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With Extreme Rules on the horizon, an event that stemmed from the revival of the original Extreme Championship Wrestling promotion, it seems like a good time to reflect on ECW in the form of the famous DVD covering its history and legacy, “The Rise & Fall of ECW” from late 2004.
Not only was it the recipient of much praise upon its release, it sold in huge numbers, to the point where WWE chose to hold an ECW reunion PPV – One Night Stand – on the back of the DVD’s success (though Rob Van Dam is generally credited with persuading Vince McMahon to stage this show). That PPV would also be a smash hit, and the second One Night Stand card in 2006 was also well-received. By this time, the decision had been made to bring back ECW as a third brand under the WWE umbrella, which on paper sounded promising, especially when former ECW alumni were signed to appear on the program. Unfortunately, it quickly became clear that the “new” ECW would be nothing like the original, and the buzz quickly faded, leading to a turbulent run for the revived ECW until its cancellation, to barely any notice, in 2010. But that’s another story; for the purpose of this review, let’s focus on the DVD which instigated all of those developments.
This DVD was rated TV-MA in the States, likely due to the uncensored strong language throughout, one of the few WWE titles with this rating (although it was rated 15 in the UK, as most WWE DVDs are even to this day). It is a two-disc release, and the second disc contains seven matches spanning 1995 to 1999.
The Rise & Fall of ECW
ECW operated from 1992 to early 2001. In that time, the company adopted an approach to professional wrestling which was considered revolutionary in the United States, with a heavy emphasis on violence, profanity, sexuality and creativity, along with some of the best wrestling action that one could find during a period of malaise for the U.S. wrestling industry. In an age where the internet was just beginning to grow but with social media being many years away, and back when regional television stations still held great significance, it was largely word-of-mouth, along with coverage from the wrestling magazines, which allowed ECW to spread its name and build its audience, in many cases through the old tape trading system, which would expose fans to new wrestlers and styles that weren’t visible on WWF or WCW programmes.
Unfortunately for ECW, by the time that it began to demonstrate signs of real growth and prosperity, the majority of the promotion’s key concepts had been “borrowed” by the bigger promotions, along with many of the group’s biggest stars. Despite this, ECW made strides by entering the world of Pay-Per-View, agreeing a video game licence with Acclaim and, most notably, making its debut on national television via TNN in 1999. The latter development sadly had more downsides than upsides in the long-term, and the lack of a new TV deal after the TNN deal expired, along with cash flow problems and further instances of star performers leaving, all contributed to ECW closing its doors in early 2001.
“The Rise & Fall of ECW” tells this story in great detail and with a refreshingly high level of honesty. Comments from Paul Heyman and many of ECW’s most memorable performers (or at least those who were under contract to WWE when the DVD was put together), along with other employees such as ECW director Ron Buffone, add depth and opinions when discussing the key topics in ECW’s tumultuous history, as well as examining the reasons for its growth and its collapse. Paul Heyman, in particular, is the highlight of the release as he holds nothing back when explaining his philosophy when running ECW (“accentuate the positives, hide the negatives”), the many controversies and setbacks which he and ECW had to overcome, his admiration for those who made vital contributions to ECW, his opinions on ECW’s critics, and his true beliefs as to why ECW went under and what could have kept the promotion alive. The documentary lasts for around three hours, which makes it one of the longest WWE docs ever! However, it is thoroughly compelling throughout, it is well-paced, and almost every key moment in ECW history is covered.
The opening section of the documentary focuses on the origins of ECW and its very early days under the Eastern Championship Wrestling name (and how Paul Heyman joined the group, eventually becoming booker in September 1993), as well as spotlighting some crucial members of ECW’s roster such as Public Enemy, Taz, Sabu, Tommy Dreamer and The Sandman, and later Cactus Jack. After covering The Night The Line Was Crossed (a landmark show for ECW), we move onto the increasingly mature nature of the product, which emphasised hardcore, bloody violence to a level that the WWF and WCW couldn’t approach at the time. This was wrestling for grown-ups, wrestling with a feeling of authenticity, as opposed to the family-friendly shows and cartoonish characters aimed at children which the big two companies were promoting.
Then comes the real turning point, August 27, 1994: the night when Shane Douglas, who had just been crowned the new NWA Champion on an ECW card, double-crossed the NWA by throwing down the title and stating that the ECW crown held more value to him, and that he was now the ECW World Heavyweight Champion. This was a development encouraged by Heyman, but was unbeknownst to the NWA, and it established ECW as a rebel organization which would break all of the rules that tradition held dear, underlined by the subsequent name change to Extreme Championship Wrestling. (Incidentally, although I am a huge Bret Hart fan and feel that his treatment at Survivor Series 1997 was very poor, why is it that the Montreal Screwjob portrays those who carried out the betrayal as the villains, yet in the case of ECW double-crossing the NWA, Douglas and Heyman are largely praised?).
The documentary then covers the many highs of what die-hard ECW fans consider to be its artistic peak, including its biggest rivalries: Tommy Dreamer vs. The Sandman (where Dreamer apparently blinded Sandman, with the presentation being so realistic and believable that very few people knew it was a work, a tactic which simply couldn’t be pulled off in 2017), Raven vs. Tommy Dreamer (an extensive feud between two men that simply despised one another, supposedly dating back to their childhoods, which established Raven as one of the most mysterious and intriguing characters in wrestling), Sandman vs. Raven (an emotional saga during which Raven brainwashed Sandman’s wife and son, akin to an evil cult leader) and Taz vs. Sabu (a long-teased rivalry between two dangerous competitors whom fans were desperate to see lock horns in order to determine who was the better man).
Other subjects covered include classic promos (by Cactus Jack and Steve Austin; Heyman’s impersonation of Austin when discussing how he joined ECW is priceless), topnotch wrestling (from the likes of Eddie Guerrero, Dean Malenko, Chris Benoit and 2 Cold Scorpio), lucha libre (Rey Misterio Jr., Psicosis and Juventud Guerrera are highlighted here), and how the WWF and WCW were reacting to the slow rise of ECW’s popularity. This includes the thoughts of Vince McMahon and Eric Bischoff on the ECW product as a whole; how ECW influenced the ultimate direction of the WWF and, to a lesser extent, WCW; and the subject of “talent raids”, whereby both companies would sign up many of ECW’s key names. Bischoff points out how few suggest that the WWF “raided” ECW, but WCW is tarred with the same brush. In response, Heyman says that “Eric Bischoff is full of s–t” (bear in mind that both Heyman and Bischoff were WWE employees at this point), and McMahon acknowledges the WWF taking many ECW competitors, but emphasizes that Heyman was compensated whenever such signings were made.
On April 13, 1997, ECW had made significant enough strides that it staged its first PPV event, Barely Legal. It almost didn’t happen, though, because the backlash towards ECW’s graphic product had been building momentum over the previous 12 months. In particular, the ground-breaking Beulah-Kimona lesbian kiss saw ECW lose much of its television distribution (how times change); the mock crucifixion of Sandman by Raven (on a cross with a barbed wire crown) which offended Kurt Angle (a guest at the show who had just won his Olympic gold medal with a broken freakin’ neck), as well as offending many others, and led ECW via Raven to apologize in the ring for taking things too far; and the Mass Transit incident, whereby New Jack practically bludgeoned an enhancement wrestler named Eric Kulas (supposedly, Kulas asked Jack to cut him open, except that Jack used a scalpel which made Kulas bleed far too deeply, and Jack commented that he didn’t care if Kulas died). The latter controversy led to a lawsuit and further negativity (especially when it came out that Kulas was only 17 but had lied about his age, and had told Heyman that he was a trained wrestler when in fact he was not), and for a time led to the cancellation of Barely Legal. Heyman says that he had to use all of his persuasive powers to get Barely Legal back on the air, and the show ultimately succeeded, delivering the long-awaited Taz vs. Sabu showdown and a memorable ECW title win for Terry Funk.
By this point, ECW had established a working relationship with the WWF, which led to some compelling “unplanned” appearances by ECW performers on WWF programming, and an episode of RAW featuring all-ECW matches in February 1997. Jerry Lawler emphasizes that he genuinely considered ECW minor league, hence the term “Extremely Crappy Wrestling”, and he became ECW’s lead antagonist on WWF programming, at one point introducing ECW star Rob Van Dam as “Mr. Monday Night”. All of which guaranteed massive crowd heat for Lawler when he turned up in ECW, and eventually the WWF vs. ECW “feud” was settled with a Lawler vs. Tommy Dreamer match at Hardcore Heaven, ECW’s second PPV.
From there, though, the documentary begins to cover ECW’s gradual decline. Many believe that Barely Legal rounded off ECW’s glory days, but it was the financial side of the organization which instigated ECW’s slide. Even though ECW was holding fairly successful PPV events every couple of months from 1997 onwards (they became more regular in 1999), the company was still struggling to make ends meet, leading to a fair number of wrestlers leaving the company, and others working for months without payment to demonstrate their loyalty. This played a part in the curious “mole” controversy, whereby former ECW head Tod Gordon was alleged to have been a mole trying to bring several ECW wrestlers over to WCW, which led to his firing (some believe the whole situation was a work, which I doubt because it was never acknowledged on television by either company), and later the departures of Buh Buh and D-Von, by then the two members of the Dudley clan who had become most crucial to ECW’s product. After clips of the two men (in particular Buh Buh) almost instigating riots with some deeply offensive insults which wouldn’t be tolerated on any wrestling show today (look up Heat Wave 1999 on the WWE Network), we’re told that The Dudleyz were happy to stay if Heyman offered them an incentive, even if he provided them with a one-dollar raise. When this wasn’t forthcoming, they chose to leave and join the WWF.
By this time, ECW had made its national television debut on TNN (then The Nashville Network; now known as Spike TV). This was supposed to be the difference-maker, the moment when ECW officially became one of The Big Three and would begin to gain real traction on the top promotions. However, ECW’s most valuable qualities and performers had been largely taken by the WWF and WCW (WWF Attitude was influenced to a significant level by ECW, whilst both companies had at various times signed up the majority of ECW’s most recognizable names, even if some of them ultimately achieved nothing). In fact, the defections continued, in particular Taz (who joined the WWF) and Mike Awesome (who joined WCW whilst he was the ECW Champion, leading to the bizarre situation of Awesome, a WCW wrestler, losing the ECW title to Tazz, by this time a WWF wrestler). The defections and leaves of absence were mostly instigated by continuing financial problems, in spite of ECW attracting strong attendances and still selling respectable levels of merchandise, which by this point included its first video game, Hardcore Revolution.
According to Heyman, though, ECW could have grown much more had it received sufficient support from TNN. Instead, Heyman notes that the station barely promoted ECW, essentially ignoring its existence, and ultimately used it as a trial run before taking on WWF RAW in the autumn of 2000. Heyman’s response was to conduct a “shoot” promo on ECW TV whereby he suggested that he and ECW loathed TNN and even dared them to boot ECW off their station. That would happen once the TNN deal expired, and although Heyman tried to negotiate a new television deal in the months that followed, an agreement couldn’t be found. With further talent leaving and the money running out due to larger overheads, ECW held its final card on January 13, 2001, filing for bankruptcy a few months later.
From there, the documentary considers why ECW met its demise. Although ratings on TNN were disappointing, Heyman suggests that viewing figures would have been higher had TNN offered its full support, and as noted, live attendances and PPV buy rates were still respectable by ECW standards (one ECW PPV, Living Dangerously 2000, attracted more buys than WCW Uncensored, held one week later). Therefore, Heyman is adamant that if a new TV deal had been struck, not only would ECW have survived, but it could have grown to new heights. Certainly, the unrelated collapse of WCW in March 2001 (when it was bought out by the WWF) means that ECW would have become the number two group overnight had the company continued, so whilst it’s unlikely that ECW ever would have become a real threat to the WWF, it definitely could have enjoyed success. Bear in mind, too, that many former WCW names would have considered the ECW option, further increasing its chances of prosperity.
Perhaps that wouldn’t have mattered, though. Vince and Eric both claim that ECW’s biggest drawback was the thing that made it noticeable in the first place, that being the mature, “it’s not for everyone” product. McMahon says he told Heyman after achieving the TNN deal that the product needed to evolve to attract mass attention and increase its core audience. In a nutshell, even by 2001 when WWF Attitude had passed its peak, ECW’s product was still too raw, too visceral and too gritty for the mainstream to embrace, meaning that according to Vince and Eric, it would always attract a niche following. Heyman has said in recent years that had ECW continued, at some point it likely would have adopted an approach similar to Ring of Honor (which arrived in 2002), emphasizing strong style, aerial and technical wrestling from the likes of Samoa Joe, CM Punk and others, changing the definition of “extreme” and evolving in that regard. But it wouldn’t have happened overnight, and certainly not in 2001, so the points made by McMahon and Bischoff may be valid.
Then there’s the feeling from the likes of Buh Buh Ray that Paul’s questionable management of the company would have presented problems for ECW even if it had continued, which likely would have stunted its potential growth. Also consider that by this time, ECW’s product was a shadow of its innovative programming from the mid-1990s and had lost many of its key names (Rob Van Dam had left ECW in late 2000, but returned for one night only at ECW’s final PPV, Guilty As Charged 2001), which further contributed to the company going under. This became official when Heyman appeared on RAW to replace Jerry Lawler as a color commentator, which brings this documentary to a close.
I’ll briefly touch on the bonus matches, as I’ve covered the documentary extensively since it is the true draw of this DVD. The bonus matches are Raven & Stevie Richards vs. The Pitbulls from Gangstas Paradise 1995; Psicosis vs. Rey Misterio Jr. under 2 Out Of 3 Falls rules; The Sandman vs. Mikey Whipwreck in a Stairway To Hell Ladder match; 2 Cold Scorpio vs. Sabu from Cyberslam 1996; Raven vs. Tommy Dreamer from Wrestlepalooza 1997; Bam Bam Bigelow vs. Taz from Living Dangerously 1998; and Rob Van Dam vs. Jerry Lynn from Hardcore Heaven 1999.
The opening tag match and Sandman vs. Whipwreck are okay, but the other five matches are much more worthy inclusions. Psicosis vs. Rey is a great contest, as is Scorpio vs. Sabu, with both matches blending extreme stunts with fantastic wrestling. Raven vs. Dreamer brings their long rivalry to a climax, and has some eventful post-match scenes. Bigelow vs. Taz is a believable brawl with an awesome finish. Finally, Van Dam vs. Lynn is another great match, and a perfect example of a contest which one should show to non-ECW fans to explain why the product was so popular.
Several of these matches have alternate commentary, and the DVD is rounded off with some bonus segments, along with a few hidden Easter Eggs; check our page to see how you find them.
Obviously, the documentary is superb. Three hours seems like a long time for a feature-length discussion of a topic, but ECW’s history was so unusual, and so intriguing, that the DVD never once fails to entertain or educate. Everyone’s comments are welcome, even those which contradict the opinions of others, and the archive footage provides context to all of the topics being covered (except for the Mass Transit incident which is not shown, though I doubt anybody would actually want to see this). The frankness of the documentary, and Vince and WWE giving ECW full credit where it was due, elevate this to a level above most DVDs.
For a small promotion which lasted less than nine years, rarely made money and attracted a relatively low portion of the overall wrestling audience, ECW had a huge impact on wrestling in the United States (although some of ECW’s concepts did originate in Japan), most notably the Attitude Era as a whole, but also in terms of the more realistic approach to storylines. And then there’s the large number of performers who went on to enjoy success in the WWF and/or WCW, having first made their mark in ECW. Guerrero, Malenko, Benoit, Misterio, Chris Jericho, The Dudleyz, RVD and countless others first gained notice in the States when working for ECW. This doesn’t include those who had already gained notoriety, but who made an impact in ECW and went onto even bigger things, namely Mick Foley (Cactus Jack, of course), and Steve Austin, whose brash, outspoken promo style first saw the light of day in the land of Extreme.
The emotions are somewhat different when watching this DVD again, for a few reasons. The levels of violence which were accepted as the norm in ECW, and even in WWE during the mid-2000s, are at times pretty hard to watch now, from the truly brutal-looking unprotected weapon blows to the obscene levels of blood loss by certain performers. Many members of the ECW roster unsurprisingly suffered lasting injuries from the bumps they took in the promotion, which in some cases led to painkiller addictions and other problems. The ECW product attracted such a dedicated, cult following, and the roster was so loyal to the cause, that it rarely occurred to anybody what the lasting impact would be of it all. Back then, you would watch these stunts and think “that was awesome!” but, when watching them today, the first thought that comes to mind is how they withstood the impact, and then questioning why they would go and do it again and again, especially at times when some performers were literally being paid nothing.
“The Rise & Fall of ECW” stands as a unique spotlight on a unique promotion which existed at a unique time. For all its faults and controversies, ECW was massively influential. It was a product which, on a mainstream level, won’t ever exist again, during an era which we will probably never experience again. It is a must-see DVD, one of WWE’s best ever, although you may find some scenes and the trivialization of the brutal violence to be a little unsettling when watching it from a modern perspective. Nevertheless, every wrestling fan should watch this, as it not only celebrates the influence that ECW had, but the DVD itself had a major impact upon the WWE product at the time, something that very few documentaries can claim. The history of professional wrestling in the United States is incomplete unless you cover ECW, and “The Rise & Fall of ECW” does a fantastic job of explaining what ECW was all about, and why it meant so much to so many.