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In the latter half of 1996 going into 1997 ECW was faced with quite a unique conundrum when attempting to get onto pay per view. Namely, that they were having a tough time in convincing pay per view companies they were wrestling. Such was the dichotomy between what the WWF and WCW had spent years telling people was pro-wrestling, people barely recognised something that filled a sub-section of the wider genre. In short, pay per view companies thought ECW was real.
The comparison comes full circle when you consider that the UFC (hosting just its eleventh show in July 1996) was having hard time convincing people they were real. As the company headed in and out of court-rooms on a seemingly show-by-show basis, they had to face all manor of accusations from the bizarre to the downright absurd. Including in amongst which, people (through wilful ignorance, more than anything else), thought UFC was pro wrestling.
And while those are both stories that can be told separately (I’ll attempt to tell the ECW part nearer the time) – one thing most people really don’t remember, at all, is the time when UFC and ECW crossed over in quite a significant way in 1996. In amongst the significant push of Taz as this undersized legit bad guy, ECW attempted to present a “shoot-fight” at the Hardcore Heaven show in June 1996 when they billed Taz against Paul Varelans, a 6ft 8 fighter with seven fights in the UFC at the time and a 4 and 3 record.
Varelans wasn’t the only UFC luminary at the time linked with pro-wrestling, both Dan Severn and Ken Shamrock – who’s match at UFC 9 in May 1996 is widely regarded as the worst major MMA fight ever – were also pro wrestlers. In fact, one of the causes of the Shamrock/Severn fight to be so tentative was that both men were scared to lose in case it hindered their ability to draw in pro wrestling events in Japan.
Varelans’ was coming at it from the otherside. Nicknamed the “Polar Bear”, standing in at 6ft 8 and over 300 lbs Varelans was a giant of any era, but particularly one where weight classes counted for very little. In fact, when it came to UFC8 in Puerto Rico, the disparity in weight division became a selling point as it was setup as “David vs Goliath”. On that show, Varelans defeated the smaller Joe Moreira before pulling out of the tournament due to injury.
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It was actually a year prior where he really earned his notoriety in the UFC. At UFC6 in July 1995 he defeated Cal Worsham before losing to the larger than life Tank Abbott. At UFC7 he defeated both Gerry Harris and Mark Hall in under two minutes. In the final he and Marco Ruas went over 13 minutes (this was well before rounds came in), losing out to the more skillful Brazilian who brilliantly utilised leg kicks to chop the bigger man down, when he finally landed one kick too many it was a sight to behold as Varelans almost literally collapsed – such was the damage he sustained to the leg.
Varelans, in short, was a tough dude. He wasn’t the most offensive fighter you’ll ever see, he won some fights in the Octagon often based on a very competent defense and sheer size. But in a time where the money for fighting wasn’t particularly big (and would get worse before it got better), Varelans like many others would look towards pro wrestling. Dan Severn, for example, had contact with both WCW and the WWF to come in during the early part of 1996.
It was probably more of a passing interesting, but Varelans had an ambition and ECW had a plan. After presenting two previous “shoot-fights” on TV – one in April and one at the beginning of June ECW had Varelans answer Taz’s call for a fair fight. ECW was a land of giants but not in the way the WWF was, Varelans’ frame made him a true giant, particularly against the much smaller Taz.
But there-in lied the point of the exercise – have Taz not only compete with a name fighter from the real world, but defeat him in a fight presented as a shoot. As a plan it was actually pretty horrendous, which makes it all the more impressive that the whole thing came off worse than anyone could’ve possibly imagined.
The shootfights prior didn’t come across as anything of much note. Taz faced a (pro) wrestler called Jason Helton given a shootfighting gimmick – who’s job was to basically shoot for and attempt to block takedown attempts before being worn down then going up for the arsenal of suplex throws Taz had developed.
If I’m being kind, the segments just looked odd. There wasn’t really an attempt to differentiate the feel of the matches from the rest of the card. They looked the same, included a normal ref and – even in the early days of UFC – didn’t really look like the normal fights. Fighters were split far too quickly, the action was far too clunky to ever look realistic, especially when Taz’s opponent would jump for suplex maneuvers. Underscored by his no name opponents, it didn’t really go anywhere – then they got Varelans to agree to a fight.
Quite what ECW fans thought of Varelans’ arrival it’s difficult to tell. UFC was still pretty underground at the time, much like ECW, and it would’ve been relying on fans of the niche Philadelphia product to be aware, if not knowledgeable, of what UFC were putting out. Judging by the reaction Varelans got, this was hardly the star arrival. The half pull apart brawl/half tease did little to bring things to boiling point, even though Taz had been running through people playing "shoot fighters", there still wasn't ever really an explanation as to why Varelans would even want a match, other than the fact he was conveniently at ringside for the show.
And, more the point, what the hell even was a "shoot fight" anyway? In pro-wrestling terms it made no sense. Wasn't everything in the ring supposed to be a shoot? If this match was literally a shoot then what exactly were we watching the rest of the time? And, more the point still, Taz vs Varelans wasn't even a shoot! Hope you're suitably con
There was a lot of reports that things actually largely fell apart before the show even happened. Varelans had agreed to do the job to Taz, but only in a convoluted finish (which, for all intents and purposes, makes you wonder what the point was). Varelans worked about three shows in total, including the first ECW arena show where he shot the first angle with Taz. It's said that he was initially quite naïve when he came into the promotion, and that certain members of the roster had to smarten him up as to what was going on.
He and Taz did a minimal amount of training ahead of the match, and it's said that the ECW talent that were working closely with him were not impressed at all by his fighting skills, even thinking that Taz could've taken Varelans in a real fight (which, again, makes you wonder why they staged the whole thing).
The whole event, from a spectacle standpoint, was a disaster. There was a lot of sizing each other up, some take-down shoots and some unconvincing, at best, ground work. Taz was giving a way a foot in height and a lot of weight too, there was little to suggest that he would have Varelans bested on the ground, despite what happened in the "match". The ring was surrounded by ECW wrestlers, presumably there in case the thing broke down. The match ended with Perry Saturn hitting Varelans off of the top rope with a dropkick, Taz taking advantage, tying Varelans up in a Tazmission for the win.
As Taz grabbed the microphone ready to address the fans, an arena-wide "Bull-shit" chant started. Sensing the mood in the room, Taz did about the only thing he could do – agree with them. "You're right, you're right – that was bullshit". Taz quickly pivoted onto his rivalry with Sabu and the whole thing was largely forgotten about. Due to fears about how the match might be received it was put in the middle of the show, one that didn't finish until long after mid-night following the ring breaking.
READ MORE: The full review of the Hardcore Heaven Show
The whole thing was a bust, to put it plainly. Reading reports from the Torch and the Observer see two very different points of view, depending on if the quotes/stories are being attributed to Varelans' side or Taz's. Where the truth lies is anybody's guess, but a few things seem to true.
First was that while Varelans did want to do some pro-wrestling, he was very unclear about what he was getting into. It's said that while he did sign a contract agreeing to "do the job" under the submission, his idea of what he was getting into diverged pretty quickly beyond that. He had the idea, it seems, to have the match cost by the Eliminators hitting their "Total Elimination" move.
As for ECW – their attempt to try and capitalise on the underground popularity of the UFC backfired. The whole thing was over and done with in about three weeks and given that the match never made it to air (attributed to a plausible agreement between both sides before the match, but also quite plausibly hooked because the whole thing was so awful), it was hard to work out how they were going to capitalise on it. Could you in good faith sell the home video based on the match, given how bad it was?
More the point, there was the bigger question: why not just make it an actual shoot? Reports are it was suggested to Varelans to do just that, but that he turned it down. ECW probably weren't offering him enough money to do it, and nor would a lose to a pro-wrestler like Taz have helped Varelans in his quest to do a few more UFC shows. More the shame, mind, an actual "shoot-fight" might have been the only way of saving this disaster of a match.