ECW pro wrestling poster art by Bill Wood.

To most people in 2020, the entire concept of professional wrestling consists solely of Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Entertainment and whatever version of his product he happens to be delivering to the masses on any given week. But to those in the know, it is much, much more than that. Ask anyone who attended an ECW show in that run-down bingo hall on the south side of Philly the 1990s and they’ll tell you precisely what you missed back in the day, and they’ll probably throw in a few expletives free of charge.


Extreme (extra emphasis on that second “e”) Championship Wrestling was one of the few wrestling promotions that connected with its fan base—and even its employees—on a far deeper level than most weekend warrior pay-per-view jockeys could ever imagine. With a loaded roster of charismatic talent that ratcheted the levels and violence and melodrama up to 11, ECW produced some of the most entertaining spectacle in the history of professional wrestling, as well as the most devoted group of fans anywhere on the planet. So devoted were these fans that many of the regular attendees eventually earned their own nicknames and were nearly as recognizable on television as the wrestlers themselves.


Why were these fans so passionate? Because they knew that ECW leader Paul Heyman and his muscle-bound cast of misfits were every bit as serious about professional wrestling as they were. Whereas other promoters catered condescendingly to younger viewers (McMahon), put their own personal interests before quality production (Eric Bischoff), or simply lost the plot (Bischoff again), Heyman's ECW delivered exactly what it advertised; 100% adult entertainment. Not in the pornographic sense (although they had their share of racy angles), instead Heyman delivered mature themes and storylines complimented by some of the bloodiest and most barbaric matches ever captured on video, matches with bizarre nicknames such as “Stairway To Hell” or “Dudleyville Street Fight.” These matches involved kendo sticks, ladders, tables, garbage cans, chairs, barbed wire, fire and blood. Plenty of blood.


Heyman—a veteran of the business long before his involvement with ECW—is a wrestling visionary that can be credited with much of the promotion’s success. He drew inspiration from the most unlikely of places. In early ‘90s, Seattle grunge rock was the perfect soundtrack for disgruntled music fans who felt that ‘80s rock had gotten out of hand, becoming a corporate shill that had nearly devolved into self-parody. Wrestling had become much the same, and Heyman took note by crafting an edgier promotion that set itself apart from its big-league counterparts by respecting its audience and taking its product seriously. The presentation was decidedly lo-fi, the promos were cutting edge and quite often unfiltered, the action was immediate and intense. Needless to say, the formula worked. The former Eastern Championship Wrestling became Extreme Championship Wrestling, and the rest became history.


ECW's colorful roster of wrestlers reads like a list of rejected comic book villains; Taz, Raven, The Dudley Boys, The Blue Meanie, Tommy Dreamer, Axl Rotten, Amish Roadkill. But of all the participants in ECW’s biggest “extreme” or “hardcore” matches, two names appear the most frequently. Sabu, the “suicidal, homicidal, genocidal maniac,” slashed and brawled his way through one bloody altercation after another with seemingly zero regard for his personal well-being. He fought through one match with a sickeningly deep gash in his bicep, another with a broken jaw. He once cut a match short, but only after his neck was broken in the middle of the ring due to a botched suplex. (Wrestling skeptics take note; these were all real-life injuries.) Although Sabu's sanity could definitely be called into question, he was also an exceptionally gifted athlete, capable of incredible high-flying feats that few others could match.


The Sandman, on the other hand, was an out-and-out hooligan. Lacking Sabu’s chiseled frame and technical grace, Sandman was more like a post-prime ex-boxer after a dozen PBRs at the local watering hole; inebriated, incensed, and seemingly immune to pain. He sauntered casually to the ring in Zubaz pants and a t-shirt to the tune of Metallica's "Enter Sandman," smoking Marlboros, drinking Budweiser, and taunting the audience with his trademark kendo stick. Within minutes, his face would become a crimson mask, his blond mullet streaked with blood, his beer gut striped with barbed wire wounds. You knew exactly what you were getting with Sandman.


It's almost unthinkable that these ultra-violent, politically incorrect events took place just a short time ago. But they did, and the packed crowds in that smoky bingo hall ate it all up. It is worth noting that the company ended up in hot water on more than one occasion due to its envelope-pushing antics, search "ECW Mass Transit" or "ECW Crucifixion" for proof of this. The company usually walked away unscathed, everyone except for the performers that is. Old-school fans might argue that it's unfair to focus solely on ECW's gruesome hardcore element when it delivered so much more, including some brilliant lucha and technical wrestling. But let's call it what it is; the bloodbaths were almost always the marquee matches, it's what the company will always be known for. Two of the company's earliest DVD covers feature fists wrapped in barbed wire.


Extreme Championship Wrestling produced its fair share of copycat promotions (CZW, XPW, etc.) and heavily influenced WWF, WCW and the Monday Night Wars of the late '90s before eventually selling out to Vince McMahon to become another cog in the corporate machine that is World Wrestling Entertainment, cataloged and shelved seemingly forever (although there was a brief relaunch that didn't take). It's better this way. Simply put, the promotion that was ECW was lightning in a bottle, it could never exist in this day and age. But Heyman and Co. created a sensation that will never be equaled in the world of pro wrestling, that of a small-time local organization that reached for the stars, striving to one-up their name-brand competitors by delivering a product fueled by passion. They may have fallen short in their attempt, but the legacy that ECW left behind is one of the most enduring in all of wrestling. Ask the straw hat guy in the front row, he'll tell you. - BW


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ECW pro wrestling poster art by Bill Wood.
ECW pro wrestling poster art by Bill Wood.