In Defense of Cinematic Wrestling - Part 2: The Effects of Extreme

In the last installment, I discussed different cinematic matches from the WWF and WCW in the mid-Nineties, at the very start of what would become the “Monday Night War.” As far as American pro wrestling goes in that time, though, these weren’t the only two games in town. In the heart of Philadelphia, originating in an infamous bingo hall, Extreme Championship Wrestling may have been a distant third place, but a respectable third place nonetheless. Founded as Eastern Championship Wrestling in 1992, and splitting off from the lauded National Wrestling Alliance in 1994, the promotion was known for its renegade breaking from tradition and loads of controversy.

In its secession from the NWA, Shane Douglas, who had just won the vacant NWA World Heavyweight Championship in a tournament, threw the ten pounds of gold down as a sign of disrespect to the once-undisputed governing body of pro wrestling. He raised the ECW Championship up and declared it to be the only real world title left in the business, and was recognized as the first champion of what was now Extreme Championship Wrestling.

On the February 24th, 1997 episode of RAW, ECW staged what was seen as an invasion of the World Wrestling Federation. Accepting the invitation of commentator and wrestling legend Jerry “The King” Lawler, Paul Heyman stormed the ring with ECW World Tag Team Champions The Eliminators, who hit their Total Elimination tag team finish on a member of the ring crew. Throughout the episode, three matches featuring ECW wrestlers took place, with the last of the three being truly “extreme,” as a wild match between D-Von Dudley and Tommy Dreamer ended in a mad brawl when The Sandman and Buh Buh Ray Dudley ran in and helped their respective partners. The whole angle was used to promote ECW’s first Pay Per View venture Barely Legal, which very nearly didn’t actually happen, following the “Mass Transit” incident and several PPV providers requiring Heyman to submit a script ahead of time.

While ECW may not have had much in the way of cinematic matches, they have to be mentioned here for their undeniable impact. They took chances on hardcore wrestling, Japanese puro resu, and Mexican lucha libre, and without those risks, the wrestling world would not have evolved beyond the jacked-up, ‘roided-up, larger than life brick shithouses that populated the Seventies and Eighties. Also in the Nineties was the rise of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, and one of their biggest stars in the early years was Ken Shamrock, known as “The World’s Most Dangerous Man.” The inaugural UFC Superfight Champion debuted on WWF television on the aforementioned ECW invasion episode of RAW, and would go on to be the guest referee for the acclaimed Submission Match between Bret Hart and Steve Austin at WrestleMania 13.

Shamrock would give us two examples of cinematic-style matches the following year, as he feuded with Owen Hart following his King of the Ring crowning in June. At Fully Loaded in July, the two faced off in a Dungeon Match, which took place in the legendary Stu Hart Dungeon in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. The Dungeon is responsible for training virtually every Hart family member, and as such gave Owen the home field advantage in this match, which could only be won by submission. To add to the badass factor, the match was officiated by another UFC alum, Dan “The Beast” Severn. Even with the screwy finish - which saw Shamrock get clocked by a dumbbell and trapped in a hold, with Owen manipulating Shamrock’s arm to make it look like he had submitted - it was a fun showing, and it didn’t even take too much time from the show. It was as long as it needed to be, it was stiff as all hell, and led to the Lion’s Den match at SummerSlam, an MMA cage knockoff that managed to be entertaining even in a wrestling context.

Later that year, Vince McMahon introduced the WWF Hardcore Championship, naming Mankind its first holder. Mankind, the real-life Mick Foley, earned his stripes in the wrestling business for putting his body on the line in the wildest of matches, bleeding buckets across several continents, and surviving a C4 deathmatch with longtime friend Terry Funk to be crowned the “King of the Death Match.” In storyline, it was more or less a consolation prize for Mankind, as he was screwed out of the finals of the WWF Championship tournament at Survivor Series. But what was at first a joke title turned into a tertiary championship that gave a lot of lower-card wrestlers something to fight for, much like the European Championship had done on its inception in the spring of 1997.

This is where the name Vince Russo bears mentioning. Yes, a lot of his techniques in writing for television were less Jerry Lawler and more Jerry Springer, but at the very least, everybody on the roster had something to do. If nothing else, Russo gave a lot of guys paydays who may not have had a scrap of television time otherwise. While a lot of Russo’s machinations and inventions during his time as a head writer were panned (and rightfully so), this may be one of the redeemable bits.

A hail Mary from the Attitude Era came in the form of Halftime Heat and its Empty Arena Match for the WWF Championship, as The Rock defended against Mankind. As the name suggests, this match aired during halftime of that year’s Super Bowl, as an alternative to the traditional halftime show. This match is a tough one to talk about, not because of the quality of the work, but because of the timing of the shooting of the match. The match was taped on January 26, a mere two days after the I Quit match at Royal Rumble, in which a handcuffed Mankind took upwards of ten unprotected chair shots to his head. Mankind was concussed as a result of the incident, and how the hell he managed to work a match like this with said concussion being so fresh is beyond me. The crux of the story came when Mankind stole the bounty money awarded to The Rock for eliminating “Stone Cold” Steve Austin from the Royal Rumble Match, so one could say that this match was Title vs. Cash, but it’s only really billed as being for the WWF title.

The two men fought literally all over the arena, as WWF owner Mr. McMahon provided commentary. One of the highlights of this match, and basically any cinematic-style match, was being able to clearly hear any banter and trash talk between the combatants. Some moments were truly wince-inducing, including a sneak attack on Mankind with a metal trash can, which sent Foley careening down the steps of the arena he had just climbed. Others were Foley swinging the world’s largest bag of popcorn to batter The People’s Champion. It was madness, but entertaining if nothing else.

The finish came when the two fought into the loading dock of the arena. Mankind positioned Rock under the payload of a forklift full up with kegs, and we were treated to several unintentionally funny camera angles as the forklift lowered, pinning The Rock under the weight of the load. Mankind climbed on top of the kegs, the count was rendered, and Mankind won his second WWF Championship. While it wasn’t going to outdraw the halftime show it was counter-programmed against, it pulled in a very respectable 6.6 rating. The company wouldn’t repeat this for two decades, and even the 2019 Halftime Heat was a standard six-man tag team match featuring a who’s who of NXT standouts.

Coming back to the Hardcore Title, the first Pay-Per-View defense of the dilapidated belt came at St. Valentine’s Day Massacre on Valentine’s Day in 1999. When then-champion Road Dogg had to surrender the title due to injury, Al Snow and Bob Holly fought at the event for the vacant title. The match starts in the ring, but quickly spills into the crowd before going backstage. Mops, floor tiles, and other improvised weapons are utilized, and then we go into the parking lot of the arena. Before long, the two end up near the bank of the Mississippi River, with Al Snow taking a dip in the frigid waters of the river (mind you, this is February in Memphis, TN). The match ends when Holly wraps Snow up in a length of chain link fence, rendering him unable to kick out, giving Bob Holly the moniker of Hardcore, and his first of what would be six reigns with the Hardcore Championship.

WCW decided that it needed to play catch-up, and at Bash at the Beach that same year, had a Junkyard Invitational, a massive clusterfuck of a brawl that didn’t even have pinfall rules. The first man to escape the junkyard would win the match. It was frankly incoherent, incohesive, and inconsequential of much of anything, as the winner Fit Finlay would be stripped of the Hardcore Trophy he won in this match. After an unlikely win by Screamin’ Norman Smiley in the first round of a WCW World Heavyweight Championship tournament, the Northampton native was put in an angle with former Nasty Boy Brian Knobbs. The climax of the feud was for the inaugural WCW Hardcore Championship at Mayhem, which also coincidentally saw the culmination of the aforementioned World Title tournament. Smiley demonstrated his nickname here, as he even screamed after being thrown into a stack of boxes backstage. After a mistake by Knobbs’ manager Jimmy Hart, Smiley got the pin and became the first WCW Hardcore Champion. Yes, the belt was god-awful to look at, and yes, it may have been a potshot at the ECW title belt designs, but like, the WWF Hardcore Title was played off as a smashed up version of the old “Winged Eagle” WWF World Title belt.

Where one Holly cousin helped to put the Hardcore Title on the map in its earliest phase, another would make the division his very own. Shortly after winning the title for the first time in February 2000, Crash Holly would institute the 24/7 Rule. As long as there was a sanctioned referee present, anyone could win the title from Crash, anywhere, anytime. This led to a series of skits which saw less wrestling matches and more chase scene hijinks involving teams like The Headbangers and the Mean Street Posse chasing after championship glory in a hotel room, Fun Time USA, the Newark Airport, and a backstage massage parlor, all while Crash regularly defended the belt in in-ring matches.

Finally, Crash had to cry uncle, and offered his assailants a compromise: instead of chasing him hither and yon, he would put the title up in a Hardcore Battle Royal that coming Sunday at WrestleMania 2000, and whoever ended the night’s fifteen minute melee holding the belt could have it. The Battle Royal had thirteen participants, saw ten title changes inside of the fifteen minute window, and ended in a botch, as Hardcore Holly pinned his cousin Crash, even though referee Tim White delayed his count on pure accident. It would later come out that the planned finish was for time to run out on Hardcore’s pin attempt, allowing Crash to escape by the skin of his ass with the title. Whoever’s fault it was (poor Mr. White, that wasn’t wise), Crash won the title back the following night on RAW, so all was soon right with the wild world.

Meanwhile, in World Championship Wrestling, the Atlanta-based promotion saw an absolutely batshit event, as actor David Arquette, Deputy fucking Dewey himself, became WCW World Heavyweight Champion, in an attempted cross-promotion with the film Ready 2 Rumble. The summit of this mad decision was a Triple Decker Ready 2 Rumble Cage Match featuring Arquette, former champion Diamond Dallas Page, and previous champion Jeff Jarrett. Long story short, whoever climbed up through each cage and grabbed the championship belt hanging from the rafters would walk out as champion. The first cage was a standard cage, though it looked more like WWF’s Hell in a Cell or the company’s own Thunderdome Cage. The second cage was the hardcore cage, with weapons aplenty, while the third and final cage was a guitar-laden cage, with loads of gimmicked acoustic guitars ready to be exploded over someone’s head if needed. After the match left the first cage, the cinematography was vastly different, as top-down views were utilized to highlight how close someone was to grabbing the gold. After an Arquette heel turn, Jeff Jarrett took down the belt, earning his second WCW World title of what would be four.

A far less prestigious cinematic match was the Graveyard Match between Vampiro and “The Demon” Dale Torborg at Bash at the Beach that July. To be fair, commentary was selling the hell out of this match, especially Mark Madden, but a lone flashlight serving as the spotlight was laughable for a company that was in cahoots with Time Warner and Electronic Arts. Not every cinematic match is a winner, folks, and this one was rough to watch. At one point, Vampiro whiffs a dive out of a tree, and that may have been the perfect visual for the quality of this encounter. If it wasn’t for the Hulk Hogan / Vince Russo tiff that remains the most noteworthy moment of the show, this might have been the worst part of the event.

As for the WCW Hardcore title, it was simply deactivated in 2001, after its holder Meng, formerly Haku in the WWF, jumped ship to appear in the 2001 Royal Rumble Match. The title lasted for hardly a year, and while it did create a bonafide legend of Norman Smiley, it didn’t do much else for the company, or any of the belt’s other roughly two dozen champions, for that matter. At least WWE realized the value of a great worker like Smiley, as he is now a trainer at the WWE Performance Center in Orlando. Screamin’ Norman lives!

Finally, while WrestleMania 2000’s Hardcore Title feature was a disaster, the following two years’ worth of trials at the Show of Shows were much better. I’ve covered the WrestleMania X-Seven Triple Threat previously in my collection of horror-themed moments at WresteMania, but the series of moments from WrestleMania X8 must not be overlooked. It begins with Christian losing his bid for the European Championship against Diamond Dallas Page, throwing one of his signature temper tantrums after the match. Shortly thereafter, we get Maven defending the Hardcore Title against Goldust in the right. Out of nowhere, Spike Dudley runs in with his own referee, pinning Maven to win the title. Crash Holly chases Spike to the back, his own referee in tow, and to borrow a line from Brian Zane, they has fight. Before long, The Hurricane swings into shot, and the green-tinted superhero claims the title.

After a misstep that took the former Shane Helms into the Godfather’s locker room, his sidekick Mighty Molly, formerly Molly Holly, gives a hearty “To the Hurri-Cycle!” before comically wapping him with a frying pan, covering Hurricane for the belt. Christian, still upset over losing in his hometown, pledges to leave with a championship, and sets up a trap, bashing a split-level door into a running Molly to claim the title. The triumph is short-lived, as before Christian can hop into his car and leave the Skydome as Hardcore Champion, Maven regains the title, steals the car Christian had waiting for him, and left him losing his shit in the parking lot.

By this point, the physical belt was literally falling apart. Yes, the look of the beat-up belt that, for whatever reason, everyone and their sister wanted to fight each other over was part of the charm. The bloom was off the rose at this point, but not before the most chaotic period in the belt’s history, in which house shows would see numerous Hardcore title changes in a night. Operating off the “anything can happen in the WWE” saying, the chaos led to several former ECW wrestlers holding the title, including Tommy Dreamer and Raven, dozens of times. Dreamer held it fourteen times, even bringing in his own New York variant on the title, Steven Richards held it twenty-one times, and Raven holds the record for twenty-six reigns as champion. The Hardcore Championship would be unified with the Intercontinental Championship by Rob Van Dam by August, ending a three and a half year run with over 250 individual championship reigns officially recognized by WWE.

Jesus wept.

Cinematic wrestling may not have gotten much traction in the 2000s, but that didn’t stop the burgeoning El Rey Network from taking a stab at it. Next time, we’ll look at Lucha Underground, the product of Hollywood presentation with a lucha libre stylization. Those that aren’t familiar with the promotion would do well to check it out on Tubi or on YouTube, as there are a lot of familiar names that spent time on the El Rey Network’s payroll.