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#ECWWeek: This Fan’s Treasure

Yesterday, Nick spoke about why he, and others, have rather strong feelings about ECW and its legacy that are less than positive. Today, we have a special guest, Gregg Gethard to talk about people who loved  ECW and, more  importantly, why.

For a person who lived it in person, ECW was completely insane live. It was an once-in-a-lifetime experience – we were college dorks who got to be part of something sleazy and dangerous and exciting. I didn’t think anything bad would happen but something terrible could happen. It was what I’d imagine seeing Black Flag or Minor Threat in the 80s was like.

I discovered ECW on a small cable access channel. As a part of the then-burgeoning online hardcore wrestling fan community, I heard of ECW but hadn’t seen it yet. The WWF and WCW mostly sucked at the time – we had to endure things like King Mabel and Isaac Yankem and Hulk Hogan taking on Kevin Sullivan and his neverending string of goobers. But this? Seeing Shane Douglass throw down a title and talking all sorts of shit on Ric Flair? Sabu doing moonsaults off the ropes onto tables in the crowd? The Public Enemy chasing Cactus Jack and Mikey Whipwreck all over the arena? While actual music – not cartoony campy shit like “A Man Called Sting” but actual songs you’d hear on the radio – was playing? This shit was the best.

I made my friends watch some early ECW. 9-1-1 chokeslammed “Jungle” Jim Steele 10 times. Joey Styles said at one point, “I think ‘Jungle’ Jim Steele is dead.” At least four of my friends believed it.

Stevie Richards frequented the hardcore wrestling message board community. I went to college in Philly, so I jokingly send him an e-mail telling him he should come to my college and hang out. To my surprise, he did. We went to some lame ass party and then hung out in the dorm lounge. These mooks were watching god knows what and I asked if we could turn the channel. When one of them saw it was wrestling, he started talking about how dumb it was, how it was all fake, etc. Then came a clip in the beginning of Stevie – literally sitting five feet away from him – being thrown through a table.

The dude turned around and turned a whiter shade of pale, apologized, and left. Stevie dropped some knowledge on me when we watched the episode and revealed how the interviews were all done in Paul E’s mom’s house. The highlight of the episode was the first of the Cactus Jack Anti-Hardcore interviews that still hold up as the best shit ever to this day. Stevie sent me a message the next day telling me he left his gym ID in the security booth and begged me to just let it sit there and to not put his real name out there. Kayfabe lives.

I went to my first live ECW show a few weeks later. I was living in Philly for maybe three weeks, a 17-year-old doofus taking mass transit and walking to the ECW Arena, located underneath an interstate in a virtually abandoned part of the city. By myself. I got down early and sat against the building doing my Economics 101 homework. I hear someone screaming obscenities. I look up. There is a man with an eye patch. He is shirtless and has a swastika tattoo on his chest. He is drinking a 40, carrying another in the waistband of his sweatpants.

I went to about 20 live shows at the Arena (the rest with friends). Their crowd control left a lot to be desired. I always got tickets ahead of time. However, not everyone did. There was one entrance/exit. When the steel gates lifted up, it was a free-for-all to get inside, especially since there were stories of people who owned tickets not actually getting inside. There were never any barricades. There was never any organization. It was a free-for-all.

The Arena was brutally hot. During one summer show, the cattle chute opened and there was a stampede to get in. There was only one tiny door where people could get in if they had tickets or were paying to get in. It became a horrible crowd crush. I am not a big person. I was off my feet at one point and lost control over which direction my body was going to. My friend Mike D. is a lot bigger than me. He, too, was off his feet. He had a forearm placed in the back of his neck, forcing his face to get buried in a man’s dyed blonde mullet. Somehow we both survived.

One time, a woman was leaving the cattle chute. She was carrying a near empty bottle of vodka. She was stumbling. She was being propped up by a 10-year-old child. Who called her Mom. I will let you guess what happened next. And needless to say, I probably shouldn’t have taken that girl from my dorm I had a crush on to see ECW in person.

Some Japanese wrestler I don’t remember (not anyone any good like Sasuke or Taka) was in the ring once. The crowd started a “U! S! A!” chant. I thought it would be funny to say “SUCKS!” after this. I immediately stopped when someone threw something at me from behind and told me to love it or leave it. Then same person threw more garbage at me when I applauded Justin Credible for telling Tommy Dreamer he wished he died instead of his grandfather.

We were giving Kronus some shit on the way out after his match. The same garbage throwing person said to us, “Why don’t you say that to his wife’s face? She’s right there!” He pointed to her. We didn’t say it to her face. Instead, we admired the jewelry she was selling – it was a gold pendant of The Eliminators logo, going for a mere $400.

And if you ever wanted to fight a wrestler, you could have just waited for Bam Bam Bigelow to throw Mikey Whipwreck into the crowd a few rows in front of you and watch what happens when a man starts fighting Mikey Whipwreck for no reason! Security will jump en masse into your section and start randomly shoving fans. Wrestlers from the back will pour out into the section and will do the same. It’s a great way to almost cause fans who understand social norms to get hurt!

Want to make your girlfriend degrade herself, overly tanned bodybuilder with a dripping wet ponytail? Have her stand up and order her to take off her top in front of hundreds of sexual predators! Stand there proudly as the crowd chants things about her breasts and her sexual tendencies and preferences! It’s great!

I was at a show in Asbury Park. I had to run to the bathroom. It was largely empty. Then all of a sudden I hear someone say, “It’s cool, there’s no one in here.” The man who said this was Referee Bill Alfonso. In walks Rob Van Dam in his singlet. He goes to the urinal next to mine. He turns to the side and lifts up the spandex of his right pant leg. He then pees down the side of his leg.

Every time we went to a show, we knew were paying to watch entertainment created solely in reaction to the bullshit corporate nonsense shoved down the nation’s throat, but along with it came a chance that you could get hurt along the way. And a chance to meet the performers on a human level, even if it was in the bathroom. It was the start of something and that’s why ECW was important and vital. Wrestling will never feel that way again. Maybe nothing will.

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#ECWWeek: Essential Viewing

After having so much fun with the stables last month in celebration of the Survivor Series, we’ve decided to turn this December — and all Decembers in perpetuity — into Promotions Month. This week we have Paul Heyman’s Extreme Championship Wrestling. This is Day Two of #ECWWeek, the fifteenth installment of our (patent-pending) Juice Make Sugar Wrestler of the Week Series. As (almost) always, we started by making ECW a Promotion You (Should) Probably Know Better. Today, we give you the finer points of the company’s oeuvre with some Essential Viewing AND a Highlight Reel . Tomorrow, we discuss the idea of ECW and Another Fan’s Treasure before quenching your thirst for Listicles with a Juice Make Sugar Top 10 List on Thursday. Finally we’ll sum everything up on Friday with a “Difference of Opinion” that will likely be closer to a “Difference in Levels of Disdain”. Let’s get Extreme?

In 1994, Jim Crockett Jr. himself approached Tri-State Wrestling Alliance/Eastern Championship Wrestling promoter Todd Gordon about carrying the standard for the NWA. Based on nearly 50 years of NWA tradition, the move should have been an honor for the relatively small territory.

But Gordon and new booker Paul Heyman understood that following the death of Jim Crockett Promotions, the appearance of the title on WWF television, and the belt shuffling at WCW’s Disney tapings, the NWA Title had been devalued past the point of no return.

So, they — along with “The Franchise” Shane Douglas — did this:

Douglas’ promo isn’t great, with a “substitute news anchor reading off the prompter” feel to it, but he hits the right bullet points, successfully creating the sense of rebellion and anti-authority sentiment that made this dimly-lit moment the spark from which ECW’s “revolution” was ignited.

ECW had the attitude from that moment forward, but what really made the company work was that they offered an in-ring product that neither WWF nor WCW could even approach. The ECW-style was rooted in the super hard-hitting, fast-paced style of early 1990s Japanese wrestling. Matches like this one — between Eddie Guerrero and Dean Malenko — is a perfect showcase of what ECW brought to the United States. Both men are nearly subatomic by the standards of height and bulk required in big-time operations of the day, but their work is so simultaneously smooth and physical that it seems like a well-choreographed dance performance compared to the awkward, herky-jerky main event style of the day.

If ECW was built on unapologetic, in-your-face attitude and high-level in-ring work, then Steve Austin was the perfect ECW star. He had only a short stint in the territory between his exit from WCW and debut into the WWF, but Steve Austin made the most of the time he had there. With the encouragement of Paul Heyman, Austin began developing the promo style that would make him one of the most successful wrestlers of all time.

Fifteen years before CM Punk, Steve Austin helped establish himself as one of the great characters in wrestling with this scathing shoot promo. Austin vented his frustration with the inner politics of wrestling, using impressions of Dusty Rhodes, Hulk Hogan, and Eric Bischoff that were as scathing and dead-on as Punk calling Triple H a doofus during his “Pipe Bomb” promo. Even if you were oblivious to the history of the Attitude Era, if you saw this promo from ECW in 1995, you would look at Steve Austin and say, “That’s a huge star.”

Austin put it well when he said that ECW was mostly “a bunch of violent crap.” The territory saw many great workers and historically significant moments, but everything was reduced in prestige and respectability by the fact that the company’s wrestlers treated each other like kidnapping victims in a snuff film. The unofficial motto of ECW was “more is more.” More spots. More risk. More violence.

When wrestling was at its white-hottest in 1997, both the WWF and WCW were borrowing heavily from the ECW playbook: outrageous injury angles, scantily clad women “spontaneously” bursting out of tight dresses, and a near-constant barrage of weapon shots and juice. Rather than reinvent themselves in the face of imitators, though, ECW decided to stick to the same tricks and turn them up to eleven.

The following match from Hardcore TV features three of the greatest tag teams in ECW history: The Dudleys, The Gangstas and The Eliminators. All three teams were crazy over, and fans loved their matches, but two of the three groups had the same gimmick: “guys who brutally beat up other guys” (The Gangstas had been involved in the notorious “Mass Transit Incident” less than six months earlier — I won’t link you to it, but you can look it up…). The result is a match that engages the crowd, but exposes the unsustainable nature of ECW’s booking for all to see. You could take this match “around the circuit” once, but how many times will fans pay to watch a six men sloppily beat the crap out of each other?

The escalating violence of ECW reached its crescendo at 1997’s Born to Be Wired in an ECW Title match between Sabu and Terry Funk. This match is possibly one of the worst ideas ever. It pits a then-53-year-old Funk against a then-seemingly-indestructible Sabu in a match that makes Funk look very old and Sabu look very destructible. The match, straight out of FMW, is every bit as gruesome as you would expect a match with barbed wire ring ropes to be.

The match’s signature moment occurs at the ten minute mark, with Sabu tearing open his bicep by flying into the barbed wire. Few moments embody the legacy and philosophy of ECW better. The match should have stopped for the sake of safety, but in the name of the religion of ECW (created in equal parts by Paul Heyman in order to control talent and stereotypical Philadelphians in order to feed their bloodlust), Sabu tapes his arm up with white athletic tape and finishes the match.

For all its fame, this match contains the most abysmal clean finish of all time. The two men become inextricably tangled in the barbed wire, with their clothes torn to the point that they seem in danger of being stripped naked. A terrified-looking Bill Alfonzo tries to interject, cutting the wire in hopes of freeing the men to the point where they can actually wrestle, but it doesn’t work. Ultimately, Fonzie and a referee have to gingerly lift and roll Sabu and Funk back in the ring in order to go home on the worst pin ever executed. You know what would have prevented all that? One iota of restraint.

***

ECW finally got a national television deal just as they were finding themselves unable to deal with the constant brain drain of talent leaving for WCW and the WWF. By early 2000, Taz(z), Raven, the Dudley Boys, and The Radicalz were all in the WWE and Lance Storm and Mike Awesome were in WCW. The result was a mixture of wrestlers with blind faith in ECW (Tommy Dreamer) and wrestlers that nobody wanted (Balls Mahoney). ECW, the company where wrestlers tore their bodies to shreds to make their home team relevant had failed supremely: they weren’t relevant, and the wrestlers’ bodies were still torn to shreds.

The dying days of ECW were hard to watch on many levels, but one redeeming feature was that ECW on TNN gave many talented, hungry workers a place to ply their craft on TV. This match between Taijiri and Psicosis is a gem in the coal dust, a wonderful, albeit feeble beat in the fading pulse of ECW.

#JCPWCWWeek: Difference of Opinion (Ish?)

After having so much fun with the stables last month in celebration of the Survivor Series, we’ve decided to turn this December — and all Decembers in perpetuity — into Promotions Month. For a curtain jerker, we have WCW and its predecessor, Jim Crockett Promotions. This is the Final Day of #JCPWCWWeek, the fourteenth installment of our (patent-pending) Juice Make Sugar Wrestler of the Week Series. We mixed it up by giving you a crash course in JCP and WCW and asked you to Essentially View a Promotion You (Should) Probably Know Better. We exposed some harsh truths with the debut of Lies The WWE Told Us and quenched your thirst for Listicles with a Juice Make Sugar Top 10 List. Now, we end everything with a Difference of Opinion, where JMS HQ actually doesn’t erupt into a civil war. But if we did, it would take place inside of a Doomsday Cage.

Nick: This was a weird week for us. I’ve written extensively about WCW and you are a pretty big JCP fan: Although our press times wouldn’t tell you it, this was actually a pretty easy week for us.

Dave: Well, I’m not old enough to be a real JCP fan, but I appreciate the hell out of what I’ve seen. And I feel like this week and last we had a lot of good stuff to say, so times be damned, I felt like it was important to unload both barrels.

Nick: So, the opposite of next week’s promotion, ECW?

Dave: I love several ECW stars (Sabu is one of my all-time favorites), but the promotion as its story lines are the most overrated body of work ever.

Nick: Yeah, and I feel like WCW and JCP especially are “underrated”, inasmuch as that kind of thing exists.

Dave: Agreed! You took the words out of my mouth. Bagging on WCW is so en vogue that people forget the good years JCP/WCW put together.

Nick: Like, “Roy Hibbert” underrated And even when they were “crap”, it was still good. The FPOD wasn’t “bad” in and of itself, at least for me. It’s that it was indicative of a real sickness in the company itself, but it’s not the first time somebody’s thrown a match for a buddy.

Dave: As I wrote in my comment on your FPOD post, I think it was outrageously unnecessary… but not the dump on the chest of wrestling that a lot of people make it out to be.

Nick: And I’ve seen those late-period WCW PPVs. There are some REALLY good matches. 3 Count is REALLY REALLY REALLY GOOD.

Dave: Yeah, the quality of in-ring work was always insanely high outside of the main event in WCW. But most of their main eventers were either miles past their prime or larger than life characters who couldn’t deliver physically.

Nick: What’s weird is that almost all of the WCW fans I know NEVER gave a shit about the main event. At least in the sense that it being good was more of a bonus.

Dave: I feel like most of the WCW fans I know were in it for the match quality. Unlike WWF/E fans who love to engage in the top story lines.

Nick: As a life-long WWE mark I can attest to that. And I think that’s where WCW got into trouble. It wasn’t when they decided to get in the Hulk Hogan business, it was when they let him try to tell them to be like WWF. Where he ran roughshod over everyone with the idea that “the fans will love it, brother.”

Dave: Hey, look! It’s the same mistake TNA has been making the last decade!

Nick: That’s the most notable thing about JCP. It’s SO MUCH DIFFERENT than WWE.

Dave: Oh yeah. It’s SO sports-like.

Nick: Like, if you’re TNA, why aren’t you just recreating JCP now?

Dave: I couldn’t agree with you more.

Nick: And, I get it, WCW was primarily a television show first and a wrestling company second, but I totally agree with the guys on the Rise and Fall of WCW DVD, if JCP had stayed in the mid-Atlantic, they’d still be in business, probably national at this point. I can’t even imagine what would have happened if Magnum TA didn’t get into that car accident.

Dave: Magnum could definitely have been their Hulk Hogan. And, as you said, the Crockett name was so beloved in the Carolinas that their business could have stayed viable, but they got greedy, especially when they got the Road Warriors, and wanted to promote Chicago. JCP turned a great profit until they overextended themselves, whereas WCW intentionally operated at a loss in order to make money for TNN/Turner. People bag on Bischoff and Turner for handing out huge contracts, but the fact of the matter is that the expectation of WCW never to make money on its own. Which makes it unique in the history of big time wrestling.

Nick: Yeah, the difference between the WWF and WCW was always that WWF’s business, as I alluded to earlier, was the WWF and WCW’s business was “the wrestling show of a television network.” Whether or not they made any money was irrelevant. Things didn’t have to be sustainable, they just had to move the needle. And for a while, it worked. They were better at being “televised wrestling” than the WWF was at being the WWF. And it’s because they only had to be concerned about getting people to watch.

Dave: Right, they didn’t have to deal with nearly the same budgetary constraints.

Nick: Like, Bash at the Beach 1996 is the Platonic ideal of what a wrestling PPV is supposed to be. It’s almost a perfectly constructed wrestling show, and a singular moment in the history of wrestling. Purely in terms of “spectacle for which you would pay to see”, WrestleMania III is the only other one in the discussion. And that’s a TERRIBLE show, with one good match and one palpably important match, but that match is what made Hogan (spoiler alert) being the Third Man in ‘96.

Dave: This may be an unpopular opinion, but Hogan was much less of a piece of shit in WCW than he was in WWF. There were things he refused to do and guys he refused to put over, but it wasn’t like WWF where he wanted to be the only big star.

Nick: WrestleMania IX is 100X worse than the FPOD: It shits on his successor while making himself look like a million bucks, at least he just looked like an asshole after the Fingerpoke.

Dave: Yes, because WMIX actually involved undermining the five-year future of the company, whereas FPOD was done against another well-established top star with that guy’s consent (in fact, I think Nash had a hand in booking it.)

Nick: But, like I said, the FPOD of doom IS super important, because it is them blatantly giving up. They were literally saying “we can’t come up with something more interesting than Foley winning, so let’s just see how much heat we can get for something”.

Dave: The sad part is, the majority of wrestling writers still think that way: “How can we get the most heat on the heels?”

Nick: Which is the least WWE thing ever. The WWE is OBSESSED with “giving the people what they want”.

Dave: Rather than “How can we get heat on the heels to make the baby faces look good” And then when a company actually takes care of a top face (Cena), “smart” fans resent the hell out of it (as you and Andy have covered many times).

Nick: Exactly, people say “John Cena is Superman” because he never loses, but what they don’t get is that he never loses, because he’s Superman.

Dave: Yeah, you want to see Speed Racer in danger of losing the race, but he shouldn’t actually lose.

Nick: Daniel Bryan, Spiderman, is going to have to let Gwen Stacy die every once in a while. And CM Punk is always be angry, just like Batman.

Dave: It’s almost like these are time-tested archetypes…

Nick: And while I love that style, I think the real tragedy of WCW’s demise is that there will never be a truly viable alternative to that style in North America. There’s never going to be a professional wrestling organization that feels like a sports league again.

Dave: Absolutely. WWE has redefined the business in a way that has forever changed the discussion in a way that favors them.

Nick: Because they are Wrestling. When people say wrestling, they don’t mean TNA.

Dave: Right. Or ROH. Or Chikara. Or PWG…

Nick: You would be hardpressed to find someone who isn’t friends with a wrestling fan that has even heard of TNA. Most people in the country knew what WCW was.

Dave: Yeah, it’s pretty sad, but it’s a problem that seems impossible to solve.

Nick: So, to be clear, you don’t see TNA signing John Cena after they get bought by TNT when they lose the rights to the NBA, then get Punk and finally have Daniel Bryan/Big E. Langston to “invade” a few years later?

Dave: …Yeah, I think that’s safe to say. They’re still miles more successful than Pro Wrestling U.S.A., though.

#JCPWCWWeek: Lies the WWE Told Us, The Finger Poke of Doom

Wcw_doomAfter having so much fun with the stables last month in celebration of the Survivor Series, we’ve decided to turn this December — and all Decembers in perpetuity — into Promotions Month. For a curtain jerker, we have WCW and its predecessor, Jim Crockett Promotions. This is Day Three of #JCPWCWWeek, the fourteenth installment of our (patent-pending) Juice Make Sugar Wrestler of the Week Series. We mixed it up by making JCP and WCW a Promotion You (Should) Probably Know Better in two parts. On Monday, we talked about the transition from JCP to WCW, and yesterday we gave you the finer points of JCP’s oeuvre with some Essential Viewing then finishing the epic story of the great lost promotion of our time. Today, we’re going to start exposing harsh truths with the debut of Lies The WWE Told Us. After Hump Day — and throughout the week — we’ll be quenching your thirst for Listicles with a Juice Make Sugar Top 10 List and a couple of odds, before ending everything with a Difference of Opinion, where JMS HQ erupts in a civil war, which will take place inside of a Doomsday Cage.

When Dave and I talked about The Varsity Club for #VarsityClubWeek’s Difference of Opinion, we spent much of our time discussing a rarely talked about part of WWE’s cultural hegemony in their little part of the entertainment world: To the victor goes the spoils, and as the ultimate victor in the fight for the soul of the medium, the WWE’s prize was complete control over the “story” of professional wrestling.

Which is to say that there’s no one checking the facts behind anything the WWE tells us happened in the history of wrestling. At least there wasn’t. UNTIL NOW. Okay, actually, there are plenty of people, but as you all know, we love you the most. And that’s why we’ve decided to spent some time talking about the some of the lies WWE has told us about its greatest rivals, Jim Crockett Promotions and WCW, in celebration of #JCPWCWWeek, and there’s perhaps no one lie more famous than the role Finger Poke of Doom had in the downfall of WCW.

Some of this is, of course, semantics. In a lot of ways the Fingerpoke of Doom was the end of “WCW”, but while it was symbolically the end of what had separated WCW from WWE, it wasn’t anywhere the deathknell of the company’s run as a major wrestling promotion, or even as a viable second wrestling company in the way that DVDs like The Rise and Fall of WCW would have you believe. Ignoring for a second that someone laying down for a title was something that WWF had done a full two years earlier (over the significantly less important European title, of course), the FPOD wasn’t even the most embarrassing thing that would happen to the championship in the in the next year and a half. That’s an honor that would go to David Arquette — even less of a wrestler than Hulk Hogan was an actor — winning the title in a match with Eric Bischoff, Jeff Jarrett and Diamond Dallas Page, for free, on a taped Thunder.

Though for every bit it wasn’t the end of WCW chronologically, or even the nadir of its creative and narrative directions, it was the end of WCW’s attempts to challenge WWE’s storyline development or credibility amongst fans in terms of “entertainment value”. What’s lost by most WCW detractors, the WWE included, is that the greatest blunder WCW made was giving it away for free. Story lines like this are fine, or at least not catastrophic, in situations where the fans are given a chance for retribution. The problem wasn’t that Hogan and Nash were in cahoots again, but that they gave away an actual conflict that people were genuinely interested. Of course it’s embarrassing to have your major title handed over from one man to the other in such a blatant disregard for the idea of competition that is at the heart of many fan’s love of the spectacle. Sure. But the really appalling thing is assuming I don’t want to pay for the right to be this angry.

If this would have been used as a way to generate heat, to develop the idea of “anything can happen on a WCW PPV”, if this was an attempt to reignite of the weird spark that the original Hogan turn at from 96’s Bash at the Beach had created , why not make us pay for it? By giving this away for free, WCW said, “we’re willing to do anything to get you to watch us, including give away major resolutions for nothing instead of letting you pay us for them… ” which should have been followed almost immediately after by “so give all of your money to WWF, please, we’re all set.”

Fans want to be treated with respect, sure, and the Fingerpoke is one of the high-water marks of a promotion’s wanton disrespect for its fans, but more importantly they wanted to be treated like people who paid to watch a show about conflict resolution done by interpretative dancers in underpants. So, while it didn’t kill WCW, by any measure, it broke the covenant between fans and promotions: it told us our money didn’t matter and they were going to do whatever they wanted while forcing us to watch it.

Anyone who has ever worked retail can tell you the only thing worse than a consumer believing that a company doesn’t stand behind its products is the belief from a consumer that they don’t want their business. WCW, or whomever made decisions at that point — you’d have to assume some sort of manatee-and-word-ball-based writing system like the folks over at Family Guy —  had to understand, or least had to see the possibility, that if the people who had previously bought PPVs saw the disregard for their feelings that they were willing to display before they gave them their money, that they’d assume this just didn’t want their money to begin with. 

People buy wrestling PPVs and tickets not just to see something they’ve never seen before, but, to feel like things will never change, that they’ll always be entertained by the familiar things: the idea of good vs. evil, the excitement of trying to figure how close to reality something truly is, and most importantly for the sustainability of the business, that they’ll be given the right to pay for something in exchange for a finish, whether or its satisfactory or not. And The Poke ended that.

But what The Fingerpoke of Doom ended wasn’t WCW life, though. It was WCW’s will to live.

Odds and Ends, Fits and Starts: Raw Regurgitated, 12/2

It’s hard to say if it’s a good thing or a bad thing that CM Punk was the person I least enjoyed listening to in a three-way conversation between himself, Kane and Stephanie. At the very least, Corporate Kane has very quickly become my new favorite gimmick remix, replacing long standing champion of my heart, Matt V1. That’s right, I’m a proud MFer.

Stephanie’s a pretty awful actress — which is more than okay considering that she still manages to be better than Dixie Carter and understands how to serve as corporate executive for a business that isn’t the professional wrestling equivalent of a sinking ship on fire — but she plays “awful/detached insanely rich person” like Meryl Streep.

The real problem with the WWE: They won’t let people get over by giving them nearly insurmountable odds against new stars so that they could get over with the crowd by doing the seemingly impossible. If they did that , they could use that narrative dynamic to sell one of the 6-8 PPVs — depending on how one feels about buying the Survivor Series and/or Extreme Rules every year– that don’t sell themselves, while making stars out of everyone involved. If only they did that, things would be so much better.

***

Odds that Dolph Ziggler would face Big E. this early in his IC championship reign for the belt at a PPV: 1,000 to 1. Odds that Damien Sandow beats Langston for the title at TLC: 1,000 to 1. Odds E. loses that belt to Dolph Ziggler at the end of his run: Pick ‘Em. Odds Ziggler faces E. for the Unified Undisputed World War Wrestling Championship Belt Title after Langston wins it: 1,000,000 to 1.

If they are doing “Summer Rae is a female version of Fandango in the ring” with this “dancing while wrestling” thing, it might be the best news in the history of wrestling, because Here Comes the Emmalution. But if they are just having her do this because that’s what they think ladywrestling should be, they might as well just keep the women of NXT down in Florida until they all retire.

Things that are beautiful, but not long for this world: sunsets, a refreshing breeze, #BadNewsBarrett

***

*** WARNING: YOU ARE NOW ENTERING A WRESTLING NERD DISCUSSION ZONE! *** PLEASE KEEP EYES AND EARS INSIDE OF KAYFABE AT ALL TIMES *** Man, they should just give Daniel Bryan a shovel, so he can dig his own grave, amirite? Anyone who thinks this Wyatt storyline isn’t fantastic — even with the fits and starts with Daniel Bryan’s whereabouts that 8% of the crowd actually worries about — is a bummer on the level of people who that John Cena has been the most popular performer in the company for the last ten years because of politics. And those people are as depressing as Hulk Hogan being the most popular performer in the world for 20 years because of politics.

And in all this Bray Wyatt “join me” business, while it’s hard to say what’s going to happen, the real interesting dynamic is whether Wyatt is trying to con Bryan, or whether he just wants him to turn heel. The former screams “Hero’s Journey,” while the other leads to a feud with CM Punk — after he nobly dispatches the Shield by himself in a parallel storyline.

This is pretty much the perfect “midcard” feud: it has tons of intrigue and even more stakes, but doesn’t involve a major title, won’t be featured at the end of any show and never be truly resolved, and still serves major purposes in terms of narrative momentum for both characters, marks a fundamental shift in the direction of their careers and, most importantly, will lead to much better things in the future for everyone involved.

Like Andy said last week, this is all highly interesting stuff with huge stakes, and it should be clear that this would be bogged down if the WWE or WHC was involved, especially in the ramp up to the most important “WrestleMania season” ever. They’ve figured out a way, in a manner not unlike Community or Arrested Development, to not just mix meta-commentaries into the product as a nod to those “in on the joke”, but to debate the very notions that the commentaries are pointing at.

Wyatt talking about “taking down the system because they don’t know what they have in you” is the exact same idea as the Bluths complaining about cuts to housing orders that sounded suspiciously similar to the ones made by FOX regarding the number of episodes they wanted to produce.  By making this about existential ideas involved in the modern interpretation of wrestling by its most vocal fanbase — “us vs. them” and shadow politickings — it’s allowed the Reality Era-storytelling to be folded back into the standard tropes of the industry, something that the Attitude Era, like grunge, just never had in it.

What “happens” backstage become, more or less, a new wall of kayfabe, a new layer of storytelling, a new tool to be used to leverage butts into seats. And they are doing so by pushing the fourth wall against every screen they can get their hands on.

That this — the incorporation of formerly radical ideas by the “establishment” — is more often than not what happens after revolutions should not be missed. They — meaning the WWE — are finally calibrating the effect of the internet to a time before Cyber Sunday or even Taboo Tuesday, and that’s a good thing. It coming with more complaining than you can shake a stick at? Something we should be used to by now. *** WARNING: YOU ARE NOW EXITING A WRESTLING NERD DISCUSSION ZONE! *** PLEASE ENJOY YOUR COMPLIMENTARY SONIC MILKSHAKE ON YOUR WAY OUT***

WOAH. You can bury Edge and Chris Jericho, hotshot story lines to the top of the card before quickly discarding them in favor of much shinier new toys, and compare yourself to Harley Race and Hulk Hogan, but having Kane be a dick to Daniel Bryan is a bridge too far, Hunter.

***

As someone who has spent an entire life neck deep in white privilege — ICYMI: it’s great, for me anyways, thanks cultural hegemony! — it feels weird to get mildly indignant that a young man working toward his Ph. D is being put into a storyline with two of the most racial caricature-y characters in recent memory in which he’s been accused of stealing the others’ dance routine and companions, seemingly simply because they all happen to share a preponderance of melanin in their skin. But, yeah, this just feels kind of gross, even if it is just entertainment, and the all seem to A) not care about whatever weird racism pangs happen in my head and B) be genuinely enjoying themselves. The only saving grace is the the other guy in the feud (Tensai) was treated just as one-dimensional in Japan, so at least the U.S. isn’t the only one in the “depressing racial stereotypes” game, just the leader in the clubhouse.

Speaking of depressing racial stereotypes, if the WWE believes we are going to be fooled by this Sin Cara/Hunico switch just because it assumes we think all masked wrestler look alike, well … they are probably right.

***

And, finally, we’ve reached an impasse with the Shield six-man tags, as this was one of the first that felt “stale”. While it was a very good match with one or two spectacular moments, watching three guys work over one in the corner makes a lot more sense when it feels like they almost need to do it, not when it’s clear that one of them has beaten entire teams of other people by himself. Roman Reigns’ ascension seems like it will pretty much force the Shield to change how their matches are structured in order to keep the heat as the crowd builds anticipation for Reigns to go into full-blown destroyer mode after well-timed hot tags. Or, they could just keep running train.

The most important part of this match was not the re-dissolution of Kofi and Miz’s team or the solidification Ryback-Axel tag team, but the moment of self-actualization the two man achieved after they, as Jerry Lawler put it, “realized that maybe they weren’t Paul Heyman guys, but Ryback and Curtis Angl-Axel guys”. Namaste, Big Guys.

Ole!

***

Please don’t bring back Sexual Chocolate. Please don’t bring back Sexual Chocolate. Please don’t bring back Sexual Chocolate. Please don’t bring back Sexual Chocolate. Please don’t bring back Sexual Chocolate. Please don’t bring back Sexual Chocolate. Please don’t bring back Sexual Chocolate.

It’s so much fun to watch Antonio Cesaro to get moments of awesomeness like ending a “house of fire” hot tag with the sweet smell of Swiss Death.

***

I’m one of “those” people. I enjoy silly promos from Randy Orton about being people’s nightmares, I like when John Cena says “yadda yadda yadda, jack”, I even enjoy when he uses that silly finisher of his to put people through the table. And I’ve realized why: I like when the crowd reacts to things. And, when they are on, and put together in the right storyline, there is nothing on earth that the crowd reacts more to than Randy Orton and John Cena.

HAVING SAID THAT, if they do not end this thing with an undisputed champion, or at least one title — and it does not matter how they get there, even if it involves the return of the Yeti — they will have lost sight of what they are, and become what they hate. They’ll be WCW.

A Promotion You Should Probably Know Better: JCP and WCW, Part One

After having so much fun with the stables last month in celebration of the Survivor Series, we’ve decided to turn this December — and all Decembers in perpetuity — into Promotions Month. For a curtain jerker, we have WCW and its predecessor, Jim Crockett Promotions. This is the First Day of #JCPWCWWeek, the fourteenth installment of our (patent-pending) Juice Make Sugar Wrestler of the Week Series and we’re going to mix it up, by making JCP and WCW a Promotion You (Should) Probably Know Better in two parts. Today, we’re talking about the transition from JCP to WCW and tomorrow, in addition to giving you the finer points of the company’s oeuvre with some Essential Viewings, we’ll finish the epic story of the great lost promotion of our time. On Wednesday, we’ll expose some harsh truths with the debut of Lies The WWE Told Us. After Hump Day — and throughout the week — we’ll be quenching your thirst for Listicles with a Juice Make Sugar Top 10 List and a couple of odds and ends, where JMS HQ erupts in a civil war, which will take place inside of a Doomsday Cage.

The history of Jim Crockett Promotions is in some ways the chronological inverse of the history of the WWE. JCP started out as, well, a promotion company. Jim Crockett Sr. put together wrestling cards starting in the 1930s, but he wasn’t just in the wrestling game, he was in the live event game. JCP helped bring popular music acts of the day to the Charlotte, North Carolina area while also organizing and marketing legitimate sporting exhibitions in a region that did not yet have any professional teams. When the NWA formed, Crockett was granted exclusive rights to promote in the Carolinas and Virginia (branded as “the Mid-Atlantic”). This instantly made wrestling the moneymaking backbone of JCP because they didn’t have to compete with other promoters for talent – they owned wrestling in the Carolinas.

Looking back, it’s fascinating to think that JCP started out promoting music and legitimate sport and then transitioned into wrestling in order to have absolute control over a particular market. WWE, the biggest wrestling company of all time, started as a powerful wrestling promotion with absolute control over a particular region, but sought to branch out into more competitive arenas such as movies and sport. Jim Crockett Sr. promoted outdoor sporting events seventy years before the XFL – and he was much more successful at it!

Before Jim Crockett Jr. became NWA President in the early 80s, JCP was known mostly as a tag team territory. Tag team wrestling was extremely popular with fans in the 70s because the format provided natural drama and, in an era with fewer professional sports teams, babyface tag teams gave fans a local brand to believe in.

More fundamentally, tag team wrestling was extremely popular with promoters because you could pack a card with wrestlers and keep costs down. The line of thought went something like this: “All the workers know I have 100 beans to pay out for my main event. If I have a singles main event, I will pay each of those men 50 beans, which will set the precedent that wrestlers can expect to make 50 beans per night. If I have a tag team main event, each man gets 25 beans, which is an amount I’m comfortable paying people.” The goal was control, and in the tag team era, Jim Crockett Promotions were masters of it, which helped them become one of the most profitable and powerful promotions in the country.

In the early 80s, largely due to Jim Jr.’s presidency of the NWA, Jim Crockett Promotions scored several major coups.

The company partnered with Dusty Rhodes, one of the creative masterminds of the day, to put together Starrcade, wrestling’s first nationally-televised supercard. Dusty understood the importance of bringing wrestling national, and the Crocketts had the money to make it happen with the production values the show would need to get over.

The Crocketts built the entire show around hometown hero Ric Flair winning the NWA World Heavyweight Championship from Harley Race. Flair had held the title before, but the platform created by the pageantry of Starrcade made his win one of the biggest moments many NWA fans had ever seen. It also, more importantly to the Crocketts, gave meant that “their guy” would be the champion, giving the promotion a significant amount of control over the title. This meant even more money for the promotion, as they could make extra money booking Flair out around the world and control the overall direction of the NWA.

The final coup that put JCP on the top of the heap was reclaiming the Saturday afternoon timeslot that Vince McMahon had snatched away from the NWA on the legendary “Black Saturday.” This put Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling on a nationwide cable system and made them partners with Ted Turner, the most influential businessman of the era in television.

David Crockett and Jim Jr. were not the savvy, bottom-line businessmen that their father had been, however. They were just as into living The Four Horsemen lifestyle as The Horsemen, and while they were drawing great gates, the expenses of their superior production values were catching up to them. Famously, the Crocketts bought two private jets to shuttle their stars around the country to various shows. While the price of jet fuel alone did not tip the balance sheet towards loss, the use of the jets was the ultimate example for how the company had fallen into 1980s excess.

Ultimately, the expenses and the aggressive growth of the WWF caught up to the Crocketts, and by late 1988, they were struggling to keep the lights on. Their television partner, Ted Turner, who loved professional wrestling and felt it an important building block of his network, bought the company for a song as it teetered on bankruptcy (an action that would be repeated less than 15 years later) and renamed it World Championship Wrestling.

***

And transition from JCP to WCW is a strange one, significantly stranger than the one between Dave and I for this piece.

For all the pomp and circumstance that the lifestyle of the Horsemen entitled, anyone watching a  JCP show wasn’t going to find much in the way of WWF-style Sports Entertainment. A rugged bunch of Good Ole Boys, like the aforementioned Horsemen and Dusty, along with highly athletic performers like Sting and the Steiners formed the backbone of the preeminent wrestling company in the US.

Which is why it was so odd when WCW decided to get into bed with Hulk Hogan, the avatar for Vince McMahon’s Grecian wet dream/vision for what professional wrestling was supposed to be. And along with Hogan — and Randy “Macho Man” Savage, who actually received a fond farewell from then-only-a-announcer-on-TV Vince McMahon after leaving the company for the greener pastures of Ted Turner’s money — came the exact type of over-the-top spectacle tied in a stale storyline that had left the WWF in financial shambles for several years after Hogan’s departure.

Even things like a three-story Doomsday Cage (no, not the Dave Arquette one from Ready to Rumble/Vince Russo’s WCW) match would be overshadowed in terms of weirdness, contrivance and, most importantly, public ridicule by things like a Monster Truck Sumo Match ON TOP OF A BUILDING. That the reason for the (pardon the pun) over-the-top location was so that The Giant (The Big Show, Paul Wight) could pretend to fall off the roof before coming back during the main event (read: aborted match-cum-Hulk Hogan promo) to win the WCW championship BY DISQUALIFICATION.

Needless to say, fans were not buying into an even worse version of the exact things they hated about Hogan, no matter how many times he flexed. Which is why what happened at 1996’s edition of Bash at the Beach felt so epic (which it was), unprecedented (which it essentially was), and like a portent of positive things to come and the possible end of WWF’s reign as the top promotion in the top market for wrestling in the entire world (which it absolutely was not).

While Hogan turning on the frenemies like Randy Savage and the fans appeared to be the important part of what happened, much more significant was him turning on “the company Up North”, and by extension, his entire legacy of as the Immortal Hulk Hogan. In turning heel, he was rejecting not just his former character, but the notion that his success was due to anyone other than Terry Bollea. Tomorrow, we’ll see just how well that turned out.

#VarsityClubWeek: Difference of Opinion

varsityclubIt’s the Final Day of #VarsityClubWeek. In celebration of this month’s Survivor Series, we’re taking a look at famous stables from the wonderful world of wrestling. This is the tenth installment in our patent-pending Juice Make Sugar Wrestler of the Week series, and as always we started by making The Club a Stable You (Should) Probably Know Better. On Tuesday, we gave you the finer points of their oeuvre with some Essential Viewing. On Hump Day, we gave you the 10 Best … Athletes Who Translated, and yesterday we made our “Amazon.com on steroids” dreams come true with “Juice Make Sugar Recommends…”. Today, we’ll finish everything off with a Difference of Opinion (where JMS HQ erupts in a Letterman-jacket-fueled civil war.) 

Dave: So, I LOVE celebrities/organizations that automatically retweet stuff. I tweeted that I thought Pacman Jones/DeQuin Evans was a good moment for Cincinnati fans, but nobody would care about it at all nationally. …And DeQuin Evans retweeted it. Dude, I just said that I don’t think anybody cares about what you did. And you stopped reading at “That was a good moment for people in Cincinnati…”

Nick: Oh, Twitter. Speaking of which, I got followed back by Dana Carvey.

Dave: Nice. San Carlos’ proudest son.

Nick: I was super excited, because it was Dana Carvey. Then I checked. He’s following 26,000 people. I think him or his assistant literally checks to see if you have more than 3 followers who aren’t bots and follows you back. Which, dude, how do I get paid to do that?

Dave: Haha. Whore.

Nick: This week made me wonder if Kevin Sullivan would have used Twitter if it were around when he was working.

Dave: “RT if you love Satan; FAV if you love Dusty.”

Nick: Or was he too “old school” to be bother by with the Tweet? His entire career seems like an argument for traditionalism in wrestling. And I don’t mean in the “he’s a great example of traditionalism”. I mean, he kind of insisted upon it.

Dave: His era was so different it’s hard to even process that question. I don’t think he would have used twitter because Sullivan was very visual. He wasn’t just a great talker, he was a talker who used an over-the-top visual aesthetic to get his guys over too.

Nick: Which was good, because Rotunda and Steiner weren’t the best talkers.

Dave: No, not at all. This week really made me reflect on why neither of them got over as big as The Varsity Club was designed to get them, and it was definitely their promos. Steiner was so bad that they had to embrace it, make him a near-Eugene-level lovable dumb guy, and then eventually give him Gilbert to work with.

Nick: It felt weird finding out their run was so short, but looking at the broader picture, that seems to be par for the non-WWE course. Based on the average length for factions at the time, they were a ticking time bomb, right?

Dave: Well, yeah. Factions are basically made to eventually split up (minus the Four Horsemen), and Steiner was the most likely candidate to become a strong babyface, which (as I alluded to in Essential Viewing), he did. He just didn’t become a main event singles baby face.

Nick: Was Rick the most successful member post club?

Dave: Well, it depends on how you look at things. Steve Williams went on to be crazy successful in Japan, but aside from his run at the top of the failed UWF and his failures during the Monday Night War (being knocked out by Bart Gun, being a bodyguard for Oklahoma, etc.), he really wasn’t heard from again as a serious star in the U.S.

Nick: There’s a reason I ask that question. Before this week, I vaguely knew about them because we are friends, but I was not particularly familiar with the Varsity Club, to be honest. I struggled to do the Juice Make Sugar Recommends…, which is why I did four and walked away with my head hung level.

Dave: A theme that emerged all week to me was that the official WWE version of history has basically blotted out this point in JCP/WCW history (minus the Horsemen and the emergence of Sting), so it’s hard to draw conclusions. Even for Essential Viewing. There were so, so few clips on YouTube, and while I love dailymotion, it makes me sad that the videos won’t embed, so my choices were limited.

Nick: Yeah, exactly. And that’s a huge issue. One that’s it’s difficult to figure out what to do with — and not just from a technical standpoint. It’s problematic for the entire industry’s history.

Dave: It’s scary proof that the WWE version of history is slowly being codified as the history of wrestling.

Nick: Yeah. And it’s not just that there is one major historical record, for the most part, but that they control the story. When they say “Then, Now, Forever”, they aren’t kidding.

Dave: You can’t tell where the real history ends and the work begins. See: WrestleMania 3.

Nick: Eff you, Dave. Andre the Giant was 7’9” and 600 lbs. Poor guy died almost immediately after from embarrassment. Let him rest in peace.

Dave: 100, 931,038, 201 fans crammed into the Pontiac Silverdome to see it.

Nick: I feel like you made up that number. Seems oddly specific.

Dave: Their version of history (especially pre-Monday Night War) is dubious at best.

Nick: At best.

Dave: Lie: The AWA died when Hulk Hogan left. Lie: The wrestling audience grew with national expansion. Lie: WCCW only had the Freebirds vs. The Von Erichs.

Nick: That sounds like a fantastic column idea: Lies the WWE told us.

Dave: That’s scary open-ended. It could go on for days.

Nick: We’ll have to make it a series. I can then write about my favorite one: Demolition was the best tag team of the late 80’s. Though, I think even that has been revised to include the “Legion of Doom”. And the WWE never mentioning that The Club beat L.O.D. — when they had their Christian name Road Warriors — tells you exactly how much they hated JCP.

Dave: Demolition’s treatment shows how amorphous their history is. “Yes, we admit that Demolition were a rip-off of the Road Warriors (truth), but we contend they were equally over in their own way (lie) and they were on more moneymaking shows (lie.)” And yeah, it was very personal between WWF, Dusty, and the Crocketts at that point.

Nick: Virgil, for instance. Outside of the manifestation of “winners write history books”, what’s most amazing to me is that Scott and Rick didn’t come in together. I did not know that.

Dave: Yeah, Rick was around in JCP/WCW for almost three years.

Nick: I can’t fathom a world where they aren’t connected, and that’s partially mostly the WWE’s doing.

Dave: Yes, the peak of their moneymaking/popularity was absolutely as a tag team, but people don’t claim Lincoln went straight to being president — we get to talk about him as a senator. Here’s the Bottom Line: The Steiner Brothers had a run with the WWF Tag Team Titles. Therefore, they were a tag team. Rick was never a singles act in the WWF, therefore, he was never a singles act. And Scott actively pissed them off when he was a singles wrestler in the WWE, so they have no incentive/desire to tell any story other than “They were a good tag team who couldn’t hack it individually.”

Nick: So, given the way history works, is it possible to rank or integrate The Club into the hierarchy of teams of their era? And if so, where would you place them?

Dave: While it’s approaching sacrilege to some, I would rank them ahead of The Heenan Family because they were so much realer as characters and a “team.” They weren’t just a bunch of cartoon heels led by a cartoon weasel.

Nick: Just a Satanist.

Dave: But Sullivan dropped the Satanist gimmick, and at that point people outside of the Southeast had basically no knowledge of it. So it worked for the time.

Nick: So, a reformed Satanist and a bunch of jocks. Sounds like a sitcom!

Dave: Well, what is wrestling if not a humorless sitcom?

Nick: Wait, wrestling is Two and a Half Men?