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The forgotten stars of ECW
On Aug. 27, 1994, the wrestling world changed forever when ECW Superstar Shane Douglas threw down his newly won NWA World Heavyweight Championship and denounced the prestige of so-called "technical wrestling." The "E" in ECW was changed from Eastern to Extreme and former WCW manager Paul Heyman led the direction for an organization that revolutionized sports-entertainment.
Over the following seven years, hardcore icons like Tommy Dreamer, The Sandman and Sabu represented a new generation of Extreme competition. But for all of ECW's notable main-event performers, many others who also had their moment in the Philadelphia spotlight. Some were local wrestlers who the fervent fans embraced as their own. Others were managers and broadcasters who defined ECW's voice alongside "The Extreme Announcer" Joey Styles. And then there were the freakishly talented athletes who just barely eluded major championships and further stardom.
These men who sacrificed their bodies for the entertainment of a temperamental ECW audience don’t always get the adulation they deserve, so WWE Classics spoke to ECW architect Paul Heyman about some of the organization's forgotten stars.
Entering to Queen's famous "We Will Rock You" anthem, Tommy Cairo joined Eastern Championship Wrestling in 1993 as one of the most popular grapplers in the local area. That year, he won a Battle Royal to become NWA Pennsylvania Heavyweight Champion, a title he held for nearly three months. In ECW, he became an ally of The Sandman by forming a tandem to battle Jason, known as "The Sexiest Man Alive," but the pairing soon crumbled when Cairo became involved with The Sandman's wife.
"I don't know if Tommy Cairo finds this interesting or not," Paul Heyman wondered to WWE Classics. "But the fact that he'll go down in history as The Sandman's foil is quite ironic because going into their storyline, Tommy Cairo was one of the hottest wrestlers in the northeast independent scene. One would think a rivalry between Cairo and The Sandman would be designed to spotlight Tommy Cairo, but The Sandman was our star on the rise."
Less than two weeks after widely discussed caning of an American citizen in Singapore in 1994, Cairo and The Sandman faced off in a "Singapore Caning Match." The two brawlers had several more matches involving the canes throughout the year, including their most famous — a "Dueling Canes Match" at the first Heat Wave event in 1994. The man who would come to be nicknamed "Pay Your Bills!" was also the catalyst of the famous rivalry between The Sandman and Tommy Dreamer, but it was Cairo's matches with The Hardcore Icon that revolutionized Extreme Rules wrestling.
"It was a turning point in ECW regarding just how far we were going to take our very non-PG rated content," Heyman said. "How's that for a diplomatic way to phrase that?"
"I don’t believe that the wrestling business owes anything to anybody," Paul Heyman proclaimed to WWE Classics. "But Joel Gertner dropped out of his senior year at Cornell University, a prestigious Ivy League school, to pursue his dream of being in the wrestling business. If for no other reason besides that, we owed this kid a break."
For a kid from Brooklyn, N.Y., working in wrestling was all Joel Gertner ever wanted to do, and when given the opportunity to join ECW in 1996, he jumped at the chance.
"Joel Gertner earned his spot," Heyman explained. "He started out as the baritone voiced announcer who graduated into being a phenomenally creative villainous ring announcer with the best timing of any villain in ECW."
The self-professed "Quintessential Studmuffin" wore a sport coat and bowtie with no shirt. A leopard-patterned neck brace also became part of his uniform when The Eliminators nailed Gertner with their finishing maneuver at Barely Legal, ECW's first pay-per-view. Naturally, he continued to wear the bowtie over his neck brace.
"When D-Von Dudley would lose a match, or Shane Douglas would get beat, Joel would announce them as the winner anyway," Heyman recalled. "It was such an easy way to be hated, and yet, the audience went crazy for it. Joel played it to such perfection, and it ended up being the launching pad for him with The Dudley Boyz."
Eventually, Gertner distanced himself from The Dudleys and became beloved by the ECW faithful for his innuendo-laden limericks that would begin each television broadcast. But Heyman has fond memories of Gertner's earlier work.
"I would challenge anyone to find an act that drew more legitimate animosity from the fans than Joel Gertner with The Dudley Boyz in the late 1990's ECW."
ECW's vibrant tag team division included such lauded tag teams as The Public Enemy, The Gangstas and The Dudley Boyz, but arguably none was more feared than the tandem of Perry Saturn & John Kronus, known collectively as The Eliminators.
"The first day I met Kronus, he introduced himself to me as being one burrito shy of a combination plate," Paul Heyman recalled to WWE Classics. "Which immediately told me that he had a great sense of humor and an accurate sense of self-awareness."
Kronus had the aerial ability of Justin Gabriel along with a build similar to a slightly smaller Tensai.
"Kronus was as naturally gifted an athlete as you will ever meet in this industry," Heyman said. "He could do anything, including defying the laws of gravity. If Kronus walked into a room, you would presume you were coming face to face with a barroom brawler, and instead you were meeting one of the most spectacular highfliers in the history of professional wrestling."
The Eliminators' Tables and Ladders Match against Sabu & Rob Van Dam in 1997 paved the way for WWE's modern-day TLC matches, and the duo won the ECW Tag Team Championship on three occasions. An absolute freak of nature, Kronus was one of the most spectacular and innovative competitors in the history of ECW. Heyman concluded, "To this day, I have yet to figure out how Kronus pulled off some of the moves that he truly had no right even attempting."
The Sinister Minister
"The Sinister Minister was one of my favorite late original ECW characters," Paul Heyman told WWE Classics. "The further I pushed him to find the persona within himself, the more uninhibited he became with presenting that persona to the masses."
Born James Mitchell, The Minister didn't debut in ECW until 2000, and with his bright red suit and demonically long fingernails, Mitchell quickly became one of the organization's most charismatic performers. Originally he was to be paired with Mike Awesome or engage in a rivalry with Raven, but his natural talents lended well to becoming a narrator of sorts for ECW's television programming.
"Jim Mitchell is someone who was born 15 years too late, because if he were around a decade earlier, he would have been afforded the opportunity to have been one of the greatest managers of all time," Heyman praised Mitchell. "Smart, articulate, creative, with a wicked, warped sense of humor. I’m a huge fan of Jim Mitchell’s ability and think it is a criticism of this business that he’s not featured today as one of the best known spokesman on television."
After guiding ECW fans along the hardcore journey, The Sinister Minister aligned himself with Mikey Whipwreck and Tajiri.
"Mikey and Tajiri were coming together as a tag team," Heyman explained. "And the common denominator between the two was that they were both slightly warped, and no one was more warped in the warped world of ECW than The Sinister Minister."
Going by the name The Unholy Alliance, Mikey and Tajiri were led by The Minister to victories over tag teams like The F.B.I. and Kid Kash & Super Crazy. Their backstage interviews were comical, bizarre and sometimes frightening.
"Having The Sinister Minister speak for Mikey and Tajiri while they bounced off of his lines just seemed like a natural fit," Heyman said. "And the first time we tried them out together on camera, it was just black magic."
"Hack Myers was the quintessential ECW cult hero," Paul Heyman told WWE Classics.
A 6-foot-2, 225-pound bruiser, Myers was billed as hailing from "The Last House on the Left" and was a star in ECW's early years. With his baggy, skull and crossbones–adorned pants and hair that was simultaneously both long and shaved, "The Shah" was one of the most unique looking Extreme competitors. And that's saying something.
"Hack Myers was a persona that was embraced by, and therefore made a star by, the ECW audience," Heyman explained. "We all said it many, many times. The biggest star in ECW was the audience itself. And every time Hack Myers threw a punch, kick or any offensive maneuver, the audience would chant 'Shah!' in unison because that was the sound Hack Myers made while throwing a punch, a kick or any offensive maneuver."
Myers faced some of ECW's biggest names, including Tommy Dreamer, Sabu, Tazz, Balls Mahoney and The Dudley Boyz. While The Shah didn't always have his hand raised at the end of matches, he remained a favorite of the hardcore faithful until he lost a Loser Leaves Town Match to Too Cold Scorpio at November to Remember 1996.
"Chris Jericho had been driving me crazy to give Don Callis a break," Paul Heyman told WWE Classics.
Callis had appeared in WWE during 1997 and 1998 going by The Jackyl, and managed Superstars including Faarooq and Bradshaw, who later become The Acolytes. After his WWE tenure, Callis landed in ECW as Cyrus the Virus when the Extreme organization was at odds with the cable channel that aired its TV program.
"We had to find someone who matched our vision of what the network executives were doing behind the scenes to ECW," Heyman explained. "No one got underneath our skin as much, and therefore, no one got underneath audiences’ skin as much as Don Callis on the microphone."
Before representing executives, Cyrus was Joey Styles' exclusive pay-per-view broadcast colleague.
"I was always very careful in attempting to pair anyone up with Joey Styles on commentary," Heyman recalled. "It was dangerous to mess with the formula of 'The Voice of ECW,' but from the very first time we allowed Cyrus to commentate with Joey, he fit the role."
The announcing job allowed Cyrus to develop an authoritative stance with the ECW fans, but he never subjected Styles' integrity on the mic.
"He always understood that the credibility of what Joey Styles had to say could never be truly questioned," Heyman said. "And that takes someone of infinite intelligence during a live pay-per-view broadcast."
Danny Doring & Roadkill
The unique pairing of Danny Doring and Amish Roadkill was not as unusual as might be expected. Each was a graduate of ECW's training school, The House of Hardcore, and each couldn't care less about what the fans thought of them — for very different reasons.
Due to Doring's severe case of vertigo, he refused to perform any high-risk maneuvers, but when the very demanding ECW fans would chant "boring" during his matches, the cocky womanizer assumed they were reciting his surname. At Heat Wave 1999, he proposed to his girlfriend Miss Congeniality live on pay-per-view. She would accompany Doring & Roadkill to the ring for much of that year until debuting in WWE as Lita.
Due to his Amish upbringing, Roadkill was far too naive to understand what it took to please fans. But that didn't matter because the hardcore faithful took to him anyway.
"I always thought Roadkill was going to end up being a great singles star," Paul Heyman said of the quaint behemoth. "Much like Hack Myers before him, he was a cult character that the audience took to, and his in-ring performance improved every single night that he competed."
As it turned out, Roadkill came very close to never receiving that adulation from the fans.
"Roadkill's first match was almost his last," Heyman recalled. "He took a powerbomb from Bubba Ray Dudley in Long Island and it knocked him out cold. He was in the hospital for a week and was told he should never wrestle again. But much like the other graduates from ECW's training camp, quitting was just not an option."
Alongside Doring, the duo engaged in memorable battles against the team of Chris Chetti & Nova over the course of a full year. At Massacre on 34th Street in December 2000, they defeated The F.B.I. to win the ECW Tag Team Championships. ECW would close its doors three months later, and Doring and Roadkill are recognized as the organization's final tag champs. Each briefly competed in WWE's re-launch of ECW in 2006.
Heyman concluded, "With his very unique look and very intelligent style, Roadkill became one of the last homegrown heroes in the original ECW."
Chilly Willy may sound like a cuddly cartoon character, but William Jones was no softie. After competing in a number of strength competitions, Jones joined The Hardy Boyz's OMEGA wrestling organization in the late 1990s and then competed in ECW throughout 2000 as Chilly Willy.
Successful in his first pay-per-view outing, Chilly Willy defeated Johnny Swinger at Wrestlepalooza and again at Hardcore Heaven. After teaming up with The Sandman on several occasions, Chilly Willy gained his most fame in a nearly inexplicable duo with Balls Mahoney. The odd pair first did battle against the team of Simon Diamond & Johnny Swinger, but their matches with Da Baldies created one of the most "heated" rivalries of ECW's final months. At Anarchy Rulz, Chilly & Balls defeated Da Baldies in a Flaming Tables Match and they were victorious once again at November to Remember.
Following the end of ECW, Chilly Willy enlisted in the Army. He earned the Purple Heart and Bronze Star after being wounded during a mission as a special operations forces infantryman in Iraq. After receiving these accolades, he was briefly signed by WWE. A true American hero, Chilly Willy has reportedly retired from active competition.
A baseball standout in high school, CW Anderson was drafted by the San Diego Padres, but declined minor league seasoning to attend college. After getting an education, Anderson was trained by the famed WCW Power Plant and later joined The Hardy Boyz's OMEGA wrestling organization. While at the Power Plant, WWE Hall of Famers JJ Dillon and Paul Orndorff told Anderson that he did not possess the necessary skills to become a successful professional wrestler.
"I was always a fan of CW Anderson's work ethic," Paul Heyman told WWE Classics. "Here was yet another example of someone who could not get a break in WWE or WCW because he didn't have monstrous size or political connections."
Anderson joined ECW in 1999 and quickly became involved in one of the organization's most high-profile groups when Heyman look-alike Lou E. Dangerously formed the New Dangerous Alliance.
"He was a top-notch performer who could have a great match and could tear down the house with anybody," Heyman extolled. That was proven in Anderson's rivalry with Tommy Dreamer. After legendary battles with The Sandman, Raven and nearly every other villain who ever stepped foot in the ECW Arena, it was Anderson who ended up being Dreamer's final adversary in the original ECW. The North Carolina native defeated Dreamer in New York City's Hammerstein Ballroom at Massacre on 34th Street, ECW's penultimate pay-per-view event.
"It's funny to me that CW Anderson considers ECW to be the biggest break of his career," Heyman said. "Because I always thought we were the lucky ones to be able to use him."
Chris Chetti & Nova
Not many fans remember Long Island, N.Y.'s Chris Chetti, but his pedigree stacks up against nearly every other ECW competitor. Chetti became the first graduate of The House of Hardcore and was trained to wrestle by his cousin Tazz. His list of opponents reads like a "who's who" of hardcore history: The Dudley Boyz, Shane Douglas, Chris Candido, Bam Bam Bigelow, Justin Credible and Stevie Richards.
In 1999, the New York native received his greatest level of fame when he formed a fan favorite tag team alongside Nova. Formerly known as Hollywood Nova in The bWo and as a member of Raven's Nest, Nova hardly fooled anyone into thinking he was a Hollywood Hogan copy, and his partnership with Chetti gave the former funnyman new life. Together, the duo defeated teams like Danny Doring & Roadkill and Da Baldies with their impactful Tidal Wave maneuver, which featured the team jumping off the top rope together.
Despite their success, Nova and Chetti started a rivalry of their own, and were scheduled to face each other at November to Remember 2000. Immediately before the matchup, Chetti, in his thick Nassau County, N.Y., accent, demanded the bout be made a Loser Leaves Town Match. Nova agreed and defeated Tazz's relative to send Chetti packing. ECW filed for bankruptcy four months later.
When WWE Classics asked Paul Heyman if there was anyone he wanted to include in this feature, no one competitor exceeded the ECW architect's enthusiasm for 911.
"He was a phenomenon," Heyman said. "911 popularized the chokeslam."
Originally taking the role of the maniacal Sabu's "handler," wheeling out the Arabian madman to the ring on a Hannibal Lecter–esque gurney, 911's popularity grew to such enormous levels that Heyman decided to break him loose on his own. The 6-foot-8, 300-pound mustached tough guy became the enforcer of all things Extreme, and even once chokeslammed Santa Claus much to the delight of the hardcore Philadelphia fans. In one of wrestling's most mismatched pairings, 911 even formed a briefly tenured duo with Rey Mysterio.
"We always faced the quandary of trying to never put 911 in a match," Heyman explained. "The mystique was built around wondering when in the show 911 would come out. If you watch the very early days of ECW, there were shows where anytime the villain did anything to a hero, people starting chanting '911.' "
He never won any titles in ECW, but that didn't matter. "He was one of the popular and iconic stars of the early days of ECW," Heyman concluded. "No history of ECW can truly be written without including a chapter on 911."