This Sunday is WWE’s yearly Extreme Rules pay-per-view, the company’s last, fleeting tip of the hat to the by-gone age of hardcore. With the future of hardcore wrestling in WWE looking bleak, if at all existent, we here at Wrestling 101 think it’s fitting to look back on how we arrived in a world where a pay-per-view such as Extreme Rules could possibly exist, in a brief history of hardcore.
In The Beginning
Hardcore wrestling is a vague concept. What is hardcore? Is it weapons? Is it no rules? Is it gimmick matches? Or is it all of those and more? To really tell the story of hardcore wrestling, we have to decide exactly what we consider the start of hardcore to be. To find that point, we have to go back before the ladders, before the tables, before the chairs, before the cages, and the dog collars, and the thumbtacks, and the light tubes, and the barbed wire, and the C4, and the glass, and the staple guns, and the canes, and the garbage cans, and the baking trays, back to one simple addition that changed wrestling forever; blood.
In professional wrestling, the act of intentionally bleeding is called blading, named after the tiny razor blades used to create the effect, but, in the middle of the 20th century, techniques weren’t so advanced, and blood had to be drawn using far less refined techniques. A particularly common method was striking the opponent’s brow with the tip of your knuckles in a scraping motion, which would often result in the drawing of blood. As this technique becomes better known and more perfected, the concept of blood first truly entered the consciousness of the pro-wrestling world and, in many ways; hardcore was born.
In those early days, blood alone was enough to sate the thirst of even the most ferocious fans. Hardcore matches themselves were rare, but extremely violent matches held under normal rules were not. Several wrestlers emerged during the early days of modern wrestling, defining themselves with their use of realistic violence and tons of blood.
One of these hardcore pioneers was a wrestler known as “Classy” Freddie Blassie. A true veteran of the sport, Blassie is best remembered now for his stints in the early days of the WWF, managing future legends like Hulk Hogan, The Iron Sheik and Jesse “The Body” Ventura, but, long before that, he was a wrestler in his own right, and a particularly violent one.
Blassie first hit the big time in the Georgia territory of the NWA in 1953, portraying the classic stereotype of an uppity-Northerner, designed to enrage the Southern fans. It was during his relatively short spell in Georgia that he embraced hardcore, developing a reputation for biting his opponents during matches, a gimmick that earned him the nickname “Vampire”.
Another man from that time whos name may still be familiar with fans today, is Dory Funk Sr., the father of future fellow hardcore legends Terry Funk and Dory Funk Jr. An accomplished high-school wrestler, Funk joined the Texas territory of the NWA after completing his service with the United States Navy during the Second World War. Although Funk was always somewhat extreme in his style, his greatest gift to the world of hardcore wrestling would be his part in inventing and popularizing the notorious Texas Death Match (more on that later).
This wasn’t just an age of pioneering wrestlers though, it was also an age of pioneering matches including, perhaps most iconic of all, the cage match.
The first recorded cage match took place in 1937 in Georgia between Jack Bloomfield and “The Count” Pedro Rossi. Originally, the cages weren’t made out of the steel bars, or metal mesh we know today, but out of simple farmer’s chicken wire. Before the dawn of the 1960s, famous faces that took part in chicken wire cage matches included “Whipper” Billy Watson, Fritz von Erich and The Russian Crusher. It wasn’t until the 1980’s that the concept was reborn in the famous blue-barred format we know today.
The Birth of the Death Match
In the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s hardcore was still far from what we’d know as hardcore wrestling today. A big step in the genre’s history began in the late 1950s, as hardcore wrestling became more developed and organized. This leap was thanks to the efforts of two NWA territories based out of the Southern states of Florida and Texas.
Florida’s NWA territory, the CWF (currently owned by WWE and known as FCW), was based out of the city of Tampa and was owned by former pro-wrestler and boxer “Cowboy” Clarence Luttrell and, later, NWA President Eddie Graham.
Established in 1961, the promotion would go on to the be the launching pad for several stars of the future included Dusty Rhodes, Lou Thesz, Bob Orton Sr. (Randy Orton’s grandfather), Wahoo McDaniel, The Funk Brothers, and the Briscoe Brothers (Jack and Jerry, not Mark and Jay). The company was famed for it’s bloody, chaotic brawls, which would often spill out of the ring and into the crowds.
Meanwhile, in Texas, there was NWA Southwest, the jewel in the crown of hardcore wrestling, even going as far as to create one of the world’s first hardcore titles, the NWA Texas Hardcore Championship, a title that was fought for using weapons, specifically, brass knuckles. The title was established in 1953, and was active all the way up until 2001. During the ’50s and ’60s, the title was held by, amongst others, “Iron” Mike DiBiase (adopted father of Ted DiBiase Sr. and grandfather of Ted DiBiase Jr.), Fritz von Erich and Walter “Killer” Kowalski (who, in his later life, became the head trainer of modern-day wrestlers like Triple H and Kofi Kingston).
As well as one of the earliest and most prestigious hardcore titles in North America, NWA Southwest was also responsible for one of the most important matches in hardcore history; The Texas Death Match.
The Texas Death Match is the grandfather of the modern-day Last Man Standing Match, and the rules are relatively similar. To win a Texas Death Match, you must pin or submit your opponent, and then keep them down for a ten count. The gimmick is unpopular today, but in the early days; this was the hardcore gimmick match. It was normally used as the final, feud-ending climax of particularly violent and bloody angles, much in the same way that modern Last Man Standing Matches are used today.
Another similarly important gimmick was the Lights Out Match. If the Texas Death Match can be said to be the grandfather of the Last Man Standing Match, then the Lights Out Match is the grandfather of the Street Fight. The gimmick for this match was that it was too violent and too lawless to be officially sanctioned by the NWA, so the matches would take place after the “official” show, with the house lights turned off, hence the name.
These two match types resulted in extremely violent and often extremely long contests. For example, in one of the first recorded Texas Death Matches, Dory Funk Sr. and “Iron” Mike DiBiase wrestled each other for almost five straight hours. The match only ended when police shut the show down for breaking the town of Amarillo’s live event licensing laws by going on too long. The tradition of extremely long Death Matches continued into the 1970s, with Terry Funk honoring his father’s legacy by wrestling Harley Race for nearly three hours in a match that put both men in hospital and came close to crippling Funk for life after he cracked a disc in his spine.
A Tale of Two Cities
The efforts of wrestlers in Florida and Texas were certainly important for hardcore wrestling when it came to developing the art form, but it was still a niche style, confined to the South of the United States, with the rest of the country very much separate. For hardcore to really have a shot at becoming a part of mainstream pro-wrestling, it had to move out of its Southern homeland, and, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, that’s what happened, thanks to two separate, but coinciding, territories who were willing to give hardcore a chance; the two cities of Detroit and Memphis.
The Detroit boom was thanks to two workers whose impact on hardcore wrestling is still felt today; The Sheik and Abdullah the Butcher. Despite their Middle Eastern gimmicks and Lake Michigan origins, both men came into wrestling separately as members of Detroit’s Big-Time Wrestling.
Both men became famous for seriously upping the stakes when it came to weaponry, with The Sheik relying on pencils and often legitimately dangerous fireballs, whilst Abdullah became known for his brutal use of cutlery, as well as various in-ring shock tactics, like eating inanimate objects and, reportedly, beheading live chickens in the ring with his teeth.
The Sheik traveled from country to country, enjoying prolific spells in both Japan and Canada, but Detroit was always his main base of operations in America, and it was home to his iconic feuds against “Classy” Freddie Blassie and Bobo Brazil in the late 1960s (a feud often sited as the first main event feud in American history to contain two non-white wrestlers). Despite his death in 2003, the Sheik is still remembered as one of the founding fathers of American hardcore, his legacy having been carried on by his nephew, Sabu, who had the honor of posthumously inducting his uncle into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2006.
Abdullah the Butcher was born just across the water from Detroit, in Windsor, Canada, and made his professional debut in 1958. Abdullah’s tendency to ignore some of the staged aspects of wrestling quickly earned him a reputation as someone to be legitimately feared. He was famous for his over-enthusiastic use of weapons, particularly forks, which he, without faking it at all, would jam into his opponent’s heads until he drew blood. Abdullah took as good as he got though, using razor blades to cut his head open in almost every match to such a degree that he would entertain other wrestlers by slotting poker chips into them. As well as Detroit, Abdullah also gained a strong reputation as a top heel in his native Canada, including Calgary’s famous Stampede Wrestling, the home of the Hart family.
Whilst this shock-value, freak-show like flavour of hardcore was developing in Detroit, an altogether separate version, a perhaps more traditional version, was blossoming in the Continental Wrestling Association, based out of Memphis, Tennessee. Touring throughout the mid-west and south-east, the company’s roster included stars like Jerry “The King” Lawler and Terry Funk, both of who took the South’s long legacy of hardcore brawling and made it their own, combining the realism of the Southern-style, the spectacle of the Detroit style, and the storytelling of the north-eastern Sports Entertainment style.
Although he started his career as a heel, Jerry “The King” Lawler spent most of his time in Memphis as a top babyface, feuding with the likes of “Superstar” Billy Graham, “Macho Man” Randy Savage and, perhaps most famously, surrealist comedian Andy Kaufman in an angle that involved a brawl on the Tonight Show With David Letterman that still tricks many modern-day wrestling fans with its realism and believable acting. Lawler’s popularity in Memphis eventually reached such levels that, after “The King” lost a bloody hair vs. hair steel cage match to “Wildfire” Tommy Rich in 1987, the Mid-South Coliseum erupted into a full-scale riot.
If Jerry Lawler created his style of hardcore by altering the Texan and Floridian model, then Terry Funk almost certainly created his style influenced by what was going on in Detroit at the time.
Terry Funk was the youngest son of the previously mentioned hardcore legend Dory Funk Sr., and he was the little brother of fellow wrestler and tag partner Dory Funk Jr. Funk became famous for his brawling ability throughout the South in the mid-’60s to mid-’70s and also spent time in Detroit, including a memorable and particularly violent match with The Sheik. Combining his experiences from Detroit and the notorious Japanese Death Match circuit (where he would eventually meet future tag-team partner and fellow hardcore icon Mick Foley) Funk welded together his own personal style of hardcore, combining Southern brawlin’ and bleedin’, with the high flying, stunt show, gross-out aspects of Japan and Detroit. Funk would go on to have many memorably violent feuds throughout the 1980s with legends like “The Natureboy” Ric Flair (never a man to turn down a chance to bleed), Junkyard Dog and Sting, working in every promotion from the NWA, to WCW, to ECW, to the WWF.
Hardcore Goes National
The foundations had been set, and with established territories in Texas, Florida, Tennessee and Michigan, hardcore was poised to take over America. As the style spread, it began to evolve at a rapid rate. As the Deep South no longer held the monopoly on the style, rival territories and promotions were forced into creative competition with each other, with different promoters desperate to think of the next big thing in hardcore. Many of the results of this creative boom period are still around today in WWE and TNA as popular gimmick matches.
One of the matches from his time that is most fondly known today is the Ladder Match. The origins of the concept are disputed, but it’s generally believed that the match was invented in the Stampede Wrestling territory in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, the promotion that would go on to debut several generations of Canada’s greatest stars, including the Hart brothers, Bret and Owen, The British Bulldog and Chris Benoit. The first ladder match was held in 1972, contested between largely forgotten Canadian wrestlers Tor Kamata and Dan Kroffat (it was Kroffat who is believed to have thought up the idea) with the aim being to retrieve wads of money hanging from the rafters.
By the 1980s, the concept had spread across the Atlantic to Britain’s World of Sport promotion, and it eventually made it’s way to the WWF on the recommendation of Stampede Wrestling’s former star, Bret Hart, who took part in his first Ladder Match in the Canadian promotion in 1983 against Bad News Allen. The match concept would eventually debut in the WWF in 1992, when Hart defeat life-long rival Shawn Michaels to become WWF Intercontinental Champion. Since that match, there have been forty-one Ladder Matches in the WWF/E, ten in WCW, and thirty-six in TNA, making it one of the most common high-concept gimmick matches in modern professional-wrestling.
Not all the matches from this time have endured though. An extremely popular gimmick during the 1980s, the notorious Scaffold Match has all but disappeared in modern wrestling, and it’s relatively easy to see why. The match took place on an elevated platform in the ring, and usually involved only one bump; the loser falling off the scaffold.
The first scaffold match took place in 1971 in the notoriously hardcore Memphis territory between Don Greene and Jerry Jarrett (future co-founder of TNA, and father of Jeff Jarrett), but it took over ten years for the match to really take off in popularity, becoming the signature feud-ending match of several promotions across the southern United States, including, briefly, WCW.
There was a problem though, and a relatively obvious one. Wrestling relies on “fake” pain, the idea of making something that doesn’t hurt look like it does. With a scaffold match, this concept falls apart, as there’s virtually no way to fall 25 feet onto a wrestling ring without it seriously hurting. It was this little problem that was responsible for the ridiculously high rate of injuries this match generated. From Jim Cornette’s famous broken legs in the mid-’80s to Vic Grimes coming extremely close to genuine death at the hands of New Jack in XPW in 2001, it’s perhaps relatively obvious why the match has never taken place in either WWE or TNA, and only took place in WCW once. Even the notoriously extreme ECW only had the guts to hold three of these matches.
Whilst American companies were developing hardcore with new match types, over in Japan, there was a very different approach; they were simply raising the bar of danger and violence as high as possible. The concept behind the matches was still the classic pin-fall or submission concept, but ever-increasingly violent accessories were being added. From fire to barbed wire, to military-grade explosives, Japanese wrestling was taking hardcore to a new level of shock-value.
The leading exponent of this ultra-violent style was Frontier Martial-Arts Wrestling (FMW), which was founded in 1989. The promotion held some truly bizarre and uniquely Japanese matches, with names like the “Exploding Ring of Death Match” and the “Barbed Wire Cage Match”. With matches like that, it’s not surprising that the company had its fair share of injuries, including the tragic paralyzing of high-flying Japanese legend Hayabusa in 2001, but it also becomes the proving ground, during the early 1990s, for America’s toughest and most truly hardcore wrestlers, including Mick Foley, Terry Funk, Chris Jericho, Sabu and Lance Storm. It was also one of the birthplaces of “Garbage Wrestling”, a controversial style that has since influenced almost every back-yard promotion in North America, as well as genuine indie federations like CZW, seen by many as the last surviving truly hardcore promotion in America.
The Third Man
The early 1990s were an exciting time for hardcore wrestling. The popularity of the style, invented by the Southern territories, and exported via Detroit and Memphis, has been complimented and revitalized with the dawn of new innovative match types like the Ladder Match and the Scaffold Match, whilst grizzled veterans of the infamous Japanese Death Matches were reinforcing the rosters of American companies. With the WWF and WCW refusing to turn away from the family-friendly, child-orientated style that had bought so much success in wrestling’s “Golden Era”, there was a huge hole in the market begging to be filled by a company will to try and bring hardcore wrestling to the masses. It may have seemed unthinkable in the days of Hulk Hogan and the Ultimate Warrior, but the American hardcore revolution was coming, and like any good American revolution, it would start in Philadelphia.
In 1992, New York based wrestling promoter Joel Goodhart sold the ownership of the Tri-State Wrestling Alliance to Philadelphia based promoter Tod Gordon, who hastily changed the name of the company, which was no longer based in the Tri-State area, to Eastern Championship Wrestling (ECW). A member of the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) at the time, ECW plodded along under the leadership of head booker “Hot Stuff” Eddie Gilbert, a veteran of the Memphis hardcore scene of the mid-1980s. Gilbert was, however, somewhat stuck in his ways, and, looking for someone to lead ECW into the future, Gordon replaced Gilbert in 1993 with former WCW commentator and heel manager Paul Heyman.
Even in the world of professional wrestling, Heyman was something of a controversial figure. Born in upstate New York to a family of Holocaust survivors, Heyman started his first business at the age of eleven, selling baseball cards and celebrity memorabilia via mail order. He had been suspended from WCW for leaking future storyline plans to the press, and was eventually fired from the company for filling false expense reports. During his time as a manager, he’d worked alongside future stars like “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, The Undertaker, Sting and commentary legend Jim Ross.
Heyman’s plans were, fittingly, extreme. In one of his first acts as booker, ECW turned their back on the NWA by having their champion, ”The Franchise” Shane Douglas, insult the company, calling it out of date, and effectively stealing their title, renaming it the ECW World Heavyweight Championship. Unsurprisingly, ECW was instantly kicked out of the NWA, and Douglas was stripped of the title. Cashing in on the reaction, Eastern Championship Wrestling changed it’s named to Extreme Championship Wrestling. ECW was dead. ECW had been born.
What followed shocked the wrestling world. Heyman opened his company up to outsiders who would never have been given a chance in the stagnating, over-political locker rooms of WCW and the WWF. Overlooked stars like “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, Chris Benoit, Chris Jericho, Raven and Lance Storm joined hardcore legends such as Mick Foley, Terry Funk, Sabu, Rob Van Dam and The Dudley Boyz. These American and Canadian stars were joined by a wave of Mexican and Mexican-American luchadors, such as Eddie Guerrero, Rey Misterio, Psicosis and Super Crazy and the newly founded “Super Juniors” of Japan, wrestlers like Yoshihiro Tajiri and Masato Tanaka.
This combination of young talent, hardcore wrestling, and new, exciting foreign styles was a slap in the face to America’s two major promotions, both of which had been relying on the same cartoonish, exaggerated, family orientated style for years. ECW was different, the wrestlers were encouraged to bring realism into the promos, the matches were all carried out under hardcore rules, and the use of violence, language, occasional illegality and sexuality were designed to target an audience significantly older than that being targeted by either WCW or the WWF. As the 1990s went on, ECW gained television exposure, first locally on the New York based Madison Square Garden Network, then internationally on the TNN network, and became a mainstay on national pay-per-view, eventually holding eight pay-per-view events a year.
Sadly, ECW couldn’t last. Vicious poaching of talent by WCW and the WWF deprived the company, one by one, of its stars, whilst, in 2000, TNN dropped the company in favor of the WWF’s flagship show RAW. In 2001, ECW was forced to declare bankruptcy and was bought out by the WWF.
But whilst that was the end of the story for ECW, it wasn’t the end for hardcore, because ECW’s style hadn’t gone unnoticed. Desperate to fight back against WCW, who had overtaken the WWF in the rating wars of the mid-1990’s thanks to the creation of the New World Order, Vince McMahon decided to take a risk. He decided to take the philosophy of ECW (the older target audience, the realism, the controversy, the sexuality and, perhaps most importantly, the hardcore) and put it into a big-budget, international wrestling company. Mainstream wrestling was about to get an attitude.
There’s a lot of discussion about exactly when the Attitude Era started. Some say the starting point was ECW graduate “Stone Cold” Steve Austin’s iconic “3:16” speech at the end of the 1997 King of the Ring, some say it was the betrayal of Bret Hart at the 1997 Survivor Series and the subsequent birth of Vince McMahon as an on-screen character, and some say it was “Stone Cold” Steve Austin winning his first WWF Championship from Shawn Michaels at WrestleMania XIV in 1998.
Whenever the starting point, the change soon became clear. Gone was Hulk Hogan, the friendly, brightly colored, smiling all-American doling out religious doctrine and dietary advice, and here was “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, with his black gear and shaved head, attacking defenseless people, attacking women, swearing, drinking beer and flipping off anyone who came anywhere near him. The face of professional wrestling had changed, and people loved it. Hardcore was now the official face of mainstream professional wrestling. Chair shots became commonplace, tables were broken almost every show, and some of the most extreme elements of hardcore were introduced into the WWF for the first time, such as thumb-tacks, barbed wire, and even fire.
Whilst it was outspoken “tweener” figures like “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, D-Generation X and The Rock who led the companies hardcore attitude, the hardcore wrestling itself was left to another man, possibly the unlikeliest mega-babyface in pro-wrestling history; Michael Francis Foley Senior. Mick Foley.
Whether he was Mankind, Cactus Jack or even the wacky Dude Love, Foley bought hardcore wrestling to the mainstream like no one else. Using his experiences in ECW and the Death Matches of Japan, Foley, occasionally joined by old friend Terry Funk (who was in his 50’s by this point), introduced the mainstream wrestling audience to a whole new level of hardcore, whether it was his death-defying bumps from the top of, and through, the cell at 1998’s King of the Ring or his liberal use of thumbtacks at the Royal Rumble in 2000, Foley was willing to put himself through things that most fans had no idea were even possible.
Foley’s dedication to bringing hardcore wrestling to the masses was so successful that, in late 1998, the WWF went as far as to make him his own title belt as a reward; the WWF Hardcore Championship. Originally something of a joke, the belt quickly became popular (so much so that, a year later, WCW created their own hardcore title). The belt was frequently defended, and always under hardcore rules, guaranteeing at least one hardcore match per pay-per-view (although the Attitude Era’s love of gimmick matches meant that there were usually many more). The belt has mostly been handed around between mid-carders and jobbers as little more than an excuse for wild brawling, but, apart from Foley himself, some genuine stars to hold the belt include Jeff Hardy, The Big Show, Chris Jericho, R-Truth, The Undertaker, Kurt Angle and Rob van Dam.
But the Attitude Era wasn’t just old concepts coming to the mainstream. As there always is with hardcore wrestling, there was constant innovation, including the birth of two of the WWF’s most iconic match types.
At Summerslam 1997, Bret Hart defeated The Undertaker to retain the WWF Championship thanks to interference from Shawn Michaels, designed to stop ‘Taker from becoming champion. In the resulting feud, Michaels and The Undertaker squared off at In Your House: Ground Zero a month later. The match went to a no-contest after interference from Michaels’s D-Generation X allies, Triple H, Chyna and Rick Rude. To settle the matter, the WWF promised to create a match that it would be impossible to interfere in. Normally, such a match would have been a simple Cage Match, but the WWF pointed out that it would be relatively easy for D-X to climb over the cage walls, so a new cage was built with a roof; The Hell in a Cell.
The first Hell in a Cell match took place at Badd Blood 1997 in St. Louis, Missouri. Despite the match’s gimmick, it ended in interference thanks to the debut of The Undertaker’s long-lost brother, Kane, who allowed Michaels to win the match. Silly booking aside, the gimmick was a success, and so the WWF chose to use it a second time on pay-per-view a year later, at King of the Ring 1998 (the real second Hell in a Cell was a largely forgettable tag team match on an episode of RAW just before the King of the Ring). The wrestlers involved this time were The Undertaker and Mick Foley, performing, at the time, as his newest character; Mankind. Without the WWF’s knowledge, both men had decided to do something different this time. They were going to effectively ignore having a real match, and instead perform a series of extremely high-risk hardcore stunts, mostly involving ridiculously dangerous things happening to Mick Foley.
To start things off, the wrestlers decided to begin the match on top of the cell, rather than inside it, something the cell’s designers hadn’t accounted for, as parts of the steel mesh began to break under their weight. Barely a minute into the match, The Undertaker had thrown Mick off of the cell and through the announcer’s table in one of the most iconic moments in wrestling history (helped, as ever, by Jim Ross’s unmatched play-by-play). Less than ten minutes into the match, both men had returned to the top of the cage, only for Mick to, this time, be chokeslammed clean through it (a moment that still generates controversy over whether or not the cage was supposed to break in the way it did). The resulting fall knocked Foley’s teeth clean-out, lodging one of them up his nose. As the match went on, blood, weapons and, eventually, Foley’s now-iconic thumb-tacks were introduced into the proceeding, before the contest finally ended in a victory for The Undertaker, and a standing ovation from the fans for Mick Foley (effectively ending his heel persona in one match). Together, The Undertaker and Foley had cemented the Hell in a Cell as one of the most legendary matches in WWE’s repertoire. Overall, there have been twenty-five of them, including three pay-per-views based entirely around the concept.
Just one year later, at No Mercy 1999, two of the hottest young tag teams in wrestling, The Hardy Boys (Matt and Jeff Hardy) and The Brood (Edge and Christian) had a Ladder Match that, like the 1998 Hell in a Cell, resulted in a standing ovation from the crowd. In one match, all four men became superstars.
Elsewhere in the tag division, ECW’s former super-heel tag-champs, the Dudley Boys, were making a name for themselves through their brutal and innovative use of tables (a technique first perfected by fellow ECW extremist Sabu). As the tag team division became the hottest it had been in a long, long time, the call was made to combine these three teams, and to give them their own unique match concept. The result was the combination of the three team’s signature weapons the Dudley Boys’ tables, the Hardy Boys’ ladders, and the Brood’s chairs. The name of the match was easy, a pun on the acronym for “tender loving care”, T.L.C.: Tables, Ladders and Chairs.
The concept debuted at Summerslam 2000, before being perfected by the three same teams the next year at WrestleMania XVII, a match considered by many to be one of the greatest in WrestleMania history. Since then, the format has been used both for tag matches and singles matches, and there have, to date, been twelve TLC matches in the WWF/E, two in ECW and six in TNA (where it’s known by the name Full Metal Mayhem). Like Hell in a Cell, the TLC match has also been the basis for its own WWE pay-per-view, which has taken place every December since 2009.
As previously stated, in 2001, ECW was bought out by the WWF, and, although the WWF had embraced many of ECW’s sensibilities during the Attitude Era, many believed pure hardcore wrestling to be dead, nothing more than a niche product used once or twice a show in the WWF and WCW. The nostalgia for ECW remained despite the company’s non-existence, and chants of “E-C-Dub” were common reactions to hardcore events in other promotions.
During the WWF’s disastrous invasion angle in 2001, ECW was briefly bought back as a faction, lead by Paul Heyman, but it soon faded away. It took unexpectedly huge sales of WWE’s “Rise and Fall of ECW” DVD to prove to the company just how popular ECW still was, and, to cash in on this, WWE arranged a special one-off ECW-themed event, the ECW One Night Stand, which took place in New York City in 2005, bringing back such beloved former ECW stars as the Dudley Boys, Tommy Dreamer, The Sandman, Chris Benoit, Eddie Guerrero, Sabu, Rey Misterio Jr., Chris Jericho, Mike Awesome and Super Crazy. The event was a massive success. Again, WWE had underestimated the enduring popularity of history’s biggest ever hardcore wrestling promotion, so a second event was planned for 2006, the main event of which saw ECW fan-favorite Rob van Dam defeat WWE’s poster-boy John Cena to become WWE World Champion.
Again, the event was a huge success (despite WWE’s failure to insist on using their own stars alongside ECW wrestlers, which often resulted in hugely negative reactions from the crowd) and so the company decided to bring back ECW as the third brand alongside RAW and Smackdown. The new ECW roster was a combination of old favorites, and new WWE talents who weren’t yet considered ready for the two big shows. Some of the stars of today to get their first big break thanks to the new ECW were CM Punk, Kelly Kelly, Bobby Lashley and John Morrison.
The new ECW was, at best, underwhelming. The Attitude Era was long over, and a newly conservative WWE banned many of the aspects that made the original ECW so popular. Things weren’t helped by the Sci-Fi Channel (the network broadcasting the new weekly ECW shows) making bizarre demands like the inclusion of more “science fiction based” gimmicks to help the show better fit in with the new network.
Ultimately, the new ECW was a failure. Paul Heyman was fired for his perceived involvement in the catastrophe that was ECW December to Dismember, a 2006 event that still holds the record for the lowest buy rate in WWE pay-per-view history. Heyman was followed out of the door by almost even original ECW wrestler left in the company as they were either fired, quit or both at the same time.
For the second time in ten years, ECW was dead, but, this time, things were different. There was no Attitude Era, there was no Mick Foley, there was no “Stone Cold” Steve Austin. Hardcore wrestling was in trouble.
The End of Extreme?
In 2008, WWE began a campaign to adjust it’s content to fit within the rules of the American parental guidelines system in an attempt to earn a PG rating for all their programming. A year earlier, in 2007, the tragic death and crimes of former ECW legend and current WWE employee Chris Benoit, believed to have been the result of head injuries, led to stricter standards concerning the use of weaponry during matches. As a result of the combination of these two factors, strict new rules were imposed by WWE. Chair shots to the head, blood, violence against women, swearing, sexual behaviour and the vast majority of the weapons and hardcore spots popularized in the company by men like Mike Foley were all banned.
It was like ECW never happened, like hardcore never happened. In the form of John Cena, the happy, safe, soft-edged spirit of the late 1980s was back to stay, and in a company with such a stance, is there a future for hardcore wrestling left in WWE?