As someone who, as a teen, was brought back into wrestling by watching ECW each week on SportsChannel in Philadelphia, it holds a special place in my wrestling memory banks. My first live wrestling shows were ECW matches, primarily at the old Bingo Hall. My friends and I were regulars, though this was still before wrestling enjoyed it’s main stream renaissance in the late 90’s. I still remember my one friend planning where we’d sit during the show, so as to try and avoid the cameras. But with ECW, the action was everywhere, and I didn’t care if we made it onto TV and some classmate actually saw us (we did, they did, and it wasn’t nearly the stigma my friend thought it would be).
My time following ECW brought me back to wrestling, and in many ways, ECW revitalized the industry, for better or worse. At one point, it was WCW dominating, with Uncle Ted writing whatever checks Bischoff and Russo told him to in order to secure whatever hot new talent had been identified. Then it was Stamford making the calls, and no matter who the big two bought and paid for, that little wrestling company in South Philly still managed to find a roster, to put out a product and to keep things exciting week in and week out. When I was in college, I made friends with some indy wrestlers who were not so fond of the ECW style or what it meant to wrestling in general. And some of those discussions have stayed with me to this day.
ECW was a good thing for a number of wrestlers and personalities. It served as a launching pad for a number of stars, and allowed others a place to re-imagine themselves and go on to bigger and better things. When you think of the ECW alumni, it is an impressive who’s who. Among the notables: Steve Austin,Mick Foley, Chris Benoit, Eddie Guerrero, Rob Van Dam, Dean Malenko, Chris Jericho, Taz, The Dudleyz and more. Those are just off the top of my head, performers who went on to capture major titles in one or both of WCW and WWE. That is by no means discounting the roles played by others such as Raven, The Sandman, Mikey Whipwreck, Tommy Dreamer, Sabu, Axl Rotten, Balls Mahoney, The Public Enemy, bWo and more. Many other well known stars spent time in ECW-Tammy Sytch, Chris Candido, Bam Bam Bigelow, Woman, Shane Douglas, 2 Cold Scorpio. Even former Rocker Marty Janetty. Many active or recently retired stars at least passed through the doors of Swanson and Rittner. And, it left a mark.
Has it been a good mark? That all depends. ECW made the major brands become more edgy-the Attitude era may never have happened without ECW being a factor. Paul Heyman and his band of misfits pushed the envelope. They were not subjected to the rules and restrictions that a WWE or WCW was, and that’s why so many of the ECW shows were bloody and violent and, in a word, extreme. It was their calling card. Back then, you would have never seen a wrestler on WCW appear to be burned in the eye with a cigarette as part of an angle-much less in the ring with a cig or a beer. You would have never imagined performers pushing shopping carts full of miscellaneous household items to the ring, all to be used in the upcoming match. You would have never seen the Mexican or Japanese styles on prominent display, yet Heyman did just that-introducing us to stars like Mysterio, Konan and the Japanese Buzzsaw Yoshihiro Tajiri in the process. Getting WCW and WWE to move away from the days of the Shockmaster and the Gobbledeygooker is absolutely a good thing.
But, as my friend opined, the ECW style set wrestling back, because you saw a lot of backyard copycats. People who focused on the outrageous hardcore matches from Dreamer, Sandman, Raven, Terry Funk and others-where, while there might have been some wrestling involved, it was overshadowed by the pure unadulterated violence. That violence sometimes overshadows classic matches that ECW put on, involving the likes of Jericho, Van Dam, Douglas, Malenko, Benoit and others. If you went to an ECW show, you almost always got a lucha match, with Mysterio and Psicosis being among the mainstays. Heyman was always willing and able to go out and bring in international talent that Vince or Eric couldn’t or wouldn’t touch. And fans made out because of it. Whether it was an over-the-top display of violence (Gangstas/Public Enemy) or an absolute technical wrestling dream match (Malenko/Guerrero), ECW and Heyman, throughout their run, managed to offer something for everyone.
Perhaps, like my friend said, the violence was too much and it detracted from the real wrestling, but it was all still there. There’s no denying ECW had violence and lived up to it’s extreme name. But the company had a great many wrestlers (and I am certain I haven’t mentioned them all) who were bringing so much more to the table. There was a passion for their craft. A willingness to go out, night after night, and work their asses off giving fans their money’s worth. Some were motivated to throw something out there that had not been seen before, because ECW encouraged innovation and risk-taking. It’s why the second most famous chant in ECW history is “you f’d up”. Fans got on wrestlers when a spot was blown, but adored wrestlers when chances taken panned out and produced epic spot after epic spot.
Looking at the careers that ECW launched or re-vitalized, it absolutely left a positive mark on wrestling, by and large. And, having grown up outside of Philadelphia and rediscovered my love for wrestling because of the product Paul Heyman produced, I will always have a special place for ECW. As enjoyable as the matches are even today on tapes and DVDs, it was something you just had to be there for. Makes you wonder what might have been, had Paul E. not taken over from Tod Gordon so many years ago.