Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Stick or Twist: The Rise And Fall of ECW

I've quickly run out of 2004 shows to cover, but one of my favourite releases from that back then wasn't a Pay Per View, it was this documentary on ECW. I got it pretty much when it came out because it was in some multibuy deal with No Mercy 2004 (I don't have it any more so that won't be coming up) at MVC(!). Unlike most DVDs from 2004, I still had this and there'll be more of ECW to come, so I thought it was worth running through the story here.

  • When NWA Eastern Championship Wrestling owner Todd Gordon and booker Eddie Gilbert fell out, Paul Heyman came in to book their next big show in September 93. Paul sought to shake things up, starting with opening act The Public Enemy - two white hip hop lovers. It set the tone for for all Paul's early acts.
Early feuds - Sabu vs Funk vs Douglas & Dreamer vs Sandman
  • Sabu mesmerised Paul - he looked like he'd fight you to the death. Terry Funk is put over huge as a legit tough veteran with the foresight to put young guys over. "There would not be an ECW without Terry Funk." Naturally Paul has a great Funk impression. The two feuded with "The Franchise" Shane Douglas. One match they had that was a 60 minute draw is particularly cited as special.
  • Douglas put the match over in an intense promo: "Professional wrestling as it was meant to be - ass kicking, take no names, beat the hell out of whoever's in front of ya." Tommy Dreamer ties Douglas' hatred of WCW to Heyman's. "You were joining the Taliban if you went to WCW." Heyman: "I pretty much told them to go fuck themselves when they were treating people like shit... and if don't think they enjoyed that."
  • Dreamer did well in a match vs Tazz and wound up staying. Unbelievably at first he was labelled a pretty boy, with AWFUL braces. The Sandman embodied ECW with his pre match antics. The two had a match where the loser got caned. Tommy lost. We see some of the caning and it looked insane. Tommy didn't stay down despite fans begging him to, earning respect. Heyman called the feud innovative. They "blinded" Sandman at one point and went backstage to show heels and faces reacting to the injury. Paul credits him for staying home to sell it.

New talent and the rise of a revolution
  • Cactus Jack came from WCW due to a lawsuit settlement, firstly for a "dream match" vs Sabu. We see Cactus' promo after losing where he spat on his WCW Tag Title as his pride was hurt. He got a lot of heat for it but felt Sabu deserved to be put over as the top guy. Mikey Whipwreck's story is fascinating - a 19 year old working on the ring crew in exchange for playing around in it a bit, he drew such sympathy when he took a bump that Heyman decided to train him to wrestle and initially give him no offence. He got really over, winning the Tag Titles with Cactus in a big upset. "He likes it! Mikey really REALLY likes it!!!"
  • The big moment to break from the old school was when Shane Douglas won the NWA World Title and threw it on the ground. "From the Harley Races, to the Barry Windhams to the... Ric Flairs [Nevermind that shit, here comes Mongo!] ...they can all... kiss... my... ASS!!!" This was the genesis of the ECW chants. They left the NWA, becoming Extreme Championship Wrestling.
  • A beautiful exchange between Eddie Guerrero and Dean Malenko highlights the bevy of great technicians to arrive late 94/early 95 to expand the audience, so they had the best wrestling around on top of the ultra-violence. Eddie particularly was grateful for the time and opportunity.

Accentuate the positive, elim-ah-nate the negative
  • Director Ron Buffone talks wanting a more reality based product. Paul says it was since they couldn't compete with WWF or WCW's production work, so "why go there? Accentuate the positives, hide the negatives." Buffone loved leaving in mistakes/fans booing, and being honest about injuries.
  • The audience experience was vital. Dreamer recalls people bringing weapons and asking fans to hold up a chair to bash his opponents into. Dawn Marie and Chris Jericho praise the fans' knowledge, Stevie Richards their creativity and Paul their star making ability. "The audience was the story." Foley and Rob Van Dam mention their brutal streak with bad wrestling.
  • Raven is profiled next. Both the character and performer inspired Paul. Tommy puts over their feud and the story of being unable to beat him. At one point he piledrove Raven's girlfriend Beulah McGillicutty, drawing "He's hardcore" chants and, finally, acceptance from the fans.

A void to fill
  • The roster began to dwindle. Paul publicly fired Sabu for going to Japan when he was booked for an ECW show. Tommy on Paul: "He lied to the wrestlers, but never lied to the fans." Then Tazz took a botched piledriver, finished his match, walked to hospital and was told "Well sir, you have a broken neck." He was out for 9 months. Paul still paid him despite only having a handshake for a contract.
  • Ah, we hear how WCW "raided" Chris Benoit, Eddie and Dean. Bischoff: "One man's raid is another man's acquisition." He compared it to Vince "raiding" the territories in the 80s, then trolls ECW: talent "probably weren't getting paid", "WCW was a much more secure platform." Heyman: "Eric Bischoff is full of shit." Oh boy, big "Make WWE look good" bit here: Vince said he put Paul on the payroll to compensate for taking his talent "unlike Eric who'd take his talent and gleefully not give him anything."
  • Paul filled the void with Rey Mysterio, Psicosis and Juventud Guerrera. Lots of Joey Styles going "HOORICANRANAH!" and a clip of Rey jumping off a car to 'rana someone. Paul: "If my father wasn't a lawyer I could never have run ECW." Another new face - STEVE AUSTIN. Bischoff fired him from WCW over the phone and luckily Paul called right after. His Austin impression is fucking hilarious - "IMA SIT AT HOME N DRINK A BEEEER!" He wanted Steve as champion but Steve's idea was to lose and say how close he was and how much more he wants it, earning him massive credit.
Innovation and controversy
  • Cactus' incredible "anti-hardcore" promos are quite rightly lauded as the most creative ever by Paul. Jesus there was an angle where Raven brainwashed Sandman's son. Raven's laugh is messed up. Even worse, Raven CRUCIFIED SANDMAN!! He had to publicly apologise. KURT ANGLE was at that show and left in disgust. He was amazed Paul said he had "no idea" it'd happen. "You're running the show, if you don't know what's going on then you're an idiot."

  • Another infamous angle - Beulah's pregnancy. "It's Tommy's?!" Hilariously in one beat down, a fan threw a pie so Tommy bit into it and piledrove Raven onto it. It turned out Beulah was faking, and cheating on Tommy with another woman! This led to the infamous line "I'll take 'em both, I'm hardcore!"
The quest for Pay Per View
  • Being on Pay Per View was vital for growth. Companies were wary at first as they looked "real" like UFC, and apparently they nearly got thrown off thanks to the "Mass Transit incident" - a substitute wrestler lied about their age and got terribly cut in a match that D-Von Dudley said was the scariest thing he'd seen. But they eventually got a date: April 18, 1997, 9pm. Paul: "I'd have taken a Wednesday night 3am slot in a parking lot in the South Bronx... if you let us on we'll give you something special."
  • They did some co-promotion on WWF Raw for the PPV! Raw returned to the Manhattan Center and had ECW guys there. It's weird seeing them in the technicolor WWF ring. The fucking bWo were even there - a parody of a WCW act from ECW on WWF TV! Sabu "fell off the R" of the Raw set. Jerry Lawler hugely disagreed with crucial TV time going to another company and hated the ECW guys' attitude. He thought they looked small and Tazz gave him shit for saying "He looks a lot bigger on the Lucky Charms box."

  • Finally their first PPV comes around - Barely Legal. Buffone gave Paul MAJOR credit for sticking with guys like him and Joey in the face of PPV company interference. RVD only wrestled in place of an injured Chris Candido and cut a good promo on his frustrations. Post neck injury Tazz had a shoot fighter gimmick that Paul tried to build a big fight atmosphere around. His match with Sabu here was important for establishing it. Tazz: "We made each other in that match". In another great Funk impression Stevie recalls confiding in Terry about his shock at being in the main event. Funk won the ECW Title in "the impossible dream". Paul put over how well deserved and emotional it was.
Moles, creativity and appropriation 
  • Before Raven left for WCW Tommy FINALLY beat him. Raven's exit led to suspicions about Todd Gordon being a mole. Paul found a conversation on his phone with Terry Taylor and Bill Alfonso allegedly about having ECW invade WCW. Todd was fired. Fonzy nearly was too but he had a crazy match with Beulah that saved his job. He bled like a pig. Bubba Ray Dudley stepped up to help backstage. Lots of people did - Dreamer and D-Von drove merch to venues and mailed it out, Stevie dealt with tickets and the ECW Hotline, Tazz designed merch.
  • Paul was big on creative freedom and being accessible. Tazz on directions he'd get: "Go out, talk about so and so and, you know... do it." He called the locker room "land of the misfit toys" - it was everybody let go by other promotions. Prime example: Al Snow. "The best thing for me about ECW was I found Head." *whit-woo*. He was talking to himself and it wasn't getting over, so he talked to a mannequin head instead. Paul always wanted to do a rave style entrance, so he capitalised by giving fans Styrofoam heads to use under strobe lights when Al came out. His excitement for this gimmick is palpable. "And people would be BOBBING with the heads!"

  • There's talk of WCW and WWF ripping off ECW with the Uncensored PPVS and Attitude respectively. Foley thinks there's some truth to it - he got lots of ECW chants when he first came in but as the WWF style got more physical it got more associated with them. Some good points, but one that gets my goat is implying ECW led to the Hell in a Cell because they did Scaffold Matches - they were done loads in the NWA years before ECW. Vince says the WWF Attitude was more verbal than ECWs.
Tazz, The Dudleys and TNN
  • Tazz really ascended to the top and gushes over his 98 feud with Bigelow, especially when they go through the ring causing in his first loss. This lead to Tazz's FTW (Fuck The World) vanity belt, central to him getting the ECW Title. The Dudleys are also cited as a crucial act, fearless antagonists people would pay money to see beaten. Great clips of Heat Wave 99: "We got a mom who taught her daughter how to suck dick".

  • Paul knew when it became difficult to pay talent and veterans like Bigelow left that they needed national TV to get more sponsors/income. Cue talk of bounced checks: Lance Storm broke his verbal contract when he had three in a row. Dreamer went unpaid for SIX MONTHS at one point. "Our greatest asset was also our greatest detriment, and that was Paul."
  • They still got on TV with TNN though! Hence they got T-Shirt, DVD and video game deals. Vince thought "good for Paul" but warned he needed to broaden his audience. RVD was relieved for fans because they wouldn't need to work hard to find the show like with syndication. However, soon after the WWF signed Tazz and The Dudleys. Note: at no point is it called a "raid". RVD thought it was an issue that individuals grew faster than the company.
  • Vince calls Tazz "Suplex King, all that stuff". Tazz left because reaching the top of the card in ECW gave him a sense of "now what?" In classic ECW booking, he was the first eliminated in a three way dance to lose his title. The whole locker room came out to send him off. When WWF made The Dudleys an offer, they told Paul "they called", offering him a chance to convince them to stay. He could only say "I can't compete with them and I can't compete with their money". They go through their final night in ECW, shockingly winning the Tag Titles only to lose them to Dreamer and a returning Raven. D-Von calls it his most memorable ECW match.
The network, Van Dam and the sinking ship
  • Buffone was mad that despite being TNN's top show they were just a lead in to "whatever that stupid rollerblading show was". They had a horrible deal - little commercial time or money, TNN sending back music videos, banning "hate" etc. Paul said they were guinea pigs for wrestling on TNN. He was pissed at the lack of promotion and even MORE pissed when they bought the rights to WWF Raw. "We're dead!"
  • RVD was basically ECW's only major asset left. Paul said he was different because he didn't need hatred to make him an attraction. He was TV Champion for 23 months, making it match the ECW Title for prestige, but broke his leg and had to forfeit the title.
  • In another blow, ECW Champion Mike Awesome broke his contract to join WCW. They had to get an injunction to stop him bringing the belt to Nitro to throw in the trash. Interestingly WWF sent Tazz to an ECW house show to beat Awesome for the belt - a WWF guy beat a WCW guy for the ECW Title. The next week Tazz was on Smackdown with the title and lost to WWF Champion Triple H. Vince said that didn't speak well when he was trying to help ECW. 
Dun-nuh-nuh nuh-nuh-nuh nuh-nuh-nuh nuh-nuh-neeeerh
The fall
  • More trolling from Bischoff - ECW was destined to be a small, "regional, in many ways" promotion. Under this shit TV deal they couldn't negotiate with new networks before TNN announced acquiring Raw. Dreamer said it was unlikely they'd be picked up when it looked like they were about to sink. RVD knew it was over when he was owed so much money he knew he'd never get it back. Bubba on the downfall: "The violence had a lot to do with it." He agrees with D-Von that Paul was a poor businessman. Paul insists if they'd have found a new network they'd have survived.
  • Paul then recalls going to WWF: "Anybody who didn't make the next step would be in denial." Two things stuck out for him: JR assuring him he'll be fine, and saying a line when Trish Stratus stripped in the ring for Vince that made everyone at Gorilla GASP. "They got a sense of who they had and I got a sense of what ceiling I shouldn't be crashing through." Bubba and Vince agree that Paul working for someone else meant he didn't get what he wanted, but Vince praises his character for wanting to stay in the business despite bankruptcy.
"Hey Ma, I came to Washington D.C. and I'm about to see Bush!"
  • Closing thoughts include Jericho's awe at people worldwide knowing about ECW and still chanting it, Dreamer calling it a great proving ground for success, and Stevie saying the company's success transcended any one moment. Paul says you can't fear failure if you want to succeed. He admits he's a failure but that's part of the fun as it makes you more dangerous next time round. We then fade to black with ECW chants echoing out.
Final Verdict: Overall this was a seminal documentary in terms of depth and breadth of material. We did get some typical "rewrite history in WWE's favour" - WWF sabotaged ECW getting on national TV by signing their World and Tag Champions and signed lots of their talent over the years, but ignore that, here's how WCW raided ECW's talent. 
But it was good to see people who weren't with WWE at the time like Sabu, Sandman, Raven, Douglas, Mikey and Funk still get profiled and put over. I learnt so much watching this, and enjoyed the hell out of it. Seriously, this documentary is so entertaining I've shown this to VERY casual fans in the past and we've had a great laugh at the impressions, stories and clips of infamous moments. 
Heyman is the MVP of this set, often hilarious and passionate, but others like Stevie and Tazz also offer lots of interest, and Dreamer is especially useful for a history lesson or two.
Go seek this out, especially if you aren't too familiar with ECW.