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Smells Like Extreme Spirit:
ECW and Pop Culture
February 4, 2005

by Denny Burkholder
Courtesy of WrestleLine.com


While re-watching the Rise and Fall of ECW DVD set recently (which I'll review in a single word: excellent), one of Paul Heyman's comments struck me. Heyman compared the major pro wrestling organizations of 1993 - the WWF and WCW - to hair metal, and he compared ECW to the grunge band Nirvana.
It's a commonly-held belief that ECW thrived from being the hipper, brattier, snot-nosed kid brother of the established "Big Two." It had no pyro, it had a shitty time slot (if you could find it on TV at all), and it always (until the late-1990s) took place in small, dingy venues, the most famous of which was the former bingo hall 

that became ECW Arena.

And that was cool, especially in 1993. Fans who watched ECW never felt like they were being force-fed a corporate champion or a company line. The pure wrestlers - like Chris Benoit and Dean Malenko - were excellent. The pure hardcore acts - Sandman, the Gangstas, and Public Enemy, to name a few - were very good at their style... certainly any fan that enjoyed that type of "wrestling" would concur that ECW excelled at it. The luchadores were innovative, the violence was heavy, and the wrestling was great when it wanted to be. And best of all? No corporate bullshit.

All of the talent, none of the extra BS that goes with the territory when a major company tries to sell you something (and then sell you more of it). That was pretty much the attitude that made grunge the music of choice in the early 1990s, too.

It wasn't the atmosphere and the attitude alone that brought grunge to the forefront, but those were certainly the ideas and trends the audience identified with. That didn't mean people accepted it just because it was raw and uninhibited and angry. As important as that whole image was to the product, the music itself had to be excellent for the entire movement to begin, and to thrive. Nirvana was the embodiment of grunge, but more importantly, they were an amazing band. They were famous for their talent FIRST.

After becoming a smash hit, Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain quickly became known for hating fame as a general rule, and hating even more the concept of "mainstream." In actuality, the fame and fortune Nirvana gained was a reward for the band's talent. To many people, that would be considered a good thing. Kurt Cobain didn't look at it that way. Cobain struggled with fame and money, feeling exploited, hating himself for being overexposed, and hating some of his best work ("Smells Like Teen Spirit") almost BECAUSE the rest of the world loved it.

As strongly as Cobain felt about being anti-mainstream - and as intriguing as Cobain was to the rest of the world - it's no surprise that Nirvana's popularity brought with it a change in the attitude du jour among young people. All of a sudden, it wasn't cool unless it was raw, and plain, and packed plenty of angst. Out with the high-maintenance look of bands like Poison. In with ripped bluejeans and ratty old flannel shirts. Out with hairspray. In with rat's nests and dreadlocks. 

And so it went in pro wrestling. Out with the brightly-colored, heavily-produced, overhyped products of WCW and the WWF. In with two great wrestlers going two out of three falls in a tiny little bingo hall in Philadelphia. 

Out with the company line (which was almost entirely synonymous with kayfabe). In with insider newsletters and promoters like Paul Heyman that gave it to you straight (well, straighter, anyway). Out with a sanitized Bushwhackers vs. Beverly Brothers crapfest. In with The Gangstas vs. Public Enemy... because hey, if the match is going to be devoid of wrestling moves, we at least want to know these guys are kicking each other's asses to make up for it. New Jack may not know a hammerlock from a Master Lock, but he's bleeding heavily to entertain us, so we appreciate the effort. All of these concepts fell in line with the pop culture trends in music, fashion, and film.

All of a sudden, there were extreme sports. They'd existed for decades, but now, they had a slogan and a time slot on ESPN. Music that once permeated college radio was now in heavy top 40 rotation, and college students across the world were forced to find even weirder and more needlessly eclectic music to populate the airwaves of their own fringe radio stations, lest they be just like everyone else. 

It makes you wonder why everyone was so shocked that this little independent promotion in Philadelphia was generating more buzz than the homogenized wrestling on USA and TNT (even if they were flat broke). Why were we so surprised? The phenomena was going on everywhere. ECW simply followed suit. The group that foresaw this turn of events before anyone else - Paul Heyman and the rest of the ECW crew - enjoyed the spoils. They didn't see the shift in pop culture attitudes coming, but they were certainly smart enough to recognize it once it happened. And they patterned their independent wrestling promotion after that attitude.

Unlike Vince McMahon (and this has always been a knock on McMahon), Heyman and ECW were hip to modern pop culture trends. Vince McMahon didn't notice the trend until he saw it succeed in ECW, and by the time he took WWE in that direction, the trend was nearly over with. If only ECW could have traded some of its pop culture awareness to Vince McMahon in exchange for some advice on fiscal responsibility, both promotions might have been better off. 

When you consider what was happening in pop culture before and during ECW's rise to prominence, ECW doesn't seem quite as original as they're advertised. In the pro wrestling world, sure... they definitely helped influence the direction of the business. But ECW was simply mimmicking what it saw in other forms of entertainment, and it worked. ECW was revolutionary as a wrestling promotion, but only because all of its competitors were chronically behind the times. 

When people call Paul Heyman a creative genius, remember his comment about hair bands vs. Nirvana. At the very moment when he decided to take ECW into the extreme, he knew what he wanted the result to be. He viewed the WWF and WCW as if they were Poison and Warrant. Heyman was certain that fans would see the comparison too, but only if wrestling's version of Nirvana were held up for comparison. So Heyman organized the most talented bunch he could find, and he gave the fans Nirvana. 

Did fans reject the Big Two and embrace ECW? Hell no... the WWF and WCW weren't rejected simply for ECW's existence. But ECW sure did create a major buzz. 

And the fans at the ECW Arena certainly got the comparison.

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