Mr. Tito Presents... The Day that Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW) DIED

Mr. Tito Presents… The Day that Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW) DIED

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Welcome back to another edition of the Mr. Tito Experience that has been presented to you exclusively WrestlingHeadlines.com, a LordsofPain.net company since October 1998. Tonight, I want to get EXTREME as I want to clear out my basement of stuff and place a bow on my THE DAY THAT (INSERT COMPANY or ERA) DIED series. I’m just pounding out some columns this week, as I’m working hard for you, the readers, as I continue what has been one of my best years writing. The “Ask Mr. Tito” series has rejuvenated my interest in writing and covering pro wrestling and I hope to continue that for the rest of 2020. You have been an amazing audience, as always.

To give credit for this series where it is due… The YouTube channel Entertain the Elk‘s “The Day (INSERT) Died” video series has been the inspiration for these columns. Please check that channel out and enjoy some videos on when specific TV shows like Walking Dead, Simpsons, Family Guy, Futurama, etc. “died”.

As a follow up to my last “THE DAY THAT (INSERT COMPANY or ERA) DIED”, someone questioned how an event that happened years prior killed a promotion or era. It’s simple… It’s a specific event that would triggers a chain of events that kills a promotion (WCW, or ECW in today’s column) or an era (Hulkamania, Attitude Era). It’s the inflection point of a particular promotion that begins to trigger changes. In my WCW column, I argued how Eric Bischoff’s heel turn during late 1996 set WCW on a path for eventual destruction. Why? Because he stopped being an innovative Executive and focused too much on getting his NWO heel boss character over instead. He allowed himself to be played like a mark with the NWO members and he also began to delegate duties to the wrong people creatively. In just 1 year, WCW went from the #1 company to bombing hard with their Starrcade 1997 event’s creative decisions.

That’s how it works… I’m bolding picking 1 specific day that creates the scenario of “the beginning of the end”. For WCW and ECW, obviously, they both truly died during the Spring of 2001… But they were infected at the managerial level years prior that created dysfunction moving forward until the inevitable end.

Anyway, in case you missed the prior 3 entries to the series…

The Day that World Championship Wrestling (WCW) Died

The Day that WWE’s Hulkamania Era of the 1980s Died

The Day that the WWE Attitude Era Died

And now, LET’S GET EXTREME!!!!!

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THE DAY THAT EXTREME CHAMPIONSHIP WRESTLING (ECW) DIED

I. Introduction

We’re almost 20 years since Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW) closed as a business. That is hard for me to believe, as it seems like yesterday when I’d tune in on late Saturday night/early Sunday morning at 1am to watch the ECW infomercial.

For the younger audience out there, let me explain… And you’ll laugh at this because much of what you watch today either on WWE, NXT, Impact, Ring of Honor, or AEW has some influence caused by the ECW promotion. ECW’s roots date back to 1990 as a promotion called Tri State Wrestling that was later renamed to “Eastern Championship Wrestling” when co-owner of Tri State Tod Gordon bought out his partner. After a brief stint with “Hot Stuff” Eddie Gilbert as the promotions top booker (love me some Hot Stuff), Paul Heyman would join Eastern Championship Wrestling to become the top booker after leaving WCW during 1993.

Through 1994, Eastern Championship Wrestling entered an agreement with the remnants of the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) to host a tournament to determine the new NWA World Champion. Gordon and Heyman had other ideas, as they worked with “The Franchise” Shane Douglas to reject the NWA World Title when winning the tournament and hold up the Eastern Championship Wrestling title instead. This angered many traditionalist wrestling fans and promoters who were loyal to the NWA brand and Eastern Championship Wrestling would double-down on their recent move by rebranding themselves as “Extreme Championship Wrestling”. From there, they became a rapidly growing sensation as the little wrestling company that could based out of Philadelphia, PA.

Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW) did things differently as a company during the mid 1990s… You have to realize the climate back then. WWE had goofy gimmicks and WCW was trying to figure itself under the new tenure of Eric Bischoff. Many wrestling fans from the 1970s or 1980s were adults and looking for something mature from a wrestling product. They were also looking for something different and yet they didn’t know it until Paul Heyman served it up to them. ECW pushed adult themes in their storylines, as wrestlers cursed, drank beer, smoked cigarettes, were violent with any weapon available, and believe it or not, were actually violent towards women characters. Speaking of the women… ECW embraced their adult fans by letting their women dress in the tightest short skirts possible and always revealing cleavage up front. Francine, Beulah, Kimona… Yeah, good times.

But ECW did more than that… Wrestling before 1994 featured larger and/or taller wrestlers. By then, the WWE was just starting to realize that Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels type wrestlers were the future, but WWE still hung onto pushing taller guys like Sid, Diesel, Mabel, and the Undertaker when they could. ECW did their own talent raids from local independent promotions and other countries to feature of blend of wrestlers who were usually under 6 foot but were athletes. Guys like Dean Malenko, Chris Benoit, and Eddie Guerrero would never receive a shot in the WWE due to their heights but they were welcome in ECW. Luchadore wrestling was also something that the WWE didn’t want… ECW gladly featured them. Many wrestlers with connections to Japan were also brought in. If you look at that 1995 roster for ECW, it was LOADED…

And then Eric Bischoff raided their talent roster to help build his empire.

With many wrestlers gone, Paul Heyman maximized the talent of the wrestlers who remained… Sandman, Tommy Dreamer, Raven, the Tazmaniac (or Taz), Rob Van Dam (WCW didn’t want him), Shane Douglas (returning from a brief WWE stint), Sabu (returning from a brief WCW stint), Stevie Richards, and even and older Terry Funk. This is where Paul Heyman’s genius took over, as his storylines kept the product compelling despite many great workers that they lost to WCW.

As 1996 concluded, ECW started noticing that their crowds were getting larger, more of their stuff as appearing in wrestling magazines, and merchandise/tapes were selling at a faster rate from their weekend Infomercials. They also were watching what WWE and WCW were doing, as both promotions, by 1996, were putting on MONTHLY Pay Per Views. Paul Heyman made it his goal to get on Pay Per View and by late 1996, there were rumblings of that happening. Initial hype surrounded Taz and Sabu finally having a chance for a big one-on-one showdown and eventually by early 1997, the “Barely Legal” Pay Per View was announced to be happening April 13th, 1997.

Coincidentally, that day is also the day that ECW “died”…

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II. ECW Changed during the Spring of 1997

The date that I suggest is the inflection point for ECW was its Barely Legal Pay Per View date, April 13th, 1997. I pinpoint this specific date because it changed how Paul Heyman acted as a business man moving forward. He thought that Pay Per View money would come rolling in yet he didn’t quite understand how ruthless the Cable/Satellite business worked with PPV events. For one, ECW was a smaller company who couldn’t use leverage to obtain a higher % of profits like Boxing or WWE/WCW could. Secondly, there are delays on when the money from a Pay Per View arrived. Back before Comcast swallowed everyone whole, you had multiple cable companies and collecting Pay Per View dollars from each of them was time consuming. Thus, there would be a delay on the Pay Per View revenues coming ECW’s way.

Tod Gordon mysteriously left just after they ECW Barely Legal Pay Per View happened. Just out of no where, we see Paul Heyman thanking Tod Gordon for his time at ECW and Paul wished him the best. Back then, Tod acted as the on-screen Commissioner and he helped Heyman with the business end of the company. Since 1994, Tod was selling increasing amounts of the ECW to Heyman and gave him much more control over the company. Then, Gordon abruptly left after the April 1997 Pay Per View. Early internet rumors back then suggested that Tod Gordon was a “WCW mole” with WCW front office connnections to help convince Raven, Perry Saturn, and Stevie Richards to promptly leave ECW to join WCW. Paul Heyman has always denied this and Eric Bischoff said he never knew the guy.

However, the point was that Gordon left ECW and now Paul Heyman had to wear more hats around the office. Not only was he in charge of the in-ring product, but Heyman was also now responsible for the day to day business operations of ECW. As you can see by the company’s bankruptcy during 2001 and being in debt $4 Million dollars, it wasn’t Heyman’s specialty. If you combine Gordon’s exit with Paul Heyman placing all of his chips on Pay Per View money coming in, they were doomed and closed their doors just 4 years later. Later during 1999, ECW took a lowball offer from Viacom’s TNN (now SpikeTV) to have ECW on Friday Nights (hey, who is trying that night now?) and it did not help ECW’s Pay Per View buys at all.

Making matters worse for ECW, the “Barely Legal” Pay Per View probably helped open the eyes of the WWE, especially, that the ECW product was what fans wanted. Thus, the WWE began pushing more violence, cursing, and adult themes into their “Attitude Era”. WWE and many, many other Indy promotions began following suit on ECW’s trademarks such as the use of tables, chairshots to the head, Triple Threat matches, and pushing beautiful women wearing next to nothing. What made ECW unique was starting to slip away to other promotions. That and constantly trying to reinvent themselves following many talent raids.

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III. ECW’s Barely Legal 1997 – Problematic Booking

In hindsight, the booking of the first ever ECW Pay Per View created a few problems long-term for the company’s pushed talents and storylines. What people have to realize is that many wrestling fans took a chance on ECW’s show, possibly viewing their product for the first time.

(1) Terry Funk won the ECW Title by defeating Sandman/Stevie Richards and then defeating Raven in a singles match. At this very Pay Per View, he was 52 years old and about to turn 53. Yet, he was made ECW Champion on the very first ECW Pay Per View? Might Sandman or Stevie Richards be a better choice? Sandman was unique because he drank beers before each and every match with an amazing long “Enter Sandman” entrance. Meanwhile, Stevie Richards would be a Shawn Michaels if were likable as a babyface. Both would have made satisfying choices and both had reasons to get revenge on Raven. Nope, ECW did a tribute to Terry Funk instead.

(2) Taz vs. Sabu was OK… Just OK. There was mad hype surrounding this match and it was overall good but not what was promised. On top of that, the most hyped match on the card was on the undercard instead of the Main Event. I understand that the World Title usually goes on last but this match had major hype back then.

(3) Eliminators squashed the Dudley Boyz. In hindsight for what would soon happen, as Perry Saturn injured his knee and then jumped to WCW, this seems like a bad booking decision to not have the Dudleys appear more competitive. However, the Dudleys were so good that they regenerated their own heat when battling the Gangstas or New Jack/John Kronus.

(4) Rob Van Dam needed something better. Don’t get me wrong, Lance Storm is an incredible in-ring worker… But on this night, he was out of his element with ECW and the more hardcore style. Fans just booed the guy when he gave the lightest chairshots ever. Van Dam was their future star who kept 1998-1999 flowing and he just didn’t have a high profile match here.

(5) Tommy Dreamer on Commentary and not wrestling. Come on… The “Innovator of Violence” deserved a spot on the show! Instead, he is used to help Terry Funk win the ECW Title. Dreamer should have been in that Triple Threat match instead of Funk.

After Barely Legal, Sabu wins the ECW Title from Terry Funk in a violent barbed wire match. So why did Terry Funk win the title again?

Perry Saturn hurts his knee and the Eliminators are done. Perry jumping to WCW really ended that team that dominated at Barely Legal.

Raven and Stevie Richards leave for WCW too. Tremendous talents that fit perfectly for ECW and neither guy would ever be the same as they were before Barely Legal 1997. Raven was on fire as a heel and drew heat against anyone… Stevie Richards was a more positive version of Shawn Michaels and his BWO gimmick was selling t-shirts at every arena like hotcakes. From what I understand, he was nursing some injuries at the time and sought the WCW opportunity when he could.

Barely Legal just wasn’t the launching pad that ECW was hoping for and the destructive events that happened afterward (Tod Gordon leaving, Raven/Perry/Stevie joining WCW) caused a few steps backward after a few steps forward.

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IV. The Downfall of ECW

Paul Heyman’s creativity with booking wrestling shows combined with convincing many talents to do more than just wrestle (Dudleys, Dreamer, etc. did various jobs within ECW to assist Paul in operating the company) kept the company limping around for a few more years. However, as WCW and WWE kept growing through 1998 and WWE through 1999-early 2000, financial demands for Paul Heyman were too much for ECW. With so many talent raids happening, Paul had to pay wrestlers more money. Combined this with a failed TNN television deal, smaller-than-expected Pay Per View dollars, and needing to ramp up the production of television shows to compete with WWE/WCW, Heyman had no chance to succeed long-term with ECW.

By early April 2001, almost 4 years to the day of ECW’s Barely Legal, Paul Heyman was forced to close the company.

And of course, WWE swoops on in and buys the assets of ECW’s company for pennies on the dollar in bankruptcy court.

The inflection point is this ECW Barely Legal Pay Per View. It made Paul Heyman believe that Pay Per View revenues would subsidize his company and allow it to keep growing. Yet what he found out is that by joining Pay Per View, it placed a bigger target on his back by WWE/WCW to raid his talent and also to pay his talent more money even though he didn’t have the funds.

ECW losing Tazz and the Dudley Boyz to WWE just as the TNN show began during 1999 really hurt and drove the final nails in ECW’s coffin. Then, they thought that they had a legit top guy in Mike Awesome and then he bolted to WCW. ECW tried to pay wrestlers top dollars but could not guarantee the money like WCW always could or what WWE could give wrestlers in live event bonuses or merchandise.

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V. Conclusion

ECW was a fun promotion to watch, at least through that Barely Legal 1997 Pay Per View. After the Raven/Richards/Saturn talent raid struck, it hurt ECW and while they had a nice run pushing the likes of Rob Van Dam, Jerry Lynn, Bam Bam Bigelow, Taz, Dudleys, Shane Douglas, and others, the financial infrastructure was doomed and that began when Tod Gordon left AND when both WWE/WCW became bigger to pay wrestlers more.

It’s hard to operate and book a wrestling business by yourself… It’s also hard to rely on Pay Per View revenues that were routinely delayed and sliced up unfairly to begin with.

Oh, ECW did come back during the mid 2000s and then Vince McMahon ruined that on the very first show by controlling the show’s booking to please Science Fiction Channel executives. Zombie anyone? ECW died twice for its wrestling sins:

So just chill… Until the next episode!

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