Hardcore Devotion

Exploring the roots of the extreme fanbase of ECW Wrestling

Caveat: If you’re a wrestling fan expecting to read an article on wrestling, you will be disappointed. Wrestlers and moves will be discussed peripherally at best. You’ve been warned.

Extreme Championship Wrestling, the third largest North American wrestling group, held its first-ever Canadian show in Mississauga over the weekend. Performing in front of a sold-out, packed-to-the-rafters crowd of 5000 (a huge number by ECW standards), the men and women of Extreme boasted, battled and bled (heavily).

For nearly four hours, I was witness to falls from second-floor balconies, heads gouged by forks, staple gun attacks, top-rope pile drivers and 350-pound wrestlers going by the name of “Roadkill, the Angry Amish Chicken Farmer.” Still, the most fascinating, frightening and disgusting facet of the night wasn’t in the ring.

It was the crowd itself.

ECW fans have a reputation for being the most loyal, most passionate and most dedicated in the industry of professional wrestling. Unlike, say, the fans of the WWF who cheer guys like Stone Cold Steve Austin and the Rock, ECW followers could care less about pre-packaged characters who are “good” or “evil.” They profess to care about only one thing: wrestling. Largely smarter and more in the know than other wrestling fans, the ECW crowd routinely burst into appreciative applause whenever a dangerous or visually impressive move is performed in the ring. They know the names of all the wrestlers and exactly what their ‘real life’ stories are, they’re familiar with the workings of the wrestling business, and they know when they’re not getting their money’s worth.

Or in other words, any wrestler who doesn’t perform a move properly or makes a mistake and accidentally injures himself is subjected to a chant of “You fucked up!” over and over again. The crowd is rabid and absolutely merciless.

Many professional wrestlers who formerly worked for ECW readily acknowledge just how bloodthirsty, unforgiving and demanding its crowds can be. Leaving for the show, I was curious and a wee bit concerned about what it would be like sitting among them.

But as hundreds upon hundreds of fans lined up outside the Hershey Arena early Saturday night, it became clear that the majority of these bloodthirsty, unforgiving and demanding ‘fans’ were middle class, under 30 and male. Some with mullets, yes, but many more with ‘normal’ hair cuts... coming out of ‘normal’ cars and wearing ‘normal’ clothing. Outside the arena, the vocally-violent psycho sycophants I had heard so much about were surprisingly (and almost disappointingly) normal.

Once inside, things changed noticeably. The chants began.

Ritualistic chanting has always been a hallmark of ECW events. I’ve watched the wrestling on television and always thought it was fascinating to watch how an entire audience would rhythmically chant the same few lines over and over to voice their approval (or displeasure), but experiencing it live was completely different. It made you feel like you were part of something: a military unit, a brotherhood, a secret club, a cult. The thousands kept repeating the abbreviated acronym “E-C-Dub” over and over, letting it build to a crescendo. And whenever something amazing happened in the ring or an act of raw violence occurred, the ‘E-C-Dubs’ would echo again, a Pavlovian response to show appreciation and respect. The opening bell would sound, and the dogs would salivate.

Other less flattering chants revealed the darker, uglier side of the crowd. Whenever a hated wrestler mocked the crowd, the crowd’s response was “You suck dick!” or something equally virulent and homophobic. In the macho world of ECW, the worst insult is an accusation that the fighter inside the ring was anything less than a real man.

In ECW, more often than not, the real men enter the ring with a scantily clad woman at their side in a short, short skirt and a thong. The thong, of course, always becomes clearly visible to the crowd, either through a “catfight” with another thonged combatant or thanks to a male wrestler adding insult to injury after attacking her. If women are reduced to sexual objects in the WWF, then it’s even worse here; the crowd is too busy chanting “Show Us Your Tits!” or “She’s a Crack Whore!” to contemplate the ramifications of their misogyny.

‘Mob’ might be a more apt term than ‘crowd’. Together, the ECW audience is a single voice, its strength is in its unity. When people in the front row stand to get a better look, the remaining four-fifths of the house thunder “Sit the fuck down!” over and over again in a manner so efficient and organized it’s frightening. The people in the front row sit down right away. When an intermission runs long, the crowd chants “Start the show, assholes!” complete with two little claps thrown in for good measure. The show starts. Ask politely and ye shall receive.

When two wrestlers topple over the barricades and continue their battle into the stands, people rush from all sides of the arena to get a closer look, flowing together like a tidal wave while security struggles to maintain some semblance of order. They usually can’t for very long (although it didn’t appear that there were ever any serious altercations or injuries).

When taken on their own though, the crowd is just a collection of normal people. To my right is a friend who keeps nervously wondering if a fight will break out in the stands near us. He and I are both there as wrestling fans, but the whole night we keep trying to convince ourselves that the violence is a turn-off and that we’re somehow more moral than the rest of the arena. On my left sits Slightlydrunkguy, a nice enough man who slurs his name when he introduces himself and gets subsequently less coherent as his runs to the beer stand becomes more and more frequent.

Looking like he’s in his early thirties, Slightlydrunkguy goes to these live wrestling events by himself regularly. He’s more than a little vexed though, because the beer being offered in the kiosks is not allowed to enter the stands, in a bid to prevent drunk disorderliness amongst fans. Upon hearing this, my friend lets out an audible sigh of relief.

In front of us is a father and his two children: a girl who looks to be around fourteen and is more knowledgeable about the ‘sport’ than her dad, and an eight-year old son whose reactions to what was going on came only after he had carefully observed how his father responded. When at one point in the night, a character who goes by the sobriquet “The Quintessential Studmuffin” tells the crowd that he’s excited to have smuggled his “maple syrup-dripping, 12-inch American schlong” into Canada, the boy’s reaction is one of complete and utter confusion. When he looks over at his dad though, laughing and clapping, the kid erupts into applause. Whether he knew what a ‘schlong’ was or not doesn’t seem to matter.

Sitting further down on my left are two guys who look to be about eighteen or so, and a ten-year-old kid who’s probably one of their brothers. The two older ones keep talking about the odds of various wrestlers showing up and debate over who’s gonna end up bleeding the most. The younger one sits there silently the whole time, either in complete and utter awe of the quickly filling arena or in absolute terror as the “E-C-Dub” chants grow louder and louder. The three become my own personal leitmotif for the night — every once in awhile I glance over and they are the constant, the little boy remains stone-faced and his older seatmates keep up their conversation of arterial wounds and busted eardrums all night long.

Later on, the three disappear briefly. When they come back, the ten-year-old is wearing a shirt with the namesake of ECW wrestler, “The Sandman,” emblazoned across his chest. The shirt’s at least three sizes too big, but the kid is beaming and the older guys keep telling him how cool he looks and how he’s gonna have to keep it hidden from mom and how he can’t wear it too school or he’ll get kicked out.

Slightlydrunkguy tells him he looks good and gets him to turn around and model it, so I finally get a chance to read what’s written on the back of the shirt and see for myself what makes it so swank. It’s a picture of crushed cans and cigarette butts with the Sandman’s logo and a catchy tag-line that reads “He’s back, he’s drunk and he’s about to kick your ass.”

There’s a lot of people with Sandman shirts on. Their hero is the big blonde guy who enters the ring to the appropriate Metallica song in running shoes and jeans, carrying a Singapore cane and more than a few cans of beer. The man’s gimmick and raison d’être is simply that he’s a mean drunk. A twisted image of the so-called ‘working-man’s hero,’ Sandman always enters the ring after slowly making his way through the crowd, offering them beer or spitting on them along the way. After he’s done raising hell in the ring he tells the crowd that he’s willing to invite three lucky fans into the ring with him for a celebratory drink, provided they chug the whole can down. The place goes nuts while I wonder if he’ll pick the ten-year old. Middle-aged men are shooting their hands up in the air, begging to be picked like they’re nine again and the magician has just asked for volunteers. The third person picked is a young lady near the front who looks like she’s in her early twenties at best. Instead of watching her chug, the audience is subjected to seeing Sandman pour his beer all over her breasts and then lap it all up. As the crowd roars its approval, I can’t take it anymore and finally ask Slightlydrunkguy if he thinks it’s all a bit too much. He just tells me to lighten up and reminds me that it’s all an act. My friend leans over and informs me that a couple of months ago at a Florida show Sandman was nearly fined because he was so drunk he ended up tearing his clothes off in the middle of the ring, parading his penis around and making lewd gestures to the crowd.

As I look around at the screaming fans, chanting and pumping their fists in the air in an eerily cultish fashion, I search for some sort of explanation for it all. What the hell’s going on here? Is the popularity of professional wrestling a symptom of a society’s obsession with violence? Is it a by-product of a collective that has been forced into political correctness and thus denied any sort of outlet for their most base, primal urges and emotions? Or is it just simply vicariously cathartic to watch one man beat another man upside the head with a steel chair?

Another friend of mine — one who has never sat down and watched a single wrestling match in his life — has this theory that the current renaissance in the popularity of wrestling stems from a decline in ‘men’s only’ spaces. It’s all some sort of gendered spatial geography thing, he assures me. As the separate spheres of man and woman slowly blended together, things like Gentlemen Only clubs and all-male retreats disappeared and men lost their privacy. But in the wrestling world, the emasculated man can still do those things that he’d been taught were wrong. They cheer the violence, they applaud the machismo and vulgarity of the athletes on the microphone, and they ‘celebrate’ an ugly, aggressive and outright misogynistic view of women. It’s a good, if disconcerting, theory. He just might be on to something.

As the show ends, the crowd slowly filters out and I’m struck by just how quiet and polite everyone suddenly becomes. The mob has been broken, the chants have ended, and people’s voices are once again their own. The chanting hooligans walk out single-file, talking calmly about how great the show was. The little kids who were screaming profanities ten minutes ago obediently hold their fathers’ hands as they head for the minivans. And in the parking lot, people are patient and freely let others change lanes. Everyone goes home and resumes their normal lives.

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