Ringside Sermon: The Impact of ECW Part One

Dave Goold (C-Nub)

Before I begin, or to begin, depending on your definition of ‘beginning’, I want to talk a bit about writing a series of columns. This isn’t to say writing more than one column, or writing dozens of columns on separate topics, but rather, writing a set of columns on one topic, covering whatever it is you wish to talk about with a degree of depth not very common to the Internet Wrestling Community. As a writer, preparing to do a series is a completely different process then that of writing a single column. I’m talking about successful series columns, of which I have seen very few, and not the current fad that has developed within this somewhat isolated community. It’s a research intensive process, several weeks of preparation and note-taking prior to any actual writing on the subject matter, unlike the standard one-shot column, where like many others, I simply sit down and start typing about whatever comes to mind. With that said, it is my hope that you, as a reader, take the time to reciprocate some of the effort that gets put into the following four columns by providing some feedback for me. I don’t get paid for this, and I suspect that writing them actually hurts my chances of working within the business one day, so the only payment I’m likely to receive for any kind of effort is that which you provide. I haven’t the ego (yet) to ask for money, but I think a quick e-mail is reasonably fair.

That’s it, that’s my impassioned plea.

If it seemed hostile, I apologize, but I dislocated my knee walking home from the video store (my future wife rented the Princess Diaries 2, which explains why I’m down here on the computer as the clock prepares to switch from night to morning, and not sitting in front of the television enjoying some sort of microwaved pizza-pastry) and had to finish the last mile of the walk in a state of fairly intense discomfort.

Alright, now we can go ahead with the only part of this most of you care about.

The Impact of ECW

Statement Of Intent; Introduction

ECW is an oddity, in that it, from fairly humble roots and what you could very easily call a “humble” budget, with what the world (at first) viewed as a roster of misfits, achieved international fame. ECW is the only federation to reach out from its base of operations and draw the world in. WCW and the WWE/F existed at the same time, and had a greater worldwide audience, yes, but they traveled and advertised to achieve it. ECW, had the budget for neither, and yet somehow captured the imagination of the wrestling world in what was, realistically, a very short time. ECW came and went in under a decade, while the WCW (NWA and Georgia Championship Wrestling) was decades old, and the WWWF (precursor to the WWF and WWE) was in it’s second generation of ownership, and has existed over forty years now.

But, despite that, ECW had a tremendous impact on the way ‘rasslin’, turned “pro-wrestling” turned “sports entertainment” is seen in the world. ECW forced the evolution of wrestling in the world today, and changed the very landscape of the industry. The impact of ECW is still felt today, and as many of it’s former champions and stars fade into retirement, we can see how ECW affected and elevated their careers.

Before we get into how ECW impacted the world, however, it’s important that we cover the basics:

The History of ECW:

In 1992, a wrestling promotion was founded under the name Eastern Championship Wrestling, and signed on pretty quickly with the National Wrestling Alliance. The National Wrestling Alliance, as most of you know or should know, was founded decades ago by several of the largest promoters as a way of surviving the depression that was affecting the business. It was a means to dictate territorial borders, trade talent to keep new faces in town, and ultimately make them all a lot more money. While the ‘alliance’ was initially dangerously close to violating anti-trust laws, it eventually grew into a fairly affluent group with some of the best champions around. By signing on as a member of the NWA, Eastern Championship Wrestling could ‘import’ talent for a couple shows a year and even host a few championship matches. Like every federation, ECW had their own champion, though he was considered a rung (or twenty) below the NWA Heavyweight Championship, so that there could be a belt to fight over for the fifty five weeks per year that the NWA champion was absent from the territory. The first ECW Champion was Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka, who was chosen more because he could draw than because he could still wrestle, though he wasn’t really ‘bad’ at this point, merely tired.

The owner of ECW at this point was not Paul Heyman, but rather a man by the name of Todd Gordon, who preferred to stay more or less behind the scenes. Paul Heyman was the head booker for the company, having left WCW (and the pseudonym Paul E. Dangerously) where he had worked as a tag-team manager. Paul knew the business of wrestling, but wasn’t so apt with the politics, and left, most people believe, because he was tired of being ignored by the people to whom he was willing to donate what he considered to be ‘great’ ideas.

In 1994, after WCW had severed ties with the NWA, Shane Douglas won the vacated NWA World Heavyweight title in a tournament.

What he did next was actually pretty shocking. He threw the belt away, and proclaimed the company “Extreme Championship Wrestling.”

What happened leading up to this decision is a mystery to me, and if anyone knows, I’d love an e-mail on the subject. I suspect that Paul Heyman managed to convince his boss that he knew what he was doing, and that separating from the NWA would give them an immediate reputation as “controversial”, and that he could maintain the fans that they’d gain from being seen as such.

Meaning that Paul Heyman was willing to gamble his reputation on this move, and I very much suspect that this was the case.

ECW withdrew from the NWA, leaving the title that they had just been selected (by NWA Committee) to win after WCW left the organization with the current champion under contract vacant once more. I’ll bet someone lost his or her job over that, because two times in a row the NWA got screwed, and it’s version of the heavyweight title was pretty much worthless. Not “David Arquette. World Champion” worthless, but pretty close… Stupid David Arquette.

Then, in what idiot wrestling journalists might refer to as an Orgy of Violence, ECW embarked on what they called “The Hardcore Revolution”, increasing the level of violence and blood in their shows beyond what anyone in North America had seen before. Their style was in part modeled after the Japanese “Death Matches” and in part based on the fact that many of the workers in ECW couldn’t really draw heat any other way. While the company had guys like Raven, who were magnetic to talk to, many of the workers were incredibly limited. While ECW would showcase some great technical wrestling from the likes of Eddie Guerrero, Chris Benoit, Chris Jericho, Perry Saturn, Dean Malenko, Lance Storm, Justin Credible and Taz(the second “Z” in his name was added when he joined the WWF/E), it would also spend a lot of time pushing the likes of Mick Foley, Sabu, Tommy Dreamer, Terry Funk, the Dudley Boys and The Sandman (who came to the ring in ‘lazy Sunday clothes’ and wrapped in, of all things, barbed wire.) who spent their time absorbing all kinds of creative punishment. Barbed wire bats, thumbtacks, tables(stacked on tables stacked on tables stacked on tables), and even a branding iron (a Terry Funk classic).

On top of that, ECW began to showcase the talents of the smaller wrestlers, allowing them to work matches of more traditional length using the modern wrestling style, putting on twenty-minute under-card matches while the WWF/E and WCW were putting on ten-minute main events. New styles were developed as guys like Sabu and Rob Van Dam(Robby D in WCW) wrestled doing things no one had ever seen before.

But what ECW did, and what truly showcased the genius of Paul Heyman, was a lot subtler than all the different things he did. It wasn’t even the darker shows and more adult storylines, it wasn’t the nearly naked girls or the violence, it wasn’t the ‘grunge’ feeling that made ECW feel like a punk-rock concert. What drove ECW was the fans, the crowd that, on any given night, would throw hundreds of chairs from where they stood (not sat) into the ring after a match (it was a show of respect, apparently.) And these fans were not there because they were bloodthirsty animals, idiots or closest sadists. They were there because they could relate to the characters, and they could relate to the characters because Paul Heyman encouraged the members of his roster to develop their own characters and speak their own minds.

The people were real, even if what happened in the ring was not.

In 1995, before Heyman owned the company but during the period where he was pretty much given the run of the place, Eric Bischoff fired Steve Austin by way of a message on his answering machine. Austin, who had been promised a title shot against Hogan in order to convince him to drop his United States Championship belt to an aging Hacksaw Jim Duggan (in under thirty seconds) at a PPV. Austin was already bitter about being held back when he and ‘flyin’ Brian Pillman had been on the cusp of super-stardom with their popular tag-team “The Hollywood Blonds”. Worse even, Austin was fired while recuperating from an injury he suffered while working for the company. While Eric Bischoff has been called stupid for this decision many times, it was hard to blame him for not seeing the potential in Austin at this point in time. The way he fired him was just ridiculously unprofessional, but the reasons behind it weren’t.

Whether Heyman knew what was going to happen or not, the decision was made to let Austin talk, even though he was still too injured to compete. More importantly, Heyman encouraged Austin to talk about the WCW, to talk about why he left and how he was treated, to open up the doors to the largely secret ‘behind the scenes’ of a wrestling empire and expose the nature of the business.

Austin was clearly bitter about the whole thing, he was upset and vindictive, he said he’d been screwed, and he was right.

But he was also mesmerizing. In skits making fun of Hulk Hogan, Eric Bischoff and the WCW as a whole, Austin was the most entertaining thing in Wrestling. Though no one knew it at the time, and the name certainly wasn’t applied, this was the “Stone Cold” character’s first appearance. Austin even drank beer on television while doing his promos for ECW.

Austin left for the WWF/E after a fairly short stay in ECW, which was happening a lot at this point. The bigger companies were catching on, but that’s the subject of some other columns.

In 1997, ECW broadcast it’s first PPV, (you can see Paul Heyman backstage calling it “The Dance” to fire up his people on the documentary “Beyond the Mat”, which I purchased for six dollars), which was going to make or break the company.

The show climaxed with Terry Funk (who was over fifty years old) winning the ECW World Heavyweight Title, and was viewed by most in the industry as an overall great show.

Later that year, Paul Heyman would become owner and head booker of ECW, buying out former owner Todd Gordon.

After that, Heyman ran PPVs every couple of weeks, and kept his talent rotating because of how interested the larger federations were becoming in the stars he developed.

Then later, near the end of 1999, ECW thought they had finally made it when they became the top rated show on The Nashville Network (TNN now SpikeTV), but the deal was short lived as, just over a year later, ECW’s weekly show was cancelled as part of the deal to bring Vince McMahon’s powerhouse WWE name over to the network as part of a new marketing strategy. TNN wanted to shed it’s “southern” image, and was planning on building a men’s network around the WWE line of programming, promising all sorts of specials and benefits, including a partial stake in the XFL (idiots!) to Vince McMahon in order to woo him away from the USA Network, who actually sued Viacom (the owner of TNN) because they felt that they were not being given a fair chance to exercise the clause in the contract they had with Vince McMahon that promised them an opportunity to match any offer on the table. USA viewed parts of the deal, including but not limited to the Cancellation of ECW programming and Theme Park Appearances as a calculated plan to make it impossible for them to match the offer.

They lost the lawsuit, and I laughed at them from my couch. Then I had another cheesy.

That was pretty much the end of ECW, which despite help from the WWF, could not secure another TV deal or even pay all of its employees. Many remain bitter or disgruntle about the fact that they weren’t paid to this day, while others, (Tommy Dreamer most notably) would have been willing to work for free for years if they thought it could have helped save the company.

ECW closed it’s doors forever in 2001 as Paul Heyman filed for bankruptcy, and shortly there after accepted a job as an on-air commentator to replace Jerry Lawler, who had left in protest over the firing of his wife The Kat.

(Lawler came back eventually, and has since divorced the Kat.)

In just nine years, ECW went from nothing to one of the most talked about wrestling promotions in the world. They revolutionized an industry that was growing stagnant, forcing multibillion-dollar companies like the WWF/E to change the way they did business or run the risk of looking ‘behind the times.’

That brings the history of ECW to a close, and I’m afraid that’s all I’m going to cover in the first part of this column, because writing this has involved pouring over pages of notes and research, and several rather lengthy web searches, including a rather fruitless quest to find out more about Todd Gordon.

Next in the series, I will examine the decisions, genius and ignorance of Paul Heyman, followed by a look at the ECW Roster and how they evolved due to their participation in the company, and finally, in the fourth and last part of the series, I will examine the way that the WCW and WWF/E had to change in order to keep up with ECW.

I thank you for reading, I appreciate any feedback you send, and try to keep in mind that, as detailed as this seems, where I live, I was never able to watch an ECW show or PPV, and have seen only a smattering of matches and shows on tape in the last few years, maybe three or four hours of ECW programming total. All of what I’ve written is garnered from research and books I’ve read.

Thanks again for reading, and ‘tune in’ whenever I finish the next part.

Peace and Love

David “C-Nub” Goold


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