Thursday, April 24, 2014

Extreme Rising and the Chains That Hold Wrestling Back

This, in 2014, is unacceptable
Photo Credit: Scott Finkelstein
The worst ever live experience I've ever had at a wrestling show occurred at EVOLVE 10. Granted, the reason wasn't that the card itself was awful. Up until the announced main event, I was quite enjoying myself. Even though the main event went on too long and had a lot of the tired old things that plague a good bit of indie wrestling, my patience didn't wear thin because of the performance Ricochet and Johnny Gargano put on in the ring. And to be completely fair, in the aftermath, Gargano's performance became downright impressive when it was discovered he'd been wrestling on legs he couldn't exactly feel through the entire match.

My displeasure began when the crowd, which was full of people "celebrating" the final show ever at the ECW Arena, started to catcall the match for the sheer reason that it wasn't some kind of hardcore bloodbath featuring two guys they liked from a promotion that had been dead for longer than it was alive by that point. I'll never forget seeing this dude with a pock-marked face and unkempt dirty blonde hair in a WWE-sponsored One Night Stand hockey sweater continually yelling "Take it home!" while the two wrestlers tried to tell their story. I never wanted to assault another fan for spurious and irrational reasons more than I wanted to cold-cock that one. Luckily for me, I didn't follow through, but he represented an majority crowd of disgusting manchildren who only wanted wrestling the way they remembered it back in 1998. They eventually got what they wanted, when Sabu and Justin Credible came out for the "real" main event.

I don't blame those fans for their reactions, by the way. If one were to put a bleeding man in a shark tank, would anyone in their right minds blame the shark for attacking him? That show did not spontaneously generate with the fans already there. Gabe Sapolsky booked the show. He marketed it to former ECW fans as yet another farewell to a company that already had more than its fair share of farewells and tributes. He organized the bus trips from New York (and then had his cronies like Lenny Leonard bash Philadelphia as if the city itself made those fans boo the show). He put Ricochet and Gargano out to fail, and then he all along planned on the Sabu/Credible main event. Sapolsky planned and executed the entire event with the idea to capitalize on nostalgia behind it. He may have made the biggest gate on an EVOLVE show to that point, sure, but how many of those fans stuck around? How many minds were changed on the state of wrestling? If the answer to that question is "more than a minuscule amount," then I will be shocked.

Dumb people never learn from mistakes, and by and large, I have found that many wrestling bookers don't exactly have IQs worth bragging about. No matter the diminishing returns WWE got on its ECW reboot and rebrand, no matter how underwhelming TNA's attempts at ECW reunions were, no matter how many times other "reunion" shows faltered and failed to gain traction, people continue to try and revive the corpse of the company that upset the order in the mid-'90s without realizing why its mission statement of disruption was so successful. I don't know why the people behind Extreme Rising thought they would be different following the same formula.

The company cancelled all its shows this week and deleted its social media presence. The latest bout of cancellations was not the first time the company had to cancel shows, but it certainly looks as if it will be the last. Granted, the promotion wandered into some critical success with its in-ring action and by attempting to push new stars like Luke Hawx. But trying to attract new fans with an old and specific concept is like trying to lure in fresh meat worthy of eating with carrion. The only creatures you'll attract to your trap will be the vultures and the scavengers. Right now, old school ECW fans who have left the wrestling fandom are the scavengers. They take up the dead meat and leave before seeing what good might be next on the roadside buffet.

Meanwhile, the successful companies are the ones forging ahead trying to make new fans going forward. WWE is TV-PG because it wants the kids to watch, the ones who are still rasas tabulas when it comes to entertainment. Combat Zone Wrestling's motto isn't "hey, we're like ECW!" it's "Like Nothing Else." Chikara has morphed and changed over the years to fit with or even stay ahead of the times, and even its original concept was wholly unique. During its salad days, Ring of Honor was a fresh and innovative take on professional wrestling as more sport than entertainment. No company has ever succeeded on a massive and sustainable level fucking the corpse of a dead company because those fans have moved on, either towards evolutions of that company, or away from pro wrestling altogether.

The reasons above are why Extreme Rising was doomed to fail from the beginning. The company wasn't a hardcore outfit trying to get into the market; it was a specific appeal to the fandom of those who loved a specific company. Meanwhile, that specific company blazed a goddamn trail. Paul Heyman and his band of merry scumbags and misfits were viral before viral was a thing with a name. They combined the brawling and weapon use of Memphis with a Japanese sensibility and a lack of fear to take the piss out of themselves and created something that had never been seen in America before. ECW was not successful because it followed a formula; it got unlikely equal billing with the WWF and WCW because it forged an unknown path and struck gold.

WWE's ECW reboot, TNA's attempts at Hardcore Justice, the Extreme Reunions, Hardcore Homecomings, EVOLVE 10, and especially Extreme Rising all followed that same road map and tried tapping the same veins that Heyman and his company sucked dry. Is it any wonder that their successes were fleeting at best? Instead of trying to diverge from the path, however slight or drastic as was called for, they kept telling themselves that the gold was still there. Yet none of them learned a goddamn thing from any previous mistakes made.

My guess is that Extreme Rising won't be the last time someone attempts capitalization on the specific ECW brand, but it should be. No other company's legacy has been ransacked like ECW's has, and the returns have diminished to the point of trickles. The next time someone has the grand idea of aping ECW, that person should not look at the specifics, but at the general idea of what Heyman, his agents, and his wrestlers did. Try something new. Do something that has never been done before, or at the very least, that has never been done before in the area you're promoting it. Forging ahead is how wrestling grows. Those mutants and manchildren shouting "Take it home!" to a guy working on dead legs? Leave those guys in the past where they fucking belong.