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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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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.