So call me a pessimist. But with this past week's broadcast of ECW on the Sci-Fi Channel, I think it is safe to say that the burial of the once proud Extreme Championship Wrestling franchise is now complete. Like he did when he purchased the dying World Championship Wrestling (WCW) several years ago, Vince McMahon has killed another wrestling promotion dead.
What really sucks is that the idea of permanently reviving the ECW brand was one which held so much promise less than a year ago. It all sounded so good on paper. The company (in this case, Vincent Kennedy McMahon's World Wrestling Entertainment) had already tested the waters with two highly successful ECW "reunion" pay-per-view broadcasts — the 2005 and 2006 One Night Stand PPV's, drawing both good buy rates and positive reaction. The revived ECW brand would also be built around the already wildly popular Rob Van Dam as champion, with the creative end (as in storylines determining who wins and loses matches) to be handled by Paul Heyman — the "evil genius" behind the original ECW.
But then not one month into the relaunch of the ECW brand on the Sci-Fi Channel, Rob Van Dam was busted for pot possession (along with fellow "ECW original" Sabu). And with that, the wheels began to come off of the wagon. First Rob Van Dam was stripped of the ECW title. Well okay, he "lost" it to WWE star The Big Show, but you know what I mean.
Then WWE stars began showing up on the ECW broadcasts with frightening regularity, thereby robbing ECW of any chance it had to establish any sort of identity of its own as an individual brand. Not long after that, Heyman himself was sent packing in a dispute over creative direction. Meanwhile, as WWE continued to import its "D list" of stars over to ECW — guys like Test and Hardcore Holly — original ECW stars like Van Dam (who was apparently never really forgiven for his pot bust) continued to be buried, despite their popularity.
So why do I bemoan the way that ECW is being ruined — correction, has been ruined — the way I do? Well, you've just got to understand something. ECW, the way it was originally presented in the nineties, represented the last dying gasps of the old school of wrestling that in spite of its outlandishness, had the sort of faux realism about it that made you believe. At the same time, ECW took this approach to entirely new and unheard of (at least in America) levels of staged violence. In other words, ECW was special.
The very first time I saw ECW for myself, I stumbled upon it completely by accident. Home alone and channel surfing on a Friday night, I came across an ECW broadcast on some obscure sports channel. I only caught the last few minutes of the show, where I was introduced to Tommy Dreamer, who was having a match where members of the audience were actually handing him up weapons to use against his opponent. Steel chairs. Cans of beer. You name it. One guy even gave Dreamer a cheese grater, which he promptly ground into his opponent's head. The match ended with a cinder block of cement being placed on Dreamer's crotch, which his opponent then hit with what I remember to be a sledge hammer. I couldn't believe what I was seeing on a cable sports channel — which I can assure you was not ESPN or Fox Sports.
After telling all of my friends about this wild new cable wrestling show, when we tuned in the following week the network had already yanked it off the air. However, I soon learned that this Extreme Championship Wrestling promotion was already planning its first pay-per-view, 1995's Barely Legal — which I wasted no time in ordering.
With an apartment full of beer-swilling guys with ridiculously high expectations based on my own non-stop hype of watching something like ten minutes of this obscure wrestling show on TV, ECW's Barely Legal actually exceeded it. You want to talk about Wrestlemania? Forget it. At the time we witnessed it, ECW's Barely Legal was the single best wrestling show any of us had ever seen. It remains, to this day, one of the greatest wrestling pay-per-views ever.
The "holy shit" moments literally came one after another. There was The Sandman coming through the rafters into the crowd to start his match smoking cigarettes, swilling beer from a can, and then smashing said can into his forehead until it bled. And then there was the bloody mess of the "three-way dance" between Dreamer, Stevie Richards, and hardcore icon Terry Funk. That match alone had ladders, chairs, and barbed wire, which ECW color commentator Joey Styles called spot by spot with his trademark exclamations of "Oh, my God!"
Seriously, this all may seem quite passe to the modern day wrestling fan now. But at the time, it was absolutely nuts. The undercard also featured some great technical wrestling matches, including high-flying Japanese stars like Taka Michinoku.
So anyway, when WWE revived ECW with 2005's One Night Stand pay-per-view, the thing that made it so special was the way they were able to recapture that unique moment in time. Guys like The Dudley Boys (who had since gone on to stardom in WWE) revived their old ECW characters. Hell, they even brought back the bingo hall concept of the "ECW arena."
When they repeated One Night Stand in 2006 — headlined by a match between Van Dam and WWE champion John Cena — it had somewhat less of that special feel. Still, the images from that show of the ECW faithful booing Cena right out of the building — tossing his shirt back at him repeatedly when he threw it into the crowd, and threatening with signs to riot if he won — remain absolutely priceless.
In its present-day form, as witnessed on last week's broadcast on the Sci-Fi Channel, all pretenses of ECW being a unique brand with a rich history all its own have been dropped completely. The old ECW guys are promoted as the "Originals" and on this particular show, they all lost their matches to members of the "New Breed," a Vince McMahon creation whose sole purpose seems to be to bury whatever legacy ECW once had. McMahon himself was repeatedly referred to as the "boss" — further eliminating any illusion of ECW being its own unique entity — as the Donald Trump "Shaved Head Match" storyline from WWE's Wrestlemania was made the prime focus on the ECW broadcast.
Meanwhile, the one new guy they have promoted in ECW who seems to be catching on with the fans mysteriously continues to be buried. C.M. Punk, a former shoot fighter whose combination of natural charisma and stiff, hardcore fighting style has drawn huge babyface heat and chants of "C-M-Punk" (shades of Rob Van Dam) at live events — despite the lack of any serious, apparent push — is by any stretch the next potential wrestling superstar.
So despite the overwhelmingly positive fan reaction, on last week's ECW broadcast, they turned him "heel," aligning him with the yawn machine that is the ECW "New Breed" of guys seemingly designed to further bury guys like Van Dam, Dreamer, Sabu, and the Sandman. You could almost hear the air go out of the room.
Speaking of those "ECW original" guys though, the inside gossip says they won't be around for much longer anyway. Dreamer, Sandman, and Sabu are for all intents and purposes done anyway. Dreamer and Sabu's bodies are so banged up from years of the abuse they've taken giving the fans what they want that it's a miracle they've gone this long. As for Sandman, well let us just say that he is the Sandman, and smile on the fact that a beer, a cigarette, and a Singapore cane took him this far.
Far more shrouded in mystery is the case of Rob Van Dam. Obviously, Van Dam is still very much at the top of his game as an athlete. The guy can still do the high spots and drop kicks (despite his reputation for occasionally potato-ing guys) like few else can. Most importantly, the fans still absolutely love him. The big question mark is will Van Dam renew his contract (which apparently has lapsed) with WWE, despite the treatment he has received over this past year? Smart money right now says probably not.
So will I continue to watch ECW anyway? Probably. Because when it comes to professional wrestling you can just say my name will always be Mark.
But with the present direction ECW is going, I give them another year tops.