For many, ECW started on September 18th at Ultra Clash 1993, when Paul Heyman took over as booker and brought in The Public Enemy and Joey Styles. Others might say ECW truly began on August 27th, 1994, when Shane Douglas won the NWA World Heavyweight Championship and proceeded to unceremoniously toss it to the mat in disgust at the idea of being its new owner. As it turns out, ECW was around before Heyman worked his magic and before belts were being buried, and one of the oft-forgotten building blocks for the company was none other than “Hot Stuff” Eddie Gilbert.
Eddie Gilbert and ECW – Building A Reputation
“He had an absolutely brilliant mind that was driven by a second to none passion for the business,” Paul Heyman said of Eddie Gilbert during his appearance on the Steve Austin Show.
It’s hard to disagree with Mr. Heyman when you think of the angles that won Eddie Gilbert the Wrestling Observer Newsletter “Booker Of The Year” award while booker for Bill Watts’s Universal Wrestling Federation.
While he was a great talent in the ring and managed such stars as Sting, Rick Steiner, and Missy Hyatt as part of his “Hot Stuff International” stable, his work as a booker produced many ’80s classics.
Whether it be the legendary after-match brawl between himself, Sting, Terry Taylor, and Chris Adams, which has now become known as “The Battle Of New Orleans,” or the infamous beating of Bill Watts where Eddie set him up to get attacked by a trio of Russians who then almost caused a riot when they buried the cowboy under the dreaded red Soviet Russian flag, “Hot Stuff” had a mind for wrestling that was only matched by his ability in the ring.
Arrival In Philly
Before the arrival of Eddie Gilbert, ECW (then known as Eastern Championship Wrestling) was booked by Larry Winters. When owner Tod Gordon wanted something new instead of the “old school attitude” Larry Winters was presenting, he brought Eddie Gilbert in 1993 to book.
Under Eddie, the shows saw an increase in tighter bookings and long-term storylines, and while Eddie was the main-eventer, he never made it all about him.
“Eddie booked himself in the main events but he never hogged the show,” said ECW fan John Bailey in the book Hardcore History: The Extremely Unauthorized Story of ECW.
The biggest feud Gilbert created in ECW was between himself and hardcore legend Terry Funk. Their feud included chain matches that gave ECW fans the taste of blood that would turn them into wrestling vampires.
Behind the scenes, Eddie (not Tod Gordon, as sometimes reported) brought in Paul Heyman to work as his assistant booker much like Heyman had done with Gilbert in Continental Wrestling, and as Gilbert had done for Heyman in Chicago’s Windy City Wrestling.
It seemed Eddie was going to be around for the long haul, and it seemed especially true when he became a 49% owner of ECW by July 1993.
ECW: Memphis North?
Eddie Gilbert loved Memphis wrestling, specifically Jerry Lawler.
How much did he worship “The King”?
“He grew up as a little boy seeing Jackie Fargo and Jerry Lawler,” said Paul Heyman. “Obviously, he was the world’s biggest Jerry Lawler fan. To the point of obsession.”
Heyman continued, “At times, I thought it was unhealthy for Eddie and that he truly wanted to be Jerry Lawler.
“Eddie married his first wife, the wife before Missy, because she looked like Jerry Lawler’s wife. That was just Eddie’s obsession with Jerry Lawler!”
And just like any fan, Eddie wanted to bring what he loved in Memphis down to Philadelphia, so he started to bring in people to help accomplish that goal.
Things such as resurrecting Hot Stuff International with talents such as himself, Don Muraco, Jimmy Snuka, and his brother Doug Gilbert (who wore a mask and wrestled as The Dark Patriot) as its members.
Hiring Jerry Lawler’s son Kevin Lawler to work in the office and as a referee named Kevin Christian and even declaring himself “The King of Philadelphia” as a take on Lawler’s royal claim as “The King Of Memphis” made it clear that Eddie was looking to turn ECW into the ’90s version of the Memphis wrestling that he loved.
“Hot Stuff” Getting Cold
"Eddie Gilbert wanted ECW to be more of a Memphis-style promotion, and Paul wanted to go the more extreme direction," admitted ECW website designer Brett Schwan in the book Hardcore History: The Extremely Unauthorized Story of ECW.
In wrestling, creative is vital, and it seemed that while Eddie was set in his ways, Heyman was starting to see the flaws in his mentor’s ideas.
"Eddie was a mentor, and I was Eddie’s protégé. The difference in our philosophies," Heyman acknowledged, "was Eddie was always influenced by and wanted to re-create angles that he saw in Memphis many, many years earlier. ‘So, this is what Jerry Lawler did in 77 with Jackie Fargo.’ ‘This is what Bill Dundee did with Buddy Landel.’ And he would want to put a different spin or twist on it, but essentially, he just wanted to do the things that he had seen growing up."
Heyman continued, "I always felt tasked to do something new and different and never before done. First time ever. A different approach. A new twist on things. So, that was the only conflict that we really had. Eddie wanted to rehash but update, and I wanted to start from a blank piece of paper and make things up from the get-go."
But, it wasn’t just creative conflicts that were causing “Hot Stuff” to be in some hot water.
Eddie wasn’t doing himself any favors when he apparently hit on Tod Gordon’s wife and also had lied to Tod about Jim Crockett offering Eddie the job of booking Crockett’s World Wrestling Network promotion if he did not receive a matching offer to stay with ECW (which Tod did do by giving him a raise of nearly 20% more than the offer that had never been made.
When Heyman told Tod that HE was already the booker of World Wrestling Network after Tod had given Eddie the raise, the fuse was lit, and Eddie was on borrowed time in Philly.
When Kevin Lawler was involved in an angle that saw him leave Gilbert’s group, Tod praised the angle that Eddie came up with, but Lawler corrected him.
Heyman had come up with the idea for the angle, not Eddie, and Tod now saw that someone else could do the job perhaps better than Eddie.
Eddie Gilbert and his Messy Departure from ECW
“It all came down to power,” said Terry Funk. “Paul wanted to be the boss. He wanted Eddie’s job.”
In September 1993, the National Wrestling Alliance held a convention, and they all seemed very interested in their newest member: ECW.
Because of Jim Crockett’s association with the NWA and Eddie’s previous problems with Crockett due to his handling of when Crockett bought the UWF and buried many of its stars, it seemed the time was almost up for Eddie.
Tod and Eddie had one final conversation in front of several ECW wrestlers that eventually turned into an angry swearing shout fest.
After just six months, Eddie Gilbert was gone from ECW, and Paul Heyman would take over before the biggest show that ECW had done at that point: Ultra Clash 1993.
Eddie made one last appearance at this show, signing autographs and selling merchandise before entering the ring and asking the fans to continue to support ECW and that he was leaving on good terms. His leaving was not because ECW had joined the NWA, he assured, which the fans had only learned when it was announced by Tod Gordon on the same show.
A couple of weeks later, Eddie shared a letter to the Wrestling Observer Newsletter, where he would comment on his departure and how his friendship with Heyman had ended.
"I did, in fact, resign from ECW when I got the information that we would be working together with Jim Crockett," wrote Gilbert. "The date of my resignation was September 7, the same day I got the news about the so-called merger. I felt it wasn’t in our best interest at ECW to give away any momentum we had started to someone else who didn’t have anything to offer us in return.
"The actions that transpired after that date, especially on the 9/18 card, cost me the closest friendship I’ve ever maintained in this business. I gave the speech ‘that no one knew about’ because I was worried about how my departure would be handled. I really just wanted to leave with my head held high."
ECW would continue under Paul Heyman and would soon become the company that everyone says was the true spark of the ’90s wrestling revolution.
Eddie Gilbert would continue to wrestle but would sadly pass away on February 18th, 1995, from a heart attack at the young age of 33.
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