CULT: A Requiem for a Light (ECW Returns)

The Cult

All you need to know is that I’m from the Oratory, and this is my column about the imminent return of Extreme Championship Wrestling.

A Requiem for a Light
An Awful ECW: The Dangerous Confessions of a Wrestling fan
by the Maverick

‘Things are more like they are now than they ever were before.”

- Dwight D. Eisenhower, US general & Republican politician (1890 - 1969)

ECW is dead, and rotted down to bone. But one thing you can say about skeletons is that they’ll always give you a smile...

With $20 bucks and a thirst for adventure, ten years ago you could buy your way into a rotting arena in Philadelphia to witness the finest, most obtuse legalised freak show Mother America had to offer. Gore, Whores and Mutants: ECW had it all. Sitting in any seat in attendance, you could cast your eyes in any direction and your landscape would be filled with nothing but lust, harmony and men with absolutely no fashion sense. Geeks in every crevice. There, amid the mist in the air, every Saturday night hundreds of men, young and old, found their spiritual home. And collectively, thousands of people world wide tuned in and found comfort in knowing that they weren’t alone.

ECW was wrestling’s answer to the B-Movie. Low-budget production values, cheap talent and a weekly show that was often edited in the boss’s mother’s basement. And, in its impressionable success, ECW gave inspiration to the Backyard generation. Giving encouragement to those pliable souls who confused desolate and lonely pain for public rapture and acclaim. It was a one-of-a-kind Neverland for men who never grew up – not because they wanted to defy time, but because they wanted the chance to scream at the top of their lungs like only children can. In that sense, ECW worked on the theory that the more animals they displayed in the ring, the more they’d be paying to ravage and scowl at their every move in attendance.

According to all primary sources on the matter, ECW is remerging in what may turn out to be an annual event. At first glimpse, the notion of an ECW revival show appears akin to jumping into an empty pram amid the cries of elderly women. Trying to reclaim ones youth can never be more than an act of utter desperation - shameful in its unabashed cheek. Can you successfully bring a dead corpse back to life? The simple answer is no. The prolonged answer is, if you do, you’re doing nothing more than puppeteering an empty carcass for your own malevolent amusement. ECW can’t be revived. But its remains can be mimicked, and that’s all that Vince McMahon appears to be interested in doing, especially when you consider that Paul Heyman – the bruised heart and twisted soul of ECW – in all likelihood won’t have the final say in the events booking.

The question that comes to mind isn’t the pessimistic ‘how badly are they going to screw this one up?’, but the more probing ‘is ECW even worth resuscitation in the first place?’. Isn’t it better off dead - as an untouchable legacy?

The truth is, history doesn’t break but bend. ECW isn’t completely now what it was before, at least in our own mind and memories. ECW is only seen as the creative spark that wrestling has leeched from ever since in retrospect. Fans paint the federation as the cornerstone of a tougher, and altogether more realistic approach to wrestling. But if every cult hitchhiker who proclaimed they were a fan of ECW back in 1995, were actually a fan of ECW back in 1995, ECW would probably still be around today. Admittedly, that’s the thing with a myth; it never stops growing. And as is the case here, people fall so in love with an idea that they jump onto the bandwagon and help extend truth beyond all proportion. As Eisenhower succinctly put it: “things are more like they are now than they ever were before.” Whether they should be, is another matter.

Paul Heyman’s band of spilt-blood brothers may have been influential, but time has tarnished precision. In many ways we have lost touch with what the federation was really good at.

ECW was great at being Awful, in every possible sense of the word.

In what many allude to as ECW’s finest hour in hindsight, the feud between Raven and Tommy Dreamer may just be the perfect example of a desperately imperfect federation. The intense feud between the two lasted for years, literally. It started amidst a trivial dispute between Tommy Dreamer and Stevie Richards, and then quickly intensified as Paul Heyman and his booking committee made a charlatan back-story up as they went along. Dreamer and Raven had apparently been friends a long, long time ago, until Dreamer “stole” Raven’s obese girlfriend, who would later turn out to be the impressionable Beulah McGillicutty, who was so skinny her face looked like it would split down the middle if she tied her hair back. The feud continued with a plethora of questionable plot twists, including Raven conjuring up the power to ‘brainwash’ people, and Beulah becoming pregnant and then subsequently whoring herself out to any and all men that even thought to look in her direction. The bad blood between those involved was somewhat humours for all the wrong reasons, yet has somehow managed to become part of the mythic folklore of ECW. Of course, at the time you were swept away with the excitement of it all, largely because ECW was so different from any other federation in the history of wrestling. Nobody else was breaking tables, drinking beer and displaying voluptuous eye-candy with quite the vigour and punctuality as ECW in 1994 and 95’. Nobody else had even thought about it.

So, bearing this all in mind, just how good was ECW? Fans still talk about the federation today with a growing wonder, grappling experts cite it as perhaps the most influential promotion in the history of wrestling, and it’s carcass is so popular the WWE-centric Vince McMahon has decided to attempt to bring it back to life. That’s how good it is… But none of those aspects directly explain the quality of the action inside the ring, or the quality of storylines outside of it, and that may go some way to displaying how bad it could be too.

Sabu is oft remembered as the swashbuckling ‘human highlight reel’, and not the careless and fallible worker he really was, especially towards the end. Raven frequently gave the impression he could disappear into his own ego at any given moment. Shane Douglas was a slow, below average worker who shone because he was one of the few to have a wrestlers physique. The Sandman was the prototype for ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin, but he was terminally outshined by his gimmick because he simply didn’t have enough talent. The Blue Meanie was so outlandish he would’ve made even the brightest Smurf blush. And don’t even get me started on New Jack…

ECW was completely shambolic, and paradoxically entertaining because of and in spite of itself. It was awful in every sense of the word, and fans knew it. It was the worst of primitive male brutality in and outside of the ring. Yet, somehow, for their grotesque and often sickening stunts, we couldn’t help but be awe full for their cataclysmic disregard for their own body. And that’s something the harshest critics often miss…

Sabu blew more spots than Clearasil, but most of the time it just added to the carnage. Raven talked more bullshit than a hairdresser, but somehow it managed to always work in context. Shane Douglas, as laboured as he can be, didn’t half know how to take a beating. The Sandman was far crazier than anybody can possibly give him credit for, and equally as smart too. The Blue Meanie was an amusing sideshow. And as for New Jack, well, even though I was never a fan, he did know how to get the crowd going…

And that’s what it comes down to. ECW was good at being bad. Yes, it could be awful, and arguably was so exclusively post-1996, but its trainwreck style was so entertaining, because beneath everything the federation had a united spirit that has yet to be duplicated even ten years on. Fans have never been louder than they were in Pittsburgh cheering on Terry Funk, or booing Cactus Jack at Hardcore Heaven 95’. It was the original raw wrestling show - the kind of likes we’ll never see again…

Sadly, the light that burns twice as strong only lasts half as long.

ECW suffered arguably because it ran out of creative juices. But it also suffered the second it tried to reach a new audience. Popular culture is half made up of seemingly insignificant cults – the very word should tell you that. But whenever an underground fad hits mainstream audiences bang in the brow, almost as a defensive mechanism to guard against rejection, that fad becomes diluted down to its simplest form (just look at the so called ‘Goth’ world of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or Greg Egan’s ‘wheels within wheels’ as seen in the abecedarian Matrix). This theory is applicable to ECW, who seemed to curtail everything that was good about themselves the moment they started to air to a mass audience.

Still, though the company may not have aged gracefully, there is no better feeling than knowing that you were alive in a dank arena in Pittsburgh when the freaks were taking over. Nothing beats that distant but everlasting echo that you were there. That you were alive in that part of the world in 1994 and 1995’. Nothing beats the memory that you were a part of the something special, something unique, and something that will never be repeated in our respective lifetime. And what’s left is wonderful reassuring proof that the lagged forces of corporate monotony can be overcome by even the tiniest specs of suppressed imagination. What’s left is hope.

We should try to remember ECW as it really was, but we shouldn’t dwell on the past, and we shouldn’t get carried away with its phoney revival. The real ECW died a long time ago, and I don’t mean on April 4th, 2001, when it was pronounced dead officially. We have to move forward with our memories and our hope, and not back. And I can only presume that memories are supposed to fade. They must be designed that way for a reason.


The Maverick:
AOLIM: OratorMav
Inspirations: Solaris, by Steven Soderbergh and Bigot Hall, by Steve Aylett

It’s great to get the chance to appear on my surrogate home. I’ve been around here for years, but this is my first opportunity to appear directly on Rajah’s mainboard, and thus, to present The Cult to a whole new group of interested wrestle-addicts. Feel free to get in touch. And if you know what's good for you, you'll keep those retinas glued to the Oratory.

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