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Independent wrestling promotions were once the norm all across the country. But as the nineties began, independents were looking for creative ways to survive. Several banded together to share cost and talent; they were known as Eastern Championship Wrestling. Based out of a warehouse in Philadelphia, this promotion seemed doomed to be just one more ninety-day wonder. They hired Paul Heyman, who told the company he would come in, shake things up, and leave. But Heyman stayed and redefined professional wrestling in...
Independent wrestling promotions were once the norm all across the country. But as the nineties began, independents were looking for creative ways to survive. Several banded together to share cost and talent; they were known as Eastern Championship Wrestling. Based out of a warehouse in Philadelphia, this promotion seemed doomed to be just one more ninety-day wonder. They hired Paul Heyman, who told the company he would come in, shake things up, and leave. But Heyman stayed and redefined professional wrestling in the nineties. He crafted a promotion that dared to push the boundaries of sports entertainment. What he created became Extreme Championship Wrestling.
Heyman dared to break with tradition. Rather than relying on local talent and down-and-out veterans, he created new characters and story lines that would appeal to hardcore wrestling fans. Paul knew you had to offer the fans more than the match. Heyman encouraged wrestlers to speak from their hearts. ECW became known for the interview, the shoot. As for the matches: tables, ladders, chairs, barbed wire, and even frying pans were used with abandon. Wrestlers not wanting to be topped put their bodies on the line, taking ever greater risks, daring to jump, leap, and fall from places never tried before.
ECW matches became the stuff of legend.
For nearly a decade, ECW redefined professional wrestling with a reckless, brutal, death-defying, and often bloody style that became synonymous with ³hardcore.² Through extensive interviews with Paul Heyman, Mick Foley, Tazz, Tommy Dreamer, Rob Van Dam, and many more, The Rise & Fall of ECW reveals what made this upstart company from Philadelphia great.
Paul Heyman always had a lot of the mad scientist in him -- the type that was willing to experiment with different ingredients in the hope of creating something new and exciting. He had ideas about how to do this, but never had the sort of laboratory that Tod Gordon was offering him in Philadelphia. There weren't a lot of options for Gordon after his fallout with Eddie Gilbert, a talented but troubled booker. So when he turned to Heyman to salvage this small wrestling promotion, he had to live with the idea that it was not going to be business as usual.
The formula Gordon had used to date in Eastern Championship Wrestling -- nondescript local talent with a washed-up name veteran to lure people in -- was history. Heyman had a plan for the promotion to create its own stars. And he started right off the bat with the first match of the first night he was in charge, creating a new tag team. It turned out he hit a home run with his first experiment -- The Public Enemy, which would turn out to be one of the most popular tag teams the business has ever seen. And it started with two small-time independent wrestlers who had bounced around the business -- the least likely candidates to be wrestling superstars.
Ted Petty was a 6-foot-2, 250-pound, 39-year-old veteran of the Northeast independent circuit who had flirted with the big time, with tryouts in WCW and a handful of matches for Vince McMahon. But Petty was never able to make the leap, so he wrestled for small promotions in small towns and supplemented his income by renting out a ring that he owned. Like most wrestlers, Petty -- born in Woodbridge, New Jersey, and a graduate of Rutgers University -- had been through a variety of personas and gimmicks over his fifteen-year career, at one time wearing a mask and calling himself The Leopard Mask and later The Cheetah Kid.
Petty, who died of a heart attack in 2002, often traveled with his own opponent: Mike Durham, a 6-foot-3, 260-pound kid out of Compton, California. He used the name Johnny Rotten, and while he was not a particularly good wrestler, he put on a good show as a punk rocker. Heyman had seen the two periodically on TV shows, and also once in a match in Singapore, and thought the two would make a perfect fit for an idea he had flying back from Singapore in the summer of 1993. He had been reading a Newsweek article about the cultural changes taking place in America, and about the problems for young men in places like South Central in Los Angeles and Washington Heights in New York. "I read a line in that story that said today we live in an environment that for the first time ever, there are teenagers who are more afraid of living than dying," Heyman recalls. "That line blew me away. I thought we should get these two white guys to do a hip-hop routine where they come out dressed as hoodies, with the baseball uniforms and the hot look in 1993. Their catch phase would be 'Can't scare us because we're the first generation of American children more afraid of living than dying.' Even though one guy was 39 years old, he didn't look it. I called them not Public Enemy, which was the name of the rap group, but 'The Public Enemy,' which was the name of the James Cagney movie where he shoves the grapefruit into Mae Clarke's face."
Heyman saw something in both of these unknowns beyond what they did in the ring, and what he did with Ted Petty and Mike Durham was the blueprint for what he would eventually do with ECW. He made them stars in interviews. "These were two of the funniest guys you would ever want to meet," Heyman said. "But Teddy never showed you that side because, number one, he was never on television enough, and number two, he wore a mask. So I took the mask off him and gave him the name Flyboy Rocco Rock, like Snoop Doggy Dog, and Durham, instead of Johnny Rotten, I called him Johnny Grunge. They became Flyboy Rocco Rock & Johnny Grunge, The Public Enemy. They would do interviews that were just over-the-top ridiculous. They were funny as hell, and then they would go out to the ring and brawl their asses off. They would go over the rails, which at the time was a huge taboo. They used weapons, they used frying pans, baseball bats. This was the act that caught everyone's attention because it was so over the top. In the ring, it was like a riot. And the reason we did it was, they really couldn't wrestle. Teddy could wrestle a little bit. He could put together a nice ten-minute simple match -- armbar, headlock, takedown, whip into the ropes, and he could do some nice flying moves. But he wasn't going to put on a five-star match. It wasn't going to happen. Johnny couldn't wrestle. He could just fight." The Public Enemy was born, and their main gimmick was tables, using them to hit people with and throw people through.
"The theory was that you accentuate the positives and hide the negatives, and I said to Tod, 'We are going to open the show with The Public Enemy.'"
Heyman continued to go through his memory bank and Rolodex to build his new stable of stars. He remembered another independent wrestler who had impressed him when they had crossed paths; he was going by the name of Tazmaniac.
Peter Senerca, who would later be known as Tazz to ECW fans, was a Brooklyn-born tough guy, a compact powerhouse at 5-foot-9 and 250 pounds who had worked as a bouncer and security guard. He grew up playing football and competing in judo, reaching a second-degree black belt. He was going to C.W. Post College on Long Island when, anxious to make some money, he quit because he saw wrestling as an easy way to cash in on his physical skills. "I was going to college as a physical education major," Tazz explains. "My dream was to be a high school phys ed teacher and coach football. Then, as I was going to school, I realized gym teachers didn't make a lot of money and I started thinking I could do wrestling. One thing led to another, and I started doing it."
So in 1990, Tazz signed up for a wrestling school run by veteran wrestler Johnny Rodz, who would train many of the wrestlers who would become ECW stars. They started at an old boxing gym in Brooklyn, then moved over to Gleason's, the world famous boxing gym. The same day that Tazz started, he met another first-day student -- a very big man, at 6-foot-3, 290 pounds, named Alex Rizzo. He was going by the name Alexander the Great. ECW fans would get to know him as Big Dick Dudley, one of the many members of the Dudley family. (Big Dick Dudley passed away in 2002 due to kidney failure.)
"I thought I was going to conquer the world of wrestling," Tazz said. "I was immature, and thought I could just walk into the business and kick the shit out of everyone and just make it. It didn't work out that way, it took a lot longer than I thought."
Tazz started wrestling in shows in Puerto Rico, where Rodz had some connections. And, like most wrestlers who are trying to break into the business, Tazz wrestled on the independent circuit in the northeastern United States. Life in the indies can be pretty chaotic, as Tazz learned in his experience with one of the legendary old-school wrestling families, the Savoldis.
"I was getting booked for this company called IWCCW in 1990," remembers Tazz, who was working on building up his character at the time, The Tazmaniac. "The owner was a guy named Mario Savoldi, and it was based in Parsipanny, New Jersey. They called me on the phone and asked me to go to Westchester, where they were doing TV tapings. I didn't want to just go and get beat by some old guy and hurt my future in the business. I said, 'Yes, I will go there, no problem.' But they had a reputation for guys coming in there to do jobs [lose], so I said I would come in, but I would wear a mask, because I didn't want to just do a job. They said, 'No, you don't have to wear a mask. We don't want you to do a job. We want to promote and push you.'" (A push is when a booker helps a wrestler become more popular with fans, usually through winning matches.)
"I brought the mask with me anyway, so I could wrestle then under an anonymous name. I get up there, and there are a shitload of guys in the locker room. I look at the list, and they were doing three hours of TV, three weeks of shows, one hour, one hour, one hour. I was scheduled to wrestle against guys that I knew I was not supposed to win against.
"So Tazz confronted one of the Savoldis there, Tom, and said, 'What is the deal, you got me doing a job here? I got no problem, I will wear a mask, but I can't wrestle under the name Tazmaniac. That is not going to happen. I am trying to get this gimmick over.' They said, 'No, no, no, sorry, there was a miscommunication. You have to come do the job like that.' They were trying to fuck with me."
Tazz refused to go out there without the mask. "They got pissed off and started yelling, 'Who the hell do you think you are?' and all that stuff. At the time I was a real hothead. I had a chip on my shoulder, and I didn't give a shit about anybody. I said, 'Go fuck yourself.' All the Savoldis were there, and I am ready to throw hands. I said, 'Fine, I'm leaving.' They said, 'Go ahead and leave, you'll never work in the state of New York again. We're hooked up with the athletic commission and all that.' I told them I would do it under one condition, and they lied to me. So I leave."
A few months later, Tazz got a message that Paul Heyman wanted to talk to him. Tazz thought it was some of his friends playing a joke. But after several missed phone calls back and forth, sure enough, Tazz got Heyman on the phone, and Heyman said he had been looking to book Tazz for quite some time, and he wanted to get him in on a promotion he was booking for in New Jersey -- for that same legendary wrestling family, the Savoldis. Tazz said it was very unlikely that the Savoldis would want him anywhere near their promotion, and he explained why. But Heyman told him it wouldn't be a problem.
Tazz remembers Heyman telling him, " 'I know what happened. I know they don't like you. I'm in with these people. Don't worry about it. You're taken care of. If you have to walk, I'm walking with you.' I am thinking, this guy doesn't even know me, what the hell is he talking about? He is going to walk if I walk? Whatever. I needed the money, $100 or $150. So I ask him, 'You're going to push me, right?' He said, 'I promise, I give you my word. If they try any bullshit, I am out of there.'"
The show Heyman wanted Tazz for was in Middletown, New York. He rode up to the show with two wrestlers, one of them Ted Petty. "I knew Teddy had known Paul for years, so I asked, 'What's the deal with this guy? Can I trust him?' Teddy said, 'You can trust him, but Paul is a character. He is off the wall. But if he says he will stand by you, he will stand by you.'"
They get to this old, upstate New York resort, where the match is scheduled to take place in a ballroom. Tazz walks into the building with his fellow wrestlers and is approaching the ballroom when he hears screaming back and forth: "Fuck you." "Yeah, well, fuck you."
Tazz walks into the ballroom, and he sees Heyman and Angelo Savoldi going nose-to-nose in a screaming match. Sure enough, Heyman stood by Tazz. "He kept his word," Tazz said. "They took care of me during the match. At the time, winning and losing was important, or so we all thought it was. So I won my match, they paid me the money, and I thought this guy Paul was a stand-up guy. He was done there, but we stayed in contact by phone."
Heyman asked Tazz to come to ECW, where he debuted on October 1, 1993, against another well-known independent wrestler, Sabu.
"I want you to come in and wrestle this guy named Sabu," Heyman told Tazz. "Have you ever heard of him?"
"Yeah, I met him a few months before at an independent show in Minneapolis."
"Do you think you can have a good match with him?" Heyman asked.
"Sure, it will be a great match," Tazz replied.
Tazz was just saying what Heyman wanted to hear. "I had no idea if it would be a good match," Tazz said. "I was just trying to get work."
Heyman told Tazz, who was doing his Tazmaniac gimmick, that he wanted to make Sabu and get him over with the ECW fans. He also told Tazz he had a lot of open dates ahead, and if this match went well, he could expect some more work.
This was how one of the legendary feuds in all of wrestling was born.
Sabu, whose real name is Terry Brunk, was born December 12, 1964, in Detroit. He was born into wrestling royalty, the nephew of Ed Farhat, a wrestling legend known as The Sheik who became a star attraction in the Midwest, using the persona of a wild man from the Middle East who used foreign objects to cut up his opponents, objects that many times wound up being used on him, as witnessed by the scar tissue The Sheik had on his forehead. His biggest claim to fame was the fireball that he would throw in the faces of his opponents to blind them.
The Sheik had brutal matches with all of the historic names of his time in the ring -- Freddie Blassie, Bobo Brazil, Bruno Sammartino, Jack Brisco, Dory Funk, Jr., and many others, in arenas like Madison Square Garden, the Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto, and the Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles. His home field, though, was Cobo Hall in Detroit, where he was also a promoter. The Sheik would also go to Japan to run a promotion there, and had some legendary matches against the Funks there as well. He even had a brief run in ECW before retiring at the age of 74 in 1998. He died in 2003.
The Sheik also trained a number of wrestlers, including Scott Steiner, Rob Van Dam, and his nephew, Sabu. As a wrestler, Sabu would carry with him the old-school mentality of his uncle and a style that would also incite and excite fans -- without flames shooting out of his hand.
"I wanted Tazz to come in and wrestle with this guy I saw in Japan called Sabu," Heyman recalls. "He had a real hardcore cult following because he had scarred up his whole body by diving into barbed wire. I looked at Sabu and was mesmerized by him. He had a total disregard for his own being, and he looks like he will fight you to the death. To me, in developing the aura of ECW, Sabu was the main key to it all, because here was a guy that we could put up his picture on television, and people would say, 'That's different.' So I called Sabu and hired him, with the promise that when Jimmy Crockett and I started up and went national, he was coming with me. We would go together and make something happen. I wanted Tazz to come in and make Sabu look great."
They both wound up looking great. "We tore it up," Tazz says. "We did some wicked stuff. After that, I was booked for the next six and a half years. I ended up being in the right place at the right time, wrestling the right guy. Sabu was not selfish in that match. We went about twenty-minutes, and we went berserk. It was the beginning, for me and for Sabu."
Heyman also picked Tazz's brain for other prospective wrestlers on the independent circuit to build a new stable for Eastern Championship Wrestling, and Tazz told him about a good-looking kid from Yonkers named Tom Laughlin, later known to wrestling fans as Tommy Dreamer.
"I wrestle him at all the Northeast independent shows and we have a pretty good routine down," Tazz told Heyman. "I can suplex this kid on his head every night and never hurt him. The kid is tough as hell and takes a beating like no one I've ever seen. He is a pretty boy, so you will have to toughen him up, but he can take a beating."
Born February 14, 1971, Dreamer was 7 years old when his father, a hockey fan, sat down one night to watch the New York Rangers face the Montreal Canadiens. But the game had been snowed out, so instead they ran wrestling from Madison Square Garden, and after watching Bob Backlund wrestle Bulldog Brower, Dreamer was hooked. He wanted to be a professional wrestler.
A solidly built athlete at 6-foot-2 and 260 pounds, Dreamer played high school football and one year of football in college, but he never lost his desire to become a wrestler, and would sign up to train with Johnny Rodz, the same trainer who had taught Tazz and other future ECW wrestlers. "I got my brains beat in two days a week, Mondays and Tuesdays," Dreamer said. "Then I started working the indies, like everyone did. I got a few tryouts with the World Wrestling Federation at the time. I showed up one day in the ECW arena and was booked ever since."
Dreamer wrestled Tazz in his debut and lost, in a match every bit as good as Tazz had advertised it would be. After that match, Heyman called Dreamer a few days later and told him to come to the studio in Paoli, Pennsylvania, where they were editing the show for television. Heyman sat down with Dreamer in the studio and they watched his match together.
Heyman pointed to the screen, specifically to four people who gave Dreamer a standing ovation after the match.
"Did you see this?" Heyman asked Dreamer. "These people believe in you. This is Philadelphia. This is something. You have it."
Dreamer dismissed Heyman's little pep talk, but at the end of that TV show, Heyman had it close out with this line: "Wait a minute, wait a minute. These hardcore, bloodthirsty fans of Philadelphia are giving Tommy Dreamer a standing ovation. Maybe there is hope for ECW after all."
This would be a battle that Dreamer would fight throughout his early days of ECW -- getting fans to accept him. Eventually, that would come on one memorable night.
"The fans respected my wrestling ability, but this was the 1990s, and they couldn't get over that I looked like a Buff Bagwell type, the prototypical babyface," Dreamer explains. "They couldn't get over my looks. No matter what, they would heckle me because of my looks. I wore suspenders. I had a shiny robe. They wanted to like me, but this was Philadelphia, where you had the Broad Street Bullies, and I guess they doubted my toughness."
Heyman didn't have much there when he took over booking Eastern Championship Wrestling. But he did have one guy whose toughness nobody doubted -- a 6-foot-2, 250-pound bar owner named Jim Fullington, who would be known as the Sandman. He grew up in the Philadelphia suburb of Broomall playing football, basketball, and baseball and, like most kids, watching professional wrestling on television.
"I always wanted to be a wrestler since I was a kid," Sandman observes. "In 1989, there was this guy named Joel Goodhart who started this little company in Philly called Tri-State Wrestling Alliance, and I went to one of his shows. He was opening up a wrestling school, so on March 6, 1989, I started at this wrestling school, and by June 9, I had my first match."
Goodhart came up with the name Mr. Sandman for Fullington from a billboard off Interstate 95 near the arena for a bedding company called Mr. Sandman. He was pushed as a surfer, wearing green neon pants and carrying a surfboard in the ring. It was getting him work -- he got some matches in Memphis under Jerry Lawler's promotion there -- but it really didn't fit his personality.
"Jim Fullington was a big guy who hung out in neighborhood bars with his friends, drinking, and getting into fights with each other," Heyman says. "The loser would have to pay for drinks. He was a guy that enjoyed fighting, and didn't take it personally. He was a salty guy."
Fans could see through the surfer boy image, and Heyman could see that nobody was buying into it. "The Sandman came out to the ring with a surfboard, with Beach Boys music playing," Heyman recalls. "And the crowd would shit on him. This would be like Mel Torme opening up for Pearl Jam. It wasn't going to happen. It was horrible. And he was for shit as a wrestler. He wasn't very good in the ring.
"But the guy had a look, and he had charisma. He would sit around my locker room, smoking cigarettes and being very polite, thanking me for the opportunity to work here tonight, saying all the right political things. Then he would let loose something like, 'I just want to wrestle my match, get out of here and get drunk.'"
One day, Heyman and Gordon were talking about what to do with the Sandman, and the idea came up to show the fans that locker room attitude. "I say to Tod, 'I've got to let this guy go. He is dragging down the show.' And Tod says, 'But it is a shame that he can't get this personality over to the public.' He would be sitting there in the locker room in those body-building pants, sweatpants with printed designs, a ripped-up T-shirt, and smoking a cigarette."
What happened after that -- who came up with what idea -- is a matter of debate. Sandman remembers, "Tod Gordon convinced Paul to let me come out drinking a beer, and then smoking a cigarette."
Heyman says he told Gordon, "Why can't we present that to the public? Why can't he go out there and smoke a cigarette and drink a beer and be a bum? People like that. That is half of our audience. Let's present this guy as a guy who comes on and says, 'You know what I did yesterday? I smacked my wife in the mouth, and without her mouth, how am I going to make a living this week?' I said to Tod, 'He will be a cult hero. And you could make him a heel or a babyface any time you wanted.'"
So Heyman sat down with Sandman and said, "This Beach Boys thing ain't flying. I want to turn you into a new character. I want you to be you, just be an embellishment of yourself."
Sandman was willing to give it a shot, if it meant he would keep wrestling. After all, it wasn't much of a stretch. But he didn't think it would have the impact that it eventually did. "I didn't think it would be as big as it was," he admits. "It would be real easy for me to say now I thought it would be that successful, but really, I was just happy I was wrestling back then. I didn't have a clue. I was new to the business."
He listened to a few people who were not so new to the business -- Mick Foley and Terry Funk -- and began to have faith in the character and develop it, particularly his entrance, a legendary performance to the Metallica tune "Enter Sandman." "They were the ones that showed me how I identified with the fans," Sandman explains. "I was the guy at the end of the bar, drunk, who wants to play you in a game of pool, and then when you beat me, I want to beat you up. Everybody could identify with my character. It was hard to identify with some of these other guys. Everybody wants to be the tough guy at the end of the bar."
And so ECW found perhaps its standard-bearer for the future of the promotion. "As much as anyone else, Sandman was the embodiment of Extreme Championship Wrestling," Heyman recalls. "He was a huge part of our shows, the whole music entrance and smoking cigarettes and drinking beer and smashing the beer can until he bleeds from the head before he ever starts the match. His matches became secondary. Here was just a tough guy looking for a fight. People loved him."
There was another wrestler who had just arrived at Eastern Championship Wrestling whom Heyman would utilize and probably get more out of than any other promotion Troy Martin has ever worked with in his long wrestling career. After all, in ECW, Martin -- known as Shane Douglas -- was called "The Franchise."
Douglas, born November 21, 1964, in Pittsburgh, began training to be a professional wrestler under the legendary Dominic DeNucci. He began wrestling in 1982 and would gain some attention as one of the stars of the Universal Wrestling Federation. He went on to WCW, as part of a team with Johnny Ace called the Dynamic Dudes, but that fizzled, and Douglas -- a talented wrestler with strong opinions and ideas about the business and his career -- returned to the independent circuit. As has been the pattern of his career, Douglas bounced back and forth between the smaller and larger promotions. When he was briefly with WWE, Douglas won the TV title but struggled to be noticed. Going back to WCW in 1992, Shane won the tag team title with Ricky Steamboat. A year later, shortly after losing the belts to the Holly-wood Blondes -- Brian Pillman & Steve Austin -- Douglas left WCW again and this time landed in Eastern Championship Wrestling, where he quickly became heavyweight champion in the summer of 1993. He would prove to be one of the building blocks of the new ECW.
Heyman was building up the faces of the promotion. But he needed a voice -- an important part of any wrestling show. Ray Morgan was the legendary voice of the WWWF, and then the young Vince McMahon became part of the identity of the promotion as an announcer. Gordon Solie was one of the most popular figures in wrestling in much of the South from his work behind the microphone. A young kid growing up in, of all places, Stamford, Connecticut -- the home of WWE headquarters -- wanted to be the next Gordon Solie, the next big voice in professional wrestling.
Joe Bonsignore -- who would be known to ECW fans as Joey Styles -- was born in the Bronx, but his family moved to Connecticut when he was in middle school. Around that same time, Styles saw his first wrestling match on a 13-inch black-and-white television in his bedroom -- the Wild Samoans against the Strongbow brothers for the tag team title. "I was hooked after that," Styles says. "My dream was to be a pro wrestling television announcer."
Styles picked Hofstra University to go to college for two reasons: it had a strong communications program with their own television studio, and it was close to the offices of the Pro Wrestling Illustrated family of magazines. He hoped to get an internship there to get his foot in the door of the business. While he was going to school, Styles wrote for the school newspaper, worked in the sports information department, and got his wrestling magazine internship -- which got him backstage to a WCW show. It was there he met Paul Heyman.
"I worked for SportsChannel New York one summer, and I took a tape of my work there and showed it to Paul, and he liked it," Styles remembers. So, not long after Styles graduated from Hofstra in June 1993, Heyman began assembling the ECW talent, and made Styles his new announcer.
"He was trying to get work as a heel commentator, and nobody would return his calls," Heyman recalls. "I told him, 'Listen, heel commentator you are not. But a play-by-play announcer, which you could be very competent in, you could be. Instead of using one of the retread guys, I want to use you. You are someone no one has ever seen before. And I want to come in with a whole different way of doing things. When you see something exciting, I want you to scream, and when we shoot you we will tilt the camera MTV style, and zoom in on you.'
"'I don't want your commentary to be like all the other guys,'" Heyman recalls telling Styles. " 'I want you to speak to the audience and not just yell at the audience, and when the match gets exciting, scream your head off. I want you to wait for things to happen. I want you to look at what everyone else is doing, and I want you to be different. I want you to wear the nicest suits you can find, but don't be arrogant about it. We are going to give you a different image than anyone has ever seen in wrestling before. You are going to be Bob Costas. You will have Al Michaels's enthusiasm and Bob Costas's professionalism surrounded by all this insanity.' I never wanted him to be part of the hype or part of the show. I wanted him to be the Rock of Gilbraltar. In the middle of all this insanity is the voice of reason, Joey Styles. I brought him into this small editing studio in Paoli, Pennsylvania, and we started to craft our TV shows for SportsChannel Philadelphia."
Heyman needed someone to help him produce a new version of wrestling on TV, something befitting the new cultural era the country had embarked on. Later on that first year, he found someone in New York: a 29-year-old production whiz named Ron Buffone -- who didn't know a lick about wrestling when he met Heyman.
"I grew up in the Bronx, and was not a wrestling fan," Buffone admits. "I hated it. I went to Iona College. I was majoring in computer information and sciences, and I hated it. I was in a band, and the band needed a music video. I took a couple of broadcasting courses, and did the music video for the band, and thought this was pretty cool. I could get into this. So I changed my major and graduated from Iona in broadcasting. From there I started my own company."
He would meet Heyman, who was looking for all new faces for ECW, both at the microphone in front of the camera and in the studios, and Buffone fit the bill -- eager and looking to get in on the ground floor of something special. "When I met Paul, he was very personable," Buffone says. "He came with a couple of T-shirts and hats, and said, 'You guys hungry? Let's get some Chinese food.' So I liked him instantly. He gave me free shirts and hats and fed us. At the time, I didn't know who he was. I had never heard of him from WCW or anything. I learned all about what he had done afterwards. Paul has a million stories, and I would hear all these stories, and would be laughing behind his back sometimes after he left at some of his stories, like, yeah, right, because they were so hard to believe. Then I learned in the years I was in the business and started meeting the people he was talking about, I found that those stories were true."
Buffone had converted his old bedroom in his parents' home in Pelham Manor, New York, and eventually the ECW production work would move from the Paoli studio. They would hang an ECW banner on the wall of the Buffone basement family and run Styles through his voice-over work on the shows, and this small unit would start producing revolutionary work in the wrestling business.
"Productionwise, Ron Buffone is amazing," Heyman says. "He and I would fight from day one, and you would think we were going to get into a fistfight, nose to nose, but they were all productive because we loved each other so much. I would say something like, 'Let's build this music video and let's change the tempo of this to match that, and I need the whole screen to shake.' He would spend twelve hours, without me there, creating this effect where the whole screen would shake.
"I would say, 'Let's do that with The Public Enemy,' and he would say, 'No, they never shook things up, Shane Douglas shook things up, let the shake be on Shane.' I would say, 'Okay, I understand that, but this is why I want it with The Public Enemy,' and he would say something like, 'If it is going to be The Public Enemy, shouldn't it not only shake, but shouldn't the whole thing turn upside down?' Anything that I envisioned in video, with about $150,000 in equipment when these hip-hop artists were using multi-million-dollar studios, Ron Buffone could match anybody. He was a genius, and putting me and Ron in the same room to discuss producing a television show was dangerous. I was changing television as much as I was changing wrestling. We are doing more videos and effects and different graphic packages, and from the shitty little graphics package that Ron has, he is putting on graphics that match the NFL's graphics, with a $1,500 kit. The guy was amazing in terms of what he could pull off, productionwise."
Styles remembers with fondness the simplicity and uniqueness of their production work in the Buffone household: "You would do some work in the studio, then maybe walk over into the kitchen and read the paper. Ron's mother and father, who owned a restaurant for many years, would cook some of the greatest Italian food I ever had. Then we would go downstairs to the basement and do our on-camera work. There was a banner behind us, and I was looking at Paul Heyman sitting in a plastic lawn chair, with an ironing board as a table, with notes, telling me, 'Okay, I need a sixty-second on-camera saying this, or a thirty-second on-camera saying this,' and I would go ahead and would nail it. The show would be built through the night, or during the day while I was at work. I was going to either come in first thing in the morning, at five A.M., or be there seven at night after work, depending on when they got done. I would come in and do the voice-over first, and then with the holes left in the show, I would go downstairs and do my on-camera work and they would be inserted into the show as I would leave and sprint to catch the train to my regular job. A lot of times I would go in at about eight at night and work through the night, then wash my face and brush my teeth and go to my regular job with no sleep. That was the way it worked for years."
Heyman's first Eastern Championship Wrestling show was called Ultraclash, on September 18, 1993, at the ECW Arena in Philadelphia, before a crowd of more than a thousand fans who got a small taste of the future of wrestling.
In that show, Terry Funk and another wrestling legend, Stan Hansen, beat two other veterans, Kevin Sullivan & Abdullah the Butcher, by disqualification in a Bunkhouse match; Headhunters beat up Miguelito Perez & Crash the Terminator in a Baseball Bat match; The Public Enemy defeated Ian Rotten & Jason Knight; Tony Stetson retained the Pennsylvania Heavyweight Championship with a win over Tommy Cairo; Sal Bellomo beat Richard Michaels in a Strap battle; Super Destroyer #1 defeated Super Destroyer #2 in a Mask vs. Mask match; The Dark Patriot defeated JT Smith in a Scaffold match; Tigra won a Battle Royal; and Eastern Championship Wrestling Champion Shane Douglas beat Sandman to keep the title.
Heyman's influence on the show would be more apparent in the next promotion, a two-night event called NWA Bloodfest, Parts 1 and 2. There were not as many people in the crowd at the ECW Arena on October 1 and 2 for those shows, but they got a better look at Eastern Championship Wrestling, Paul Heyman-style.
About three hundred people saw Rockin' Rebel pin Richard Michaels; Malia Hosaka beat Molly McShane; Paul Diamond & Pat Tanaka, known as Bad Company, defeated Ian & Axl Rotten; Tony Stetson & Johnny Hotbody kept their Eastern Championship Wrestling Tag Team titles by beating Bad Company; The Public Enemy, Rocco Rock & Johnny Grunge, defeated Silver Jet and Gino Caruso; Sandman pinned Metal Maniac; Abdullah the Butcher, Terry Funk & JT Smith beat Don Muraco, Jimmy Snuka & Kevin Sullivan; then Sullivan and the Butcher fought to a double disqualification. Funk pinned Snuka in a Steel Cage match to win the Eastern Championship Wrestling TV title, and, in one of the most talked-about matches, Sabu pinned Tazz, still known as Tazmaniac.
One night later, back at the ECW Arena, Sullivan beat Abdullah in a Steel Cage match; The Public Enemy defeated Ian & Axl Rotten and Bad Company in a Triangle Steel Cage match; then Bad Company beat The Public Enemy in another tag team bout, and the Rottens defeated Don Allen & Chad Austin; Tony Stetson & Johnny Hotbody beat Sandman & JT Smith to retain the tag team titles; Sullivan pinned Caruso; Sir Richard Michaels beat Rockin' Rebel by disqualification; Snuka pinned Austin; Tazz pinned Tommy Dreamer; and in two ECW Heavyweight title bouts, Champion Shane Douglas defeated JT Smith by disqualification to retain the title, and Sabu pinned Douglas to win the title.
Though the crowds were not big, these shows were all about the TV product that Heyman was about to launch. "We just changed the way everything is done in Philadelphia," Heyman says. "We blast out Sabu. We blast out Tazmaniac. We do a match where Tommy Dreamer loses to Tazmaniac, but he took such a beating and kept kicking out, and taking a beating and kicking him out. It was an hour of television where every single segment, the bad guy won. We are heading toward our formula that there really are no bad guys or good guys, just guys that people will pay to see. But we had to do this slowly. So in every segment the guy that they didn't want to win won. In the final match Tazz wins, but it took such a beating to beat down Dreamer, that as we are going off the air and the music is winding down, the audience gives Dreamer a standing ovation.
"Joey Styles did all of his commentary in postproduction with my direction," Heyman recalls. "I knew the images we wanted to portray. It was all about getting over the letters ECW, you are watching ECW, this is ECW, and Joey has the line, 'On a night when nothing went right, on a night where so many heroes fell from grace, Tommy Dreamer, even in losing, has shown more dignity than anybody else here in this bingo hall tonight. Maybe there is hope after all.'
"For some reason, that resonated, and people just started calling the hot line and flooding us with requests," Heyman says. "People went nuts over this TV show, which was something they hadn't seen before in wrestling. We had no formula for TV. I wiped the slate clean on formula. I put on the best sixty minutes that I could produce every week, in whatever way we could, and because we were postproduced, that means that I could tape a match and never air the match. I could make it into a music video. I would splice together highlights of a match with a video, and air it, so you get to see the wrestlers in a different light.
"We did something different that is revolutionary to this day, and nobody understands how we did it, called the 'Pulp Fiction,' and the reason it was called that is because it always came back to that original premise," Heyman says. "We would shoot after the show, six hours worth of interviews, and I would chop them up. So you come into an interview segment, and we did our interviews different from what had been done before. I gave them thirty interviews, all jammed up, so it would be something like, 'Hi, I'm The Franchise, Shane Douglas, and don't forget, I'm coming down on November thirteenth, and my opponent, I'm going to kick his ass and you're going to like it,' and then boom, I would go to his opponent, in a totally different setting, and he would attack Shane Doug- las...then I would go to The Public Enemy and they would say something like, 'Oh, Johnny, what are we going to do on November thirteenth? I don't know. Rocco, it is going to be a great fight,' and boom, you go to someone else, and they say something like, 'I don't like Philadelphia cheesesteaks,' and boom, you go back to Shane Douglas. You chop up these interviews and everybody is in different locations. These could go anywhere from six minutes to fifteen minutes on any particular subject, and everybody would have face time on television. Usually, it would only be the top stars who had face time on television. Well, then how do you get your young guys out there? So Tazz would talk and Dreamer would talk, and everyone would have air time."
One time, Heyman aired a thirty-minute sitdown interview, documentary style, with Shane Douglas about his career and ambitions -- totally out of wrestling character. "I want to be known as 'The Franchise,' and I will have to prove myself," Douglas said. This show ran for thirty minutes in a sixty-minute show, without commercials.
"At the time, wrestling was trying to be such professional television that it was such a standard formula," Heyman says. "We kicked that out of the window. We come back from a break, and who knows what you were going to see? You might see an interview, a match, a music video, you never knew. We intentionally threw formula out the window and intentionally every week gave you a totally different type of show than what you saw the week before. The only thing that was consistent was that it was episodic -- the storylines continued week to week. This guy is on a winning streak, this guy is on a losing streak. This guy is stalking this other guy's girlfriend, this guy's girlfriend is talking to this other guy. The storylines were consistent and long-term, but the formula for the show was Coke one week and Sprite the next."
Heyman held his first supershow -- November to Remember -- on November 13, 1993, at the arena, with a crowd on hand of about a thousand people. Sandman and Jim Neidhart fought to a double disqualification; Kevin Sullivan beat Tommy Cairo in a Shoot match; Johnny Hotbody & Tony Stetson defeated Ian & Axl Rotten to retain the tag team title, and then Johnny Gunn & Tommy Dreamer beat Stetson & Hotbody in a double pin to take the tag team title; in a singles match, Mr. Hughes pinned Johnny Gunn; Malia Hosaka beat Sherri Martel by disqualification; Salvatore Bellomo defeated Rockin' Rebel in a forfeited Chair match; The Public Enemy beat Bad Company in a South Philly Hood bout; Tazz pinned Tommy Dreamer; and in an Eastern Championship Wrestling Television title match, Sabu & Road Warrior Hawk defeated Terry Funk & King Kong Bundy, and when Sabu pinned Funk, because of stipulations made before the bout, Sabu won Funk's title.
"We did a thing where Sabu ended up beating Terry Funk for the heavyweight title," Heyman recalls. "I went to Funk and and asked him, 'Who do you want to make?' And he said, 'I want to make Sabu.' And he says, 'I want to make Shane Douglas, too.' I didn't take it that we would make one guy first and the other. I figured Terry was so great, we could make them both.
"There would not have been an ECW without Terry Funk," Heyman states. "He was the only veteran from that era who had the reputation of being legitimately tough, but also had the business sense that, 'I've got to get the next generation ready for there to be a business, for there to be an industry for me to leave something behind to.' Terry had that mindset. A lot of the veterans back then were unwilling to get the young guys ready, a lot of the veterans were still clinging and clutching to their spots...I want to be 'the' tough guy, I want to be 'the' champion, 'the' top guy. Terry Funk said, 'I can make him, I can make him, too...Let me make him, I'll do something special with him,' and he did, with everybody he worked with."
Once Sabu beat Funk for the title, Shane Douglas went on the Eastern Championship Wrestling show and called Funk out.
"Let's get one thing straight," Douglas said before the camera. "I am the number one contender. I'm young. I'm good-looking. I'm The Franchise. I'm not some old guy like Terry Funk, hanging on. I'm not some guy clinging to the last vestige of my career."
Funk walked on and said, "Don't ever disrespect me again. You may think I'm like all these other old guys, but I will smack you in the mouth." Funk then proceeded to slap Douglas around on the show, which set the stage for Eastern Championship Wrestling's next event, Holiday Hell, on December 26, 1993. With about a thousand people at the arena, Mr. Hughes beat Sandman; Rockin' Rebel defeated Don E. Allen; Kevin Sullivan & Tazz beat JT Smith & Tommy Cairo to retain the tag team titles; Chad Austin pinned Pitbull #1; Pat Tanaka pinned Rocco Rock in a Body Count match; Shane Douglas pinned Tommy Dreamer, who then later won a Lights Out Battle Royal; and Sabu beat Funk -- with a little help -- in a no-disqualification bout to win the ECW heavyweight crown.
"It's Sabu vs. Funk again for the title," Heyman recalls. "This time, just as Terry Funk is about to win the championship, Shane Douglas comes out and knocks him out. Shane Douglas knocks out Terry Funk, and Sabu wins the match. Now we go on TV and find out that this enraged Sabu, because Sabu's uncle was the Original Sheik, who trained both Sabu and Rob Van Dam. Joey Styles told the story. Sabu is furious because the one man that the original Sheik could never beat was Terry Funk. And here was Sabu, going to beat Terry Funk all on his own, and Shane Douglas is going to take credit for it. So Sabu is looking for Shane Douglas. And Terry Funk has been deprived of his title, so he is looking for his title. And Shane Douglas is pissed at Terry Funk because Terry Funk embarrassed him, and he is also gunning for Sabu because Shane Douglas wants the title."
The tension is building between Sabu and Douglas. "We do a TV taping the first week of January," Heyman says. "There was this huge blizzard, and we had to offer free beer and hot dogs just to get a hundred and fifty people into the building. It was a free taping, free beer and free hot dogs on a Sunday afternoon, with nine inches of snow out there, and we only got a hundred and fifty people. But we gave them a forty-five-minute match between Shane and Funk in which both guys were just covered with blood, and nobody wins -- which we never did, because from the moment I took over, there was a winner and a loser in every match. We didn't do disqualifications, we didn't do countouts, because I hated that, and if we did, it meant something. Here we were, four months in, and we did our first nonfinish. When the match was over, we had Sabu attack them both."
That December Holiday Hell match was noteworthy for one other reason -- it marked the major show debut of a 6-foot-6, 270-pound wrestler from Tampa with a Hulk Hogan connection named Mike Alfonso who would come back years later and become ECW Champion Mike Awesome, who pinned Randy Starr.
"I watched professional wrestling as a teenager," Awesome said. "I was always interested in it. My Dad's sister married Hulk Hogan's brother, and they produced a son who was about a year younger than me, my cousin, Horace Hogan, who also wrestled and whose real name is Michael Bollea. He and I grew up together. Because his uncle, Hulk Hogan, became a popular wrestler while we were in high school, my cousin got interested in it. We talked about it, and it got me interested in it."
So Awesome began training with Steve Keirn in Tampa, and made his debut on February 26, 1989, at the Eddie Graham Sports Complex in Orlando. He would eventually wind up in Japan, which is where he found his ECW connection. "I was working in Japan, and so was Sabu," Awesome recalls. "We became friends, and he started working with ECW. He came back to Japan and told me, 'Mike, there is this company, it is really cool, and you have to work there.' I was pretty busy in Japan and not really that interested in it. But he finally talked me into it. I used my own frequent-flier miles to go to Philadelphia and wrestle an ECW match. After that, Paul agreed to use me." Awesome would leave ECW and then come back, as did many wrestlers over the years.
The seeds were being planted for change in 1993. They began to take root the next year.
Copyright © 2006 by World Wrestling Entertainment, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
A GREAT STORY IN PAUL HEYMAN"S VIEW which shows his vision of ECW...from starting from scratch to tell you about the conflicts of running your own wrestling buisness..This is a must read even though some is copied from the dvd....i give it four out of five slams
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