Not too long ago, I visited, for the first time in my adult life, the great city of Philadelphia. I went there to see my good friend who I’ve known since 5 years old, and his lovely girlfriend. From my 22 hour stint in the city, I found that while Philly is admittedly dirty, as many people claim, they kind of own it and make it a super, super fun place.
Much the same can be said about the now-defunct wrestling federation based in Philadelphia, Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW). For seven years, this rag tag group of misfits redefined what it was to be “hardcore” in wrestling. Their two ringleaders were Tod Gordon and the ever-controversial evil mad genius of wrestling Paul Heyman. Tod was good at the business and Paul was good with the wrestlers.
ECW was based out of a warehouse in South Philly tucked under I-95. On some nights it was used as a bingo hall, others used as a pro wrestling arena. The promotion, with its revolutionary hardcore style and outlandish characters, quickly gained a dedicated following. The kids that ate their vitamins and said their prayers with Hulk Hogan had grown up, and were looking for something more edgy. That edgy was Extreme Championship Wrestling.
Hardcore wrestling was not all they offered, though. ECW also housed some great technicians, such as Dean Malenko, Chris Jericho, Taz and the late Eddie Guererro and Chris Benoit. Just take a look at this match for the ECW TV title back in 1995 between Eddie and Dean.
That being said, they did hardcore wrestling pretty damn well. Guys like The Sandman, Sabu, New Jack, Raven, and Tommy Dreamer took hardcore to another level. Their contests left their bodies bruised and broken and their fans screaming for more. More chair shots, more tables, more blood, more cursing, more boobs, more everything. If it could be taken to an extreme, ECW did it.
Speaking of their fans, the crowd at the ECW arena is one of the defining characteristics of the federation. These were not just your average plebian wrestling fans who knew the Ultimate Warrior and Randy Savage. Many of these fans were “tape-traders”. You see kids, before YouTube, if you wanted to see non-mainstream pro wrestling, you had to go find it on someone’s VHS tape, and that’s what these tape traders did. So, by the time most wrestlers came into ECW, they already had somewhat of a reputation, which could be good or bad depending on your history. This paved the way for the good workers to thrive and the not so good to disappear into obscurity, leaving ECW with the cream of the independent crop.
Many of the concepts and wrestlers that were in ECW at one point or another were adopted by their big-named competition. Where do you think “The Attitude Era” came from? The New World Order? Mick Foley? Steve Austin? Rob Van Dam? That’s right, from a bingo hall in South Philly. I’m not saying that either company stole outright from ECW, but it’s hard not to see the parallels. And honestly, it’s just good business. If it works in that indy promotion, why won’t it work on a larger scale in the WWF or WCW? Sadly, because of this, attempting to keep up with the two big dogs and shady bookkeeping, ECW went belly up in 2001.
On my way back to DC, I stopped by the fabled ECW Arena. Here’s proof. It’s now called the Asylum Arena and houses various independent wrestling promotions, such as Combat Zone Wrestling, Dragon Gate USA, and Chikara (my new favorite indy promotion, I’ll write my next article on them).
As I stood there, in front of this run-down bingo hall, I thought of all the talent that went through there. Names like Mick Foley, Steve Austin, Rob Van Dam, the Dudley Boyz, and Rey Mysterio have stood right here, probably parked in the same spot I did! While I don’t think ECW could survive in today’s market, modern-day pro wrestling wouldn’t be the same without E-C-F’n-W.