Tod Gordon founded Eastern Championship Wrestling in 1992. The company expanded out of the East and moved towards the hardcore starting in August of 1994, changing their name to Extreme Championship Wrestling in the process. Sometime along the way, Gordon sold the company to Paul Heyman, and it gradually grew in importance until a bevy of terrible financial decisions drove the company out of business in 2001. ECW never had anywhere near the money or resources of WCW or WWE, but they managed to put on such a loud, innovative show they ended up being the unquestionable #3 wrestling promotion in America during the industry boom of the late 90s.
ECW wasn’t a perfect company by any means. The promoters and the wrestlers were both known to disappoint on a regular basis. Even when they weren’t outright disappointing, some of the wrestlers didn’t have too much talent in the first place, and were often derided as garbage men offering violent crap. However, ECW is also responsible for some of the greatest matches, angles, and wrestlers of all time, and the company’s brief tenure changed the face of wrestling in ways fans are still feeling today. Read on and learn about 15 things ECW did better than any of the big guys, and start learning how they earned their reputation.
At least half of the time WWE attempts comedy, they fail in a spectacular fashion. WCW pretty much never pulled it off on a major level, and sometimes they wound up looking even more pathetic than WWE when they tried. Even when WWE does succeed at comedy, it’s a weird WWE version of comedy, and by no means is that version of comedy universal. Not that ECW was a nonstop laugh riot, but the company managed to implement comedy more consistently and successfully than any other major promotion until CHIKARA was founded in 2002. From the beginning, they had the comedy saga of Mikey Whipwreck, which they eventually turned into one of their most endearing stars. Cactus Jack told great jokes in his interviews, and so did Paul Heyman. Joey Styles made current jokes on commentary instead of the weird and lame ones fans heard on Raw or Nitro, and let’s not forget, ECW was the birthplace of the Blue World Order.
14. Constant Surprises
WWE fans may have been surprised when John Cena made his return at WrestleMania 32, but that in no way compares to the level of surprises ECW audiences were privy to on an almost nightly basis. We’re not denying the thrill of an unexpected appearance from the top star, but ECW regularly featured truly unexpected appearances from the biggest stars in wrestling history, only days after they worked for significantly bigger companies. For years, ECW had working agreements with both WCW and WWE, which meant those company’s stars would occasionally show up unannounced all the time, and on top of that, ECW was destination number 1 for anybody who got fired from the big leagues. No greater surprise in ECW occurred than the moment Jerry Lawler made an appearance while still one of the hosts of Raw. If that’s not shocking enough for you, try a WWE wrestler facing a WCW wrestler for the ECW World Title, which happened when Tazz beat Mike Awesome for the belt in 2000. ECW wrestlers often appeared without ever signing contracts, too, which meant there was no way for the surprise to leak—something that may be gone from wrestling forever.
13. Time Management
WWE currently has their own Network constantly streaming content, and even back in the 90s they could average six hours or more of television per week. WCW had similarly high numbers, with no less than three TV shows per week airing during most of the company’s existence. ECW only ever had two TV shows. Both were only one hour long, and one of them barely lasted more than a year. Somehow, this was all ECW needed to build as many compelling feuds and showcase as many incredibly talented performers as both other companies. Joey Styles skills as an announcer can’t be overlooked in terms of bringing everything together while also trimming the fat, and the invention of the Pulp Promo should put Paul Heyman into the Time Management Hall of Fame (well, if there was such a thing—for now he’ll have to settle for the WWE Hall of Fame).
12. Hyping The Big Event
In line with their incredible time management, ECW knew how to build towards a big event as if every single show was WrestleMania. With only one or two short TV shows per week, ECW needed to make their money through word of mouth spreading about their incredible live shows. In order to do this, Paul Heyman would have Joey Styles talk about these live shows like missing them meant you weren’t a wrestling fan. Sometimes, if the show was important enough, Heyman would come out and sell it himself. Almost every major match at every show was announced and hyped for weeks in advance, which meant everyone who wanted to see it was going to get that chance. Especially during the Attitude Era, both WWE and ECW had a horrible tendency of announcing matches only a week or two before Pay-Per-Views, which never would’ve happened in Hype Central.
11. Listening To The Crowd
One of the biggest criticisms lobbied against modern WWE is the company’s apparent policy of completely disregarding the interests of its fans. When the fan base is as loud and rabid as ECW’s, it’s a lot harder to ignore them, and in a sense they would even make the crowd part of the show by recording their real chants and playing them during Joey’s studio recaps. In addition, the fans usually got what they wanted when it came to the right person winning the right match. The good guy didn’t always win, but Paul Heyman knew the right way to end a story in a way that left crowds happy, at least unless the wrestlers decided to bail on him.
10. Not Overusing Celebrities
In their unending appeal to be accepted by the mainstream, WWE continues to hire a bevy of celebrities to boost their image and appeal. Fans don’t mind when the celebrity is particularly popular, seems like a fan, or is at least willing to play along, but these considerations aren’t super important to Vince McMahon or whatever staff member of his decides which celebrities will appear on his programming. WCW was even worse at this, regularly choosing the most esoteric and unpopular celebrities possible, and then thrusting them directly into the main event. It’s not that ECW didn’t ever involve celebrities, it’s just that when they did, they knew how to use them in a meaningful (and usually minor) way. The best example would be Kurt Angle, who during his ECW appearance was a recent Olympic Gold Medalist and not yet a pro wrestler. Kurt played a specific role related to his fame, which is what most celebrities to visit ECW did. ECW wasn’t immune to completely random celebrity appearances either, but they always came and left in less than 30 seconds during a Pulp Promo, before they could steal a wrestler’s screen time.
9. Feeling Cutting Edge
We aren’t talking about “The Innovator of Violence” Tommy Dreamer, nor are we talking about the fact Nova invented wrestling. ECW felt cutting edge in every way possible—both as a TV program, and as a wrestling program. While WWE and WCW were still in cartoony-superhero mode (and maybe still are), ECW built storylines around psychological manipulation and personal growth as an individual. WWE has some of that today, but it was unheard of at the time. The idea of lesbians making out was equally unheard of, not only in wrestling, but on television in general, but that didn’t stop ECW from airing just that in 1996. Above all of that, ECW was intensely innovative in terms of the actual wrestling, too, inventing or popularizing dozens of gimmick matches still regularly utilized in wrestling today.
8. Building An Atmosphere
In making this list, we’re obviously presenting the argument ECW was pretty great, and often better than WWE or WCW. Most people who actually went to ECW shows each and every week would call this the biggest understatement in wrestling history. Wrestling fans in general are known to get rowdy and rabid for their favorite superstars, but ECW had a constant feeling of energy and excitement, perhaps with just a little bit of danger mixed in for good measure. Screaming fans who latch on to every move can enhance even the most boring match into something special, and that probably happened at least once a month in the ECW Arena. What made the fans so much more passionate? Well…
7. Showing Emotion
There are many things responsible for a rabid fan base, but arguably the most important factor is simply presenting a damn good product. ECW wasn’t perfect, but for a few years, it really was the best wrestling in America. The best wrestlers, and indeed performers in general, are the ones who live their characters as extensions of their true selves. Paul Heyman knew this, and told his wrestlers to live their lives on camera, telling the fans their true emotions and fighting their hearts out every match. Some top stars are allowed to really be themselves today, but in ECW, that was the status quo, and it was a huge part of what made it so special. Why was the talent so emotional? They were better than the guys in WWE and WCW, and they wanted to prove it.
6. Finding Talent
Make a list of the top WWE stars of the 90s, and you’ll realize at least half of the biggest names started to build or expand their legacy in ECW. The list for WCW will probably just feature WWE castaways, but their midcard was also jam-packed with “discoveries” who in fact became big names in ECW before ever meeting Eric Bischoff. Here’s a super brief list of megastars who in some way credit ECW with their success: Mick Foley, Steve Austin, Chris Jericho, Eddie Guerrero, Konnan, Rey Mysterio, Chris Benoit, Rob Van Dam, and the list goes on. Most of these men only lasted a few months or less in ECW, because the biggest companies would snatch them up as soon as they started to shine. On that note…
5. Making Stars, Fast
Because ECW only had their biggest and best stars for a few short months before McMahon or Bischoff would steal them, they had to make the most of things the fastest they could. WCW had a serious problem in this category, which drove them out of business, and WWE’s new stars either took years to break through, or paved their way in ECW. In other cases, the stars ECW made would be thrown into those other companies and get lost in the shuffle, either not understanding or not caring what made them connect with so many fans.
In particular, there are The Sandman, Too Cold Scorpio, The Public Enemy, Tommy Dreamer, Sabu, Mike Awesome, Justin Credible, Chris Candido, Al Snow—all of these people main evented endless shows in ECW, only to be stuck in the lower midcard wherever else they went. But that’s just the beginning of the list—there are a few cases deserving of their own bullet.
4. Shane Douglas
Shane Douglas was known as The Franchise of ECW. Of course, the success of the company can’t be placed on the back of one man (and even if it could, that man wouldn’t be Douglas), but the nickname perfectly fit his heel persona, which ran wild in a dominant fashion, staying on top of ECW for the better part of five years. Douglas was the definition of a douche bag, going out of his way to attack the defenseless, mock the public, and make sure everyone knew his girlfriend was hotter than theirs. In WWE, he was a nerdy teacher.
Shane was never going to be the Franchise of WWE, but he had a slightly greater chance in WCW. At first, Shane was part of a seriously hated tag team called The Dynamic Dudes with Johnny Ace, but became pretty popular by tagging with Ricky Steamboat. According to Shane, Ric Flair went out of his way to ensure Shane wouldn’t become a star. Years later, Shane returned to WCW and actually feuded Flair, and fans learned the problem was actually far greater than that, and had to do with the typical politics and erratic nature of WCW, but point was, Shane still never became the star he could’ve been. At least they didn’t actively kill his legacy, though, which naturally brings us to…
The ECW version of Taz was Goldberg combined with Ken Shamrock a full year before either of them made their debut in professional wrestling. He was called The Human Suplex Machine, The One-Man Crime Spree, and sometimes simply The Most Miserable Son of a Bitch on the Planet. Regardless of the sobriquet, something was clear—Taz was a killer, and absolutely no one on the planet would ever dare to mess with him. Utilizing this attitude, Taz won every title in ECW, usually holding on to them for pretty lengthy reigns.
Tazz debuted in WWE at the 2000 Royal Rumble, and ECW fans were pretty damn hopeful when they witnessed him choke out Kurt Angle in less than 3 minutes. Unfortunately, Tazz’s WWE success lasted at best about four months, which was how long it took until Triple H squashed him on SmackDown while he was still ECW Champion. A neck injury would lead him to the commentary desk a few months later, and he would become a full on comedy character who wouldn’t scare a fly by the end of the year.
We mentioned the great feuds, the big shows, and the hardcore matches, but we didn’t mention the fact all of them are best exemplified by the same thing: the never ending war between Tommy Dreamer and Raven. The feud wouldn’t have reached its legendary status without Dreamer’s natural ability to gain a crowd’s sympathy, but Raven was the true star and mastermind of the story that took ECW to the history books. Another feud generally considered amongst the greatest in history was Raven’s battle with The Sandman.
In these feuds, Raven was presented as a terrifying cult leader with greater manipulative powers than wrestling had ever seen, before or since. His interviews were less than two minutes long, but that was all he needed to make audiences think he was a genius turned evil by a society that refused to accept him. WCW tried their best, but ultimately treated him as an afterthought to the nWo, Goldberg, The Four Horsemen, Roddy Piper, Sting, and a whole mess of other wrestlers, only about half of whom really deserved it. In WWE, he was even further down the card, treated as an afterthought in the already tertiary hardcore division.
1. The Lead Announcer
No one would deny the commentary of one-time WWE lead announcer Jim Ross ranks as perhaps the greatest of all time, but WCW’s lead announcer Tony Schiavone is a different story. The commentary of broadcasters including Vince McMahon, Eric Bischoff, Steve McMichael, Michael Cole, and honestly the majority of the other announcers working for WWE and WCW during the Attitude Era fell into the Schiavone category. The lead announcer of ECW, usually calling complete broadcasts by himself, was Joey Styles, and outside of Good Ol’ JR, Styles was probably the best announcer in the business when he had the job.
Joey Styles was more than a lead announcer. As the host of the weekly Hardcore TV, he narrated absolutely everything that happened in ECW, with the exception of a few episodes during the first year of the show. When ECW got their second show on TNN, Joey was called on as the host, and continued to prove his mastery of the field with a regular partner in Joel Gertner. Styles got a chance to call Raw for a few months in 2005 and 2006 before returning to WWE’s version of ECW, where he retired from announcing in 2008. Styles now works WWE.com as Vice President of Digital Media Content, and likely won’t ever return to the booth, but if Michael Cole ever gets sick, fans can cross their fingers and beg we might get to hear those three words one more time…OH MY GOD!