Taking wrestling to the extreme

John Philipavage shows off the poster for his wrestling documentary.
John Philipavage shows off the poster for his wrestling documentary.

In the mid-1990s, the two major wrestling companies were in a decline, featuring aging, muscle-bound stars and cartoonish characters aimed squarely towards a diminishing kiddie crowd. Compared to the WWF (now WWE) and WCW, Extreme Championship Wrestling seemed like a radical departure, with a violent and death-defying style and a punkish, iconoclastic attitude.

“It was very taboo and promoted in such a different style that it felt almost real,” says John Philipavage, then an Allentown teenager losing interest in the big two. “ECW was this little secret that the rest of the world didn’t seem to know about.”

Philipavage and his childhood friend, fellow UArts grad and filmmaking partner Kevin Kiernan, document ECW’s legacy of chair shots and flaming tables in “Barbed Wire City.” The new documentary will premiere this weekend at Asylum Arena, the former bingo hall that served as the home base for ECW until the promotion folded in 2001.

Philipavage and Kiernan began shooting in 2000, shortly before the company’s ignominious finish (it was later revived by the WWE in a form that bore little resemblance to its DIY origins), and revisited the subject sporadically over the ensuing decade. The film now stands in contrast to the WWE’s own glossier doc, “The Rise and Fall of ECW.”

“When the WWE released their documentary it just gutted me,” Philipavage recalls. “But after a while I realized that they put out a promotional video that didn’t deal with real world. As an old fan, it was a nice keepsake, but I wanted to do something I could show a non-fan — if they’re willing to take a chance on a film about a niche subculture.”

That subculture seems less thrilling in many ways after a decade’s worth of premature deaths and the grisly murder-suicide of WWE wrestler Chris Benoit. Two ECW stalwarts, Axl Rotten and Balls Mahoney, show up in 2012 footage looking like grizzled shells of their former selves, bearing scars from barbed wire, razor blades, and life on the road.

“This is a time capsule of a bygone era,” Philipavage says. “The business has changed, which is probably for the best, but I feel like this craziness should be documented. I wanted to find out why a human being would cut themselves and smash their heads in and dive off of balconies.”


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