Backstage at ECW, ’95

My first ECW Arena visit was one I will never forget and one that did not disappoint.  But my second visit was a picture perfect story of what every wrestling fan dreams about.

Go back to October of 1995.  WWF was in the midst of one of its worst financial years in history and fan loyalty was at an all-time low.  WCW, led by a bold Eric Bischoff finally becoming comfortable in his job, was gearing up to debut its new prime time show, Monday Nitro.  And down in Philadelphia, ECW was losing a lot of money, but providing top-notch television that featured Cactus Jack, Steve Austin, Chris Benoit, Dean Malenko, Eddy Guerrero, Chris Benoit, Steiner brothers, 2 Cold Scorpio, Terry Funk, Sabu, Al Snow, Chris Jericho, and a slew of other stars who went on to be much bigger stars over the next 5 years in WWF and WCW.  To many longtime ECW fans, 1994 – 1996 remain THE banner years for in-ring action and out-of-the-ring promos.

ECW, Day 1, October 27, 1995

After spending the first 17 years of my life in California, I was now attending college in upstate New York.  My good friend Ed and I rented a car and drove down to Pennsylvania for a weekend of ECW fun. 

But unlike most fans who were going that day, WE had special privileges.  Since we knew someone in the ECW crew, we had backstage passes!

The first night was a spot show in Kennet Square, PA at the Big Apple Dinner Theater.  We arrived early, and so did most of the wrestlers.  We hung out in the alley before they opened the backstage area.  The only thing I remember about this part was a very mean-looking Taz shootin’ the breeze with one of the guys from the ring crew.  Taz wore cowboy boots, and even though he lacked height, the guy looked really tough and not exactly approachable.  Let’s just say I wasn’t about to approach him for an autograph. 

Since there was time to kill, we all grabbed some grub at a local eatery.  Also seated at the table were two very distinct ECW fans.  Both were front row regulars during the early ECW days.  One was the blond surfer dude who wore a tank top and had a good build.  The other was the infamous “straw hat guy.”  The only comment I remember from this lunch was from Straw Hat Guy, who commented, “I must say, I like Hogan’s new black colors a lot better than the red & yellow.”  And you thought ECW fans didn’t watch WCW?  You see, this was almost a year before Hogan’s heel turn in WCW, and he was experimenting with different colors to freshen up his stale gimmick.  Not unlike much later after WrestleMania 18 when he turned face but kept the black colors… for about a week. 

After eating, the doors opened at the building so we hung out backstage.  What a scene it was.  If you took a picture of the backstage area and asked which two people didn’t belong, it was Ed and I.  We were both 18 years old, star struck, and standing there like two dolts with nothing better to do than be hangers-on.  The more we tried to act like we weren’t marks for our heroes, the more we looked like marks.  We just stood there and stared at everyone oddly, whispering, “Oh my God, this is unbelievable,” to each other every two minutes.

If there was ever a time to be backstage at ECW, this was it.  In the months preceding the Monday Night wars, ECW was home to a plethora of big-name stars before the Big Two snatched them up.  Here are just some of the brushes with greatness that I remember from standing around like an idiot backstage:

  • Todd Gordon, one of the main moneymen behind the company, stepped outside casually for a smoke.  I had read his Torch interviews, knew about his jewelry business, and loved his on-air bits with Bill Alfonso.  Here he was, smoking a cigarette in front of me.  Since we were the only two people he probably didn’t recognize, and since we were staring at him without even knowing we were staring at him, he just looked at us oddly and muttered, “Hey, how’re ya doin’.” 
  • “Superstar” Steve Austin was also backstage walking around.  Steve was healing from an injury, contemplating an offer from All Japan, and doing ECW non-wrestling appearances in the meantime.  His hair was still long and he did some classic Eric Bischoff impersonations in some hilarious ECW TV promos.  If I had known, I’d have gone up to Austin backstage and told him, “Hey Steve, in three years you will be a multi-millionaire, the biggest star in the country, and main eventing WrestleMania with Shawn Michaels and Mike Tyson.  You’ll break your neck and become damn near paralyzed, but come back a bigger star than ever.  But it won’t happen overnight.  You’ll be saddled with a “Ringmaster” gimmick that will flop for weeks before you do this breakout interview at King of the Ring and become a huge star.”  I actually didn’t talk to Steve backstage, but Ed did.  Steve remarked to him that he wanted to cut down on the beer consumption and get back into shape.  Little did he know that he’d later go on to steal Sandman’s beer gimmick and take it to a whole new level.  Ed claims to have given Steve the “Stone Cold” idea during this brief conversation, but obviously he was just pullin’ my chain.  That’s funny, though.
  • Later on, who walked in other than Mick Foley!  Since we were by the entrance (to make sure we saw everyone as they came in), we were the first people he saw.  He gave us an odd look similar to what Tod Gordon had given us, and said, “Hey” to us.  We’re not worthy!  Cactus Jack had some great brawls in ECW, but he was going through this phase where he was giving anti-hardcore interviews that not everyone really comprehended the point of.  In my opinion, those are among the best interviews wrestling has ever seen.  To be in his presence was a dream come true.  Had I known then, I’d have told him that in four years, he’d have a #1 best-selling book in America and be on the cover of TV Guide.  
  • In the dressing room was Charles Ashenoff aka Konnan.  Let me put this into perspective.  I had seen Konnan two years earlier headline a AAA show in San Jose, and he got a God-like reaction.  He was one of the biggest mainstream stars in Mexico at the time.  I’m not talking about being a wrestling star.  He was a huge star PERIOD in Mexico.  I’m talking soap operas, talk shows, dance shows, game shows, you name it.  And here he was at a spot show in Pennsylvania, in a dressing room, largely keeping to himself.  He was new to ECW and not really over with the fans yet.  Whatever you want to say about Konnan, and he has made some remarks in interviews over the years that really rubbed me the wrong way, you must give him credit for helping to coordinate a lot of luchadores getting contracts with WCW when Nitro hit it big.  Those hot undercard matches, buried by the announcers or not, were very important in launching WCW to the top and making the WWF look sluggish in comparison.
  • A bandana-clad 2 Cold Scorpio was also wandering a lot backstage.  I don’t remember much else about seeing all these stars (too much in shock to mentally jot everything down), but I do remember how nice Scorpio was.

Then it was show time.  It was actually a below-average show, but I was so in awe that it didn’t matter.  What I do remember is that after the main event in which Public Enemy beat Scorpio and Sandman, they let all the fans jump in the ring.  I seized the opportunity to be sure, and nearly broke my leg climbing in the ring.  Was it not enough that I got to see all the stars backstage?  Was I really in the RING with Public Enemy and dozens of other lunatic wrestling fans??  Unbelievable!

Others on the show included the Dudleys, Perry Saturn & John Kronus, and Tommy Dreamer.  Advertised for the show, but not present, were the Steiners.  I think not being backstage with the Steiners was a good thing.  I’d rather do just about anything than be around two of the toughest brothers ever bred.

And that was just the beginning.

After a rainy drive home, we got to the hotel.  But not just any hotel; the same hotel that the ECW crew was staying at.  This was getting good.

We parked the rental car and then stood in line to check in for our room.  It was a long wait with several people in line.  We stood and waited, and waited, and waited… until it happened.

It was like the meanest cowboy in town had just parked his horse outside and was mozying on in to the bar.  And this time, it really was a cowboy.  While waiting in line forever to check in, we heard the immortal words:

“Do you have a room… for a Terry Funk?”

My eyes became wide open.  It couldn’t be, it shouldn’t be… it WAS!  I slowly turned my head around, and I swear I saw a glow emanating from the hotel lobby door.  Out from the sunlight emerged one of the most legendary, long-standing icons in the business, and the undisputed King of Hardcore, whatever that means.  All I know is that I was just a few inches away from THE Terry Funk, and I don’t know what I had ever done in my life that made me so worthy of such an honor. 

The idiots in line acted as if nothing.  They were just common folk who had no idea, NO IDEA, that they were among greatness.  If I were not a fan of movies, this would be the equivalent of Robert DeNiro walking in, and I don’t even care or notice.  PEOPLE, THIS IS TERRY FUNK.  YOU SHOULD BE BOWING DOWN AND SHOWING YOUR RESPECT TO THE MAN, THE LEGEND, AND THE MASTER. 

They were oblivious, and it was shocking.  But I appreciated the honor to be in the presence of his majesty.  I have seen and loved Terry’s classic NWA title matches from the 70s.  I’ve seen his revolutionary “empty arena” match with Jerry Lawler.  I’ve seen him carry Junkyard Dog to entertaining matches in mid-80s era WWF.  I’ve seen his “I Quit” match with Ric Flair dozens and dozens and dozens of times.  I’ve seen his Great American Bash match with Flair dozens and dozens of times.  I’ve seen his 40-plus-minute 3-way match with Sabu and Shane Douglas that put ECW on the map.  I’ve seen the post-match press conference that made people stand up and notice Shane Douglas’ mic skills.  I’ve seen his sick, bloodbath matches in Japan.  I’ve seen him draw 40,000 fans to the Fukuoka Dome with Atsushi Onita.  And later that night, I’d see him on fire (read on).

I had a lot of trouble sleeping that night, after having lived a childhood dream.  And the next day, I would wake up and do it all over again.

ECW, Day 2, October 28, 1995

That morning, we got up and had breakfast with Donny Laible and some other fans he was staying with.  I don’t recall their names or their faces, just that we all had pancakes and were pretty loud.

Soon enough, it was show time for the monthly ECW Arena event.  Unlike the spot show, we did not have backstage access this time.  But who cared, we were staying at their hotel!

I remember a little more about this show than I do the other.  Konnan worked very hard to get over with the crowd in the lucha match, almost to the point he was begging for their approval.  He did succeed, though.  He teamed with Rey Misterio Jr to beat Psicosis and La Parka.  Rocco Rock had a singles match with 2 Cold Scorpio, and unfortunately the fans chanted the names of every black wrestler at Scorpio.  From JYD to SD Jones to Virgil, they really let him have it.  A couple of guys behind me, in a rare case of political correctness at the ECW Arena, chanted, “Racists suck,” back at them.  Rocco, however, could not stop laughing and sided with the chants.  He grabbed the mic and said, “Man, you guys are the greatest!”

Jason was forced to wear a dress after Stevie Richards lost a match to Johnny Grunge.  And in a footnote that would later be forgotten by the end of the night, Mikey Whipwreck defeated Sandman for the ECW title in a brutal ladder match.

The main event featured Cactus Jack against Tommy Dreamer.  In Dreamer’s corner was Jack’s hero and mine, Terry Funk.  I have a great fear of fire, because I’m always scared it will get out of hand.  And I really hate seeing fire used in wrestling matches because it’s so dangerous.  In this match, fire was used.  I thought, “It’s OK, these guys are pro’s.  It’ll be all right.”  And for every match I have seen fire in, sure enough, things had been fine.

So it’s only fitting that during a match in which I was present, things wouldn’t be fine.

Jack set the pace for a purposely planned disappointing match, warning the crowd that we were going to see the most boring match we’d ever see.  “Boring” chants ensued, and people did the “wave” to pass the time.

Before long, Raven, Terry Funk, and Stevie Richards got involved and chairs were being swung left and right.  Funk had brought out a flaming branding iron, but dropped it after Bill Alfonso hit him with a chair.  Cactus and Raven seized the opportunity and used branding iron to light a chair on fire.  Except this chair had a highly flammable towel wrapped around it. 

Cactus went to hit Funk with the fiery chair, and that is when things went wrong.  Funk slid out of the ring, and the chair bounced off the top rope and fell right on Funk.  I have a very vivid memory of seeing Terry Funk engulfed in flames.  The fire finish had gone awry, everyone knew it, and Funk was being burnt to a crisp. 

The first person to realize it was Cactus Jack, who broke character and rushed to put out the fire.  Jack was obviously afraid of seeing his hero die before his very eyes.  I haven’t read Jack’s book, but in it there is a detailed account of this incident.

To make matters worse, the house lights went out as part of a planned crucifixion angle with Dreamer and Raven.  I truly do not recall the lights going out because of all the commotion, but that is what happened.  Several angles in ECW, including the return of Sabu, have involved the lights going out.

The rest is a blur, because before we knew it, the rough-and-tough ECW fans were screaming like women and rushing for the exit in a mad panic.

In my head, I was trying to remain calm, but thinking something like this:

“Oh my God, FIRE!!  FIRE!!”

Amidst smoke and darkness, we made it outside OK.  In a sickening scene, we heard the chants of “ECW, ECW” from fans inside the arena who had more distant seats.  Luckily, Ed and I were seated as close to the exit as possible (on the side that faces the camera, several rows behind Sign Guy and Straw Hat Guy, who doubled as a ticket agent for this show, by the way).  Had the fire gotten out of control, and had we been on the other side of the arena, there is no telling if I’d be alive today.  And surely Terry Funk would not be.

Even though it was freezing outside, we didn’t care.  All we cared about was the condition of Funk.  The show was cancelled immediately, obviously.  While we waited a long time outside with all the other fans, Sandman came out to update us.  I must give Sandman a ton of credit here.  This wasn’t in his job description, but he stayed outside and entertained all of us impromptu with a ton of witty wisecracks and jokes that lightened our fearful moods.  He definitely earned his bacon that night.  And for the record, Terry Funk was just fine, just shaken up.

A lot of folks, including Funk himself, were furious over the incident.  “ECW has gone too far,” was the prevailing comment of the night.  I did agree ECW crossed the line, but like everyone else, I was still going to watch ECW and attend another show.

We finally were greeted by our anonymous ECW friend and we got a ride back to the hotel.  In another interesting story, the driver of the car was a little unknown named Sign Guy Dudley.  Sign Guy was beginning to play a prominent role in ECW and was involved in angles in both shows that weekend.

Going back to the hotel was a real highlight for me.  Some guys, if given the chance to party with the ECW guys at a bar after the show, would live it up, get drunk, and have a blast.  While that would make for a much more interesting story, that isn’t how it happened. 

After all, everyone’s Hardcore Legend nearly perished to death. 

There were more stars roaming around the hotel than at the spot show the previous night.  Here are some additional highlights from that night:

  • There was a really short guy with short hair waiting to use the elevator.  I didn’t think anything of it.  Just as the elevator doors opened, the bellboy remarked to another hotel employee, “You see that little guy?  He might be tiny, but DAMN, he does some CRAZY sh*t in the ring!”  Then it dawned on me.  That “short guy” was none other than Rey Misterio Jr!  Remember, this was years before he unmasked so no one knew what he looked like.  And if you think he looks young now, just imagine how young he looked then.  And as young as he was, I had seen him two years earlier nearly kill himself doing crazy high spots at an AAA show in San Jose.
  • The nicest guy on the show, hands down, was a fairly unknown high-flier named Pablo Marquez.  Pablo used the ring name, “El Puerto Riqueno,” and only you longtime ECW fans would remember him.  He talked to Ed and I for awhile and was really cool to us.  I believe he went on later do an angle with Tiger Ali Singh on WWF Raw, but I could be wrong.  Anyway, he’s still young and maybe he’ll be somebody some day.
  • Paul Heyman was spotted at the bar, as well.  I think he lost 500 strands of hair that night just stressing about what damage could’ve been done to his company if that fire got out of hand.  I didn’t talk to him, but it was cool to see him there.  He’s also pretty loud, but you all knew that.
  • On our way up the elevator, we stopped on one of the middle floors.  The door opened and there stood Joey Styles, waiting to come on.  He took one look at the huge crowd of people in our elevator and humorously said, “I think I’ll wait for the next one.”
  • The highlight was hanging out with Mikey Whipwreck.  He was very funny, nice, and actually a pretty big star with ECW at the time.  A friend of mine once remarked about Mikey, “The only guy to be ECW champion and work at K-Mart at the same time.”  Don’t know if that is true, but it’s funny.  Mikey goofed around with all of us in the hotel and was doing all sorts of bumps, spots, and suplexes on the bed as we watched and laughed.  I’m positive I heard one of the beds break, but the hotel staff didn’t have to know that.  The wackiness provided by Mikey was the perfect end to my weekend backstage with ECW and one I will never, ever forget. 
  • After another night of little sleep, we got up the next morning and drove back to upstate NY and returned to school.  Only problem was, my luggage was missing.  Where was it?  Well, part of my luggage was my leather jacket, which some careless lady had taken because she thought my jacket belonged to none other than Raven.  Raven’s friends need to respect the belongings of others!  She did apologize, and four hours of driving later, my weekend of fun was over and it was time to hit the books again. 

Those times were truly magical and it pains me to see how much the wrestling scene has died, aside from the WWF.  There is no more WCW and no more ECW.  While we all had a ton of fun that weekend, the fact is ECW was losing a lot of money.  There was some really big-name talent on those shows, and they didn’t come cheaply.  5 years later, ECW was out of business.

But at least I have the memories.  And in my Physics class the next day, not one person knew that Mikey Whipwreck was in our hotel room doing suplexes on the bed, and that I was in line with Terry Funk.  Much like the legend of Terry Funk, and of professional wrestling in general, the public remains oblivious to the small, misunderstood little world we live in.