Does the wrestling world really need another documentary on the late promotion known as Extreme Championship Wrestling? (1993-2001) I don’t know man, I don’t know. All I can say here is that this documentary managed not to bore me, and for the most part did a good job with what it had to tell the story it wanted to tell. The WWE did a superb job (if admittedly biased in their own favor as you’d expect) with The Rise and Fall of ECW DVD way back when, so good in fact that it went on to become one of their biggest selling DVDs ever, and lead to two ECW reunion pay per views, and the failed re-launch of the brand itself in 2006. And on top of that you had the Hardcore Homecoming tour going on at the same time featuring many of the same ECW alumni, and the Jeremy Borash produced documentary ‘Forever Hardcore’ which serves as kind of a point-counter point to the Rise and Fall of ECW DVD and features interviews from all of the key players left out of the WWE documentary who were not under contract at the time such as Raven, Sandman, Joey Styles, Todd Gordon, Shane Douglas, etc… Add to that another ECW reunion pay per view put on by TNA, an unauthorized book, countless shoot interviews covering the subject of ECW in more ways than most people would care to know and you have an idea of what the market is like for this kind of stuff.
And now we have ‘Barbed Wire City’ to add to the massive mix. Of the three mentioned this documentary is the most ambitious of the bunch, compiling ten years worth of interview footage from all the wrestlers and assorted personalities they could get to agree to sit down with them. Among the interviewed parties are the late Rocco Rock and Johnny Grunge of Public Enemy, Shane Douglas, Raven, Mikey Whipwreck, Stevie Richards, Axl Rotten, Balls Mahoney, New Jack, and the original founder of ECW, Todd Gordon. Hell, they even interviewed Straw Hat Guy, and another fan who used to run a popular ECW fan site back in the day, as well as wrestling journalists Bruce Mitchell, Dave Meltzer, and a half dozen others of that ilk. In my opinion they kind of had too many of the wrestling news/dirt sheet guys here for my tastes. Just one or two would have been more than sufficient. They do help provide good overall historical context that the performers themselves understandably get muddled since they were not sitting idly by taking notes when all this craziness was going on, but actually there in the trenches living it out, but having basically every major Internet Wrestling Community figure of any prominence on this thing gives the documentary a less than professional vibe at times. That’s a minor complaint though, especially seeing as this is a documentary produced by fans in any event.
Unlike the aforementioned ‘Forever Hardcore’ this documentary does not try to copy the format of the successful WWE DVD. This documentary is more interested in exploring the phenomena that was ECW and its following than being the conclusive chronicle of its every single match or moment. That being said this DVD does a more than thorough job going through the history of the promotion, giving the most detail of any of them of many events from ECW’s inception to its demise, and all the good, bad and ugly in between. This DVD did the best job of any of them I’d say on the early years of Eastern Championship Wrestling with Todd Gordon and Eddie Gilbert, and how Paul Heyman came to his position of power after the fall out between Gordon and Gilbert. The late Eddie Gilbert, who had been both the booker and the top star of Eastern Championship Wrestling at the time long held resentments against Heyman after being (in his mind anyway) betrayed and pushed out by his former friend. There’s not much coverage of the angle where Shane Douglas threw down the NWA world heavyweight title and proclaimed the ECW title the ‘Extreme Championship Wrestling’ belt, and I don’t know why, as that was a key development in the history of ECW. However, this was also covered extensively in the ‘Forever Hardcore’ documentary with memories and opinions from pretty much all the prominent parties involved.
Out of the three aforementioned documentaries, this one feels the most like a documentary I’d say and less like a nostalgic retrospective like the other two. The purpose of the other two DVDs seemed to be more or less “Awww wasn’t that special?” while this documentary spends the majority of its time debating, analyzing, and discussing exactly what it was that made the original renegade promotion so special to begin with. To some ECW was simply a blood and guts promotion, and you can make the case for that with all the gory matches put on by the Rotten Brothers and New Jack among others, but several make mention of the fact that ECW, at its high point anyway had a little something for everyone. You had the technical maestros, Eddie Guerrero and Dean Malenko tearing it up inside the ring, high flyers like Rey Mysterio, and then you also had your over the top mad men like Sabu and the Public Enemy crashing through tables, and great adult level storylines and top notch interviews with Raven, The Sandman, Mick Foley and Tommy Dreamer. Not too mention a good number of scantily clad women who pushed the sex appeal factor way farther than either of the big two promotions at the time ever would.
Speaking of the ‘Big Two’ much is made of the ‘Us vs. Them’ mentality that Paul Heyman fostered and encouraged both in his fans and in his wrestlers. ECW was began at the perfect time when WWF (Now WWE) was a stagnant dead on its ass promotion pushing kid centered gimmicks that no one cared about, and WCW was simply a mess run by corporate suits who hadn’t the slightest idea, or the desire to learn, how to run a professional wrestling company. That’s why in the early days ECW was seen as that little outlaw promotion that had better wrestling, less insulting characters and storylines, and the thing that made the ultimate difference, ECW was the one promotion that made its fans feel like they were a part of the show. In fact much time is spent discussing the fans themselves here, from their passionate and their sometimes hilarious chants to their unkempt appearance, and most of all their undying loyalty to the brand itself. In a speech just before he announces his retirement at an ‘Extreme Reunion’ show shown here Jerry Lynn tells a crowd of reunited ECW fans that they were the best he ever performed in front of and that they were what made the old ECW so much fun to be a part of. When ECW struggled to get on pay per view after attaining a reputation of being too violent, it was its fans that came to the rescue calling and petitioning the pay per view providers who finally caved in and gave ECW its shining moment with 1997’s Barely Legal pay per view event.
For years Paul Heyman had dangled the carrot of pay per view over his audience and performers, assuring them once we get on pay per view that’s when this revolution will really get rolling, and ECW would grow beyond its bingo hall roots. But in reality, all pay per view, and later national television exposure did for ECW was help hasten its demise with the added production costs, costs that Heyman and the parent company had to take out loan after loan after loan to keep on covering. The problem was, by the time ECW got on pay per view and much more noticeably later on national television with TNN, most all of its homegrown talent (Benoit, Guerrero, Malenko, Mysterio, Jericho, Shane Douglas, Public Enemy, Raven, Sandman, and the list goes on and on and on) of any importance had been raided by the deep pockets of WCW and the WWF, and everyone left was either the bottom of the barrel scrubs that nobody else wanted, or guys who had had their mystique ruined by failed runs in one of the big two promotions before being dumped back in ECW where they would never again be able to make the impact they once did. Right before their big national TV deal started in fact, they lost both their top tag team in the Dudley Boys and their top singles star in Taz. That combined with TNN’s failure to help cover any of the production costs meant that the shows still looked like bush league events compared to the big two for the most part. So the money and the talent kept pouring out until eventually, the little promotion that everyone loved so much had no choice but to close its doors.
On top of raiding the talent of ECW, the big two promotions, who at the time of ECW’s beginning were both lethargic and lazy generic kids shows, had taken notice of the attitude and content of the little Philadelphia promotion and had both borrowed ideas and sometimes entire storylines from them at will. In many cases too much is made of this aforementioned borrowing, not that it didn’t occur, but most of the ideas borrowed were not created by Paul Heyman, but simply things that had been going on for years in wrestling that Heyman had the foresight to notice at the time, that no one else was doing in the stagnant early 90s. So now when people watched WWF instead of Doink the Clown and a parade of midgets, they saw ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin and Degeneration X, while in WCW the New World Order storyline had turned that ship around and made the promotion into a ratings juggernaut for the time being and also made the product much edgier and cooler to a younger, hipper audience that was also ECW’s target demographic. So by the time most casual fans got around to seeing ECW, it was no longer the outlaw brand alternative, so much as the watered down, and cheaply made version of the same thing that fans could see done better on either Raw or Nitro at the time.
ECW was in a very tough spot at the end. It was too big to exist as a small regional promotion, and too small to make it as the big national promotion that its fans so desperately wanted it to become. Heyman was apparently very close at times to getting deals with various networks including USA, TBS, Fox, among others that could have saved ECW, but in the end, nobody was willing to sign the deal. Heyman even approached Billy Corrigan of the Smashing Pumpkins, who is interviewed here, for a one million dollar investment in the company for a ten percent stake. Corrigan wisely declined noting that the company, at the time, was not worth anywhere near ten million dollars. Paul Heyman appears here through old fan cam footage and we get to hear him in the midst of some classic Paul E. “kool aid” speeches. However, with his absence from the actual interviews though he is kind of vilified by many of his former employees although for the most part not unjustly so (except for a few expected exceptions). However, to the casual observer who has never heard of ECW it would look to the onlooker like Paul E. basically abandoned his promotion at the end and all the wrestlers in it while making a deal with WWE in mid 2001. Several wrestlers talk about the bounced checks and the chaos and confusion when the company finally went under and then not knowing it was really over until they saw Heyman appear on Raw.
The saddest part of the DVD is not watching the promotion die though, but, and this is one of the advantages of having interviews spaced out over a period of ten years, seeing the damage done to the performers. Guys like Balls Mahoney, interviewed in 2001 just after the closing speaks with rabid enthusiasm about all the flaming tables and hard chair shots he has taken, and he speaks of a riot he was involved in with the glee of a child remembering a favorite Christmas morning. Then we see him again in 2012, and it is utterly heartbreaking to see the state he is in. And he is not even in the worst shape of the lot. That distinction (aside from the Public Enemy, who both died in the intervening years of this documentary) has to go to Axl Rotten, who in the early years of this project proudly displays his tattoos covered in barb wire scars, but later on we see him in the throes of a battle with Bells Palsy still limping on to these reunion shows to try to recapture some of the spark of his youth. Watching him and Mahoney in 2012, comforting each other and reminiscing about how great they were in the old days has the same kind of sad poignancy (and naivety) that made the rock documentary ‘Anvil: The Story of Anvil’ so successful a few years ago, that is, if the guys in Anvil had spent the last twenty years getting their brains bashed in with steel chairs for cheap payouts at indy wrestling shows.
If the producers of this Barbed Wire City had had the budget of WWE and access to a few more people, such as Tommy Dreamer for one, or the Dudleys, who are both sorely missed here, this could have been the definitive last word on the subject of ECW for me. As it is here, I’d call it at best even with the other two, if not slightly ahead of the Jeremy Borash produced documentary. Like I said, it never bored me, and seeing that this is the third time I’ve seen a documentary on this subject, that is an accomplishment in and of itself. But unless you are a big wrestling fan, as well as a big fan of the original ECW, there’s really no need to rush out and buy this, although if you are there’s certainly no reason not to. In the end you could say that the WWE version told the story of ECW from the perspective of Paul Heyman, while the Borash one did so more from the point of view of the wrestlers. This documentary tells the same story from the point of view of the one special element that made the original ECW such a powerhouse for its brief super nova like existence in the first place though, its fans.
Barbed Wire City gets a three out of five: GOOD.