Paul Heyman on Shane Douglas and the birth of Extreme
Two decades ago on a muggy summer night, 1,000 wrestling fans packed into a bingo hall in a grungy Philadelphia neighborhood to witness history. After WCW withdrew from the National Wrestling Alliance, the NWA had been left without a World Champion. A young and exciting northeast-based organization called Eastern Championship Wrestling was selected to carry the torch of the NWA and steward the title. On that evening in Philly, an eight-man tournament was held to crown a new NWA World Heavyweight Champion. The action unfolded as normally as most sports-entertainment encounters, but after Shane Douglas was victorious in the finals, nobody could have predicted what happened next.
With the NWA Title on his shoulder and a microphone in his hand, The Franchise paid tribute to former champions like Dusty Rhodes, Harley Race and Ric Flair before committing the ultimate blasphemy by tossing his newly won championship – and 46 years of history – down to the mat. “I am not the man who accepts a torch to be handed down to me from an organization that died – R.I.P. – seven years ago,” Douglas proclaimed, referring to Ted Turner’s purchase of Jim Crockett Promotions. Instead, Douglas called himself “the man who ignites the new flame of the sport of professional wrestling.” He announced that he was the ECW Heavyweight Champion of the World, with the “E” switching from Eastern to Extreme.
In an in-depth and revealing conversation, we spoke with Paul Heyman about one of the most controversial incidents to ever occur at any sports-entertainment event. How was it orchestrated? Who knew about it? And why are there still rumors about ulterior motives? The speech had a ripple effect throughout the entire wrestling world and the battle lines were drawn. The era of Extreme had only just begun.
WWECLASSICS.COM: What was the local wrestling landscape in Philadelphia and the northeast before ECW?
PAUL HEYMAN: Before the existence of ECW, Joel Goodhart had an independent promotion in Philadelphia called Tri-State Wrestling. Much like any other independent promotion that was running, especially in the northeast, the whole concept of Tri-State was to bring in guys who were fresh off WWE, WCW or AWA television – big name national or international stars working for a non-affiliated promoter. Usually, guys freshly fired, freshly quit or in between promotions, would come in for one-nighters. Eddie Gilbert, who was fresh out of WCW, and Cactus Jack, who wasn’t getting full time work in WCW, had a tremendous series of matches in Tri-State. Like all of these promotions, there was no way Joel Goodhart could cover the expense of flying all of these major names in and paying them their one-night fees. So, Tri-State went out of business.
WWECLASSICS.COM: What kept local wrestling alive in that area after Tri-State closed?
HEYMAN: One of the investors in Tri-State was a pawn shop-slash-jewelry store owner in Philadelphia named Tod Gordon. Tod continued on the concept of bringing in big names like Jimmy Snuka, Don Muraco, Jim Neidhart, Terry Funk, Stan Hansen, Abdullah the Butcher, Kevin Sullivan, Ivan Koloff – you name it – and started running shows in 1992 at some local Philadelphia-area bars, then at Cabrini College, and hired Eddie Gilbert as his lead producer of television. Gordon was running small shows using big names and he got into a conflict with an NWA-affiliated promoter in New Jersey, because they started running events on the same evenings and were trying to schedule some of the same performers. At that time, the National Wrestling Alliance did not have one promoter with a television outlet.
WWECLASSICS.COM: What were the next steps for Gordon to grow his company?
HEYMAN: In June 1993, [Gordon’s] Eastern Championship Wrestling started running at Viking Hall – a bingo hall in South Philly. It was rebranded the ECW Arena and Tod Gordon joined the National Wrestling Alliance, so it was called NWA-Eastern Championship Wrestling. Anybody could join the NWA. It was like buying a membership to a community pool.
WWECLASSICS.COM: Who were the lifeguards?
HEYMAN: Nobody! All the promoters drowned! Nobody had television. The only television outlet for the NWA was NWA-Eastern Championship Wrestling, which ran Tuesday nights at 6 p.m. on Philadelphia Sports Channel. Tod had that timeslot before he joined the NWA. He had that slot anyway. The NWA needed ECW more than ECW needed the NWA.
WWECLASSICS.COM: What was your role when you joined ECW?
HEYMAN: I came in to help as a favor to Eddie Gilbert. But the only reason I came in was because I agreed to work with the younger talent in developing them to do interviews. Eddie Gilbert self-destructed in September 1993 and Tod Gordon was left in a lurch. He had this major show coming up with all of these big names on it and had to turn to somebody to run the show. On Sept. 18, 1993, I stepped in and took over for Eddie. The only deal I had with Tod was to cut all of the big names and create our own stars. Any big name that stayed did so under the guise of creating those new stars.
WWECLASSICS.COM: From the beginning, was it your philosophy to use big name stars for a specific purpose, other than just to put on a marquee?
HEYMAN: Why would I promote people who were between WWE and WCW or WCW and WWE? Why would I have brought people in for one-nighters and beat a local star, when I could create The Sandman, Tommy Dreamer, Tazz, Sabu and The Public Enemy? We built the stars of the promotion at the expense of the guys we were paying the inflated one-night fee. We changed the paradigm. It was the most simplistic of all concepts, but one that was never implemented before.
WWECLASSICS.COM: What was the next step in building your vision for ECW?
HEYMAN: We were the only non-WWE, WCW, AWA promotion building its own stars. We were riding this wave of momentum. Admittedly, my sights were not set on anything regional. The name “Eastern” did not brand our product. I wanted a global branding for our unique form of sports-entertainment. The only way to describe the vision we were implementing was the word “Extreme.” I didn’t like “Hardcore,” because it was limiting. I didn’t like “Eastern,” because it was regional. “Extreme” is a global branding word. And I could keep the letters! Tod and I decided to turn the Eastern Championship Wrestling Title into the Extreme World Heavyweight Championship. I knew we had one shot to stake our claim in this hyper-competitive environment. The NWA was the past and it was time to scream from the mountaintops, “We are the future.”
WWECLASSICS.COM: In the past, you’ve made the analogy that ECW needed to be the wrestling equivalent of Nirvana to the dated notion of hair bands, but what exactly did the NWA represent? What were you trying to get away from?
HEYMAN: It was an organization whose letters lived past its time. The NWA was dead. There was no NWA anymore. The NWA had been a powerful string of promoters who recognized one touring World Heavyweight Champion, who made appearances all over the country and all over the world for all different promoters who had television outlets and local stars. There were no more local stars. There were no more television outlets. Therefore, there was no more NWA. The major television outlet for the NWA had been SuperStation TBS, but when the Turner organization decided to brand their product World Championship Wrestling – which had been the name of the TV program, but not the name of the promotion – that was the death of the NWA.
WWECLASSICS.COM: How far in advance of announcing it did you decide on the “Extreme” name?
HEYMAN: I was looking for an accurate description of our product from the day I took over in September 1993, and decided on the name “Extreme” sometime around March or April of ’94.
WWECLASSICS.COM: Why did this all come to a crescendo at the ECW show on August 27, 1994?
HEYMAN: As all of this was happening, there was all of this petty bickering going on, involving the NWA-affiliated promotion in New Jersey. The time came to crown Shane Douglas as our “Franchise player” and our Extreme World Heavyweight Champion. With the New Jersey promotion kicking and screaming around every turn regarding the way we were going to crown a champion, the decision was made on our end to do everything in one fell swoop: smack down the NWA promotion in New Jersey because of the games they were playing with us; throw down the past – both physically and metaphorically – by having Shane Douglas toss the NWA Title to the mat; and most importantly, brand ECW under the name of “Extreme” and launch ourselves into the position to claim that there was WWE, WCW and now there’s ECW.
WWECLASSICS: Who, other than you, Shane and Tod Gordon knew what was going to go down that night?
HEYMAN: Nobody. I first pitched it to Tod, then I pitched it to Shane Douglas. Shane had the blessing to abandon the mission, even in mid-stream during the speech.
WWECLASSICS.COM: Why did you pick Shane Douglas as “the guy”? Why not Cactus Jack, who also performed that night? Why not bring in Terry Funk?
HEYMAN: Shane Douglas’s work in the first 11 months as The Franchise of ECW was so groundbreaking. He made people forget about his on-air persona in WCW and successfully reinvented himself as The Franchise in ECW. He became a homegrown talent in the same way The Public Enemy, Tommy Dreamer and Joey Styles were recognized as homegrown talent. Though the term ECW Original wasn’t in vogue during August 1994, he was certainly accepted by that audience with the branding stamp of ECW across his persona.
WWECLASSICS.COM: He was toeing the line between being a good guy and bad guy. He was a jerk, but people loved him. Did fans latch on to him – even as a bad guy – because he was recognized as a homegrown ECW star?
HEYMAN: The whole concept of ECW was that the biggest star of the promotion was the promotion itself. It didn’t matter if a persona was designed to elicit cheers or boos. It didn’t matter if someone was an antagonist or protagonist. The whole concept was to fight for the honor of the cause. The cause was ECW itself.
WWECLASSICS.COM: Do you think anybody else could have played the role that Shane Douglas played on that night? If somebody else had made that speech, how would ECW have been different?
HEYMAN: If you looked into the future of ECW, Tazz could have pulled that off, but he wasn’t ready in August 1994. Terry Funk throwing down the NWA Title would have been very controversial, since he was a former NWA Champion. But we were branding the future and Shane Douglas was being presented as the future top guy in the business. The Sandman could have done it, but his persona was more of a brawler than a wrestler. Shane Douglas’s whole persona was to be the B.M.O.C., the quarterback of the team, the “Franchise player” of not just ECW, but of the entire industry. On that particular night, under those particular circumstances, the only person that made sense to me was Shane Douglas.
WWECLASSICS.COM: That moment of throwing down the NWA Title should have catapulted Shane Douglas and made him a major star, but in retrospect, that turned out to be the pinnacle of his career. He never really burst through, other than a short-lived run as Dean Douglas in WWE. Why do you think Shane Douglas never soared higher after that night?
HEYMAN: People are remembered for defining moments in their career. Some people, like Bret Hart, can amass a body of work so spectacular that it is beyond comprehension how brilliant a career he enjoyed. Yet, the defining moment of Bret Hart’s career will always be Montreal. Shane Douglas accomplished quite a bit in and for ECW, but his career will forever be defined by the moment he threw down the NWA Title. In the history of this industry, that was the pivotal moment in the ECW’s public declaration that we’re not going to be held to convention and we’re not going to be tied down as a regional product. This independently-funded, tiny, little organization was going to exploit the rabidity of our audience by stepping up and attempt the impossible, which was to take on the two major, internationally-distributed, multi-million dollar products.
WWECLASSICS.COM: On the episode of Hardcore TV that featured Shane’s speech, a promoter states backstage that what had just transpired in the ring was a disgrace and Shane Douglas had no right to throw down the NWA Title. Is there any truth to the rumor this NWA promoter was in on the plan from the beginning and his statement was orchestrated in advance to set up a rivalry between the National Wrestling Alliance and Extreme Championship Wrestling?
HEYMAN: I’ll give it to you straight. We were already neck-deep in the shark-infested waters of throwing down the NWA Title and all the fallout that was going to come our way from doing so. We had called our audience to take up arms and be ready for war. We knew we picked a fight with the rest of the world. The double-cross was complete. The NWA promotion in New Jersey had picked so many fights with us. I stepped in a month earlier to warn them to back off. I figured, being young and aggressive, that I was going to go all the way. When the NWA promoter from New Jersey came backstage in horror that he had been publicly double-crossed, my spin to him was, “This is great. Now we can create this behind-the-scenes scenario and both draw money with it. You need to immediately make a statement for television that although Shane Douglas threw down the championship, the NWA still recognizes him as the World Heavyweight Champion. We will build it up to Shane losing the title at one of your shows, so we have an even bigger controversy.” Of course, none of this was our plan.
WWECLASSICS.COM: Why was it so important to record that segment on camera, other than to continue the double-cross against the promoter that had gone down in the ring?
HEYMAN: I wanted the NWA to make the public statement that Shane Douglas is the World Heavyweight Champion. Just to send the message that I was willing to fight dirty, I had the promoter record three takes of that backstage segment.
WWECLASSICS.COM: How do you look back on the whole incident 20 years later?
HEYMAN: I don’t tell this story with pride. I can’t tell you it was the most righteous thing to do. And I don’t rub my hands together and say, “Muahaha, look at the evil deed I pulled off on that night.” But I can’t, in all candor, tell you I regret doing it without repeating the McMahon-Levesque mantra, “I do what’s right for business.” Aug. 27, 1994 was the night ECW was going to pick a fight with the rest of the world and announce itself as legitimate competition. We had to make as much noise as we possibly could and display our intent to engage, even at the expense of a promotional rival. The fact that ECW lasted another six and a half years after that evening is proof that it was the right move, at the right time, with the right people and the right audience. If I had to do it all over again, I wouldn’t change a thing.