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Barbed Wire City ECW Documentary Review

Some of the best years of my life were what I would call the ECW years. For about five years I took part in one of the biggest revolutions in pro wrestling. Getting to relive those memories through the Barbed Wire City documentary was a welcome way to spend on a spring afternoon.

Barbed Wire City tells a story about a topic that has been discussed many times, Extreme Championship Wrestling. Barbed Wire City features interviews with wrestlers, media, and fans that were a part of that historic era. What Barbed Wire City does better than its predecessors is bring you a story of ECW that is probably more honest and candid than those told by WWE and Hardcore Homecoming’s versions of the tale.

The story is told by a variety of personalities in and out of ECW. There is a great mix of ECW wrestlers, hardcore ECW fans, and wrestling media. Unfortunately the heavy hitters of the ECW like Paul Heyman, Taz, Sabu, and Tommy Dreamer aren’t in the video which is a bit of a disappointment. However ECW stars like the Blue Meanie, Stevie Richards, Raven, The Sandman, Axl Rotten, Ball Mahoney, Steve Corino, Angel Medina, Lou E. Dangerously, New Jack, Public Enemy, and Jerry Lynn to name a few are there to tell the story from the locker room while you have guys like Hat Guy and Tony Lewis telling the story from the audience. It really is a great mix and I felt the inclusion of the fans really brought you closer to the ECW experience than any of the other documentaries.

[adinserter block=”1″]The documentary gives a fantastic but quick background on ECW. What most ECW fans who came aboard later don’t realize is that ECW started as just a local promotion running bar shows in Philadelphia. Tod Gordon is not given nearly enough credit in my opinion for his part in ECW’s success. Tod is included in the movie, but you really wouldn’t know how important he was to ECW just by watching the movie.

The producers of the movie were able to secure a ton of ECW footage thanks to RF Video and the fan cam collection. If Vince McMahon wants to make sure that he is the keeper to any and all ECW footage I recommend he get on the phone with RF Video and make a deal. They still have a ton of footage. That is real important to making the movie work as it is hard to tell the story properly without any kind of context. I can’t even imagine what the movie would have looked like without any actual ECW footage. That said, I am surprised the producers didn’t try to work out something out to use RF shoot interview clips with guys like Sabu, Taz, and Rob Van Dam.

Paul Heyman is included in the movie but he is not necessarily interviewed for the movie. Footage of Paul from Q & A sessions at fan conventions are included in the movie. It is as close as you are going to get to seeing Paul in any of these non-WWE documentaries.

Some of the greatest times in my life were with ECW so this one really hit home. I hit the shows every weekend as either part of the RF Video crew or later a ring announcer for the company. I felt like I was having a flashback at times when the guys would talk about incidents like the Plymouth Meeting riot and yes, Balls Mahoney was 100% on the mark with the way he recounted it. In regards to authenticity, there was no spin here, this movie told the most objective story I have seen on ECW.

The Mass Transit incident was a big part of the story, something that I don’t recall ever being explored with this much detail on the other documentaries. We all know the story by now so I won’t repeat the details. New Jack gives his version of the story which is consistent with everything I heard over the years. Several of the journalists comment on it with Dave Scherer in particular making a remark about RF Video selling it.

Let me say this about that comment because I worked at RF Video at the time. I didn’t travel to the show that weekend but I certainly heard about it from my friends. That Monday morning Erich Kulas’ father called the RF Video offices talking like he was a proud father and wanted to get a tape of the show. I must have talked to him for about thirty minutes as he went on and on about how great it was. If Papa Kulas didn’t have a problem with it, why shouldn’t we sell it? Should we pull the Invader vs. Manny Fernandez match from Puerto Rico too? The tape was pulled quickly. Keep in mind that nobody was aware that Kulas was a minor as he reportedly lied about his age.

I think it is easy to use revisionist history to judge how some handled the situation. It was a horrible thing to see but blood and violence were the norm for ECW at the time. All of these same journalists that were so horrified also had no problem continuing covering ECW in their newsletters or websites at the time and help promote the product. For people that are so disgusted today by what happened in 1997, they certainly weren’t cutting off their coverage or promotion of ECW.

On top of that, the story is told how ECW lost its first pay per view because of the incident. Someone caused trouble and sending the video to one of the cable companies. Eventually ECW found its way on pay per view but there was a lot of fallout over this incident. Timing is also everything and who is to say that things would have been different, good or bad if ECW went on pay per view earlier?

What is even more bizarre about all of this is that it was reportedly Bruce Mitchell that dropped the dime on ECW to the pay per view company and sent the cable company a tape. Wade Keller has also been accused of being a part of this but I only recall Bruce taking credit for it. Bruce reportedly said something to the effect that “something had to be done” when he commented on the Wrestling Observer hotline about it. Later I have heard an explanation that they used which stated that they were only sending the tape to the cable company for a story. What is so bizarre about this? Wade and Bruce are interviewed throughout the entire documentary and never once are either asked about their part in that. Now that said I have never seen Bruce or Wade admit to this anywhere. According to the producer, they will address these rumors in the extended cut version of the movie.

My old friend Mike Johnson makes a great point about the attitude of the locker room coming out of this incident. Mike thinks that some of the crew came to a point where they questioned their own sanity and motives (paraphrasing). Mike called that the end of ECW. I think there is certainly something to it, especially being a part of the company as a ring announcer at the time. I found this to be one of the most astute observations of the movie.

Tony Lewis is credited for bringing ECW back to life after the incident. I never met Tony but I do remember his vigilance at the time regarding ECW on pay per view. What I found interesting about Tony’s story is that he said he hasn’t gone to any shows since ECW closed down. He did come back to attend the big Extreme Reunion show but talk about passion. Once ECW died it appeared so did his passion for pro wrestling.

Since closing down ECW and Paul Heyman have been known for their financial issues. The tales of ECW wrestlers who are still waiting to get their money from Paul Heyman are legendary. Mikey Whipwreck is the first to bring up the bounced checks. Every wrestler asked about why they left ECW answered “money.” I heard stories personally from some wrestlers that were owed insane amounts of money when ECW closed although I didn’t look at their bank statements to tell you how accurate those numbers were.

Dave Meltzer illustrates the financial problems that plagued Extreme Championship Wrestling once they went on pay per view. Dave explains that Paul would run the money from one pay per view into the next, thus never really making much of a profit. Wade Keller explains that the company didn’t have a business plan and it was a “loan based plan.” Meltzer says that from 1995 on it was always a fight to stay in business. Wade Keller thinks the product was doomed when it went national.

Meltzer also brings up the problems with syndicated television and the amount of money that was spent on syndicated TV. Axl Rotten at one point brings up the “small time” feel of ECW that may have worked against them when the national audience was exposed to their product. The documentary paints a picture of ECW getting on national television as really the point that ECW was done.

The whole idea of fighting for a cause was brought up during the movie. Paul motivated his wrestlers like they were an army of outlaws against the world. I was there and I remember plenty of speeches Paul used to motivate his locker room that made these guys want to run out there and jump into a flaming pit of tables. In hindsight a lot of those same guys are now asking exactly what they were fighting for. The sad irony of this whole rebellion is that when the doors closed Paul Heyman has probably had the most stability as an employee of WWE, the very same corporate wrestling that he manipulated his wrestlers to fight against.

The physical tolls of the ECW wrestling style are evident towards the end of the movie when Balls Mahoney and Axl Rotten sit down together. Both of these guys are fantastic guys, especially Axl who I have known for years. But it is not hard to see the physical impact that the ECW style had on these guys. It isn’t pretty, especially for Axl who is recovering from a bout with Bells Palsey.

Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins tells an interesting story towards the end about meeting with Paul Heyman. Corgan says that Heyman needed $10 million to keep the company going. Obviously that investment never happened but there are plenty of stories that follow about Paul and his financial mismanagement regarding the fall of ECW.

The former ECW wrestlers talk about the financial troubles with some having a better attitude about it than others. New Jack in particular calls Heyman a couple of names and points out that some guys lost their homes, family, cars, and everything because they were owed money. Mike Johnson points out the fear that some of the guys had to stand up to Paul while Gabe Sapolsky says that he feels that a lot of the guys were in denial at the end.

That is a great comment by Sapolsky because I remember so many guys being in denial at the time. I worked with Combat Zone Wrestling at the time as an announcer and we would call guys to book them on shows and they’d always say something about ECW coming back and not really being dead. I can remember some guys even as far as a year after it closed believing that ECW was coming back. Angel Medina says that he only found out it was truly over when the company filed for bankruptcy and that nobody from within the company ever called him. Balls Mahoney says he was in denial up until the day it happened. I can recall conversations I had with him many months after and quite frankly I think he was in denial for months after as well.

Dave Meltzer thinks ECW failed because “the circumstances didn’t work” and not because Paul was a bad businessman. Meltzer doesn’t think that ECW could have survived at the time regardless of Paul’s financials. I have a high amount of respect for Dave but I don’t know if I agree with that at all. From everything I have heard over the years from people within the company I can tell you that financial misgivings were a big part of the end.

[adinserter block=”2″]The backdrop to the movie is the Extreme Reunion promotion and the comeback show last year. Footage of the show was shown throughout the movie including a scene where Shane Douglas rushes to check on Sabu, who was rushed to the hospital. The show is characterized as a success financially, yet is criticized by New Jack and Mike Johnson. According to Jack, “it sucked!”

I’ll give the producers a lot of credit. I know that Extreme Reunion played a big part in the movie. I think it shows a lot of integrity to keep all of the negative comments about the show in the movie. It would have been easy to take out those remarks and portray a successful event. Instead, all of the problems that were publicly documented after the show were addressed. I was even a bit surprised as to how honest they were about the negativity.

One of the producers of the movie dropped me an email about this, “There is no cross promotional deal with Extreme Reunion/rising, and if you’ve heard my interviews talking about my experiences there, while I wish them well, it isn’t like I’ve ever promoted them. They agreed to give us access and footage. There were no creative control clauses or restrictions on presentation. EVERY creative decision that went into the film is the product of Kevin Kiernan and myself. We were under no obligation to promote them or present them in any way. We’re documentary makers – We document – so we show what happened and try to be fair to all sides (like we did in the rest of the film). Now, the E.R. FB has pushed us, and that has more to do with Steve O’Neill being a good friend (separate from E.R. he helped us in managing the project/organizing things), but I’ve told him he didn’t have to do that (I’d almost feel better if he didn’t). But you rightly gave us credit for being fair, so i thank you.

Overall I’d highly recommend the DVD. Sure it isn’t the polished production that the WWE offered but the quality of content here was much better. I said it a few times but I really felt that this movie told the most accurate story of ECW and really hit into the passion of the wrestlers and the fans like no other. This was another side of the story that really needed to be told and I am glad that the producers finally got the opportunity to share it with the world.

Update: I’d like to make a correction. I was misinformed. I made a comment about Dave posting a link on his site. He didn’t and I apologize for the error.

Update #2: I received an email this afternoon about new footage that will be included in the extended cut from the producers.

In the Extended Cut we go right from the actual Mass Transit incident into the “fallout” involving the tape, which includes Tod Gordon, Bruce Mitchell, Dave Scherer, and Wade Keller talking about it. It was, like a lot of little things, pulled for time, pacing, and the fact that this cut was something we wanted to take to film fests/make more accessible to non-fans to understand the story. We did not want to go over the 2 hour mark for this cut. So it will be in the extended cut.

Great news!

[amazon_link id=”B00CHQSEGW” target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ] Barbed Wire City – The Unauthorized Story of ECW DVD[/amazon_link]

[amazon_link id=”B00BCMT2CC” target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]WWE: WrestleMania 29 DVD[/amazon_link]

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