The ECW Mass Transit incident is part of wrestling lore. Extreme Championship Wrestling was known for its cutting-edge, often counter-culture wrestling angles and storylines and its violent, often bloody in-ring style. However, on November 23, 1996, ECW provided fans attending a house show more violence than they ever intended. This is what happened.
Eric Kulas had just turned 17 years old. He was a young man attempting to earn a name for himself and hoping to achieve this by working a house show for ECW. Like a lot of aspiring wrestlers, Kulas got to the arena early, and he’d packed his gear along. An old rule of thumb in the wrestling business: Always carry your gear, because you never know when a promoter might need an extra hand. Kulas’s gimmick at the time was Mass Transit, a parody of Jackie Gleason’s character Ralph Kramden in The Honeymooners. It was also a name that reflected his rather large size. What Kulas wanted was to be accepted and respected by his peers.
The Mass Transit Incident was a moment that changed the course of ECW and jeopardized the company’s future.
After Axl Rotten no-showed the event, ECW booker Paul Heyman was left without a tag-team partner for D-Von Dudley for a match against the Gangstas. Kulas–with his father, Stephen, vouching for him–volunteered to take Rotten’s place. Heyman claims that Kulas said he was 23 years old and that he’d been trained by legendary wrestler Killer Kowalski. Graduating from Kowalski’s school was no easy feat, and Heyman had good experience with wrestlers from Kowalski. Former ECW tag team champions The Eliminators (Perry Saturn and John Kronus) had come from Kowalski’s school. He was also responsible for training the WWE’s Hunter Hearst Helmsley and Chyna.
The problem: Kulas lied. He hadn’t been trained by anyone, let alone Kowalski. He also lied about his age in order to get in the ring. Kulas told Heyman he was 23. New Jack remembers Kulas saying he was 20. Some sources say he claimed to be 19. Regardless, it’s pretty clear that the teenager was dishonest about his age and experience in order to get on the show.
Backstage, Kulas reportedly alienated the locker room with his behavior. In hindsight, it’s easy to see why. An untrained kid with no idea of how to behave in the ring or behind the scenes had been allowed admission into a closely knit locker room. At some point prior to the match, Kulas was told he’d need to “get color” in his match with the Gangstas. The youngster had never bladed before, so he asked New Jack to do it for him.
Ever see the Gangstas work? It’s not so much a match as a mauling, with New Jack or partner Mustafa Saed bringing all sorts of detritus to the ring in order to use it against their opponents. D-Von was a trusted member of the ECW crew. Kulas was not. He took the brunt of the Gangstas savage beating, and then New Jack used a surgical scalpel to open up Kulas’s forehead. The Gangsta cut deep–too deep, as it turned out–and severed two arteries in Kulas’s forehead. Blood spouted from his head like a fountain, and fans at ringside discovered the meaning of “arterial spray.”
The match was originally slated to be a squash. D-Von was beaten down outside the ring while being isolated by both Saed and New Jack. Once the Gangstas finished working on D-Von, they beat down Kulas inside the ring, hitting him with a number of foreign objects, in particular, toasters and crutches. As the match drew to a close, New Jack held the prone Kulas by the head and cut him across the forehead using the surgical scalpel. Kulas immediately was screaming in agony. He fell onto his back, but then immediately rolled onto his stomach, witnessing the pool that was forming as blood spilled from his injury. It shot from his forehead like water from a broken water main. Fans knew that ECW talent was known for spilling blood as a means of helping to further the story in the ring. However, this was beyond any previous, normal blade job fans had seen.
Blading was common practice in wrestling and innumerable wrestlers before and since have either done it themselves or via the assistance of an opponent. However, Kulas’ bleeding had a profound effect on both him and ECW.
Because Kulas was 17, he was too young to compete legally. Since the event wasn’t televised, the promotion hoped that what took place might fly under the radar. But the footage was available through ECW’s ‘FanCam.’ During the video, New Jack could be heard, after cutting Kulas, asking “You alright?” which led some to believe that his response was part of the match. However, both New Jack and Saed continued to beat on him after the blading.
Available footage also includes Kulas’ father Stephen crying out, “Take it easy on him! He’s just a kid … Ring the fucking bell. He’s 17!” It was at this point where medics in attendance rushed to the ring to care for the injured teenager. While medical staff was tending to Kulas, New Jack picked up a microphone and shouted to those in attendance.
“I don’t care if the motherfucker dies! He’s white. I don’t like white people. I don’t like people from Boston. I’m the wrong nigga to fuck with.”
The moment was controversial in more ways than one, due not only to what happened during the match, but what was said after.
While it could be said that the company moved past this event, it was forever entrenched as a part of ECW’s history. The mass transit incident remains an enormous asterisk on the promotion’s achievements, as it could have been the company’s end before it truly had an opportunity to flourish. Shortly after the incident, syndicated news show Inside Edition interviewed the Kulas family.
During the program, the Kulas family presented Eric as the victim of an attack instead of a willing participant in a wrestling match. He was presented throughout the segment as someone unprepared for the events that took place during the match. They were not only supported by the television program, but the show also attacked ECW for the promotion’s failure to protect the teenager. The footage the program used showed New Jack cutting Kulas, and how he was being scolded. During the interview, the family pointed out that Heyman hadn’t asked for proof of age nor identification. The segment painted ECW in a negative light, and in the process, alienated ECW’s pay-per-view provider, Request TV. The company was gearing up for its inaugural pay-per-view event, Barely Legal, but as a result of the Mass Transit incident, Request TV canceled the broadcast.
It took a lot of begging and pleading on the part of Heyman for the PPV provider to finally relent and broadcast Barely Legal, some five months later in April 1997.
The Inside Edition interview culminated with the Kulas family claiming they would be launching a lawsuit against ECW. However, the program only gave one side of the story, highlighting only Kulas’ reaction and the result of New Jack’s actions. What it didn’t make clear, as it hadn’t been made public at this point, was the fact that Kulas was a willing participant in the Mass Transit incident and the events during the match.
The legal fallout after the Mass Transit Incident:
A few years after the Mass Transit incident took place, Jerome ‘New Jack’ Young was charged with assault and battery with a weapon by the Kulas family. While on trial, Young revealed that Kulas had asked him to “get color,” which means to intentionally be cut so blood is drawn. His desire to get color was so that he would have battle scars he could display since pro wrestling was something he was eager to be a part of. Other witnesses validated Young’s claims that Kulas wanted to be cut and it was always a part of the booking for the match.
After hearing all the testimony, the jury acquitted Young of criminal charges. However, this wasn’t the last legal battle between Kulas and New Jack, as civil charges were also laid. After the trial, Young was declared not liable civilly, either. It was also revealed that Eric’s father had screamed, “He’s only 17!” and, “Take it easy on him, he’s just a kid!” This revelation was detrimental to their case, as his father knew full well that he was involved in something that included risk, knew that something could happen, and of course, knew that his son was underage. Not to mention the fact that Kulas continued to play the role of the heel as he was escorted to the backstage area while bleeding profusely.
What came out during the legal deliberations was that authorities recognized that Kulas wasn’t authentic in his responses. He had been dishonest with Heyman, not only about his ring experience but his age as well. While Kulas was in fact 17 years of age, he had claimed to be 19 (or 20, or 23, depending on who he was talking to at the time). He also claimed that he was trained by the late Killer Kowalski, something else that wasn’t true. Kulas was guilty of duplicity, and his father was complicit as he had vouched for his age. Kulas not only didn’t have the experience that he claimed to have, he didn’t have any experience at all. While the blading was quite heinous, it could have been worse considering his lack of ring experience. In fact, it was Stephen Kulas that approached ECW officials about allowing his son to compete. Heyman revealed that Kulas’ credentials were endorsed by a notable midget wrestler, known as Tiny the Terrible who supported his claim that he was trained by Kowalski. The reality was that Kulas was duplicitous, and was just a 17-year-old fan who wanted to wrestle, who in doing so was willing to run the risk of being seriously injured due to not fully knowing what was ahead of him.
Once Kulas’ deception was revealed, New Jack says he didn’t feel any remorse towards him for what had been done. New Jack later revealed that Kulas came up to him before the match and asked since the match was in his hometown of Boston, he wanted to have a couple of spots, despite knowing he would ultimately be losing. The request by Kulas to ‘get a couple of spots in’ was said to have upset New Jack, and his response was that he would ‘go down in history.’ It appears New Jack intended to make an example of Kulas. While it was revealed that Kulas did ask New Jack to cut him, it was New Jack who wanted to create a lasting memory at this house show in Revere, Massachusetts. New Jack never held back his thoughts about Kulas, before or after the incident. A few short years after their court case, Kulas passed away at the age of 22 due to complications from gastric bypass surgery.
New Jack, never one to want to let things be, didn’t hold back: “I hope he rots in motherfucking hell, that fat bastard.”
What are fans today to make of the incident that took place over twenty years ago? The question that we can ask is, what if? While all that took place didn’t ultimately dictate the future of the company, it certainly delayed their progression. Had the Mass Transit incident not taken place, ECW’s pay-per-view provider wouldn’t have pulled the plug on the company’s inaugural Barely Legal event.
The accusations made initially by Kulas and his family, while untrue, don’t diminish the fact that New Jack did take liberties with Kulas in the ring. And that wasn’t the first–or last–time. Jack admittedly tried to kill Vic Grimes during a match and has shot on veteran wrestler Gypsy Joe, as well as stabbing an independent wrestler multiple times during a match. Young was also no stranger to being criminally charged for violent acts, for incidents that occurred outside the ring, and thus was an easy a target for the accusations. The ugly Mass Transit incident remains one of the darkest moments in ECW’s history, and one that will always be tied to the promotion.
Jonny Candido, the brother of the late Chris Candido, related his brother’s memories of what took place with Kulas as well. “My brother told me the story. The Mass Transit fella obviously didn’t have the slightest idea about locker room etiquette. He ran up on New Jack telling him what he was going to do. When you’re starting out, just as a rule you go up and shake everyone’s hand. And always let the veterans call the match unless they tell you otherwise. He forged his waiver (he was underage) and ran up to Jack telling him how “his” match was gonna go. He was just there to be a squash for Jack, but he wanted to get all kinda crazy heat and was just being disrespectful. Then, he was scared to get color so he asked Jack to get it for him. At that point, Jack didn’t need much persuading …”
According to the book ‘The Rise and Fall of ECW,” Heyman had asked for photo identification, and Kulas provided fake identification. However, during the Kulas court proceedings, it was claimed that Heyman didn’t ask for identification. Here was Heyman’s account of the events that took place:
“Axl Rotten couldn’t make the show. Something happened. Backstage there was a kid who claimed he was trained by Killer Kowalski in Boston. He had a resume that claimed he was about 21 or 22 years old. One of the referees said he knew the kid. He said he had seen him on independent shows. He was big, about 400 pounds, a fat white kid, about 5-foot-9, a big blubbery guy from Rhode Island. He was dressed up like a bus driver, and he looked like Ralph Kramden. He called himself Mass Transit. Well, he had a phony resume, and he was illegally working some shows in Rhode Island, but the referee never knew it. This kid came in with a midget called Tiny the Terrible, a pretty well-known midget. I asked Tiny, ‘You know this guy?’ Tiny said, ‘Yeah, he is one of Kowalski’s top students and has been wrestling for a couple of years. Sure, I will vouch for him.’ So I put him out there with D-Von against the Gangstas. Before the match, New Jack says to him, ‘Do you want to cut a blade?’ The kid says, ‘No, can you do it for me?’ It wasn’t really done that often, that you would let somebody else cut you, but it wasn’t so out of practice that it was a heinous violation of the wrestlers’ code.”
Heyman also points out that even he believed that New Jack went too far when he cut Kulas. He also said that Kulas’ reaction could have contributed to it looking far worse than it actually was. “But the kid panicked and started screaming … The kid was bleeding pretty bad, but it was from the forehead, which always looks bad but it is not life-threatening.”
That seems to sum up the entirety of the Mass Transit incident: It looked bad enough for the promotion’s pay-per-view provider to drop their first event, but even that situation didn’t prove fatal for ECW.