I’ve talked about WWE, WCW, TNA, even ROH, but I haven’t yet talked about…
ECW, like WCW and TNA, began as an offshoot of the National Wrestling Alliance, and originally stood for Eastern Championship Wrestling. Some of its original stars were castoff superstars like Jimmy Snuka, Don Muraco, and Tito Santana, each of whom had at least one reign as heavyweight championship between 1992 and 1993, notably well beyond the primes of their careers. The Sandman straddled this period, too, but perhaps more notable was Shane Douglas capturing the title for the first time, which led to Sabu, which led to Terry Funk, which led back to Douglas, which led, officially, to Extreme Championship Wrestling in 1994.
ECW was the baby of Paul Heyman, who crafted his dream out of a bingo hall in Philadelphia, with a bunch of spare-parts wrestlers he managed to acquire over the years. To hear him explain it, he attained success the Moneyball way, by finding a way to utilizing wrestlers other organizations were underappreciating, mostly by carefully crafting matches to their strengths. Eventually, ECW became known, point-of-fact, as a hardcore haven a style that had developed organically, but was so unique, that alone helped capture the national spotlight.
Still, while all that hardcore mayhem was going on, Heyman really was sticking to his dream, and along the way helped pave the way for a more international style of wrestling to emerge, directly inspiring WCW’s cruiserweight division by bringing in stars like Dean Malenko, Eddie Guerrero, Rey Mysterio, and Chris Jericho. He salvaged the careers of Steve Austin and Mick Foley and helped transition them to WWE immortality. Hell, he even gave us the Dudley Boys (originally a whole Dudley dynasty!).
Still, for some reason, ECW became known for the chants of, well, “ECW! ECW!,” and stars like Sandman, Sabu, and Tommy Dreamer, so-called innovators of violence who bucked the standards of the mainstream, regularly giving Joey Styles the license to craft the catchphrase “Oh my god!” while performing the most insane moves imaginable, all the while shedding buckets of blood. This is what the legacy of the company became.
Early on, though, Heyman realized he needed help to keep his flimsy business model afloat, and turned to an unlikely partnership with WWE for a little added exposure. The original ECW invasion was last millennium, folks. The company did eventually get a national cable TV deal, but it was well beyond ECW’s peak. Eventually, Heyman realized you need real money in order to pay the talent, and by some coincidence, folded his little enterprise at around the same time WWE bought WCW in 2001. Then, of course, the Invasion happened, and not only did WCW wrestlers participate, but ECW competitors as well. It might be argued that Rob Van Dam’s popular career began that year (it perhaps cannot be stressed enough that in the original ECW, he was never a heavyweight champion).
In 2005, Vince McMahon held the ECW One Night Stand PPV, reuniting many of the company’s top stars, in what most people expected to be a one-off event. Little did most people realize that TNA had actually attempted much the same thing, not so long after the Invasion of WWE officially concluded, led by the indomitable and enigmatic Raven, who went on to become, as he had been in ECW, one of its early stars. In 2006, WWE tried it again, but this time had something a little bit more radical in mind. Just as WWE itself was now two brands, Raw and Smackdown, ECW was about to be resurrected as an additional internal promotion, led by RVD, other familiar stars, and a smattering of new faces meant to represent the next generation. The only one of those who stuck it out with WWE was CM Punk, an electric competitor who originally made a name for himself in ROH, where he had a hard time sharing the spotlight with Samoa Joe (hell, even Bryan Danielson couldn’t really do that).
From the beginning, this new ECW was derided as McMahon’s last chance to completely bury Heyman’s dream by subverting the “original hardcore intentions” and watering it down to a third-tier spotlight for aging veterans and newcomers no one cared about. It probably didn’t help that RVD quickly lost both the ECW and WWE heavyweight titles thanks to an incident with the law, and was replaced as the figurehead of the new ECW by WWE stalwart the Big Show. Kurt Angle had been intended to be a star of the brand, but had opted for retirement from the rigors of WWE travel for the light schedule of TNA, which his battered body could better handle. Chris Benoit, a year later, continued that unfortunate trend of truly respected wrestlers being unable to fulfill the ECW commitment a bit more spectacularly, and by that, I mean that he made news in all the wrong ways, nearly sinking the entire sport in the process. Of course, he was dead; what did he care?
Punk graduated to the front of the class, now that all the distractions were gone, but ended up sharing it with the emerging John Morrison, who had at that time been establishing his singles credentials with Jeff Hardy on Raw (it still boggles me that fans were so lukewarm about the Punk-Morrison feud, and that all three had a quasi-reunion on Smackdown a few years later, and still no one cared). The ECW detractors soon enough got what they thought they wanted, when Chavo Guerrero became champion, then Kane, then Matt Hardy, then Mark Henry, each symbols of WWE futility in their own way…Bobby Lashley had been champion in 2007, the “Real Deal” who was supposed to be WWE’s next big thing (if you’ll pardon the expression). People hated him as ECW champion, saw him as a distraction. The next emerging star to hold the intended honor was Jack Swagger in 2009. This was about the time when WWE really started to use ECW as a platform for new stars, including Kofi Kingston. Swagger had been something of an indy sensation, and his elevation into a champion was completely unexpected, but he soon earned the respect of those still paying attention.
When his term ended, ECW gave the wrestling world its final gift. Christian had been a mainstay within WWE until his defection to TNA in TNA, where he believed, rightly so as it turned out, that his talents would find greater respect. Before Kurt Angle went there, he was the first star to truly steal the spotlight from company founder Jeff Jarrett. Yet the siren call of WWE reached Christian’s ears again, and he found himself the newest member of the ECW roster, and soon enough its champion. In fact, aside from Tommy Dreamer having his last moment of ECW glory and Ezekiel Jackson, Christian might go down as this version of ECW’s last and greatest champion.
Anyway, the brand folded in early 2010, replaced by NXT and the returning Tough Enough reality competition, thanks to persistent fan apathy. TNA held another ECW invasion later that fall, which gave birth to EV2.0…by which point even ECW’s biggest fans decided enough was enough. A bald Sabu just isn’t the same Sabu.
ECW’s ultimate legacy? Controversy, innovative wrestling, some of the sport’s biggest stars…All in all, a pretty consistent message, from 1992 to 2010. Not too bad…