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Sentimentality isn’t something you can usually accuse Paul Heyman of, certainly the promoter Paul Heyman. In ECW he infrequently had the chance, most of the guys who came through Philadelphia had either already been spat out of the big two or were on their way there in some way shape or form. There was one exception, though: Terry Funk.
Heyman has often spoken since about his booking philosophy. He came close to taking a managing interest in TNA sometime prior to the arrival of Hulk Hogan and Eric Bischoff in the company, and in interviews since has explained what his booking philosophy may have been. One of them, famously, was to clear out anyone over the age of 40 and focus on making TNA younger, fresher and not full of guys who were stars from a decade prior. The one exception to that mantra was Kurt Angle. Never mind the fact Angle was probably the only guy over the age of 40 who was a serious star in TNA, the idea was quite simple – if everyone else were young up and comers, then you could present Angle as this legendary gate-keeper.
The same, to a point, was true in ECW. Funk’s role there was slightly different, in part because he was important in the time before Heyman arrived in headlining shows – at aged 49 he was already an old-hand but having a legendary name on top helped a promotion attempting to get off the floor. When Paul Heyman took the book, he found the perfect opponent for him in the form of the brash, arrogant “Franchise” in Shane Douglas – who viewed Funk in the same light as he did “Dick” Flair. At a pair of shows in the first two months of 1994, Funk first wrestled a 45 minute match with Shane Douglas, before a three way dance between the pair and Sabu went an entire hour without a winner.
But it was the segment after that which really grabbed hearts and minds – in what was dubbed “The Night The Line Was Crossed” a faux press conference descended into a war of words between Funk and Douglas – with Douglas proclaiming that he deserved to be declared champion simply by virtue of being the only man to last the distance in the match, and Funk being more than happy to give him the title. Douglas would need to wait until the month after to win the title, but Funk’s job was done as he slipped out for a mid-card run with WCW for most of the rest of 1994, allowing Douglas and the rest of ECW’s crew to thrive without him.
For the next couple of years he was used an occasional worker, being used on short 2 or 3 show shots alongside or opposite the likes of Sandman, Tommy Dreamer and Cactus Jack. He was a nice extra addition on a few shows but the promotion was firing on so many cylinders he wasn’t really a necessity. Still, even as he entered his fourth decade in the business he was capable of providing some memorable moments – like being involved in an exploding barbed wire board match with Cactus Jack, or another where he traded places with Sandman in an extremely memorable segment once again against Foley.
Heyman had one more run left for Funk to make. In the two and half years since Funk had last been ECW’s World Champion a lot had changed. “Eastern” became “Extreme”, Shane Douglas had built himself up to a WWF contract, only to crash and burn so badly he was back within the year and Paul Heyman had taken two absolute nobodies in Rocco Rock and Johnny Grunge and turned them into an act that the WWF had looked at before they would eventually sign with WCW. More pertinently though, was that Heyman had taken ECW to the cusp of pay-per-view.
Pay per view really was ECW’s next barrier in some respects. I’ve written about their less than ideal preparation for it here, but Terry Funk was a big part of ECW’s push into that domain, with Paul Heyman originally wanting to schedule the show to coincide with 20 years since Funk had lost the NWA World Heavyweight Title. It says a lot about how disjointed and bumpy ECW’s road to pay per view was that Heyman missed than anniversary by two months. Still though, Funk was going to be a big part of the show.
The delays in the show did really cause ECW some problems, such was how long it had taken that many of the feuds felt like they were running on fumes come showtime. The Sabu and Taz program (often hailed as on the great ECW storylines) was essentially put on ice until the show became a certainty, and the feud between Shane Douglas and the Pitbulls peaked in October... by the time the show came around it was struggling for a purpose.
Funk’s role was to be the focal point – twenty years on from losing the NWA World Heavyweight Title, whether it was to the day or not – this was one last hurrah from one of the greats of the industry. And Heyman wanted to present it as such: “Can the legend win the big one for one last time?” It was an obvious ploy, but it did mean that ECW’s big title match on its big show didn’t really have a hot feud built into it. In fact, in part in an attempt to create another big match on the show, Funk wasn’t even formally the challenger for the title - nobody was. Raven was slated in the main event against the winner of a three-way-dance between Funk, Sandman and of all people Stevie Richards.
It created a little bit of intrigue – Sandman had been feuding with Raven for the most part of the previous year (even if the matches were often terrible, and the idea of putting it the main event of their first pay per view was unthinkable). Richards was easily the best wrestler of the three, and his character had come on leaps and bounds in the year prior – but putting him in the main event felt like a massive jump even considering his history with Raven.
Funk’s run into the main event was a little unorthodox, after answering the call to team with Tommy Dreamer at a show in February, he would end up going so crazy during the match that Dreamer ended up having to protect Funk from himself. The idea was to present Funk as a legend whose powers were fading, problem was they overdid it so much you wonder whether it actually did some damage. Funk *was* over the hill, so presenting him in that spot kind of made people believe it.
And that was felt in the box office too. Funk’s return to ECW’s full time touring crew did business on ECW’s ever expanding set of tours in the North East and Florida – but on the second time around it had much less impact. People went for Funk, but you generally can’t sell a greatest hits album twice – and it seemed like they saw the legend and realised he didn’t quite have it anymore.
Which was perhaps a tad unfair – Funk as a promo was still as good as they come, even if he was a little barmy. As an in-ring act he was always a throwback to a different era, one of psychology and less being more. But where ECW perhaps made a mistake was focusing on Funk’s and tenure – even a battle of the generations would’ve been more palatable, or better yet a battle of styles between Funk and Raven.
All this – and nevermind the fact that Raven had a readymade opponent in Tommy Dreamer. ECW’s reluctance to put an end on that feud was strange – perhaps it was one they felt that while both men were around they could always go back to, surely if ever there was a time to have it culminate it would be at their first big show? As it was Dreamer and Raven never really got the conclusion it deserved, ending at a live event in June as Raven hastily made a move to WCW.
It also left Dreamer without a spot on the pay per view card, one which knowing Dreamer he would probably be more than happy without – he’d have a big enough role to play in the main event. The final build to the show – which had been going for so long really had nothing left to give, involved a promo from Terry Funk dedicating his pursuit of the title to his dad – as if it wasn’t obvious enough what was going to happen.
Funk’s involvement in the final two matches in both instances was quite minor. The triple threat was dominated by a ladder Sandman bought into play almost straight away and a stellar performance from Stevie Richards – who filled his purpose perfectly as the worker of the trio. After being eliminated first, Richards provided the superkick that preceeded Funk hitting a moonsault onto Sandman to predictably book his spot in the main event.
By design or necessity, the main event was basically a non-event. After being put through a table by Raven, Funk spent most of the match selling – it was one dominated by outside interference as Big Dick Dudley took a ridiculous bump off the stage through three tables and a female called Reggie Bennett came out and did a bad job piledriving Funk before Tommy Dreamer comes down and DDT’s Raven giving Funk enough for the win and to win the title.
The pay-per-view ended up being a mild success for ECW. Given how much they’d go through just to get there they’d essentially written off any hopes of the first show being profitable after a disaster of a run-in that almost saw the show never make it to air. They chucked a lot of things at the wall, including an unofficial partnership with the WWF in the lead up to the show, whether Funk’s inclusion made a significant difference is probably too difficult to tell.
The problem with bringing Funk in for a roll like this is that, really, he probably should’ve forfeited the title at the next show – there wasn’t exactly a runaway train trying to see him win the title, let alone to discover what he might do next. Perhaps the most logical next step would’ve involved Funk defending the title against Tommy Dreamer, or even a more natural opponent would’ve been Shane Douglas.
The move they went with, perhaps logically, was a move towards Funk vs Richards. Richards made sense – he was one of the best workers ECW could credibly put in the main event and it was the logical progression in his rise, the main issue being that the pairing with Funk didn’t really help either guy. Funk needed a bully to work off, and Richards needed to be bullied.
That match never made it to the ECW arena, although it did make it to a touring show in Buffalo, a strange setup where the pair would face off twice in the same night: firstly in a tag match where Richards teamed with Raven and Funk with Tommy Dreamer – won when Richards superkicked Funk. Then in the main event, a 4 way elimination match involving Raven, Sandman, Funk and Richards – Richards eliminated Sandman with a superkick before Funk picked up the win by hitting Richards with a section of guardrail. The victory saw Funk get booed and also temporarily caused Richards to lose feeling within his legs.
That whole thing would’ve nicely setup Funk vs Richards at June’s Wrestlepalooza show, but as it was that match never took place. Richards essentially withdrawing due to an injury that was allegedly going to see him out for the rest of the year. Funk instead wrestled a cold match against Chris Candido where Candido beat the living piss out of Funk for the majority of the match before Funk kicked out of no fewer that four piledrivers and still won by roll-up. It was bizarre presentation, reminding the audience once again that Funk scarcely belonged in the position he held – once again it got a less than favourable reaction from the ECW crowd.
It lead into ECW’s second pay per view in August. After a reshuffle with the departures of Raven and Richards it left Funk against Shane Douglas – probably his most logical foe given their history and given where the other puzzle pieces lay. Douglas’ run in the 18 months since his ECW return had been odd – after pursuing Raven’s ECW title for months and getting screwed out of it repeatedly his eyes were drawn by Too Cold Scorpio and the TV Title. It moved Douglas out of the title picture, providing a seemingly never-ending stream of Raven/Sandman matches and kept Douglas there until he decided he wanted another shot at the title – which was now.
Except, Funk never made it into the show as Champion. After an injury ruled Sandman out of a match with Sabu, they needed a way of getting Sabu onto the show – and so into the main event he went. Of course, they needed a reason to crowbar him into the match – the easiest way of doing so was to have Sabu win the title, which he did in a gory match against Terry Funk. And – let's be clear, when I talk about gory, I'm talking: so gory that the match had to end five minutes earlier than planned as the pair were so intertwined in barbed wire that they couldn't be separated. So gory that, after the match, Sabu was actually supergluing some cuts shut to stop the bleeding – which while a bit wild apparently isn't terrible advice.
It's perhaps telling, also, that Funk losing the title really wasn't met with any fanfare. It had probably come two or three months too late and Sabu wasn't really setup as a natural champion either. The pay-per-view itself was a weird one, marred by weird lighting and a truly bizarre show-long angle that involved Sandman hijacking his own ambulance before being tailed by Lance Wright in an actual paid for helicopter – tailing an Ambulance that Sandman was literally driving around Fort Lauderdale.
The match was a bit of a non-event really – they were trying to recreate the famous three-way dance and, to an extent, they did. But there just wasn't really any drama – Douglas was such a likely winner that there wasn't really any anticipation. Even moreso when they did the classic Paul Heyman move of having the champion be eliminated first – which ordinarily would've been a good idea but Douglas/Funk just wasn't a money match up. And it showed, Douglas hit his belly to belly suplex (as questionable a finisher as I've ever seen) only for Dory Funk Jr of all people to come out. Douglas sells for him a bit, he and Funk fall through the timekeepers table then Douglas hits a second belly to belly for a really flat finish.
It was a sad end really. You kind of came to the conclusion that it wasn't a case of life imitating art when it came to the booking of Funk in 1997, but more of a case of art imitating life – the reason that Funk was being presented as the vet who was over the hill and on his last legs was because he was exactly that. And while it was a nice send off, in many was it was a really non-ECW thing to do, go to the "draw" who's past his prime over the much better, younger and in a lot of cases more logical choice. Without Funk they could've gone with Raven vs Dreamer at the first pay per view, without Funk they could've gone with literally anything else throughout the summer.
It was telling, perhaps, that three weeks later Funk had another match under the auspices of ECW. Although this one was at the Fairgrounds in Amarillo, Texas and while ECW were putting the show together Paul Heyman literally had to introduce himself and ECW to the 4,000 strong fans who'd turned up to a show titled "50 Years Of Funk", the retirement match that would be featured in Beyond The Mat where he faced off against Bret Hart. It was a lovely throwback match, perfect for the audience and one that ended perfectly too, Funk hit Bret with a belly to back suplex, both men's shoulders hit the mat – Bret got his up, Funk didn't. Amarillo knew Funk's time was up, ECW did too, they had just realised too late.