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Tonight on Vice, the latest “Dark Side of the Ring” episode airs with a documentary detailing the New Jack-Erich Kulas incident. The following is my cover story written for Pro Wrestling Torch Newsletter #418 (cover dated Dec. 7. 2020). We will be posting more coverage here at PWTorch.com today.
TORCH #418: COVER STORY
Is ECW ready to go national on pay-per-view?
By Wade Keller, Torch editor
Later this week ECW, in all likelihood, will finalize a March 1997 date for their debut on national pay-per-view. This major step forward for ECW comes on the heels of an embarrassing, scary incident at a small show they promoted on Nov. 23 in Revere, Mass. The incident, which saw an underage wrestler with little in-ring experience suffer serious head lacerations from New Jack, has caused many people in the industry to question whether ECW is ready to expand. People are asking whether ECW is too reckless, too violent, too extreme, or, frankly, too bush league to make a go of it nationally. And if the promoters of hybrid fighting have been sidetracked by negative publicity and concerned politicians, what will ECW face when mainstream America sees ECW as symbolic of the breakdown of society’s values and the marketing of senseless, graphic violence?
ECW’s top man – promoter, owner, and booker Paul Heyman (a/k/a Paul E. Dangerously) – says he is aware of possible national backlash against what ECW promotes. While the public awareness of UFC increased greatly because of the negative publicity it received on ABC’s 20/20 and many syndicated feature shows and newspapers, Heyman says he would like to avoid such a barrage of bad publicity. “Actually, I’m deathly afraid of it,” he says.
If ECW is afraid of a backlash by the mainstream media who are wholly unprepared for the type of violence that ECW features as the heart and soul of what makes it stand out from more established wrestling groups, ECW has reason to be worried.
Eyewitnesses of the incident at the Nov. 23 Revere event have been outraged at what they saw. In the nine days since the bloodletting incident occurred, the PWTorch has received numerous phone calls, faxes, and e.mails regarding the incident. The usenet discussion group on the internet along with commercial computer on-line services have hosted literally hundreds of messages during the week regarding this incident.
A PWTorch reader who was at the event wrote: “I was at the show in Revere and I almost got sick. This is the bloodiest thing I’ve ever seen in my whole life. ECW and Paul Heyman went way too far. The kid was bleeding like a stuck pig. Paramedics and EMTs came in and took him away on a stretcher. The kid is lucky he isn’t dead.” A person on the internet wrote: “This incident ruined the night for all except the blood thirsty animals who made me feel ashamed to be part of the human race.” Another eyewitness wrote: “There were literally puddles of the kid’s blood in the ring. It took about 20 minutes for EMTs to get the kid out of there and for the ring crew to mop up the blood.” Another eyewitness wrote: “This was without a doubt the single worst thing I have ever seen in my 10 or so years as a wrestling fan.” Another person wrote: “Why doesn’t ECW just go find some homeless people willing to do anything for money, put them in the middle of the ring, and have New Jack come out and chop the guy’s fingers off one by one and throw them to the crowd as their fans chant ‘ECW, ECW.'”
The above messages are from fans who seek out that which ECW, in general, offers. The tone of discussion all week followed that pattern, with many people saying they are fans of ECW, but ECW has crossed the line. Heyman says there are lessons to be learned from the incident, but doesn’t think it is indicative that ECW’s style is out of control or on an inevitable course toward disaster.
The boy’s name is Erich Kulas. He turned 17 last month. He has wrestled part time on small charity shows for the New England Wrestling Association, most recently doing comedy style matches with two local midget wrestlers in the area. He and the two midgets came to the ECW show that night hoping perhaps to sell themselves and their comedy match to ECW.
When Axl Rotten was unable to wrestle as scheduled, ECW looked for a replacement. Paul Heyman says the midgets sold him on using their friend, Kulas, as the replacement against the Gangstas. Heyman says the 400 pound Kulas told him he was 19 years old, that he had formally trained with Killer Kowalski, and that while he had never bled in the ring, he had experience in a brawling type of match. Steve Kulas, Erich’s father, tells the TORCH that Kulas had wrestled 10 or 15 times previously, but nothing that he considered formal or professional. He says Erich never went through any training camp, but for years has dreamed of being a pro wrestler. Heyman agreed to let Kulas team with D-Von Dudley against The Gangstas.
Kulas wrestled as Mass Transit and came to the ring wearing a uniform, presumably meant to indicate he was a bus driver. (He has wrestled as “Ralph Kramden” on small Northeast shows.) After Kulas & D-Von got to the ring, The Gangstas stormed the ring, as usual bringing a garbage can full of objects and weapons with them. D-Von and Mustafa brawled into the crowd. In the ring, New Jack broke an acoustic guitar over Kulas’s head. He then slammed a toaster into his head a couple of times, which some correspondents say cut Kulas hardway at that point.
New Jack then held up Kulas by the hair and picked up an object from the mat and proceded to carve his forehead open. Heyman says New Jack had seconds earlier bladed Kulas, as Kulas had agreed to be before the match, and was now putting on a show, pretending to carve into and jab at his forehead with a long narrow object. By this time, the two cuts New Jack made with the razor blade had resulted in Kulas’s face being a mask of blood. At this point Erich’s father saw his bloodied son and began going berserk at ringside, shouting for New Jack to leave his son alone. “He’s only 17!” he screamed.
New Jack grabbed the house mic and said, “I don’t care if that mother f—er dies. Anyone tries to take these belts from us and they’ll die.” Meanwhile, ECW’s “Damage Control” staff came out to try to stop the bleeding. Literally arm full after arm full of towels were brought to the ring to soak up the blood. ECW called for an ambulance. When paramedics showed up, they continued to try to stop the bleeding. Tommy Dreamer ran to the ring and gave the paramedics some shirts because they ran out of towels to soak up the blood. While this was going on, some fans were chanting, “You fat f—” and “Free Willy” at Kulas. As Kulas was stretchered out of the ring, he managed to give those fans the finger.
The chaos continues as local firefighters and police showed up to make sure everything stayed calm. There were reports of some fans fainting, one fan having a seizure, and many others leaving the show, especially parents with kids. As Kulas was loaded into an ambulance and taken to a local hospital, the ECW ring crew literally mopped up the ring mat. There was talk among the authorities of shutting down the show, but they decided not to in part over fear of a riot if they cancelled it.
Kulas, according to his father, needed around 50 stitches and is on medication, but otherwise is not seriously hurt. He said, though, it’s “extremely premature to say he’s okay.” He says he is in pain and will need to see a specialist to further repair his forehead, which was said to be cut from ear to ear.
No disciplinary action will be taken on New Jack by ECW. Heyman says that New Jack merely cut Kulas twice with the blade, both times getting final permission from Kulas right before he cut him. Heyman says he believes Kulas wasn’t prepared for the feeling of being cut with a razor blade since he had never bladed or been bladed before and therefore jerked his head the second time, causing a big gash on his forehead. (It is not unusual for wrestlers to have their opponent cut them with a razor blade if they are queasy about doing it themselves, although the percentage of wrestlers who bleed who have others cut them is probably less than 5 percent.)
Steve Kulas says despite this incident, his son “unfortunately” still wants to wrestle full time as a career. “I didn’t give him permission to wrestle anyone but the midgets,” Steve Kulas said regarding his son. He is upset ECW let him wrestle. “My kid doesn’t have a hair on his face. You tell a kid this is your shot, and if all you’ve ever wanted to be is a pro wrestler, what are you gonna do?” Heyman says even on his way to the ambulance, Kulas was asking if he earned a job with ECW for what he did.
Says his father: “When he was cut, all I could do was scream, ‘Get him out of there!’ I was really shaken up. A girl who was stretchering him out told me, ‘I don’t know if he’ll make it.'”
He said he has received one phone call from ECW, several days after the incident. Heyman says he told Kulas to send ECW all of their medical bills. Steve Kulas says his son’s welfare is his only concern and he isn’t seriously considering suing ECW over the incident.
While the incident was out of the ordinary, strange and dangerous incidents are no strangers to ECW, be it fans throwing chairs into the ring, wrestlers bleeding while brawling in the crowd, a fire being started by botched fireworks, or fans standing around stacked tables as wrestlers are thrown off of high places and crash through them.
“I consider what happened a scary incident,” Heyman says. “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.” Because of this incident, Heyman says he is going to take much greater care in making sure anyone who wrestles on ECW cards has formal training background, not to mention that they must be an adult. He says all wrestlers will have to go to ECW’s training center and demonstrate ring aptitude before they will be booked on ECW cards. “An embellished resume is not uncommon,” he says.
As far as blading, Heyman says he has thought long and hard about banning the blade entirely, and may still do so, but as of now believes that may be too strong of a reaction for what was an isolated incident. “(Blading) is certainly not for amateurs,” he says. “There are a lot of people here who have no qualms about it and who think it adds to the storyline, their matches, their careers, the marketability of the product, and what we have to offer over and above the other groups. I don’t think we or they should be denied that opportunity. But I think we need to implement better measures.”
As ECW prepares to expand on pay-per-view, Heyman says they have to find the proper, appropriate balance for their style. “None of these are easy decisions or black and white areas, but certainly we will address these issues for humane purposes and – on a street level, as a whole hearted business decision – for the survival of the company and for liability purposes.”
With a locker room full of wrestlers who thrive on pushing the envelope, Heyman more than anyone has the responsibility to create an atmosphere that is controlled and professional. Nov. 23 in Revere, Heyman failed in that role. To succeed nationally, ECW must raise the professionalism of the company and the product that it offers or be ready to have the door to national success slammed hard in its face.
The following are quotes Paul Heyman gave me the next week with follow-up on the New Jack-Erich Kulas attack that were published in the PWTorch Newsletter #418 (cover-dated Dec. 14, 1996) in the Torch Newswire…
Heyman on ECW: Paul Heyman addressed several key issues regarding ECW’s future as ECW approaches confirmation of a Mar. 30 date on pay-per-view.
As far as blading in ECW goes, Heyman says there is no pressure for wrestlers to use it. “Name me one time in the last year when Sabu has bled? Not once. There are an infinite number of ways to do things regarding a match. There is an audience out there to see this (blood) because they can’t get it elsewhere. As long as it doesn’t deny others who are not involved in the practice the opportunity to rise to the top – such as Taz, Sabu, Shane (Douglas) – I don’t see how it becomes a discriminatory practice like when those who used steroids were pushed to the top. Here there are more people on top who don’t bleed – if not on a regular basis or ever, be it by their decision or mine – than those who do.”
On why he would even consider banning the blade if the only people participating are wrestlers who agree: “I’ve considered banning maneuvers which I consider to be risky. I’ve considered banning objects. I’ve considered banning finishes. Everything needs to be taken into consideration when (a) it involved the company’s liability, in all honesty, and (b) the safety of the people who work for you. Beulah broke her arm beating up Fonzie. Okay, is the ring a place for someone like Beulah. The assessment was, yes it is, but maybe under different safeguards. She broke her arm punching him. When you own a business and run a company, all of these things become, if not daily considerations, topical discussions that come up during your work weeks.”
On whether he is concerned with blood transferring via the mat to other wrestlers who suffer open cuts and wounds during a match: “It’s a consideration. It’s something we honestly have spent not a great deal of, but some, money investigating further safety. I don’t have any grand answers yet, but we’re searching for them. We’re trying to find a proper balance… These are things we take into consideration and obviously worry about.”
Regarding blood on the mat specifically, Heyman says: “We’ve had several different medical reports from different medical journals regarding the state of the virus once it comes into contact with oxygen, the length of time the antibodies can stay alive. I’m not just talking about HIV; I’m talking about Hepatitis. How many times a week does a mat get cleaned? We clean it every week; it’s steam cleaned. How often does the WWF or WCW clean their mat? Do you know that the risk for staph infection is so incredibly higher that by the fourth night if the canvas is not cleaned, let alone if there’s blood, but just from what you track in from your boots, the risk for staph infection on a ring that isn’t cleaned is over 100 times greater than for one that isn’t cleaned. That is an extremely important health concern and we’ve addressed that. It’s not just HIV.”
Regarding wrestlers who are bleeding and fighting among fans, Heyman says: “This is an issue we have faced. We stopped it when the Tommy Morrison thing broke. We had to make hard decisions. We had to see where the fallout would be and what the risks were. We spent money consulting people on it. We certainly do it far less than we have in the past. And after this incident (the New Jack-Erich Kulas bloodletting), we’ll be curtailing it even more. But there is a limit to how constricted any product of this nature can be once you have decent, educated information that comes across your desk.”
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 so they won’t be blind-sided by it should the tape become available to a tabloid TV show. “They were all notified that Monday morning 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.”
Heyman says he has planned for a dozen different possible directions he will take ECW from a business standpoint depending on the success of the potential Mar. 30 pay-per-view. He also expects to double ECW’s clearances come January, especially with Network One’s plans to expand their exposure on independent broadcast stations.
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