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Many folks believe that hard core wrestling started in 1997 in the WWF, or they may think that ECW started it all in the early 1990s. Ah, but to believe that is to forget nearly 50 years of hard core excitement.
The Brawlers of Yesteryear
Let's start with the old days. During the height of the late 1940s/1950s wrestling boom, guys like Classy Freddy Blassie, Dory Funk Sr and Wild Bill Curry were brawling using chairs, biting and fighting around the ring. Around that time, with wrestling on televison weekly, various types of matches were being devised to showcase the wrestling talents of these men. 'Lights out' matches, 'cage' matches and the 'Texas death match' were all introduced to the world around this time, drawing big crowds and big ratings. These matches, and the men who wrestled in them, were very popular in the USA and became even more so when Japan started having full-time promotions. These men were frequently invited over because the style they wrestled meshed well and drew crowds. Classy Freddy Blassie was the first American to become a major star in Japan based on his violence. The most-watched hard core feud of the early years was Blassie's against Giant Shohei Baba. This feud is blamed for causing several heart attacks. Though only one was in reality attributed to the blood and violence of the matches, the number gets as high as 80, depending on who you talk to.
The bloody and brutal wrestling of this period was best demonstrated by a man who called himself The Sheik.
The Bloody Sheik and His Contemporaries
The Sheik ran the Detroit, Michigan, territory out of Cobo Hall from the 1960s through the early 1980s, feuding with the likes of Abdullah the Butcher and Bobo Brazil. His style of match was slow and bloody. The film I Like to Hurt People shows his style of wrestling and brawling, and remains the best mainstream source of hard core footage from this age.
On the Island...
Puerto Rico was the home of violent matches for decades. Abdullah the Butcher and Bruiser Brody were both regulars, bringing long wandering brawls into fashion there. The star of the territory was Carlos Colon, who had long feuds with The Invader, Abdullah and others that would last years and would feature many long brawls. Colon's matches with Abdullah were not only fought in Ponce and Bayomon, but also in the States, including a famous match at Starrcade 83. Puerto Rico also gave us the first 'fire' match, which made the cover of many wrestling magazines of the day.
Other areas where brawling was well-known for years were Memphis, Tennessee, and Tupelo, Mississippi. For years, the Memphis circuit had been known for its Southern brawling style, but it got its biggest hero ever in Jerry 'The King' Lawler. Lawler had bloody and violent feuds with Terry Funk (featuring the first 'empty arena' match), Bill Dundee, Eddie Gilbert (more on him in a minute) and many, many more. Lawler is best known for his feud with Andy Kaufman and his work for the WWF in the 1990s. Tupelo had the most famous 'concession stand' brawls, one of which may have been the start of mainstream hard core wrestling as we know it. It pitted Ricky Morton and Wayne Ferris (better known as the Honky Tonk Man) vs Japanese stars Masa Fuchi and Atsushi Onita. The brawl features brutal fighting and a mustard jar shot that is just sick.
The Japanese Reinvent Hard Core
In 1989 Atsushi Onita had been retired for a few years after a knee injury. He had been wanting to get back in the ring and decided to found his own promotion. He called it Frontier Martial-arts Wrestling, or FMW. Onita is its top star and he drew in wild brawls against Tarzan Goto and Mr Pogo. The brawls are violent and the undercards feature many young stars of the next decade, such as Chris Jericho, Lance Storm, Mike Awesome, Big Titan, Horace Hogan and the homicidal, suicidal maniac, Sabu, as well as using the now 60-something Sheik. The promotion held a huge show on 5 May, 1993, at Kawasaki stadium, drawing more than 50,000 fans to see Onita take on Terry Funk in an 'exploding ring barbed wire land mine' match, which Onita wins. FMW holds the event cards for several years, eventually holding the first women's 'no rope explosive barbed wire' match between Megumi Kudoh and Combat Toyota, which many point to as the best of its type for either men or women. It is FMW that helps relaunch hard core brawling in Japan, and it also introduces Japanese fans to Michinoku Pro wrestlers and frequently brings in all-Japan women wrestlers to fill the undercard. Other Japanese hard core (sometimes called Garbage) federations sprung up, including W*ing, Big Japan and IWA Japan, in which Cactus Jack and Terry Funk had a big series of matches ending in the 'king of the danger match' tourney, which Jack won.
About the same time as FMW is doing the Funk vs Onita angle, Todd Gordon and Eddie Gilbert are starting a promotion out of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, called Eastern Championship Wrestling. The focus of the promotion is brawling and angles that are much grittier than most of the fare being offered by the big two. On the first big card, the 'super summer sizzler' card, Gilbert and Terry Funk meet in a 'chain' match. Shortly after, Gilbert leaves ECW and Paul E Dangerously takes over, leading to more hard core wrestling and angles that are among the most creative ever. In August 1994, Shane Douglas wins the NWA title tourney, but throws the belt down and says that ECW is all that matters, causing the federation to be renamed Extreme Championship Wrestling. ECW was the place that put Mick Foley on the map as Cactus Jack, doing some of the finest interviews in the history of wrestling. Also making early impressions on the wrestling business while with ECW were Sandman, Raven, Stevie Richards, Mike Awesome (for the first time in the USA), Shane Douglas, The Dudleys, Tajiri, Sabu, TAZ, Justin Credible, Chris Benoit, Dean Malenko, Eddy Guerrero and Rob Van Dam.
Hard Core Goes National
ECW continued to put on shows at Vikings Hall (called ECW Arena when wrestling is in town) many of which are considered to be among the greatest shows of all time. Pay-per-view came along in 1997 and National TV in 1999. The TNN edition of ECW ended in 2000, while pay-per-view continued until the promotion folded in 2001. The WWF and WCW picked up on the hard core trend in the last half of the 1990s, the WWF had the classic 'hell in a cell' matches, first between Undertaker and Shawn Michaels in October 1997, and the HitC in Pittsburgh between the Undertaker and Mankind. WWF made its big rebound in 1998 and 1999 using ECW booking techniques and a hard core style, a style that Mick Foley as Mankind or Cactus Jack helped to popularise. The folding of ECW allowed for many wrestlers to join the WWF, where tables and ladder matches have become a standard.
Hard core wrestling continues today in many of the smaller federations aroud the USA. Combat Zone Wrestling and XPW have both made stars of brawlers and an over the top hard core style. Many leagues will push the envelope by having matches featuring light tubes, thumbtacks (a tradition that started in Japan), barbed wire and razor blades. The infrequent shows by Incredibly Strange Wrestling feature unusual matches that are best not described in polite company. Some states have already begun to set up legislation to block hard core wrestling, including New Jersey, where there is the highest concentration of federations. Backyard wrestling has also made a big impact, with matches featuring every weapon imaginable, and sometimes terrifying results. The WWE has allowed hard core to appear in the product since 1995, sometimes succeding, but also raising the bar and shortening careers.