The Impact of ECW
Statement Of Intent; Introduction
ECW is an oddity, in that it, from fairly humble roots and what you could very easily call a “humble” budget, with what the world (at first) viewed as a roster of misfits, achieved international fame. ECW is the only federation to reach out from its base of operations and draw the world in. WCW and the WWE/F existed at the same time, and had a greater worldwide audience, yes, but they traveled and advertised to achieve it. ECW, had the budget for neither, and yet somehow captured the imagination of the wrestling world in what was, realistically, a very short time. ECW came and went in under a decade, while the WCW (NWA and Georgia Championship Wrestling) was decades old, and the WWWF (precursor to the WWF and WWE) was in it’s second generation of ownership, and has existed over forty years now.
Before we get into how ECW impacted the world, however, it’s important that we cover the basics:
The History of ECW:
In 1992, a wrestling promotion was founded under the name Eastern Championship Wrestling, and signed on pretty quickly with the National Wrestling Alliance. The National Wrestling Alliance, as most of you know or should know, was founded decades ago by several of the largest promoters as a way of surviving the depression that was affecting the business. It was a means to dictate territorial borders, trade talent to keep new faces in town, and ultimately make them all a lot more money. While the ‘alliance’ was initially dangerously close to violating anti-trust laws, it eventually grew into a fairly affluent group with some of the best champions around. By signing on as a member of the NWA, Eastern Championship Wrestling could ‘import’ talent for a couple shows a year and even host a few championship matches. Like every federation, ECW had their own champion, though he was considered a rung (or twenty) below the NWA Heavyweight Championship, so that there could be a belt to fight over for the fifty five weeks per year that the NWA champion was absent from the territory. The first ECW Champion was Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka, who was chosen more because he could draw than because he could still wrestle, though he wasn’t really ‘bad’ at this point, merely tired.
ECW withdrew from the NWA, leaving the title that they had just been selected (by NWA Committee) to win after WCW left the organization with the current champion under contract vacant once more. I’ll bet someone lost his or her job over that, because two times in a row the NWA got screwed, and it’s version of the heavyweight title was pretty much worthless. Not “David Arquette. World Champion” worthless, but pretty close… Stupid David Arquette.
Then, in what idiot wrestling journalists might refer to as an Orgy of Violence, ECW embarked on what they called “The Hardcore Revolution”, increasing the level of violence and blood in their shows beyond what anyone in North America had seen before. Their style was in part modeled after the Japanese “Death Matches” and in part based on the fact that many of the workers in ECW couldn’t really draw heat any other way. While the company had guys like Raven, who were magnetic to talk to, many of the workers were incredibly limited. While ECW would showcase some great technical wrestling from the likes of Eddie Guerrero, Chris Benoit, Chris Jericho, Perry Saturn, Dean Malenko, Lance Storm, Justin Credible and Taz(the second “Z” in his name was added when he joined the WWF/E), it would also spend a lot of time pushing the likes of Mick Foley, Sabu, Tommy Dreamer, Terry Funk, the Dudley Boys and The Sandman (who came to the ring in ‘lazy Sunday clothes’ and wrapped in, of all things, barbed wire.) who spent their time absorbing all kinds of creative punishment. Barbed wire bats, thumbtacks, tables(stacked on tables stacked on tables stacked on tables), and even a branding iron (a Terry Funk classic).
But what ECW did, and what truly showcased the genius of Paul Heyman, was a lot subtler than all the different things he did. It wasn’t even the darker shows and more adult storylines, it wasn’t the nearly naked girls or the violence, it wasn’t the ‘grunge’ feeling that made ECW feel like a punk-rock concert. What drove ECW was the fans, the crowd that, on any given night, would throw hundreds of chairs from where they stood (not sat) into the ring after a match (it was a show of respect, apparently.) And these fans were not there because they were bloodthirsty animals, idiots or closest sadists. They were there because they could relate to the characters, and they could relate to the characters because Paul Heyman encouraged the members of his roster to develop their own characters and speak their own minds.
In 1995, before Heyman owned the company but during the period where he was pretty much given the run of the place, Eric Bischoff fired Steve Austin by way of a message on his answering machine. Austin, who had been promised a title shot against Hogan in order to convince him to drop his United States Championship belt to an aging Hacksaw Jim Duggan (in under thirty seconds) at a PPV. Austin was already bitter about being held back when he and ‘flyin’ Brian Pillman had been on the cusp of super-stardom with their popular tag-team “The Hollywood Blonds”. Worse even, Austin was fired while recuperating from an injury he suffered while working for the company. While Eric Bischoff has been called stupid for this decision many times, it was hard to blame him for not seeing the potential in Austin at this point in time. The way he fired him was just ridiculously unprofessional, but the reasons behind it weren’t.
Whether Heyman knew what was going to happen or not, the decision was made to let Austin talk, even though he was still too injured to compete. More importantly, Heyman encouraged Austin to talk about the WCW, to talk about why he left and how he was treated, to open up the doors to the largely secret ‘behind the scenes’ of a wrestling empire and expose the nature of the business.
In 1997, ECW broadcast it’s first PPV, (you can see Paul Heyman backstage calling it “The Dance” to fire up his people on the documentary “Beyond the Mat”, which I purchased for six dollars), which was going to make or break the company.
The show climaxed with Terry Funk (who was over fifty years old) winning the ECW World Heavyweight Title, and was viewed by most in the industry as an overall great show.
Then later, near the end of 1999, ECW thought they had finally made it when they became the top rated show on The Nashville Network (TNN now SpikeTV), but the deal was short lived as, just over a year later, ECW’s weekly show was cancelled as part of the deal to bring Vince McMahon’s powerhouse WWE name over to the network as part of a new marketing strategy. TNN wanted to shed it’s “southern” image, and was planning on building a men’s network around the WWE line of programming, promising all sorts of specials and benefits, including a partial stake in the XFL (idiots!) to Vince McMahon in order to woo him away from the USA Network, who actually sued Viacom (the owner of TNN) because they felt that they were not being given a fair chance to exercise the clause in the contract they had with Vince McMahon that promised them an opportunity to match any offer on the table. USA viewed parts of the deal, including but not limited to the Cancellation of ECW programming and Theme Park Appearances as a calculated plan to make it impossible for them to match the offer.
That was pretty much the end of ECW, which despite help from the WWF, could not secure another TV deal or even pay all of its employees. Many remain bitter or disgruntle about the fact that they weren’t paid to this day, while others, (Tommy Dreamer most notably) would have been willing to work for free for years if they thought it could have helped save the company.
ECW closed it’s doors forever in 2001 as Paul Heyman filed for bankruptcy, and shortly there after accepted a job as an on-air commentator to replace Jerry Lawler, who had left in protest over the firing of his wife The Kat.
In just nine years, ECW went from nothing to one of the most talked about wrestling promotions in the world. They revolutionized an industry that was growing stagnant, forcing multibillion-dollar companies like the WWF/E to change the way they did business or run the risk of looking ‘behind the times.’
That brings the history of ECW to a close, and I’m afraid that’s all I’m going to cover in the first part of this column, because writing this has involved pouring over pages of notes and research, and several rather lengthy web searches, including a rather fruitless quest to find out more about Todd Gordon.
Next in the series, I will examine the decisions, genius and ignorance of Paul Heyman, followed by a look at the ECW Roster and how they evolved due to their participation in the company, and finally, in the fourth and last part of the series, I will examine the way that the WCW and WWF/E had to change in order to keep up with ECW.
Thanks again for reading, and ‘tune in’ whenever I finish the next part.
Peace and Love
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