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Requiem for a Promotion
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By Paul Herzog

My job makes me travel to central New Jersey (Piscataway, for those who care) about 6-8 times a year. I usually tell the travel agents to look for Newark first, Philadelphia second. Newark is about 30 miles less of a drive, and an easy hop into New York City if my schedule lets me do it. This week, I was hoping to end up in Philly, and not because I didn’t want to hear all the Giants talk (although I don’t). It was because I was hoping to conclude my business, drive into town, and spend a little bit of time off the first exit from the Walt Whitman Bridge. As the gods would have it, I was indeed on ATA 591, and I made my way into the heart of South Philly, somewhere I hadn’t been in five years.

Extreme Championship Wrestling ran their last scheduled shows last weekend, the 12th and 13th of January, sold shows in the Ozarks. They have a date picked out for their next PPV, Living Dangerously, but March 11th seems like an eternity for now, a pipe dream for the “extreme” optimist. A significant percentage of the ECW roster still believes in Paul Heyman, and I suppose that’s admirable. Personally, I wouldn’t risk the clothes on my back, food for my family, nor the rent. There’s plenty of indy wrestling on the East Coast, plenty of promoters who think they can hit it big with a “former ECW superstar”, enough so that I suppose none of the believers are risking those things either. As long they don’t turn down a call that could lead somewhere because they’re waiting for ECW to rise from the ashes, it’s OK.

It was easy for me to fall in love with NWA Eastern Championship Wrestling when I first saw a tape of Ultra Clash back in late 1993. The WWF had given us the dying gasp of Hulkamania with the worst Wrestlemania imaginable. The initial excitement of Monday Night Raw had subsided, as the show started touring mid-sized arenas on the east coast (not from the Manhattan Center), and was taped 3 and 4 weeks at a time (rather than live). WCW wasn’t much of an alternative. There were a lot of good matches, with Ric Flair about to make his last stand against Vader at Starrcade. But there was turmoil at the top, the Hollywood Blondes were split up, and rumblings were abound that Eric Bischoff, the hardcore’s used-car-salesman nightmare, was about to take over.  So when I put this tape in, I knew what I was seeing had a shot at standing out and bringing my interest in professional wrestling to a new peak.

The promoter, Tod Gordon, had enough respect for the hardcores to bring in Terry Funk, Stan Hansen, Eddie Gilbert, and Abdullah the Butcher and let them run amok. Some of the guys were washed up (Jimmy Snuka, Don Muraco), some were diamonds in the rough (Doug Gilbert, Chris Candido), some were green and miscast (Sandman, Tommy Dreamer) and others, who shall remain nameless, were just plain not very good. But everyone tried really hard, a spirit that was put forth by the booker, who doubled as lead manager, Paul E. Dangerously. By the next big show, The Night The Line Was Crossed, I knew that we were in for a wild ride, as Funk, Sabu & Shane Douglas went broadway in the most unusual match anyone had probably ever seen. It was bold and outrageous. But within the next six months, as Arn Anderson & Bobby Eaton showed up for a night, then Cactus Jack rode into town to stay, I was really into it. And when Shane threw down the NWA title and declared the birth of Extreme Championship Wrestling, I was hooked. I faithfully watched the TV shows down in Dallas, picking up whatever I could off a low-power UHF station that carried America One satellite programming. I peered through the fuzz as history was made.

In hindsight, we should have seen this one coming. ECW rode along in the wake of a wrestling boom in the United States. The nWo hit. Austin & Hart had a double-switch at WrestleMania 13, which created the biggest heel in the world and the ultimate anti-hero in one shot. Vince McMahon came out of the closet and celebrated in the vulgarity of the lowest common denominator, which at times was ECW’s prime target. Some nights, 10% of the Monday viewing audience was watching. If “Wrestling” was in the name, it sold. But throughout the crest of the wrestling wave, there always seemed to be a crisis in Philadelphia. A long stream of the most talented wrestlers in the business came and left. Nobody was sure where the money would come from after Tod Gordon left. Getting on PPV was a gift, but the up-front financial demand of the satellite industry certainly was not. The Internet brought accessibility to fans nationwide, but that also meant the cost of traveling to those fans. There was a national cable deal, but with a network who didn’t care about ECW and who’s demographic with the worst possible fit. The boom meant that other big fish had room to raid ECW’s roster at will, with offers too good to refuse. There was always a second edge to the sword, one that was easy for the hardcores to ignore, but was certainly nicking Paul E. to death.

Beginnings of new centuries are good times to be nostalgic. Heyman may again run a wrestling company, one with many of the wrestlers who on those last shows. He may even call it Extreme Championship Wrestling again. It won’t be the same. Some of the enthusiasm will be missing, at least on my part. The stars will never align the same way again. It was easy to be passionate about ECW, albeit it a specialized taste. People who weren’t disciples criticized those who were. Good or bad, fans that were into ECW loved it wholeheartedly, beauty and blemishes both. It was ours. I don’t know if I’d still be watching professional wrestling if it wasn’t for ECW. And I know I’m not alone. There’s several indy wrestlers who got their start with their own version of backyard wrestling, which took place at tailgate sessions before the monthly Arena shows. And dozens more who were inspired by the dedication and love that went on display at those shows.

I sat in my rental car in the same parking lot where Public Enemy, Taz, Raven, New Jack, and many others cut more classic promos than any wrestling promotion in history. I ate my sub from Tony Luke’s, like so many others who had made the pilgrimage. It was an overcast afternoon, like the first time I’d been there, and the last, and many others for which I didn’t make the trip. If I let my vision blur, it was easy to see a five-across line of fans snaking their way down the block, waiting for hours in the cutting Philly winter or sweltering summer to make sure they got a prime bleacher set, or just to get in at all. A small piece of me will never come back, a tiny emptiness that can’t be filled, not even by all the grease in my cheesesteak.

“For those who understand, no explanation is necessary. For those who don’t, no explanation will do.”

Paul Herzog has spent far too many hours as a columnist for various Internet sources, and the Wrestling Lariat newsletter, over the past six years. He is a systems engineer at Tellabs in Bolingbrook, Illinois, and is lucky to have a wife that likes the wrestling business, too. He can be reached at grapsfan@worldnet.att.net.

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