For my money, Taz is the best manager in professional wrestling. There are a lot of managers in wrestling at the moment, particularly in AEW, where Taz plies his trade as the hypeman for Brian Cage and Ricky Starks. In my recap of this week’s Dynamite, I noted that Taz, in a very short period of time, has made Cage one of the most interesting acts on the roster, a legitimate contender for both of AEW’s singles titles, and elevates Starks from being someone signed for their potential to someone worthy of featuring now. Compare that to the other managers on AEW’s roster—Jake Roberts, Arn Anderson, Vickie Guerrero, all of whom are attached to established acts who don’t necessarily need a manager to insinuate themselves into the tapestry of the company—and it’s a wonder that Taz had really only been given the opportunity to do this job, a unique and underappreciated one in the history of wrestling, once before, when he was Samoa Joe’s manager in Impact Wrestling back in 2009.
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There is something about Taz in this role that pops for me. I called him “The Human Enthusiasm Machine” this week after he went all in on Brian Cage’s various muscle groups, but there’s more to it than the fact that he seems to be having the time of his life out there. There’s a genuine edge to him, a real “I’ve been there, I’ve seen that, I’ve survived” nature to his posture and his way of speaking that’s been honed in a different way than his cohort, some of whom are learning on-camera non-wrestling roles on the fly. Primarily a color commentator to this point in his life after wrestling, Taz has spent the better part of two decades putting over talent in wrestling. This is not an article about his commentary, but I like it plenty, too. It’s exuberant, knowledgable, and folksy all at once, maybe the closest thing that wrestling has had to Gorilla Monsoon, were Monsoon the kind of guy who’d punch your lights out for looking at him the wrong way. That’s not the kind of vibe managers usually bring to the equation, but in making the transition from the desk to ringside, that’s what he’s done, reclaiming his turf as one of the most compelling promos in the game, as well.
Until now, Taz has largely existed for me as a vague notion, one of dozens of wrestlers I’m familiar enough with due to my passing familiarity with ECW through WWE’s endless re-evaluation of the company and its place in wrestling history. I was 10 when Taz was the ECW World Heavyweight champion. I was 12 when he debuted in WWE with an extra “z” in his name, the impact of which didn’t hit me until WWF No Mercy came out on the Nintendo 64 later that year, his inclusion in which introduced a ton of gross-looking suplexes that feature in the movesets of virtually every create-a-wrestler I’ve made since. But his time in the WWE, from his debut at the 2000 Royal Rumble to his 2002 retirement due to mounting neck injuries, was a continuing downward slope from his victory over Kurt Angle. Within two months, he went from that win over one of the WWE’s biggest can’t miss prospects to losing a hardcore battle royal at WrestleMania, for reasons I can’t quite understand. Whether it was his quasi-legitimate technical bruiser style being seen as less necessary with the signing of Chris Benoit later that month or the WWE historically not being a haven for smaller wrestlers, he just kind of faded into the background, feuding with Jerry Lawler, weathering abuse from Steve Austin during the WCW/ECW Invasion Angle, and retiring. Through no fault of his own, he was suplexes in a video game—that’s just how things were if you weren’t an ECW obsessive with a library of tapes.
So I fell in love with Taz through his recent work on Dynamite and worked backwards. ECW is such a strange promotion to me—chaotic by design and out of necessity, as it was their roster that got raided to fuel the war between WCW and WWE—in that virtually every roster member who spent a significant amount of time there before leaving without the perception that they screwed the company over is put over as “the franchise” or “the heart and soul” of ECW. Shane Douglas was The Franchise, of course, but Terry Funk, Tommy Dreamer, the Dudley Boys, Rob Van Dam, Sabu (even if he was “guilty” of betraying the promotion a few times)—all of them are simultaneously ECW’s heartbeat, the guys who meant the most to the fans at the ECW Arena, who lived and died by what those wrestlers did. Taz was that also, but I’m going to make a wild, uninformed claim here and argue that in addition to being a part of ECW’s identity, he wound up becoming its ace.
So, let’s talk about the identity of Extreme Championship Wrestling. Founded in 1992 by Tod Gordon as Eastern Championship Wrestling, a National Wrestling Alliance affiliate that was the successor of Joel Goodhart’s Tri-State Wrestling Alliance, ECW was an interesting mishmash of local guys from the area and established talent who were no longer on television for one reason or another. On the older end of the established talent spectrum you had guys like Jimmy Snuka and Don Muraco. On the younger end, you had guys like Too Cold Scorpio and Shane Douglas. Initially booked by “Hot Stuff” Eddie Gilbert, Paul Heyman, freshly fired from World Championship Wrestling, took the book from him in 1993 and, in 1994, orchestrated the event that changed the “E” in “ECW” from “Eastern” to “Extreme,” when Shane Douglas won a tournament for the vacant NWA World Heavyweight Championship, threw the belt down, and proclaimed the era of extreme.
ECW, then, was for the outlaws. It was for the misfits. The people who didn’t fit in with the cartoonier versions of wrestling made by its much larger peers in Stamford and Atlanta. Paul Heyman frequently compares Extreme Championship Wrestling to Nirvana in terms of its relationship to the mainstream—here are all of these plodding dinosaurs, and here’s this young, hungry thing kicking down doors and changing the world. Heyman, one of wrestling’s most able networkers, drew loads of talent to the “world famous” ECW Arena in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, from WCW talent he’d connected with before he left the promotion to Japanese and Mexican stars you had to trade tapes to know about. Wrestlers who’d been given moribund gimmicks in their past lives in WCW and the WWF were rehabilitated and revitalized in ECW. People you’d never think of as draws became just that. Plenty of words have been used to describe what was happening in ECW—Paul Heyman was a mad scientist, ECW was a cult—and watching it back with the fresh eyes of someone who wasn’t there when it happened, a lot of them feel honest to the moment.
In the beginning, Taz was known as “The Tazmaniac,” a fur-and-loincloth crazyman gimmick who mostly stuck to the tag team division, winning the titles with three different partners (including Kevin Sullivan and Sabu) before hurting his neck in July 1995. When he returned later that year, his fur-lined singlet and wildman mannerisms were gone, and in their place stood Taz, a seriously pissed-off man clad in orange and black whose stock-in-trade was stiff strikes, brutal suplexes, and a katahajime chokehold dubbed the Tazmission. There is something intensely satisfying about the way Taz carried himself in the ring, a short, muscular man whose arsenal resembled the suplex and clothesline heavy style of the Steiner Brothers, whose build wasn’t an impediment to him popping his hips and dumping someone 100 pounds heavier than him on their neck. And his promos—glowering, intense, and to the point, Taz lived to fight, thrived on matchups where he’d get his ass kicked just as much, if not moreso, than he’d kick someone else’s.
The Ace of ECW
That switch—from caveman to quasi-legitimate wrestler—and the success that followed is part of the ECW mythos. It happened at a time when the Ultimate Fighting Championship was growing in popularity, drawing pay per view buyrates that sometimes eclipsed those of the World Wrestling Federation by the end of 1995. The WWF and WCW would eventually cotton to the growing popularity of mixed martial arts (albeit very differently, as WWF would sign UFC stars Ken Shamrock and Dan Severn to deals in 1997 and WCW would try to do cartoony, Mortal Kombat-style pit fighter gimmicks before eventually signing Tank Abbott), but Paul Heyman and Taz picked up on the sport’s potential for crossover appeal before John McCain dubbed it human cockfighting. It was an unnervingly of-the-moment gimmick, something that worked partially because of how hazily conceived the sport of MMA was, partially because of how violent and dangerous it was perceived as being, and largely because Taz was utterly real in the role.
When I say “real” I don’t mean in the sense that MMA is real or wrestling isn’t, but that Taz came across as a real person who took pride in his job and his ability, which he honed to the point that he was no longer a wrestler. He was a machine, and it takes more than a conventional wrestler to put a machine down. Taz’s matches from 1996-1999 look and feel like prizefights whether or not there’s a championship on the line, regardless of whether he’s squashing somebody quickly or fighting someone he’s been wanting to meet in the ring for months. In an era where the powerbomb was the biggest killshot in wrestling, Taz was taking and shrugging them off in the opening seconds of the match. He went places you wouldn’t expect, like chain wrestling Sabu and methodically picking him apart or trading bombs with the much larger Bam Bam Bigelow, and made it work, no matter who his opponent was. When wrestlers like Scorpio, Chris Jericho, and Rey Mysterio left ECW for other companies, their last shots in the promotion often involved getting choked out by Taz, so when he said “beat me if you can, survive if I let you,” there was real bite to it.
Taz’s run from 1996-1999 is a blueprint for a style of wrestler and a kind of match that’s integral to wrestling today. There were wrestling machines before and after Taz, but it’s the grit and bitter edge of the Human Suplex Machine that informs a lot of technically proficient, hard hitting “street shooter” gimmicks that’ve come since. There’s also a lot of Taz’s clashes with Bigelow in WWE’s shift towards superheavyweight title matches, brief, violent encounters that begin and end with wrestlers throwing their best shots until someone can’t stand. This is especially noticeable early in Brock Lesnar’s return to WWE, when his gameplan was to suplex someone until they could no longer defend themselves against a signature submission hold, in this instance Lesnar’s kimura.
It’s surprising how little credit Taz gets for this, especially considering that he is generally attributed with changing the visual language of wrestling. When Taz debuted the Tazmission upon his debut, submission finishes were accomplished verbally, meaning that if a submission was to be the conclusion of the match, the referee just called for the bell when it made sense to do so. The katahajime being a choke, verbal submission wasn’t possible and the tap out was transposed from combat sports to professional wrestling and took off from there, as the story goes. Whether or not that story is true depends on how painstaking you want to be in your documenting of the long, mercurial history of the art, but that’s part of how WWE has chosen to remember ECW, attributing something that changed how submissions are taken in by the eye, something that added an entirely new dimension of storytelling and cliche to one man. And if that’s true, it stands to reason that someone like Taz’s influence is more profound than what one can convey through an anecdote on a DVD.
Which brings us back to his current role in AEW. I’ve been trying to figure out why Taz is so engaging as a manager, and I think that’s it. When he came back to ECW in late 1995, he was pissed off because the only person who hadn’t forgotten him was Bill Alfonzo. When he debuted as Brian Cage’s manager, he did so as a man whose wrestling career had been overshadowed by years of color commentary, whose accomplishments in the ring were largely framed as part of the package deal that was Extreme Championship Wrestling. Taz hasn’t been forgotten in reality, but his character’s unending belief that he’s been shown grave disrespect is what fuels him, and the fact that what he did to change professional wrestling is buried on the “In-Ring” section of the WWE Network means that he still has something to prove.
His character is one of the most interesting ones in wrestling. He’s building a team grounded not just in the image he projected as a wrestler, but as someone who stayed in wrestling once his in-ring career finished, who has seen it change and evolve as an analyst and knows a good horse to back when he sees one. He makes me excited to watch his men wrestle. His presence adds something when they win or lose. The next time he adds someone to Team Taz, I know it’ll mean something. He’s accomplished this in less than three months as a manager, and a lot of that is because he manages to convey the same fire he had in ECW, when he was a much younger man with a much larger chip on his shoulder. Watching Taz now, you get the sense that if he could still go he’d gladly punch Jon Moxley in the mouth, but that since he can’t he’s figured out how to take pleasure in watching Brian Cage do it for him. That’s a good place for an ex-wrestler to start as a manager. It’s an exciting way to begin a third life in professional wrestling.