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#ECWWeek: Another Fan’s Treasure

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 Three 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. Yesterday, we gave you the finer points of the company’s oeuvre with some Essential Viewings and today, along with a Highlight Reel, we’re here discussing the idea of ECW and Another Fan’s Treasure. After Hump Day we’ll be quenching your thirst for Listicles with a Juice Make Sugar Top 10 List, before summing everything with a “Difference of Opinion” that will likely be closer to a “Difference in Levels of Disdain”. Let’s get Extreme?

There was some concern at JMS HQ as we were planning out #ECWWeek. For the first time ever, we were highlighting something that we didn’t actually like all that much, and we were concerned that instead of coming off like people who genuinely enjoy professional wrestling, we’d come off as the kind of snobby wrestling fans that have decided that there are right and wrong ways to watch wrestling, and that more importantly, we’d figured out what they were and were going to be as rude as possible explaining it to you.

Even when we’ve had legitimate Differences of Opinion, it was only ever one of us who had any particularly strong negative feelings towards the weekly subject.  As a collective, we’d genuinely liked, or at least tolerated, every single thing we’ve covered. But, as Andy — who is at least on the side of “ECW isn’t terrible” among the lot of us — said:

There’s no such thing as indifference when it comes to Extreme Championship Wrestling.  It’s a promotion that many fans choose to look back on through rose-colored glasses, as the company that changed the face of wrestling.  Nearly as many consider it the group that ruined it.  They’re both probably right.

For those of us on the “group that ruined  it” side, ECW has a significantly more complicated legacy for us than our opposition, who seem to mostly see ECW in the same light they do the Attitude it helped spawn, as totally the best thing ever in the history of wrestling.

And, on some level, they are right. In a very specific way, ECW was transcendent and historically important:  it’s the first and only professional wrestling company marketed entirely to adults. If WWE is Pixar in underpants and baby oil, the early and genuinely revolutionary ECW of Tommy Dreamer asking “please sir may I have another” while being beaten with a Singapore cane or  Sandman pretending to be blinded was every bit as earth–shattering as Æon Flux had been to audiences on MTV just a few years before.

But, unlike Æon, pro wrestling found itself constrained significantly in terms of physicality, the entirely linear storytelling methods available to the performers of the time and, most importantly for ECW, a budget that even the word “miniscule” would be offended by association with.

More importantly, unlike other mediums, the story being told was part of a significantly larger tapestry of other stories simultaneously entirely reliant and wholly separate  from one another, things got recycled  or dressed up in different names much more rapidly than they would in a cartoon. Which meant that, after the third time a performer pretended to be injured only to reveal that their cast was actually a “‘clever’ ruse”  as a subversion of the time-honored trope made famous by men like “Cowboy” Bob Orton, the crowd began to grow tired of the twist and turns that weren’t immediately followed by acts of nearly unspeakable violence, gratuitous nudity and almost irredeemably blatant provocations.

So, in order keep eyeballs glued to the screen, Paul Heyman and company upped  the unspeakable violence, gratuitous nudity and almost irredeemably blatant provocations. In the past few days, Dave and Andy have highlighted many of these acts,  from barbed wire ring ropes to on-air crucifixions, ECW tried it all, even if most almost all of it failed. Which is why, for all the cultural significance — and while “significant”, it was unarguably less than great for the “culture” of wrestling or the well-being of its performers — the promotion was never a real success, at least in terms of competing with the organizations that would eventually put them out of business, WCW and the ultimate victors in ECW’s “revolution”, the WWE.

And because we’ve seen the history of ECW through the WWE’s lens, it’s so easy to remember how many missteps, missed opportunities and near catastrophic mishaps almost singlehandedly took the company down  before Heyman’s lack of business acumen and TNN’s desire to obtain the rights to WWF programming would almost be the death knell for the company.

Even people who found the whole enterprise overwhelmingly gross and distasteful, such as myself, acknowledge what ECW did for the business, however. We’re very aware of what it meant, as storylines no longer had to be simple, even if simplistic storytelling had been the lifeblood of the industry for nearly 100 years because the narrative for whatever was going on in the squared circle has to be easy enough to follow that a wrestling fan can understand it.

What ECW did was show that while it would take considerably more care than Heyman, who of course had to deal with near constant defections and a thousand other  things completely  out of his control as a storyteller, there were parts of the modern and advanced storytelling techniques — taking into account nuances in the fabric of good and evil, meta-narratives and the role of the fan in the performance — that could be interjected into the product to make it more interesting. And, most importantly, it showed how frequently (or infrequently) to use these tools, lessons that WWE would learn long before it was too late.

One only need to look at the end of WCW to see what happened when the unadulterated id of wrestling that Paul Heyman’s ECW could lead to was allowed to roam free, though. While he may not have ever thought of the idea himself, the booking style of Heyman lead to the Pinata on a Pole match that would eventually become synonymous with the demise of ECW and WWE’s greatest rival.

And that’s enough to make a wrestling fan hate anyone.

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#ECWWeek: Highlight Reel

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 Three 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. Yesterday, we gave you the finer points of the company’s oeuvre with some Essential Viewing . Today, we’ll talk about the idea of the ECW Highlight Reel 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?

There’s something almost all ECW fans have in common. It’s not a violence fetish. It’s not an overinflated sense of self-worth and “smart-mark” attitude. It’s not even Paul Heyman.

It’s their highlight reel. Now, you’re probably saying, but didn’t you just write about this yesterday?

And yes, yesterday, Dave wrote about the Essential Viewing for ECW, but that’s just different than the “highlights” of ECW. Unlike WCW and WWE, ECW doesn’t have decades of rich history. It had a few good years, which were used to justify more than a decade of knockoffs and reunions. So the bright spots of ECW’s legacy stick out like a Red Sox fan at Yankee Stadium.

One of the first things that comes to mind is a mostly-inconsequential tag team match from the 1994 Heat Wave pay-per-view. Cactus Jack and Terry Funk are teaming up against Public Enemy, the team that proved Paul Heyman can make fans cheer even the steamiest pile of dog crap.

And then, magic happened. Mick Foley calls for a chair from the crowd. That’s when the crowd at Philadelphia’s ECW Arena became part of the show…by showering the ring with dozens of chairs. The iconic moment was ripped off several times, in several companies, but it was never the same. This organic moment was one-of-a-kind is classic ECW. And it’s a moment that lives on to this day in countless highlight reels and retrospectives.

ECW was home to a lot of fun, crazy brawls. One that all ECW fans remember was between TV Champion Taz, and Bam Bam Bigelow. The match took place in Bigelow’s hometown of Asbury Park, New Jersey. And the hometown crowd was there to witness one of the most memorable bumps in ECW history. This one explains itself.

It wasn’t all about the violence in ECW. Well, it was. But, if you looked close enough, there was more. It was never more evident than when Paul Heyman called up Konnan, and introduced American wrestling fans to Lucha Libre.

Before WCW decided to bogart the style (and the best practitioners thereof), ECW was THE place to find fast-paced, athletic pro wrestling.

And you can’t mention a ECW Highlight Reel without bringing up RVD and Sabu. In their prime, these two guys put on some incredible, if sloppy, spotfests.

And then there were the promos… A bunch of guys who had been denied a chance to shine in the “big time,” given a live mic and a chance to speak their mind? ECW was full of them. And New Jack. But since this is a family-friendly wrestling blog, I’ll leave New Jack out of this. You’re welcome.

Now, a lot of people choose to ignore WWECW, and that’s their choice. But the One Night Stand pay-per-views did give us some special moments…

As Nick will talk about later today, it’s not for everyone. And even those who are fans, It’s not all perfect. In fact, most of it’s pretty far from it. But it’s all pretty memorable.

#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.

A Promotion You Should Probably Know Better: ECW

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 the First Day of #ECWWeek, the fifteenth installment of our (patent-pending) Juice Make Sugar Wrestler of the Week Series. As (almost) always, we’ll start by making ECW a Promotion You (Should) Probably Know Better. Tomorrow, we’ll give you the finer points of the company’s oeuvre with some Essential Viewings. On Wednesday, we’ll discussing the idea of ECW and Another Fan’s Treasure. After Hump Day we’ll be quenching your thirst for Listicles with a Juice Make Sugar Top 10 List, before summing everything with a “Difference of Opinion” that will likely be closer to a “Difference in Levels of Disdain”. Let’s get Extreme?

There’s no such thing as indifference when it comes to Extreme Championship Wrestling.  It’s a promotion that many fans choose to look back on through rose-colored glasses, as the company that changed the face of wrestling.  Nearly as many consider it the group that ruined it.  They’re both probably right.

ECW started generating buzz with wrestling fans far before it went extreme.  Eastern Championship Wrestling had a reputation for strong shows, amazing athleticism, and of course, some wild brawls.  And where there’s smoke, there’s fire.

Enter Paul Heyman—with a giant can of gasoline.

Paul Heyman and his group of circus freaks did everything they could to turn the volume up to 11, and get the attention of the wrestling world.  It worked.  Violent, bloody brawls.  Colorful but (mostly) believable  — or in the case of Amish Roadkill, so completely non-sequitur that it didn’t matter — gimmicks.  Logical storylines.

The company grew to amazing heights, despite ultimately appealing to an incredible small niche — fans of “hardcore” or “garbage” wrestling. Some will say that ECW was more than that, and it was for a short period, but make no mistake: ECW’s shadow did as much damage to the careers of people like Chris Jericho and Dean Malenko as ECW the company helped the careers of people like Chris Jericho and Dean Malenko by bringing them into the American spotlight in the first place.

But it wasn’t all bad, and ECW’s unique (to American audiences, anyways) style helped save American wrestling.  The then-WWF was having extreme difficulty finding its identity in post-Hulk Hogan world in 1995 and 1996,  struggling to catch up to WCW in the wrestling war.  WWF couldn’t touch the nWo.  The rough style and risque promos it stole from a little promotion in Philadelphia helped turn business around.

Less-than-PG matches and promos made legends of a million promos in WWE.  Triple H went from midcard to main event thanks to the crude antics of D-Generation X and Mick Foley will never escape the clip of him being thrown from the Hell in a Cell through a table no matter how many New York Times best sellers he writes.  Forget Austin 3:16—Austin passing out to the Sharpshooter, while wearing a crimson mask, made him a star.  The list goes on.

Without ECW’s influence, WWF might not have survived.  Considering WCW’s awful business practices bankrupted the company a few years later, pro wrestling as we know it now could have died more than a decade ago.  Instead, ECW gave WWF an identity to call its own, and to grow upon.  In a way, ECW saved WWF.  ECW saved pro wrestling, at least when it wasn’t trying to destroy it.

While the land of extreme may have provided an unintentional safe haven for the pro wrestling industry, it was anything but for pro wrestlers.  Extreme Championship Wrestling introduced a lot of dangerous trends to American pro wrestling, pro wrestlers, and pro wrestling fans.  Crazy bumps and “extreme” violence stopped being special, and became commonplace.  A Muta-level blade job became just another spot.  Proper selling went out the window, in exchange for rapid-fire spot exchanges (still the norm on the indies).  And in a post-Benoit world, we don’t need to go too far in depth on the consequences of too many unprotected chair shots and undiagnosed head injuries.

ECW made all of this commonplace, to a dangerous degree. To quote JMS Internet Technician Daron “Action” Jackson, those unprotected chair shots became the equivalent of dropkicks, and fans forgot how to appreciate good, technical wrestling.  They started refusing rest holds, or any slowdown in the action whatsoever.  It familiarized the crowd with three of the most offensive chants in all of professional wrestling: “you can’t wrestle,” “you fucked up,” and “boring.” ECW ruined pro wrestling – and its fans.  It’s taken nearly a decade (and a lot of PG programming) to reverse the damage done at the ECW Arena.

ECW had its pros and cons, ups and downs, stars and flops.  And despite catering to a very niche audience, the company’s impact on pro wrestling was vast and pervasive.  While that impact helped to revive a mainstream love of pro wrestling, it also did irreparable damage to the industry, the workers and the fans.

It’s why fans look back on the company with, pardon the pun, such extreme feelings.  It’s easy to love the group that changed the face of pro wrestling and brought genuine excitement to the product. And it’s  just as easy to loathe the promotion that helped teach pro wrestling fans to hate professional wrestling.

Watch and Learn: Bray Wyatt

bray-wyatt-tells-the-tale-of-sister-abigail-620x350

For every #Kane worthy of his own Week, there is a Bray Wyatt: A young performer hoping to make his mark in the business. Thankfully, we’re here to help them same way we would any other athlete: give him tape He Should Watch. And loving our readers like we do, we have some tape You Should Watch of the work that reminds us of his, and because  what’s more fun than old wrestling videos?

He Should Watch

Bray Wyatt is protected as well as any rising star of the last decade: he has never run off like a scalded dog, never received the beatdown of a righteous babyface, or failed to do anything he promised he would. Even more importantly, he hasn’t been over-exposed on television. Fans tune into WWE TV hoping to see Wyatt rather than expecting it. Because of this mature, old-school booking sensibility, Bray Wyatt feels like one of WWE’s most special talents, even though he’s never held any title or taken part in any real feud out of a (pardon the pun) hot-shotted “Ring of Fire” match with Kane at Summerslam.

The collective feeling is that when a fitting spot opens up at the top of the card, Wyatt will be jetpacked up into it. Is Bray Wyatt really main event ready, though? Surely he’s a talented, intriguing figure, but he would do well to study up and develop his character further before stepping into the big time.

Like Raven.

Raven was a mysterious, cult leader heel just like Wyatt. But Raven did not talk around what his intentions were, taking pains to explain why the outcasts of the world should fall in behind him by using intensely emotional rhetoric. Raven knew how to tell the story of a twisted, tragic past in a way that put people on the edge of their seats. His brilliance, however, was in staying heel. Somehow, he could talk about being abused and bullied, but still keep his face just enough in the shadows that he remained a boogeyman figure.

Wyatt definitely has the charisma to pull off a promo like Raven’s, but he needs to find a balance with the way he speaks and uses body language to present himself in a way that is not just evil, but evil you can believe in(Editor’s Note: Kane). Raven made it believable that he could manipulate his followers into doing anything, but he also took pains to portray a character who was deeply damaged. Just a tenth of Raven’s emotional subtlety would put Wyatt in the category of great star.

Another valuable lesson Wyatt could learn from Raven would be how to get his character across during actual matches. One thing fans have learned about Wyatt in the ring is that he likes to take his time. This is a time-honored tradition of nearly all heels (especially big man heels), but the problem is that Wyatt’s signature flavor doesn’t really come across in any appreciable way during his matches. Crabwalking like the girl from The Exorcist is a nice start, but before Bray Wyatt becomes a main event star, Windham Rotunda needs to figure out how Bray Wyatt would fight someone.

The magic of professional wrestling is that with the right personality and a well-thought-out approach, you don’t actually have to be good at, well, wrestling professionally. Raven was never a “I can’t believe what I just saw” worker, but he understood how to make himself simultaneously mean, desperate, and remorseless. His offense clearly communicated his character’s take-on-the-world fury while his impish cowardice came across in the way he would wail and moan after bumping for his opponent or run and hide behind his lackeys.

If Bray Wyatt can add a dash of Raven’s emotional authenticity to his promos and learn to get his character across in the ring half as well, he will certainly be a main event star for the WWE. As it stands, Wyatt is a talented midcard wrestler, but the potion that will catapult him into the big time is character development, character development, character development.

– Dave

***

You Should Watch

Waylon Mercy, for one, is a clear influence on Bray Wyatt, but in the way that The Joker was a clear influence for Joker Sting. There’s also, of course, Mideon. Who was as uh, pleasantly plump, as Bray, if lacking sorely in the agility part of the comparison. Which brings us to the Platonic ideal of what Bray Wyatt could be: Bam Bam Bigelow.

A mainstay of great “big man” discussions, Scottie from Asbury Park, NJ was as gifted a behemoth as the world will ever see. Warren Sapp in full body tights, he could — and did — work with anyone on the roster for any type of match. There’s a reason he was the guy they pegged to work with LT, and even more importantly, there’s a reason that match was an actually enjoyable match.

(Hint: it’s not Taylor)



And while there’s surely a decent amount that Bray could learn from Bam Bam, let’s be honest: there’s never going to be anyone like him ever again. A full 100 pounds heavier than Wyatt, the Beast from the East wasn’t just good, he was a revelation. Wyatt could spend the rest of his life watching every single bit of tape the man ever worked on and still might not be able to do 1/3 of what he could do in the ring. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t check him out, because if you’ll like what Bray Wyatt does, you’ll LOVE what Bam Bam was able to do during his prime.

Like his matches with Bret Hart, including this one from a show in Barcelona:

and his run in ECW, which included memorable bouts with RVD and of course, the bananas work he did with the likes of Taz, Sabu:

Taz vs Bam Bam Bigelow ECW Living Dangerously… by TheWholefknShow420

Heatwave: Tazz vs Bam Bam Bigelow by TheKingOfOldSkool

Sabu vs Taz vs Bam Bam Bigelow by ROH4ever

and even his Triple Threat partner, Shane Douglas:

Bam Bam vs. Shane Douglas, ECW Title by Stinger1981

While much of his best work came after the bright lights of Hartford, for his most famous match in, the main event of WrestleMania XII, but almost all of it is things You Should, most definitely, Watch.

Essential Viewings: Sabu vs. Rob Van Dam — Hardcore Heaven ’96

Some wrestling matches are great because they feature talented athletes showing off what they can do in the ring. Others are unforgettable because of their theatrics and high-level storytelling. Still more are memorable because of the crowd’s investment in the match. Some matches are all these things. Those are the ones that are truly essential viewings.

It’s Harley Race’s reluctantly agreeing to give up being “the man” and make way for Ric Flair. It’s the real story of Wrestlemania III, when Andre helped Hulk Hogan make as big as he could get by letting him do the impossible. It’s also what Hogan tried to do with the Ultimate Warrior, and would refuse to do for Bret Hart, Lex Luger and even the Undertaker. Whichever popular example you choose, one wrestler “passing the torch” successfully to another rising star boils down to three equally important parts:

  1. Identifying “the next big star,”

  2. Working closely with him, and

  3. Dedicating all possible effort into making him a star.

If you’re looking for a well-executed example of all these steps, consider the following match from ECW Harcore Heaven 1996. Herein you will see an example of the elusive “make job” match, an ECW classic between Sabu and Rob Van Dam.


In the early minutes of the match, commentator Joey Styles refers to Sabu as “wrestling’s human highlight reel,” an apt description of a man who has innovated some of the most spectacularly athletic and acrobatic spots of the last twenty years. However, Styles’ words ring almost too true, as Sabu, while legendary, is a wrestler so many fans know through short clips, “top ten” videos on YouTube, and, of course, Botchamania. The top five spots ever executed by Sabu are among wrestling’s most impressive moments, but he gave his all to a suicidal level, attempting his signature flips and bumps in seemingly every match. Sabu gave every single thing he was a part of “big match” feel, but his body simply couldn’t keep up with being Sabu every night. And that’s why when Sabu, the most innovative performer of an era, was good he was very, very good and when he was bad he was horrid.

Van Dam was famously trained by Sabu and his uncle The Sheik Ed Farhat, so this match represents a fascinating moment in a mentor-student relationship. When his jobber run in Bill Watts’ WCW ended, Van Dam found himself connected to a major player in Paul Heyman’s ECW. Six months before this match, RVD debuted in the territory, and after establishing himself with a few matches, moved right into a hot feud with his teacher Sabu. What resulted was one of the most successful angles of all time, in that Van Dam’s performances against Sabu instantly made him a huge babyface and a made star relevant more than fifteen years later. This match is a testament to both men, but above all, it speaks to Sabu’s immense pride in the brand of his uncle, The Sheik. Sabu trusted that Van Dam could be a top wrestler and had belief in his skills because he had helped trained him. This enabled Sabu to put a degree of energy and thought into his series of matches with RVD that went above and beyond even his own high standards. Sabu helped create Rob Van Dam, who eventually eclipsed the teacher himself, out of old school pride: it was the right thing to do.

Just three months after this match, these two competitors went on to form an extremely successful tag team. RVD and Sabu could have been the biggest babyfaces anywhere because of their athleticism in the ring, but they instead took on the task of playing the heel sell-outs to the invading Jerry Lawler. The teaming worked in that it ensured that both men always had something to do in ECW, even with Sabu’s frequent extended absences from the fed. It also helped build RVD into a bigger and bigger star as he was featured heavily on ECW TV and received the rub of being on WWF Monday Night Raw.

Of course, Sabu was right all along: Van Dam, with his help, Paul Heyman’s help, and Vince McMahon’s help, ultimately became a huge star in the world of professional wrestling. So, here it is, Sabu at the height of his powers trying to get someone over, and Rob Van Dam at the beginning of his big-time run: Hardcore Heaven 1996.