The Rise Of ECW
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The 1990s were a hell of a time to be a wrestling fan. Being fortunate enough to witness a revolution in this wonderful world of glitter and spandex, a revolution which would change the entire pro wrestling landscape and one which would continue to be felt all the way to the modern day. The fluorescent lights of the 90s in WWF had begun to flicker out. Fans were growing ever more tired of the peroxide blonde all-American hero inevitably overcoming the odds on their way to gold and glory. As the final few neon bulbs began to dim, one man and his anarchic band of merry men grabbed that fluorescent tube and smashed it over the heads of their audience. From the darkness climbed the counterculture of the time. Young men and women were sick of living in the sanitised world created by their parents and started to rebel. With this new generation came a desire for something more visceral, more realistic and all-together more extreme.
ECW's impact on professional wrestling cannot be understated. Its commitment to authenticity, creative freedom, and innovation in both in-ring action and storytelling set it apart from other promotions of its time. By pushing the boundaries and embracing the hardcore style, ECW captured the imagination of wrestling fans worldwide. Despite its relatively short lifespan, ECW's enduring legacy can be seen in the continued influence it has on the industry today. The positives of ECW lie in its ability to revolutionize wrestling, elevate underrated talent, and cultivate a passionate fan base, making it an essential chapter in the history of professional wrestling.
However, a company that was so committed to pushing boundaries and playing on the very edge of public decency and morality, was always destined to step across that line at some point. In this video, I want to see how Extreme Championship Wrestling was formed from the ashes of the National Wrestling Alliance, through hard-work, revolutionary thinking and more than a handful of deception. I will see how ECW became an answer to those young people seeking something fresh and exciting from their weekly pro wrestling television show and how the darkness which once was the birth place of a systematic change within the industry, eventually became the same darkness that would destroy it.
EASTERN CHAMPIONSHIP WRESTLING
When Tri-State Wrestling Alliance and then owner Joel Goodhart begun putting on shows in front of 50 people in 1990, little could anyone have predicted the immense growth and changes that the company would undergo over the next decade.
By February of 1992 Goodhart had decided to sell his majority stake in the company to his close business associate in Tod Gordon, a pawnbroker and jewellery store owner in Philadelphia. Gordon would change the name of the company to ECW, but at this stage the E stood for Eastern. The head booker for the company and also it’s most notable wrestling figure at this time was Hot Stuff Eddie Gilbert, whom Tod Gordon would keep on to run the show with his greatest knowledge and understandings of the inner-workings of the pro wrestling business.
“Eddie had an absolutely brilliant mind that was driven by a second to none passion for the business” Paul Heyman
Around this time, the newly re-branded wrestling company put on its first show at the Original Sports Bar in Philadelphia. The first match on the card features a familiar face in Stevie Richards, a man who will appear throughout this whole story and was involved through almost every stage of ECW’s lifespan from this point on.
“Every match, every experience, not just ECW, is just another way to gain experience. In ECW, not only did I have to mature in the ring, get seasoned, learn how to work and deal with the politics. I also had to grow as a young man. It was difficult, but it made me the person I am today and I’m pretty happy about that.” Steven Richards
Gilbert recognised the need to crown the companies own World Heavyweight Champion and he and Todd Gordon begun preparing for ECW’s inaugural coronation. In April of 1992 two separate battle royal matches were contested with the winner of each going on to fight for the new belt. Jimmy Snuka won his battle royal and Salvatore Bellomo won his. In front of 400 people, Snuka was declared the victor and became the companies first champion. However, he would only hold the belt for 24 hours dropping the belt to Johnny Hot Body a day later.
Hot body and Snuka would then begin a feud which saw Superfly regain the championship in July. Jimmy Snuka was still contracted to WWF around this time, which meant he frequently had to leave his duties in ECW in order to fulfil his commitment to Vince McMahon. This also had the positive impact of ECW fans being able to see an active WWF wrestler at their local shows, giving an air of legitimacy that Tod Gordon and Eddie Gilbert had strived for.
The connection Eddie Gilbert had with other wrestlers and promoters meant that he was able to secure a slot on Sports Channel Philadelphia who agreed to pay to air ECW from April of 1993. With this greater ability to reach new fans, came an ability and desire to bring in more recognisable faces to the brand. This period saw ex-WWF alumni such as Jim The Anvil Neidhart, Don Muraco and Tito Santana appearing in the Eastern Championship ring. Possibly the most important figure to appear in the company at this time was Terry Funk an industry stalwart and a wealth of knowledge that would prove invaluable over the next few years.
So Todd Gordon had surrounded himself with people more knowledgeable. He had put on a string of shows and was beginning to gather local momentum. He needed a better location to host these more recognisable names and somewhere that the company could call home. In 1993 the company gained the rights to begin putting on wrestling cards at the “The World’s Most Famous Bingo Hall” the Viking Arena on the corner of South Swanson Street and West Ritner Street in Philadelphia.
The venue was small and although relatively new, felt run-down and dirty. The streets outside were bare and you could easily be forgiven for walking past the arena and not even noticing it there at all. However, this unassuming building would prove to be one of the breeding grounds for ECW’s coming revolution and is widely regarded as one of the birth-places of hardcore wrestling in the United States.
As you queue alongside this bare wall, awaiting to go through the simple front doors, you may even begin to second guess why you had even bothered to show up. But once you entered through those doors, everything changed.
“A lot of people put it down as just a bingo hall, but to us it never was. We’d show up at the arena and the ring was in place, the chairs were set up and we’d be ready to go. The only time we ever noticed that it was a bingo hall was after the shows when we’d be tearing the place down and you’d look over and see a line of old ladies waiting for us to finish so they could start their games.” ECW referee John Finnegan
When filled to the rafters with blood-thirst ECW hardcore fans, this mere bingo hall was transformed into an gladiatorial arena, fit to host some of the most brutal and industry changing events of all-time. The Viking Hall soon became informally known as the ECW Arena as the connection between the wrestlers, fans and the venue begun to prove vital for the company’s success.
While still a teenager, Paul Heyman used his persuasive skills to gain backstage access to a World Wide Wrestling Federation (WWWF) event at Madison Square Garden under the pretence of being a photojournalist. His talent behind the camera caught the attention of the company, and they compensated him for several of his photographs.
During a Jim Crockett Promotions taping, Heyman encountered Dusty Rhodes and joined a production meeting, where he made a lasting impression. This led him to contact Jim Crockett, who subsequently dispatched Ric Flair, Dusty Rhodes, and Magnum T.A. The event itself showcased the debut of Bam Bam Bigelow and included an award presentation to Flair.
At the insistence of Bigelow, Heyman made his managerial debut on January 2, 1987, initially gaining exposure on the Northeast independent circuit. Shortly after, he embarked on a more prominent venture with Championship Wrestling from Florida in February 1987. Joining forces with Eddie Gilbert and his wife, valet Missy Hyatt, they engaged in a heated rivalry with Lawler before transitioning to the Alabama-based Continental Wrestling Federation. Behind the scenes, Gilbert held the position of head booker, with Heyman assuming the role of his assistant.
"Eddie was a mentor, and I was Eddie’s protégé. The difference in our philosophies," Heyman acknowledged, "was Eddie was always influenced by and wanted to re-create angles that he saw in Memphis many, many years earlier. ‘So, this is what Jerry Lawler did in 77 with Jackie Fargo.’ ‘This is what Bill Dundee did with Buddy Landel.’ And he would want to put a different spin or twist on it, but essentially, he just wanted to do the things that he had seen growing up." Paul Heyman
Simultaneously, Heyman also served as the head booker for Windy City Wrestling in Chicago, where he began to forge a reputation as an innovative television writer and producer.
In 1988, Heyman made the jump to Jim Crockett Promotions once again. Under the moniker of Dangerously, he resumed his managerial duties, overseeing the Original Midnight Express in a fierce feud against the new Midnight Express (Bobby Eaton and Stan Lane), along with their manager Jim Cornette.
Additionally, he took on the task of managing "Mean" Mark Callous. Gradually transitioning, Heyman found himself comfortable in the role of an announcer, collaborating with Jim Ross to provide commentary for matches on WTBS' World Championship Wrestling and various other programming. Following his departure from WCW, Heyman endeavoured to establish a new wrestling promotion in Texas alongside Jim Crockett Jr.
However, disagreements emerged as Crockett aimed to construct a traditional wrestling brand, while Heyman firmly believed that traditional wrestling was outdated and in need of a fresh approach.
"I always felt tasked to do something new and different and never before done. First time ever. A different approach. A new twist on things. So, that was the only conflict that we really had. Eddie wanted to rehash but update, and I wanted to start from a blank piece of paper and make things up from the get-go." Paul Heyman
Heyman was brought into ECW by Gordon and Gilbert in order to help train up new wrestlers in the arts of microphone magic and also as a commentator for their weekly television.
Heyman also managed Jimmy Snuka and a host of other ECW talent on-screen. And as we’d see by his meteoric rise from such a young age, Heyman was driven by success and power. The second he walked through the doors at ECW, he set to work making himself the most important man in the company. In Paul Heyman, the company had know gained a new wrestling mind. It now needed to find it’s voice.
Joey Styles began his career in professional wrestling as an announcer while he was still a student at Hofstra University. He got his start with Tony Capone's North American Wrestling Alliance (NAWA). During this time, he would often share announcing duties with former WWE announcer Craig DeGeorge or collaborate with him as a two-man commentary team. Additionally, Styles hosted a segment called "NAWA Superstar Stats," where he provided insights into the wrestlers and their achievements. The NAWA was briefly televised on Sportschannel America (now NBC Sports Network) due to mergers and acquisitions. In 1992, Styles crossed paths with a man named Paul E., which would prove to be a significant encounter in his career.
“Paul told me to come to ECW for a try-out, but Paul wasn’t the executive producer—or booker—he was just a talent,” explained Styles. “His friend, Eddie Gilbert, was the booker and Tod Gordon was the owner. Unfortunately, Paul didn’t tell anyone that he offered me the try-out—because he had no business doing it—and I showed up in Philly. I found the building, started getting dressed backstage, and was in my tighty whiteys when Tod Gordon walked up to me. Tod asked, ‘Who are you?’ And I told him I was there for the announcing audition, and he said, ‘I own ECW and don’t know a thing about it. What the hell are you doing in my building?’ And that was the start of my career with ECW.” Joey Styles
At first Styles worked backstage organising and promoting events. But it was his passion in front of the audience which he wanted to prove his skills at.
“When Paul was in the office, I showed him a tape of the only indie show I had announced,” Styles shared. “It was at Mount Vernon High School in New York, and it was in June of 1992 and between my junior and senior years of college. It was called the North American Wrestling Alliance, and Hercules and Tony Atlas were the veterans on the card. Taz was doing a Tazmaniac character with no shoes, long hair, and his face painted. The pretty boy Tommy Dreamer was wearing these ridiculous sequined suspenders, baggy pants, and a robe that his mom made. Sean Waltman was there as the “Lightning Kid,” so there was a lot of talent there. I was a heel colour commentator, and I made history by becoming the worst colour commentator ever.” Joey Styles
Although he was fresh-faced and with little in the way of experience, Joey Styles showed that he had a passion for pro wrestling and a willingness to improve and grown under Heyman’s tutelage.
“Paul saw a young, smart-mouthed New Yorker, and he thought, ‘I’m going to create my own announcer in the mould of Gordon Solie who can be the straight man in the middle of all this chaos,’” said Styles. “Paul made me his choice and he trained me. He had been trained to announce in WCW by Jim Ross. When Paul trained me, he told me, specifically, ‘Everything I’m telling you was told to me, word for word, by Jim Ross, so I’m training you the way that Jim Ross trained me.’ Joey Styles
On June 19, 1993, he made his first appearance at the electrifying Super Summer Sizzler Spectacular event held in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Styles took on the role of the exclusive host for ECW Hardcore TV, serving as the sole announcer during the initial phase of the show. He skilfully provided play-by-play commentary and insightful colour analysis for both television and pay-per-view broadcasts, infusing the program with his extensive wrestling expertise, infectious enthusiasm, and impeccable comedic timing.
Jimmy Snuka and Terry Funk, prominent wrestlers in Eastern Championship Wrestling (ECW), established unofficial connections between the company and the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA), a long-standing wrestling organization that facilitated collaborations among various wrestling companies in the United States. Eddie Gilbert believed that ECW joining the NWA would be a significant milestone for the company, as the NWA's tradition and history would enhance the prestige of their newly formed brand. However, Paul Heyman and Todd Gordon vehemently disagreed, concerned about Jim Crockett's predatory business practices that could potentially engulf ECW, which they held dear.
“The National Wrestling Alliance was old-school when old-school wasn't hip anymore. We wanted to set our mark, we wanted to breakaway from the pack, we wanted to let the world know that we weren't just some independent promotion” Paul Heyman
These differing opinions led to intense and prolonged arguments among the three men. Initially, their disagreements stemmed from their passion for the wrestling business. However, over time, the situation grew more sinister. Eddie Gilbert, despite his talents as a wrestler and promoter, struggled with severe mental health issues and substance abuse problems during this period. His erratic behaviour became unbearable for Gordon, resulting in a major falling out just before the Ultra Clash event on September 18, 1993. As a consequence, Gordon removed Gilbert from his position as head booker of the company.
Eddie Gilbert's final moments in ECW came amidst the typical conflict with the promotion's owner. During his farewell ECW event, he conducted a candid interview, unbeknownst to Todd Gordon, the owner, where he showcased "Eddie Gilbert" merchandise such as t-shirts and duffel bags, selling them directly to the fans. This move deepened the rift between Gilbert and ECW, leaving both parties feeling betrayed and aggrieved by the other.
“It all came down to power, Paul wanted to be the boss. He wanted Eddie’s job.” Terry Funk
From that point onward, Paul Heyman assumed creative control of ECW.
"The day I ended up becoming a partner in ECW, let alone the day I became the sole owner of ECW, ECW was on death's door. I came in and I took over creative, September 18, 1993, Tod Gordon couldn't pay me because he had bled himself dry paying Eddie Gilbert. I came in and I said, 'I'll tell you what, I'll come in for half. I'll work for free.” Paul Heyman
While he had reservations about the NWA, it was undeniable that their association would help expand ECW's fanbase. As the ties between the two organizations grew stronger, Jimmy Snuka successfully defended the title against J.T. Smith and the NWA Pennsylvania Heavyweight champion Tommy Cairo at the Super Summer Sizzler Spectacular.
Snuka also defended the title on Eastern Championship Wrestling before ultimately losing it to Terry Funk in a brutal steel cage match at NWA Bloodfest. A year later, ECW became the flagship promotion of the struggling NWA. The NWA World Title Tournament, slated for August 1994, was scheduled to be held at an ECW-hosted event, primarily featuring ECW wrestlers, to determine the NWA World Heavyweight Champion. At this event, a pivotal moment occurred that would forever alter the trajectory of the company and reshape the pro wrestling landscape for the next two decades.
In 1994, Jim Crockett's non-compete agreement with Ted Turner, who had acquired World Championship Wrestling (WCW) from Crockett in November 1988, reached its expiration. Crockett made the decision to return to promoting with the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA).
He approached Tod Gordon and proposed organizing a tournament for the prestigious NWA World Heavyweight Championship in ECW's hometown of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, scheduled for August 27, 1994. However, NWA President Dennis Coralluzzo accused Crockett and Gordon of attempting to monopolize the title, drawing parallels to Crockett's past actions in the 1980s.
To address these concerns, Coralluzzo personally oversaw the tournament since Crockett lacked the approval of the NWA board. Offended by Coralluzzo's power moves, Gordon began contemplating a controversial and public plan to secede ECW from the NWA, aiming to draw attention to ECW while disrespecting the NWA organization. The intended outcome was for the then-ECW champion Shane Douglas to win the tournament and subsequently denounce the NWA and its supposed "tradition" during a post-match speech.
Paul Heyman conspired with Douglas and Gordon, keeping the plan strictly confidential. In the speech, Douglas vehemently attacked the lineage of the NWA title, dramatically discarding the belt and proclaiming the NWA as a "dead organization," asserting the significance of his ECW title as a world-level championship.
"I stand here before God, and my father in Heaven tonight, as I said I would be world's heavyweight champion. In the tradition of Lou Thesz, in the tradition of Jack Brisco, The Brisco Brothers, of Dory Funk Jr., of Terry Funk the man who'll never die, as the real Nature Boy Buddy Rogers upstairs tonight, from the Harley Race's to the Barry Windham's, to the...Ric Flair's, I accept this heavyweight title. Of Kerry Von Erich, of the fat man himself Dusty Rhodes, this is it tonight, dad. God, that's beautiful. And Rick Steamboat, and they can all kiss my ass. Because I am not the man who accepts a torch to be handed down to me from an organization that died, RIP, seven years ago. The Franchise Shane Douglas is the man who ignites the new flame of the sport of Professional Wrestling." Shane Douglas
This shoot screwjob angle was known only to the three individuals involved. ECW successfully surprised the NWA with this angle, to the extent that Coralluzzo even recorded an interview for ECW television without realizing he was inadvertently playing into their hands.
“That was always our goal, to transform it from a bingo hall while at the same time expand ourselves. We were determined to shakeup the industry, that was our goal, that was what we were doing.” Paul Heyman.
During that same week, Heyman and Tod Gordon rebranded the promotion, dropping the regional label "Eastern," and declared it as Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW).
“I thought that the business, the industry, the presentation needed to change in the same way music had changed. Because music was all about Poison and Mötley Crüe and Winger and all these hair bands, and then along came Nirvana and *BAM*! The whole industry changed. So in the same way, I thought wrestling needed to change, in that wrestling had become the equivalent of hair bands, and we needed wrestling's version of Nirvana to come along and just shake everything up.” Paul Heyman.
They severed ties with the NWA, establishing ECW as an independent entity. Heyman encouraged wrestlers to express their genuine feelings about other wrestling promotions such as WWF, NWA, and WCW. In May 1995, Heyman acquired Gordon's shares, becoming the sole owner of ECW. A move which was as much of a creative risk as a financial one.
CULT OF ECW
One of the core components of the success of Extreme Championship Wrestling was undoubtably its fans. Passionate, loyal and willing to support the new direction of the company with their attendances, their participation in the atmosphere and most importantly their cash.
The ECW fanbase played a pivotal role in shaping the promotion's distinct identity. Unlike mainstream wrestling promotions at the time, ECW offered a unique product that catered to a more mature and hardcore audience. The fans actively embraced the rebellious spirit of ECW, which was characterized by its edginess, extreme matches, and a willingness to push boundaries. Their unwavering support for ECW's brand of wrestling not only validated the promotion's vision but also emboldened the performers to continue innovating and taking risks to satiate their audience's hunger for adrenaline-fueled entertainment.
“I think ECW itself was a gimmick. I think getting the audience to chant ECW was really something. I don't care if you draw 70,000 people in a dome for Wrestlemania, nobody chants WWE. The only time you ever hear anyone chant WCW, it's always followed by the word "sucks". I was on 57th Ave. in New York city and there was a three-car pileup and a bunch of people looked at the car wreck and started chanting ECW. It's become part of the country's lexicon. It's an accepted, acknowledged phrase. For us to have built that from a bingo hall and then extend it out is really something. For us to accomplish that is really my favourite gimmick.” Paul Heyman
The fans of ECW were not just passive observers; they were active participants in the promotion's financial success. ECW operated on a smaller budget compared to its mainstream counterparts, relying heavily on ticket sales and merchandise to sustain its operations. The unwavering dedication of the fans ensured sold-out shows and a steady stream of revenue that kept the promotion afloat. By purchasing tickets, merchandise, and pay-per-view events, the fans demonstrated their commitment to ECW's survival. This financial support allowed ECW to invest in its talent, production values, and overall growth, thereby establishing a sustainable model in the wrestling industry.
In a defining moment, a chaotic battle unfolded between Cactus Jack, Terry Funk, "Flyboy" Rocco Rock, and Johnny Grunge of The Public Enemy. However, what followed this intense brawl would etch itself as an iconic scene in the annals of ECW. As Funk urged a member of the audience to hurl a chair into the ring, little did he know that he was about to witness the true extent of the ECW faithful's dedication.
With fervent enthusiasm, the passionate crowd eagerly complied, launching a barrage of steel chairs from all angles, transforming the canvas into a sea of metal and leaving Funk momentarily disoriented. This pivotal moment marked the genesis of ECW's reputation as the renegade force within sports-entertainment, captivating audiences far and wide.
Paul Heyman would regularly come out at the start of shows to rile up the crowd with speeches of violent mayhem and debauchery, every word flying from his mouth accompanied by spit and a sense that Heyman really did believe what he was saying to the fans and the wrestlers backstage.
“When Paul made his speeches, you truly wanted to go to war for him. Every ECW wrestler was willing to die in battle for the company. I don’t mean that figuratively, but we were ready to do whatever it takes for the world to notice us.” Bubba Ray Dudley
The fans of ECW were instrumental in creating an atmosphere that remains unmatched in professional wrestling. Their passion, energy, and vocal engagement transformed ECW events into electric spectacles. They weren't passive viewers; they were an active part of the show. Their chants, cheers, and jeers echoed throughout the arenas, elevating the in-ring action to new heights. The connection between the fans and the performers was symbiotic, with each feeding off the other's energy. The unique ECW chants, like "ECW! ECW!" or "You F***ed Up!", became synonymous with the promotion, further illustrating the fans' impact on shaping the atmosphere and making it an unforgettable experience.
“I never looked at ECW as wrestling. I always considered it more of a theology. I don’t know whether I had or didn’t have a messianic complex during that time. But I bought into the movement as much as, if not more than, anybody else. If I sold anyone on the religion of extreme, I was its number-one customer.” Paul Heyman
ECW's passionate fanbase didn't just consist of individuals attending live events; it extended beyond the arenas. The fans formed a vibrant and tightly-knit community that shared their love for ECW through various online platforms, fan clubs, and conventions. This sense of community created a lasting bond among ECW enthusiasts, fostering a collective sense of belonging and shared experiences. The fans' dedication transcended the boundaries of wrestling, demonstrating the enduring power of ECW's impact on their lives.
Tommy Dreamer, one of the original pioneers of the extreme brand, initially faced disdain from the passionate ECW faithful due to his upbeat, "good guy" persona. However, it was in August of 1994 that Dreamer earned the respect and admiration of the tough Philly crowd in a Singapore Cane Match against the relentless Sandman.
Despite enduring excruciating lashings that left his back lacerated and adorned with welts, Dreamer displayed unwavering resilience. Refusing to beg for mercy, he turned to his aggressor and uttered the now-iconic words, "Please, sir, may I have another?" In that transformative moment, Dreamer transcended into a hardcore icon, embodying the spirit of ECW and epitomizing what it took to become a star in the company.
The stark contrast between Dreamer's journey in ECW and that of his rivals in WWF became apparent. In 1994, WWF focused on the hero narrative, emphasizing overcoming odds without resorting to cheating. However, the ECW fans rejected Dreamer initially, demanding that he prove he was not merely a reflection of WWF in 1994, but a symbol of the future of ECW. Dreamer's transformation exemplified the counter-culture ethos of ECW, where authenticity and a willingness to push boundaries were paramount. Dreamer's resilience and unwavering dedication to ECW's extreme philosophy resonated with the fans, solidifying his place as a beloved figure within the promotion. Through his enduring journey, Dreamer embodied the spirit of ECW, showcasing that success in this renegade promotion required a departure from conventional norms and a commitment to embracing the company's unique identity.
“I was actually handed a switch blade one time which I then used on Raven to slice open his forehead. I was handed dildos, boat oars, stuff wrapped in barbed wire, cheese graters, a carton of eggs, food which I would usually eat before I used it, tobacco spit, soda…the fans were such a big part of the show. We used to fight in the crowds and people would see the guys really beating the hell out of each other.” Tommy Dreamer
During a harrowing encounter with Terry Funk on April 15, 1995, Cactus Jack became aware of a sign held by a fan in the front row that read "Cane Dewey" - a callous message specifically targeting Jack's young son. Consumed by a mix of rage and indignation, the formidable competitor unleashed a series of impassioned diatribes, deriding the very essence of hardcore wrestling and admonishing the audience for relishing in his personal suffering. These unforgettable moments were later hailed by Paul Heyman as some of the most exceptional sports-entertainment interviews ever captured. While undeniably entertaining, they were rooted in a raw truth.
“Yeah, but the odd thing is I wasn’t immediately angry about the sign. In fact, in fairness to the guy who made it, he actually asked me if it would be OK.” Mick Foley
But decided to cut the now infamous Cane Dewey promo when he saw his wife’s reaction to what she saw as wrestling gone too far.
“I think he showed me the sign a week before he debuted it at the ECW Arena. I kind of shrugged and said, “Yeah, that’s fine.” It wasn’t until I told my wife and she said, “I’m sorry, but I just got sick to my stomach. You realize somebody is making a sign advocating the physical abuse of a 3-year old-child?” I thought she had a pretty valid point. It’s not a very positive sign for anyone to be carrying.” Mick Foley
Although this ultra-violent approach had endeared ECW to its hardcore local audience, in order to make the company a success they needed advertisers and television networks to pay them for their product. With blood, guts and gore on almost every show, the was proving to be difficult for Paul Heyman to arrange.
MORE THAN HARDCORE
In August of 1995, Heyman once again displayed his tactical brilliance by reaching out to professional wrestlers who excelled in technical prowess and focused solely on the art of skillful, high-flying maneuvers. This approach had fallen out of favor in mainstream wrestling for a considerable time, making it a risky move for the person in charge, especially since the 'Extreme' aspect of ECW seemed to overshadow the 'Wrestling' element. Nonetheless, Heyman's decision proved that ECW was more than just about unbridled brutality.
Dean Malenko and Eddie Guerrero, two exceptional competitors, left the Philadelphia fans awestruck with their lightning-fast matches, showcasing a unique hybrid style of Mexican and Japanese wrestling never before witnessed in the United States. On their final night in ECW before joining WCW, they engaged in a thrilling 30-minute 2-out-of-3 Falls Match, leaving the audience captivated. Normally, when competitors departed ECW, the fans chanted "You sold out!" But on that night, their chant was "Please don't go!" – a testament to the profound impact Malenko and Guerrero had made.
To fill the void left by their departure, ECW introduced American wrestling fans to exhilarating Mexican luchadores like Rey Mysterio and Psicosis. At the time, these high-flying stars were deemed too small by WCW and WWE. However, shortly after the masked men made their debut in ECW, WCW established a Cruiserweight division.
Heyman leveraged his connections to the NWA and WCW, bringing in promising pro wrestlers with untapped potential. Among these impressive younger talents was Steve Austin, who joined Heyman's fold in November 1995. Austin had recently been released by WCW due to an injury, but found solace and opportunity working under his former manager from the "Dangerous Alliance" days.
Given the freedom to express himself fully on television, Austin, a frustrated competitor, unleashed scathing criticisms towards Eric Bischoff, Hulk Hogan, Ric Flair, and others. While Austin only competed in two matches during his time in ECW, it was his unforgettable interviews that played a pivotal role in shaping his future persona as "Stone Cold."
“ECW was just a great environment at that point in my life. ECW was just a hub of so much creativity and guys going through the refining process, trying things out, experimenting, and, of course, guys with great success with real cool gimmicks laying down some heavy stuff. So, it was a great learning process for me and a real eye-opener as far as the creative freedom that Paul E. Heyman harboured down there and you were able to do anything that you wanted to do to get over and that doesn’t exist in today’s system. I really value my days down there in ECW in Philly. It was a pivotal time in my career and I dare say that if I’d not made my stop through [ECW], I don’t know if I’d ever really become ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin. I always give Paul Heyman all the credit in the world for helping me get to the level to which I got.” Stone Cold Steve Austin
In his autobiography "Controversy Creates Cash" published in 2006, Eric Bischoff, the former President of WCW, revealed that Brian Pillman was released from his contract with the company with the intention of allowing him to join ECW and refine the character he was developing as the Loose Cannon.
"Brian was very proactive and constructive in his approach to it. This was when he and I started talking about what to do with his character and how to utilize him in a different way." Eric Bischoff
The plan was for Pillman to then return to WCW with this persona, contributing to the company's desired level of unpredictability on their Monday Nitro show. Unfortunately, things didn't unfold as anticipated for Bischoff. On February 17, 1996, Pillman made a surprising debut at Extreme Championship Wrestling's Cyberslam event, much to the delight of the Philadelphia crowd, who greeted him with an uproarious cheer. However, in a testament to Pillman's talent as a performer, he managed to quickly turn that enthusiastic audience against him through a venomous promo. In a matter of minutes, he threatened to urinate in the center of the ring, shifting the crowd's sentiment.
"He’d shown up in ECW to continue the elaborate work and perfect his loony act. He was also doing an excellent job of convincing everyone that he’d lost it. He’d shown up at the arena that day with his pants falling from not having a belt. He went around to everyone in the dressing room, asking them if they had an extra belt, and ended up settling on a piece of twine.” Chris Jericho
Although Pillman made a few more appearances for ECW, he ultimately decided to sign with World Wrestling Entertainment in June. Turning the whole deal with Eric Bischoff on it’s head and for a brief spell coming out on top. It was there that he would conclude his career in professional wrestling, before his life came to tragic end. We will never get to see what could have been with one of the most promising performers of his generation, but we will always have Brian Pillman’s energy and passion for pro wrestling perfectly displayed during his time in ECW.
Throughout this time ECW had continued to work to scout talent from around the wrestling world. Something which would see them not only creating good working relationships with Mexican and US based promotions, but also build solidify the bridges between WCW and WWF with their company. Heyman regularly allowed some of his hottest talent to be poached by the bigger companies in order to keep them sweet. Something which would turn out to be a fine tactical decision on his part.
During that period, Kevin Sullivan and Arn Anderson had a professional relationship with various promotions. They were associated with WCW and Smokey Mountain before Jim Cornette signed an agreement between Smokey Mountain Wrestling (SMW) and WWF.
WCW also acquired Woman and Konnan from ECW, with Woman serving as Sandman's valet. Konnan, known for his involvement in the "Extreme Lucha Libre" movement, participated in a televised tag match alongside Rey Mysterio, Juventud Guerrera, and Psicosis. Surprisingly, Konnan seamlessly fit into the group despite initial reservations.
The Steiner Brothers played a crucial role in shaping TAZ's career, as TAZ emerged as a barefoot savage fighter. After spending time training with the Steiners, TAZ became a dominant force in MMA and suplex-based wrestling for a consecutive five-year period. At an outdoor show for "Hardcore TV," the Steiner Brothers defeated Big Dick Dudley and Vampire Warrior, possibly winning a six-man match as well. In the Dudley/Vampire match, Scott Steiner wore a Gold's Gym wifebeater under his iconic fluorescent and flamboyant singlet.
Ron Simmons found himself in ECW after being unjustly fired or laid off by WCW. He had a lackluster match with ECW World Champion Shane Douglas in Florida, with the blame likely falling on Shane.
Terry Gordy suffered a stroke prior to joining ECW, and his in-ring performances were disheartening to witness. Despite reforming the Miracle Violence Connection with Dr. Death, Gordy's health issues prevented him from having dream matches. He also faced Brian Lee (Chainz) and fought Raven for the ECW Title. Sadly, Gordy was a mere shadow of his former self and struggled to cut promos due to the adverse effects on his brain and motor functions.
WCW also managed to sign Crash the Terminator (Morrus), but his tenure mostly involved matches against The Eliminators without significant contributions elsewhere.
“If they could make more money elsewhere to improve their lives, I would want that for them. They could be making five times, ten times more money in the WWF or WCW and I wanted that for them. Paul (Heyman) hated anyone who dare say they wanted to leave ECW. We butted heads on that issue all the time. I would say what are you f—ing crazy? These guys could be making more money. I got Public Enemy into WCW through Kevin Sullivan, where they made four times more money than they did in ECW. To me, those guys were my friends and I wanted them to be happy. Paul hated them forever after that.” Todd Gordon
While working in ECW, Heyman forged an alliance with Vince McMahon's WWF. McMahon, with the intention of nurturing talent, dispatched several WWF wrestlers to ECW and also expressed interest in acquiring certain ECW wrestlers, including Terry Gordy and 2 Cold Scorpio. To secure Scorpio's services, McMahon agreed to compensate Heyman with a weekly payment of $1,000. A relationship which would continue to be fruitful for Heyman until the current day, but not one that made him popular with hardcore ECW fans aswell as some of their top talent.
“In ECW, I was in a company where everybody wanted to be a shoot fighter. Or everybody was mad or hardcore. But the BWO (Blue World Order) was the entertainment part of the show. Personally, my body would not be able to handle the risks of being strictly a hardcore wrestler. The way you learn how to work is you learn how to entertain along with taking the physicality aspect of it; finding the balance instead of being one end of the spectrum or another.” Steven Richards
In 1995, Raven established a faction known as Raven's Nest, which possessed a cult-like aura. With the assistance of Nest members Stevie Richards and The Blue Meanie, Raven swiftly dethroned The Sandman, seizing the ECW Championship.
Their constant external aid enabled Raven to successfully defend the title on numerous occasions. On October 26th, 1996, at the 2300 Arena (formerly known as the ECW Arena) in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, The Sandman achieved a triumphant defence of his ECW Championship by defeating 2 Cold Scorpio. After the intense bout, a surprising turn of events took place when Sandman's son emerged, dressed not in grunge attire but rather in clothes reminiscent of his biological father's. To add to the intrigue, his T-shirt featured the inscription "Enter The Sandman" on the back.
Seizing the moment, Raven swiftly stormed into the ring, blindsiding The Sandman with a forceful strike from a Kendo stick. He proceeded to execute a brutal DDT on The Sandman outside the ring, subsequently power bombing him through a series of tables. The assembled audience had already been treated to a substantial dose of violence. However, Raven and his faction shocked everyone by committing an unspeakable act: they crucified their adversary.
"This is the most horrifying thing I have ever seen in my life." Joey Styles on commentary.
And although Styles had built a career by this point from screaming hyperbole into the microphone during ECW shows, this time he was speaking for a large chunk of the Christians in the United States. Paul Heyman was all for pushing the boundaries and attempting to find the limits of what was acceptable, but this violent display of religious iconography could have seen ECW removed from the air altogether.
"Of course, a few people being Taz and Joey Styles, took offense and thought I was denigrating Christianity or some nonsense. Just asinine! One has nothing to do with the other. Apparently, Tod Gordon and Paul Heyman, by acting without their knowledge, are offended by my use of religious iconography," Raven.
As he returned through the curtain, Raven was met by Paul Heyman in a fit of panic.
"It’s probably the only night in ECW history, where we ever had to apologize for what we did. I didn’t just want to do a wrestling show. I wanted to do great television." Paul Heyman
Raven was made to go out and make sure that the fans knew it was all a show and cover the possible damage with an apology. However, many ECW performers believed this type of back track was against the very nature of the company and it’s hardcore ethos.
"They made me go out and apologize, which was so horribly stupid because we were the company that pushed the boundaries," Raven.
However, it wasn’t just the television companies and advertisers Heyman was worried about offending. As part of his ongoing recruitment process, Heyman had invited Olympic Gold Medalist Kurt Angle to attend the show, before he had ever had a chance to sign with WWE. This would surely be the biggest potential signing for ECW to date and it was crucial that Angle was impressed by the proceedings.
"I’m speechless, but Kurt Angle turns to me, assuming maybe because I’m wearing a suit and tie that I know what’s going on, and he starts screaming at me, "‘I can’t be a part of this, this is disgraceful, this is awful, I don’t ever want footage of me being here to even air!’ I look to my left to get help from Paul, and Paul is gone." Joey Styles.
Kurt Angle was supposedly so offended and disgusted by the ECW display that night, that he refused to return for contract talks with Paul Heyman and would go on instead to sign and have an iconic career with Vince McMahon and WWE.
BARELY LEGAL ECW Barely Legal 1997 was an event that nearly never happened. Held on April 13, 1997, at the ECW Arena in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, it marked a pivotal moment for Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW). Overcoming obstacles such as cable companies' refusal to associate with the controversial promotion and technical difficulties caused by the venue's limited power supply, Barely Legal secured a provider at the eleventh hour. Despite these setbacks, the show pressed on, delivering an unforgettable spectacle that showcased the raw athleticism, brutality, and devoted fan base that forever changed the professional wrestling landscape.
Under the visionary leadership of Paul Heyman, ECW emerged in the early 1990s as a renegade promotion that shattered the conventions of traditional wrestling. Seeking to provide a grittier, more realistic product, ECW resonated with a growing contingent of fans who craved an alternative to the formulaic style offered by mainstream promotions. Barely Legal 1997 represented the culmination of ECW's journey, as the company's first-ever pay-per-view event.
The defining characteristic of ECW Barely Legal 1997 was the electric atmosphere inside the ECW Arena. The passionate and rabid fan base that ECW had cultivated infused an unparalleled energy into the event. The fervour of the crowd, combined with the intimate venue, created an intense and immersive experience for both those in attendance and the viewers watching from home.
Barely Legal 1997 boasted a stacked card, featuring a mix of ECW regulars and notable talents from other promotions. The matches showcased the extreme style that had become synonymous with ECW, incorporating high-risk manoeuvres, violent encounters, and an unprecedented level of intensity in professional wrestling.
The main event of Barely Legal 1997 pitted three iconic figures against each other: Terry Funk, The Sandman, and Stevie Richards. This brutal encounter epitomized the ECW style, featuring the use of weapons, high-impact moves, and an unwavering desire to emerge victorious. Terry Funk's triumph in this match solidified his status as a hardcore wrestling icon and left a lasting impact on the audience.
Another standout contest at Barely Legal 1997 was the dream match between Rob Van Dam and Sabu. These two innovative and high-flying athletes mesmerized the audience with their awe-inspiring manoeuvres and unmatched chemistry in the ring. The match exemplified ECW's ability to present unique, cutting-edge wrestling matchups that fans had only dreamed of before.
ECW Barely Legal 1997 marked a turning point not only for ECW but also for the professional wrestling industry as a whole. The event's success, both critically and commercially, demonstrated the viability of the alternative wrestling scene and initiated a shift in the landscape. It laid the foundation for ECW's subsequent rise as a major player in the industry while inspiring other promotions to embrace a more innovative and daring style of wrestling.
ECW Barely Legal 1997 stands as a landmark event in the history of professional wrestling, etching its name in the annals of the sport. It represented the culmination of ECW's journey, showcasing the passion, athleticism, and innovation that made the promotion a cult favorite among wrestling enthusiasts. The event's enduring legacy lies in its ability to transcend its obstacles, inspiring a generation of wrestlers, promotions, and fans to embrace the extreme and push the boundaries of what professional wrestling could be.
“I didn’t know anything about that until after I left ECW. Certain things made much more sense to me looking back at that now. Some of the decisions that were made were more clear to me after the fact. Paul had been getting paid by Vince for awhile before and I had no idea what was going on. I didn’t want to do business with the WWF, but Paul did, so we did.” Todd Gordon
In early 1998, Shane Douglas was still the reigning ECW World Champion and the top of the card within the company. However, when Douglas suffered an injury which meant he was unable to defend his belt, calls from other wrestlers in the company came for him to relinquish the championship. When Douglas refused, it caused frustration backstage, most notably with the number one contender Taz who kept demanding the belt be passed to him. In May, Taz decided to take the problem into his own hands and came out to speak to the ECW fans about his rightful place as World Champion.
“The company was doing me wrong. I felt like I wasn’t getting an opportunity for Shane Douglas’ ECW World Heavyweight title. I come out with my own championship in my own city of not Brooklyn but Queen’s New York and debut with this belt. It took a life of its own” Taz
The original belt that Taz brought to the ring was simply the ECW Television title, with the leather strap changed. One close ups you can even make out the stickers that Taz and backstage production had used to cover the world ‘television’ with FTW and Taz logos. Even later, when Taz was presented with a more professional belt by Rob Van Dam, The FTW Championship was not recognized as an official title by ECW management or other wrestling promotions, but that was part of the charm.
“As time went I kinda invented my own belt. the FTW Championship. FTW stood for F the World and that was Taz’s attitude. He didn’t care about anybody. He was miserable and pissed at the world. Just angry. Angry. Rage.” Taz
Instead, it was referred to as a "symbolic" or "unsanctioned" championship. However, this would not stop Taz from constantly harassing the officially recognised champion attempting to goad Douglas into a match.
“So what I’ve got right here is see I’m not the uncrowned champion because…I am the world heavyweight champion and this right here is the proof. You could call it the Brooklyn World Belt, you could call it the F**k the World Belt.You could call it anything you want. But enough with the chitter-chatter. Shane Douglas. Why don’t you come out here belt for belt. Bring it out.” Taz
With his intense persona and expert use of a countless number of suplexes, Taz endeared himself towards the rabid ECW regulars. The Human Suplex Machine didn’t care about any official title anymore and had broken away to find success on his own. A reflection of one of the core fundamentals of early ECW and a clear parallel to Shane Douglas’ approach to the NWA belt a few years prior. However, the belt only ever served as a stepping stone for Taz and others who held it during this period.
“I don’t think that if you go back into the history of ECW that the FTW World title meant that much. I think in the history of ECW the FTW title was a launch towards Taz’s push towards the World Heavyweight championship.” Paul Heyman
After crowning three champions during its initial run, the FTW belt was eventually abandoned in 1999 when it was unified with the ECW World Championship. For over two decades, it remained inactive. However, in 2020, the FTW Championship found new life when it was reintroduced by Taz in AEW. Both in ECW and AEW, the championship was introduced when the respective world champions were unable to defend their titles due to injury or illness. In ECW, Taz himself was the challenger, while in AEW, it was Taz's client, Brian Cage. It carries a rebellious aura, signifying defiance against the established hierarchy. Taz’s real-life son Hook even had a run with the FTW belt in AEW defeating Ricky Starks in 2022.
ECW Heatwave 1998 is widely regarded as one of the most iconic and memorable events in the history of Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW). Known for its intense and hardcore style, ECW Heatwave 1998 showcased the promotion at its peak and featured several standout matches and moments.
One of the key matches of the event was the main event, a tag team match pitting The Dudley Boyz (Bubba Ray Dudley and D-Von Dudley) against Tommy Dreamer and The Sandman. This match was a brutal and chaotic encounter that exemplified the extreme nature of ECW. It included the use of tables, chairs, and other weapons, and the crowd was fully engaged throughout the entire match. The story told in the ring and the emotional investment from the audience made this match a highlight of the event.
Another standout match was a singles encounter between Rob Van Dam and Jerry Lynn. Van Dam and Lynn were known for their incredible athleticism and high-flying abilities, and they delivered an outstanding display of technical wrestling and aerial maneuvers. The chemistry between these two competitors was evident, and their match stole the show, leaving the fans in awe of their skills.
ECW Heatwave 1998 also featured a thrilling three-way dance for the FTW Championship, involving champion Taz and Bam Bam Bigelow. This match was hard-hitting and intense, with both competitors showcasing their toughness and resilience. The action was non-stop, and the crowd was fully invested in the outcome of the match.
In addition to these matches, ECW Heatwave 1998 featured other notable moments, such as a memorable promo by the late "Lionheart" Chris Jericho, who expressed his frustrations with ECW management and ultimately threw down the ECW World Television Championship belt. This segment added an extra layer of drama and tension to the event.
Overall, ECW Heatwave 1998 was an exceptional event that showcased the best of ECW's hardcore style and intense wrestling action. It had a strong line-up of matches, with standout performances from various wrestlers. The event captured the spirit and energy of ECW and left a lasting impression on fans of the promotion.
At this point in time ECW had become the darlings of the independent pro wrestling scene across north America. VHS tapes and DVDs spread the extreme companies message far and wide. Through internet forums and numerous fan written blog posts, the company had gained an aura of excitement. A brand with both eyes firmly on the future and with some of the brightest talents in the industry boasted on their ever improving roster. Paul Heyman was leading ECW through one successful wrestling event, through weekly television and onto every more popular pay-per-views and the young wrestling genius was seemingly about to fulfil the potential that so many had seen in him from a young age.
However, as we will find out in the second part of this video, through a series of catastrophic decisions and unfortunate events, ECW would only go on to live in it’s current form for the next 3 years. Paul Heyman and ECW would declare bankruptcy with almost $10 million owed to companies around the world. So please join me next time to witness the complete and total collapse of one of the most beloved companies in all of pro wrestling history.
For more on this topic and much more pro wrestling, check out my channel: The Rise Of ECW, What Happened?