Throwback Thursday: Shane Douglas, WCW, and the Promo That Changed Wrestling
Wrestling was in a rut in 1994, as a bunch of aimless federations went nowhere. Then Shane Douglas cut a promo after a NWA versus ECW bout that changed everything.
(Editor's note: Each week VICE Sports will take a look back at an important sports event from this week in sports history. We are calling this regular feature Throwback Thursday, or #TBT for all you cool kids. You can read previous installments here.)
To understand how and why a wrestling promo that aired 21 years ago today still matters, you first need to understand what an incredible dump pro wrestling was in 1994. What was then the World Wrestling Federation was still reeling from a steroid trial that nearly brought down Vince McMahon. McMahon's reaction was to scale the wrestlers down from their freakish 1980s size, bringing in a New Generation, as it was billed, of men like Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels. Mostly, though, his campaign to get with the times involved lots of terrible, silly gimmicks.
World Championship Wrestling was still fairly new at the time: the spawn of Jim Crockett Promotions, a mainstay of Southern wrestling, which gobbled up its regional competition before being gobbled up by Ted Turner, the biggest New South fish of them all. WCW happily picked up WWF's steroid-beast castoffs: Savage, Beefcake, Earthquake, and Hogan. Creative malaise set in as the blood-and-guts style of Dusty Rhodes and Ric Flair was set aside for slightly puffier versions of the Hogan Conquers All stories we'd seen ten years prior.
So wrestling did what it always does in moments of crisis: it looked to its past. In this case, it was a scheme to revive the desiccated National Wrestling Alliance, the hoary presiding body of pro-wrestling promoters. The idea was to bring back the territory days, that period when regional organizations would get together and elect a world champion, who would then tour the country trading blows with whichever local hero was available. The system gave the country legendary champions like Flair, Harley Race, and Buddy Rogers. The NWA was still around in 1994, if pretty thoroughly stripped of talent and money by WWF and WCW; it was a zombie, in other words, and not a terribly well-dressed one. But it was moving.
Central to this Frankenstein revival effort was a Philadelphia wrestling fed called Eastern Championship Wrestling. ECW was one of the most successful second-tier groups in the country, making its name on pushing new talent and a risqué, violent style that seemed custom made for Philly's raucous wrestling scene. Essentially, ECW was popular enough in one of the few large open markets that any NWA revival effort would have to go through it.
"The NWA was a dead organization at that point," former ECW owner Tod Gordon told me. "Jim Crockett came back down in Texas and wanted to start it up again. But they had to have a champion. Old school, territory-to-territory type of deal. So we had Crockett, us, Jim Cornette down in Tennessee, an Australian group, and a guy from New Jersey named Dennis Coralluzzo."
Coralluzzo, in Gordon's telling, was a cranky small-timer who was able to play the NWA's games but somehow unable to draw a dime in the New York area, a market where just about anyone can get a crowd.
"Coralluzzo was a thorn in our side. We started at the same level, but ECW's on TV while he's still drawing 150 to 200 people to his shows," Gordon said. "So he became obsessed with stopping our growth. He'd call the fire commissioner on our shows, send tapes to local groups showing how violent we were. Stuff like that. I remember one time, on the road with Cactus Jack [Mick Foley's ECW ring name], pulling over after a show got shut down. Cactus called Coralluzzo on a pay phone—we only had pay phones then—and was screaming at him, about how he was taking money from his family. I'd never seen him so mad."
Gordon and his creative partner, Paul Heyman, were given a free hand to crown a new NWA world champion. Coralluzzo fumed, but the facts were simple: as one of the few indies with secure television, the NWA needed ECW way more than ECW needed the NWA.
Which brings us to the tournament and the big moment. ECW packed the tourney with its wrestlers, as might be expected, settling on Shane Douglas as champion. Douglas was an odd choice at the time. Prior to joining ECW, he was a perennial midcarder who was best known as one half of a skateboarding tag team that went by the Dynamic Dudes. Even Gordon wasn't sold on him when he came to ECW, but one-time booker Eddie Gilbert insisted that Douglas could go, both in the ring and on the mic.
Once Douglas won the tournament, beating 2 Cold Scorpio in the final, he launched an in-ring promo for the ages. In it, he thanked the champions before him, rattling off a list of luminaries who were now his peers as NWA champions. Ric Flair. Lou Thesz. Harley Race. Dusty Rhodes. Terry Funk, who was backstage. Poignantly, Douglas looked up to the sky and intoned his father's memory. This is it, he said.
And then Douglas told all those past champions that they could kiss his ass, and threw down the title belt.
Understand two things about this. One, wrestlers do not do this. Disrespect the belt, and you disrespect the men who held it before you; since wrestling is steeped in its own lore, you're disrespecting the form's history. Here was Shane Douglas, not only disrespecting his forebears by implication but calling them out by name. Shane Douglas.
Two, the only people who knew this was going to happen were Gordon, Heyman, and Douglas. Nobody else—not the magazines, not the wrestlers in the back, not Gordon's fellow promoters—saw it coming. Look at the faces in the crowd: they're stunned and confused, and they're not acting.
"We swerved them. I'm not saying I'm proud, but it was a swerve," Gordon said. "That's what we did. I was sitting next to Coralluzzo and he's sitting there confused. I say, 'No, don't worry. This is just an angle. Just an angle. We'll do ECW versus the NWA. Work with it. It'll be great.'"
That's how Coralluzzo came to cut a confused promo of his own backstage, saying that ECW was out of the NWA unless Douglas defended the belt as NWA champion. He looks hunted, as if he suspects that he's been bamboozled but can't quite bring himself to believe it. Within days, Gordon left no doubt, in a tense video rebranding Eastern Championship Wrestling as Extreme Championship Wrestling.
"I was skeptical about 'extreme,'" recalled Gordon. "Paul was very into 'extreme.' He told me don't worry about this, this is gonna be big. And he was right. It blew up. The next thing we know, there's extreme sports, extreme soda. So we were extreme. We were already doing more sex and violence than most, but we turned it up after the rebranding. The phone rang off the hook for three days after that. We needed to do something that said we weren't just a Philly promotion anymore—that our champion was a world champion, not just a regional champion."
Things in pro wrestling changed rapidly after the promo. In Gordon's words, "Industry-wise, it was an atom bomb." ECW didn't have the resources to go head to head with WCW or the WWF. Creatively, though, it had officially changed the landscape.
It's not an exaggeration to say that wrestling would be completely different had the antipathy between Coralluzzo and ECW's executives not sparked the Douglas promo. When the WWF was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, battered by Ted Turner's ability to poach McMahon's employees at will, the federation turned business around by co-opting ECW's sex-and-violence style.
That co-option eventually led to the WWF putting WCW out of business; business is business, after all. World Wrestling Entertainment was able to achieve its current near-monopoly by cribbing from ECW in the 1990s. For WCW's part, its brief dominance was partly built around a stellar midcard made up of ex-ECW talent like Chris Benoit and Dean Malenko. ECW was able to go all in on its to a fairly wide audience because of the shock that Douglas's promo caused.
The Douglas promo was a spark, a moment of nuclear fission that kicked off a reaction still being felt today, whether that's giving a blueprint for success to today's indie wrestling scene or WWE putting on a three-way dance. You see it when Heyman barks at the crowd on Raw or when TNA puts on an X Division match. All of these things were put in motion by a promo that both broke with and reified wrestling's traditions.
The primary actors are all in different places. Shane Douglas is still active, though he doesn't wrestle as often as he did. Dennis Coralluzzo died of a stroke in 2001. Paul Heyman, of course, now works with WWE as Brock Lesnar's manager. Tod Gordon went back to the family business, a jewelry and loan store in Philadelphia, after he sold his share of ECW to Heyman.
"We're fourth generation. My kids work here," Gordon said, with a smile I could hear over the phone. "I did this before wrestling."