The deathmatches ECW put on were simply insane. Fire, thumbtacks, barbed wire, glass, explosives, all made regular a appearance.
During the days of wrestling territories in the 70’s and 80’s, certain territories and companies began incorporating more violent stipulations in wrestling. Weapons were starting to be used, and it was clear that wrestling was becoming edgier product, it wasn’t always going to be mat based, there was a street brawl vibe.
In 1989, long before WWE had wiped out all of its competitors, there was a promotion in Japan called FMW (Frontier Martial-arts Wrestling). WWE and WCW were about to begin the Monday Night Wars, but FMW were changing the way wrestling was looked at. While WWE and WCW were running with the family friendly, cartoonish programming, FMW had its first ever deathmatch, an exploding barbed wire match to be precise. Many people praise ECW for creating hardcore, but it turns out they were just the ones who ran with it. FMW had wrestlers such as Terry Funk, Mick Foley, Sabu and Hayabusa all on the books; all 4 are largely defined as 4 of the greatest hardcore wrestlers to ever grace a ring. The link below is to an old deathmatch from FMW with Onita and Terry Funk, the latter could be regarded as the greatest hardcore wrestler ever.
FMW would undergo a takeover in 1995 and that was the end of deathmatch for this company. 1995 was a much more significant year than the fall of FMW, it was the start of the Monday Night Wars, and it was the start of Paul Heyman’s ECW.
Heyman, a long time booker for ECW, purchased Extreme Championship Wrestling. In the years that followed ECW was the third party in the Monday Night Wars, many believe their deathmatch style was adopted by WWE when they went into the attitude era. It could even be argued it was that style that won WWE the Monday Night Wars. But what was it about ECW that was so exciting to everyone?
Heyman managed to create a cult following for ECW, there was a no nonsense style that ran with the theme of America in general in the 90’s. The deathmatches they put on were simply insane. Fire, thumbtacks, barbed wire, glass, explosives, all made regular a appearance. The likes of RVD, Sabu, Raven and Tommy Dreamer would put on matches with zero rules; it truly lived up to the extreme moniker. ECW would be bought out by WWE in 2001 due to a lack of funding and the bigger companies constantly poaching talent. From 95 to 01 ECW had some of the most intense and extreme hardcore matches of all time, one of the most memorable being Terry Funk vs Sabu in a barbed wire match, the match can be seen below.
WWE had taken over ECW, won the Monday Night War and taken over WCW, and there was little to no competition left. With all the new talent along with the popularity of the attitude era, WWE would carry on with its new, edgier content, introducing the hardcore title in 1998. New matches would be introduced in the late 90’s and early 00’s, including the famous ‘Hell in a Cell’, ‘Elimination Chamber’ and ‘TLC’ match types. Following the attitude era of the 90’s, we then got the ruthless aggression era in the 2000’s. Hardcore would remain a prominent fixture of WWE’s programming, with superstars often ‘blading’ to draw blood which was always a huge pop. Mick Foley would be the major draw for WWE in terms of hardcore, with matches with The Undertaker, Edge and Randy Orton all bringing us some of the most memorable spots in WWE History.
The tragedy of Chris Benoit would be the downfall of WWE’s hardcore ways. When Benoit killed his family and then himself it was revealed from his brain scans that he had the brain of ‘an 85 year old Alzheimer’s patient’. This could be largely due to his heavy style, chair shots to the head, and his several hardcore matches for ECW, WCW and WWE. This was a disaster for WWE in the public eye, who then changed the programming, which we now know as the PG era. The return to hardcore ways are often teased but never followed through, gone are the days of blading and headshots, the product might be less exciting for it but the wrestlers will benefit in the long run. If you want a deathmatch now, you’ve got to look elsewhere, you’ve got to go indy, you’ve go to go to CZW.
Combat Zone Wrestling is an indy wrestling promotion that filled a void that ECW and WWE left, they have deathmatches regularly, if you want to see two technical wrestlers put on a clinic, this isn’t the show for you, if it’s bloodlust you’re after, come here. The annual ‘Tournament of Death’ features an 8 man knockout tournament filled with a variety of deathmatches, from barbed wire, to glass and cinder blocks, it’s almost unwatchable at points.
Will hardcore ever die? The cult followers of hardcore wrestling would say no, I say no as well, there will always be those guys who are willing to put their bodies on the line, I applaud them, as a fan of spots, these deathmatches provide in a big way. I can watch Guerrero vs Malenko time and again, but I can watch Dreamer, Foley, Sabu and the rest of the guys over and over again as well. Unlimited sacrifice from all the wrestlers involved and it can only be applauded.