"Wrestling Declassified" is a new, weekly series from WrestlingINC.com in which we draw together lesser-known details regarding some of the most noteworthy matches, angles, and stories in pro wrestling history. We'll also include commentary and new information from the men and women of pro wrestling who generously share their reflections for this series. This week, we're going back to 1996 for a look at some infamous moments from the feud between Shane Douglas and Pitbull #1, Gary Wolfe. We're especially grateful to Shane Douglas who provided new and exclusive comments for this article.
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One of the most engaging aspects of Extreme Championship Wrestling during its salad days was the collective ability of the company's talent to effectively and consistently gray the boundaries separating flexible kayfabe from cold, hard reality. Indeed, many ECW storylines brought various aspects of wrestlers' personal trials and tribulations into the ring and in front of the cameras. But the rivalry between "The Franchise" Shane Douglas and Pitbull Gary offered perhaps some of the most infamous moments in the promotion's history, including a fan reaction that threatened to tear apart the fabled ECW arena and bring harm to some of the company's top performers.
After a short stint with WWF, Douglas returned to ECW in early 1996 ready to do battle with the company's top-tier competition. During a four corners match for the ECW Television title at Heatwave '96 against opponents Chris Jericho, 2 Cold Scorpio and Pitbull #2 later that year, Douglas ended up in a scrum with Pitbull #1, delivering a DDT in which Gary's head hit the title belt. Both Shane Douglas and Gary Wolfe offer different explanations as to exactly how and why the injury occurred but neither side disputes that it wasn't entirely clear that Wolfe had suffered a serious injury immediately after the match.
In his interview for the 2005 film Forever Hardcore, Pitbull Gary placed the blame for his injury squarely upon the shoulders of The Franchise.
"He hit me with a move that was supposed to not land me where I landed… Put it that way," Wolfe said. "What happened was, I didn't realize it but it broke my neck. And, uh… Shane did it."
Douglas refuted Wolfe's version of the incident, suggesting that Gary wouldn't listen to his advice on how to take the move and that Wolfe directed his impact into the title belt.
Later in Forever Hardcore, both Douglas and Wolfe recall the events following the match, including Wolfe complaining backstage that he had popped something as a result of the spot and repeatedly jerking his neck to try and get it into place. When Wolfe sought medical attention the next day, hospital staff determined he had suffered a broken neck. As part of his treatment, Wolfe was required to wear a "halo" brace that was secured to his head by pins that were screwed into his skull.
ECW faithful, who were already incensed by Douglas's strong-arm tactics and chicanery were whipped into a frenzy when The Franchise and his double-crossing manager Francine began to make light of Wolfe's injury in the weeks that followed.
"Paul E. had Shane and I do jokes about 'Jerry's Kids' and all this kind of stuff," Francine recalled in Forever Hardcore. "And I was so against it… I mean, I'm saying these jokes and my heart is breaking because I hated doing it."
But where the promos about Wolfe's injury—which Douglas himself has referred to as "tasteless"—upped the ante considerably, Paul Heyman formulated a moment that would almost blow the roof off of the ECW Arena the next time Wolfe and Douglas came face to face. Scotte E. Williams touches upon the most volatile phase of the Shane Douglas/Pitbull #1 feud in his 2006 book Hardcore History: The Extremely Unauthorized Story of ECW:
"Wolfe harbored bitterness toward Douglas for a long time after the accident, but Heyman turned the injury into one of the most viscerally memorable moments in ECW history," wrote Williams. "He booked Wolfe, who had mostly recovered, to intervene in a match involving Durante and Douglas. Douglas grabbed the halo that had been holding Wolfe's head and neck in pace and yanked it. Heat turned into real venom, because fans (who did not know how far along Wolfe's recovery was) were ready to do serious harm to Douglas."
Speaking exclusively for WrestlingINC.com for "Wrestling Declassified", Shane Douglas provided some candid, behind the scenes recollections on how the halo incident unfolded.
"The idea was Heyman's and I was not afraid that Gary would be hurt, as he was supposed to get the halo off the week before that angle," Douglas explained. "He was healed but Paul asked him to keep the halo on an extra week—kudos to Gary for agreeing to do so. That made the angle, because Philly fans had all seen Gary around town for months in the halo, so new his injury was real. When I grabbed him by the halo, the crowd gave an audible collective gasp of horror, which morphed into a collective seething and heated hatred for me. At that moment, right before they begin to rush the ring, the fans were thinking one of the following: 'I pushed the envelope a little too far; Gary allowed himself to be in a bad situation; or Paul wrote the angle bit too far.' What no one considered was that it was just an angle!"
Douglas said that the live crowd's reaction to the in-ring drama was beyond what anyone had expected that night.
"So they rioted and would have done me real harm if they could've gotten their hands on Franny and me," Douglas recalled. "To be honest, I was very concerned for us and did not expect that response from fans. It is very disconcerting to not be in control of what is essentially an out-of-control mob. And a mob can do you harm!"
Well before his dust-up with Pitbull #1, Douglas had proven himself as a maestro of audience manipulation. Indeed, his decisive role in burying the NWA title just two years prior, established The Franchise as one of the ECW's original and most influential standard-bearers. But while controversy surrounded his decision to throw down the NWA title and Gary Wolfe's injury alike, Douglas told WrestlingINC.com that the reactions garnered through each incident were decidedly different.
"When compared to the NWA belt throw-down, it was off-the-charts scarier, as the belt angle was playing to the crowd and the halo angle enraged the mob to become out-of-control," Shane said. "As heels, we are trained to maintain that control. So, if you look closely, you can see me as I'm trying to for a way to get this all back under control!"
Real-world controversy and bad blood between Shane Douglas and Gary Wolfe simmered for many years after Wolfe's original injury. Nevertheless, both men continued to lace up and lock up in the squared circle under the tutelage of Paul Heyman and the watchful eyes of the ECW's devoted fans. But where storylines wind down and wrestlers move on, the pivotal moments in the feud between The Franchise and Piutbull #1 still quicken the pulses of wrestling fans to this day.