AS I SEE IT 11/22: Not Vince McMahon's memories, but ours...

AS I SEE IT
Bob Magee
Pro Wrestling: Between the Sheets
PWBTS.com

As many others seem to be doing, given the initial sale by WWE of the "Rise and Fall of ECW" DVD this week...I'm reminiscing about the experience that was ECW.

But I'm not thinking about anything to do with Vince McMahon's version of ECW history. I'm thinking about our ECW...the ECW that the fans and wrestlers experienced.

It began in Philadelphia's Original Sports Bar on February 22, 1992 in front of over 100 people.

It ended on March 5, 2001....with far more with a whimper than a bang.

But during those nine years...it changed the artform known as professional wrestling forever.

At its best, it was a wrestling promotion that had the smartest fans in North America... educated to the various types of wrestling that existed... North American, various Japanese styles, and lucha libre.

The ECW Arena had an atmosphere like no other within wrestling....one that will never, ever, be duplicated. The crowds at the ECW Arena appreciated of the product that was being offered to them, and appreciated the talent roster from around the world that was second to no other.

The fans respected the considerable effort being put out on their behalf by those working for ECW; so much so that from 1994-1996, ECW and its fans were described as "Team ECW" by the Wrestling Observer's Dave Meltzer to reflect the unique relationship that the company had with its fans. "Team ECW" was a group of hardworking people behind the scenes and a fan base who BELIEVED, and would do nearly anything for the company.

This was ECW.

ECW first debuted in February 1992 and ran as a local once-a-month indy promotion, founded and backed by Tod Gordon; then aired its first TV show aired in March 1993, when 60 people gathered at Cabrini College in suburban Philadelphia on the night before a snowstorm that left three feet of snow in Philadelphia.

From March to September 1993, Eddie Gilbert brought Paul Heyman, Terry Funk, and a product with Memphis and Japanese influences, which began to catch the notice of people outside the Philadelphia area.

Then, in September, 1993, Paul Heyman took over booking ECW.

That night began a period where ECW became THE promotion in the United States if you wanted creative, unpredictable angles; an exciting in ring product, with talent yet unseen by most American audiences. It was a time when a fan could come to an ECW show, and realize that (unlike the overly predictable WCW and WWF of the time) they didnít know what was going to happen at a show that night. But they knew the odds were good they'd be talking about it the next day.

ECW's reputation spread far beyond the fans who attended the first bar shows, as the promotion's television first aired in the Philadelphia area on SportsChannel Philadelphia beginning in 1993, first available locally (and on satellite) for five years until SportsChannel Philadelphia went out of business, when Philadelphia's Comcast SportsNet went on the air. ECW TV then moved locally to WPPX Channel 61, before all Paxson stations changed to the "family-oriented" PAX TV.

ECW's Philadelphia TV then moved to its last Philadelphia home, WGTW, Channel 48....which sadly, no longer shows wrestling...or anything except 24 hours a day of programming dedicated to a right-wing version of evangelical Christianity.

In a way unique at the time, people actively promoted ECW online and by word of mouth, with TV expanding to New York's MSG, then Florida's Sunshine Network, then many of the PRIME affiliates (most of which eventually morphed into the Fox Sports Network that broadcasts TNA today). Along with PRIME's national feed, ECW's TV was syndicated nationwide on the America One Network, as well as on numerous other independent stations.

ECW then was picked up by TNN in August 1999, in a move that initially looked so promising...but may have helped speed up the demise of the company, which had already been going through major financial problems including bouncing checks to everyone from wrestlers to broadcast affiliates.

I have a lot of personal memories coming from ECW...

From May 1993 to 1995, I sat in the front row of section C (the on-camera section with John "Hat Guy/Hawaiian Shirt" Bailey and company) the first two years at the ECW Arena, before the Club ECW plan was devised. Since I'd been burned by former Tri-State Wrestling Alliance promoter Joel Goodhart for a similar plan, I refused to put out the money for the "4-packs".

Ironically, it turns out that wasn't such a bad idea, as the seats I'd regularly sat in with my brother, were the very seats that were involved in the 1995 Terry Funk-Cactus Jack "fire incident".

So I moved up with the "bleacher bums" in Section C. As I sat there, I was fortunate enough to see ECW at its best during its golden era. I also was able to gather many other memories until December 23, 2000, the last ECW show at the ECW Arena.

Here are a few of my top matches and memories from that building, memories many of you in the United States and around the world via TV and tape...

Texas Chain Match Massacre, Terry Funk vs. Eddie Gilbert, June 19, 1993

This show was the first ECW show sold on tape commercially, with what was then the largest crowd in the young promotion's history.

These two gave the fans at the Arena an old school all-Arena bloody brawl of a kind not seen anywhere in Philadelphia, save Gilbert's own program in 1991 with Cactus Jack in the ECW's predecessor, the Tri-State Wrestling Alliance.

The Night The Line Was Crossed, Shane Douglas vs. Terry Funk vs. Sabu, February 5, 1994

The original "Three Way Dance" (although it wasn't referred to as such at the time) was a one hour long match that put the cartoon shows that masqueraded as professional wrestling of the time to shame. Between the blow-away effort of the three wrestlers, Heyman's booking had fans going with a match that told a story in creating the storylines that moved along the three pivotal characters of the golden era of ECW.

I also have to mention the match with The Sheik & Pat Tanaka def. Kevin Sullivan & Tasmaniac; primarily for being one of the few times I got to see the Sheik wrestle live.

Arn Anderson and Bobby Eaton crash the ECW Arena, April 13, 1994

What was the single loudest, wildest, out-of-control crowd reaction in my memory of the six and a half years at the ECW Arena occurred when Bobby Eaton, then Arn Anderson ran in to conclude a two match multi-part angle involving Shane Douglas, Curtis Hughes, The Public Enemy, Tommy Dreamer, The Bruise Brothers, and Sabu. Seeing Anderson sent the crowd into some other level of sound.

Anderson and Eaton were always favorites in Philadelphia, because they were hardnosed and actually seemed to wrestle, a perfect counter to the cartoon show going on in the WWF and WCW during that era. So, when they hit the ring that night to set up the main event for When Worlds Collide the next month...it's another one of those "you gotta see it for yourself" moments.

The Public Enemy vs. Funk Brothers (Barbed Wire Match), Heatwave, July 17, 1994

In an building that was estimated by some to be as much as 120 degrees, PE and the Funks tore down the house, with an incredibly violent match, remarkable given the temperature, let alone any temperature at Dory and Terry Funk's ages.

Eddie Guerrero vs. Dean Malenko, 2/3 falls farewell match, August 22, 1995.

This may well have been the best match I've ever seen for the overall emotional experience combined with the actual match itself anywhere in wrestling. While Dean and Eddie worked better matches in ECW and in Japan, the sheer emotion of the toughest crowd in North America, with the "Please Don't Go" chants; not to mention the fans, locker room, and Dean and Eddie themselves in tears, accompanied by Joey Styles doing the match call of his life as Guerrero and Malenko worked their last ECW match.

If you ever get the chance to get a tape of the ECW TV show that featured this match, it is a classic keeper. But I wish any of you reading this could have been there in person; because, as good a job as Styles's call and Heyman's editing did in communicating the feeling one had being there at the Arena that night, it could never do it justice entirely.

The Raven-Tommy Dreamer feud, March 1995-June 1997

In an era where storylines are non-existent, where feuds are dropped at the drop of a hat, and where fans are too "smart" to get emotionally involved, this two and a half year feud with ECW's ultimate babyface against the character that was the masterpiece of Paul Heyman and Scott Levy's careers was the most memorable feud in recent memory anywhere in wrestling...to this very day.

The feud has twists and turns; starting off with their "mutual girlfriend from summer camp" (now the real-life wife of Dreamer) Beulah McGillicutty; concluding with an actual payoff at the end at Wrestlepalooza in June, 1997 with Raven's departure to WCW.

Rey Misterio Jr. vs. Psicosis, Mexican Death Match, November To Remember, November 18, 1995

This match gave fans another once in a lifetime experience to see Rey Misterio Jr. before injuries and being unmasked by Eric Bischoff took away some of his ability and mystique. Seeing these two go full blast was a thrill that I'll never get again, unless I get to see them in Tijuana. Even then, it may not be the same.

Shane Douglas vs. Chris Jericho vs. Pit Bull 2 vs. Too Cold Scorpio, Heatwave, July 13, 1996.

Jericho's mid-air rana out of a PitBull top rope powerbomb all in one motion still amazes me when I watch it on TV eight years later.

Great Sasuke/Gran Hamada/Masato Yakushiji-TAKA Michinoku/Dick Togo/ Terry Boy, Barely Legal, April 13, 1997

For many, it was the first time they'd seen Japanese wrestling live. The incredible match combined with an unbelievable atmosphere among the fans so supercharged to even have that PPV at the ECW Arena, along with the added touch from many of the fans throwing streamers ala traditional All Japan created a helluva memory.

Sabu vs. Terry Funk, Born to Be Wired, August 9, 1997

The almost psychotic violence of this match probably goes beyond even the Taipei Death Match at Hardcore Heaven 1995 with the Rottens. Even the bloodthirsty violent ECW Arena crowd of the time was shaking its heads at this one.

Jerry Lynn-Rob Van Dam, August 8, 1998 and August 28, 1999.

For two straight years these two created Match of the Year candidates. For whatever reason, Lynn and Van Dam seemed so perfectly matched with one another that they could turn the Arena crowd on, and made them remember the way they used to before the Arena crowd changed, and before the pure bloodmarks discovered ECW.

Along with the moments of great action, there were the moments of humor; including the night that the bWo imitated KISS at the ECW Arena. I don't know if I've ever laughed so hard in my life at a wrestling show as to watch Stevie, Meanie and Nova doing "Rock and Roll All Night" in full KISS makeup. That's another moment for readers to catch on tape if they can.

Then there were similar moments with Public Enemy. When they weren't kicking ass in the ring, they were making viewers laugh their asses off from week to week in the unique mix of hardcore violence and off the wall humor that their characters portrayed on weekly ECW TV. If it wasn't their escapades at Terry Funk's Double Cross Ranch, it was the times that they tortured Tod Gordon playing ECW's bad boys, or taking Paul Heyman and 911 "to the Hood".

Along with the very public memories shared by many via tape or TV...there were the memories that came from being at the ECW Arena in person:

  • Those Sunday morning TV tapings from 1993-1995, when we stumbled into the Arena half-awake after too little sleep following the preceding evening's show and the post-show "festivities"...and Mark Shapiro (aka "McGruff") telling us to "please fill up the bleachers"... in order to make the crowd look respectable for SportsChannel and MSG, the two stations carrying ECW at the time.

  • A small discount store next to the Arena, selling cheap breakaway frying pans, with the slogan, "Give them to your favorite wrestler to hit someone"...

  • As said before...the "bleacher bums" of section C with some of the most creative (and sometimes unprintable) chants imaginable, along with their summer pre-show afternoon cookouts and beer bashes. One of their best sets of off-color chants came the night of the Malenko-Guerrero farewell as they took shots at WCW by making up certain hilarious and obscene chants that offered suggestions about Hulk Hogan and Eric Bischoff's...um...personal habits.

  • The Mutants From Boston, who regularly traveled down to ECW Arena shows...foreshadowing by years the fans of promotions like Ring of Honor who travel amazing distances to see a quality wrestling product, which seems as unavailable now in the mainstream as it was then

  • The people who made the dream happen in the earliest days... a group of hardworking people behind the scenes, who would do nearly anything for the company, people that we all got to know like Bob and Lex Artese, Jay "Six-Pack" Sulli, Larry Gallone, Kathy Fitzpatrick, Kathy Donahue, Steve Truitt, and Matt Radico...

  • Along with them in the stands were unique Philadelphia characters like "Stan The Fan", John Bailey (known everywhere as "Hat Guy"), his brother George, Mike Johnson (later of 1wrestling.com and PWinsider.com) and the Bleacher Bums, "Sign Guy" Paul Mellows (from whom Paul Heyman took the Sign Guy Dudley gimmick), Lennie (the Rob Zombie lookalike), Gary Walter (now of Smart Mark Video), and many more...

  • And for longtime fans...names from the other side of the rail that only we fans who were there live would remember: Doug Gilbert, Kevin Christopher, Don E. Allen, JT Smith, Tony Stetson, Larry Winters, Tommy Cairo, Hack Myers, Salvatore Bellomo, Stevie Wonderful, Johnny Hotbody, Chad Austin, Dudley Dudley, Dances With Dudley, and Pablo Marquez.

  • That magic moment on April 13, 1997, one that ECW fans had waited for since the last year's worth of rumors had started finally arrived...fans waited outside the ECW Arena, even camping out overnight...until 8:00 pm EST, when Joey Styles went on the air from the converted Bingo Hall that was ECW's home, as "Barely Legal" went live...

    Indeed, all these were our memories. Not Vince McMahon's memories to sell via DVD. They are OUR memories, and no matter how many dollars Vince McMahon paid for the remains of ECW...he will never be able to make those memories his own.

    For those of you who are just seeing ECW for the first time on DVD, I wish you could have been there to see what we all got to experience in person. I suppose I'm glad you're getting to see them in some form...even if Vince McMahon is making the money out of these memories, and not the workers who gave world-class performances even when paychecks were bouncing toward the end. But I wish you could have been there...and that you'd been able to see the unvarnished version of what was ECW.

    Because we'll never see its like again.

    Until next time...

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    If you have comments/questions, or if you'd like to add the AS I SEE IT column to your website, I can be reached by e-mail at bobmagee1@hotmail.com)