In 1994, a gritty alternative to the WWE and WCW emerged from Philadelphia, Pennslyvania and changed the way professional wrestling was consumed.
This was ECW, Extreme Championship Wrestling, and it’s violent style that featured more weapons, more innovative moves and more interaction with the crowd really gave birth to what WWE exploited a few years later in their Attitude Era. But how did this innovative brand end up getting sunk by WWE after they acquired it and rebranded it?
The original ECW was so unique and loved by fans for so many reasons. It was the first major wrestling promotion that had no rules and no disqualifications, and because of this, it was able to go that much further than the WWE or WCW, so it provided a fresh alternative to fans. It wasn’t all about the extreme side of things, though. ECW boasted such a deep, talented roster that it could put on some of the best wrestling matches in the world. Eddie Guerrero, Rey Mysterio, Dean Malenko, RVD, Sabu and the Dudley Boyz all featured for Paul Heyman’s alternative show.
Heyman himself was a big reason that fans loved the show. His mind for the business is unparalleled and that shows from how he’s seen by wrestlers and fans alike. A man who has been in the industry since he was 14, taking photos for the WWWF at Madison Square Gardens, he grew from his experiences and was able to bring fresh and exciting content to the masses. His promotion encouraged attendees to be involved, and that therefore brought a whole new type of fandom – passionate and loyal to their brand.
So when ECW found it’s demise in 2001 after being unable to find a new TV deal, they were heartbroken and had nowhere to turn. Until 2005, when WWE brought ECW back from the dead and had a showcase PPV named One Night Stand. One Night Stand featured everything that fans loved about the original ECW – fast paced, exciting matches that were either hardcore, or had fantastic technical wrestling. To the diehard fans of ECW, this was the final true ECW show.
They followed up a year later with a second One Night Stand, with the main event being WWE Champion John Cena vs RVD, and the hate for Cena was out of control. Everybody has seen the famous “If Cena wins, we riot!” sign held in the stands that night, and this was a true sign of how ECW fans saw the WWE – they were the punky alternative to the mainstream, so for them to now have the mainstream in their backyard, they were not happy, and they showed it. They made the leader of the Cenation’s night a living hell, booing him constantly, throwing his merch back at him and chanting him out of the building. Genuinely, if Cena had prevailed that night, all hell would have broken loose.
However, with the success of the One Night Stand shows, WWE saw an opportunity. It brought back ECW as a separate brand to Raw and SmackDown, and although ECW initially seemed like it could have that special something again, it steadily brought in the mainstream rules such as count outs, DQs and rope breaks. Once the alternative, ECW had now become everything that it hated, and hope for a true reimagining of the older style was extinguished.
Basically ECW was finished the moment it couldn’t get a TV deal back at the turn of the millennium, because being on a network means that sometimes companies need to pander to the will of the executives. The original ECW would not bend on this – they were the alternative and had to continue being edgy to stay competitive. The first show of the reimagined ECW under the WWE banner proved that TV networks and ECW did not mix.
In 2006, WWE already had two shows on network television – Raw on the USA network, and SmackDown on UPN, before moving to The CW. They needed to find a place for ECW, and they did on the Sci-Fi network. However, to help grease the wheels on this, WWE said they would feature some sort of link between WWE and Sci-Fi. Enter The Zombie.
The Zombie was a character created for the ECW/Sci-Fi brand so that fans of the network’s shows might tune in to see if they’d be interested in this new take on wrestling from WWE. If they did end up watching, that would have been the last time. He was put up as fodder to The Sandman’s cane, and after a hellacious beat down at the hands of the ECW legend, The Zombie never rose from the dead again. For some fans however, the damage had already been done.
It didn’t get any better, as the show continued to bring in established WWE stars. This was most evident when they had Batista face Big Show for the ECW Championship – usually a decent match for a main event of a card – and the fans booed them out of the building. Heckled all match, including the famous chant of “Change the channel!”. Heyman knew he was at the head of an already sinking ship after the first few months, and was starting to get frustrated at how Vince was meddling in his affairs. Vince has obviously done things his way for over 20 years by this point, and while sometimes innovative, he has been known to be somebody who thinks “It’s my way or the highway”.
This came to a head at the December to Dismember pay per view. Heyman’s plan for the Extreme Elimination Chamber was for new guy CM Punk to win over the Big Show, but Vince wanted musclebound superhero Bobby Lashley to win, and he got his way. The whole show was a mess from start to finish. Remember that this was ECW – Extreme Championship Wrestling – and they featured a match between Balls Mahoney and Matt Striker that went against everything ECW stood for. The show also had only two matches advertised before the start of the PPV, so nobody knew what to expect, and it showed how unprepared they were.
The real problems came in the Extreme Elimination Chamber though. First of all, they made up an imaginary injury for Sabu to be written out of the match. Who did they replace him with? The Sandman, maybe? No. They did have Hardcore Holly though. In a world title match. In 2006! If that doesn’t show you how much trouble they were having with ECW six months in, nothing will. Punk, who was the most popular new guy in the promotion, ended up getting eliminated first, even though he was scheduled to win the title under Heyman’s original plan. They ended up putting the title on Bobby Lashley, who the hardcore fans didn’t engage with. Big Show recognised this would blow up in their faces and told Vince how he felt, and wanted Punk to win so that they could make him a rising star.
Big Show and Heyman’s concerns were correct, and Heyman made his feelings known to McMahon, which resulted in him being sent home and ultimately let go by the WWE. This led ECW down a path with no creative direction from somebody who knew what they fans wanted, and it was swallowed further down into the depths of despair.
But things always happen for a reason, and even though ECW was considered a failure in the most part, there were massive positives, although positives that wouldn’t save the brand.
The main positive for ECW was that it helped build new talent. Because of fewer eyes on the brand, WWE felt that they could use this platform to take stars from Ohio Valley Wrestling or Florida Championship Wrestling and allow them to work more on TV. Wrestling in a ring with just a crowd of a few hundred people is extremely different to working in an arena with a few thousand watching. One of the biggest differences is that going from a developmental brand to a main roster show allowed the talent to work on angles for all of the cameras.
ECW boasts a huge alumni section of top tier talent in WWE – Bobby Lashley, The Bella Twins, Zack Ryder, Curt Hawkins, CM Punk, Evan Bourne, John Morrison, The Miz, Natalya, Sheamus, Tyson Kidd and current WWE champion Kofi Kingston. Needless to say that many of these stars are complimentary about their time with the brand. It gave them a boost in confidence that they wouldn’t have received had the third brand not been there for them, as finding space on the main roster during that period was hard enough, even though during this period, The Great Khali was in the World Heavyweight Championship picture.
Many superstars in NXT today have said how important working in front of the cameras has been for their development. Granted, some wrestlers take to it like a fish to water, whereas others need more work. Regardless though, it is great experience for people who have only worked in the indies before WWE.
ECW was a flagging show for several years before it was pulled from the TV schedule in 2010, and just one week later, NXT began. This shows to me that while ECW was supposedly considered a third brand, it was actually their developmental system after talent had left OVW/FCW. So without everybody realising it, WWE was extending their system to teach people the product, and it worked.
Look at the success NXT has nowadays. Granted when it started, it wasn’t as high of a quality show as it is today. ECW was the first instance of showing up and coming talent on TV without having to thrust them straight into somewhere they might not ready to be, and that has built the idea of what NXT could be.
NXT today is more of a third brand than ECW ever was in all honesty. It’s had more of it’s own PPVs after all. I still shudder to this day thinking about December to Dismember. But in all truth, if WWE had not experimented with bringing ECW back to life, albeit a monstrosity of what it was before WWE, then we may not have NXT – no TakeOvers, much less international talent, potentially even much less indie involvement. Imagine today in WWE where Rollins, Owens, Balor and even Daniel Bryan had not been in today’s picture. It’s a pretty bleak picture, so let’s thank ECW for being what it was – a hot mess, but a hot mess that gave the company an idea so wonderful that it has it’s own day for every top four PPV.
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