Steve Karel is finding new ways of pushing pro wrestling to the extreme.
The behind-the-scenes general manager of Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW) during its 1990s heyday, Karel wants to re-create a cutting-edge vibe with his Urban Wrestling Federation (UWF). Karel hopes to merge the grappling and hip-hop worlds into a new hard-edged genre.
“This is what I call an over-the-top brand of wrestling married with the street culture of the urban environment,” said Karel, whose company’s second offering, Hood Justice, aired recently.
“We also wanted to give it some star sizzle. Instead of having the (storyline) executives of the wrestling group being a bunch of suits or characters like Eric Bischoff and Vince McMahon, we signed hip-hop celebrities of some level and repute with wrestlers as part of their gangs. We’re creating a wrestling environment that rivals Grand Theft Auto.”
Just like that best-selling line of video games, the UWF also features simulated violence that reaches a new level by pro-wrestling standards. For example, UWF’s summertime pay-per-view debut (First Blood) ended with one faction shooting a handgun at a car being driven away by top star Nelson “Homicide” Erazo.
Presented in a more episodic-type fashion than the standard pro-wrestling product through copious backstage vignettes, UWF strongly pushes that its grapplers are fighting for money as well as street cred for the respective rap acts they represent.
“We’re telling the story of the ‘hood through the wrestling ring,” Karel said. “In my eyes, wrestling has missed that over-the-top counterculture-type programming since ECW was done. For the wrestling fan, we’re going as far — if not further — than ECW ever went.
“The best example of that is I don’t remember there ever being a live shootout at the ECW Arena (in Philadelphia).
“We’re using that as a step past the extreme, if you will. The wrestling fan is going to see craziness not attempted before.”
Karel readily admits that the UWF isn’t a family-friendly product. But by aligning himself with rap acts like Brisco, Uncle Murda and 40 Glocc, Karel may be able to tap into minority audiences who are also grappling aficionados.
In a survey conducted by The Sports Poll (a service of TNS), the number of African-Americans and Hispanics who described themselves as “fans” or “avid fans” was double to triple the percentage of the white/Caucasian demographic between 2004 and 2010. However, both minority groups are sorely underrepresented on the WWE and Impact Wrestling talent rosters.
Karel also wants to target a new generation of young white/Caucasian males following in the footsteps of those who once revered ECW’s wild antics before its purchase by WWE in 2001.
“We feel we’re going to get a lot more of the urban audience coming to us, but we want to be very specific that this is not to the exclusion of the traditional over-the-top wrestling audience,” Karel said.
“All the regular wrestling shows out there — what I call homogenized programming — make their owners a ton of money and are tremendously successful.
But some of the same freckle-faced white kids in the middle of a cornfield who are wrestling fans wear the same baggy T-shirts, jeans down low and baseball caps tilted.
“They’ve become in one way or another fans of the culture that was bred out of the urban, hip-hop arena. I feel there is a marketplace to be synergized.”
UWF does face the same mountainous challenges as other startup wrestling promotions, almost all of which quickly fall by the wayside.
Karel — whose background in marketing, production and media relations extends to the adult-entertainment industry as well as other pro-wrestling and mixed-martial-arts companies — hopes that his work experience helps the UWF avoid the same fate.
Karel is working on the development of digital platforms, landing a weekly television spot on a mainstream outlet and making www.urbanwrestlingfederation.com into a destination website.
“You have to have a credible scene that the audience will accept and you’d better be able to deliver,” Karel said.
“This can be said for wrestling or commercials for the latest soap suds for your bathroom.”
Alex Marvez takes a ringside look at the latest in professional wrestling in LIFE on Thursday. Contact him at email@example.com