ECW: In Memoriam

ECW.  Extreme Championship Wrestling.  I loved ECW in its prime, much more than the “big brothers” that were WWF and WCW.  I think it was just that perfect time when I was getting too old for WWF/WCW, and wanted something to bridge the gap during my confused pre-teen and teenage years.  ECW made wrestling cool again.  The cursing.  The hardcore moves.  The leaps off the balcony.  The WOMEN!  The tables on fire.  But most of all – the crowd participation.  Going to an ECW show, you felt like you were some sort of hipster wrestling fan.  Like you were part of some movement that no one else knew about.  And we liked it that way.  The unique chants that would start up were like war cries for wrestling nerds everywhere.  When you saw some dude whispering to his friend, “What are they chanting?” you wanted nothing more than to punch that fool in the face.  This was OUR wrestling league…OUR little underground secret.  And we really didn’t give a fuck if everyone thought we were crazy for loving it.  Don’t like it?  Think it’s crude or inappropriate?  Fine – get the fuck out.  It was our own sadistic cult.  Ever wonder what it was like in The Coliseum when the ancient gladiators would go to battle?  I’d imagine it was something similar to what would go down inside Burt Flickinger Center at the foot of exit 6 off the 190 every three to four months in downtown Buffalo.

When I stumbled across the news today that the company’s flagship venue, The ECW Arena in South Philly, had officially shut its doors, I thought it would be fitting to write a eulogy of some sort to the wrestling league that provided me with so many great memories and twisted experiences.  Although this has nothing to do with “Exploring Buffalo”, I didn’t have any other place to put it.  So here it is.  You see, ECW has actually been dead since 2001, when owner Paul Heyman declared bankruptcy.  The company was devoured by WWF, who took the opportunity to leech off the name by creating a spinoff ECW tv show, which had absolutely nothing to do with the original company, save for a few rare appearances by washed up old ECW stars.  But meanwhile, the ECW Arena lived on, as the glorified bingo hall hosted other independent wrestling leagues.  With the venue finally closing for real, it feels like the true end of the ECW era.  But god damn…did it leave me with some good memories.

In the times before DVR, you had to search out “Hardcore TV” (ECW’s weekly show) on some random channel.  I remember here in Buffalo it would be on Saturday mornings at 10am.  I was always fascinated that they could show a guy wielding a wooden cane and chugging beers (The Sandman – much of the gimmick later stolen by the WWF to create “Stone Cold” Steve Austin) on television at ten in the morning on a Saturday.  I don’t really remember how I first stumbled across ECW, but I definitely recall that The Sandman was my first distinct memory.  How old was I?  12?  13?  This guy’s entrance to the ring took up half the show, as he chugged beer with fans along the way and smoked half a pack of cigarettes.  He was the anti Macho Man – clad in sweatpants and a cutoff t-shirt, with the beer gut protruding in all its glory.  Sounds ridiculous, right?  Wrong – this guy was the ultimate badass.  After the 20+ minute entrance, the match itself usually lasted all of five minutes.  The bell would ring, and Sandman would beat the living shit out of some jobber (or fall guy, for you non wrestling types) with his wooden cane, while the mat became crimson red with the blood dripping from his forehead.  This wasn’t fake blood either.  These crazy bastards would actually beat the shit out of each other simply for the enjoyment of the thousand or so fans in attendance, and the few thousand more at home who could actually find it on their television.  I was in love immediately.

The commercials during the hour long show would pimp the various ECW Pay Per Views and videocassettes you could order.  In the age of Jerry Springer’s “Too Hot for TV” and before the debauchery you can find now with a few clicks in your internet browser, these tapes were a hot commodity, but seemed unattainable for a boy of 13.  Besides advertising a few matches that were too bloody to show on tv, you’d get the promise of one of ECW’s ring girls stripping down to conclude the video.  The whole thing was like some twisted universe you couldn’t imagine existed in real life.  But then there was the commercial showing the upcoming shows.  It was too bad they never traveled to- Wait…what??  They’re coming to BUFFALO??  I couldn’t wait to get into school the next day and plot out with the rest of my eighth grade posse how exactly we were going to pull this off.  My friend Brian’s mom worked for ECC, so she could get us free tickets to Burt Flickinger Center.  I’m pretty sure in the beginning we passed it off to our parents as just a regular wrestling show.  They probably pictured Hulk Hogan preaching about eating vegetables or something.  If they only knew…

So after piling out of the minivan, a crew of about six of us, we waited in line to get in.  This evening was a bring your own weapons night.  Fans could bring whatever household items they wanted, and the staff would collect it all, having it used in a match later that night.  Snow shovels, rope, mirrors, a Nintendo –  the collection was mind blowing.  Getting inside was even more of a trip.  There were folding tables covered with boxes of video tapes.  Twenty bucks a piece.  The Dudley Boys Best Table Matches.  Sabu/Terry Funk Barbed Wire Match.  The Best of Rob Van Dam.  We pooled whatever money our parents had given us for a hot pretzel and a Pepsi and scooped up some tapes, vowing to circulate them after each person was done watching them later.  And then there was the ring itself, centered in nothing more than a Community College basketball gymnasium.  Flanked by bleachers on each side, and some folding chairs on the floor – it was general admission.  Sit wherever you dare.

Looking back as I write this, I’m wondering how the hell they let a group of 13 year old kids into this house of horrors.  I remember getting patted down for weapons (ironic), but no question of age.  Shit, in this post-9/11 society you need to be 18 or accompanied by a chaperone to get into a fucking Justin Bieber concert.  But soon enough, we were seated and chanting “FUCK – HIM – UP” along with the rest of the blood crazed degenerates.  That first trip to an ECW event is largely a blur, but I remember seeing lots of blood, a topless woman, and that Nintendo from the line outside getting smashed over some dude’s head.  Most of all I remember participating in the most important chant of all:  “E-C-W!  E-C-W!  E-C-W!”  That’s right, after a big “spot” (a daring move, like a leap from the top turnbuckle into the audience), the crowd would simply chant the letters of the company.  This was some sort of an acknowledgement, like, “This is ECW.  This is ours.  You rat bastards aren’t going to see this shit anywhere else.”

We knew it was fake.  Of course we did.  That’s the first misconception about wrestling fans – that we think it’s real.  After you turn seven or eight, you know it’s fake.  It’s not like we think some random dudes in tights travel the country deciding to settle their differences in front of large audiences.  But ECW wrestlers were putting their bodies on the line.  Instead of fake punching a guy and stomping his foot to make the noise, a guy would actually punch his opponent.  The blood was real.  The leap off the top turnbuckle through two tables, that was real too.

I attended around five or six ECW events in the span of the few years it toured the northeast.  They all sort of blend together as one big memory, but there were certainly highlights.  My dad used to watch WWF and WCW events on tv with me, and would often bring me to the events at HSBC Arena and even The Aud.  One time he decided to tag along to an ECW event with us.  Once he heard the chants and saw the crowd, I’m sure he probably wondered something like, “Where the hell am I, and why am I here with a bunch of 14 year olds?”  But looking back on it, it certainly was a great memory, if not a once in a lifetime experience.  There are other great anecdotes:

We used to love bringing outsiders to ECW events and exposing them to this secret world of sin.  One time we brought our friend Jason, who had never seen the ECW show on tv before.  Like the rest of us, he immediately became a tough guy when he walked through the doors.  Cursing like crazy and acting like assholes, we were free from parents, free from school, free to do pretty much whatever the hell we wanted.  So as I waited in line with Jason for some nachos during intermission, he wasn’t about to tolerate the large gentlemen that cut him in line:

“Can you believe this asshole?  Who the fuck does he think he is cutting us line?  Hey mister, what the fuck?”

He tapped him on the shoulder.  The man ignored it, but from a glimpse I got of his profile, I immediately recognized him to be New Jack, a badass black dude usually known for ending the night by smashing everything in sight over some poor jobber’s head.  I tried to warn him.

“Ummm…Juh…Juh…Jasonnnn…S-S-S-Stop…”

“No, dude!  We can’t just sit here and allow this asshole to cut in line.  Yo!  Asshole!  I’m talking to you!”

It was then that New Jack slowly turned around to face Jason, short as short can be for an 8th grader, and stared at him for what felt like an eternity.  Jason turned whiter than I’ve ever seen a Caucasian person turn in my life.  Whether this was New Jack the “character” playing games, or New Jack the underpaid professional wrestler legitimately pissed at some scrawny kid talking trash, I’ll never know.  But we didn’t want to find out.  We quietly waited our turn for our nachos, and then ran back to our seats to brag to our friends about Jason taking shit to New Jack.

There was another time I legitimately thought I might get trampled to death.  Matches at an ECW event often spilled into the crowd.  Anything that wasn’t nailed down became a weapon.  At this point, the crowd would turn into somewhat of a riot, with everyone scrambling from their seat in the bleachers in an attempt to get closer to the action.  Being the 13 to 14 year olds that we were, our slight frames could squeeze through the crowd much easier.  I remember one time, ECW’s resident mayor, Tommy Dreamer, was fighting the human wrecking ball, Taz.  Tommy Dreamer was just a scrappy fighter.  He did nothing particularly well in the ring.  What he could do well was take bumps and put his body on the line.  The crowd loved him too.  He was everything that ECW was about – just some random guy putting it all out there for the fans.  Taz, on the other hand, was a pro.  A short guy at just a little over five feet, he was a bowling ball of muscle, throwing opponents all over the ring with a variety of suplexes straight out of the Hart Dungeon playbook.  But he was tough too.  In one famous fight, he suplexed former WWF wrestler Bam Bam Bigelow with so much force that the two of them went straight through the ring (E-C-W! chants followed, of course).

Needless to say, Dreamer vs. Taz was a straight up slobberknocker.  The men fought into the crowd, trading punches and throwing chairs at each other.  Myself and my friend Brian found ourselves close enough that we could touch the fighters.  But before we could figure out what was going on amidst all the mayhem, Taz grabbed Dreamer’s arm and whipped him towards the emergency exit door.  The pure force of the crowd moving knocked my friend Brian to the ground.  I reached down to help him up before he got trampled.  Dreamer spilled out the emergency exit on to the street, along with the fans around him.  It was obvious the door wasn’t supposed to give, but after a short pause in the action where Dreamer and Taz exchanged a “what do we do now?” look, the fighting continued down the street!  My friend Brian, still regaining his balance, looked a bit like he was going to shit himself.  But that fear of being trampled at 14 years old soon turned to pure “this is awesome” joy.  He turned to me, and he repeated the only thing that made sense at the moment:  “E-C-W!  E-C-W!  E-C-W!”

But ECW couldn’t remain a secret forever.  Soon, the big boys took notice and scrambled to cater to this new generation of fans.  WWF rebranded itself into the “Attitude Era” with beer swilling foul mouths like Stone Cold Steve Austin and Degeneration X.  WCW started a bad boy image of their own, launching one of the most influential cliques in wrestling history, the nWo:  New World Order.  Then the poaching began.  Unable to compete with the big company salaries, ECW slowly saw their biggest stars leave one by one.  Shane Douglas, Taz, Al Snow, The Dudley Boys, Cactus Jack, Rey Mysterio, Chris Jericho, Rob Van Dam – they all left for greener pastures.  I can’t say I blame them.  Touring the northeast going from one shitty gym to another, in the back of some dirty bus, making barely enough cash to buy beer, all the while getting the shit kicked out of you every night, probably wasn’t so much fun.  By the time I was a junior in high school, ECW had folded.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I lost interest in wrestling around the same time.  Seeing my old ECW heroes wrestle alongside guys like The Rock, Triple H, or Shawn Michaels, the very guys they were built to be the antithesis of, was a sobering moment.  There was no blood.  No vulgarity.  Worst of all, no chants.  The twisted magic was gone.  They had been tamed.  Once ECW totally folded and WWF bought up whatever roster members they deemed worthy, they ran some lame “invasion” angle.  Seeing guys like Tommy Dreamer and The Sandman jog out to the ring and fake an attack on some “unsuspecting” WWF wrestler was the saddest moment of all.  This was the exact opposite of an invasion – it was a gentrification.  Some of the ECW wrestlers kicked around for a few years in the big leagues, but today almost no traces of the company are left.  Even the WWF’s weekly spinoff ECW show was a failure.  Probably because they saddled the once respected ECW belt on some of the least “hardcore” dudes you’ve ever seen, like The Big Show.  At least the company had the decency to stage an ECW Reunion show in 2005 (ECW: One Night Stand), inviting back all the old legends.  It’s worth a watch if you can get the DVD online.

But if there was one trace of ECW left, it was the ECW Arena.  Although most recently known as “Asylum Arena”, the fans and locals still knew it by its original name.  This past Saturday night, it saw its final wrestling match.  In an unannounced main event, ECW legends Sabu and Justin Credible closed the arena amidst a bloody match that involved all sorts of weapons, including screwdrivers to the head.  I have no idea who won the match, but I’m pretty sure I have an idea of what the last thing uttered in the Arena was:

“E-C-W!  E-C-W!  E-C-W!”

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