If you’re a regular reader you’re probably wondering why an intellectual giant like myself is reviewing a wrestling DVD. You’re probably also wondering how you lucked onto such an insightful blog, thanking whatever lord you pray to for bringing you my radiant musings. I hope by now you realize that I’m kidding about my gargantuan intelligence; I still hold that my musings are radiant, bringing joy to the miniscule masses that read this. However, I still have to get to why I’m writing about professional wrestling, an example of the lowest form of entertainment on earth.
Truth is I’m a closet wrestling fan. I love the simplicity of the storylines, the psychology of a great match, and, of course, the violence. Barry Blaustein, the filmmaker responsible for the excellent documentary Beyond the Mat, claims professional wrestling is, “theater at its most base,” and I believe his sentiment is highly accurate. It’s a stripped down version of theater, mixing the excitement of drama or comedy with spectacle. Like the gladiatorial exhibitions of ancient Rome, professional wrestling pits two or more combatants against each other – except wrestling is phony. Aside from a few tragic instances (Owen Hart) the performers don’t die. Of course many professional wrestlers die young but it’s because the demands made by both the audience and their employers.
Even though pro wrestling is completely fake the day in/day out bouts take their toll on the performers. Most implement drugs, for both rehabilitation and appearance, and many succumb to addiction, destroying their bodies and health for short-term fame. Performers like Eddie Guerrero, Bam Bam Bigelow, and others died quite young because the damages inflicted by years of performing and narcotic maintenance. Others like former world champion Chris Benoit, who killed his family and himself, suffered from habitual drug abuse and unchecked concussions, leading to the tragic events of a few years ago. Some never get anywhere, meandering through the annals of independent wrestling promotions. Unfortunately most aspiring professional wrestlers never get far and there’s not much room on the top.
My status as a wrestling fan is limited nowadays. I’m in what my friends and I call “wrestling recovery,” where we watch quite infrequently, only relapsing on various occasions. Wrestling’s just not as entertaining anymore; most of the best wrestlers of the past are either dead or retired. A few have jumped from the infamous WWE to TNA but TNA’s booking is atrocious. It’s not a good thing when the alternative to mainstream professional wrestling is complete garbage. It wasn’t like that in the glory days – the 1990s.
Enter ECW. Not the bastardized version Vince McMahon unleashed a few years ago and then promptly buried but the original, low-budget ECW taking place in bingo halls and dilapidated places like New York City’s Hammerstein Ballroom. Beginning as Eastern Championship Wrestling, ECW transformed into Extreme Championship Wrestling and created an ultra-violent professional wrestling borrowing heavily from Japanese wrestling – also starting the “extreme” trend of the ‘90s which ended up on Doritos, Mountain Dew, and a plethora of other youth marketed products.
Headed by Paul Heyman ECW forewent the flash of mainstream professional wrestling, relying on a rough edge for its ambiance. When wrestlers messed up it was kept in, the matches were long and extremely violent; they also featured some of the best wrestling in the history of the medium. Heyman claims in the documentary he desired a “grunge” aesthetic, that WWE or WCW were the Poison or Motley Crue of wrestling; Heyman aspired for a Nirvana-esq version of the “sport.” It worked. ECW, relying on a rabid fan base and a low-budget product, earned credibility through its anti-establishment attitude and its violent and superb matches. It was a place where new wrestlers like Rob Van Dam, Taz, Chris Benoit, Chris Jericho, Sabu, and Eddie Guerrero went to establish reputations and where older wrestlers like Terry Funk and Bam Bam Bigelow went to earn a paycheck. While the older performers would pull out all the stops it was the new breed who did things nobody in the big leagues would – at least until ECW became a threat to their credibility.
Aside from bloodshed ECW was famous for incredibly inventive moves (Rob Van Dam jumping from the ring three rows into the crowd comes to mind), barbed wire, tables set aflame, and people hitting each other in the heads with quite blunt objects like VCR’s. Some of these gimmicks are common now in professional wrestling, being drawn out for big money matches, but in the mid-1990s it was something new. It gave new life to professional wrestling, a medium dying due to steroid scandals, a lack of new and exciting talent, and styles half a decade behind the times. In essence, ECW was the rebirth of professional wrestling and it was only on television around 2 a.m.
The documentary, The Rise and Fall of ECW, is a pretty decent glimpse into exactly what the title claims. Although produced by WWE and missing some negative information regarding McMahon’s wrestling behemoth, this three hour documentary presents a fairly credible look into the promotion. It discusses the beginnings, when Heyman took over the product and goes through the rise from a product strictly for diehard wrestling fans to its cult status. It also investigates Paul Heyman’s excellent storytelling abilities and his horrible business sense, featuring a litany of interviews with wrestlers claiming Heyman would send them bad checks and make false promises. Even prominent wrestlers like Rob Van Dam are still owed money by Heyman, even though ECW went out of business over a decade ago.
Of course popular draws like Terry Funk, Chris Jericho, and Steve Austin received their money, but a surfeit of the roster went without pay because they had no other job prospects. The documentary claims Heyman ran his ECW like a cult, unintentionally emulating the Manson family or a fundamentalist cult. However, and thankfully for the world, they weren’t zealous about anything other than fake fighting. There are many instances where wrestlers mention, “drinking the Kool-Aid,” bringing to mind Jim Jones except Heyman’s intentions weren’t diabolical above domination of the wrestling world. Basically the documentary presents Heyman as a man with big dreams that didn’t pan out, partially because of stupid business decisions and partially because of competition from WCW and WWE.
Vince McMahon claims he never saw ECW as a threat to his wrestling empire and there are instances when McMahon even helped with promotion for their pay-per-views. Heyman doesn’t condemn McMahon, but his opinions on WCW head Eric Bischoff are quite different, regarding the man as a spineless leech who viewed ECW as a threat. Bischoff denies this, especially since he had Ted Turner’s Time-Warner corporation behind him, but Bischoff definitely pillaged a great deal of Heyman’s roster by promising them things he never delivered on. Bischoff says they didn’t work out in WCW; Heyman claims he hired them only to sideline them and take away ECW’s potential. This is during the pseudo-infamous “Monday Night Wars,” when a wrestling bubble existed. Naturally, with everything economic, the bubble burst and the only survivor was McMahon, swallowing up not only ECW but WCW as well.
ECW’s introduction into professional wrestling coincides with an interesting point in American history. This isn’t discussed in the documentary but it’s poignant nonetheless. The Cold War recently ended, Soviet communism died and America didn’t have an enemy of the same proportions. Of course the first Iraq War, Bosnian intervention, and even our conflicts in Haiti satisfied some of America’s bloodlust but there wasn’t a singular focus for America’s anger; instead the United States engaged in small skirmishes devoid of any domestic fear. The chances of Milosevic launching an all out attack on American soil was highly unlikely and America was the world’s one true superpower, still engaging in violent actions but not pushing fear down everybody’s throats. No direction for fear or anger, no focus for our violent primordial instincts, leaving a void in the citizenry. Material goods and sitcoms only fill a part of this void and the decades of violent angst against communist threats no doubt left their mark on our collective unconscious.
Enter ECW. Of course it’s not the only outlet for America’s violent urges but it’s one of them. Considering America’s built on bloodshed – both revolutionary and through enslavement – and the forceful nature of the English language (relying on possessive words and commands), it’s something built into our psyche. Our national anthem is a war song, teaching our nation’s youth about bombs and sacrifice and in essence we’re indoctrinated into a violent culture from an early age. Of course we’re not the only nation implementing violent imagery and themes for the shaping of our citizens but I’m discussing ECW – a very American product.
Philadelphia is a rowdy city and discussed in the documentary as a diehard wrestling town at the center of northeastern American culture (within driving distance of New York City, New Jersey, Connecticut, Maryland, etc.). The original ECW fan base, taking part in most hometown shows, were rowdy and belligerent – a perfect crowd for hyper-violent wrestling. Imagine the crew from FX’s It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia as rabid wrestling fans and you have the ECW audience; a crude horde thirsty for violence. People would swarm in from various parts of the northeast for matches, showing up month after month, voicing their opinions openly and viciously. When they didn’t like somebody they’d let you know; they were who made a wrestler’s career in ECW, making or breaking them. It’s a perfect outlet for people missing a singular focus for their anger and hostility, replacing nation states now defunct.
Nowadays the ECW crowd ethic is part of mainstream professional wrestling but not in such an honest way. Wrestling fans, especially in cities like Philly, are quite vocal with their likes and dislikes but it’s filtered through a multi-million dollar production crew, cleverly editing out what doesn’t fit their marketing plan. Of course ECW’s bread and butter was merchandising but it didn’t possess the resources a company like WWE has, tracking fan interest through a variety of multimedia devices. More like an underground band, each wrestler’s brand was homegrown and not reliant on an international marketing strategy like John Cena or Hulk Hogan’s. Because ECW didn’t have the resources of Ted Turner or Vince McMahon, and because it wasn’t a mainstream product, it fell by the wayside, falling apart. Eventually WWE picked up the pieces, taking the performers and traits it felt sellable and discarding the waste.
Of course Heyman believes ECW’s demise is a conspiracy, promulgated primarily by WCW; I’m not sure this is the case. Like the documentary states, Heyman was an excellent writer and booker but a terrible businessman. It’s actually surprising ECW lasted as long as it did. After three hours of interviews and footage, the WWE produced ECW documentary reveals an interesting perspective on a singular moment in professional wrestling history, a moment impossible to recreate. Of course people have tried (the failed ECW re-launch, TNA’s recent attempts at ECW reunions) but ECW was a product of its time, relying on the bloodlust of post-Cold War America and the popularity of the other promotions. Basically ECW rode on the heels of mainstream wrestling, offering an alternative to the watered down version on prime-time cable. Considering where America is currently, engaged in two wars and in the middle of media driven angst, this breed of violent professional wrestling isn’t quite marketable anymore. Of course there’s always an audience for it but mainstream America isn’t quite bloodthirsty enough for what ECW unleashed in the ‘90s. Basically, we’re not ready for a prime-time version of The Running Man.
The DVD also features additional interviews not included in the documentary and a host of classic ECW matches on a second disc. Aside from a bunch of matches featuring forgotten wrestlers of yesterday the disc features matches between Rob Van Dam and Jerry Lynn, Rey Mysterio and Psychosis, Tommy Dreamer and Raven, and more. Of course this is just a taste of what the original ECW offered and WWE realizes the market for these classic matches and released another batch of DVD’s featuring classic matches. I’m sure they’re available for cheap online somewhere, if not free on Youtube (actually the whole documentary is available in parts on Youtube).
Of course we must always remember that professional wrestling is fake, highly homoerotic, and is nothing more than a bunch of drug addled monsters fake fighting in front of a large crowd. Nobody should take it seriously.
Here’s the first part of Rob Van Dam’s match with Jerry Lynn, featured on the documentary’s bonus disc
Here is what’s considered the world’s most impressive piledriver