At its best, ECW was a controlled riot.
A verbal spat in the ring between announcer Joey Styles and deranged referee turned manager Bill Alfonso somehow turns into an altercation between Taz and 911, which itself turns into a pull-apart scuffle involving most of the locker room. Somehow that morphs into Taz and the Eliminators jumping 911, which brings out Rey Mysterio for the save. We now have an impromptu tag team match between the team of 911 and Mysterio vs. the Eliminators. Mysterio gets the fall for his team, but out comes Taz again, only to have the Pitbulls and Francine interject, which… goddamn, I’m out of breath.
Watching this mess on ECW Unreleased Vol. 3 some twenty years later, I’m stunned at the precision and the timing involved, doubly so when one considers half the ECW roster was usually drunk or high during working hours. Paul Heyman was undoubtedly the greatest booker of organized chaos in the history of the wrestling business. Regular watchers of Hardcore TV were treated to this kind of mayhem on a weekly basis; it was par for the course in ECW. (And it must have been damn good television for us to stay up until one, two, sometimes three in the morning to watch it.) Some critics have argued that Heyman booked himself into a corner with this strategy by conditioning his audience to expect these kind of roller coasters in every segment of the show, and while there is certainly some validity to that claim, there hasn’t been a wrestling show to hit the airwaves since the fall of ECW that has even come close to recreating that brand of sweaty, grungy, post-apocalyptic pandemonium. It’s likely there never will be.
So ECW Unreleased Vol. 3 is the WWE’s latest cash-in on ECW nostalgia. It’s amazing that there’s even a quarter of the core audience left given what Vince McMahon did to the revived WWECW monstrosity, but that’s a testament to the ECW faithful. Paul E. didn’t just give his wrestlers sips of Kool-Aid, he gave it to his fans too, and we still seem to clamor for another swig of it decades later. The DVD/Blu-ray is hosted by Joey Styles alongside the Blue World Order’s own Stevie Richards and the Blue Meanie. For the most part, the host segments in between matches are harmless and lighthearted enough, though the attempts at comedy are incredibly tame and restrained. The three have chemistry together, but it’s clearly ECW in a controlled environment.
The meat of this set are the matches and the interview segments, a few of which I hadn’t seen before. (Contrary to the title of this series, the vast majority of this stuff has been released in the past, it just hasn’t been seen very often since ECW went under. Think of it as ECW’s b-sides instead.) In true ECW fashion, it’s a mixture of hardcore brutality (Cactus Jack vs. Sabu from Holiday Hell ’95) to Japanese-style mat wrestling (Dean Malenko vs. 2 Cold Scorpio for the Television Title in 1994) to overblown, overbooked (but still fun) Three-Way Dances (Sandman vs. Stevie Richards vs. Raven just after the first Barely Legal pay-per-view) to the high-flying spot fests that ECW became known for just before they closed their doors in 2001 (Kid Kash vs. EZ Money from Anarchy Rulz). If you’re a younger fan and only familiar with the kind of product the WWE shows nowadays, watching this will no doubt be an eye-opening experience, if for nothing else than the sheer variety of wrestling on display.
Admittedly, there are a few matches that serve as nothing more than time-fillers – I’m not sure what the point of including Cactus Jack vs. Bam Bam Bigelow’s two minute non-starter match was, other than to gloat about these two stars locking horns in an ECW ring just as Bam Bam was arriving and Cactus was leaving for the WWF. And at least one match in particular, 2 Cold Scorpio & Dean Malenko vs. Taz & Eddie Guerrero, can make for a difficult watch if you know what is coming towards the end. I don’t particularly like re-watching matches where a wrestler suffers a crippling injury, thus I hadn’t seen the match in almost twenty years. That said, 9/10ths of the match is five-star wrestling. It’s some kind of thaumaturgy of the cosmos every time Eddie and Dean face each other in the ring, and Scorpio and Taz were no slouches in pure, hold-for-hold wrestling either. The only thing that ruins the magic is watching Taz legitimately have his neck broken. The spot – a double-team spike tombstone – is fairly gruesome and seems like a recipe for disaster no matter how much you try to protect the head and neck of the recipient, yet I still see it in Japanese wrestling every so often and it has me cringing every single time. Luckily, that is about the only harrowing moment on the ECW Unreleased Vol. 3 set. (Unless you include seeing a nearly nude Blue Meanie at one point.)
In addition to its hardcore/technical/lucha/kitchen sink style matches, ECW was also known for its killer promos. Heyman gave his boys plenty of latitude in terms of developing their characters and also plenty of time to sink or swim in front of the camera if they so desired. There are some tremendous promos on this set, including another Shane Douglas volatile worked shoot, the genesis of Rob Van Dam’s dickish yet cool heel character (completely cut-off at the knees with that “Dude!” crap in the WWE), the greatest tag-team of all-time – the Dudley Boyz – doing what they do best and inciting the crowd to a near riot state, and one of the holy grails of backstage promos: Raven and Cactus Jack trying to save Tommy Dreamer’s soul (by repeatedly beating the shit out of him). Perhaps the only thing missing is one of Heyman’s classic screeds, but considering we’re spoiled by his lethal verbal skills whenever Brock Lesnar is around these days, I can’t complain too much.
Overall, ECW Unreleased Vol. 3 is an enjoyable release and a fun way to spend a few hours reliving the most exciting wrestling on TV during the 90’s. It may not have withstood the test of time in the grand scheme of pro wrestling history, but one glance at the passionate, unholy mess that was ECW and you’ll soon realize: it’s better to burn out than to fade away.