Alternate Reality by Vin Tastic – Breaking the Law?

Once upon a time, in a small converted Bingo hall in South Philadelphia, a modest company that had once been aligned with the bloated, tired, National Wrestling Alliance broke away from the pack of indy obscurity and carved its own niche in the pro wrestling universe. After breaking away from the NWA, ECW went on to produce an incredibly unique product in small arenas with little to no mainstream exposure, but after three years of undying loyalty to their beloved product, Extreme Championship Wrestling’s rabidly loyal fan base was rewarded when ECW broke through the pay-per-view glass ceiling, after much consternation and haggling between then owner Paul Heyman and the cable providers. Their debut ppv event, the landmark Barely Legal, aired on April 13, 1997.

TODAY’S ISSUE: ECW presents Barely Legal.

Last week I discussed, among other things, the original ECW and the fact that they never compromised their vision of how to promote an edgy, standout alternative to WWF and WCW. That got me reminiscing so I dug into my WWE One Night Stand 2006 DVD for the full copy of Barely Legal included within.

The show opened the only way that was appropriate, with Joey Styles standing in the middle of the ring amongst a throng of faithful chanting “E-C-Dub! E-C-Dub!” No sooner did Styles start running down the card then the reigning ECW world tag team champions, the diabolical Dudley Boyz, stormed the ring and quickly took over the proceedings. D-Von cut a scathing promo against the crowd, whipping them into a frenzy and drawing ungodly amounts of heel heat. They went into the opening video montage from there, showing highlights of the insane carnage and high-risk moves synonymous with ECW’s signature style. Back in the ring, The Dudleys’ personal announcer Joel Gertner did a Michael Buffer-esque ring intro for the champs, laying it on pretty thick. Then out came the challengers, the former champions Saturn and Kronus, who were known as the Eliminators.

ECW World Tag Team Title Match: The Dudley Boyz versus the Eliminators. The champs quickly bailed out when Kronus and Saturn hit the ring, and their idiotic manager Sign-Guy Dudley attempted to take the fight to the Eliminators. Not a good idea; the challengers nailed him with Total Elimination, but his sacrifice was worth it as the Dudleys snuck in from behind and took over on offense thanks to Sign-Guy’s distraction.

The match was similar to the final round of a Rocky fight, with each team throwing haymakers and no real flow or psychology, but it was a great way to pop the crowd and kick off ECW’s ppv era. The fans were with them all the way and both teams delivered their classic offense. The Eliminators eventually took control and nailed Buh-Buh with Total Elimination for the victory and their third ECW world tag team title reign. Then Gertner falsely claimed that due to some bogus scoring system, Buh-Buh and D-Von had actually retained the gold, so he ate Total Elimination as well to a huge pop, and Kronus and Saturn celebrated with their belts. After a hot opener, Barely Legal was off and running.

In order to hype the main event, a three-way dance for the #1 contendership later in the evening with a shot against reigning ECW world heavyweight champion Raven immediately following, they showed a highlight piece on the Sandman, one of three competitors vying for that opportunity to take Raven’s gold. Next up, the late, great Chris Candido cut a promo about how his injured arm kept him off the show, and he sort of rambled a bit about lots of guys on the card before vaguely claiming he’d have an impact at Barely Legal somehow. Candido was originally scheduled to face Lance Storm on this show but since he was injured, Candido’s spot went to none other than Rob Van Dam.

Lance Storm versus Rob Van Dam. If this exact match were performed today, it would still thrill most fans and sell DVDs, so you can imagine how incredibly cutting-edge and innovative it was in 1997. Both guys were hungry, in incredible shape, and willing to go all-out in order to tell a compelling in-ring story. It struck me that the action reminded me a lot of the kind of fare Ring of Honor showed off in its heyday a couple of years back, and the evolution of outstanding indy action in South Philly became crystal clear to me at that point. This side of ECW clearly inspired lots of independent feds in business today.

The contest was a symphony of athleticism, agility, and intensity, and I couldn’t recommend a match more strongly for those who love high-impact wrestling. Van Dam introduced a chair into the fray, but his ability to conceive unique uses for it made the weapon an exciting addition to his offense, not hackneyed or done-to-death. They went at it tooth and nail until RVD kicked the chair into Storm’s face and landed a standing Shooting Star Press for the pinfall. This was an outstanding, fun, high-energy contest between two very capable in-ring performers. Great stuff.

RVD then cut an angry promo about the fact that he wasn’t originally on the card, and only “got the call” because Candido was too injured to perform. He claimed that his strong showing on this ppv made him worth “more money elsewhere”, committing what ECW fans consider to be the cardinal sin, trying to find work in WWF or WCW and developing his cocky, arrogant character. Who says RVD can’t cut a promo?

Imported 6-man tag match from Mickinoku Pro Wrestling: The Great Sasuke, Gran Hamada, and Masato Yakushiji versus Terry Boy, Dick Togo, and Taka Michinoku. Taka’s team was a rib on WCW and the nWo, representing the “Japanese contingent of the Blue World Order”. As you would expect, this was a flashy, quick, exciting match that never let up and kept the pedal to the metal. The bWo dominated early, impressing with a smooth flow of offense that it seemed they could maintain all night long. But Yakushiji finally managed to counter out of trouble and make a tag to Gran Hamada, whose power and experience changed the tide of the match and gave his team their first advantage of the contest.

The momentum shifted back to the bWo when Dick Togo tagged in and matched power against Hamada, but the faces weren’t done just yet. Sasuke absorbed punishment for several minutes until finally tagging Yakushiji back in, and the youngster was brutalized by an amazing array of moves by the bWo. Hamada ate a spike piledriver and Yakushiji was drilled with a triple-team powerbomb – OUCH! All of a sudden the faces were on a roll, and the high-risk dives started. Every wrestler seemed to launch himself off of something onto somebody for the big spot-fest chapter of the match, and things really heated up. Taka delivered a vicious missile dropkick to the back of Sasuke’s neck, and planted him into the canvas with the Michonoku Driver #2. That should have been the finish, but they continued on until Sasuke pinned Taka with a bridging suplex. If you like a fast pace and loads of action, you owe it to yourself to check out this match. One word: WOW!

They aired another video clip highlighting one of the three men in the #1 contender match, this one focusing on a very serious Stevie Richards. He gave compelling reasons for his need to take revenge on Raven for the years of abuse he suffered at the hands of the reigning champ, and spoke of redeeming his entire life in the process. This sort of gritty reality in promos worked so well for Paul Heyman through the years, and helped raised the stakes in countless ECW matches. Richards explained that on this night, he wasn’t Big Stevie Cool, leader of the bWo; he wanted to shed his silly image and earning his own respect in the ring. I was certainly pulling for him. Thanks to all the hype and these video packages they did a great job of making the three-way dance and the resulting world title match seem important, which is the very best way to sell a championship main event match.

ECW World Television Title Match: Shane Douglas versus Pitbull #2. Former Pitbulls manager Francine accompanied the champ to the ring, and Douglas cut a promo claiming responsibility for bringing ECW to what he called pro wrestling Nirvana, pay-per-view. The back-story here was that Douglas “broke Gary Wolfe’s neck”, so his Pitbulls partner wanted revenge. Pitbull #2 focused on the neck of the Franchise early on, obviously wishing to take an eye for an eye so to speak and seeking to injure Douglas’ neck as a receipt for what he did to Pitbull #1. Emotions ran high during this battle as the crowd pleaded with Pitbull #2 to “break his neck!” Certainly ECW fans were never accused of being sentimental. Douglas delivered three consecutive piledrivers to #2, looking to take out Wolfe’s partner in the same fashion as he eliminated Pitbull #1 himself. The crowd, obviously shaken by the intensity and vile nature of Douglas’ attack, chanted, “she’s got herpes” at Francine. Classy.

While cranking back on #2’s neck in a Camel Clutch, Douglas looked at Wolfe, who was sitting at ringside, and told him, “this is you!” That just isn’t very nice at all. But #2 fought back and regained momentum, dumping the Franchise to the outside over the top rope, through a table, via a fall-away slam. They brawled on the outside, and Wolfe got some licks in on Douglas. Pitbull #2 tossed a section of the steel guardrail into the ring, and things were about to get truly extreme as the ever-sensitive crowd chanted, “we want blood!”

Unfortunately, the match deteriorated into an overbooked mess at that point. An intense battle between the two hated rivals in the middle of the ring might have been a better final chapter in the war, but they turned to slow, plodding, boring brawling instead of the intense payoff they should have delivered. They had the crowd with them for a few minutes early on, but the slow pace and drifting focus lost them and the restless crowd chose instead to entertain themselves with a Francine-directed chant of “she’s a whore!”

Meanwhile, the match continued to meander without a hint of the fire it needed. Francine passed Douglas a pair of brass knuckles, but two shots with them and a broken piece of table to the head, plus a ring bell to the noggin all failed to keep #2 down for the count. Not only was that more punishment than any wrestler should have been expected to survive, but the match needed to end there for artistic purposes as well. The more weapons the Franchise used to drill #2 in the head, the more he kicked out of pinfall attempts, and the contest dragged on and on. Pitbull #2 pulled a chain out of Douglas’ boot and drilled the Franchise, but Candido interfered as predicted in his earlier promo, preventing the title from changing hands but more importantly, sadly, preventing the match from ending. Finally, much to my relief, Douglas was able to finish #2 with a suplex about eight minutes too late to have done any good from entertainment standpoint.

Then this storyline traveled precisely where it didn’t need to go; into the land of even more overbooking. There was something about a masked man who would reveal himself if Douglas retained his strap, and the set-up was supposed to be that everyone knew it would turn out to be the late Ravishing Rick Rude. However, they had to do one more swerve and have “Rude” unmask as Brian Lee before the real Rude revealed himself two seconds later anyway, so what was the point? At least the entire segment was finally over now so we could now move on and get back to the good stuff.

Barely Legal was shaping up to be an outstanding show until it was derailed by this snooze-fest, and hopefully it would pick back up. Raven then cut a promo predicting Terry Funk would win the triple threat and go on to face him in the title match, and we rolled into one of the main events of the evening.

Grudge Match: Taz versus Sabu. This was a fantastic way to get the show back into gear. If you don’t know what Taz was all about before he added a “Z” to his moniker and became a commentator, then you have missed something special in the modern era. Taz was once a dangerous, rock-solid suplex machine who knew no fear and dominated his opponents. He and Sabu had a long history at this point, and their rivalry could have sold the ppv alone.

Bill “Fonzie” Alphonso, Taz’ manager, pranced around the ring adorned in orange and black, blowing his whistle and getting in Sabu’s face whenever able. The difference in style between these two men was striking; Sabu was the anything-goes risk taker, and Taz was the grappler/striker and submission technician in the MMA vein. Taz legitimately broke Sabu’s nose early in the fight, but the nephew of the original Sheik never relented even with his face covered in blood. The most suicidal, homicidal, genocidal athlete in ECW took every risk in his arsenal in an effort to prevent his former tag team championship partner from locking him up on the mat. They say the best defense is a good offense, and that was reflected in Sabu’s strategy on this night.

However Taz was not to be denied; he took control and dominated Sabu in the ring, outwrestling the high-flyer. Whenever able, Sabu answered Taz’s mat wrestling with his patented high-risk arsenal, much of which utilized a steel chair. But each time Sabu scored any offense, Taz reestablished control via striking and grappling, at least until Sabu’s next death-defying maneuver. Sabu and Taz went after each other with the vengeance and hatred that should have been displayed in the previous match; you could sense the storyline anger between these two warriors and feel how badly they wanted to destroy each other. That was one thing ECW always excelled at, drawing the viewer into the emotion of the event.

Late in the match Sabu had the gall to attempt Taz’s own katahajime hold, which Taz called the Tazmission, and the Human Suplex Machine didn’t like it one bit. Incensed by this affront, Taz cranked it up a notch and locked in the hold himself, forcing Sabu into unconsciousness for the victory. This was one intense battle which in my opinion, much more than flaming chairs, Singapore canes, and questionable content, embodied the spirit of the original ECW; exciting, fast paced, violent, and emotionally satisfying professional wrestling.

The après featured a lot of storyline activity, including a Taz babyface turn (based upon a promo he cut in which he professed his respect for Sabu after his incredible efforts in the match) and a heel turn by Fonzie, who joined Sabu and his tag team partner RVD in a new stable. Fonzie then cut a promo on Taz, and RVD continued his earlier theme of wanting to leave ECW, the biggest slap in the face to the Philly faithful, adding, “I love to work Mondays” in an obvious reference to WWF’s Monday Night Raw and WCW’s Monday Nitro. The threesome’s beat-down of Taz was successful in making me want to track down more chapters in their saga, a good indication of solid booking; always leave ‘em wanting more.

With the two-match series for the ECW world title now at hand, Joey Styles introduced the Innovator of Violence, Tommy Dreamer, as his guest color commentator, and out came the participants in the three-way dance, each of whom had a strong desire to earn a shot at Raven by winning this match. First was Stevie Richards alongside the US contingent of the bWo, followed by Sandman in his traditional long, cigarette-smoking, beer-swilling, forehead-cracking entrance, and finally the hardcore legend, Terry Funk.

#1 Contender’s Match: Stevie Richards versus Sandman versus Terry Funk. Sandman spit beer in Richards’ face and the action was underway. They all traded offense, and then with Sandman outside the ring, Funk hit four consecutive hangman’s neck-breakers on Richards, and Sandman threw a ladder into the ring and nailed Funk with it. Later, while Funk and Sandman battled atop the ladder, Funk launched himself at Richards with a moonsault as the “middle-aged and crazy” living legend pulled out all the stops for a shot at Raven. Stevie superkicked the ladder into Sandman’s face and almost pinned him, and the match raged on.

With Stevie and Sandman now battling atop the ladder, Funk improvised a double-hotshot by knocking it over and driving both men into the top rope, then executed his famous Three Stooges ladder spot to pop the crowd. They brawled into the audience and threw everything but the kitchen sink at each other, and Sandman left the arena to secure some more plunder. When he returned he threw a garbage can from the floor into the ring, right into the Funker’s head. Give the Sandman points for accuracy, that was the second time in the match he launched an object from the floor into the ring and hit Funk squarely in the dome. Funk and Sandman coordinated a spike-piledriver on Richards, then placed a ladder across his prone frame for a Sandman slingshot legdrop which looked to finish the leader of the bWo, but he kicked out. The next double-team maneuver they executed on poor Stevie, a see-saw ladder spot, set him up for a wicked double powerbomb which left him down for the count, and Richards was eliminated.

The contest was now down to a one-on-one affair between Funk and Sandman. This was not an ideal pairing, since Funk’s age and knees severely limited his wrestling repertoire at this point in his career, and Sandman was never more than a brawler, so unfortunately most of the wrestling skill in the contest was eliminated first. At least this final fall was over quickly. Sandman revealed some barbed wire but didn’t get a chance to use it as Funk beat him to the punch and whipped Sandman’s bare back with it, but he regained the diabolical weapon and used it against the grizzled veteran as originally intended. They did the garbage can on the head spot, and Richards returned to the ring to deliver a superkick to the can on Sandman’s head, and Funk finished him with a moonsault to earn the shot at the ECW world heavyweight championship against Raven, who immediately entered the ring and got the title defense going in a hurry.

ECW World Heavyweight Championship Match: Raven versus Terry Funk. Already battered from the three-way dance and facing a fresh and evil champion, Funk found himself in a bad spot. Raven wasted no time busting open his challenger with a steel chair, and Funk wore the crimson match. In a great Paul E. moment, a doctor entered the ring and attempted to stop the contest, but Funk wouldn’t hear of it. Tommy Dreamer became extremely emotional on commentary as Funk, his mentor and father-figure, to whom he gave up his own spot in the three-way dance, suffered at the hands of the lunatic ECW champion. Raven went after Funk with bad intentions, attacking him in all sorts of hardcore ways. Raven even attacked the doctor and then his stable, Raven’s Nest, got involved in the decimation of the hardcore legend.

Raven stopped mid-match to cut a promo on Dreamer, who’d finally had enough and left the announce position to challenge Raven to come get some. But Dreamer was attacked from behind by Big Dick Dudley and Raven drilled the referee with a DDT before Dreamer shoved Dudley off the elevated announce position and through the three stacked tables Raven had set up and intended to use to end Funk’s career right at Dreamer’s feet. Dreamer then made his way to ringside and attacked the champion, nailing Raven with a DDT and enabling Funk to cover Raven and secure the ECW world heavyweight championship in a miraculous feel-good moment to close the inaugural pay-per-view for the maverick indy fed, as mentor and protégé celebrated together with the ecstatic crowd.

This show represents happier times for U.S. wrestling fans; 1997 was a high mark for three promotions at one time. DX, Rock and Austin were running wild in WWF, and the nWo was taking over WCW. Meanwhile, ECW was promoting exciting shows like this one and earning the devotion of their cult-like fan base, and as a wrestling fan, you couldn’t have asked for much more at one time. If you’ve never taken the time to go back and see the original Extreme Championship Wrestling this is an excellent place to start. Other than the Douglas/Pitbull debacle the show was phenomenal and well worth watching, and it holds up very well today; coming from a guy who’s watched a lot of modern indies, that’s saying something.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled reality.

p.s. – “A sorrow’s crown of sorrow is remembering happier times.” – Lord Alfred Tennyson


Elsewhere on Pulse Wrestling this week…

In an excellent bit of conspiracy theory, John Wiswell speculates that WWE actually owns Ring of Honor in this week’s Cult of ROH.

Ten years after the tragic death of Owen Hart, David Brashear looks at how his death may have changed the face of professional wrestling.

PK provides live coverage of TNA’s Sacrifice pay-per-view.

Jake Ziegler reviews Ring of Honor’s Injustice II DVD.

Paul Marshall bring all the news from Panda Energy in this edition of Total Nonstop Weekly.

Phil Clark discusses Vinnie Mac’s latest shenanigans regarding the NBA in The Reality of Wrestling.

Finally this week, a grab bag of goodies from David Ditch in the latest Puroresu Pulse.

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