What is the story of Extreme Championship Wrestling?
The wild cult phenomenon of the 90s was the subject of books, documentaries, countless shoot interviews, DVDs, and special presentations. Still, the true sum of the influence that the South Philadelphia-based group had probably can't be summarized with just one collection of stories. In many ways, every fan of ECW has their own "extreme" tale of how they discovered this underground product after years of the early 90s cartoon era that soured many fans on the major leagues of wrestling.
Recently, the WWE Network featured the "Authentic Untold Story of ECW," a panel discussion that included Bubba, D-von, Paul Heyman, Tommy Dreamer, and Taz. The 47-minute production seemed a little rushed and didn't scratch the surface of what could be told among the panel, but it certainly provided a unique view into some of the backstory of the renegade promotion.
As was mentioned by Paul Heyman, the concept of ECW, Eastern Championship Wrestling was started by Todd Gordon after Joel Goodhart's Tristate Wrestling Alliance folded. In truth, Goodhart ran his promotion like a mark, a "promoter" that wanted to fantasy book the cards he wanted to see instead of the cards that would draw money where he ran shows. As a result, the TWA was a flash in the pan and is only really remembered because it has the slightest link to ECW. In some ways, Todd Gordon could be described the same way, he fronted money so that he could become involved in the wrestling business and other than the initial funds, he didn't really play much of a role in what Extreme Championship Wrestling is truly remembered for today. Let's be honest here, the spot shows that Gordon ran in 1992-1993 had no resemblance or influence on the shows that Paul Heyman booked a few years later. It's fair to say that the only connection between the earliest ECW event under Gordon and the extreme events booked by Heyman was that the company had the same initials. Don't get me wrong, I'm not trying to bury Todd Gordon, but the fact is Paul Heyman was the force behind the ECW that revolutionized the industry while Gordon tagged along for a few years because of his initial investment.
By 1995, the extreme vision that would change the presentation of the sport in the United States before the end of the decade began to take shape. The introduction of Raven, who worked extensively in the business previously, was a spinoff of the grudge era that Kurt Cobain's melodic growl brought to the main stream. The turbulence of the real life of Scott Levy was channeled into an outcast character that was the complete opposite of the type of personas that were seen elsewhere, and his two year feud with Tommy Dreamer is one of the most storied rivalries of its era. At the same time, blood baths provided the shock value for the organization. Axl vs. Ian Rotten bleed buckets in countless matches simply to provide a generous amount of crimson at the shows. In retrospect, the product in 1995 and some of 1996 was still very unrefined in terms of the in ring product with some sloppy wrestling at times, but always a compelling product. Keep in mind, there's a different scale to rate events with depending on if you've only watched the TV show or the unedited ECW arena events, which sometimes featured a mediocre under card. Some fans will cite the early matches from Guerrero, Malenko, or Jericho as the technical portion of the company, but most don't realize that those three worked for Paul Heyman for a very short span, leaving for WCW just a few months later. The more representative aspect of extreme technical wrestling surfaced later when Lance Storm, Super Crazy, Little Guido, and Jerry Lynn were fixtures in ECW.
Almost as if on cue, Extreme Championship Wrestling began to hit its peak in 1997, the same year it debuted on pay-per-view. The argument could be made 97-99 was the peak of the promotion as a whole because for the majority of that time they had all the key stars on the roster. With the exception of Raven, who signed with WCW in mid-97, The Sandman, Tommy Dreamer, Rob Van Dam, Taz, Sabu, and The Dudleys all became recognizable stars through 1999. That same period also had some of the better booking in the history of the company, as the shows were better paced and the group didn't overuse props (even to a further extent) to substitute for the lack of star power later on. The fast paced ECW style allowed a group with a shoestring budget to make an impact in the industry that was noticed by the two big league corporations, which is how the extreme concept eventually revolutionized the presentation of the genre in the United States. As WWF and WCW were battling for ratings, they often borrowed many angles that were created in ECW, and marketed them to a main stream audience. The wrestling boom of the late 90s also helped ECW because more of the general public became aware of pro wrestling, but that same boost in business almost contributed to its demise.
As the Monday night war became a weekly slug fest where each organization featured the best they had at the time, new talent was used regularly to provide surprise debuts in an effort to provide an "anything can happen" atmosphere that was designed to keep viewers from channel surfing between shows. Across the board, more money was offered to sign talent to exclusive contracts. This business strategy was ultimately one of the many reasons that WCW folded, as insane numbers were offered just to keep performers under contract. ECW had to try to keep pace, and despite their success on pay-per-view and being recognized on the national scene, their television show was still distributed only through syndication. The way the group pushed the envelope didn't make it a product that would be considered for most networks, and true to the underground aspect, the company didn't have sponsors or ad revenue through syndication. A national TV deal opened the door for those revenue streams, but Heyman was scrambling as WWF and WCW featured hardcore matches for record-setting TV audiences, and he signed a terrible business deal that aired ECW on TNN in 1999.
Within weeks of the company's national TV debut, Taz and The Dudley Boys gave their notice, as they were offered a deal by the WWF. Prior to that Shane Douglas, one of the cornerstones of the company, had left because he was owed several thousand dollars and surfaced in WCW, where he worked until the group closed in 2001. The national TV deal increased the production cost substantially, and several wrestlers weren't getting paid despite ECW's popularity. When Taz, one of the most pushed and well established wrestlers, planned to leave, Heyman had to find another dominate heavyweight champion. Mike Awesome, who wrestled for years in FMW, worked sporadically for ECW in 1998 and when he returned, he won the heavyweight belt the month after the company started on TNN. Awesome's run was less than six months and during that time, he was owed a considerable amount of money so he jumped to WCW in April of 2000. Lance Storm, a great athlete that helped provided variety for the product, was in a similar situation and also opted to sign a Turner deal.
Ironically, ECW was successful even near the end of the company. Granted, there was an overuse of tables and weapons to camouflage the lack of star power by the end of 2000, but the product was still solid, something that can't quite be said for WCW at the time. Aside from the financials, which is what truly counts, Extreme Championship Wrestling also had successful numbers prior to its collapse. Their TNN show was the highest rated show on the network, they generated a few million dollars in pay-per-view buys for the last few PPV events, and the major shows always had a packed house.
To attempt to analysis why ECW closed would be an article on its own, but the bottom line is, the production costs of the TNN deal were too much for the company to sustain itself. The nature of the TV deal didn't bring ECW a rights fee or more advertisement revenue, which is why it was such a terrible deal for the promotion. To put it in prospective, one of the WWE's most important revenue streams is the contract for the rights to distribute their TV shows, a contract that brings them a few hundred million dollars for USA to get to air Raw and Smackdown. Theoretically, a national TV deal should've brought ECW those type of revenue streams, but since Heyman was desperately trying to expand to keep pace with the bigger companies, he signed an agreement that gave ECW nothing in exchange for the rights to air the TV show. The only thing that Heyman got from TNN was that the expanded distribution allowed for ECW to market their product to a wide audience so that they could sell more tickets to live events or more PPV buys.
This month marks 16 years since ECW closed its doors, but the impact the renegade group can still be seen today, as the high risk style influenced an entire generation of performers. Ultimately, ECW and WCW were causalities of the wrestling war of the 90s, similar to the way that Jim Crockett Promotions and the AWA were the national companies that folded during the boom of the 80s. The results of January 2001 proved to change the course of the industry, especially considering that in the past decade and a half, the WWE has become the only truly major league company in the United States, which has positive and negative effects on the business.
So, what is the story of ECW?
Disregarding Vince McMahon's project that was designed to quiet the ECW chants, (which it did) the original ECW generated a passion and an emotional response from fans. Some fans found ECW on TV while randomly flipping through the channels at 2 AM, some fans found it through the early days of dial-up internet, and younger fans are now discovering it on the WWE Network. Whatever the story, it's almost undeniable that Extreme Championship Wrestling was a fun product for fans because you just didn't know what was going to happen. You didn't know who was going to jump ship, who might go through a table, or who might win the title at a live pay-per-view.
All things considered, it's remarkable that a company that started in a bingo hall and had no budget was able to put itself alongside corporations in the wrestling landscape. With the span of seven years, Extreme Championship Wrestling made it to PPV, national TV, and revolutionized the presentation of the industry in the United States. What might've happened if ECW had remained opened can be debated, but it without question helped shape the industry today, a notable accomplishment for the small group that started in South Philadelphia.
Until next week
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