BARBED WIRE CITY: THE UNAUTHORIZED STORY OF EXTREME CHAMPIONSHIP WRESTLING
Pros: High nostalgic value for the fan of ECW; great interviews; fantastic wrestling footage; sometimes, quite moving
Cons: Not as flashy as other wrestling documentaries out there
Funded in part by a Kickstarter campaign, the 2013 documentary Barbed Wire City: The Unauthorized Story of Extreme Championship Wrestling is the latest in a series of made-for-video documentaries about the now-legendary, Philadelphia-based wrestling promotion that existed from about 1993 until 2001. Considering the other programs out there (namely, the outstanding WWE-produced Rise and Fall of ECW and Jeremy Borash’s interesting but flawed Forever Hardcore documentary), one might wonder what exactly the purpose of another documentary based on the history of a defunct wrestling organization might be (at this point, I shudder that it’s been over a decade since ECW went under…), but that same person probably doesn’t truly understand the nature of Extreme Championship Wrestling as a promotion.
I first became aware of ECW in the early 1990s when their weekly TV show was broadcast on Sports Channel Philadelphia. At the time, I was vaguely familiar with the world of pro wrestling, but found that the usual product pumped out by the (then) World Wrestling Federation and World Championship Wrestling promotions didn’t do much for me, too cartoony and old-fashioned. ECW provided the exact opposite of what the major wrestling feds were doing at the time, with programs revolving around adult-oriented story lines, sexual content and scantily clad women, jaw-dropping technical wrestling, and (last but certainly not least) very graphic violence the likes of which I had never seen in a wrestling ring. Needless to say, the teenaged version of myself was hooked instantaneously, and I was a fan for life. This seems to be a typical story when looking at fans of this promotion: ECW was so different from anything else in the world of pro wrestling at the time that it was almost destined for a cult following rather than mainstream appeal, and as people have pointed out time and again, ECW in many ways WAS about its fans as much as if not more than it was about the wrestling.
ECW shows were typically broadcast from a claustrophobic and grimy Bingo Hall in South Philadelphia, Pennsylvania that was packed with some of the most rabid spectators one would find in any sport. These fans (many of whom were recognizable from one show to the next since they often sat in the same ringside seats) would cheer good moves one second and chastise wrestlers for botching a spot the next (usually by utilizing the infamous “You F—ked Up” chant). They were also bloodthirsty, often offering up objects (cheese graters, cookie sheets, crutches, etc.) that they brought to the arena for the express purpose of being used as weapons during matches. As may be obvious, ECW matches did get bloody, sometimes to the point of being sickening, and the increasingly violent nature of the wrestling only prompted performers (many of whom specialized in hardcore or “stunt” wrestling) to push the envelope even further. To its credit, ECW as an organization recognized that its fans were smart, and the promotion’s owner Paul Heyman respected them enough that he would typically tell the crowd exactly what was happening behind the scenes. All these things meant that the organization had one of the most loyal and devoted (but not necessarily the largest) fanbases in the world of professional sports.
Inside the ECW arena
Due to the breaking down of the fourth wall, fans felt as though they were part of the ongoing action and storyline, and the freshness of the product ensured that ECW didn’t have the same stale artificiality that was plaguing other wrestling promotions at the time. By the late 1990s, ECW had broken into the world of pay-per-views (the so-called “holy grail of professional wrestling”), and as the decade came to a close, had landed on a national TV network, providing access to legions of fans that ECW organizers had never dreamed of in their early days. Unfortunately, right when things seemed to be heading into the stratosphere, things quickly fell apart and by 2001, ECW collapsed, declaring bankruptcy before being bought out by (surprise!) Vince McMahon.
Ultimately, the story of ECW from start to finish has been covered in numerous articles, texts, and programs, and honestly, fans of this promotion would likely have digested many of these prior, comprehensive examinations – such was the devotion people had to Extreme Championship Wrestling. Barbed Wire City then, would have to do things differently in order to stand out, and I can confidently say that it has.
Told straight from the mouths of the people who were there living the ECW revolution, Barbed Wire City runs the gamut of covering the promotion from its “anything goes” early days, through the period where the promotion flirted with the big-time, and up to its final, dying moments. Directors Kevin Kiernan and John Philapavage seem to have gone out of their way to track down people not heard from in the previous ECW documentaries, thus we hear from folks like referee John Finnegan, various Atlas security guards who had the task of keeping the riotous ECW crowds under control, and a virtual “who’s who” of ECW wrestling talent. Also appearing in the film is well-known fan John “Hat Guy” Bailey, musician and wrestling fan Billy Corgan(!), as well as several prominent wrestling journalists who provide the “bigger picture” analysis of what ECW meant for pro wrestling as a whole. These interviews are fascinating, and while the material would probably be familiar to fans of the promotion, some of the stories, analysis, and anecdotes heard here are priceless. Much of this program very obviously benefits from the gift of hindsight, and Barbed Wire City is likely the most intimate, most comprehensive examination of ECW that exists.
Obviously, the biggest names in ECW are conspicuously absent from the documentary – Paul Heyman, commentator Joey Styles, and wrestlers like Terry Funk, Taz, Mick Foley, and many others are not heard from. Nevertheless, the smaller-scale, more modest approach taken by Barbed Wire City actually seems very appropriate considering the grassroots nature of early ECW. This promotion as a whole was rough around the edges, and a documentary that isn’t the most technically impressive thing I’ve ever seen suits the story and material precisely. Technically speaking, Barbed Wire City is exactly what one would expect from a program of this nature, nothing more. That said, the documentary is more about content than presentation, and the content here is excellent. I also have to point out that the soundtrack (which reminds me of Explosions in the Sky-type instrumental rock music) creates a nice mood; very well-done, even if it seems oppressive at times since there are very few moments of genuine silence.
A major obstacle facing anyone trying to make wrestling documentaries these days is that Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Entertainment organization (the former World Wrestling Federation) has bought up nearly all the tape libraries from smaller American wrestling groups. Thus, it’s impossible to secure rights to use any official video from ECW or most any other wrestling promotion of the past. Barbed Wire City has skirted this issue by utilizing the “fan cam” library of home video recordings shot by RF Video during the course of ECW’s run as a promotion. Keeping with the smaller scale of the documentary, this low-key, often shaky footage provides perhaps a better representation of what ECW’s was really all about and what it truly meant to its fans. The camera is essentially right in the midst of the crowd, showing the ECW product warts and all. 2005’s Forever Hardcore documentary suffered greatly from not having access to actual ECW footage, but Barbed Wire City not only utilizes fantastic footage from the glory days of the promotion, but highlights scenes that I haven’t seen in any other ECW documentary. Kiernan and Philapavage truly did a superb job with selecting and editing this material: a viewer scarcely notices that this documentary didn’t have access to any of the commercial footage and the entire program becomes a magnificent trip down memory lane for ECW fans.
Since the general story of ECW has been told many other places, it’s honestly the little things that separate Barbed Wire City from other, similar films. One of the best things about this documentary is the fact that it was recorded on and off for about ten years: some of the footage here was recorded in 2001, around the time when ECW was actually going under, while the basic framework of the documentary revolves around putting together a (possibly ill-advised) 2012 ECW reunion show entitled “Extreme Reunion” in Philadelphia. I have to give the Kiernan and Philapavage credit for not sugar-coating the fact that this reunion show simply didn’t seem to be a good idea and in all actuality, flopped. Many film makers at this point might have simply hyped up the reunion show for their own benefit, but Barbed Wire City calls it like it sees it, knowing that the audience would inevitably come to their own conclusions about the situation.
The ten year production cycle of the film makes for some pretty amazing interview material. Footage from 2001 in which ECW wrestler Balls Mahoney asks the cameraman recording the interview what he has heard about the status the promotion that he works for says a lot about the tentative, sudden, shocking collapse of ECW: even the wrestlers themselves were largely unsure of what was going on. More heart-wrenching is seeing Mahoney and fellow wrestler Axl Rotten (who now suffers from Bell’s palsy) circa 2012, when years of taking hard bumps in the world of pro wrestling have broken down their bodies. Covered in scars, missing teeth, and in poor health, it’s almost difficult to watch as the two reminisce about the “good ol’ days” – and it’s more tough to see footage of these two still performing in the ring despite their atrocious physical condition. I also was moved by the interviews in which the Public Enemy, a tag team made up of Rocco Rock and Johnny Grunge, discuss their involvement in ECW. A moment in which Rock says that he got paid to be “hit with trashcans, boards, chairs, whatever…that’s how [he] made his money” is disturbing considering that, in the years following the time when these interviews were conducted, both he and his tag team partner had died at an early age. In the end, as these instances suggest, it’s really the “heart” of this documentary and the personal connection that both the directors and the interview subjects had to ECW as a promotion that makes Barbed Wire City special. Without doubt, this is the most poignant of the various documentaries examining the ECW phenomenon.
In an era when professional wrestling has again become boring and inconsequential, a program like Barbed Wire City only makes the sad state of pro wrestling today become more evident. ECW wasn’t perfect as a promotion: it had many inner problems that ultimately led to its destruction, but the true passion that everyone involved with ECW had towards the company is sorely missed in today’s cookie-cutter WWE and TNA organizations. While the WWE’s Rise and Fall of ECW is probably the honest-to-goodness best choice for a viewer looking to learn about the history of this influential wrestling promotion, Barbed Wire City is the documentary that stands as a true representation of everything that ECW was and stood for, a piece that seems to understand and indeed gets to the heart of the defunct promotion. Though this documentary is (like its subject) rough around the edges, it’s an absolute must-see for fans of ECW, especially for those who actually remember when the promotion was around. I’d give it nothing less than my highest recommendation.
Independently-released DVD is full frame and has a number of extended segments, including tours of both the ECW Arena in Philadelphia and the Elks Lodge in Queens, NY, three additional stories from New Jack, an alternate opening, and an extended sequence dealing with Billy Corgan’s appearance in ECW. A pretty cool package overall.
8/10 : Extreme violence, dangerous stunts, heavy blood loss seen in some of the matches featured here.
10/10 : Extensive use of harsh profanity, some sexual remarks, and discussions of violent incidents. Definitely not for sensitive ears.
2/10 : A few scantily clad women; generally quite tame compared even to what was seen on ECW’s television show circa 1995
8/10 : Cult-like fans of the ECW promotion will eat this up.
Rocco Rock on the ECW Arena: “I did things there that I look back and say ‘Were you retarded?’”
Promotional Video: (WARNING – violent content!)