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CIRCA
The History of "Hardcore Chic"
September 23, 2004

by Denny Burkholder
Courtesy of WrestleLine.com

 

The remnants of the 1990s hardcore revival lay strewn across the landscape of WWE.
 
Men like The Dudley Boys and Rhyno, once fearsome heels of the Extreme Championship Wrestling hardcore scene, are doing fine for themselves working a less chaotic style of match on Raw and Smackdown. Paul Heyman, the man given at least partial credit for forcing pro wrestling into unchartered territory in the past decade, can now be found at ringside where 

he started years ago as a photographer and later manager. He's just as evil, but he doesn't blurt out curse words as freely as he did when he ran his own company.

If you need a more symbolic image of what's left of the hardcore chic of the 1990s, look no further than "The Innovator of Violence," Tommy Dreamer. Once the flag bearer for ECW known for his willingness to engage in the most brutal of hardcore weaponry - and his creativity in building spots around inanimate objects - Tommy now kicks his feet up on his desk at WWE headquarters in Connecticut as a talent relations rep, trading in his black boots and "EC F'N W" T shirt for a pair of loafers and a golf shirt.

Hardcore chic is dead, at least for now. Is it gone forever? Probably not. The allure of hardcore wrestling will rise again in years to come. Hardcore was not born - nor will it die - with Extreme Championship Wrestling's existence, or lack thereof.

Hardcore will always have its fans, based on the fact that wrestling viewers tune in for reasons that are often very, very different. Some fans tune in almost exclusively for the comedy. Some enjoy the storylines (believe it or not). Some just want a peek at some scantily clad, physically fit women throwing each other into an oversized bowl of gravy. There are fans who consider themselves purists, whose reason for watching professional wrestling runs the gamut from force of habit to pure athletic interest, to workrate, to tradition.

Then you have people who follow pro wrestling because - fake or not - they adore the idea that someone can take a baseball bat to the crotch, or get slammed through a buffet table, and they can watch it happen. They might not particularly enjoy the sight of blood, but they are damn sure mesmerized by human misery. If Mick Foley is going to slice his own head open with a razorblade tonight, then god dammit, even if it IS predetermined, they're gonna be watching.

Ed Farhat's career thrived in the 1960s and 1970s based on the proven fact that people would repeatedly pay money to watch he and his opponent bleed profusely as they attacked each other with pencils, teeth, and fireballs. The Sheik was not a physical specimen of the highest order. He was pretty big, but not overly athletic. And yet, he was a top draw in a business that put itself forward as featuring the best athletes in the world. Why?

Because he liked to hurt people. And people liked to watch him do it, even when it frightened them to death.

The Sheik made plenty of money turning professional wrestling from predetermined athletic exhibition into a frenzied brawl with seemingly no rules or boundaries. And he took lots of legendary men along for the gravy train. Bobo Brazil, Tex McKenzie, Abdullah the Butcher, Lord Athol Layton... not a single one of them could do nip-up or land a textbook dropkick worth a damn. But lord almighty, you didn't have to ask them twice to bleed like a stuck pig, as long there was a full house of paying customers.

In and of itself, bleeding is not the definition of hardcore. Dusty Rhodes is not your typical hardcore wrestler by definition, but his forehead shows more notches and gigs than Missy Hyatt's bedpost. Some of wrestling's most heralded ring technicians - Ric Flair, Harley Race - bladed as often as their hardcore bretheren. Juicing didn't make them a "hardcore wrestler." But it did serve as an olive branch to those fans who preferred their pro wrestling on the brutal side - an acknowledgement that some fans aren't impressed by ring psychology. In a way, blading is an admission that in regulated doses, bleeding heavily adds to the pro wrestling spectacle. And it does... in regulated doses.

It's when the blood flows heavily on a regular basis - even in undercard matches - that the show appeals to fans of hardcore wrestling. It's when the blood flows due to some outside force - a steel chair, a thumbtack, or a shard of broken glass - rather than a good old-fashioned knuckle punch to the eyebrow. It's when the blood and the weapons become the star of the show, rather than the enhancement. That's hardcore. And the old ECW slogan was absolutely correct about one thing: it ain't for everybody.

Hardcore slipped into the background a bit in the 1980s, as wrestling companies followed Vince McMahon Jr.'s lead in making their products more family-friendly. It wasn't that the traditional wrestling fans had gone away, it's just that there was a newer, much more lucrative segment of viewership to cater to - the family. The Sheik might have sold tickets, but Hulk Hogan and The Junkyard Dog sold tickets, lunch boxes, T-shirts, action figures, video games, and coloring books. That's what promoters call a "no-brainer."

You could still find shades of the hardcore style all over the world if you knew where to look. Memphis spilled more than its share of blood in the 1980s as Jerry Lawler tore through the likes of Randy Savage and Eddie Gilbert. Memphis was where a pre-WWF "Macho Man" piledrove a pre-JCP Ricky Morton through an announce table at ringside, years before table spots became the norm. Memphis was also where Eddie Gilbert used a moving vehicle to run over Jerry Lawler on weekly television.

Outside of the U.S., you could easily spot a gorefest in Puerto Rico, where Carlos Colon fended off Abdullah the Butcher. Bruiser Brody was no stranger to brutality, either. Hardcore was still around, but more than ever, it was the wild exception to the rule.

Japan may have had the largest, most consistent audience in the world for the hardcore style. Puroresu companies such as Frontier Martial Arts (FMW) and the IWA regularly promoted weapons matches with extreme levels of voilence. And it only got worse in the 1990s.

The IWA King of the Death Match Tournament is a cult favorite among the hardcore contingent. That's the show you'll see in WWE footage of Mick Foley from time to time. It's where Foley, as Cactus Jack, made mincemeat of himself, Terry Funk, and eveyrone else en route to a grueling win. The weaponry involved in the tournament included live explosives, shattered glass, barbed wire, and seemingly everything in between. It was grotesque. It certainly wasn't a traditional night of pro wrestling. But it helped launch the Terry Funk revival. It was another chapter in Mick Foley's trek up the pro wrestling ladder. For at least two men - one of them an esteemed former NWA World Champion - the hardcore scene was working out very nicely.

Then came ECW, once known as Eastern Championship Wrestling - a rather unassuming, run of the mill Northeastern independent promotion that happened to have a pretty solid roster of talent. Paul Heyman took over the company, and along with Tod Gordon and a cast of hundreds, proceeded to make Extreme Championship Wrestling the most talked-about promotion in the United States among die-hard wrestling fans.

ECW purposely went against the grain. They had TV time in various markets - mostly the Northeast - which they used to air non-traditional promos. Former WWF and WCW stars would badmouth the larger promotions, discussing backstage dirt and details of their employment that were previously unknown to fans who didn't have access to "insider" news, like the Wrestling Observer newsletter or the Internet. As fans grew smarter to the inner workings of pro wrestling, they grew more fond of ECW. Work or shoot, they could count on at least one positive: with ECW, they would not be spoon-fed more of the child-friendly programming that WCW and the WWF had been forcing down their throats for about the past decade. ECW was decidely for adult pro wrestling fans (or for teens and youth that got off on watching mature subject matter).

You had Brian Pillman threatening to piss on the front row at Viking Hall in Philadelphia, not long after leaving the highly sanitized land of WCW. You had the front row accidentally set on fire during a Terry Funk match. You had profanity in interviews - and it didn't matter that ECW was forced to bleep out the language, because you could easily make out every word the wrestlers were saying. You had The Sandman chugging cans of beer and smoking cigarettes on his way down the aisle, then lighting up his opponent with a singapore cane once the bell rang - *if* the bell rang.

Like the practice of blading, none of this was "hardcore" by definition. But it catered to that type of fan. Once ECW had the attention of the wrestling counterculture through repeated acts of noncompliance with wrestling tradition, they took it one step further. Counterculture and bucking the norm had become ECW's bread and butter. It was making them famous, and it was their best shot at making serious money. So they took it all the way, and introduced the hardcore style as the ultimate broken rule - no disqualifications. Unlimited interference. Unlimited blood and weapons, and hell, fans can bring their OWN weapons to the arena if they want. ECW made their name by going against the grain, and the hardcore style was the cherry on top of that whole attitude.

Just like Ed Farhat years before, ECW stars like The Sandman, New Jack, Axl Rotten and to a lesser extent Tommy Dreamer did not look like the typical professional athlete - they were big men, but no more athletically skilled than the average midcarder. What made them stars was their ability and willingness to leap off balconies through tables, fall from scaffolding, wrap themselves in barbed wire, and KEEP COMING BACK. In the 1990s, particularly with ECW, the hardcore chic evolved in that key way. It wasn't only about the sight of brutality or the use of a weapon anymore... it was a long-term thing. Sure, New Jack took a hell of a dive from the rafters last week. But what really impressed fans of hardcore wrestling was the week afterward, when The Original Gangsta came back for more.

Dreamer was the same way. At first, Dreamer won the fans over by using anything and everything they brought to the arena as a bludgeon with which it beat his opponent. Dreamer actually invented NEW ways to attack someone with foreign objects, hence his "Innovator" nickname. But the most impressive thing about Dreamer - which ECW used in pushing him as a top babyface - was not that he participated in such brawls, but that he never took time off to heal, and no matter how bad THIS week was, he ALWAYS brought the pain again NEXT week. The guy could be beaten within one inch of paralysis, but he could not be stopped.

Thanks to ECW, hardcore was cool again. It wasn't the main attraction in pro werstling - for that matter, it never was, and it probably never will be - but it was big enough to change the way the big boys did business. Thanks to the ECW style, the WWF and WCW now seemed much more sanitized in comparison. And as the oft-told story goes, the WWF warmed up to the idea of introducing some of that ECW "Attitude" to their own product in the late 1990s. It helped them turn things around in their losing battle with WCW, and in turn, it helped change all of the norms of pro wrestling. Now, table spots were normal. Chair shots were almost a necessity. Blading was more prominent on WWF TV shows than it had ever been since the early 1980s. And sooner or later, both WCW and the WWF introduced their own "Hardcore Divisions," with WCW even recruiting The Sandman, Raven and other ECW stars to try and lend credibility to the upstart project.

What WCW didn't understand was that the hardcore style and the Turner wrestling product could never entirely coexist. Something had to give, and it wasn't Turner. The hardcore division became an overly-sanitized joke, with plenty of gimmicked weapons but very little attitude or blood. It was a parody of actual hardcore wrestling, which, to fans of hardcore, is definitely worse than having no hardocre wrestling at all. Ignore them if you wish, but don't you dare patronize them. WCW failed at siphoning off some of the hardcore chic to its own benefit, achieving only one thing in the whole experiment: the cheapening of the legacies and careers of the wrestlers that participated in it.

The WWF got it. They still couldn't go as far with it as ECW did. They would never be allowed to go as far as ECW and remain on TV. But they got it. They understood that the important thing wasn't so much the weapons, or the name "hardcore," but the attitude that went with it. All of a sudden, the WWF had babyfaces who were cheered primarily for behaving like a heel and getting away with it, like Stone Cold Steve Austin. They had wrestlers gain popularity just for taking an amazing amount of punishment and coming back the very next week, like Mick Foley and Jeff Hardy. The WWF adopted a little bit of the ECW hardcore attitude and it paid off in a huge way.

With their own "Hardcore Division," though, they made a similar mistake in comparison to WCW. Hardcore and the WWF could no coexist as they were. One of them had to change. So the WWF sanitized its hardcore division. The matches were short and gimmick-heavy. The belt was a ridiculous-looking monstrosity with dirty athletic tape holding it together. Whereas WCW unintentionally turned its hardcore division into a joke, the WWF did it on purpose, and neither outcome was favorable.

With pro werstling more popular on a national scale than it had ever been in the television era, the two biggest promotions in the United States attempted to get some of the hardcore chic to rub off on them, and in turn, they completely wiped out the "cool factor" it once had.

At the same time, the mainstream media gave plenty of attention to backyard wrestling. Now, kids have been staging pro wrestling matches in their backyards for decades. As long as there are boys who enjoy roughhousing when the parents aren't around, there will be backyard wrestling matches going on. As long as there are kids aspiring to become the wrestling heros they watch on television, there will be those same kids, trying to perfect their bodyslam technique without bothering to get professional training. But in the 1990s, as ECW and other promotions proved that a willingness to absorb pain trumped athletic skill in the battle for TV time, kids took that message to heart. Backyard wrestling became famous not for the "wrestling" aspect, but because kids were seriously injuring each other with stunt falls, botched weapon spots, and intentional blading. Hardcore as fans knew it became a joke, and hardcore as non-fans knew it became synonymous with its terrible influence on children.

Eventually, ECW shot itself in the foot too many times and went out of business. Smaller companies like XPW and CZW remained with their hardcore styles, but did not thrive. WCW was sold to the WWF. The WWF killed off a few championships soon thereafter. Mercifully, the hardcore division was one of them.

Brutality still adds to the pro wrestling product in limited doses. One Cactus Jack vs. Randy Orton a year is more than enough for most fans. Blade jobs still get pretty gory on occasion. But hardcore chic - at least, for the immediate future - is dead and buried.

It'll be back someday, though. As long as there are desperate promoters and even more desperate wannabe headliners on their rosters, hardcore will never be a completely dead issue.

 
E-MAIL DENNY
BROWSE THE CIRCA ARCHIVES


  
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