This month marked eighteen full years since ECW took to Pay-Per-View for the very first time, and with this anniversary, it brings flooding back a wave of memories and reflections, many of which I think fans today have some difficulty relating to. The story of ECW has been told in the form of excellent documentaries and some decent books to boot, but something that I feel has been somewhat lost in time is a wider perspective of April 13th, 1997.

ECW’s status as the underground company that catered to the disenfranchised was well in tact throughout 1995 and early 1996, and as the company produced fantastic television blending hot angles and dynamic interviews with either effective or outright quality matches. ECW was built on a foundation of mutual understanding regarding the state of the Big Two in the mid-90s, and the prevailing belief that ECW gave the most passionate wrestling fans in the world the wrestling they wanted, the type of wrestling that the audience believed should be on the big stage.

That doesn’t exist today. Faith in alternatives is devoid – TNA has never really had it, and ROH hasn’t had any tangible momentum to that degree since 2007.

But it was the perfect melting pot at the perfect time – the creation of Raven, Tommy Dreamer, Shane Douglas and The Sandman as top characters that people connected to, the myth of Sabu and the anticipation created for his eventual battle with Taz, bringing in top-class talent they’d seen on videotapes for years such as Chris Benoit, Eddy Guerrero, Dean Malenko, Rey Mysterio Jr, Psicosis and Juventud Guerrera, the use of guys the big leagues has spit out without tapping into their unlimited potential like Cactus Jack and Steve Austin, the addition of elements true to wrestling’s roots that was less commonplace such as blood and bad language – ECW was where the changes in the business you wanted to happen were happening.

The idea that ECW would ever get on Pay-Per-View was a pipe-dream, something a lot of people probably can’t comprehend today in a world where TNA, ROH, WWA and almost anybody that wants it can get a timeslot. But during an era when WCW and WWF weren’t exactly setting the right kind of records in PPV (December 95 in particular was catastrophic), the companies were rather picky about what got on. So for ECW to actually get the deal, it truly was a staggering breakthrough.

ECW was going major league, and the possibilities were endlessly exciting. Who knew where this could lead? It was unprecedented, there had never been a groundswell that was this good and got this far, and as April 13th approached, I was often reading the opinions of people following ECW, and the loyal fans were very much of the “We’re going to show the world what we’ve known for years” belief. And after years of plugging away, the choice of the die-hard wrestling fan was going to the big show. We were witnessing an evolution and we didn’t know where we’d land. After all, it had taken us this far.

It was the event that would conclude Terry Funk’s emotional quest for his last World Title, and with it the tremendous one year run of Raven.

It was the night when Sabu and Taz would finally battle, one on one, in the Grudge Match of the Century.

It was the show where the deplorable Franchise would pay the price for breaking Gary Wolfe’s neck.

It was the occasion to establish the Eliminators as the hottest tag team on the planet.

It was the night were Joey Styles would prove he was the best announcer in the business.

It was the event that would introduce North America to the world of Michinoku Pro, and specifically the Great Sasuke.

It was, simply, ECW on pay-per-view. At last.

But unbeknownst to anybody, it was also the end of the ECW Revolution. Not to say ECW didn’t continue to grow after this show, because it absolutely did – the best attendances were yet to come, they got on TNN and they existed on Pay-Per-View for years after. But the influence was gone.

As a show, ECW never came close to reaching the same levels as 95-96 again. Once the company grabbed the golden carrot of Pay-Per-View, the comparisons between themselves and the Big Two were fair game, and unlike in their formative years, by mid-1997 the landscape had drastically changed.

There was a noticeable shift even prior to Barely Legal as the nWo became a bigger counter-culture movement and took the primary spot of the renegade group in wrestling that everybody was talking about. But it was more than that.

As mentioned, ECW was built on the mutual understanding and the prevailing belief, and as the wrestling world became a more interesting place with WWF and WCW jockeying for position, ECW could cry all they wanted that the Big Two had it all wrong, but both WWF and WCW products quickly became more interesting than their own.

Not only that, the changes in the business that fans were calling for were made either as a direct result of ECW’s uprising, or by the very nature of the battle for supremacy and survival on Monday nights. Certainly a lot of ECW talent was cherry-picked, and while many fans stayed loyal to ECW, they were drawn elsewhere on a frequent basis and loving what they were seeing. ECW lost the niche it was filling for years.

Ultimately, Barely Legal was the blow-off of almost everything ECW had been building up for a long time, and it felt like nothing they had coming out of it had enough substance to follow what we’d seen previously. The duality this creates when watching Barely Legal back is amazing, and is truly something few shows in history have.

A show that felt like the new beginning, but was realistically the peak. That we thought would be evolution, but stopped in its artistic tracks that day.

As for the show itself? You can see it now on the WWE Network, and since it’s been eighteen years there is very little left to add, but to impart some personal thoughts:

The Eliminators really did come off great, as the Dudley Boyz acted like crash pads for a spectacular cavalcade of hot moves. The Dudleyz being the team to beat the Eliminators for the belts prior to this PPV was a huge surprise at the time, and this had a sense of formality to it, but it was perfectly in line with what it should have been.

Rob Van Dam became the surprise news story of the show, and while his match with Lance Storm was decent enough (horrid chairshots aside), it was the aftermath on the microphone that opened a lot of eyes to RVD.

The Michinoku Pro Six Man Tag is the best thing on the show, just an outstanding effort from everybody involved. Nowadays matches like this have a tendency to overwhelm and miss the mark – too many Dragon Gate tag matches feature a lack of selling and are focused on pace rather selling big moments accordingly, but this one has it just right. Joey Styles was fantastic as well here, and came off very prepared.

Shane Douglas and Pit Bull 2 sucked, massively exposed the Pit Bulls as a minor league act, and was a huge mark against Shane Douglas in terms of being considered a great worker. The fact that Rick Rude’s forearm was the best shot of the match when he’d been retired for three years speaks volumes. The Brian Lee reveal was fun, at least.

Sabu Vs. Taz was always going to be a challenge. After eighteen months of the best build for a match in God knows how long, with Taz working out while hatefully glaring at pictures of Sabu, the constant call-outs, refusing to wrestle until he was given the Sabu match, and the man himself never saying a word in response, it was perfect pro wrestling. Planting the seed and letting it grow and grow. Everybody remembers the November to Remember staredown, a fantastic representation of where this match stood in the passage of time. But when it came time for the match, it felt flatter that it should have. There was almost a sense in the crowd of “okay, show us a classic” after the incredible hype job, and while the match was good, it didn’t come close to expectations. The post-match angle, while great in theory and put people in the right directions, was executed horribly and came off like a total mess.

The Triangle Match and following Raven/Funk match was what it was – car crash ECW, and was done in such a way to elicit the right emotion at the very end. It’s romanticised now that this was perfectly done in the build, but in reality the Terry Funk push didn’t get over in the run-up to the Pay-Per-View the way it was desired, in part due to this being the age of badass crazy shit-kickers, and Funk was cast in the role of sympathetic legend that would sell a hell of a lot more than people wanted. But it was all right on the night. Indeed, when the biggest pop of the night is for the final three count, that’s a sign of success, and those in attendance chanted both for Terry and for ECW as the show came to a close. No doubt the sounding of the bell generated a roar from the audience that was as much a euphoric wave of celebration for the accomplishment they were all just a part of than anything else.

It was an incredible thing to witness at the time, and you can watch it today and very nearly feel the same sense of importance and understand it’s context. But in the grand scheme, it is the most polarising night that ever was in the land of Extreme.

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