Beyond the Mat Documentary Retro Review

In March of 2000 comedy writer Barry W. Blaustein made his directorial debut in Beyond the Mat, a documentary about professional wrestling. He wrote, directed, and produced this documentary about something which he loved all his life, but admits always feeling embarrassed about it.

Beyond the Mat starts with the filmmaker’s own childhood, explaining how he was always a wrestling fan.He recalls seeing a wrestling show as a kid, and feeling befuddled when after the show he saw one of the wrestlers meeting their own family backstage. Seemingly in that moment that wrestler appeared to be a normal family man. Hence, the essential question of this documentary is, who are these people that become pro-wrestlers?

Blaustein starts at the top with the WWF. At the time of this filming the WWF was worth close to a billion dollars, which the filmmaker says is more than the New York Knicks, Rangers,and Mets put together. During a business meeting we hear that WWF was, at that time, the #2 license (I presume this means in retail products) and that they were fighting it out with South Park. WWF is compared to the Muppets, in the sense it’s a family business involving fictional characters. Vince McMahon is interviewed, and gives a very interesting insight into his business. He explains that a lot of people don’t understand what they’re really about, saying “We make movies.” He goes onto say he makes monsters, and compares WWF to the old Hollywood Studio system.

Writer Vince Russo is seen backstage with Sable (Russo would go on to write for WCW). We also see the wrestler and former Denver Bronco Droz, who apparently early on was going to base his wrestling persona around his ability to vomit on cue. It is noted at the film’s end that shortly after the film wrapped, Droz was paralyzed in the ring. There are also a few wrestlers that briefly get screen time sharing their gripes against Vince, including Justin Credible, Koko B. Ware, and Al Snow. While it’s not clear in the initial viewing, Blaustein’s audio commentary reveals Al Snow is in fact talking about his previous run in WWF where he had a different gimmick called Avatar.

World Championship Wrestling is not covered in this film at all. It is only mentioned twice in passing, once by an indy promoter and once by an ECW fan. From the time I saw this in the theater I wondered why that was the case. On the same commentary Blaustein reveals he approached WCW but they would not sign the necessary paper work to let him film. He says WCW wanted creative control of the project. Interestingly enough, he adds that even though they are not covered, WCW programming still ran adds for the show and apparently discussed it on air.

Vince McMahon/the WWF were not as cooperative at first either. The commentary reveals that Ron Howard, who produced the film, lived near Vince McMahon, but amusingly only had a slight understanding that he was somehow involved in the wrestling business. After several meetings Vince finally agreed, but later wanted to control the project, offering to cover the film’s budget. Vince’s request was declined. Apparently after the movie came out WWF stars were told not to do press for the film, nevertheless, Blaustein and WWF star Mick Foley appeared on Larry King Live around the time of the film’s release.

Back to the documentary, Balustein’s favorite wrestler, Terry Funk, is profiled next. Extreme Championship Wrestling is also profiled along with Funk, as Funk wins a match at the first ECW Pay Per View. ECW was a renegade ultra-violent promotion based out of Philadelphia that had a rabid international fan base. Blaustein says in the film “No fans scared me more.” Just after this documentary was made ECW had a TV deal on TNN.

Later, due to health problems, Funk decides to retire and have one last match (It should be no surprise to hear his retirement doesn’t last long). His “last match” is in Amarillo Texas, where he lives and is a local celebrity. His opponent is then WWF champion Bret Hart. WWF and ECW wrestlers are show in the audience. Personally I didn’t see any WCW wrestlers in attendance, but ECW’s Shane Douglas says that only Terry Funk could have brought together people from WWF, ECW, and other promotions. Two fans are also interviewed who came all the way from England for this match.

From Funk the film segues into Mick Foely, perhaps the most unlikely WWF champion. His friendship with Terry is highlighted, and the climax of the film is his brutal I Quit Match against the Rock at the 1999 Royal Rumble, which his wife and two young children had front row seats for.

Also of note are the segments with Jake the Snake Roberts, who was at a low point in his life at the time, and was heavy into drug use. At the time Jake objected to how he was portrayed in this film. He has subsequently got himself through treatment and has been clean for a while. I imagine his feelings on this film might have changed over time.

WWF female superstar Chyna is briefly portrayed, as is former WWF star Koko B. Ware, Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura, ECW’s Spike Dudley and New Jack, and a small California based promotion. From this promotion two indy wrestlers get a WWF try out.

Beyond the Mat is perhaps an unintentional time capsule of a time when wrestling was the in thing. Blaustein on his commentary observes, correctly in retrospect, how wrestling was hot at that time, but adds “I know that will go away pretty soon.” While it is disappointing that WCW is not covered, it seems that was beyond the filmmaker’s control. The goal of the film was to cover the types of people that become professional wrestlers, and I would say it had mostly succeeded at that.

Monday Night Wars Documentary Review Part 8: The Austin Era Has Begun

Stone Cold Steve Austin is undoubtedly the most popular star to come out of the Monday Night Wars. Some wrestling fans even argue he was more popular than Hulk Hogan. Episode 8 of this documentary focuses on his story, and opens with Austin himself saying he had to fight and claw for everything he ever had.

His time as Stunning Steve is covered in WCW, where he went from singles competition, to tag team, then back to singles where he had a great match with Ricky Steamboat. Early frustrations are shown as we see a WCW clip of Mean Gene hyping Hulk Hogan, then going to interview Steve Austin. Austin on camera calls out Gene for hyping Hogan when he’s supposed to be interviewing him.

Bischoff is shown saying how Austin was starting to be irritable to be around, was always hurt etc. Eventually Bischoff let him go. From there he went to ECW, while he was injured he cut promos ripping Bischoff and Hogan and the rest of WCW. It’s here his eventual Stone Cold persona started to come out.

From ECW he went to the WWF where he was the Million Dollar Champion, managed by Ted Dibiase. However, when Dibiase went to WCW Austin was on his own, and had more of an opportunity to develop his character. He’d seen a documentary about a bald hitman for hire, and thinking about that cemented the Stone Cold Steve Austin character. His King of the Ring victory is covered with the famous Austin 3:16 quote, as is his “I Quit” match at Wrestlemania with Bret Hart. His injury at Summerslam in 1997 led to him further developing his mic skills and anti-authority stance.

The Goldberg/Stone Cold comparison issue was inevitable, as it is suggested that Goldberg was WCW’s response to Stone Cold. Leave it to CM Punk to question that analysis, and rightfully so. Their similarities were only superficial, their actual characters were completely different.

The episode ends with Vince selling the idea that Austin was the biggest star wrestling ever had.

Monday Night Wars Documentary Review Part 7: The War Goes Extreme

In the late 90s, a small Philadelphia promotion took the wrestling world by storm with it ulta-violent hardcore style and rabid fan base. Extreme Championship Wrestling, although it did not air programming on Monday nights, served as a third party in the Monday Night Wars.

At first we get yet another recap of Turner investing in WCW, and how Raw’s Saturday morning style did not work with a prime time audience. We see Jeff Jarret’s cowboy gimmick along with the Bushwhackers.

Then we get to the good stuff. The early days of ECW are re-capped, how they broke away from the NWA, how the lower production values added to the content, and how the audience was as much a part of the show as the wrestlers and would even bring weapons to be used. The clip of the Foely/Funk tag match is shown where the audience literally showered the ring with chairs.

As well as this episode tells the story of ECW, unfortunately it still uses the narrative of WCW “stealing” ECW stars, saying “Eric Bischoff had a blank checkbook signed by Ted Turner.” What is not mentioned but is well documented elsewhere is that ECW often had trouble meeting it’s payroll, prompting talent to leave for more security and stability, not to mention a bigger platform. Eric Bischoff is at least given a chance to respond, saying “One man’s raid is another companies acquisition.” In fairness, ECW founder Paul Heymen is shown saying he didn’t like it personally but knew it was just business. He added “When you’re up against WWE and Vince McMahon in a Monday Night War what else are you supposed to do?”

Just before Monday Nitro began to air, WCW acquired Mexican Lucha Libre talents along with other cruiser weights such as Eddie Guerrero, Dean Malenko, La Parka, and Chris Jericho. As time went on, both WCW and WWF would recruit ECW stars like the Dudley Boys, Sandman, and Tazz. Heymen says “Our move was always to find new talent and develop them faster than they were pulling people out.”

ECW pulled off a small miracle on April 13th 1997, by having their own PPV Barely Legal. To help promote it, ECW stars actually appeared on the 3/17 episode of Raw. Paul Heymen was actually in the ring and on commentary with Vince, and announcer Jerry Lawler challenged the ECW locker room to come out the next week, which they did. They appeared on several Raws, and the ratings increased. Cable companies were hesitant to put the violent federation on PPV, (MMA events were not even allowed at the time) but fans picketed outside the cable companies demanding the PPV be aired.

Over the next few years ECW had enough momentum to get on television. TNN, The National Network, debuted a Friday Night ECW show on 8/27/99. This gave ECW more legitimacy, allowing other projects to be possible like a video game, magazines, and T-shirts deals. This episode doesn’t mention it, but the ECW video game was the first, and I believe only wrestling game to get a mature rating.

Unfortunately for them, write as ECW was going on TV, the Sandman and Mike Whipwreck signed with WCW, and Tazz and the Dudley Boys signed with WWF. Sandman in WCW was known as Hack. Mikey Whipwreck is interviewed in this episode, and says that he signed while he was taking time off for injury. Even though he agreed to a WCW deal, he feels WCW simply signed him so ECW wouldn’t have him.

The ECW show had 1 million views per week, but they hit another obstacle as their champ Mike Awesome jumped to WCW while still on contract with ECW. He is shown on the 4/10/2000 episode of Nitro attacking Kevin Nash. The announcers say he’s the champ but the belt is not shown on TV. This led to one of the more curious incidents of the Monday Night War. At an ECW show, Mike Awesome fought Tazz, who was on loan from the WWF. It was the first and only time during the Monday Night Wars that a contracted WWF wrestler fought a contracted WCW wrestler, and the match was in an ECW ring for the ECW title. Tazz won, and days later dropped the belt to ECW star Tommy Dreamer.

It is well documented elsewhere so it was a little disappointing this episode did not cover the censorship issues and other restrictions that TNN placed on ECW. It does cover how TNN was in negotiations with the WWF to move Raw to their network, which they eventually did. Paul Heymen often suspected TNN only aired ECW to test if they could get a wrestling audience, and also to lead into TNN’s Rollerjam show, which was an attempted revival or Roller Derby.

ECW was only on TNN for one year, and without their TV deal, the company folded. Paul Heymen envisioned ECW being a global promotion. What no one knew at the time, was the Vince McMahon was secretly subsidizing ECW, and used it as a developmental territory. In January of 2001, WWF purchased ECW, and just a few months later purchased WCW. ECW’s revival is covered, with the One Night Stand PPV on 6/12/05. What is also covered is the influence ECW had on WWF and the attitude era.

From the beer drinking Stone Cold Steve Austin to the advent of the WWF Hardcore title, ECW’s influence on the Monday Night Wars is unquestionable.

ECW and the First Shot of the Monday Night Wars

Extreme Championship Wrestling, known amongst its fans as ECW, was a Philadelphia based promotion that had a rabid fan base throughout the 1990s. Known for its hardcore violent matches and adult themed angles, ECW is often cited as an influence on WWF’s Attitude Era. While never as large of an organization as WWF or WCW, the two combatants in the Monday Night Wars, they nevertheless served as a third party in the conflict. ECW took their own shots at WCW, and took shots at WWF that were just as aggressive, if not more so, than WCW did. In this series we will examine the role ECW played in the Monday Night War.

ECW was originally named Eastern Championship Wrestling, given that they were based out of Philadelphia. Originally it was part of the National Wrestling Alliance or NWA, which was an organization of regional promoters. WWF itself was originally a part of the NWA when they themselves were a regional promotion. Once the WWF grew to national prominence the NWA became largely irrelevant to the general public.

Eastern Championship Wrestling was owned by Todd Gordon. The booker, the person who decided what matches would be on the card, was Eddie Gilbert. Todd had a falling out with Eddie, who was soon replaced by Paul Heyman. Paul Heyman was a long time part of the wrestling business, largely from behind the scenes. In his youth he worked as a freelance photographer for the WWF, and had just come of a stint in WCW.

Heyman felt wrestling needed to change with the times. This was the early era of grunge music, Nirvana and other bands out of Seattle were popular, while both WWF and WCW were mostly putting out a more cartoonist product as they had in the 1980s. Heyman felt wrestling needed it’s own grunge movement. He also was inspired by a Newsweek article about the problems of young men in places like New York City and South Central Los Angeles. Heyman recalls the article said “today we live in an environment that for the first time ever, there are teenagers that are more afraid of living than dying.” (Loverro p.28)

ECW, under Paul Heyman’s guidance, established its new identity before the advent of the Monday Night Wars. On 8/27/94, a tournament was held to crown the a new NWA champion. Shane Douglas of ECW was booked to win. Upon winning, he got on the mic, and mentioned several wrestlers from previous generations (such has Harley Race, Barry Windham, Ric Flair, whom he personally disliked, and Ricky Steamboat), then said “They can all kiss my ass.” before throwing the belt down. He went on, “Tonight, before God and my father (who died the previous year) as witness, I declare myself, The Franchise, as the new Extreme Championship Wrestling Heavyweight Champion of the world. We have set out to change the face of professional wrestling. So tonight, let the new era begin, the era of the sport of professional wrestling, the era of the Franchise, the era of ECW.” Douglas would eventually go to the WWF, and was actually on the first RAW that went head to head with WCW. Apparently unhappy their he would return to ECW before moving on to WCW.

ECW did not have a regular network or cable television show in the early to mid 90s. They did have a show called ECW Hardcore TV, which was syndicated and often aired during late night hours. Any dates mentioned for specified matches and/or events in this series refer to when they originally aired on television (dates provided by WWE network) and do not reflect the dates they actually occurred.

It could be argued that the first shot in the Monday Night Wars was fired by ECW. On August 29th, 1996, just under a week before the Monday Night Wars officially began, ECW Hardcore TV aired the last ECW match between Eddie Guerrero and Dean Malenko. During the program ECW announcer Joey Styles was in the ring, and told the live audience that both participants would be leaving for WCW. In the audience, front and center for the camera to see was a large “Bischoff Sucks” banner. The crowd chanted “Bischoff sucks” followed by “dick.” (I watched this on the WWE Network and they had Malenko come out to the same music he had in WCW. Can anyone out there tell me if this was edited?) It was a 2/3 falls match. Eddie got the first fall, Malenko got the next, followed by a double pin and an apparent draw. Throughout the match the crowd chanted “Please don’t go.” and Joey Styles said this was “the last time they can take it to the extreme.” After the match both participants got on the mic and congratulated each other and thanked the fans for their support. Several wrestlers along with Paul Heyman came to the ring and hoisted them up on their shoulders. It was a very emotional night for the ECW crowd.

In the traditional history of the Monday Night Wars, WCW and Bischoff specifically take a lot of heat for “stealing” ECW talent. Eric Bischoff counters this by saying “one man’s raid is another company’s acquisition. We never raided anybody. We never raided the WWE, despite everybody’s opinion to the contrary. We never raided ECW. We never raided anybody….Did some talent leave ECW and come to WCW? Of course they did, because: A, they probably weren’t getting paid, and they had to in order to pay their bills and feed their families, and B, they recognized that WCW was a much stronger, much more secure, and much larger platform to ply their trade.” (Loverro p.102-103) Either way, throughout the 1990s there was a pattern of ECW developing new talent, only to lose them to both WCW and WWF. ECW would subsequently replace them with new talent, and the circle continued.

Sources

Loverro, Thom, with Paul Heyman, Tazz, and Tommy Dreamer, The Rise and Fall of ECW. Pocket Books. New York, London, Toronto, Sydney, 2006

Monday Night Wars: The Video Game!

A few years ago I blogged about an idea I’d obsessed over for a while. What if they made a Monday Night Wars video game? Here I’ll discuss an updated version of my idea.

I should say up front that I’m a completist. In my mind this game would have every wrestler, gimmick, TV show, Pay Per View, match type, title belt, and announcer that ever appeared on WWF, WCW, and ECW programming from September of 1995 to March of 2001. Realistically that’s impossible, as there must have been literally hundreds of wrestlers that appeared on TV during those 5 and a half years. Also a good portion of those wrestlers had short lived careers, hence there wouldn’t be as much of a demand from fans to see those wrestlers in a video game. Some of this could be amended with an initial roster followed by downloadable content packs of various wrestlers like they do these days anyway.

If they ever actualy made a game like this, for the announcers they’d likely just have the current RAW announcing team do the in game commentary. Again in my mind I’d love to have all the announcers, Eric Bischoff, Bobby Heenan, Joey Styles, Paul Heyman, Vince McMahon, Jim Ross, etc. It would also be amusing if you could mix and match the announcers during exhibition mode and unlock some unique exchanges and humorous dialogue. For example have Lawler and Heyman, or Bischoff and McMahon, or a three man announcing team of McMahon, Bischoff, and Heyman. At the very least they could do Shivanoe and Bischoff for WCW, Lawler and J.R. for WWF, and Joey Styles for ECW. For simplicity sake they’d probably just have one ring announcer, but it would be cool to mix those up as well. For big name WCW matches it would be awesome to have Michael Buffer on the mic with his famous line “Let’s get ready to rumble!”

Nitro, Raw, and the ECW arena would all be playable settings, along with all the PPVs. Other arenas could be included along with some unlockables, like Sunday Night Heat, Thunder, and Smackdown.

Wrestling video games usually have the different match types, like singles, tag team, triple threat, survivor series, royal rumble, etc. This game would have to have the WCW specialty matches like War Games, World War Three, and the triple steel cage. I’d want to see all the belts, like the different hardcore titles, women’s belts, TV championships, etc. Some of these belts could be unlocked by playing championship modes. Games in the past had a championship mode where you play through a series of matches to win one of the secondary or tag team belts.

In the last few years the WWE games have had features where you play through a timeline of different matches from different periods of wrestling history. I envision a similar mode for this game. I see it broken down by different eras for each company. For example, WCW would start with the pre-NWO era, from 9/95 to 96’s Bash at the Beach. The next era would be NWO, then NWO Wolfpac, then New Blood/Millionaires, etc.

Career mode could be pretty sophisticated. You pick one wrestler, and choose a company to start in, WCW, WWE, or ECW. Your goal is to win the world titles in all three companies. Secondary goals are to win at all the PPV and match types of each company, and finally to simply survive the Monday Night Wars. This could also be like a role playing game where you have to train your character, develop different skills, avoid injury, and make money to buy other unlocked characters, PPVs, match types, outfits, etc.

For this mode each company would have advantages and disadvantages. ECW would earn you the least money, but would make you the most popular. Their training would be average. WWE would have the best training, average money, but not make you as popular. WCW would pay the most, give average popularity, but the lowest training.

There’d be lots of unlockables, like different wrestlers or old gimmicks, (Like Austin’s ring master gimmick, etc.) The look of each years PPV would be unlockable as well. (Example, Wresltemania XVI, XVII, XVIII etc)

One feature they tried a few times in the Smackdown vs Raw series that always sounded interesting never seemed to turn out right was the general manager mode. I don’t know how to make that interesting, but there has to be a fun mode where you actually run WCW, WWE, and ECW. You have to fight off invasions from other brands, deal with network and locker room politics, etc. One idea is for WCW you invade the WWE taped shows to steal there results. If you win a backstage brawl, then you get the results back to WCW for a ratings bonus. For WWE, you’d defend against the same thing. This opens up possibilities to see different outcomes of the era. Like what if WCW ended up buying WWE, or what if by some miracle ECW emerged victorious?

Other “what if” scenarios could be played out, such as what if the Montreal Screwjob turned out differently? After the wars, what if the NWO lasted longer in the WWE? What if ECW kept all it’s big stars? The possibilities are many.

The final mode would be Fantasy Match, where you get to play big matches that never occurred. Hogan/Austin, DX/NWO, Sting/Undertaker, etc.

A game like this, and wrestling games in general could use a trivia game.

Celebrity involvement was a huge part of the Monday Night Wars. Jay Leno, the Insane Clown Posse, and NBA stars Dennis Rodman and Karl Malone actually had matches on WCW PPVs. Other celebrities that made appearances include Mike Tyson, Pete Rose, and rapper Master P. There was also the KISS wrestler, and WWF’s Gangrel was liscenced from a vampire role playing game published by White Wolf. Realistically I imagine these people would not appear in a video game due to liscence fees, however Mike Tyson was once included in a WWE game.

Regarding a game about this era, the two elephants in the room are Owen Hart and Chris Benoit. It would be nice to have Owen Hart in the game, just exclude his Blue Blazer gimmick and the Over the Edge Pay Per View. Benoit has been erased from history, so he’ll never appear in a wrestling video game again.

Unfortunately I’m afraid the ship has sailed on this game anyway. If they would have done it I think it would have been done a few years ago. ECW had appeared in the last few Smackdown vs Raw games. WWE 2K13 was a nostalgia trip on the WWF Attitude Era. 2K14 showcased 30 years of Wrestelmania (and finally made beating the Undertaker at Wrestlemania a thing in video games). 2K15 was pretty much just the current roster. It would have been nice to at least have seen a WCW video game that would have covered it’s existence from 1988 to the end. That could have been followed by an ECW game covering 1993 to the end. Those two games plus an Attitude Era game could have led into a Monday Night Wars game that you could have uploaded the rosters too. Oh well, here’s to dreaming.