It’s Fall of 1996. You’re a fifth grader eating at lunch with your friends. Jimmy, the friend who was watching things that fifth graders shouldn’t be watching, rushes with intense haste to your table, knocking over your lunchable meal. As your makeshift pepperoni pizza lays scattered on the bacteria-ridden floor and your Capri-Sun leaks out, you open your mouth to protest when Jimmy silences you with three letters that would forever change your life.
You have to ask him what the hell he’s talking about as he excitedly tells tales of Sand and Pill men. So, he tells you everything, the goings on, the characters, and the stories.
The next week, after your little sister is put to bed in the middle of the Toy Story tape your parents rented, you change from Channel 3 to TNN, to see what Jimmy was talking about. People are beating each other up. Olympic gold medallist Kurt Angle is there. All is well.
Then, something crazy happens, something you hadn’t seen happen on WWF or WCW. The kendo-stick wielding Sandman finds himself at the hands of Raven’s Nest. Their leader, Raven, proceeds to crucify Sandman. You’re shocked, but glued to the screen, when suddenly your sister wakes up from her rest and cries at the imagery. Your parents barge in. They’re pissed off. Kurt Angle is pissed off. You’ve pissed yourself and hope nobody noticed. Your life has changed forever, as yet another medium has captured the zeitgeist of the 1990s.
This was not my experience. I actually didn’t get to experience the original ECW until I did the research for my poem, The Ring and the Raven, where I was transported into this decade from my childhood. It’s like watching one of those movies or TV shows that is timeless yet a product of its time, where it sucks you in to this era of competition and innovation and Oasis still actually being together. Fixtures of pop culture that still brings me back like Mallrats, Empire Records, The Blair Witch Project, Daria, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
What I saw was a world far more than the barbed wire and weapons that defined the “extreme” aspect, that many would typically describe ECW to be. It was so much more. Technical wrestlers, high-flyers, and bouncing checks.
What I saw was a beating heart that commanded attention, telling story after story. It was a bloody, gritty fairy tale ahead of its time.
Elsewhere, you could find Repo-Man in WWF who just straight up stole things that you were pretty sure should have been repossessed. In WCW there was the Yeti, who was actually a mummy yet for some reason was named the Yeti. To be honest with you, I don’t know why that was a thing. I didn’t say the 1990s had been totally perfect (but I like to think so).
There is a reason ECW is cherished to this day, whose aspects are kept alive in various promotions today, even by the company who swallowed them whole like it was a freaking delicious spicy Popeye’s chicken sandwich.
ECW was something special, a place for outcasts. A place that rejected what society demanded of them.
Some of these outcasts would go on to set the wrestling world on fire; like when Mick Foley said it was messed up that the crowd wanted to cause bodily harm to his still young child, where Steve Austin would design the blueprint for the eventual Texas Rattlesnake, where Brian Pillman said some unkind things and insider terms that made people unhappy, and Chris Jericho was…..Chris Jericho?
There was a plethora of mainstays to watch out for too, like the underdog Mikey Whipwreck, the suplex-beast known as Taz, the behemoth Rhino, and the table breakers known as the Dudley Boyz. New Jack would batter foes with weapons while his music played and “The Franchise” Shane Douglas would draw boos from the crowd, while Terry Funk would cement another addition to his legacy as a hardcore wrestler and 2 Cold Scorpio would give the middle finger to Sir Isaac Newton on the regular.
To some of the bigwigs, the sold out arenas, gymnasiums, and stadiums were the places for wrestling. For us small wigs, ECW had its home in bingo halls and the Hammerstein Ballroom, and eventually its own ECW Arena.
ECW embraced what was different. In the lands of giants, the meek and small were able to make their name. Wrestlers from foreign countries were able to open viewers up to styles they weren’t as familiar with. ECW laid the groundwork for what we’ve come to know and love today.
It wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t polished. It wasn’t perfect. It sure as hell didn’t age well, this beautiful, twisted time capsule. But it was soaked and drenched with passion. You need only look at WWE’s revival in 2005’s One Night Stand to see why. The fans carried their love for ECW during all these years, for one night ECW was back in a beautiful love letter where it was allowed to be itself.
As beloved as it was, the fans knew what they wanted and that wasn’t sports entertainment. Why else would they cheer the likes of CM Punk when he debuted in WWE’s version of ECW? Why would this infectious energy traverse passed the Mikey Whipwrecks and Stevie Richards to people like Nick Gage and Jon Moxley?
This hardcore heaven will forever live on, in AEW, GCW, WWE, and countless other places. Many will try to imitate it, but never duplicate it.
To paraphrase ECW’s booker Paul Heyman, this was E-C-freaking-W.
The promotion may be gone, but its spirit will never die. Quoth the Raven: “Nevermore”.