Monday, 01 April 2013 09:11
By Don Carpenter
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It was a pro wrestling promotion originally called Eastern Championship Wrestling, but a change to Extreme Championship Wrestling signified what represented and how it would be remembered.
Twelve years after its closing, ECW is the subject of a documentary by filmmakers John Philapavage and Kevin Kiernan called Barbed Wire City. The film is about ECW’s life story in how its performers made it the buzz of the pro wrestling, where it all went wrong and where those people are today.
The Alligator Pool Friendship
Philapavage was two years old when he met his first friend.
“My world was less than a city block,” he commented. “My mom would take me for walks around the block. Kevin lived in a smaller shack that we nicknamed the Kiernan mansion. It was in this little alleyway street that shouldn’t have a name, but does. In the back of my yard, there was a little walkway between houses.”
One day, young Philapavage realized what made Kevin awesome.
“He had an alligator plastic swimming pool, a little kids one, maybe four feet around. I was like ‘Mom I want to play with that kid.’ Kevin didn’t have any friends because he was two and I didn’t have any friends so we started having play dates and we’ve been friends ever since.”
There were plenty of opposites between the two. Kevin was raised by ex-hippies, while John was raised in a Catholic home. But both loved to create.
“We started doing creative stuff together by the time we were five or six,” Philapavage said.
Neither was an academic stalwart. Teachers encouraged Philapavage to write, as it was an obvious strength for him. As both matured, their creativity also grew.
“We started making videos by the time we were teenagers. VHS to VHS. Tape to tape editing,” Philapavage remembered.
Then came a project called Leaving Hollywood.
“We worked at Hollywood Videos,” Philapavage remarked. “I was the night manager and convinced them to hire Kevin. We had the run of the store at night. So we got all the workers of the store on board and we shot a mockumentary. That led us to the University of Arts. We had a mutual friend who was transferring from Pitt to this place. She knew I was a writer and that Kevin wanted to focus on the nuts and bolts of filmmaking. She convinced us both to apply and they accepted us. That’s the only time I’ve ever been good at school, that year that I spent there.”
Cartoons and Wrestling
In the mid-1980s, pro wrestling went through a stage of reinvention. Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Federation was becoming a media giant and receiving much criticism for it. “Cartoony” was often used to describe its product. Five-year old Philapavage didn’t have a problem with that.
“There was a Hulk Hogan cartoon. I didn’t really understand the concept of wrestling, but I knew that I liked the cartoon.”
Another staple of 1980s pro wrestling also influenced John’s growing wrestling fandom.
“I would see these magazines,” Philapavage remembered. “The (Bill) Apter magazines on the newsstand and they had like crazy, bloody faces and I recognized some of the people and Hulk Hogan would be on them.”
Growing up in Allentown, Pennsylvania, Philapavage had access to plenty of television channels from both Philadelphia and New York.
“I figured out that I could watch wrestling for five straight hours on Saturday morning.”
Along with Saturdaypalooza, a young wrestling fan could watch World Class Championship Wrestling every afternoon.
“But at that point, my mother was like ‘You are not watching that stuff. It’s too violent.’ So I would sit next to the TV because we didn’t even have a remote control. I would turn it way down and watch it on ESPN. It was a three channel delay from the cartoon I was supposed to be watching, So I would bounce back and forth depending on whether I could hear my mother coming towards the room or not.”
By 1991, Vince McMahon had won. There were two national companies in the WWF and Ted Turner’s World Championship Wrestling. Promtions that once filled the Apter mags such as Mid-South, the AWA and Florida were gone. There was still Jerry Lawler’s Memphis promotion and various companies in Texas, but pro wrestling was gone from most of the country.
Except for Philadelphia. As St. Louis, Toronto and San Francisco had been years earlier, Philly was a wrestling town. A cash cow for both McMahon and Jim Crockett Promotions (the predecessor to WCW), the city started a new chapter of its history in the autumn of 1990 with a company called Tri-State Wrestling Alliance.
It was an independent promotion ran by Joel Goodheart. One of his first shows featured every major indy star of the time with Lawler, Eddie Gilbert and Terry Funk among them. It received a large photo spread in Sports Review Magazine in part because with other promotions disappearing, the Apter magazines needed material.
“It was also because Bill lived in the Philadelphia area,” commented Philapavage.
“Joel courted him and Bill was friends with Eddie Gilbert and a few other people. So he’d go just to visit them and ended up shooting all the shows.”
TWA had a different style with many stipulation matches that seem run-of-the-mill today, but were new to wrestling’s eyes in 1990. The company, which is covered in an alternate opening to Barbed Wire City, was in that way a forerunner to ECW.
It also has an ancestral connection to the company because of Tod Gordon. The owner of a central Philadelphia pawn shop/jewelry store, he had invested in TWA in the company’s final months before its closure in the winter of 1992. Philapavage states that most people would’ve said to themselves that their little wrestling adventure was over and it was time to go back to real life.
Gordon instead agrees to put money into a new company called Eastern Championship Wrestling. It features everything from discarded WWF and WCW wrestlers, including heel manager and announcer Paul E. Dangerously, former TWA performers and some new talent such as a reckless individual named Sabu. The company joins the National Wrestling Alliance and becomes its only member with a television show.
On the Map
Like any new wrestling company, ECW took a little while to find its way. People like Larry Winters and Eddie Gilbert did the booking with Gordon also taking part. The general feeling found in wrestling history is that once Dangerously (to be known simply as Paul Heyman after becoming the heart of the company in 1995) took control of the creative direction, ECW became something.
The promotion starting making noise with a three-way match involving Shane Douglas, Sabu and Terry Funk in the winter of 1994. Mick Foley, as Cactus Jack, would be borrowed from WCW to have a hardcore match with Sabu in the summer.
“They were losing money, but they were having fun and they were creating a buzz,” said Philapavage.
Then in August, it was announced ECW would host a tournament to crown a new National Wrestling Alliance world champion. The NWA was once the premier wrestling company in the country with so many promoters who worked so well together that “National” and “Alliance” were not hyperbole.
But the previous decade saw the NWA decline. Part of it was Vince McMahon, but part of it was Jim Crockett withholding Ric Flair from NWA affiliates. The NWA World champ used to travel to every promotion, but by Flair’s fifth reign in 1987-89, he wrestled almost exclusively for Crockett. When Ted Turner bought Crockett out, he did not maintain membership in the NWA.
By ’94, Crockett’s non-compete clause with Turner was finished and the second generation promoter was anxious to get going again. He a taped a pilot in February for his World Wrestling Network, which in the end, went nowhere. It did, however, have Heyman working for it. That combination eventually helped set up the World title tournament.
It wasn’t easy as one of the NWA promoters was Dennis Coraluzzo, a tri-state area guy who had butted heads with ECW before. Tod Gordon hated Coraluzzo and when was originally interviewed for BWC in 2001 ran him down every chance he could. Shane Douglas hated Coraluzzo because of comments the latter made on a Las Vegas radio show hosted by future WCW announcer Mike Tenay. So it was hard imagining all these folks could work to crown an NWA world champ. However, the intervention of Crockett made cooler heads prevail.
The plan was for Douglas to win the belt and then drop it to a Coraluzzo guy. But as Douglas remembers it, Paul Heyman called him with an idea. Heyman would leave it to Douglas on whether to follow the idea through. There was risk as if the idea failed there would be major heat. But if it worked, it would lead to something major for ECW. Douglas told Philapavage he didn’t decide to go with Heyman’s idea until he actually did it.
That would be winning the tournament and then going on the microphone. Douglas listed many of the NWA World champions back when the alliance was causing all this. But he then threw down the belt and declared himself the ECW World champ instead. Gordon announced shortly after that Eastern Championship Wrestling was now Extreme Championship Wrestling.
“For branding and impact purposes it was very important,” Philapavage commented. “It was a statement that worked at the time because they had TV and they were being covered by the sheets.”
In 1995, Heyman continued to make ECW very relevant because of the hot product he was creating. The buzz continued to grow to the point in late 1996 where ECW management, wrestlers and fans wanted to elevate the company’s status.
“They didn’t step away from the kiddie table until probably their first pay-per-view,” Philapavage said.
In the autumn of 1996, ECW held a show at the dog track in Revere, Massachusetts. The card was to feature a tag team match between The Gansgtas, New Jack and Mustafa, against Axl Rotten and D-Von Dudley. Rotten didn’t show, saying in Barbed Wire City that he never received a plane ticket.
But in the Revere crowd was somebody willing to fill in, something that one saw all the time, both then and now.
“It’s nuts how many show up just trying to help out with their gear with them just hoping to get on the show,” said Philapavage. “There’s a whole culture of people who just come to these shows to try to get some sort of work to get their foot in the door somewhere. And one of those people was Eric Kulas.”
Kulas was a large young man brought in by a midget wrestler he had befriended. The midget vouched for Kulas, who claimed to have been trained by Killer Kowalski, a well-respected wrestler from an earlier generation, who now had several famous students in ECW’s Perry Saturn and WWE’s Triple H. Kulas, who called his wrestling character “Mass Transit”, had his father, who was pretty gung ho about his son wrestling, with him.
Philapavage rolls his eyes at what is often next mentioned when telling the Mass Transit story.
“The revisionism is that this kid falsified his information,” he commented. “Which I always have a big laugh about as if there’s a wrestler’s drivers’ license that you show to people to verify your standing within the wrestling industry.”
The rest of the night was not one of the proudest moments in pro wrestling’s history.
“I don’t know if there are any good guys in this story,” Philapavage said. Barbed Wire City lets that story tell itself. “I think we did a really good job of being unbiased, but letting everybody reveal something about their character.”
Kulas agrees to be in the match and goes to talk things over with New Jack whom Philapavage calls,” One of the scariest inviduals in wrestling I’ve ever met. He’s extremely charming and intelligent one moment and just scary and insane the next.”
Kulas doesn’t ingratiate himself with the ECW locker room by smoking and hogging what little catering there was. He also told Jack he wanted to get some offense in. The Gangstas would go over as planned, but Kulas wanted to show off his skills. This was not the way to impress all these new people in Kulas’ life.
“He and his dad were definitely idiots (on that night),” Philapavage remarked. “Which isn’t right, but doesn’t make it okay for what New Jack did. That’s my big issue with this whole thing.”
Kulas also asks Jack to cut him to get color, which Philapavage feels he was told to do. The match went on and when it came time for color, Jack says in Barbed Wire City, “I cut the shit out of him.”
Philapavage adds that Jack says that with, “A certain degree of pleasure and malice.”
Kulas starts bleeding like crazy. His dad starts screaming from the crowd. Match ends. Much craziness ensues backstage.
More revisionist history blames all of that on Kulas.
“This kid lied to them,” Philapavage said. “He was an asshole in the locker room. This kid did ask to be bladed. But that doesn’t make it okay what happened and it doesn’t mean it’s his fault.”
Which brings up one annoying ECW characteristic.
“The problem with ECW is that they never admit to their faults,” mentioned Philapavage. “That’s one thing I found throughout this whole thing. They’re always the victim. They’re always trying to rally their ‘us against them’ thing. Anything they did wrong wasn’t their fault.”
And things were about to get worse.
RF Video’s Rob Feinstein had Gabe Sapaolsky tape this match. In BWC, Sapolsky talks about what he saw in what Philapavage says is a graphic, emotional scene.
Feinstein hard sells the video on an Internet mailing list and it’s for sale at the next weekend show. One of the individuals who many ECW faithful claim had a copy was Bruce Mitchell, a columnist for the Pro Wrestling Torch newsletter. He supposedly took that copy and sent it to Request TV, the company scheduled to host ECW’s first PPV. Stunned and shocked by the Mass Transit incident, Request TV cancels the PPV.
All because of Mitchell and Torch publisher Wade Keller. Again, that’s according to the ECW folks.
“The only reason Bruce and all these people are in our movie is because Tod Gordon made some claims that needed to be either verified or counterpointed,” said Philapavage.
Mitchell says he never sent a tape of what in BWC Gordon calls, “This little incident that happened in front of 300 people in Massachusetts.”
To be fair to ECW, the Torch was aggressive on this story.
“I think Wade went out of his way to stick it to Paul and he had every right to because he’s a journalist and that’s the story,” Philapavage notes.
And there were previous bad feelings between ECW and the Torch.
“Wade was having problems with Paul at that point,” Philapavage said. “Paul wouldn’t stop lying to him. He would give on-the-record interviews that were just out and out lies.”
With the exception of Heyman, all of the main characters in the ECW-Torch feud are interviewed in the extended cut for BWC. So for the first time, wrestling fans can decide for themselves what the reality was.
Even during its prime, when chants of “ECW! ECW! ECW!” were most genuine; the company had its detractors. So a decade after it closed, rating the quality of ECW draws more negativity than ever. Many of today’s fans frown on hardcore matches and some of ECW’s heroes of the day have turned into less than flattering caricatures, something they either did themselves or critics did for them.
But ECW wouldn’t have lasted as long as it did without putting out some sort of quality product so I asked Philapavage when the best time was. While some feel ECW started being awesome in 1994, he waits a little while and gives that honor to mid-1995 ECW. The then teenager continued to enjoy the product for another two years.
“It started to change in the summer of ’97,” he stated. “It was right after the first PPV (Barely Legal). Guys started leaving. There was a bit of a hangover. That’s when Sportschannel of Philadelphia was bought out by Comcast and ECW got kicked off. It moved to WGTW. Things started feeling different for me.”
While PPV put ECW on a national level, it also contributed to how ECW now felt.
“There were some great PPVs, but it was weird to see everybody’s little secret on this national stage and not floundering, but not coming off quite right.”
Still, Philapavage thought the booking was good through ’98 with some quality stuff sprinkled in ’99. Even better, ECW was appearing on TNN giving it even more of national stage. Also, ECW icons Raven and Sandman had come back from WCW.
“All the guys are back and now we’re really going to show them and this TNN run is going to be awesome,” remembers Philapavage. “They’re really going to have a foothold on the national scene.”
“It was just too late,” Philapavage said. “Heyman didn’t have it anymore.”
By November of that year, the booking was bad.
“It was like, ‘Okayyy…what are we doing?’”
By this time, it seemed ECW wanted to be known for violence instead of athleticism. The topic of violence is covered in three BWC segments with the original violence, bloodletting and escalated violence talked about.
Much of the violence came from wrestlers who weren’t going to be seen in the wrestling mainstream.
“They were the signature names of ECW,” Philapavage commented. “They embodied the spirit of ECW, but they were never going to WWE or WCW. It’s really unfortunate because they did everything that was asked of them. They were loyal to a fault. They were paid little money. Now they’re in their forties and this is what they’re known for.”
Flaming tables, unprotected chair shots, jumping off balconies, all of that takes it toll. At the Extreme Reunion show held in early 2012, Philapavage discovered, “There were a lot of people in a bad way.”
The increased violence probably kept ECW from ever achieving mainstream status.
But Philapavage hopes the non-wrestling viewers have many questions after watching his film.
“Can you imagine going to you mother or your cousin and she says, ‘What the fuck was that’ and you go, ‘Oh, that was a highspot.”
“Are they hurt? Are they okay? Are they millionaires because they do this? No? Why not? Do they have insurance? No?! Why?! That’s insane!”
Heyman wasn’t interviewed for this film despite attempts at making that happen.
Nonetheless, Philapavage feels he’s portrayed fairly. ECW history’s view of him goes back and forth
“In 2001, there were two divergent opinions,” he said. “The ones that don’t get taken care of by Paul felt really betrayed. Especially in those last months because he kept leading them on and leading them on. That’s certainly portrayed in our movie.”
But that’s only part of the 2001 story.
“In fairness a lot of people were taken care of by Paul and given opportunities in WWE.”
In interviews conducted at the 2012 Extreme Reunion show, people were more diplomatic toward Heyman. Time heals wounds and many were aware of the fact that they were still being paid to wrestle a decade after ECW closed. They still had some relevancy because of Heyman.
The End of ECW and the Start of Barbed Wire City
There’s an easy explanation as to why Kevin Kiernan worked on Barbed Wire City.
‘I forced him too,” commented Philapavage who then adds sheepishly. “I told him it would only take three or four months.”
After courting Tod Gordon for many months, the documentary started in earnest in January of 2001 when he agreed to be interviewed. During that talk, Philapavage asked Gordon how long ECW would last. Tod answered by saying only Paul Heyman knows that. As soon as the camera went off, Gordon said, “It’s dead.”
“That Tod Gordon interview shot us off like a rocket,” Philapavage remembered. “Everybody was really hot on us doing this. We got a lot of positive feedback.”
The documentary was worked on and off for the next few years until it seemed like it wasn’t going to happen. In January of 2012, Philapavage went to the final ECW Arena show featuring current Northeast indy wrestlers.
“There were several people there I had interviewed or interacted with because of this documentary.”
Philapavage avoided them best he could.
“I was quite frankly embarrassed that I felt this was never going to happen. It was a dead issue. I was going to have all this footage sitting in my home and I’m the only one who will ever know. I felt like a loser.”
That thought hurt even more when he considered that even with all the media of the past decade dedicated to ECW’s history, his film could still make a contribution.
“I still have a really neat story here that hasn’t been covered completely. There’s more than one book about World War II.”
In the days after the show, Philapavage received calls from three different people. Two of the calls he ignored. The third was from an old friend he had done some work for. That friend admitted to being the cause of the other calls.
They then had a talk of over two hours with most of it just catching up on personal
things. About 90 minutes in, it turned to the project.
“I have always felt you had something with this documentary,” Johnny’s friend said before asking what it would take to get it started again. Philapavage listed about 10 points. One was he didn’t want to spend his own money anymore and another was he wanted Kevin Kiernan back on board.
Kiernan soon said he was willing to do so.
“Which was one of the best days of my life, let me tell ya,” observed Philapavage.
The pair soon took on a project manager who suggested they look to Kickstarter to raise funds.
“It’s a really cool once you get over the whole weird thing that people have where they’re like 'It’s just people asking for free money,’” Philapavage said. “That’s not actually what it is. It’s an amazing site. People should support these things because for the most part it’s what’s good about the world like ingenuity and all those things.”
Kickstarter is a collaborative effort as Amazon Payments handles the cash. There is a fairly lengthy waiting period between applying to list a project and actually having it on the site. A small background check and other processes happen in between. If the fundraising goal is met, Kickstarter takes 10 percent of the money.
BWC’s project manager made a budget to determine how much they should ask for. Philapavage was thinking somewhere along the lines of $15,000.
In an e-mail he received at 2AM and right before he was going to call it a night, Philapavage discovered the number his manager had in mind.
“I started panicking. I couldn’t sleep and went to bed at six in the morning.”
The project manager later said fine, we can change the budget, but you’re going to have to be the ones who do the cuts, you know better than me. Kiernan and Philapavage cut $10,000 out.
In the end, the project manager was right. After a media campaign featuring interviews on Pro Wrestling Net and Wrestling Observer and the support of several message boards, $31,140 was raised. The film’s name was announced and the premier date of April 20 released.
As the Barbed Wire City journey comes to an end, its creators have much to be grateful for.
Philapavage has talked to over 60 people during the making of this film. From that came the bonus of having some quality people come into his life.
“Both Kevin and I said one of the coolest things about this journey is the amount of good people that we met,” he remarked. There are very few people that I thought were fucking batshit insane and only one or two people I disliked.”
Many of those interviewed will come off well in the film, especially Johnny Grunge, Ted Petty and Tony Lewis.
“Their interviews are really going to impact people,” Philapavage said. “People are going to walk away from the movie going, ‘I like Johnny Grunge, I like Ted Petty and I like Tony Lewis.’ Their personalities jump out at you.”
Another benefit for Philapavage and Kiernan has been working together again.
“It just felt right,” mentioned Philapavage. “Getting to spend so much time with him this year has become of the great byproducts of doing this documentary.”
Best of all, the two have put out a story that is worth telling.
“I think it captures a moment in time that changed wrestling and those human beings,” Philapavage commented. “It changed their lives and it’s still with them to this day.”
And it’s told with non-wrestling viewers in mind.
“I want wrestling fans to take their non-wrestling friends (to see this). I hope they find its value as a study of a sub-culture.”
Documentary fans will enjoy the film for its quality. Pro wrestling fans will enjoy it for one last trip to the land of extreme.
“I hope this documentary is something they can hold on to and say ECW meant something.”