By Mike Mooneyham
June 12, 2005
It certainly isn’t something Paul Heyman would have envisioned a decade ago when his Extreme Championship Wrestling was the cult darling of the professional wrestling world. Nor is it likely he could have ever seen himself as part of the rival World Wrestling Entertainment.
But, of course, one can never dismiss the age-old wrestling adage about never saying never. It rings no truer than in the case of Heyman, the former Paul E. Dangerously, who will take center stage tonight at the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York City as WWE presents its highly anticipated ECW One Night Stand pay-per-view.
Heyman, reverently referred to in wrestling circles as the “mad scientist,” was the master architect for the ECW design. His knowledge of the business, along with a voracious appetite and passion for pro wrestling, drove him to create a new and revolutionary style of wrestling whose roots were in a Philadelphia bingo hall and whose followers were equally rabid.
With a seemingly never-ending supply of radically innovative storylines and a reckless, death-defying and brutal style of wrestling that came to be known as “hardcore,” Heyman charted a course that changed the landscape of professional wrestling and paved the way for WWE’s “Attitude” era that led to one of the hottest runs ever in the wrestling business.Heyman initially molded a group of unorthodox, renegade performers who sported their scars like badges of honor and built a small but loyal following throughout the Northeast. Playing at bingo halls, bowling alleys and racetracks, the blood-and-guts organization used barbed wire, flaming tables and breathtaking stunts to expand its cult audience.
But it wasn’t all about hardcore and breaking television taboos. Heyman helped bring the exciting luchadores into the country, introduced cruiserweights on a grand scale and elevated the shoot interview to an art form. The contrast in styles ranged from technical and scientific mat precision exhibited by the likes of Chris Benoit, Eddie Guerrero and Dean Malenko, to the high-flying, daredevil antics of Sabu, Rey Mysterio and Psychosis, to the gangsta warfare of brawlers such as New Jack, Public Enemy and Balls Mahoney.
There was never any question, though, about who the heart and soul of the company was.
“It was my baby. It was like raising a child,” Heyman said Thursday. “I say that in the same way that wrestlers who are willing to sacrifice their bodies in the ring in order to provide the greatest entertainment they can for the audience. I was willing to sacrifice anything behind the scenes to make it happen as well … I spent seven years of my life on that, and I don’t regret a moment of it. Even the bad times were great because we believed in what we were doing and we had a passion for it.”
Tommy Dreamer (Tommy Laughlin), one of Heyman’s top ECW lieutenants and now a member of WWE’s talent division, feels just as passionately about his former company and tonight’s show.
“I’ve never forgotten my roots,” said Dreamer, ECW’s “Innovator of Violence” and a company mainstay since its inception in 1993. “A lot of people in professional sports forget who they are and that the fans pay their salaries. I’m one person who doesn’t. (Tonight) I’m going to be the wrestler that I was and not the cooker-cutter WWE version who’s eating tobacco and drinking out of a urinal because that’s what they thought I was. I hated that, but I did it because I was told to.”
The 39-year-old Heyman, who made his mark in the ’80s as one of wrestling’s most colorful and controversial heel managers, embodied the extreme style. So there was more than a touch of irony that he, as owner of a rebel, take-no-prisoners outfit that opposed everything the gimmick-laden WWE stood for, might have been as responsible as anyone for the future success of the Vince McMahon-owned company. Heyman’s revolutionary outfit folded in 2001 along with the collapse of Atlanta-based World Championship Wrestling. The victim of unsound business decisions and the ever-changing wrestling landscape, ECW lost its network deal with TNN (now Spike TV), spelling a death knell for a company which broke new ground and legitimately claimed its place among the big three in the wrestling industry during the ’90s.
Heyman, who now works on the creative end of WWE, believes had the bubble not burst on the industry, ECW would still be in business today. E-C-W! E-C-W! is a chant still heard in arenas around the world, and has become a part of the sports world’s lexicon.
“Four-and-a-half years after the wrestling bubble burst, there’s only one promotion that people chant for,” said Heyman. “People don’t even chant ‘WWE’ because there’s not that level of consumer satisfaction.”
WWE bought the trendsetting company’s name, trademarks and tape library and used its footage to put out “The Rise and Fall of ECW” DVD late last year. The video tracks the entire history of the promotion, from its beginnings as Eastern Championship Wrestling to its last show in 2001. Dreamer and Heyman both agree that the phenomenal success of the DVD caught the company off-guard.
“The ECW DVD outsold the Ric Flair compilation DVD, which was a fantastic DVD, outsold the Steve Austin and Hulk Hogan tapes, and outsold the Monday Night Wars tape,” said Heyman. “The ECW DVD right now is within inches of becoming the biggest-selling wrestling DVD of all time. You start looking at the numbers that this ECW-branded stuff is pulling in, and you realize that while this might not be an audience as big in numbers as a WWE audience, it’s an audience that will buy the product because the product always delivered.”
Tonight’s pay-per-view, say Heyman and Dreamer, is a direct result of the success of the video. They also promise it’s not going to be “ECW Lite.”
“There is a real desire for this to be authentic,” said Heyman, who views the show as a testament to the legacy of ECW. “There is going to be barbed wire on this show, there is going to be blood shed on this show, there’s going to be cursing on this show. Joey Styles – not Michael Cole or Jim Ross – is going to broadcast. It’s going to be authentic ECW. We don’t have the corporate handcuffs on us this time. It’s a pleasant surprise just how authentic they’re allowing this to be.”
Heyman is quick to give Rob Van Dam, who pitched the idea for an ECW-themed show to Vince McMahon, full credit for the event, which is expected to be one of WWE’s most successful pay-per-views of the year.
“He deserves total credit for this. He approached Tommy Dreamer, the Dudleys and myself, and ran this idea by all of us. He then went to Vince and showed him a list of all the guys in WWE who had been through ECW. He told Vince to listen to the crowd – four years after the wrestling bubble had burst. Nobody’s looking for the return of WCW. People are dying for the return of ECW. You own the brand, and if you don’t bring it back you’re depriving the audience. The very next day Vince was on the subject.”
Heyman also thinks RVD, one of the popular stars to ever appear in ECW, is one of the most underrated and under-appreciated performers on the WWE roster.
“He should be the champion. He has the greatest bond with the audience of any superstar that’s on the Raw or Smackdown roster. They just don’t understand. After this Sunday, corporately, I think a lot of people are going to have a much different perception about a lot of ECW guys.”
What many in the wrestling industry came to discover over the years was that Heyman had the uncanny ability to discover the raw talent in performers overlooked by other promotions, and put them in situations where their strengths would shine and their weaknesses would be hidden. It was a group, said ex-ECW valet Dawn Marie, whose legacy would be as the company who took the misfits that no one else wanted, and created stars.
“Those fat, out-of-shape guys really took over on Raw Monday night in St. Louis,” Dreamer wryly commented. “That response was incredible.”
Heyman, who has been hailed as a visionary for his innovative programming, has been a respected voice behind the scenes since his arrival in WWE several years ago, although his outspoken views and adversarial relationship with members of the writing staff have often put him in the company doghouse. For those reasons, he says, he doesn’t see a top creative position in his immediate future.
“I don’t think it’s going to happen. I’m much too opinionated. That’s not seen as a good thing corporately,” said Heyman, who in the past has likened his status in the company to a “roller coaster with the blindfolds on.”
Heyman was part of a monumental moment in wrestling history when he stood in the ring with WWE owner Vince McMahon and former WCW president Eric Bischoff two weeks ago on Raw. Heyman has accused Bischoff of raiding ECW’s stars to join WCW. While there’s still no love lost between the two, the relationship no longer carries the hostility that it did during the height of the wrestling wars.
“I still think he’s a schmuck,” said Heyman. “Where did Eric Bischoff get all those concepts and talents that successfully battled Raw for 82 weeks? He got them from ECW. Now that it doesn’t hurt to give credit where credit’s due, he seems to take it real personally, as if he created all of this drama and all of these styles. He was clearly inspired by ECW, and it’s about time that he sat down and acknowledged it. I think the man is still living in the past and fighting battles that are long over.”
“I think he’s also (upset) that no one clamors and chants for WCW when he comes out,” adds Dreamer.
Heyman and Dreamer are both disappointed that Terry Funk passed on the opportunity to be part of WWE’s ECW show. Funk, 61 and coming off heart surgery several months ago, opted instead to work the main event of a Shane Douglas and Jeremy Borash-promoted ECW Hardcore Homecoming show two nights earlier at Viking Hall (the former ECW Arena) in Philadelphia.
Funk, saying he wasn’t physically able to work two high-impact bouts on a weekend, publicly suggested that fans attending the WWE show would be “wanna-be” and “make-believe” ECW fans. The former ECW world champ, who said he was offered three times as much to do the WWE show, claimed that Vince McMahon made money off ECW while doing nothing but impede its growth and had a hand in the death of the company.
“I have nothing but respect for Terry Funk,” said the 34-year-old Dreamer. “The main event for our show was supposed to be Terry Funk and Tommy Dreamer versus Bubba and D-Von (Dudley). I wish the fans had been able to see that. But that’s his decision. I’ve had many offers to step foot in the ECW Arena from every independent group out there, and I won’t do it just because that part of my life is over. And again, it’s not the ECW Arena, it doesn’t even look like the ECW Arena. The ECW Arena was my home. It was my church. That’s where my passion was, and unfortunately it died.”
Heyman said he hopes Douglas’ south Philly show is a success for the sake of the ECW name.
“This is Shane’s fourth attempt to recreate the ECW atmosphere. He tried with MLW – he failed. He tried with XPW – he failed. He tried with MECW – he failed. I think people are going to that show because there is an extreme desire for the ECW experience. If he puts on a great show, then people seeking the ECW experience will leave satisfied. My fear is that he won’t put on a good show, and that people seeking the ECW experience will feel jaded and that it will tarnish the legacy.
“The best analogy is this. I’ve never heard Paul McCartney wish ill will on Beatlemania. He considers Beatlemania to be a testament to the popularity of The Beatles. I consider their show, which is an ECW wannabe show, to be a testament to the popularity and the desire for ECW. That’s why I hope they do great because I never want an ECW fan seeking the experience to be disappointed.”
“Paul has been employed for a long time and hasn’t been out there on the indies,” added Dreamer. “Everybody is the next big thing and every company is the next big company. Not that they’re taking shots, but they say they want to represent ECW the way ECW should be represented and they’re doing this for the love of ECW. That’s a crock. The main reason they’re doing it is for money. They picked this weekend so they could piggyback people who are going to our show.
“I’m happy that they’re making money and that the wrestlers are getting an extra payday, but don’t go off and say you’re doing it for the joy of ECW, because half of those guys quit and left ECW. If it’s ECW authentic, it’s Paul Heyman and Tommy Dreamer. I’m not saying those guys didn’t come up with some great ideas, but they were always bouncing them off Paul and myself. That’s ECW authentic. The ECW Arena is a bingo hall. It’s not the ECW Arena anymore. This PPV we’re doing is not going to be the ECW total experience, but it’ll be the closest thing to it because ECW is owned by WWE. But we’re going to come damn close. I have a lot of respect for Shane Douglas and I’d love to have him on this show, but he said he didn’t want to work on the WWE show because he doesn’t like Paul or Vince or whatever. That’s my personal take on it. I don’t understand why he takes shot at us. He had the opportunity to be on our show.”
One also can’t ignore the fact that the resurrection of the ECW brand is a potential goldmine for WWE.
“The bottom line is something that Paul and I had to learn very hard,” said Dreamer. “This is about money, and earning and making money. Vince has a great knowledge for doing that. If this thing hits, maybe we will have another show.”
“Our goals on this are real simple,” said Heyman. “We’d like to exceed everybody’s expectations for this show. We’re not looking at anywhere past that. We’re treating this like it’s a one-night-only deal. Once it’s over we’ll take it from there, but if we start to look past that, we’re losing sight of what’s really important. If this is a one-night-only deal, let this be a testament to the legacy of ECW.”
Heyman, whose WWE contract expires at the end of the year, says he has no immediate plans but has been working on a screenplay and a TV series he’d like to develop. He also doesn’t rule out coming up with a new organization down the road.
“There’s always that possibility. This place (WWE) could sure use a little competition to kick it in the (behind) … If the brand is resurrected, I don’t know if I really want to walk away from it. There are a lot of things going on in television and entertainment that I’m very interested in. But I’m honestly not looking past this Sunday right now.”
Heyman says he has no problem with the “WWE army vs. ECW army” storyline for tonight’s show. WWE is expected to stage an “invasion” angle, with groups of heels from both the Raw and Smackdown rosters crashing the event in hopes of spoiling the show.
“I don’t mind it at all because they’re going to get their (behinds) kicked. And I don’t just say that from a storyline standpoint. I say that because that’s the way it’s going to have to be. I have no objection having talent the likes of a Kurt Angle or JBL garner more interest in the ECW pay-per-view. Their participation is more than welcome. Twice a year in WWE you have an opportunity to see anything co-branded. Only in the Royal Rumble can you see Smackdown guys fight Raw guys. Only at Wrestlemania, by Vince’s mantra and mandate, can you see an interpromotional match between a Raw wrestler and a Smackdown wrestler. Yet on Sunday it’s going to be Raw wrestlers and Smackdown wrestlers in an interpromotional fight with ECW guys. It shows you how huge this is.”
Tonight’s lineup includes: Tommy Dreamer and The Sandman vs. The Dudley Boyz; Eddie Guerrero vs. Chris Benoit; Rey Mysterio vs. Psychosis; Super Crazy vs. Little Guido vs. Tajiri (with Sinister Minister) in a three-way dance; Lance Storm (with Dawn Marie) vs. Chris Jericho; Mike Awesome vs. Masato Tanaka; and special appearances by Rob Van Dam, Bill Alfonso, Tazz, Spike Dudley, Al Snow, Sabu, Balls Mahoney, Danny Doring, Roadkill, C.W. Anderson, Rhyno, Joel Gertner, Axl Rotten, Justin Credible, Kid Kash, Mikey Whipwreck and The Blue World Order (Big Stevie Cool, Hollywood Nova and The Blue Guy). Mick Foley is expected to be at the broadcast table with Joey Styles.
Dreamer’s wife, the former Beulah McGillicutty (Theresa Hayes), is expected to make a rare appearance on the show. “She may come by to say hello to people, but she got out of wrestling and loves her life outside of wrestling,” said Dreamer. Heyman, however, added that he and Dreamer were going to have a discussion and felt confident he could convince Dreamer into talking the popular ex-ECW valet into an appearance.
– George’s Sports Bar, 1300 Savannah Highway, will air the ECW One Night Stand pay-per-view tonight at 8 p.m. Cover charge is $7.
– Miles Road Baptist Church will hold its annual Family Fun Day 4-6:30 p.m. June 25. The event, which is free and open to the public, will include a wrestling battle royal featuring the original Masked Superstar, The Barbarian and Ricky Morton, along with a special midgets match. Bell time is 5:30 p.m. Also featured will be air castles, food courts, concerts, puppet shows and assorted exhibits. The church is located at 816 Miles Road in Summerville.