When Eddie Gilbert asked then 21-year-old Kevin Lawler in 1993 if he’d like to join him in Philadelphia as his assistant booker for a fairly new promotion called Eastern Championship Wrestling (ECW), the would-be Memphis rasslin’ prince jumped at the chance.
For years, the youngest Lawler son had tried to no avail to further himself in the Memphis-based USWA promotion on which his father, Jerry, and brother, Brian, had applied a double chokehold.
“Eddie told me I’d be helping him book this small company in Philadelphia, in addition to doing things I was already doing in Memphis like refereeing and promoting towns,” Kevin says. “He said this Eastern Championship Wrestling had a lot of potential and that he wanted to bring the Memphis style to Philadelphia. I was excited.”
It’s no wonder that Eddie and Kevin clicked. Both creative individuals grew up around the business, with both of their fathers for years being two of the biggest wrestling stars in the area. While he admired his father tremendously, Eddie idolized Kevin’s dad, envisioning the day that he took over as the cocky King of Memphis. Like Eddie, Kevin felt a place of influence in the wrestling business was his birthright–he wanted to be a booker more than anything. When Eddie and Kevin realized their dreams were derailed in part by the presence of Jeff Jarrett and Brian Lawler–and also because of their own borderline shady doings–they set out together for a clean slate in ECW, hoping that the roles denied them in Memphis would be theirs in Philadelphia.
After Memphis promoter Jerry Jarrett, who supported Kevin’s move, broke the news to the King during a Saturday-morning TV taping at the WMC-TV5 Studios, Lawler was waiting to pull the strap down when his youngest walked in the door of the community center in Jonesboro, Ark., to ref that evening’s matches.
“In front of all the boys, my dad basically told me that if me being a booker involved getting as far away from Memphis as possible, then he was all for it,” Kevin says. “Basically, I think my dad for years didn’t want Brian or me or any of his friends becoming successful in the business without his help. I think that’s why acted like he never thought much of Eddie, because he knew that Eddie had achieved success and could do again independent of his help.”
In hindsight, though, Kevin views his dad’s initial reaction to his departure as a heel-like bluff. Appropriately enough, Kevin left for Philly on a Monday night after stopping by the Mid-South Coliseum to say goodbye to the boys.
“Back away from everyone else, my dad pulled me aside, gave me $1,000 and told me to be careful and to call him as soon as I got there,” Kevin says.
Kevin had a rude awakening upon arriving in Philly. Upon meeting Tod Gordon, owner of ECW, Kevin quickly figured out the scenario.
“Tod owned a jewelry store in Philadelphia, and he was your typical mark with money who wanted to be in the wrestling business,” he says. “After a few weeks, I could see that Eddie viewed this as just another payday, a company to run into the ground and suck dry, while stroking his ego for the short-term.”
Under Gordon, the company mostly used local wrestlers, including J.T. Smith, an employee at his jewelry store. Eddie used his connections– and Gordon’s money–to bring in established (i.e., older) stars, ostensibly to give the promotion credibility. He booked guys he’d worked with during his first stint in the WWF (Don Muraco and Jimmy Snuka) and legends he’d always admired (Terry Funk and Stan Hansen).
Trouble was, Eddie wasn’t using the older guys to put over and create new stars; he was keeping the old wrestlers on top.
“Basically, I think it was Eddie’s attempt to get himself over with these older guys,” Kevin says. “Eddie wasn’t interested in creating new stars like he’d done before with Bill Watts because he didn’t have a game plan. And it was evident he didn’t want my help with booking decisions.”
Kevin was relegated to helping edit the TV shows and refereeing, along with running Eddie’s errands and screening his phone calls.
“I hate to say it, but he was pretty paranoid at that point,” he says. “He’d never answer the door, and our apartment was always so dark– the blinds and shades were always drawn. He’d lock himself in his room for hours and wouldn’t answer when I’d knock. He always made me answer the phone; it was weird.
“Eddie used to have a stooge named John in Memphis, who accompanied him from town to town. I had a sick feeling that he picked me to serve John’s role in Philadelphia.”
Kevin’s spirits were lifted momentarily when he was turned heel during a match between Eddie and Terry Funk, giving Hot Stuff the win. It was then explained on TV that mild-mannered referee Kevin Christian was in reality Freddie Gilbert, Eddie’s long-lost sibling. Kevin even grew a beard to look more like his “big brother.” (Funny to see Kevin in the above clip mimmic his dad’s cocky facial expressions, much like Eddie had mastered.) Kevin, who later formed a bond with forgotten Funk brother Jimmy Jack, appeared to be stepping into my Cole Haan shoes as the latest-referee-turned-heel under Hot Stuff’s tutelage.
Kevin was fairly happy in his new role, and even grew fond of ECW’s Viking Hall, which was a far cry from the Mid-South Coliseum he practically grew up around.
“Viking Hall is located in a rough part of town, down near the docks, but it was actually a very cool facility,” he says. “People used to make jokes about it being a bingo hall, but it actually fit the promotion very well.”
Around this time, Eddie brought in Paul Heyman, who was working under the name Paul E. Dangerously (as opposed to his old Memphis moniker: Paul E. Dangerly). Although they’d turned around the Continental territory together years earlier, Gilbert and Heyman had a tumultuous relationship. Kevin believes it was because Eddie didn’t always appreciate the young manager’s ideas.
“Paul had a vision that no one else did about what ECW could be,” he explains.
Heyman eventually caught Gordon’s ear, explaining that he needed to create new stars and build up ECW as a rebellious faction that could be a serious thorn in the sides of the WWF and WCW. He advised him to drop the “Eastern” from ECW in favor of “Extreme” to better represent what the company now stood for: the anti-WWF.
“Paul had Tod convinced that, hey, this could really work. Paul was a visionary. He told me at the time that he had recently tried to develop a wrestling promotion with the Crocketts that would stand out because it would the only group broadcast in high definition. When I asked about what ‘high definition’ meant, he said it was the next great big thing in television. I guess he was a little ahead of his time with that one.”
Not everyone was convinced of Heyman’s genius. When Gordon broke the news of Heyman’s takeover as booker to the crew, after what would turn out to be both Eddie’s and Kevin’s last show with the group, Doug Gilbert (Eddie’s legit younger brother) destroyed the catering area with a baseball bat and then stormed off.
Heyman’s success in molding new stars was evident early on. He convinced the Sandman to change his surfer-boy image into the beer-swilling brute gimmick that “Stone Cold” Steve Austin would riff on years later.
“Sandman was hilarious when he had the surfer gimmick,” Kevin says. “He always put this self-tanning lotion on, but he’d do it unevenly and sometimes when wearing his wrestling boots. He’d get undressed later and he’d be about five different shades of orange and pink, with the bottom part of his legs and his feet completely white. After seeing what the gimmick evolved into, it’s hard to imagine him that way.”
The new Sandman quickly turned into one of ECW’s hottest acts, eventually feuding with Raven, another character strongly influenced by Heyman, a program that resulted in some of most personal wrestling angles of all time. No wonder Philly fans it ate up.
While countless wrestling promotions for years tried in vain to imitate Vince McMahon’s WWF, Paul Heyman in the mid-’90s was doing everything he could to distinguish his promotion from the former Fed. For example, despite the fact that Viking Hall (the famed “ECW Arena”) had a sophisticated lighting system, Heyman insisted on keeping ECW’s presentation as gritty as possible–the wrestling equivalent to the rough-cut 16 mm footage that is the original “Texas Chainsaw Massacre.”
“I was shocked that Viking Hall had all these great things you could do with the lights,” recalls Freddie, er, uh, Kevin. “I remember playing around with all that stuff when I first got there, but Eddie [Gilbert] didn’t want to bother with it. When Paul started taking over and having influence, I mentioned the things I could do with the wrestlers’ entrances. He said something like, ‘Nah, it won’t be as good as WWF, so why go there?’”
Although Heyman for the most part reportedly hated working in Memphis in 1987–a Yankee in King’s Lawler’s court–his ECW “hardcore” style was reminiscent of some the Tennessee territory’s grittier moments, such as the infamous Tupelo, Mississippi, concession-stand brawl, and the Jerry Lawler vs. Terry Funk feud. Hell, on April 27, 1987, rookie manager Heyman helped orchestrate more heat in night than Verne Gagne’s AWA did all year. (Granted, that’s not saying too much, with “Cool” Curt Hennig and Greg Gagne on top.) Along with his cronies Austin Idol and Tommy Rich, Heyman (then known as “Paul E. Dangerly) conspired to cut the royal locks of Lawler in one of the most memorable moments in Memphis history. (To make matters worse, in the pre-match hype, Las Vegas-native Idol had promised to refund every audience member’s price of admission should he lose as well as have his own precious bleached-blonde locks snipped. Since the very idea of Lawler losing a hair match at that time was about as unfathomable as Rich winning the NWA World title for a second time, more than 9,000 Memphis fans plucked down their blue-collar cash thinking the Women’s Pet had made a wager he’d soon regret.
Little did the unsuspecting Memphis fans in attendance that night realize that Idol, much the house in Vegas, usually wins when the stakes are high–the ultimate sucker’s bet.
In many ways, Gordon’s wild-card bet on Heyman paid off–though some of the former Philly boys, even to this day, might cringe at the mere mention of ECW payoffs.