The Rise and Fall of ECW

 

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THE RISE AND FALL OF ECW
An entertaining look at one man’s vision and his determination to make it a reality.

Review by Mike Rickard II

Don't let it be forgot
That once there was a spot
For one brief shining moment that was known
As Camelot

    - from the Lerner and Lowe musical Camelot

Someday, Paul Heyman may be credited as the man who saved North American wrestling. During the early 1990’s wrestling in the United States wallowed in mediocrity. The boom days of Hulkamania had faded and national promotions World Championship Wrestling (WCW) and the World Wrestling Federation (WWF) seemed content to regurgitate ridiculous storylines and geriatric wrestlers. Fans that had grown up on the athleticism of Race, the violence of Brody, the tag team excellence of the British Bulldogs, and the showmanship of Flair were disgusted with the state of professional wrestling. In a matter of a few years, one man reminded fans of why wrestling captivated them in the first place and helped create a new generation of fans as well.

The Rise and Fall of ECW continues the WWE’s excellent track record of quality DVD’s. This two disc six hour collection profiles the rise and fall of arguably, the most innovative wrestling promotion of all time. Coming in at just under three hours, The Rise and Fall of ECW examines this important promotion’s history with frank interviews from some of the key players in the promotion as well as footage from pivotal moments in ECW history. A second disc includes seven matches featuring some of ECW’s most memorable performers. Just like ECW, this video is hardcore and it has a TV MA rating (a first I believe for WWE Home Video).

At a time when the World Wrestling Federation (WWF) and World Championship Wrestling considered Doink the Clown and the Shockmaster the wave of the future, Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW) gave fans a real alternative to the cartoon environment that prevailed in the North American wrestling scene. While ECW was not the only alternative to the WWF and WCW’s cartoon wrestling (Other regional promotions such as Smokey Mountain Wrestling offered fans the old-school wrestling that had all but died out during the Rock-n-Wrestling era), they offered a fresh spin on professional wrestling that was nowhere to be found.

In the DVD program, Paul Heyman explains his vision of wrestling at the time he took over the booking duties from Eddie Gilbert. At the time, grunge music was taking the world by storm, sending many hair bands to the unemployment office. In Heyman’s mind, wrestling was living in the hair band era and it was time to present a new type of wrestling, something that would revolutionize the world much the same as Nirvana and Pearl Jam were changing the rock music scene.

Heyman was no stranger to the business. For several years he had worked as a manager (under the name Paul E. Dangerously) and had recently worked in WCW managing such teams as the Original Midnight Express and the Dangerous Alliance. However WCW had come under new management and Heyman soon found himself at odds with an upstart at WCW by the name of Eric Bischoff. Heyman turned his sights to a new regional promotion known as Eastern Championship Wrestling. After he was offered the job of booker, Heyman immediately began molding ECW into his vision of the sport’s future. Heyman knew from the start that the young promotion couldn’t compete with the production values of the WWF or WCW. He wasn’t going to even try. No pyro, no production values, no problem. Instead, he would focus on what did work- great interviews, intense brawls, and superb wrestling. In Heyman’s words, he would accentuate the positive and cover up the negative. Heyman took the basic premise of professional wrestling (wrestlers solving personal scores with violence) and cranked the volume to eleven.

It was a brilliant mix of wrestling violence and fan appreciation that made ECW an immediate hit with its fans. As documented in the DVD, Paul Heyman did not talk down to his audience nor insult their intelligence. When wrestlers were injured for real in a match, ECW let the fans know what had happened. When Sabu no-showed a major ECW show, Paul Heyman stepped into the ring and explained to the fans why Sabu was not present and how Sabu broke his word so that he could collect a larger paycheck in Japan. It was a break in kayfabe but a refreshing change from the weak storylines offered up in WCW and WWF.

Heyman booked some of the freshest young talent along with some familiar faces. While he wanted his promotion to maintain a separate identity from mainstays like WCW and the WWF, he cannily brought in NWA legend Terry Funk to show old-time fans that they didn’t have to settle for the nonsense that had turned many of them off to the WWF and WCW. The legendary Funk brought an air of credibility to the new promotion and helped put over two of the promotion’s top stars- Sabu and Shane “The Franchise” Douglas.

ECW’s locker room featured quite the hodgepodge of wrestlers. ECW legend Tazz recalls how the ECW locker room was referred to as “the Island of Misfit Toys” because it often consisted of wrestlers who no one else wanted whether it was because they were too green, too small, or had personal demons. Thanks to the booking genius of Paul Heyman, many wrestlers got a chance to show their stuff or re-invent themselves. Many examples abound of wrestlers who re-invented themselves in ECW such as Cactus Jack, Steve Austin, Raven, and Shane Douglas or who got their first big break such as Tommy Dreamer, Steven Richards, and Mikey Whipwreck (who started in ECW as a member of the ring crew).

ECW will probably forever be known for people getting put through tables but as documented in Rise and Fall, the promotion also featured world class wrestling and innovative storylines. It’s difficult to imagine a promotion sustaining itself on a steady diet of the same style whether it’s “pure wrestling” like Ring of Honor (ROH) or hardcore wrestling like ECW was known for. To mix things up, Paul Heyman brought in top workers such as Chris Benoit, Eddie Guererro, Dean Malenko, and Chris Jericho to provide wrestling showcases in addition to the hardcore heroes like Sabu, Raven, and Sandman.

Long before the WWF Attitude era, ECW presented angles aimed at an adult audience. While WCW and the WWF targeted their shows at children, ECW made no mistake about the fact that their product was aimed at the 18-34 demographic. Fans had never seen anything like ECW before, whether it was Raven taking his feud with the Sandman to a new level by turning Sandman’s own son against him or the chain-smoking Sandman downing beer after beer before his matches and cracking beer cans against his forehead until he bled. Long before HLA, ECW put a new spin on the lover’s triangle angle when Tommy Dreamer learned from his nemesis Raven that his girlfriend Beulah McGillicutty had been cheating on him not with a man, but with Raven’s own valet Kimona. The angle was so hot that television stations wouldn’t run the show.

Like the t-shirt said, ECW wasn’t for everybody. The show could cross the line whether it was the Dudley Boys nearly inciting fans to riot with sharp promos, Olympic gold medallist Kurt Angle abandoning his decision to sign with ECW after witnessing Raven crucify Sandman at a show, or ECW losing its pay-per-view clearance after the Mass Transit incident where New Jack butchered rookie underage wrestler Eric Kulas (sadly, this notorious of ECW history is glossed over in the DVD). Eric Bischoff and Vince McMahon both raise the question as to whether or not ECW could have sustained itself at the national level with Paul Heyman’s insistence on maintaining ECW’s hardcore formula.

The fans’ love affair with ECW is mentioned throughout the program and anyone who’s heard an “ECW” chant during a hardcore match can testify to their enduring fondness for ECW. Whether it was bringing weapons to ringside for the wrestlers to use, standing ovations to show appreciation for great matches, or “You fucked up” chants when things didn’t turn out so well in the ring, ECW fans were an integral part of each ECW show. It clearly goes both ways as the wrestlers show their appreciation for the fans time and time again, pointing out how devoted the fans were and how important they were to the show.

Without a doubt the wrestlers who worked for Paul Heyman loved the product and held a tremendous respect for their employer. Heyman had a charismatic effect on his employees (Bubba Ray Dudley characterizes Heyman as “the David Koresh of wrestling”) which inspired tremendous loyalty in many of them. Wrestlers helped Heyman with the behind the scenes aspect of the business (Tommy Dreamer points out how he packaged merchandise, Tazz designed ECW t-shirts, and Bubba Ray Dudley booked arenas for upcoming shows). Through the years, ECW’s most loyal employees have been jokingly referred to as drinking the Kool-Aid (actually, the cheaper brand of Flavor-Aid was used in the Jonestown Massacre from which this phrase originated) as some wrestlers continued to work for Heyman despite repeatedly receiving bounced checks.

While many fans would have valid reason to suspect that the WWE might take some liberties with the truth, The Rise and Fall of ECW follows previous WWE entry The Monday Night War in presenting a largely unbiased look at an important stage of wrestling history. WWE Home Video is to be commended for allowing the people who were involved with ECW a chance to be frank about their opinions and feelings. The interviews seem candid and if one watches closely enough, you can even see criticisms of the current WWE product in some of the wrestlers’ comments. Current Smackdown announcer, Tazz points out how ECW had no creative department or writers. Heyman gave wrestlers a rough outline of what he wanted his wrestlers to discuss during interviews and let them come up with the rest on their own. You can see the appreciation and delight in many of the former ECW wrestlers as they praise Heyman for allowing them to push the creative envelope.

What’s also interesting are Vince McMahon and Eric Bischoff’s analysis of why ECW failed. Clearly, Eric Bischoff has no love for Heyman and little if any respect for his business acumen. He repeatedly points out how ECW could not create or sustain a national audience because their product was too extreme for advertisers, cable companies, and pay-per-view outlets. Even more interesting is Vince McMahon’s ever-present attempt to present himself as a tough but fair competitor. He points out that while Bischoff raided ECW’s roster, Heyman was compensated by the WWF when they raided ECW’s roster (presumably McMahon paid Heyman for his appearances during the WWF/ECW invasion angle). McMahon states that he never considered ECW a threat (which may or may not be true) and seems to almost characterize himself as a patron of the arts who helped out the small but critically acclaimed production. The reality is that ECW was more of a client state for McMahon during the Monday Night Wars, a second front for the WCW juggernaut to contend with. In the end, McMahon did not have the slightest hesitation to steal two of the company’s biggest acts (Tazz and the Dudley Boys) at a time when ECW was struggling to survive.

Of course, no assessment of ECW would be complete without speaking with the father of the hardcore revolution. Throughout the program, Paul Heyman offers his opinions on what made ECW ticked and what it was like to compete against the billion dollar companies of WCW and the WWF. Heyman relates his struggle to build a national wrestling company that was faithful to his vision. Listening to Heyman speak of the talent raids on ECW, it’s clear that he understood the business sense of taking the cream of the crop from a rival. What is also obvious is that he feels that Eric Bischoff used many of his ideas without giving him the credit. Judging from Bischoff’s comments, he couldn’t have cared less where he got his ideas or his wrestlers as long as he was successful in the Monday Night War.

No analysis of the Monday Night War is complete without mentioning ECW’s role. While ECW was never directly involved in the Monday Night War (ECW would not get its first national cable clearance until the very end of the battle between the WWF and WCW and even then, it would air on Friday night rather than Monday night), it held a prominent place on the battlefield. Not only did WCW and WWF raid ECW for its wrestlers, it appropriated much of its flavor as well. WCW’s undercard owed a large part to ECW with its focus on lucha libre and wrestling. At the same time the WWF would never have tried the WWF Attitude approach had they not seen the fans positive reaction to it in ECW.

ECW’s role in the Monday Night War was similar to that of a small nation caught in the crossfire between two superpowers battling each other. Paul Heyman perspicaciously observes that that ECW was the first casualty of the Monday Night War. As the competition heated up, WCW and WWF plucked many of ECW’s top stars in order to build up their talent roster. While Eric Bischoff denies that he “raided” ECW (he condescendingly points out that ECW wrestlers wanted to work for a major organization and “get paid”) it’s pretty hard to deny the fact that Bischoff took some of ECW’s best wrestlers to build up Monday Night Nitro, just as he raided the WWF to build up WCW’s flagship show. After WCW acquired top wrestlers Chris Benoit, Dean Malenko, and Eddie Guererro, ECW countered by bringing in a contingent of lucha libre wrestlers such as Rey Mysterio Jr. La Parka, and Psicosis. Not surprisingly, WCW relieved ECW of these wrestlers as well and continued to do so for the rest of the Monday Night War.

The DVD continues its frankness when it comes time to analyze the cause of ECW’s demise. In Vince McMahon and Eric Bischoff’s mind, the product was too hardcore to find a national audience. However, many of the ECW wrestlers seem to find fault elsewhere. Paul Heyman was a booking and promotional genius but his business skills were sorely lacking. Also mentioned is the fact that Paul Heyman couldn’t and wouldn’t delegate authority. He insisted on running most of ECW’s day to day operations even when the company went national. Heyman’s explanation for the demise of ECW lies in its troubled relationship with the cable channel that gave it national clearance. Heyman points out how TNN restricted what it could present on the air, how it failed to promote ECW, how it demanded WWF level production values, and how it sabotaged ECW by publicly courting the WWF to move from USA Network to TNN, all the while preventing ECW from shopping around for a new cable home. It’s not much of a surprise when you see Heyman turn TNN’s abusive relationship with ECW into an angle and when Heyman threatens to see TNN. Heyman states that had ECW been able to find another cable channel, he would still be in business to some degree. Heyman’s claim should not be immediately discounted as bravado as ECW continued to bring in fans, and Heyman never seemed at a loss to create new stars for the fans, even as stars he made were grabbed by rival promotions.

The program ends with a memorable remark by Heyman. He speaks of how “You can’t achieve success without the risk of failure” and that “you can’t achieve success if you’re afraid to fail”. Not only is it a great philosophy but it brings up the question of whether or not ECW was a failure. Financially, the promotion could not sustain itself. However, ECW’s impact on the world of professional wrestling was so great that it is hard to label it a failure. Were it not for ECW, many of the stars fans enjoy watching might not have had the chance to go from ECW to the national stage nor would fans have had a chance to experience the Attitude Era. Of all the words of quill and pen…

The Rise and Fall of ECW is one of the most comprehensive wrestling programs I have ever watched. In three hours, you learn how Eastern Championship Wrestling became Extreme Championship Wrestling, its amazing breakout from regional to national promotion, and its tragic demise. The DVD touches on many of the major events and minor events in ECW’s short but spectacular history. The famous Shane Douglas NWA double-cross, the alleged WCW mole in ECW, ECW’s struggle to get on Pay-Per-View, Mike Awesome’s controversial bolt from ECW to WCW while still under contract to ECW, and many of the major storylines that made the company a legend to its fans.

No ECW fan’s library will be complete without this in their collection. However, fans looking for actual wrestling should consider looking elsewhere. While The Rise and Fall of ECW includes some clips from ECW programming, it is heavy on interviews and promos. There are only seven matches included on the second disc. Although the second disc features some of ECW’s biggest stars, there really aren’t any key matches in ECW history featured here. If you’re looking for those, you’re better off doing some tape trading or digging up some of ECW’s old DVD’s.

The only other complaint I have is that WWE Video didn’t interview some of the key players in ECW such as Tod Gordon, Sandman, Shane Douglas, and Sabu. While there may be political reasons for excluding them from the DVD, their thoughts and comments would surely have been interesting to both longtime ECW fans and newer fans such as myself. The WWE has done a great job of presenting fairly unbiased points of view in their historical products that this extra step would cement their reputation even more.

Having watched The Rise and Fall of ECW, I’ve come to appreciate the promotion’s innovativeness and the wrestlers’ hard work and dedication to their fans. Truth be told, I never was much of an ECW fan. While I heard about ECW through the Internet, it was not easy to come by with its scattered television distribution during its early years. After watching the three hour program, I have a much better understanding of what made the promotion so respected and loved by its fans. It also gives me a sense of regret because during its peak years, ECW ran several shows in my hometown of Buffalo, NY, including the one where Rob Van Dam won the ECW TV Title (And speaking of Rob Van Dam, I challenge viewers to find any segment with RVD where he does not appear to be under the influence).

The seven matches included on the DVD are:

The Pit Bulls vs. Raven & Stevie Richards

Rey Misterio Jr. vs. Psicosis

Mikey Whipwreck vs. the Sandman

2 Cold Scorpio vs. Sabu

Tommy Dreamer vs. Raven (with alternate commentary by Jonathon Coachman & Tommy Dreamer)

Tazz vs. Bam Bam Bigelow (with alternate commentary by Michael Cole & Tazz)

Rob Van Dam vs. Jerry Lynn (with alternate commentary by Jonathon Coachman & Rob Van Dam)



Copyright © 2005 Derek Burgan. All rights reserved.