It’s going on a decade since the WWE’s pathetic attempt to re-launch Extreme Championship Wrestling, and a decade and a half since the innovative, rebellious yet atypically “Old School” mentality rocked the wrestling world. The nature of ECW’s booking, which really is the nature of Paul Heyman, still seems woefully understood by the so-called Creative types that run the wrestling world these days.
(I’ll avoid dissing Hollywood types, to not insult my buddy, Paul Guay).
Heyman’s unique approach to professional wrestling includes a very similar tactic employed by Music guru and professional wrestling backer Rick Rubin, which focuses more on letting the talent do what they do best, and not push them to do what they do worse.
That sentence alone explains so much of the downfall of professional wrestling since HHH took over, since Vince Russo inspired plotting dominated the scene, since Vincent K. McMahon became obsessed with micro-managing instead of being a promoter.
Well, there’s another sentence…. but let me stop before I digress.
There are staples to what ECW did as a promotion, which they did well, which helped inspire an undercurrent of professional wrestling fans, which was then mostly superficially copied by the ‘major leagues’ for financial benefit.
Well, the superficial stuff (dangerous stunts, extreme violence, beyond-stiff use of gimmicks) was thankfully phased out before the impact became irreversible.
The emotional underpinnings of ECW – that captured the imagination, excitement and cult-like following of this promotion – those were also captured by the WWE and the “Attitude” Era. That stuff faded faster than the phasing out of the Hardcore Championship, Triple-Threat matches and waaaaay tooooo senseless violence that far too many fans associated with ECW.
Was ECW all about violence, hardcore and a level of reality that made “stiff” (the wrestling style, not any other adverb or adjective) seem trivial in comparison?
No but yes.
The often profane responses to shocking, dare-devil, “homicidal/suicidal/genocidal” acts were obviously there for a reason. The biggest pops, the most memorable moments, the sado-masochistic (ironically embodied man times by Masato Tanaka) indifference to death or injury elicited reactions that the staid product of the WWE or WCW could not match.
Yes, that was ECW in the memories of many fans, and there’s an aspect of it that should remain a memory. There are some nice things to say about Vince McMahon, and his phasing out that level of implied and envisioned violence is definitely one of them.
On the other hand, there are several important aspects of ECW booking that should be revived, and I’ll point out a few of them. Maybe Shane Douglas has these in mind for that venture with Bill Townsend, but we can only hope.
No, I’m not talking about Einstein or marrying into the business, but the visual impact of both having a diversity in shapes and sizes, but at the same time not destroying the image of anyone on the roster by matching talent with someone who towers over them, or putting them in positions where they obviously don’t belong.
The best example is this: ECW laid the foundation of Pete Senerchia to be a superstar in the WWE.
Without ECW, and with the ever-present “Big Man” mentality of the New York office, would there be a Tazz that was a major player? Some can point to Daniel Bryan, and there are other names (really, they also made their marks in ECW, too, Including the late, great Eddie Guerrero) but Taz by any spelling was made a legitimate badass because of his talent and his demeanor and the way ECW let him shine.
It’s not that there weren’t any big men in and around ECW, but when they were in wit Taz, like with Paul Varelans, they got beat. And a guy like 911 (Big Al Poling) wasn’t seen standing by him. There weren’t matchups involving smaller, talented guys with bigger guys… there was a sense of avoiding the pointlessness of such obvious mismatches and creating comparisons that did no one any benefit.
There’s a morbid sense of pointlessness in the product today. No structure, no sense of hierarchy, no sense of movement on the card. ECW wasn’t exactly a structured environment; it wasn’t like EVOLVE or even the 1980’s WWF, but there was always a sense of matches being meaningful.
Which is also odd, because of the ongoing feuds (which I’ll talk about in my next point) and so much ongoing change.
But change is really, really good for the business, and as a slight digression, one of the ways ECW stayed fresh was because the promotion was always introducing new people. Sure, some of that was because the big boys stole the talent with mainstream potential, but ECW was focused on that quaint professional wrestling concept of having different wrestlers, wrestling types and wrestling styles.
ECW introduced Lucha Libre to its crazed fanbase; it introduce FMW style ultra-violence (which became an undercurrent of destruction that I alluded to earlier); it introduced so many talents, many of whom ‘got over’ quickly enough, that it is truly laughable that the WWE cannot get anyone over.
Well, that’s also because ECW existed in the transitional period of the business between dozens of promotions and the yet-faded memories of those promotions, and the monolithic dominance of the WWE today. ECW was able to gather a diverse fanbase, focus them on the ECW brand, and connect its talent to the “REVOLUTION” it preached, all the while keeping an eyeball on professional wrestling history and keeping a pulse on the business.
Yeah, I’m nostalgic as hell and overly fond of the era. I also was the target audience (smart markish, completely enraputured with professional wrestling, twenty-something, internet savvy, culturally observant, and willing to scour the internet, cable and UHF stations (whatever the hell that means) and also very much interested in traveling to see it live.
Getting back to it, there was a sense from ECW of a flow of the TV Show (recaps to exploit the moments and sell the upcoming matches, a few matches, capped off with promos (remember the Pulp Fiction segments!) to keep otherwise unseen talent on the show, and a distinct sense that you were getting a lot of what the promotion had to offer, but you had to see it live to get the rest).
In other words, you had to pay for the experience, not sit back and let it happen.
Today, you can’t pay people to watch free TV, and the WWE is selling a monthly internet subscription for vestiges of a product that sucks.
ECW was nothing if not for the feuds, and what should that tell modern day promotions?
Yeah, they don’t understand that, either.
Tommy Dreamer versus Raven dominated the existence of ECW. And how many matches were there between them? Did they ever really fight? But at the same time, this is the feud that drove ECW’s cards for years, captured the attention of the fans who had turned away from WCW and the WWF, and kept their attention when the Attitude era ripped off everything else about ECW.
Feuds aren’t about having so many freaking matches that they are meaningless. In many ways, Raven was the 1990’s embodiment of Lou Albano, the guy who talked a great game, had a lot of henchmen, and even when cornered could never be vanquished.
People forget that Tommy Dreamer was perhaps the purest “babyface” when he started making waves in ECW, but the crowd wasn’t behind him. But the fued with Raven turned him into the “Innovator of Violence” and connected to the pulse of the fanbase. That didn’t happen overnight. That feud never really ended, but it never got boring.
There was something to crafting a feud that ECW mastered, and … well, look at what works and what doesn’t and it’s not hard to figure some of it out.
Sabu versus Taz persisted through injuries, disputes and a lot of contentious backstage situations. But more importantly, it was purpusefully held off for PPV purposes. All the efforts of the work, and all the effects of the shoot aspects, built up for a year or so.
What’s funny is that HHH vs Batista drove WrestleMania 21 to great heights… mainly by holding off the match.
Sure, you can’t make every match bigger by setting it up for a year. That would be more like MMA than Professional Wrestling, but then again, why can’t the WWE or any other promotion build up the attention of the fanbase and drive up interest with a truly interesting feud?
Well, that’s the crux of the inability of drawing the fans in these days, isn’t it?
Joe Babinsack can be reached at [email protected]