I am one of those people who are inclined to buy books. I like having a library in my house, filled with books that I can just pull off the shelf and read through on a whim. I like having a shelf in my library where books my own stories have appeared in can sit as a bit of a brag place.
But my kids like being able to go the library and borrowing books. And so I was in the local council library recently, and while my youngest was searching for her own material, I had a wander. I found the ‘Wrestling’ section. I owned all 6 books they had… and then there was a seventh. One I had heard about, but could not justify spending $40+ buying.
Hardcore History: The Extremely Unauthorized Story Of ECW by Scott E. Williams (2006, SportsPublishingLLC). Now, what I had heard about this book was it was a hard-hitting, uncompromising look at ECW, with lots of interviews with those who were there. Wow, I thought, this should be awesome! Dirt and mud and muck thrown at everyone and everything! Well, what I got was in the main title: History.
I learnt how the Singapore cane got its name. I learnt that Tazz is more than just a wrestler. I learnt that WWE’s version of ECW’s final days is not entirely accurate. I learnt that the crowd felt as much a part of the company as the wrestlers, but that the ring announcer Bob Artese did not. I learnt how Tri-State became ECW. And I learnt that no matter how small or large the wrestling promotion, politics is everywhere.
I learnt a lot of history.
This book, like so many wrestling tomes, was an easy read. It was written in the sort of conversational way you would expect from some one trying to engage a stereotypical wrestling fan without talking down to them. It was well-written, well set out, and set out in a nice chronological order that is very important to people who were not fans or were stuck on the other side of the world.
The interviews were done well, and placed into the narrative well, not crowbarred in. They helped set up the action in the story, and, in many cases, more than one side of an event was presented. It certainly felt honest.
But… oh, you knew there was going to be a “but”. Why in the hell was this called “Extremely Unauthorized”? There was no real dirt I had not heard before, and heard told in much more corrosive language. Paul Heyman came across as a nice guy, who lied at times, and skimped on money at the end, but poured his heart and soul into the company. A nice guy, but slightly delusional, wore his heart on his sleeve, and prone to some slightly underhanded behaviour. Just like nearly every other wrestling promoter ever. I had heard he was almost a cult leader, but the number of people who came and went through ECW’s doors makes him seem ineffectual even in that regard.
So, in the end, this was just a history book. That was all it was. Even the stuff with Tod Gordon being dumped from ECW (or leaving of his own accord) was hardly delved into in any great detail. Heyman apparently only says nice things about him, but Tod is not afraid to blast Paul. Great. We had two sides of the story, told with the same detachment as the two sides of Custer v the Indians is told in Australian class-rooms. I’m not saying it wasn’t well-written – because it was – but that it lacked the emotion I was expecting. It felt odd.
I guess as an antidote to the “WWE saved ECW” line that is pushed by the WWE, it is an essential read. As a dispassionate look at a time when professional wrestling actually changed noticeably (one of the many times it changed, not the only time it changed, I would hasten to add), it is certainly a good book as well. But ECW was about more to its adherents than a book which told the facts. It was more about passion. It was what kept ECW going long past the time it should have died. This book lacks that.
As for ECW itself, this book places it in stark reality for me – it had an impact on wrestling. It led to the so-called Attitude Era of WWE and brought with it more realistic concepts, helping the movement (that had already started) of moving wrestling away from the cartoon era into an era of sports entertainment. And, yes, ECW was sports entertainment. Barbed wire rings, kendo sticks, New Jack insane dives were not wrestling as anyone knew it – that was a glorified stunt show, that was sports entertainment. Would wrestling have gone that way anyway? Sure, but maybe not as quickly, and maybe not to the extreme that we eventually saw.
At its heart, ECW was just a regional territory. Sure, it made it big, but, like the sauropods of the Jurassic Era, by the time the Cretaceous had come about the big ones had gone, leaving just the smaller ones. The only big dinosaurs left were the meat-eaters. And Heyman’s main strengths were twofold – the loyalty he managed to engender in many of his workers, and his booking. He knew how to book to a wrestler’s strength, while hiding deficiencies.
But, really, for all the words written about ECW, for the hours of documentaries, for the seemingly never-ending cycle of “reunions”, ECW was just another regional promotion, one that managed to get a few years of PPV and a few years more than that of national TV exposure. They were never a big fish in the pond. Outside of the USA, they hardly made a ‘blip’. In Japan, their junk-wrestling, ‘hardcore’ style was already established. In Mexico, the athleticism of the lucha libre practitioners has always held sway. In Europe and Australia, ECW was known almost purely by video tapes until after the company died. It may have helped give smaller promotions some ideas of how to make themselves better known through stupid stunts, but in the end they learnt most of those lessons from WCW and WWE copies of ECW, not that original source. Did ECW change wrestling? In its own, small way, yes it did. Did it have the completely ground-shaking impact its adherents claim? No.
But the one thing ECW had that is lacking in WWE and TNA today is passion. I see it at local wrestling here in Adelaide, Australia (home of the best independent wrestling promotion on the planet – Riot City Wrestling), I see it in some Japanese videos, I see it in a lot of Mexican videos. But I don’t see it in WWE or TNA, and I didn’t see it in WCW. That passion means that, more than a decade after it died, ECW fans will still try and tell you it was the best promotion ever, that its matches were ground-breaking and awe-inspiring. And to them, that is 100% accurate. But looking at it with hindsight and with the tyranny of distance, sorry, guys, it was just another promotion. A lot more blood than many were used to, a lot more insanity than was normal, some intelligent booking (at times), but it was just another promotion. One that – like so many hundreds before and since, all around the world – went under.
So maybe a book like this, a history book with its interviews and anecdotes, is the best way to remember ECW. It was the little promotion that, for a brief shooting star moment, could.
And finally, I have decided to finish my columns with a piece of Australian culture. Here’s this fortnight’s…