The Ringside Sermon: The Impact of ECW: Part Two

Dave Goold (C-Nub)


Not much of an intro this week, but I thought I’d let you all know that for the past four or five days, it’s been minus forty and colder outside, and that’s centigrade, though Fahrenheit and Celsius actually ‘meet’ at -40. The point is, it’s been hella cold.

Ringside Sermon: The Impact of ECW; Part Two;

The Mad Genius of Paul Heyman:

There are a lot of different opinions about Paul Heyman around, some think he’s a genius, while others seem to wish that someone would take him out back and shoot him.

Within the business, people are equally as divided, as some give Paul a lot of credit for contributing to and pioneering the post-80’s resurgence of interest in wrestling, while others claim he’s responsible for ruining the industry beyond repair. Even the people who’ve worked for him are divided, some claiming that Paul loved his business and did his best to take care of his people, while others swear up and down that he cannot be trusted, that he’s a greasy snake.

The truth lies somewhere in between.

A lot of people compare Paul Heyman’s knowledge of the wrestling business to that Vince McMahon, and at the risk of receiving a lot of hate mail from ECW fans; I have to very pointedly disagree. Paul Heyman didn’t know very much about the wrestling business at all, he went bankrupt rather quickly. Paul understood the fans; he understood them better than anyone else, and most likely still does. Therein lies the genius of Paul Heyman; therein lies the brilliance and capacity for greatness.

Here is where the critics and cynics sit back, rub their chins with a smug smirk, and remark that all Paul did was present a more violent product that appeals to lowest common denominator within society. If you are such a person, slap yourself, because you’re an idiot and I tell you to. You never watched ECW, never did any research, you just took note of what other people were saying about it, and assumed that was all there was to it. The most talked about thing in ECW was always the extreme, over the top stuff. Tables that were on fire, sick dives from balconies, vicious matches, broken bones, and all that stuff that dropped jaws whenever people tuned in.

So, naturally, the fans that tuned in to see that were low class, bloodthirsty idiots. And that was the opinion that many people held, and still do in fact.

Paul Heyman did present a more violent product, but it was far and away from the most violent thing on TV, and that was never really the point.

Paul looked at who he perceived to be his competition (somewhat more ambitiously than he should have, I might add), and made notes about what they were presenting. Evil Dentists, Pig Farmers, Clowns and Dead Men.

Paul saw the limits of those characters, saw how the fans would have very little opportunity to relate to them, and he saw very little room for depth. Doink’s reason for being a clown was never explored, no one asked if Isaac Yankem had ever been a good dentist, and who the hell cared about why the Undertaker was the way he was. There was no substance, and in that Paul saw a ‘niche market’.

So Paul went about telling stories with his characters unlike any that had been told before. Guys like Raven, a disillusioned representative for outcast youth across the nation, spoke about their past, spoke about society and it’s ills. Raven talked about the real world, in which there were no evil dentists or walking dead. In a time when professional wrestling was very much a world into itself, a time when the outside world had no impact on what was happening every two hours on Monday night, here was Raven, talking about the fact that he went to school, that he had parents… Of course he had parents, but at the same time, this was entirely different from what was being presented elsewhere. All of a sudden, these guys had lives outside of what you saw. It was revolutionary, it brought a new level of realism and depth to what was presented on TV, and it made it forced the evolution of WCW and the WWF/E, which is what Part 4 of this series is going to cover.

The Dudley boys are a great example of this, all sons of a father with different mothers, so the story went, which was a really different idea. There was a feud between the Sandman, a below average worker with a high threshold for pain and Raven, which instead of being based upon the fact that someone had hit someone else accidentally in a tag-team match was actually centered around Sandman’s son, who had found a new role model in Raven, who was playing a charismatic cult figure at the time. The storyline was eventually stolen and adapted by WCW for Ric Flair and his son, David.

Paul Heyman’s greatest strength was his ability to hide a worker’s weaknesses and play to his strengths. Paul knew how to make someone look good. He knew who to pair them up with, and how any number of wrestlers could cover for each other in the ring. It wasn’t Mick Foley vs. RVD because they have such radically different styles. It wasn’t Chris Benoit vs. The Sandman, because of how little they had in common. It was Lance Storm and RVD, with Lance covering for Rob Van Dam’s difficulty in pacing and Rob Van Dam selling everything Storm did. It was Raven and the Sandman, with Raven doing the talking and Sandman doing the bleeding. It was Chris Benoit and Eddie Guerrero, not for their weaknesses but because the two could tear the house down every single night.

Paul was able to look at guys that had been passed over by the bigger companies, and he was able to see them not for what they lacked, but for what they had to contribute.

The other most noteworthy strength that Paul Heyman possessed was his eye for people with a passion for the business, guys who would eat, sleep and breath wrestling, if they could. Men who had dedicated their entire lives to this, men that the other promotions had decided didn’t have the right look, the right style, or that they weren’t marketable. Chris Benoit, Dean Malenko, Eddie Guerrero, Chris Jericho, Lance Storm, Rob Van Dam, Justin Credible and Spike Dudley were all ‘too small’ for the larger promotions, they didn’t have the right look. Let’s ignore the fact that every single one of them was a tremendous worker in the ring, that every single one of them understood what guys like Hogan, Nash, Sid and most of the other big names elsewhere did not: You look your best against an opponent that looks good. What I like to call the “Ric Flair Rule”, that who wins and how is far less important than convincing the audience that either person could win at any point. Mick Foley was viewed as a sub-par worker with little future, someone who’s job it was to go out every night to bump and sell, and ultimately make people look good. His passion was ignored, and it wasn’t until ECW that he was given the opportunity to truly do the kind of deep, meaningful psychological interviews. No one had ever talked like Mick Foley to an American audience before; no one had taken this new approach to character development. Mick talked about things that were totally unrelated to what seemed to be going on around him, and somehow intertwined them with whatever he was doing, had done or was going to do.

When Chris Benoit broke Sabu’s neck, Paul Heyman had him come back and called him ‘The Crippler” Chris Benoit, sold him as a very dangerous man, showed the replay of Sabu getting hurt every week. The fans leapt on it, it was real, Sabu was hurt and everyone knew it! When Paul picked Sabu, he took one look at him and decided he wanted him, he wanted that look. He wanted this guy with reckless abandon for his own safety; he wanted this guy covered in scars. Sabu looked like he’d been in a dozen knife fights, his body was crisscrossed with all these marks and injuries. Sabu was terrifying, and Paul knew how to push that. Paul took Raven, and put him in jeans and a t-shirt, had him sit in the corner. He took an average guy, and the two of them built a character together, a character based very much on the real life persona of Scott Levy, the man who played and plays Raven to this day. He had intense, mildly psychotic promos, people were drawn to him, and when he went into the ring, he’d just sit down and wait. He wasn’t spitting fire, he wasn’t taunting the fans or preening, he just didn’t seem to give a shit.

When Raven made it to the WWE, he wrestled a few hardcore matches, he held a few titles, he even did a few interviews, but they couldn’t recapture the character because, I think, they didn’t talk to the man behind it, they didn’t talk to Scott Levy about what he wanted to do. So Raven ended up on heat, in black trunks, another generic wrestler eager for his release.

Then there was Taz, a small guy who in the right light could pass as George from Seinfeld. At first, he was the Tazmaniac, which was kind of stupid, but after an injury, he came back and just started kicking the holy hell out of people, he was just mean. He came down to the ring, picked up a microphone, and cut some of the least traditional promos anyone had ever seen. He didn’t talk at length about much; he just cut right to the point. He’d just say a name, add an “f-you” and they’d fight. It was something different, and the fans ate it up.

Paul knew what to do with these guys, how to market them, how to get them over not for what he wanted them to be, but for what they were.

Heyman also knew where to look for talent, and was the first person to bring ‘Cruiserweights’ out of Japan and Mexico, even though the credit is often given to Bischoff for this. Heyman gave guys like Rey Mysterio a chance to come out every week and show off a completely new type of wrestling, a whole new level of athleticism that we take for granted now. Paul Heyman broke from the Hulk Hogan trend of seven minute matches and returned to the tradition of longer, back and forth matches featuring Benoit, Storm, Jericho, Guerrero, Malenko and others, giving them the time to show off, giving them the time to showcase their unbelievable talent and win over crowds who were tired of knowing how every single Hogan match was going to finish.

And of course, there was the hardcore.

It’s difficult to place the hardcore style within ECW, because it was less important than people think to the overall success of the company, but it stands as perhaps the greatest legacy of the company.

With the more contemporary, adult oriented storylines, a more adult type of match had to be created. It was a very natural evolution, and it fit very well within what Paul was doing.

In establishing that the characters were more real, that their feelings had more depth and truth to them than what people were used to in WCW and the WWF, they had to have an obvious and greater desire to hurt one another. The fights had to be more real, the violence had to sell the depth of the story, and there was only one means to really accomplish this.

The perception that it was violence for the sake of violence is completely wrong, completely misplaced and uninformed. It was violence with a very real purpose; it sold the storyline and the emotions. Every drop of blood spilt told more of the story; every suicidal move showed everyone just how much these guys wanted to hurt each other, to the point that their own safety was secondary. The wrestlers were sold as rabid, passionate, real, and the fans were able to lose themselves in it so much more than they ever could before.

But the critics, being critics and not true fans or even viewers, couldn’t take a look at the larger picture, and slammed the company. It certainly wasn’t appropriate for the traditional wrestling fan of the time, being that said fan was usually about twelve years old, but that wasn’t whom they were trying to market their product to in the first place. Adults have the ability to put things in context, and the fans were very capable of doing so. It was bloodthirsty, it was over the top, and it certainly wasn’t for everyone, but everything that happened made sense within the story. It was beautiful in its depth and originality; it was horrifying and fascinating to some, like a car accident. To others, it was art; it was the ultimate performance of its time. To even more, it was a guilty pleasure, it was a way to escape the standards of society and live in a world simpler and more barbaric.

Steve Austin worked as tag-team guy in WCW, and later as a television champion. He was constantly shifted to another story arc whenever he started to get over with the fans. Guys like Ric Flair and Arn Anderson praised him for his ability and passion, while guys like Eric Bischoff told him he was unmarketable. Austin was injured in a match, and fired while recuperating.

Steve Williams, which is Austin’s real name, had lived in a hole in the wall apartment, living off of raw potatoes for months at a time in order to earn his shot at the big time, he’d paid his dues, he’d done whatever the company asked, he’d put anyone over in good matches. He impressed his peers and loved his craft, and he’d basically been shit on. Then Paul Heyman called Steve, and told him to come on his show. Austin said that he was still injured, but Paul didn’t care, Paul wanted him to come on and talk. Austin, who probably needed the money, but needed a place to vent more, took him up on the offer.

Over the following weeks, ECW produced some of the most entertaining interviews in Wrestling history, with Steve Austin sitting down and shooting, which is the wrestling term for ‘speaking out of character.’ Steve talked about WCW, Bischoff, and how he’d been treated. He dressed up as Hogan and spoke about all the backstage BS that was going on, and people ate it up.

Paul gave the fans a lot of credit, and rightfully so. The ECW fans were the smartest wrestling fans around, which isn’t to say they were all doctors and lawyers, far from it. But they were all hip to the business in a lot of ways, they had a network of tape traders, and with the advent of the Internet they were sharing their stories and information with greater efficiency than ever before. They are, in very many ways, my predecessors online, and very similar in their interest and drive as many of you, my readers. They wanted so much to understand what was happening, they couldn’t get enough information, and here was Steve Austin, on TV, doing shoot after shoot about what was wrong with WCW, naming names and giving examples. It was as addictive as crack to wrestling fans, who tuned in week after week to see more. Steve Austin would later go to the WWF to work as “The Ringmaster” before finally taking control of his own character, but while the name was never really used, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin was born in ECW, and would later return to his ECW character and become the most marketable superstar the world of wrestling had ever seen.

With all that said, was Paul Heyman a genius? I think so, I think he had a phenomenal understanding of how the business needed to evolve, how the fans were getting smarter, and how he could use that to his advantage. At the same time, Paul is not a businessman. He gave the fans everything he thought they wanted, whether it was everything they actually wanted or not is subjective, and I’m certainly not informed enough to say. Paul pushed the limits and turned a regional promotion into one of the most influential aspects of an industry. But Paul needed to expand to survive, which required sponsors and a network, which both WCW and the WWF/E had no trouble getting. Paul couldn’t get one, because networks are answerable to sponsors, which are in turn answerable to ‘Special Interest Groups’, which supposedly represent parents and teachers and good, honest people, all of whom object to the possibility that their kids might watch something as violent as ECW without realizing that it’s their responsibility to educate their children and police what is and is not appropriate. “It Takes a Village” indeed. The whole concept of responsibility and ethics in the media has been taken too far, to the point where parents are less responsible than producers and executives in regards to what a child is exposed to, despite the increasing amount of technology that parents have available to them for doing just that.

ECW was doomed when Paul Heyman decided “to hell with what people who aren’t our fans think”, and I cannot say that is particularly fair, because people who aren’t fans have the option of not watching, but because of their over zealous egotistical belief that they know what is right for everyone, now people who were fans no longer have the option of watching.

Which is, of course, a shitty deal.

But the ECW fans remain true and loyal, years after. They know and understand something that other wrestling fans don’t, they share a connection with each other, one that can be seen whenever an ECW chant comes into being at any number of arenas, years after the death of the company. For one, brief period of time, a promoter did everything he could to make them happy, did everything he could to give them what they wanted, to treat them as something more than toothless illiterates, and they will be grateful to him and his staff for as long as they draw breath, I’m sure.

On a personal note, in researching this column, I have myself been afflicted by the “ECW Bug” and am very sorry that I never had the opportunity to be a fan when the company was active. My understanding of what ECW accomplished has grown, my appreciation for what the wrestlers did has grown, and my understanding of the wrestling world, past and present, has deepened because of it.

And for that, I am grateful, because I am one of those fans that devours every piece of knowledge and information they can about the business, and this has been one of the most informative ventures I could wish for as a columnist. This has been, without a shadow of a doubt, one of the most difficult columns to write, because of how little information I had to start with.

Keep your eyes peeled for the next installment of the column, The Impact of ECW Part 3, as I take a look at the Roster of ECW, and how many of them have advanced in the business after ECW, and why?

Thank you very much for reading, and remember, I do this for free, and whether you loved it, hated it, or want my nude photo and a self-addressed stamped envelope, any feedback would be greatly appreciated.

Peace and Love

C-Nub

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