The Rise and Fall of ECW

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).

Click here for the documentary’s first part. The other parts are also available 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

6 responses to “The Rise and Fall of ECW

  1. I too am a wrestling fan of yesteryear. Growing up I was hugely into wrestling, though mainly WCW and the then-known WWF, as I don’t think ECW was broadcast in the UK. I certainly didn’t know about it if it was. It wasn’t until probably the early 2000s that I got properly acquainted with the extreme. What I saw blew everything I’d previously known about this entertainment medium out of the crimson-coloured water. As you’ve outlined, it was simply harder, better, faster, stronger than the alternatives.

    I can’t even relapse into the occasional viewing of wrestling any more. I can barely sit through a WWE broadcast. The advertising is ludicrous, it feels like there’s an ad-break every 5 minutes, often interrupting the momentum of a match just to Jerry ‘The King’ Lawler tell us about some ridiculous WWE sponsor. The wrestlers themselves are devoid of any charisma and simply aren’t fun to watch. Personalities like The Rock and Stone Cold, along with many of the original ECW stars like RVD have evaporated and been replaced by Cody Rhodes………

    It’s sad really that something I loved so much had deteriorated into nothing more than a farcical, slapstick soap opera. Every match is an single exhibition, you’re lucky to see a tag-team match, let alone anything ‘hardcore’. ECW was like the The Wire to WWE’s The OC.

  2. Very nice analogy comparing ECW to The Wire and WWE to The O.C. (which is an awful show); I find it very appropriate. We used to sit around watching ECW on a Florida only network called The Sunshine Network on weekends. It was on either Friday or Saturday night, at either midnight or 2 a.m. – it was never set in stone. Sometimes it wasn’t on, replaced by a horrid high school or college football game. The broadcasts were an hour and usually featured anywhere between one and three matches, complete with bloodshed and cheap promos. I liked it because it was so low-budget, relying more on the wrestling than lowbrow theatrics. I was a WWF fan as a little kid – really liking Andre the Giant, Hulk Hogan, and Jake “the Snake” Roberts – but didn’t watch it again until the Attitude era. From the late ‘90s until Chris Benoit’s suicide WWE was still pretty good; it went downhill after “The Rabid Wolverine’s” homicidal and suicidal actions.

    Nowadays WWE is garbage. I watched some of it last night for the first time in weeks and ended up ironing my work clothes and doing chores instead of watching attentively. Basically, it sucked and it didn’t capture my attention enough for me to sit down and pay much attention. The advertisements are horrible and the in-product promotions (product placement, product integration, etc.) are embarrassing. The “WWE Universe” gimmick, trying to get the fans more involved, is insincere and nothing more than cheap pandering; the company’s still dictating what the audience should like and not the other way around. It was much different in ECW. If the fans liked a wrestler they would last; if the fans hated a performer they’d fade into obscurity. They were constantly pushing the envelope and bringing something new to the medium, regardless of how violent it was. Of course wrestling is insipid but ECW made it seem different. In essence, ECW was reinventing wrestling.

    This documentary is excellent, regardless of the pro-WWE slant it contains. It was made when WWE employed a good amount of former ECW wrestlers, adding a variety of perspectives to the piece’s narrative. Many ECW performers like Sabu, The Sandman, Raven, or Terry Funk are absent, but it features The Dudley’s, Chris Jericho, Rob Van Dam, Tommy Dreamer, and Paul Heyman – basically a good deal of ECW’s backbone. It also features a bunch of classic ECW matches that are fun.

    One final note: McMahon’s ECW re-launch a few years back was awful. It was good for about two weeks but fell into mediocrity quickly. They cut out the blood and fired off all the originals in a matter of weeks. RVD’s marijuana arrest also didn’t help things. He was set up for a long title reign but threw it out the window because he was speeding while smoking pot. I sometimes wonder if ECW would’ve stayed good if Van Dam would’ve stayed champion longer. =)

  3. I’m considering getting this documentary, you’ve certainly sold it well. It’s a shame Raven, Sabu and Sandman aren’t involved though. They’re some of the greatest characters to come out of ECW. My very first experience of wrestling entertainment was WCW, I imagine this was in the mid-90s. We didn’t have digital TV in our house, so I never didn’t have access to WWF for a while. At school everyone raved about how great Triple H and Mankind were, and I was the only one who’d always elect to be Goldberg or Kevin Nash. Those were the days…

    I think TNA is more tolerable than WWE these days, and that’s a big statement. I still have my VHS copies of St. Valentine’s Day Massacre and King of the Ring 1998, amongst others around the house. What happened to that? What happened to people being thrown from cells? People diving from Titan Trons? Inferno matches? Buried alive matches?

    John Cena’s always been a puzzle to me. He’s a terrible character. He was much more amusing when he was a foul-mouthed, rapping heel. Now he’s a boring, everyman type impersonating some American hero. I don’t know a single person that likes the guy, yet the fans in the audience seem to go crazy for them. If this were the Attitude Era Cena wouldn’t have lasted two seconds. I think Randy Orton’s the best character WWE has created for a while. It’s nice to see someone kick another guy in the head. It’s, dare I say, pleasingly nostalgic.

  4. I believe John Cena’s a horrible talent and I’m surprised he’s still around and that fans like him. Personally I’m glad he’s injured (I just found this out when I watched the other night) and hope he’s not coming back anytime soon. The only person I’ve seen that impresses me aside from Randy Orton is Daniel Bryan, who reminds me of Chris Benoit – without the homicidal tendencies. Unfortunately they’re not enough for me to tune in each week. The wrestling’s pretty weak, the characters are flat, and the hyper-advertising is insulting and obnoxious. Wrestling’s always been about selling a product but their tactics nowadays are more ruthless and invasive than ever, which is a big turn off.

    I watch TNA every now and then but after the whole stable featuring Ric Flair, Hulk Hogan, and Jeff Hardy I tuned out. I actually haven’t watched a TNA episode in a few months. They had me hooked when RVD came in and won the championship but when he had to relinquish it because of Abyss’ attack I stopped watching. They have great wrestlers but horrible booking, making it not worth the time. However, in comparison to WWE they have better wrestling. Gone are the days when WWE would have violent matches, incredible stunts, and world class matches. Most of the guys willing to do the dangerous stuff are gone and the few people there that will only pull it out at big money matches – Wrestlemania, Royal Rumble, etc. ECW was so much different because the guys would pull out big moves every match. They were desperate for recognition and willing to do whatever it took for the fans and bigger companies to pay attention. Those days are long gone, especially since McMahon pretty much monopolizes the wrestling industry.

    I have to admit I didn’t watch WCW other than a few times. During those days I was way into punk rock and going to shows all the time, avoiding television for the most part. The only shows I really watched back in the ‘90s were Mystery Science Theater 3000, The Simpsons, and ECW. The ECW documentary argues that ECW was the alternative to mainstream wrestling; WWE and WCW were the hair metal bands and ECW was punk rock and grunge (god, I hate that title. It’s a silly name for Seattle kids who mixed punk and metal). I think this is a good analogy.

    Also, Randy Orton’s finisher, where he kicks people in the head, is pretty cool. It’s a simple move but it’s something that would really mess somebody up in real life – potentially killing them. I’ve always enjoyed moves that would really injure somebody in real life. Of course WWE banned piledrivers, which are my favorite move because that would really finish a match pretty quick. They lost the blood recently because Linda McMahon was running for U.S. Senate recently (she lost) and she wanted to project a family image. I think this is impossible considering the company’s past. What’s crazy is that she lost by only 1-2 percent. =)

  5. Ha. Linda McMahon running for Senate, that is quite amusing. I can’t believe they’ve outlawed Piledrivers. I didn’t know that. That used to be a fairly basic manoeuvre.

    You mentioned Wrestlemania, etc. That’s another thing that’s terrible about WWE these days, there’s a PPV every month. I’m sure there used to be maybe four a year, they felt special. Now they’re just an excuse to throw in a title match because they don’t want to show them in regular weekly Raw and Smackdown editions.

    I’ve only watched TNA a handful of times, if that. I’ve very little knowledge on the matter.

    I’m just guessing here, because I haven’t played a wrestling game in about 4 years, but surely they’re suffering too. There’s less limitations in the game than there is in a TV broadcast, but surely when the only characters on the roster are one-dimensional the games must be damaged.

    I’m not sure who to blame. I’d imagine it’s ultimately McMahon, it’s his business after all. He established it, took over the world, and now it’s all fallen to shit. It’s still a big money maker but with significantly less integrity. Intelligence and intensity too, as Kurt Angle would say.

  6. Health competition is good for something like wrestling and when there’s no real competition they become lazy. Back when WCW and ECW were still around WWE had to pull out high caliber matches every Monday night, fearing the audience would switch to TNT. This isn’t the case nowadays and WWE’s only competing with themselves. They’re trying to create top level talent but I don’t think its working like it did before. One big reason for this is the loss of independent wrestling organizations. Although there are many small wrestling promotions most of WWE’s talent comes from in-house minor league promotions (Florida Championship Wrestling, which comes out of Tampa) and the wrestlers learn WWE’s style instead of creating their own. I’ve watched FCW once or twice (and was pretty much bored to tears) and saw people like Kofi Kingston, Cody Rhodes, and many of the other new people on Raw and Smackdown. Where people like Mick Foley, Chris Benoit, Rob Van Dam, and the others got their start in small companies, Japan, and ECW, these new guys start with WWE from the very beginning and it doesn’t help them hone their craft.

    Linda McMahon running for Senate is a joke. She’s the CEO of one of the most corrupt entertainment businesses in the world. There’s a great website WWE launched called Stand up for WWE where they try rebuking criticism about their company:

    It’s actually pretty inane. All their arguments against the criticism are
    highly flawed and actually make them look bad.

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