Torch Flashbacks NEW ECW DOCUMENTARY "Barbed Wire City" - Must-read supplemental Torch articles by Bruce Mitchell and Wade Keller on Kulas-New Jack incident (w/Addendum)
Apr 22, 2013 - 3:24:17 PM
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BY WADE KELLER, PWTORCH EDITOR
Saturday, Apr. 20, PWTorch columnist Bruce Mitchell will be part of the panel discussion in Philadelphia, Pa. that followed the premiere screening of "Barbed Wire City: The Unauthorized ECW Documentary." (Details and trailers are available here).
One of the bigger chapters in ECW history is the Eric Kulas-New Jack incident in Revere, Mass. Every time the subject is brought up, we get asked about our role in the subsequent delay of ECW getting cleared for PPV. This is a story that, thanks to lies and conjecture and perhaps faulty memories from Paul Heyman and rival reporters (who worked for ECW's website while reporting on them on a separate news website), tends to resurface time after time. The release of this documentary is no exception.
The following two articles should definitively clear up any misconceptions about our role in the controversy. The first is Bruce Mitchell's initial column in the Pro Wrestling Torch Newsletter responding to the incident shortly after the video of it came out. The second article, written ten years later, is my cover story of the Pro Wrestling Torch Newsletter after Heyman repeated in a WWE published book long-disproven notions of the Torch's role in the incident. The second article goes through, point-by-point, why the accusations that some still perpetrate today are unfounded and disproven, backed by on-record quotes from key players in the controversy.
By Bruce Mitchell, Torch columnist
Originally published December 28, 1996
Pro Wrestling Torch Weekly newsletter #421
Of lust and hate is the candy?"
- "Candy Everybody Wants," 10,000 Maniacs.
"Sow the wind and reap the whirlwind." - Hoseah 8:7.
The horrific incident in Revere, Mass. involving Extreme Championship Wrestling has become the defining moment for a promotion that, for all of its talk about a national pay-per-view, in its current state has neither the discipline, judgement, nor simple human decency to ever be anything other than a bush league promotion.
ECW has so desensitized its wrestlers and fans to the consequences of their actions that it may have permanently ended its chances of competing in the pay-per-view arena, the one thing a promotion must do to be major league in this era. And this is the least of ECW's offenses.
New Jack's 50 stitch butchering with a knife of a 17 year old minor is the terrible apex so far of a series of senseless acts in ECW's short history. Because ECW has done nothing to curb this escalating series of incidents involving wrestlers and fans, a 17 year old kid, Erich Kulas, now has to deal with the consequences of a trauma that will scar him physically and emotionally for the rest of his life.
Kulas was cut so deep that muscle on his forehead was sliced clean through which will result in a permanent scar. The cut was so long that his grandmother burst into tears when she saw it.
Really, though, he's lucky.
First, he's simply lucky to be alive. The stomach churning scene in Revere where blood shot out of his vein every time his heart beat underscored that it took EMT's over ten long minutes to staunch the bleeding.
But even luckier, according to Paul Heyman immediately after the show, the kid got his ECW "initiation." And all of those smart, savvy ECW fans are going to see the moon-faced fat kid with the huge scar across his face as "one tough son of a bitch" the next time he wrestles.
Of course the ECW talent coordinator might be wrong there. Kulas obviously wasn't tough enough for the fans at Revere who chanted "You fat f---" while he lay in his own gore.
And, of course, the kid's blood didn't buy him a part in an important ECW angle, since this was just a meaningless match on a little spot show - something extra for the ECW fans there to enjoy.
And Heyman felt no compunction trying to spin Kulas's agony to his promotion's advantage. He told media members after the show that this was just part of the Extreme scene. No big deal, and no indication of whether ECW, to paraphrase New Jack, cared whether the kid lived or died. How bad could it be if the president of ECW, with negotiations for a pay-per-view on-going, didn't seem overly concerned?
The horror and inhumanity of what occurred simply can't be captured with words.
But it sure was captured on videotape. Here was a scene which had longtime observers - who had seen the worst gore that the WWC in Puerto Rico, or FMW in Japan, or Memphis, had to offer - reeling in shock. The video, filmed on a handheld camcorder, was pulled from sale by ECW management a week after the incident when someone belatedly realized the implications of what could happen if the wrong people saw it.
The video starts with this big kid who, even if you had no inkling of what was about to occur, seemed completely in over his head. He looks like what he is, a kid playing "wrestler," swearing at the fans in this adolescent, slightly nervous voice. He's the classic fat guy who decides he ought to be a wrestler because, well, that's what fat guys who don't play football sometimes think. Right from the get-go, you know this guy is in the wrong place.
And then the entire Revere situation becomes as clear as the color of blood.
The video shows the exact point where Erich Kulas ceases to be a kid who didn't belong and became a piece of meat. That moment was even before his forehead was carved up when New Jack smashed him on the skull, full-force, with a metal toaster oven.
The worst, though, was to come. Forget any of Paul Heyman's excuses about the kid moving his head. New Jack didn't cut a small place on Kulas's forehead, causing Kulas's sweat to make the blood from the little cut seem worse than it was - the way a gig job is supposed to work. New Jack put his muscle behind his blade and sawed several inches across his forehead as the kid cried in agony.
And as the gore began to spew, the kid's father began to cry, "Lay off, he's only 17!" over and over. New Jack's grin got wider and his eyes brighter as he and Mustafa, ECW's babyface tag champions at the time, continued to work the kid over, ending with New Jack leaping from the top rope and smashing a chair over the kid's wounded forehead, adding to the serious damage. Apparently, staying in character was more important than this kid's well-being.
It's not fair to blame New Jack solely for this sickening debacle, however. This fiasco took a concerted effort from several corners, starting with the Kulases themselves.
Independent wrestling shows across the country are choked with untrained "play" wrestlers who have such little respect for the business that they think all they have to do to be a star is show up. All these types ever do at indy shows is fake their way through a match, insulting both the fans who are naive enough to buy a ticket and the wrestlers around the country who actually work to learn their craft. If they are lucky, their ineptitude doesn't cost them a broken leg, or worse.
Hey, just because I shoot baskets in the gym sometimes doesn't mean I expect Allen Iverson to throw me the ball if I show up at the Core State Center. If Eric Kulas's father really wanted his son to be a professional wrestler, he should have encouraged him to drop his excess weight, get into shape, and then be trained by someone with a track record of producing successful wrestlers. All of which takes more discipline and sacrifice than, say, driving to a spot show town and b.s.ing your way into the dressing room.
Everyone backstage at ECW should have taken one look at the kid, invited the Kulases to buy a ticket to the show, and left it at that. Unfortunately, that's not what happened. They just saw a fat cop gimmick that could be abused to get the Gangstas "F' The Police" attitude over. From watching the tape it's obvious the whole match was a set-up to make the green rookie the brunt of the Gangstas beating. D-Von Dudley, the kid's supposed partner, brawled into the crowd and never came back into the ring, leaving the Gangstas to their fun.
Worse, no one came from the back until the Gangstas match was over, despite the obvious fact that this babyfaced kid was in serious danger. He just lay there on the mat, blood pouring out of his forehead like a faucet, and after using every towel in the place to mop up the blood, and after the ambulance left, incredibly, the show went on. Like nothing happened.
With the exception of those fans who walked out and the police who threatened to shut down the show, everyone there - the ECW management, wrestlers, and fans - callously tried to deny the obvious, that this was in essence an assault with a deadly weapon against a minor without the opportunity or means to defend himself.
ECW management is ultimately responsible for this fiasco. Let's knock down their three paper thin defenses for their actions.
No. 1: "Your honor, we didn't know the boy was only a minor." Which implies, of course, that if he was 18, this sadistic ambush would be okay. And as soon as Kulas was cut, his father yelled he was only 17 and to stop the match, but the match continued anyway.
No. 2: "But your honor, he said he'd been trained by Killer Kowalski." Which implies, of course, that a trip to the emergency room would be no big deal, then. This wasn't a valid excuse, either, since several wrestlers in the dressing room know Kowalski's trainees and alum and should have questioned why they had never heard of nor seen Kulas before.
No. 3: "Well, uh, anyway, your honor, he agreed to be bladed." Maybe, but obviously he didn't agree to what New Jack and ECW did to him. ECW should have shown more control than to put a kid in a position for such an incident to occur, either deliberately or by accident.
ECW has yet to quell the growing anger of Erich Kulas's father since, he says, they have yet to call and show any remorse for what happened.
New Jack, whose amazing charisma and superlative mic work sometime gets lost in the coverage his out of the ring problems receive, is not the cause of ECW's problems. For management, the locker room, or the press to make him the scapegoat for the Revere situation in order to maintain the ECW status quo would be wrong. He's just a symptom of a pattern that has been allowed to go on too long.
And then there's Paul Heyman, who apparently has been too busy "spinning" to have time for Erich Kulas.
Paul Heyman doesn't spin like a normal person, or even a normal wrestler. Spinning for Heyman is an art form, a challenge for him to prove that he is smarter than the person to whom he is spinning. Creative half-truths, variations of the truth, irrelevant truths, the truth, and lies are all mixed until Heyman has his subject so dazed that he or she just gives in to the avalanche of verbiage or, in some cases, refuses to talk to Heyman anymore.
For example, Heyman's detailed account of how Kulas moved his head while New Jack was blading him sure sounded good, didn't it? Too bad that one viewing of the tape dispels his entire assertion.
But then Heyman went too far. Anyone at Revere or anyone who had seen the video knew damn well that Heyman would be crazy to let any television executive, who was not an ECW apologist already, see the incident or even hear the details of it.
But Heyman couldn't resist the opportunity to spin the situation to make it sound as if he had everything under control. That's why he claimed during the TORCH interview regarding that incident: "This tape has been seen by everybody who is in a decision making position that regards anything in our future, including the eight network affiliates in L.A., Detroit, Cincinnati, Boston, Miami, Orlando, Tampa, and Dallas that we are in negotiation with to clear our Friday night late night timeslot. Including Viewer's Choice. Including Request Television. Including Direct TV. And including all potential and signed on sponsors for the event. They have all seen the tape already. They were all notified Monday morning that we had an incident, that it most probably was going to cause bad publicity, and that we wanted to be the first ones to alert them to the situation, tell them our side of the story, and give them a tape so that three months down the road it's not like, ?Oh my God! You told me it was bad, but I didn't know it was this bad.' ?Here it is guys, this is how bad it is, if you're going to tell me to f--- off, tell me now.'"
There are at least some people at the television stations who either knew or didn't care about what happened, including a higher-up at Network One. But when Request TV was asked about the incident in Revere by Wade Keller in the course of checking the pay-per-view date and then seeking the reason for the delay in securing one, they not only hadn't heard about it, they became curious. When their curiosity was sated, they decided they no longer wanted to be in business with ECW. Viewer's Choice had already nixed the ECW pay-per-view because of content problems before hearing about the incident, although they, too, said no one there had received the Revere tape. At this point ECW's pay-per-view was effectively dead.
And a string of needlessly violent incidents that threaten any chance ECW has to grow have been inflamed by ECW's "extreme at all costs" atmosphere: Shane Douglas gets into two separate fights with fans at the latest ECW show. Fans and wrestlers, including New Jack and Tommy Dreamer, fight in the crowd at the mountaintop bar in Jim Thorpe, Pa. Devon Storm is bashed in the face by a fan requiring stitches. An angle using fire sends Terry Funk to the hospital and injures at least one fan. Bleeding wrestlers constantly fighting among the fans. Fans constantly throwing things at the wrestlers in the ring.
All of these incidents didn't happen because of bad luck. Heyman has used blood in the ring, the constant abusive searing, the self-destructive stunt bumps, the beating of women, and the brawling among fans as a substitute for true, cutting edge action for too long.
ECW fans have seen so many dangerous stunts that they react to pouring blood or heads bouncing off concrete as casually as other fans do to WWF undercard matches. And ECW wrestlers have poured so much blood and bounced so many heads that they must resent some of the more callous fans. Add that to an often lax security force and you can understand why these incidents seem to come faster and more severe by the month.
All of this has now backfired on Heyman. ECW's bush league actions and reactions have needlessly crippled their chance to go major league and wasted all of the creativity and sacrifice of the principles who have worked so hard to bring the best new concept in worked wrestling to the audience it deserves.
ECW, due in part to the incident in Revere, has lost its chance to go on pay-per-view. Any public airing of that videotape on a tabloid TV show, for instance, might end ECW television for good.
And what's so revolutionary about gore matches and all the rest of ECW's cheap heat, anyway? Blood has been a part of the business since before anyone involved in ECW was born. For some guys, it's easier to cut your forehead than actually work. Remember the Sheepherders or even Dusty Rhodes? The best part of ECW is its unique combination of wild action, hard-edged real music, fast video cuts, and profane characters that adult males could identify with or lust after. Not one of those things requires desensitizing the audience or the wrestlers to the point they lose their common sense. ECW can still thrive if it can return to those things that made it a true revolution in the first place.
And as Chairman Mao might have told you, you've got to be subversive to get your message to the masses. ECW, though, keeps giving the forces of oppression the means to silence them. A revolution takes discipline - discipline ECW doesn't have.
If Paul Heyman doesn't use all of his creative genius to pull back ECW from the brink of nihilism, if he doesn't have the guts and pragmatism to deliberately take ECW back a step in order to drive off the creeps and the gore hounds attending their events and put some heart back into his promotion, the worst thing that happens won't be that fans miss the chance to see ECW on pay-per-view. The worst thing will happen one night soon when some wrestler or some fan gets hurts badly enough that all the money and all the talk in Philadelphia won't be able to make it go away.
Perhaps for ECW, and Erich Kulas, that night already came in Revere.
(Bruce Mitchell of Greensboro, N.C. has been a Pro Wrestling Torch columnist since September 1990. He recommends "If You're Talking to Me, Your Career Must Be in Trouble," by Joe Queenan for your reading pleasure. For over a year, Bruce has co-hosted a wrestling talk show every Tuesday from 6-7 p.m. on WKEW 1400 AM.)
When WWE published "The Rise of Fall of ECW" book, Paul Heyman was quoted extensively in it regarding the Eric Kulas situation, including years later going back to the lies about the Torch's role in the PPV being cancelled. The following is the in-depth cover story from PWTorch Newsletter #923, cover-dated July 15, 2006, responding to the recently published book.
COVER STORY by Wade Keller, editor
Pro Wrestling Torch Newsletter #923
Cover-dated July 15, 2006
HEADLINE: PWTorch unfairly scapegoated in WWE book
Heyman’s claims regarding 1996 PPV controversy are inaccurate
WWE published a book last month titled “The Rise and Fall of ECW” in which the Torch’s role in a major ECW story from ten years ago is inaccurately portrayed. Paul Heyman is quoted in the chapter which addresses a controversy that led to a delay in ECW getting cleared on PPV for the first time, and there are gross factual errors.
Errors about the controversy and the Torch’s involvement in it have circulated for years on the Internet, with competitors to and critics of the Torch fanning the flames with misinformation and self–serving conjecture.
The controversy stems from the fallout from an incident on Nov. 23, 1996 in Revere, Mass. A 17 year old rookie wrestler, Erich Kulas, showed up at an ECW show, supposedly lied about his age to get added to the show, and was booked against New Jack when another wrestler (Axl Rotten) no–showed.
The book claims Kulas produced a fake ID that indicated he was at least 18. Heyman claims Kulas “produced a resume that claimed he was 21 or 22 years old.” The relevance of his age has been overplayed over the years. Even if he were 18 or older, the story would be little different, and no less damning of Heyman’s judgment and post–incident spinning and New Jack’s actions that night.
New Jack, during the match, sliced open Kulas’s forehead with a box cutter blade, requiring 40–50 stitches. States the WWE book:
"As Kulas was laid out on the canvas, New Jack pulled him up into a sitting position and then used his knife to cut into Kulas’s forehead—much deeper than a typical cut. Kulas then began screaming as the blood gushed from his forehead and he tried to get away, but New Jack grabbed him and tried to bodyslam him. He couldn’t, because Kulas was too heavy. So New Jack put Kulas on a table, went to a corner, climbed to the top rope with a chair, and came crashing down on Kulas’s now crimson head. As paramedics rushed into the ring, New Jack got on the microphone and started talking some brutal trash."
Heyman says Kulas agreed to have New Jack blade him during the match. This is believable, and not uncommon. There are some veterans who can’t bear to cut themselves, so they prefer someone else do it. There are also rookies, inexperienced with the blade, who prefer someone do it who has more experience and knows how to do it without causing a gash requiring stitches. Heyman says, “I myself let someone cut me. Jerry Lawler cut me when I was 21 years old.”
Heyman explains: “New Jack went too far and he cut the kid too deep, and he gave him a good gash across his forehead—nothing that hasn’t been seen before in wrestling, and nothing that some guys haven’t done to themselves, to be honest. But the kid panicked and started screaming. The kid’s father was at ringside, and the father didn’t know he was going to be bleeding. The kid was bleeding pretty badly, but it was from the forehead, which always looks bad, but it is not life–threatening. But it does looks [sic] bad, and when you are sweating, it gives you the crimson mask effect.”
He downplayed that it was considered a big deal, but said they called an ambulance because Erich and his father requested it. “The medics are putting towels on this kid’s head and the kid’s father is screaming, and the kid is screaming that he wants an ambulance. But it just didn’t seem like that big of a deal. It seemed like a kid got cut too deep and kind of panicked. He was inexperienced, and New Jack shouldn’t have cut him that bad, but it happens in this business… He got 50 or 60 stitches. It happens.”
Compare that to what Heyman told me—as quoted in the Dec. 7, 1996 Torch: “I consider what happened a scary incident. Thankfully it wasn’t a lot worse. It was a very, very scary incident for all of us. The system we have in place works, but it needs to be upgraded.”
Two others on the scene indicated it was a big deal.
D–Von Dudley is quoted in the WWE–published book right after Heyman’s quote addressing the incident. “New Jack basically beat him up pretty bad.,” he says. “It was the scariest thing I have ever seen in the ring… (I)t was a scary moment.”
Referee John “Pee Wee” Moore says: “He [Kulas] entrusted himself to another wrestler, which is something you don’t do unless you truly know the person… I wasn’t in the ring at the time, but I was there. He was in serious condition… He [New Jack] shouldn’t have taken advantage of him like that, but the guy shouldn’t have tried out if he wasn’t ready.”
Heyman also noted that as Kulas was being stretchered out of the ring, he gave the crowd the finger. Heyman said Kulas told Tommy Dreamer he was playing the bad guy role. This is meant to be evidence that Kulas wasn’t actually that shaken up because he was still playing up his gimmick.
The book then notes that nearly two years later, Kulas’s family sued ECW and New Jack for physical and psychological damage. “They charged that Kulas did not know he was going to be cut, and that he nearly died in the ring. They also charged that Heyman told a reporter that it was an initiation for him into the ECW family. ECW denied the charges.”
ECW denied the charges? First of all, Heyman did call it “an initiation.” I heard a tape—played to me over the phone by the local newspaper reporter Heyman spoke to—of Heyman using that very term, “an initiation.”
Second of all, Heyman explained why he called it that in a conversation with me a few weeks later. Torch #422 (cover–dated Jan. 7, 1997) reported:
"Paul Heyman says it was what he believed to be the relatively good spirits of Kulas that caused him to make what sound, in retrospect, like cold comments about the incident when talking to reporters right after the event. He says he had no idea how bad Erich was cut or the shape he was in, only that he had been asking if he would be invited back. He says it was on that basis he made comments to reporters after the event that Kulas had gone through an “ECW initiation” and that when he returned, the ECW fans would think he was “one tough SOB” for making it through the match against the Gangstas."
Kulas, though, was a bad witness for himself. He was caught contradicting himself and exaggerating claims. His contradictions and exaggerations in the course of the lawsuit deflated his credibility overall.
Today, Erich Kulas can’t defend himself anymore or atone for any ill–advised exaggerations or contradictions. He died on May 12, 2002 at the age of 22 from what his family says was a heart attack. They say he never recovered emotionally from the incident in Revere.
WWE BOOK MENTIONS THE TORCH
The Torch enters this controversy a few weeks later. States the book: “Heyman would have loved to have the incident slip under the radar, but the wrestling media ran with it, and it became a huge controversy. As a result, ECW’s first scheduled pay–per–view event—a huge step for the promotion, a step necessary to add revenue and help the struggling company keep its top wrestlers from jumping—was suspended. It was a knife in the heart of ECW.” Heyman then tells his side of the situation:
"I was asked by some of the local media there about it and I said I didn’t think it was that big of a deal. We were concerned that somebody could make an issue of this, so Steve Karel [an ECW executive] notified the pay–per–view companies. He said, ‘We had an incident. We wanted you to know about it. It is probably going to get some publicity. It shouldn’t affect our relationship.’ We sent them a tape.
I get a phone call that week from a wrestling publication called the Pro Wrestling Torch. A guy named Wade Keller asked me about it, and I made the statement, “The pay–per–view companies have been notified. Tapes have been sent.’ Keller decides to verify the story. But when he speaks to Hugh Panero, he says, “Paul Heyman says that you have viewed the tapes.” That is not what I said, and I had witnesses to prove it. I said, “We have notified the pay–per–view companies, and the tapes have been sent.” I never said “watched” or “reviewed” or “analyzed.” I said “sent,” and they were.
Keller decides to make an issue out of it. He asks, “Since Heyman says that you watched it, do you condone it?” While this is going on, the kid’s family hires a lawyer… issues a press release, and now the pay–per–view companies have a controversy on their hands and a reporter breathing down their throats, so they suspend the March 31 date. The day I get the phone call that the date has been suspended is Christmas Eve 1996. I get this phone call from Request TV , “Just so you know… as of now, your pay–per–view has been postponed.” … It was devastating. It was the worst kick in the balls we could have suffered."
Heyman’s account of what happened is not only not true, it contradicts statements he’s made previously, contradicts statements PPV exec Hugh Panero made on record, and fabricates conversations I had with quote marks around words I didn’t say. The contradictions and inaccuracies are numerous, significant, and self–serving. I want to set the record straight.
THE TORCH COVERS ECW PPV GOAL
The Dec. 7, 1996 edition of Pro Wrestling Torch headlined, “Is ECW ready to go national on pay–per–view? Blood–letting incident prompts questions of ECW’s style, policies, and practices as they expand.”
The context of the moment is key. The upstart Ultimate Fighting Championship was battling for its very survival as Sen. John McCain led an attempt to have the unregulated new sport banned across the country. Many TV shows and newspapers ran stories portraying UFC as a brutal blood sport where a death in the ring was inevitable. The barrage of media stories was crippling its business as various states banned it and PPV companies ran from it to avoid the stain of the association.
ECW had flown under the radar up until then because it was a small, regional promotion. Once it got on PPV, it was going to be noticed. And the content of an ECW PPV would make UFC look tame. It’s also worth noting that ECW was trying to walk the tight rope on whether they were “fake” or not like WCW and the WWF.
WCW and the WWF were in a period of tempered violence. Neither was using the blade in matches. The hardcore and Attitude eras had not begun outside of ECW yet. Hulk Hogan and Bret Hart were the lead babyfaces for both major groups. ECW was banking on the idea that because they were so different from WCW and the WWF, they’d draw a huge audience once it was accessible via PPV to all. They also wanted to blur the line about whether they were more like UFC or traditional worked pro wrestling. Taz, especially, was a proponent of using his “shooter” gimmick to portray ECW as real.
So the cover story that week analyzed whether ECW stood a chance once it went national of avoiding the type of crippling backlash UFC was experiencing. Just over a week earlier, the New Jack–Erich Kulas incident occurred. When asked if he was afraid of a negative media backlash once he expanded to national PPV, Heyman told me (and is quoted in the Dec. 7, 1996 cover story), “Actually, I’m deathly afraid of it.”
TORCH INQUIRES ABOUT PPV STATUS
Three weeks later, I wrote a cover story on ECW’s attempts to get on PPV. For months, Heyman had been telling ECW wrestlers and the Torch that they were working hard to get cleared on PPV. The Dec. 7 Torch “ECW Newswire” reported that ECW was looking at March 30 as the most likely PPV debut date. The next week, Heyman confirmed for publication that March 30 was the target date for the debut on PPV.
He agreed to an interview where I asked him about various controversies that could cause ECW problems, such as blading in general and the potential of blood–transmitted diseases. Bleeding is one key aspect that set ECW apart. Heyman downplayed it slightly. “There is an audience out there to see this (blood) because they can’t get it elsewhere,” he said. “Here there are more people on top who don’t bleed than those who do.”
I asked if he was concerned about the tape of the Kulas incident getting out to the media. Heyman told me he was making sure none of his business partners and affiliates would be blindsided by anything. The “ECW Newswire” in the Dec. 7, 1996 Torch reported:
"Heyman says he showed a tape of the Revere incident to every major television affiliate he is negotiating with, the potential pay–per–view distributors, and sponsors for the pay–per–view. “They were all notified that Monday morning (after the incident that weekend) that we had an incident that is most probably going to cause bad publicity and we wanted to be the first ones to alert them to the situation, tell them our side of the story, and give them a tape so they know what happened. Here it is guys, this is how bad it is, if you’re going to dump me, tell me now.”
Another two weeks went by since Heyman said March 30 was the target date for a debut on PPV and an announcement would be coming soon. ECW wrestlers were growing impatient, wondering if PPV was really going to happen, and why it hadn’t been announced yet. I wondered, too. So on Thursday, Dec. 19, I called the two major PPV distributors at the time—Viewers Choice and Request TV—and asked about the status of ECW’s aspirations to be on PPV. Was an announcement pending? I didn’t want to just take Heyman’s word for it. I wanted to confirm what he said was true, and find out if there was a timeline for an announcement. I also wanted to know if the tapes Heyman said he sent to them had caused them to rethink their pending affiliation with ECW.
What I discovered is that Viewers Choice had turned down ECW for a PPV clearance several weeks earlier. Heyman had not made that known to any of the wrestlers or media.
Michael Kline, the V.P. of programming for Viewers Choice, said they had told ECW weeks earlier they would not be partnering with them. He explained why.
“In looking at the demo tape they sent us, there was a scene of a kid receiving gifts from his father and someone snatching them away from him,” Kline told me. “This young boy was also shown in the wrestling ring about to be hit with a weapon by a grown man. We are not into censoring, but there is a guideline for what we will put on our channels. Portrayals of kids about to be beaten are not the kind of images we want to be in partnership with. So we passed on the show.”
I asked him if the Erich Kulas–New Jack incident also had anything to do with the decision to turn down a partnership with ECW. It was a logical question, as it happened about a month earlier, and Viewers Choice said they informed ECW a few weeks earlier they weren’t clearing them for PPV. The timing seemed to indicate perhaps it was the final straw. Heyman had said he sent them a tape and calls were made to alert them to the situation. Kline, however, said he hadn’t heard of that incident. He also said he never received a tape of it.
I also talked to Request TV’s president, Hugh Panero. I asked him the same question: What was the status of ECW’s aspirations to be cleared for a PPV. He said they hadn’t finalized a date yet and there were still issues to work out. I asked if the delay had anything to do with tapes ECW sent them of controversial incidents, such as the Erich Kulas–New Jack incident. He said he wasn’t familiar with that incident or a tape being sent of it, but he’d talk to his staff and find out by the next day.
The next day (Dec. 20) I called back. Panero said he checked into the situation and that a decision had been made that day to not carry the event. The next Torch cover story (issue #421, written Dec. 26 and published Dec. 27) reported:
"(Panero) said as they were evaluating ECW for the past several weeks there was a series of controversial incidents that concerned them. He said there were two incidents they couldn’t look past, one of a wrestler setting another wrestler and (inadvertently) a fan on fire and the other of a 17–year old “getting injured with a fork.” Conflicting what Paul Heyman told the Torch two weeks earlier, Panero said no one at Request knew of the Revere incident before Thursday and no one there had seen a tape, but when Request called ECW on Friday [Dec. 20], “they came clean” and described the incident to them in detail."
Heyman, in “The Rise and Fall of ECW” book, claimed that Request TV told them of the suspension of the March PPV date on Christmas Eve, and that the phone message from Request TV stated, “Just so you know, we’re going on vacation until the end of the first week in January, and then we can discuss whether or not we can get you on the 1997 schedule, because as of now, your pay–per–view has been officially postponed.” Heyman then says in the book: “This dream of pay–per–view has been pulled away on Christmas Eve, with no hope of discussing it for several weeks. It was devastating.”
Panero, though, said ECW was told the news the previous Friday (Dec. 20), although wrestlers were not told of any problem at that weekend’s two ECW events.
Heyman’s story also directly contradicts what Heyman told the Torch that week. Our report stated: “According to Paul Heyman, ECW officials and Request TV engaged in a conference call the following Thursday [Dec. 26] and planned to have a follow up conversation on Friday about working out a deal to keep the plans for a pay–per–view on the table.”
Heyman and I talked about the controversy on Monday, Dec. 23, and he was quoted in the Torch with that date attached to the quotes, discussing the situation. So the claim that he found out for the first time about Request TV turning them down for a PPV clearance on Christmas Eve is off by several days.
Heyman, who in the book, portrayed the major problem with the PPV clearance as being a result of “Keller making an issue of it,” told me, as quoted in that same issue of the Torch: “This is not the first time we have dealt with (a concern from) Request. But it is the most severe and the most public.”
Panero made it clear in his statement to me that the Revere incident was just one of two key incidents that concerned him enough to turn down the PPV date clearance—the other being when a fan was caught on fire. Viewer’s Choice had already turned down ECW for a PPV clearance weeks earlier due to a controversial angle with Sandman’s real–life pre–teen son. It was a pattern of controversial incidents that concerned the PPV companies. It was a pattern of incidents that many had been writing about for months—that perhaps ECW was pushing the envelope too far to be palatable on a national scale. What set ECW apart and gave it a cult following may have been the very things that prevented it from ever becoming mainstream and profitable.
THE TORCH: SCAPEGOAT FOR ECW
While Heyman was telling me the controversy with Request TV was being blown out of proportion, Panero told me, “They’ve been told it’s pretty much final.”
Heyman claims in the book: “Keller decides to verify the story. But when he speaks to Hugh Panero, he says, ‘Paul Heyman says that you have viewed tapes.’ That is not what I said, and I had witnesses to prove it. I said, ‘We have notified the pay–per–view companies, and the tapes have been sent.’ I never said ‘watched’ or ‘reviewed’ or “analyzed.” I said “sent,” and they were.”
I don’t know how Heyman or the author of the book can justify putting quote marks around a conversation Heyman wasn’t part of, but for the record, I never said “Paul Heyman says that you have viewed tapes.” I asked if the incident had anything to do with a delay in a formal announcement of an ECW PPV date. He didn’t know about the incident. I explained to him that Heyman claimed he sent them a tape of it. He said he didn’t see it, and would check on it.
In fact, both top executives at Request TV and Viewers Choice said they not only didn’t see the tape, but they nor anybody in their offices received a tape. Heyman told me on Monday, Dec. 23 that he had never dealt with Request TV president Panero, but continued to insist Request TV was sent a tape.
“For the record, Request TV was sent a tape, knew of the incident, was aware of the situation,” Heyman said on Dec. 23. “You didn’t corroborate your story.”
However, Panero the previous Friday was definitive in tone when he said not only didn’t anyone in his company receive a tape, but nobody from ECW even called them, which Heyman also explicitly told me he did. “Nobody (from ECW) called our people and said, ‘Be aware of this controversial incident. Don’t be blindsided if this comes up later.’ It’s a stretch of the imagination if they are saying they provided us with a tape to let us know of these incidents. We never received a tape.”
Heyman told me regarding this controversy: “In the three and a half years I’ve been running ECW, I’ve told you to assume everything I say is a lie and to verify it. Seek the truth and verify. As long as you’re not malicious in your intent, I expect you to be a journalist before being my friend. I expect that.”
That’s not the story he was telling ECW wrestlers, though. I received a phone call on Christmas Eve from Taz, irate that I had supposedly meddled and cost ECW its opportunity to be on PPV. An angry New Jack also called. I remember being shaken up when visiting with family that night and the next day. The Torch had been made the scapegoat for ECW losing its dream of being on PPV.
Few were concerning themselves with details, such as the fact that Viewers Choice had already turned down ECW weeks earlier due to controversial content (not related to the Kulas incident), and Heyman had not let his wrestlers or the media know that. Heyman had portrayed this at the time as basically one of many bumps in the road, but the only one that went public. Yet behind the scenes, the Torch was being blamed. A fan held up a sign on Raw that said, “Keller fears ECW.” Mark Madden spoke about the controversy on his WCW 900 Hotline report. Internet websites, some run by people who also worked for ECW in various capacities (travel bookings, ECW website reporting), spread the word that the Torch had a vendetta against ECW and stuck its nose where it didn’t belong.
In fact, even before the Torch reported this story, rival reporters with conflicts of interest were tipped off by people in ECW that the Torch had called the PPV companies and caused problems. Those reporters were quick to bite on the story, eager to try to make the Torch the target of the venom of angry ECW fans who were excited about ECW taking that next step.
Because the Torch wasn’t online yet, most people commenting on the Torch’s involvement hadn’t even received in the mail yet the cover story detailing the situation. Conjecture and speculation and outright falsehoods, fanned by competitors of the Torch who also worked for ECW, made the Torch the scapegoat, just as Heyman did ten years later in the recently published book. By the time the actual Torch cover story was in the hands of subscribers, the story had taken on a life of its own.
ECW incited the backlash against the Torch, including a Jan. 1, 1997 ECW 900 line hotline report by Joey Styles, in which he said:
"Everything that has happened in the last week, there was a story going around, it was in the dirt sheets, it was on the internet, you may have heard about it, you may have read about it, that certain wrestling journalists—who I don’t need to mention anymore—called Viewer’s Choice television, called Request Television, specifically Hugh Panero the president and got our pay–per–view cancelled, broke off our negotiations. That’s not exactly true. That’s not going to end our pay–per–view hopes… (T)here are still pay–per–view negotiations going on between Request TV and ECW. Let me tell you no date has been announced yet, but I would bet there is going to be an ECW pay–per–view in early 1997."
The following week, Panero told the Torch that he received about 40 emails from ECW fans upset with the cancellation. He was also aware of the Torch being scapegoated. “I find this whole thing almost childish,” Panero said. “The issue would dissipate if ECW would just address the issues rather than inciting their cult following over this. ECW should now be sitting down saying, ’What are the issues here? These people are unfamiliar with us. They now are aware of some of the problems we have had at individual events. We should demonstrate how we’re not going to let that happen again, how we’re going to control some of the theatrics to avoid that in the future.’”
A couple reporters (Bob Ryder and Dave Scherer, both of whom worked for ECW for years in various capacities—such as travel bookings and website reporting—while also reporting news on “independent websites” and before that newsletters) claimed that the Torch sent the tape of the incident to Request TV. They claimed at the time that Bruce Mitchell bragged during a 900 audio update that he sent a tape of the Kulas incident to Request TV. Ryder days later retracted his claim and apologized for jumping the gun, and earlier this year, Scherer clarified his contention.
“To me, the issue never was about IF they supplied a tape,” Scherer wrote on Feb. 17, 2006 on his current website’s message board. “It was about Mitchell gloating about how they got the PPV canceled on his hotline. I know he mentioned a tape, but I don’t remember exactly what he said. That isn’t the issue. The issue was that he gloated about getting the PPV canceled due to their call.”
[Addendum: Dave Scherer contends, in a published response to this article on Apr. 21, 2013, that he never said Bruce Mitchell sent a tape, but rather cited what Bob Ryder reported on Prodigy; Ryder initially alleged that Mitchell boasted of sending a tape, but within days did clarify that he just interpretted Mitchell's comments as boasting about the Torch having a role in the cancelation. Mitchell did not send a tape and never bragged about sending a tape, and has been clear about that from the first day the false allegation was made. Hugh Panero also is on record saying neither he nor anyone at his company received a tape. Scherer also noted, in a published response to this article, that the ECWWrestling.com website that he ran did not yet exist during the time of his initial public comments about the Torch's role in reporting on the ECW PPV situation in late 1996/early 1997, but rather was registered in late 1997. Scherer's initial comments on the ECW PPV controversy were made in his Wrestling Lariat newsletter and on Internet message boards. Scherer also noted that ECW didn't initially own the ECWwrestling.com website that he ran. By the time this article was published in 2006 in direct response to the newly WWE-published ECW book with new Paul Heyman quotes, Scherer - who continued to publicly discuss the Torch's role in the ECW PPV story over the years including recently - did have a history by then of running the official ECW website during the time ECW was on TNN, so at the time this article was published, the info on Scherer was accurate. Scherer says that during the time he did receive money for his work on the official ECW website, he stopped reporting on ECW matters on his non-ECW-affiliate website.]
Mitchell did not gloat about “getting the PPV cancelled.” He was outspoken, though, that ECW deserved to be held accountable for what happened that night in Revere. “That was a hard time and I was well aware that every word I wrote or said publicly would be scrutinized by these apologists,” says Mitchell. “That wasn’t new, but this time the company itself might be on the line. New Jack took a box cutter and sliced open this kid’s head like he was readying a lamb for slaughter. It destroyed Kulas’s life and the lives of the people who cared about him. New Jack is proud of it to this day, even though it ruined his own career. No one should be surprised if he pulls this stunt a third time. Years later in this book, Paul Heyman still won’t take responsibility for what happened in his own locker room and in his own ring, and is still dishonestly trying to shift the blame to the Torch. New Jack, Paul Heyman, and everybody who did nothing when this happened bears the responsibility for what happened to Eric Kulas and his family. They put their own pay–per–view and the business they all had worked so hard to build at risk. We just did our job. It’s an embarrassment to the business that the scapegoating worked as well as it did.”
The blaming of the Torch was so widespread that on Dec. 31, Panero issued a press release to all wrestling reporters on the Internet. It stated: “We were surprised that ECW never mentioned that these public relations problems existed, and contrary to the claims made by ECW, no tape of the incident was sent to anyone at Request TV.”
In fact, a week after Ryder and Scherer were inaccurately claiming that Mitchell bragged on a hotline report days before Christmas about sending a tape of the incident to Request TV which led to the PPV being cancelled, Panero told the Torch, on record (as quoted in the Jan. 7, 1997 Torch), that he still hadn’t received a copy of the tape as of Dec. 30. “No. We are actually trying to get a copy of it now.”
The fact is, the PPV was cancelled before Panero saw a tape, which makes irrelevant any (inaccurate) claim that Mitchell bragged about sending a tape on a hotline report. It didn’t stop reporters from falsely claiming he did and creating conspiracy theories about the Torch’s motivations or involvement. (Mitchell re–recorded his hotline report a few hours after the first recording was made available to listen to. He re–recorded it because it was a sensitive and complex story. Within a few hours, Internet reports were misconstruing what he said. When that was brought to his attention, he felt it was prudent to re–record and be more clear and decisive regarding exactly what his role was in the controversy. That attempt at clarity and thoroughness fueled false claims that he bragged about sending a tape in the first recording, and then in essence retracted it a few hours later.)
A week after the first phone call I made to Panero, he told me (as quoted in the Jan. 7, 1997 Torch): “Our situation was we basically put a hold on everything because we were somewhat miffed the incident was not brought to our attention. I deal with a lot more controversial events. If (Paul Heyman) had actually done what he said he was going to do, then we would have been less insecure about taking the event. We would have basically dealt with this situation a lot sooner. Even if he did send them out (a tape), he should have put in a phone call to the vice president of event programming at Request and Viewer’s Choice and explained the whole situation, which I know he did not do. He didn’t do either.”
The author of the WWE book didn’t need to reference back issues of Pro Wrestling Torch or our PWTorch.com VIP Archives which have been available for years. Minimal research would have revealed that Hugh Panero issued a press release a week after the controversy began, comments that would have been relevant to presenting a more balanced, fair, and accurate version of the events of December 1996 and January 1997 than what Heyman said. The press release stated:
"Request TV has been in on–going discussions with Extreme Championship Wrestling to carry one of its events in 1997. During these discussions we learned about specific incidents involving an underage ECW wrestler who appeared to be seriously injured during an event in Massachusetts. We were surprised that the ECW never mentioned these public relationship problems existed, and contrary to the claims made by the ECW, no tape of the incident was sent to anyone at Request TV.
Whenever we work with a new pay–per–view event producer, we like to be thorough in investigating their ability to stage a quality event. Therefore, my staff was instructed to research these alleged incidents and discovered that they were true, and also learned that generally ECW was theatrically more violent than other wrestling events. Based on this new information and the fact that an ECW event would be a step up from being a local event to a national pay–per–view event, we decided it would be prudent to temporarily cancel the event while we did additional research to better understand how ECW operates.
We are still considering carrying the event and, as we would with any national pay–per–view event, we are taking great precautions to ensure that when an event does air, it meets all of our standards to create longevity for that particular event."
Just over a year later, Hugh Panero approved a PPV by ECW, but only if the script was turned in ahead of time and approved. There were restrictions on blood, violence, and the role of women.
In the opening minutes of the Apr. 13, 1997 “Barely Legal” PPV, the crowd chanted, “Bruce Mitchell sucks! Bruce Mitchell sucks!” The scapegoating of the Torch had become so prominent that, despite the facts that thoroughly refuted and discredited claims to the contrary, fans a year later began the show with that chant. Heyman had successfully, with coconspirators in the media who had an axe to grind, redirected the blame for ECW’s self–inflicted problems to the Torch. Ten years later, Heyman still is.
Erich Kulas told me in the midst of this controversy: “Anybody who wants to get into wrestling, don’t bother. Even for charity or in your backyard. You could die. I have different feelings on life and God now that this has happened. I sit up at night and try to think of reasons not to cry. With the cut, I look like someone who just got out of prison. I hate New Jack for what he did to me, I hate Paul E. for lying about everything, and most of all I hate wrestling.” He said during the incident he wanted to run away: “I could feel the blood running through my hands. I had to roll with it, though, I didn’t want to run away. I wanted to get out of there, but I knew I’d fall down.”
So let's be very clear. Anyone today who still says ECW's PPV clearance was cancelled because Bruce Mitchell sent ECW a tape of the Revere incident is ignoring these points:
-The reporters who initially claimed that have since retracted that allegation or clarified their stance to exclude any accusation Bruce sent a tape.
-One of two major PPV companies had already turned down carrying ECW on PPV due to an entirely different incident regarding a child (Sandman's pre-teen son) being involved a disturbing angle.
-The head of the other PPV distributor - Hugh Panero - is on record multiple times, including a press release, stating HE NEVER RECEIVED A TAPE - PERIOD - long after Bruce is accused of bragging that he sent them a tape in a hotline no one has recording of.
-Panero also said there was another incident other than the Kulas-New Jack incident that concerned him greatly - an angle where someone was set on fire. Had the Kulas incident not happened, and therefore had the Torch never called either PPV distributor - Viewers Choice had already turned them down based on another angle and Request TV was already concerned due to another angle.
-The timeline from Paul Heyman is full of contradictions that don't match quotes from him previously and quotes from the PPV executives who clearly and definitively said Heyman's claims to the Torch were not true and were making things worse, not better.
The above statements are based on on-record comments and factual timelines that no one involved has ever disputed.
Bruce Mitchell and I have talked at length about this situation, also, in Bruce Mitchell Audio Shows in the VIP Audio Show section of the PWTorch VIP website.
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PWTorch editor Wade Keller has covered pro wrestling full time since 1987 starting with the Pro Wrestling Torch print newsletter. PWTorch.com launched in 1999 and the PWTorch Apps launched in 2008.
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He has interviewed big-name players in person incluiding Vince McMahon (at WWE Headquarters), Dana White (in Las Vegas), Eric Bischoff (at the first Nitro at Mall of America), Brock Lesnar (after his first UFC win).
He hosted the weekly Pro Wrestling Focus radio show on KFAN in the early 1990s and hosted the Ultimate Insiders DVD series distributed in retail stories internationally in the mid-2000s including interviews filmed in Los Angeles with Vince Russo & Ed Ferrara and Matt & Jeff Hardy. He currently hosts the most listened to pro wrestling audio show in the world, (the PWTorch Livecast, top ranked in iTunes)
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