Every week, the Masked Man, Deadspin's pro wrestling correspondent, honors the sport's fallen and examines their legacies — famous and obscure alike. Today: Extreme Championship Wrestling, the notoriously bloody wrestling promotion that went bankrupt in 2001.
On Aug. 13, 1994, at Hardcore Heaven, Tommy Dreamer lost a Singapore cane match to the Sandman in a meeting of ECW icons. The stipulation was that the winner got to give the loser 10 lashes with the cane. It had all the makings of an anticlimax, since ECW was a no-holds-barred federation and weapons were not just commonplace in matches but allowed; the extra post-match beatdown seemed a sort of unnecessary flourish, a stipulation for its own sake. (Actually, it was a stipulation for publicity's sake: They were trying to cash in on the notoriety of American Michael Fay's caning in Singapore earlier that year.)
But when Sandman — the smoking, drinking, bloodthirsty embodiment of all things ECW — unleashed his first valedictory wallop against the bare back of Dreamer — then playing a sort of prettyboy trying to win the respect of ECW's hardcore audience — it was clear that something significant was happening. Dreamer went to one knee and stood back up for another hit. The second smack shattered the cane and drew blood, and the crowd, usually enlivened by such violence, was struck with an unusual awe. As Sandman continued his assault, and while his valet, Woman (the late Nancy Benoit), taunted Tommy on the ring mic, Dreamer masochistically begged for more punishment, and a scene emerged as poignant as anything out of Dostoevsky.
It was a transformative moment: a redemption through violence, as Dreamer himself later put it. The crowd chanted in unison: "You're hardcore! You're hardcore!" Dreamer had lost the match but finally earned the approval of the crowd. In this blood feud between two average-looking guys (Sandman wrestled in a T-shirt and parachute pants, and Dreamer had the dark pompadour and goatee of a New Jersey mechanic), one can see a microcosm of ECW's place in wrestling history: redemption through violence, purification through blood.
Extreme Championship Wrestling was born out of the husk of Eastern Championship Wrestling, a regional (read: small-time) promotion operating in the Philadelphia area under the loose national banner of the NWA. When ECW staple Shane Douglas won the NWA title tournament, he (on orders from the ECW brain trust, but unbeknownst to the NWA brass) cursed the belt, threw it down, and grabbed an ECW belt from ringside. He declared himself champion of Extreme Championship Wrestling and in so doing signaled a definitive break from the old guard of pro wrestling that had held sway, particularly in the regional federations, for decades.
The act was the brainchild of Paul Heyman, who previously portrayed a yuppie manager in WCW named Paul E. Dangerously. When Todd Gordon, ECW's then owner, approached Heyman looking for new story ideas, Heyman suggested nothing short of a revolution — a pro wrestling version of the grunge music movement. Gordon bought in Heyman and handed him the creative reins. (He eventually would sell part and then all of the company to Heyman as well.)
What emerged over the following years was certainly revolutionary, even if the term is defined down within the context of pro wrestling. Wrestling is a world of tradition, of old-school tough-guy posturing and old-fashioned values. ECW was a thumb to the eye of the status quo. The wrestlers looked different, to be sure — rather than the baby-oiled muscleheads common in the WWF or WCW in those days, ECW wrestlers were often fully clothed, beer-bellied brawlers. The style of fighting — dubbed "hardcore" — was rough and frequently bloody. Weaponry of all sorts — from folding chairs to stop signs to household cutlery — was allowed; referees were present but largely irrelevant. Wrestlers were sent crashing through folding tables, sometimes towers of them, into the metal ring railings, and into ropes of barbed wire. Even if the matches weren't any more real than the matches in other federations, they undeniably felt genuine, and they went a long way toward discrediting the campier style of WWF programming in the eyes of many fans.
ECW's in-ring authenticity was due principally to the blood and gore. The bloodiest matches in ECW history — now the stuff of wrestling and YouTube legend — were as stomach-turning as they were mind-blowing. A few such bouts:
There was Sabu vs. Terry Funk at Born to be Wired '97, a world championship match pitting Funk, the hardcore legend, against Sabu, a masochistic highflier introduced as being from "Bombay, Michigan." (It was a wink to his character's previously being "Middle Eastern.") Both men were veterans of the Japanese deathmatch circuit, where the violence is often augmented with barbed wire, glass, and even in-ring explosions. Sabu and Funk drew from that experience in their match, stringing barbed wire around the ring in place of the traditional ropes. At one point Sabu leaped into the barbed wire and tore a 10-inch gash in his bicep, whereupon he taped up the wound on his own and continued. By the latter parts of the match, the wrestlers were so tangled in barbed wire that ringside attendants had to free them with wire cutters. Sabu won in the end, if only because he was nominally on top of the snarled, bloody mess when they rolled back into the ring.
A sentimental favorite of much of the hardcore set is Axl Rotten's victory over his "brother" Ian Rotten at Hardcore Heaven '95. It was a Taipei Deathmatch, wherein the competitors' hands are wrapped in tape and then dipped in glass, which is every bit as grisly as it sounds.
Beulah McGillicutty vs. Bill Alfonso at As Good As it Gets '97 was five epic minutes of emotionally intense bloodletting from ECW's most-beloved valet and its most-despised manager. It's often said that the match was scheduled to be a humiliating farewell to Alfonso, who had wound up on the wrong end of some sort of backstage political hugger-mugger, but his performance was such that it secured him a permanent place in the company.
When New Jack fought Vic Grimes at Living Dangerously '00, New Jack — an almost parodic personification of the hardcore style, who at various times tangled with a garden shovel, chains, a staple gun, box knives, and surprisingly treacherous forks — the match ended after the two men fell off a balcony, missed the stack of tables they intended to land on, and hit the concrete floor. Grimes's full weight landed on New Jack's head, blinding him in one eye and apparently giving him minor brain damage. (The stunt was planned, but the result was accidental.) There was no winner declared. There was no need: The spectacle was what mattered.
Not all of the matches were hardcore brawls, though. ECW later integrated different forms of wrestling onto the card: Mexican lucha libre and Japanese puroresu and the technical grappling styles of guys like Dean Malenko, Chris Benoit, and Eddie Guerrero.
Of course, these styles were just as out of step with the wrestling mainstream as was the hardcore style, and as such were part of ECW's outsider appeal. They were different; they were counterculture; and in the static world of pro wrestling they stood out distinctly. Unlike other regional promotions of the day that dreamed of greatness but were really only pale imitations of the majors, ECW held up a mirror to the wrestling mainstream and then shattered the mirror over its head.
Just as the bloody matches upset the conventions of the sport, the interviews and promos were similarly shocking. The longstanding tradition of keeping up the façade of the sport is called kayfabe, and it was for years a religion to the grapplers, not just in the ring but out in the real world as well. ECW was famous for storylines that blurred the distinction between the real world and the fake world of wrestling. (The industry term for this borderline brand of storytelling is a "worked shoot.") From Douglas damning the NWA belt to Dreamer "accidentally" "blinding" Sandman with a cigarette — and then, upon realizing what he had done, apologizing profusely — to Brian Pillman's "Loose Cannon" promos and Mick Foley's epic "Cane Dewey" interview, ECW garnered attention from savvy fans of the mainstream promotions, and from the WWF and WCW themselves, by brutally breaking down the fourth wall. To the wrestling traditionalists, this was sacrilege, but slaughtering sacred cows was ECW's ritual: That was the way they did business.
The problem with blurring the line, though, is that, well, the line starts to disappear. Before he left ECW, Todd Gordon was painted as a locker mole for WCW. This is often cited as a work shoot, although it's not clear that it was; it's more likely an instance of real life getting made over by fans for whom even reality only made sense when viewed through the lens of storyline. The matches themselves, increasingly violent and bloody, often ran the risk of crossing into the real. The notorious "Mass Transit Incident," which saw a young wannabe wrestler brutalized in the ring by the always-excessive New Jack, called into question the line between entertainment and brutality. Remove kayfabe — remove the fourth wall— and you're left without the structures that keep the whole enterprise upright.
There were times when ECW certainly felt like it was foundering, struggling under the weight of expectations it had set for itself. When Foley came out against the fans of ECW for demanding too much of its stars — for their bloodthirst, mostly — it was a worked shoot that was intended to turn him into a bad guy. This despite the fact that he meant every word of what he said. It's significant, though, that when he was embraced again by the fans at the end of the storyline, he seemed genuinely touched by their approval.
And with good reason: The fans of ECW, as ferocious as they may have been, were the company's heart and soul. Most of the events took place at the "ECW Arena," a bingo hall under the highway that was outfitted with little more than a ring and rows of folding chairs. The Philly sports fans who made the regular trek there were zealous and committed — and, it often seemed, committable. They chanted in unison, "E-C-Dub! E-C-Dub!" when they approved; "Ho-lee shit! Ho-lee shit!" when a high-impact move was executed; and, "You fucked up! You fucked up!" when a wrestler made a mistake. My personal favorite: When the wrestlers took the fight into the stands, as they often did, and were grappling in an obscured area of the arena, annoyed fans would chant, "Can't see shit! Can't see shit!" (The fans themselves played a big role in breaking down of the fourth wall.) They brought weapons of all kinds to hand to their preferred fighters for use against their opponents, housewares like frying pans and cheese graters, which were deployed to both cruel and comic effect. And once, when they were particularly outraged, hundreds of addled fans threw their folding chairs into the ring, on top of the prone bodies of Rocco Rock and Johnny Grunge as Foley and Terry Funk scrambled for cover. (Donovan McNabb should feel blessed that the seats at Lincoln Financial Field are bolted to the ground.)
Fans were most drawn to the wrestlers who were just like them — most notably Heyman himself, who was an ever-present on-screen personality, a chubby, balding, ponytailed borderline psychotic in a wrinkled suit — and the women were a certain variety of Northeastern trashy-hot. The biggest stars of ECW — Sandman, Dreamer, Douglas, Raven, New Jack, Rob Van Dam, Taz, Sabu, the Dudley Boyz — fought one another in lengthy monthslong blood feuds, with tensions rising and violence escalating as they progressed. Their numbers were bolstered by a steady procession of lesser stars from WCW and the WWF who were either between big-league jobs or on loan from the bigger companies: Foley, Pillman, Steve Austin, Al Snow. (Austin, Snow, and Pillman were givens platforms in ECW with which they could redefine their characters, and they returned to the bigger companies much more popular than when they left.)
These crossovers were a signal that ECW was both getting the attention of the big leagues and co-opting their fanbases as well. The WWF wrote it into its storylines: ECW wrestlers "invaded" WWF shows when they visited Philadelphia, and Jerry "the King" Lawler, embodying the old-school sentiment, began a feud with the ECW and Paul Heyman.
Prominence, however, began to spell the end for ECW. As with any such movement, to define oneself as counterculture is to define the terms of your own demise. If you fail as a movement, you fail; if you succeed, you join the mainstream and relinquish the posture of opposition, and so you still fail. ECW succeeded to the extent that it was decidedly not WWF and WCW; the closer it got to the wrestling mainstream, however, the more its identity was thrown into question. As their national profiles increased, WCW and the WWF — who were in the midst of the "Monday Night Wars," a yearslong feud between the companies for ratings and attention — began signing away ECW talent. ECW promoted from within, building new stars as best it could, but the talent drain eventually became hard to disguise. (In one particularly odd episode, WCW signed Mike Awesome away from ECW, but Awesome was still ECW champion. He returned to ECW soon thereafter to drop the title belt to Taz — who had been signed away by the WWF some months before.)
When ECW finally got a national television deal with TNN (now Spike), its drift to the mainstream seemed complete. But here in particular, ECW was too successful for its own good. Seeing how well wrestling programming was performing for the network, TNN signed up the WWF — the big leagues — to take ECW's place. Despite the ever-expanding world of cable television, ECW couldn't find another home quickly enough (it should be said that its reputation for violence dissuaded many a network), and as the months passed and the bills mounted, Heyman soon found himself in financial calamity. In debt to both creditors and wrestlers, Heyman declared bankruptcy in 2001. Heyman has often called ECW "the first victim" of the Monday Night Wars; WCW closed up shop soon thereafter. WWE — now a virtual monopoly — imported the WCW and ECW wrestlers in a giant storyline of interpromotional rivalry. They later spun ECW off into its own pay-per-views and later into a new, WWE-presented hourlong television show. But ECW within the confines of WWE simply wasn't ECW. The magic was gone. Earlier this year, it was canceled and replaced with a new, "reality-based" wrestling show called NXT.
The irony isn't subtle. It was ECW that brought reality into the world of wrestling. (And this was before the era of reality television.) But it was too real, too raw, too potent to ever succeed on its own terms. Heyman is usually blamed for ECW's downfall to some extent — he was a genius, the story goes, but he was bad with money and unwilling to delegate real responsibility. This is undoubtedly true. But the deeper failure — and the ultimate success — of ECW runs deeper than that.
The federation changed the wrestling industry, and though some alarmist, conservative viewers feared its ascendance was a sign of the apocalypse, ECW changed it for the better. This was fighting, after all — or it was supposed to be, despite Vince McMahon's insistence that pro wrestling is just entertainment. Some who complain about violence for the sake of violence point at the aforementioned Beulah vs. Alfonso match — it's two non-wrestlers, after all, and so it must be all about the blood. But that misses the point.
Many current ECW fans, insofar as they still exist, will focus on the more technical aspects of the promotion: the Mexicans, the Japanese, etc. And certainly these parts were significant. (WCW stole those parts even before they started importing the hardcore wrestlers.) But if you asked most people to describe ECW in one word, that word would probably be something like "blood," or "violence," or "hardcore." The prevalence of blood in ECW can't be overstated — and nor can its symbolism. At the time, it was differentness; it was willingness; it was shock value — it was human nature as coldly expressed in Blood Meridian: violence not for its own sake but rather violence as a description of humanity. ECW did away with a lot of the ironic distancing and comic frou-frou of a mainstream wrestling industry that had grown staid, hokey, and otherworldly, and instead reduced the sport to its essence: fighting. In retrospect, all that blood was richly symbolic in ways that Dostoevsky would've appreciated — symbolic of a murderous nature, yes, but also of a Eucharistic redemption, purification through sacrifice.
Not all of the direct consequences of ECW have been net positives. WWE and WCW's attempts at "hardcore" have mostly been laughable. To use the grunge analogy: ECW begat WWE's Hardcore Championship fights just as surely as Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Mudhoney begat Creed and Nickelback. But for a few years, ECW was the heartbeat of professional wrestling — its lifeblood, if you will. That it didn't survive until today is probably for the best. We prefer the sudden flameouts to the slow sellouts. But watch wrestling now, and you'll see the fingerprints of ECW and Paul Heyman everywhere. What ECW gave to pro wrestling was vitality, vision, and, yes, a kind of redemption. In a weird way, amid the gore and almost literal human sacrifice, it located the humanity in the sport and brought the industry into step with the modern entertainment era. And then, battered and bloodied, wearing all that barbed wire like a crown of thorns, ECW died so that professional wrestling might live.
The Masked Man works in publishing. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can find the rest of the Dead Wrestler series at #deadwrestleroftheweek.
Photos for top graphic courtesy Hardcore Memories.