and it was only when CW started wrestling for them that I found out what it was. But I still didn’t know what it was until I was invited to go there with Steve Corino and CW. 

    “The first match I saw was The Dudleys, right before they left and they almost started a riot at this place, I think it was in Washington DC or something. I remember thinking ‘Damn! I’ve never seen a promotion like this’ because there were some rowdy people there, man.

    “I’m a guy coming off the North Carolina indies, just basic wrestling and then I see these guys and they’re doing some shit that’s a whole new level that I ain’t ever seen in WWE or NWA.

    “Luckily I never got the ‘you fucked up’ chant but when I came out for my first match, against Julio Dinero, the crowd were like ‘who the fuck are you?’, but when I started to feel comfortable and started dancing, I started to get cheers, being a babyface I never got any of those crazy chants, but I saw a lot of other people get them.

    If you get in there and fuck up, and you are not well known they would brutalise you, man. I was lucky that everyone I worked with, from Beautiful Billy Wiles to Johnny Swinger, Guido, Rodney Mack, Mike Bell, Tony Mamaluke, Da Baldies, HC Loc…these guys carried me, cos I was green as shit. I think, credit to myself, I had a good physique, I looked like a wrestler and I knew to lay my shit in so it looked good. I didn’t have the moves like a Chris Chetty or a Nova but I had the charisma to keep the crowd a little bit interested and my matches weren’t long, which was good.

    And when it came to having the moves and charisma to keep the crowd interested, no one knew better how to pull that off than the Whole F’N Show, who fondly took a trip down memory lane as he recalled making the move from All Japan under Giant Baba to Paul E.’s asylum in the mid ’90s.

    “To sum up my experience in ECW, I had been wrestling about six years at that point, I had a job with Giant Baba in All Japan and was in a really good position. But I was sucked into ECW after I got there. It was an intimidating crowd, like in Georgia, you run around the ring and clap your hands, shouting ‘c’mon everybody…’ but that shit is cheese in Philadelphia, they’ll just shout ‘get the fuck out!’. You were being watched by adults, all dressed in black, waiting for you to slip so they could shout ‘you fucked up!’ It really was the best environment for me to cut my teeth in and throw it together, in front of that crowd.”

    Van Dam’s experience is one which is echoed by Al Snow, a WWE stalwart throughout the Attitude Era and a classic story of a talent who was able to reinvent themselves under the tutelage of Heyman.

    Snow, fresh off a doomed run as Leif Cassidy with the WWF, wound up in ECW, seconded by a styrofoam head. In a true ‘only in ECW’ story, the mannequin head got over as though it was Snow’s actual tag team partner, let alone a prop that accompanied him to the ring. Soon, fans would pack out venues armed with their own faux decapitated efforts and flood the ring with them whenever Snow hit the squared circle.

    “ECW was such a great time,” Snow remembered fondly during his recent appearance on the WT Podcast. “It happened at the right time for the audience and it was the first place I’d been to where in the locker room there was such camaraderie among the boys. Everyone always says that Paul Heyman’s a genius and Paul Heyman is a genius in the sense of how he managed people. He did such an amazing job of making not only us in the locker room, the wrestlers, but the audience who turned up every week, feel like it was our own place and we were up against these two giants in WCW and WWE, rallying against what the norm was and that attitude came across in everything we did, it joined us together that bit more, it was such a great atmosphere. The audience were just as much a part of the show as the wrestlers were and I’m really grateful that I got to be a part of it.

    “People don’t realise how much those styrofoam heads hurt when they get thrown at you. I remember Francine was in there with Sunny and they were both screaming “Oh my God, these hurt make them stop!”

    It is indeed hard to fathom another wrestling fanbase as resolutely passionate, dedicated and outwardly fucking hostile as the ECW live crowds. Hell, even Action Bronson was a regular attendee in his youth. Mick Foley once reminisced in his debut autobiography, ‘Have A Nice Day’ how a group of fans once brought AN ACTUAL CANOE to a ‘fans bring the weapons’ show. And who can forget the infamous visual of hundreds of metal folding chairs sailing from the bleachers into the ring to bury Public Enemy under at Hardcore Heaven ’94 when Terry Funk and Foley had signalled for someone, singular, to pass them a chair?

    Bam Bam Bronson on the near left loving himself some Super Crazy. Image: Action Bronson/instagram

    Yet, despite the vitriol that could gush from every pore inside the ECW Arena or the Hammerstein Ballroom or anywhere ECW could find their home, the fans also had a deep found, emotional attachment to those who had shortened careers and lives for their entertainment. For all the ‘You fucked up’ calls and various chants about mothers, wives and sisters and, of course, the almost ever present ‘you sold out’, Extreme Championship Wrestling also boasted possibly one of the most appreciative audiences in the history of professional wrestling.

    “One of the best angles or storylines that is self contained in a match is Taz’s last match at Anarchy Rulez,” explains Husney, “and it’s the triple threat they have for the ECW Title. I just remember my jaw hitting the fucking floor when Taz was eliminated instantaneously. And the drama with Paul Heyman saying to Mike Awesome, ‘you want in the match? You want in? OK, let’s go!’ And his ponytail is going everywhere, it’s just amazing. Like, there’s not that many people there or watching in the grand scheme of wrestling in that moment, but they’re still treating it like it’s the most important thing like ‘this is a big fucking deal, our belt means something’ and to see the whole roster come out and be like ‘holy shit!’ They’re amplifying it even more and playing into it being this huge, dramatic turning point.

    And ECW fans are all smart fans, but they’re swept up into it, the drama is so good that they hate him at the beginning of the match and are all like ‘fuck you for leaving us’ but at the end they’re thanking him when he gives the belt to Mike Awesome. It’s amazing.

    This emotion, this sheer force of devotion and loyalty to a single promotion is so unique because it was never something either of The Big Two were ever able to foster. OK, there were always fans who favoured one company over the other and nowadays you only have to spend 30 seconds on wrestling Twitter before you’re grazed with some shrapnel from the minefield that is WWE/NXT vs AEW stans. But ECW loyalty hit differently. There was a raw honesty to it. These fans didn’t put up with the sanitised soap opera reruns they had been raised on and were now exhausted with. These were tape traders who took the time to educate themselves about wrestling outside of their own comfort zones, outside of their own country. They didn’t need anybody to ‘look like’ a wrestler. They needed them to be a wrestler. To be someone who understood how to work, how to make you care about them. Being six foot five and 250 pounds was never a pre-requisite for Paul Heyman to put his World Title on you. Ask Taz, or Justin Credible, or Raven, or Sandman or Steve Corino.

    Most importantly, above all else, ECW fans respected history. Yes, they wanted to see evolution and a break from the norm. Yes, they wanted to escape the old school and take pro wrestling kicking and screaming into the 21st century in an image that was not perceivable to any fan of mainstream wrestling in North America in the mid ’90s, but they also knew that the trail that had been blazed before their time was still worth their appreciation. Just look at the reaction to Terry Funk’s ECW Title win at Barely Legal. Or when Dusty Rhodes showed up in 2000 to bleed everywhere in his feud with Steve Corino.

    That Heyman and co’s vision was co opted by McMahon for his ‘Attitude Era’ is both a source of frustration and badge of honour for many ECW alumni, who saw their work reimagined into a billionaire funded image, with many of their own former heroes in prominent positions while they were busy being booted off TNN so Vinnie Mac and his cohorts could print even more money.

    Perhaps most perfectly about ECW, however, is how undeniably of its era it truly was. Heyman and those he surrounded himself with understood the mood of a nation and pop culture better than their wealthy rivals and were raided and imitated relentlessly for their efforts. Transport ECW and drop it into another timeframe and it simply doesn’t work anywhere near as effectively. Heyman’s need to be Nirvana worked, even if it didn’t pay dividends as lucratively to his own brand as it did to others. But his vision was realised one way or another. ECW was pro-wrestling’s Nirvana and it’s gangster rap all rolled into one glorious, foul mouthed ball of chaos.

    And, as one of the company’s most ardent supporters, Husney still treasures the nostalgia of discovering and growing up with ECW and the connection he felt with the promotion two decades after it shut it’s doors for good.

    “Even after ECW had taken over my life and that’s all I would watch, along with seeking out some FMW, when Raw or Nitro would come through Minneapolis, I would still go to those shows. And I’ll never forget, I was at a Nitro, pretty good seats and the match is going on, it’s Bam Bam Bigelow and somebody else and all of a sudden I shit my pants, I couldn’t believe it, fucking Sandman walks out and this is his debut in WCW. Nobody in the audience really knew who this guy was but I was freaking out.

    “There was a shopping mall close by to where I grew up and they actually had an RF Video kiosk in the mall, which is so crazy that they had that. And they had these VHS tapes that I still have, ‘ECW Barbed Wire, Scaffolds and Ladders’ and ‘Extreme Matches Volume 2’ for like 10 bucks. I had no idea what they were or who was on them, but I put this shit on, and one of them has the Terry Funk vs Sabu barbed wire match which, if you’re a kid growing up during the Monday Night Wars and you’re used to Nitro and shit, you’ve never seen anything like that, and that really fucked me up. That match especially really fucked me up and after that it became everything to me. There can only be ECW, I don’t care about anything else.

    “I always look at something as a product of it’s time, because when you look at what’s relevant or acceptable today, and a lot of what happened in ECW probably wouldn’t be, it doesn’t need to live up to our standards today, because who knows how standards are going to change in the future. ECW is a time capsule from its era, it’s a product of its time, of the ‘90s. Were there elements of ECW that would be considering problematic today? Absolutely, but it was what that time period was cool with and it’s important that we look back at that history, not just in wrestling but in culture. There’s a lot you can look back on and be influenced by with ECW, I think there’s also a lot of cautionary tales. Was it sustainable? It’s tough when you have a successful, small company like that and I’m sure those involved would have done things differently knowing what they know now but still it’s a really fascinating time in the business. Probably the most fascinating time in the business.

    Being the third promotion during wrestling’s last golden age is hardly something to be sniffed at, especially when without you, said golden age only ever manages to elevate itself to silver at best. While Vince McMahon and his various creative consiglieres desperately try to recapture the Attitude Era, leeching off the older generation with rapidly diminishing returns and ratings, ECW can still be seen in die hard superfan Tony Khan’s booking of Jon Moxley, Eddie Kingston, Rey Fenix, Pentagon, MJF, Wardlow, Orange Cassidy, Darby Allin and even veterans like Sting, Dustin Rhodes and, of course, the Human Suplex Machine, Taz (one z only). Strengths are accentuated, weaknesses are hid and audience connection is everything.

    Without ECW, there is no AEW, meaning there would still be no competition for WWE and no success stories like the litany of aforementioned talents being either given their first chance to shine on an international stage, being revitalised for a new generation or repackaged and utilised after years in the creative wilderness elsewhere.

    Not bad for a bingo hall promotion that’s been dead for 20 years, huh?

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