Squared Circle Pit

Squared Circle Pit

Sunday, November 24, 2013


Hey readers of thee 'Pit - since last time I've been to the excellent yearly convention WrestleFest in Newark (CA) where I met Colt Cabana, Terry Funk, Bret "The Hitman" Hart and "Rowdy" Roddy Piper. The article below is from my friend and very knowledgeable wrestling fan Kevin McCaighy. Kevin is the mastermind of Salt - the UK's only zine that covers wrestling AND the way, way out there areas of music - ranging from Royal Trux to Brody's Milita to Xasthur. Plus he's interviewed comic artist Renée French and John Lister - author of "Turning the Tables" a book on ECW Additionally, he's written for Rockarolla and The Quietus. Enjoy his review and history of ECW's "Unreleased Vol.1" and "Unreleased Vol 2. (Hmm...suddenly I got a mash-up image of Sabu making like Ozzy on the cover of Sabbath's "Volume 4" in my head).

Looking at the vast tape library that WWE has at its disposal is akin to viewing a mausoleum. One could say that the legacies of Vern Gagne, Bill Watts, Ted Turner, Fritz Von Erich and so many other wrestling promoters form a set of urns that populate the mantelpiece of Vince McMahon Jr; the action captured on those videotapes merely ashes that the company commemorates with an ad hoc series of DVD box sets whose release seem arbitrary at best. It was the turn of Paul Heyman and Extreme Championship Wrestling to receive this treatment last year with “ECW Unreleased Vol. 1”, a low key offering that was clearly intended to test the now still waters of a wrestling fan base that once clamoured for those three initials. Coming as it did at the closure of WWE’s licensing deal with Silvervision here in the UK, I wasn’t sure what exactly to expect from this set. Having been an ECW fan, but one both out of place and out of time (I didn’t even hear about the promotion until it folded in 2001), I have had a hell of a lot of catching up to do. Despite the vast amount of attention given over to ECW and its history since its collapse, working one’s way through its eight year history still takes a degree of dedication and deduction that only confuses matter further. The Deltavision VHS tapes I was buying in the early years of the last decade were heavily edited pieces of ECW action, with no discernible narrative from one tape to the next. A tape like “Extreme Warfare” would show action from 1994 (Benoit breaking Sabu’s neck) without explaining the leap to 1996 (Tommy Dreamer’s feud with Prime Time Brian Lee).

 Sandman goes through the crowd at 1PW's "Cruel Twist of Fate" show in the UK in 2005

“ECW Unreleased Vol. 1” does benefit strongly from a clear, year by year structure and concise and insightful links from the former ‘voice of ECW’ Joey Styles, leading off with the infamous Shane Douglas vs. Too Cold Scorpio NWA title match that lit the blue touch paper for Eastern Championship Wrestling to become Extreme Championship Wrestling, and concluding with a fine three way tag team title match from the last Pay Per View “Guilty as Charged”. In taking this selected walk through the history of the promotion, several things are lost straight away. First of all, the lack of music licensing means that it is impossible to view anyone’s true entrance with their actual ECW music. The Sandman is deprived of “Enter Sandman”, Tommy Dreamer of “Man in the Box”, RVD of ‘Walk’, and so on. Secondly, the audio has been altered at various points to eliminate swearing from both fans at ringside (who can clearly be seen mouthing obscenities) and from commentary: during the bone-crunching collision between Mike Awesome and Masato Tanaka (November to Remember 99) Joey Styles’ line “my mother’s going to hate for this, but….holy SHIT!!!” is omitted completely. How do I know this? Because the line was there when the match was featured on the ECW compilation “Extreme Evolution”, which, along with its predecessor “Path of Destruction” remain the best compilations of ECW ever assembled.

These compilations were released at the tail end of the company’s existence, and still showcase the promotion at its brutal and pioneering best. Most the material from these compilations has been issued on other DVDs but you have to work very hard to find them. The clutch of title matches on “Vol. 1” is notable for the fact that they were hardly the point during certain periods of the promotion’s history. Douglas’ NWA title win is pretty vanilla without the promo he gives afterward – in fact Too Cold Scorpio carries him completely throughout, as does Bam Bam Bigelow during their title match from 1998. To me, Shane Douglas was not a credible face in that he couldn’t sell consistently enough to keep a match competitive. His win over Bam Bam seems like a fluke from this vantage point, even if the Pittsburgh crowd is going wild in the background. Likewise, his title battle against Tazz from 99 is only really watchable for the amazing blitzkrieg run-in by Sabu. I have to say it: Tazz? I never picked up what he was putting down. I could never buy into his hard man, shooter persona or his MMA-based move set. Having seen the worked shoot matches he put together with Paul Varelans and Chris Jericho,, I can safely say that I was completely underwhelmed and would concentrate on other parts of the ECW that didn’t involve him. Of course the match at “Barely Legal” was a classic: that was all down to Sabu, who I regard as one of the all-time great workers, not just in ECW, but of any era of wrestling. He remains one of the great phenomenons of ECW, a terrifying aerial specialist who also possessed tremendous mat wrestling skills alongside a fierce sense of psychology, and who could also sell like a demon. His tag team with RVD gets an outing against the Japanese team of Shinzaki and Hayabusa from the brilliant “Heat Wave 1998” PPV, a thrilling tag war that ranks as one of my favourite matches in ECW history.                                                    

Little things occurred to me whilst watching “Vol. 1”: Mikey Whipwreck looked a lot Jeffrey Lee Pierce of The Gun Club during his tag reign with Tajiri; the chairshot he gives Cactus Jack at the close of Jack’s bout with Shane Douglas might be the most sickening ever thrown in a match involved Mick Foley; and that Mick Foley was dead wrong about the lack of female fans in ECW. The more you watch, the more of them you see, especially at Arena shows. The match from the Elk’s Lodge in New York featuring a heel Jerry Lynn with Cyrus as his manager is a treat both for Lynn’s pissed off heel persona and for Joey Styles and Joel Gertner’s hilarious interaction on commentary.

For in-ring action, the highlights of the set are Chris Jericho’s stunning New Japan-style match with Too Cold Scorpio (which was Jericho’s last ECW match before moving to WCW), a crisp Dean Malenko vs. Eddie Guerrero TV title match and the fantastic first meeting between Jerry Lynn and RVD from the ECW Arena. It was bizarrely only shown in sped-up highlight from on RVD’s “One of a Kind” set – a strange omission that makes “Vol. 1” all the more essential. It clearly sold well enough for WWE to commission a follow up, which was only recently released.

Former ECW: World Champion Mikey Whipwreck
Jeffery Lee Pierce of The Gun Club

For “Vol. 2” Joey Styles is joined by Tommy Dreamer for some amiable links and stories, giving much needed context to the unfolding action, and the archives have been well and truly mined for extreme treasure. There are some real gems, like the extraordinary sight of Bobby Eaton and Arn Anderson in an ECW ring, tagging with Sabu and Terry Funk respectively in a heated battle that raises the Arena roof. Similarly, viewing the legendary Steiner Brothers in a team with Eddie Guerrero against the team of Malenko, Scorpio and Cactus Jack is a treat for veteran wrestling fans. There are misfires that are only notable for their place in ECW history (Dreamer vs The Tazmaniac, Douglas vs. Al Snow in a risible title match), but even the “debacle” of Tazz’ shoot fight with Jericho is rescued by the super-heel antics of referee Bill Alfonso at ringside; despite being handcuffed to Tod Gordon, he still influences the outcome like a true bad guy should. The best inclusions by a mile are the astounding six man tag by teams from Michinoku Pro in match described as a “Barely Legal teaser”, which is just as staggering a collision as their celebrated match on that milestone PPV, and a hugely enjoyable Three Way Dance between Jerry Lynn, Tajiri and Super Crazy that first featured on “Path of Destruction”. Styles and Dreamer are effusive in their praise of the recently retired Jerry Lynn, as well as Steve Corino and the man who arguable possessed the archetypal ECW gimmick, Mikey Whipwreck. Even Tazz is worthy of kudos for his part in a three way dance for his (completely bullshit) FTW title against Sabu and Bam Bam Bigelow, holding his own with two wrestling giants in a captivating 30 minute draw.

 There is a market for ECW on DVD; this review is clear proof of that. So what is it that is so irksome about these releases? Consider these facts – the only complete ECW Pay Per View on DVD (“Barely Legal”) was given away as a bonus disc with “One Night Stand” 2006. That much of the context of ECW’s original run, be it aural in terms of music, or oral in terms of abridged commentaries, have been edited and/or excised by WWE in order to suit its own version of what ECW was. That long running storylines that formed the backbone of the company appear in WWE-dominated anthologies (Raven vs. Dreamer, Sabu vs. Tazz) and aren’t given their own boxed set treatment. That many workers who made names for themselves in ECW have yet to appear on any of these DVDs at all. To that end, here are a few matches I would like to see included on “ECW Unreleased Vol. 3”: 1) Raven vs. Terry “Bamm Bamm” Gordy (November to Remember 97) 2) Jerry Lynn vs. Justin Credible (Anarchy Rulz 2000) 3) RVD and Sabu vs. The Eliminators (November to Remember 96) 4)Taz vs. Mike Awesome vs. Masato Tanaka (Anarchy Rulz 99) 5) Shane Douglas vs. Pitbull No.2 (The Doctor Is In 96). ECW is over, but it is far from dead and buried.

The outpouring of sorrow for its demise is visible through the new documentary “Barbed Wire City”. Film-makers John Philapavage and Kevin Keirn have forged something really special with this film, a heartfelt and revelatory homage to the promotion that they and thousands of wrestling fans took to their hearts forever, those three letters still embody their sense of what was possible in wrestling. My own brush with ECW came in late 2005 at a 1PW event called “A Cruel Twist of Fate”. I was fortunate enough to meet The Sandman, and watched him turn back the clock with his patented “Enter Sandman” entrance through an ecstatic Doncaster crowd. I saw him wrestle a terrific three way Extreme dance against Tommy Dreamer and Raven; I was so caught up in the atmosphere I can’t even remember who won.

Tommy Dreamer is about to take Sandman through the express lane to hell while Raven looks on from the far left corner.

At the end of the evening Raven came out in a dressing gown to sign autographs – the only wrestler to do so. I even got to shake hands with one of my wrestling heroes in Jerry Lynn earlier in the day. Even though I was never able to visit the ECW Arena during its heyday, that same energy was there for one night in the North of England, and I was fortunate enough to experience it. It’s through watching these matches that I am able to relive that night. ECW may only be memories now, but what a great set of memories they truly are.