As anyone who follows professional wrestling already knows, the last real "boom" period of popularity for this form of "sports entertainment" (as Vince McMahon likes to call it) began in the mid-nineties and lasted until around 2001. This was when McMahon's World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) effectively won the inter-promotional wars of the nineties, absorbing his competition, and emerging as champion, or at least as the last man standing.
But for most of the nineties, McMahon's WWE did in fact have some very stiff competition in the form of Ted Turner's World Championship Wrestling (WCW) and, to a lesser extent, Paul Heyman's Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW). For the fans, this meant a win-win situation as the competing federations tried their best to one-up each other each week on the Monday night wrestling programs Raw (WWE) and Nitro (WCW).
First, WCW, under the leadership of Eric Bischoff, went on a no-holds-barred raid of top tier WWE talent like Hulk Hogan, Bret Hart, Kevin Nash, and Scott Hall and blurred the lines of wrestling myth and reality with the invasion storyline of the NWO (New World Order). For awhile there, WCW had McMahon beat at his own game by convincing viewers that WWE wrestlers were showing up on WCW broadcasts to "take over" the promotion.
One of the many ways McMahon responded to this was by coming out with a more reality-based product of his own, or in this case by mimicking the more "extreme" style of ECW.
This was done both through the creation of characters like "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, whose beer-swilling anti-authoritarianism borrowed heavily from ECW's own beer-swilling, cigarette smoking Sandman, and by introducing plunder like tables, ladders, chairs, and barbwire into the matches — another ECW specialty, popularized by former ECW stars who defected to WWE like Mick Foley and the Dudley Boys.
What had sold out bingo halls for Heyman was now filling arenas and spiking TV ratings and pay-per-view buyrates for McMahon.
Unfortunately, this high-risk style was also shortening the careers of people like Foley and in some cases ending them altogether, as was the case with Darren "Puke" Drosdov, who was paralyzed in one such mishap. So when McMahon finally won the war and acquired the assets of both WCW and ECW, one of the casualties was a toning down of the product. Within a year of McMahon's re-introducing the ECW brand, there was little resemblance to the formerly "extreme" product and many of the bigger names from ECW were likewise gone.
So where do fans of hardcore wrestling featuring insane high-risk spots and buckets of blood turn to get their "sports entertainment" fix today? That's where the independent promotions and DVDs like Wrestling Underground come in.
Wrestling Underground is a two disc DVD set that features over three hours of hardcore wrestling action, featuring many of the former top dogs of extreme from promotions like ECW. As the box proudly says, "there are no sanctions, no rules, and insanity reigns supreme" on Wrestling Underground.
But this isn't merely some amateur backyard wrestling bloodbath. The matches, which all appear to be from the roughly 2001 time period when many of these guys were suddenly out of work, are all called by former WCW commentator Scott Hudson, and feature a who's who from wrestling's "where are they now" file — guys like Rob Van Dam, Dallas Page, Sandman, Steve Corino, and Raven. There are even a couple of matches featuring all-time wrestling legends Terry Funk and Dusty Rhodes.
As for the quality of the ring work, some of the matches are embarrassingly bad on a purely scientific level, but can be forgiven for their entertainment value. No one ever accused a guy like the Sandman of being a technician on the order of Kurt Angle, but the whole cigarette smoking, beer swilling, Singapore cane wielding shtick is so priceless that it doesn't really matter. In his matches with Nova and Balls Mahoney, Rob Van Dam also looks as sharp as ever, delivering the dropkicks in the way that only his educated feet can.
In other cases, however, the years have not been so kind. The formerly smoking hot valet Missy Hyatt in fact looks like such a cosmetically enhanced trainwreck that it's a bit of a shock at first — especially if it's been a few years since you last saw her. Hudson even openly kids in his commentary that a tox-team might be needed just because of her presence.
But for anyone who misses the old ECW as much as I do, this DVD will make those years come flooding back. There is one match here in particular that's practically worth the price of the entire DVD. Balls Mahoney and Axl Rotten Vs. New Jack and Murder One pulls out all the stops when it comes to simulated violence in an off-the-hook tag match. From trash can lids to cheese graters to crimson masks of blood, it's all there.
Wrestling Underground is on some levels kind of sad to watch, since for most, if not all of these guys, their glory days are clearly well behind them. But on another level of nostalgic entertainment value, it's also a lot of fun to relive an era in wrestling not likely to be seen again anytime soon.