ECW/WWE: A Love/Hate Relationship Until The End

Vince McMahon, and by extension the WWE, has always had a love/hate relationship with ECW. Despite his apparent dislike for the company and its stars, he has not hesitated to make money off the brand wherever possible. From the mini-invasion and cross-promotion angle in late 1996 and 1997 to the resurrection of ECW as a WWE television show in 2006, McMahon has willingly utilised ECW’s legacy and rabid fan base for his own benefit.

15 years ago, on July 4th 2006, this became as evident as it ever would be – as the last vestige of hope was torn away, and the dreams of ECW fans were shattered. We’ll get to that, but first, we need to take a look at some of the history.

We all know the story of ECW – the “little promotion that could” until Paul Heyman ran it to the ground financially. Offering a true alternative to the Sports Entertainment being peddled by WWF (as was) and WCW at the time, Extreme (formerly Eastern) Championship Wrestling introduced the western wrestling world to a mixture of chaotic formats, Lucha Libre, Puroresu, and deathmatch style wrestling. From showcasing the legendary Rey Mysterio Jr. vs. Psicosis feud to the ongoing personal animosity between Raven and Tommy Dreamer, ECW knew how to book and promote a rivalry. Just look at all the battles between Rob Van Dam and Jerry Lynn, or the wars between Super Crazy and Yoshihiro Tajiri.

ECW made stars. They took wrestlers that other companies didn’t want, or know how to book, and gave them a platform to show exactly what they were capable of – a prime example being the man we now know as “Stone Cold”, Steve Austin.

In 1996, when Vince first heard of ECW, he quickly set up an angle with an “invasion” of WWF Raw by ECW stars. On February 24 1997, Stevie Richards (along with Super Nova, The Blue Meanie, and 7-11) defeated Little Guido on Raw. Later that night, Taz (with Bill Alfonso) beat Mikey Whipwreck, and Tommy Dreamer (with Beulah McGillicutty) bested D-Von Dudley (seconded by Buh Buh Ray Dudley). We also had cameos from Sabu and The Sandman during the show and Paul Heyman as a guest on commentary.

So far, so good. But the actual cross-promotional shenanigans in 1997 – which essentially was a vehicle for Jerry Lawler to get himself over as a “moral” crusader – failed to deliver. Yes, that Jerry Lawler was being the “righteous” one when it came to the extremity of ECW. Make that make sense? Sorry, I can’t.

In early 2001, ECW, having Extreme financial difficulties (see what I did there?) ran one last show before closing on April 4. We’ve had a look at what could have been, as a fantasy booking if they’d carried on, however, the truth all ECW fans hated to admit was that the company was finished.

But… there was hope!

The 2001 Invasion angle in WWF was initially a breath of fresh air for wrestling fans. The company had survived the Monday Night Wars and seen WCW go out of business. They’d taken some of the best talents from ECW and seen them collapse as well. Fans were left with only one major televised wrestling product and could be forgiven for feeling a little left out. But with Shane McMahon’s buy out of WCW, and the arrival of ECW talent on the July 9 Raw, the Invasion angle was set. Shane’s WCW and Stephanie McMahon’s ECW, with Paul Heyman as an additional figurehead, would do battle with WWF. This would be awesome! Right? We’d finally get a chance to see just how good some of the WCW and ECW wrestlers were! Right? RIGHT?

Well, no. The Invasion lasted all of five months, was horribly booked, and fueled Vince’s ego to bury the opposition even after they were already buried. But, we won’t dwell on that – Matthew Roberts is busy covering this as part of his Retro Reviews, so I’ll leave him to it.

But, wait! There’s fresh hope just a few short years later!

In 2004, WWE Home Video released The Rise And Fall Of ECW and quickly realised just how popular ECW still was amongst its fans. Vince quickly cashed in, announcing ECW: One Night Stand to be held at the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York City on June 12 2005. The event was an incredible success. With Tommy Dreamer and Paul Heyman booking the show it felt like an ECW show. Even the Raw and Smackdown “invaders” couldn’t distract the rabid crowd from their idea of wrestling heaven. Hell, Paul Heyman’s promo against the WWE stars alone could have torn the roof off of the building, with the reaction it received.

One Night Stand was a massive success. The pay-per-view buy rate exceeded expectations – at one time even bringing down the WWE website due to demand – and the critical response from fans and wrestling media was largely positive. This spurred Vince on for a second ECW: One Night Stand on June 11 2006 – headlined by Rob Van Dam cashing in his Money In The Bank briefcase in a 20-minute match against the WWE Champion, John Cena. With a rabid crowd firmly behind him, and following an assist from a motorbike helmet wearing Edge, Rob Van Dam finished the show victorious – holding the WWE Championship aloft.

This was a huge moment for ECW fans. While previous ECW alumni had held the WWE Championship in the past – Mick Foley (as Mankind), Steve Austin, Chris Jericho, and Eddie Guerrero (some could argue for the inclusion of Kurt Angle here, but I won’t) – Rob Van Dam was the first “ECW Original” to win a major world heavyweight title. Additionally, a world title was something that had eluded RVD. While he had set a record for holding the ECW Television Title for 700 days (having to vacate it due to injury) and had twice held the ECW Tag Team Titles with Sabu, he never held the ECW World Heavyweight Title – having lost to Raven in his only two challenges.

The following night, on Raw, the title change was confirmed. Initially under question, due to Paul Heyman being the person who counted the winning pinfall, and not a licensed official, Heyman confirmed McMahon had sanctioned the result. As had been hinted in the build-up to One Night Stand, Heyman announced the renaming of the WWE Championship – declaring it the ECW World Heavyweight Championship. However, RVD decided against this, vowing to keep both titles (having been given the ECW title belt) because he liked the WWE Championship belt itself – in his words “It spins!”

The night after that, on June 13 2006, ECW was officially “revived” as WWE’s third weekly episodic television show, replacing Velocity. Things were looking promising for ECW fans. We’d had two well-received One Night Stand events. We had a TV show – with Joey Styles and Taz (reverting to the single “z” in his name) on commentary and Sabu, Danny Doring, Roadkill, Balls Mahoney, Justin Credible, The Sandman, Little Guido, Tony Mamaluke, Stevie Richards, and Tommy Dreamer all appearing on the first episode. More importantly, ECW Original, legend, and mainstay, Rob Van Dam was the ECW World Heavyweight Champion (and WWE Champion, sure).

What could possibly go wrong?

Well, despite the new show being branded as ECW, and featuring several ECW wrestlers, this is the WWE and all things WWE must obey the word of McMahon – and Vince wasn’t going to let an ECW wrestler be the champion for long. So, on Raw, July 3 2006, Rob Van Dam’s 22-day reign as a double champion ended, with Edge capitalising on a John Cena FU to pin RVD and take the WWE Championship from him.

The following night, on July 4 2006, RVD walked into the ECW show with his ECW World Heavyweight Championship – and the landscape and, for some, the legacy of ECW changed. The show opened with Big Show demanding a title shot. Big Show had “defected” to ECW prior to One Night Stand, on the June 7 WWE vs. ECW Head-to-Head show, and had attacked Tajiri, Super Crazy and the Full Blooded Italians at One Night Stand. RVD, despite having lost the WWE Championship the night before, spoke to Paul Heyman (the “ECW Representative”) and accepted the challenge.

The match itself wasn’t too bad. It was a typical Extreme Rules match between two wrestlers with a size difference. The fights outside the ring allowed a slower pace, Big Show utilised a number of submission holds, and Van Dam repeatedly rallied with an explosive offence. The use of weapons helped where technical wrestling was missing, and things were set for the crowd to cheer home RVD to his first successful televised title defence (after defending against Kurt Angle on a house show).

Things looked like they were going well for RVD, as he brought a chair into the ring. But, Big Show knocked it out of his hands and choke slammed him. RVD managed to kick out at two, which Big Show didn’t like – so he grabbed the referee in a Cobra Clutch, and threw him out of the ring. Big Show lifted RVD for a powerbomb, but RVD brought the chair with him and cracked ‘Show over the head with it. A Van Daminator and Five Star Frog Splash later, RVD covered Big Show with the crowd counting in glee… but there was no referee. Enter Paul Heyman. One… Two…

Then, Heyman did the unthinkable. He stopped the count, stood up, and left the ring. RVD, obviously confused, was left wide open for a chair shot, and (at the insistence of Heyman) a chokeslam onto the chair. Heyman himself would count the three, essentially giving the ECW World Heavyweight Championship to Big Show.

The fans in the arena hated this. For the first time in a long while, a WWE televised product ended with drink bottles and other debris being thrown into the ring. ECW fans had been taken from the ultimate high of RVD becoming a champion by beating John Cena, to Paul Heyman “selling out” ECW’s history and legacy and a “WWE guy” taking the title.

OK, at the time this happened, there was plenty of opportunities to fix this – the possibility of Tommy Dreamer helping RVD in his battle to get the title back, and setting up a Dreamer vs. Heyman feud for “control” of the ECW brand would have been a massive draw for die-hard and new fans alike. But, instead, Dreamer was paired with The Sandman as ECW Originals against the “new school” of Test and Mike Knox, and RVD would lose a #1 Contendership match against Sabu a few months later in August (his first appearance on any WWE TV show since his title loss) and then relegated to a feud with Hardcore Holly.

Big Show, meanwhile defended the title against other WWE stars – Ric Flair, The Undertaker, Kane, and Batista – before he fends off Sabu a month and a half after taking it. These matches all feel like an attempt by WWE to gain traction for their new show – having Ric Flair and The Undertaker appear in consecutive weeks helps identify the brand, and bring recognition to the “new” stars they were building – which ultimately failed, as all it did was make it feel like another WWE show. The Big Show vs. Batista match was booed out of the building, with a “change the channel” chant from the live crowd. The ECW Originals were left feuding with new, young, green wrestlers to try and get them over (admittedly with varying levels of success). The violence was turned down, with “Extreme Rules” matches being the only thing that had any in-ring relevance to the original ECW product. Everything fans loved about ECW was quickly brushed under the ring apron.

Even worse, by the time December to Dismember (what a horrible name for a show) comes around, and Big Show loses the title to Bobby Lashley – instead of CM Punk as Heyman had originally planned – the viewing figures were that low, and the product that diluted, that Heyman himself was let go.

Even with some stand out moments – Hardcore Holly’s back being sliced open while suplexing RVD through a table from the apron – the fans never bought into the show. Hell, Hardcore Holly should have been a perfect fit as a badass who loves inflicting violence, but he was booed on almost every appearance and failed to get over, even after the original ECW fans abandoned ship.

While Vince may have had his pound of flesh out of the brand, using the trademarks and name to garner attention for his own products, nothing ever reached the heights of the first One Night Stand pay-per-view. With the disregard for the wrestlers that had built ECW and the view that they were only there to put over newer WWE athletes firmly in the mind of the audience, WWE’s ECW was a pale shadow of what came before it.

The heart and soul of ECW were tossed aside and left to rot. The fans love of the incredible mixture of pure professional wrestling and extreme violence was discarded in favour of WWE-programmed matches, and carefully planned “Extreme Rules” matches – which were, even then, less extreme than some of the no disqualification and last man standing matches on Raw and Smackdown.

Even the December to Dismember PPV, branded as an ECW show, missed a massive chance to correct things by only advertising two matches before the event, bringing in Raw and Smackdown wrestlers, and ignoring a logical title change that would create a brand new star and elevate interest in the show. Was this a deliberate ploy by Vince to remove the final clutches of the ECW faithful, as has been speculated by more than a few people? Was it another of the “Vince knows best” approaches to professional wrestling? Or was it simply a comedy of errors that ended in a tragedy for a beloved – if flawed – brand? Only Vince knows, and I doubt the rest of us will ever find out.

Eventually, the ECW brand would become somewhat of a prototype for NXT as we know it today, and while it managed to elevate a handful of stars, will always be remembered as a missed opportunity.

The July 4, 2006, ECW show – the fourth episode since the brand’s revival – could have been the catalyst for a true alternative to Raw and Smackdown. It had the draw of the ECW World Heavyweight Championship being defended and could have used that, and the legacy of Rob Van Dam’s 700-day Television Title reign, to catapult the brand into a new era.

Instead, with a Paul Heyman heel turn, Big Show as a champion, and a live crowd visibly hating a new product only four shows in, it was the trigger for its demise. Vince proved, once and for all, that he never cared about ECW other than what it could do for him. The legacy of the company and the faithful fanatical audience provided more eyes on WWE, and that’s all that mattered.

ECW may have long been buried, but in one show, Vince McMahon and WWE signed the final note of its obituary.

More From This Author