Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW) revolutionized the sport of professional wrestling — plain and simple.
The beloved wrestling company Paul Heyman built from the ground up after acquiring full ownership from Todd Gordon in 1995 has had its fair share of memorable and jaw-dropping moments. Legends like Terry Funk, Mick Foley, Rey Mysterio, Eddie Guerrero, Terry Gordy and countless others have all competed inside the brash company’s squared circle, helping future stars and unlikely title aspirants to glory in their respective careers.
It is widely known across the board of observers and pundits that ECW was the main influence for World Wrestling Entertainment’s booming “Attitude Era” in the late-1990s.
The company’s most prestigious title was the ECW World Heavyweight Championship, thanks to Shane Douglas, who threw the NWA World Heavyweight Championship on the mat in one of wrestling’s most notorious shoots. Active until April 2001 when ECW was forced out of business, Douglas and company would face the stiffest competition in the company, from brawlers to technical juggernauts — establishing the title as the pinnacle of hardcore wrestling.
There have been 19 individuals who have held the belt in the original ECW promotion during its-8 year tenure, including superstars such as Jimmy Snuka, Tito Santana and Don Muraco raising gold in Eastern Championship Wrestling before the original house of hardcore was built. If you are looking for wrestlers who held the title when WWE decided to open up shop again in 2006, look elsewhere.
This is dedicated to the incomparable and original ECW, not WWE’s ECW.
Here is a list of the 10 best ECW World Heavyweight Champions in the company’s short existence:
10. Tommy Dreamer
Talk about fifteen minutes of fame.
“The Innovator of Violence” never wanted to win the ECW World Heavyweight Championship. After a lengthy and entertaining feud against Raven, Tommy Dreamer only won the title because he had to fill the void for his teammates who either quit the company or jumped ship to greener pastures like WWE or WCW.
At CyberSlam 2000, Dreamer was involved in two title bouts, winning the title over Taz before losing the belt 30 minutes later to Credible, courtesy of a low blow from his former valet, Francine. You could say Dreamer did not do enough to warrant a position as one of the company’s best champions, however, his hard work and dedication to wrestling cannot be overlooked, since his character literally performed a three-sixty once The Sandman laced him with the Singapore cane at Hardcore Heaven 1994.
Dreamer went on to promote wrestling events, and still competes to this day for the likes of Total Non-Stop Action (TNA) Wrestling.
Plus, you try to find a harder worker who was destined to win over the fans when they could not stand his existence.
9. Jerry Lynn
You could make the comparison that Jerry Lynn was the ECW version of current WWE World Heavyweight Champion Daniel Bryan.
Lynn was a hard-working stud who had already been in the wrestling business for 10 years before making his promotional debut in the late 90s, yet he couldn’t quite hack it in the big leagues such as World Championship Wrestling (WCW) and Smoky Mountain Wrestling. He had spectacular matches with the likes of both Impact Players, Justin Credible and Lance Storm, and took part in one of the company’s best feuds against the enigmatic Rob Van Dam for ECW’s World Television Championship.
“The New F’N Show” made such an impact in the wrestling world, it is widely rumored that Mickey Rourke’s character in The Wrestler called Randy “The Ram” Robinson was inspired by Lynn, after director Darren Aronofsky and Nicolas Cage (who was supposed to take the lead role) visited a Ring of Honor show to see what the independent circuit was like and met Lynn while he was competing for the organization.
The Minnesota-born pioneer lifted the strap for the first time after defeating Credible at Anarchy Rulz 2000. Lynn’s championship success only lasted one month, losing a Double Jeopardy Match, which involved Credible, The Sandman, and who would be crowned the new champion, Steve Corino — a competitor Lynn previously defended the title against.
Rhino was the last ECW champion, excluding the atrociousness displayed by Vince McMahon when he failed miserably to reenact the greatness that was ECW. The Detroit native still competes to this day, but it was in ECW where we got to see the vicious “Man Beast” dish out punishment on fellow wrestlers and valets.
He won the title after squashing The Sandman at Guilty As Charged 2001, after the fan favorite had just defeated Credible and Corino in a Three-Way Tables, Ladder, Chairs and Canes Match. He defended the strap twice at the following two pay-per-views before Heyman declared bankruptcy.
He surely wasn’t the biggest guy in length, but the stocky and robust heavyweight resembled exactly the animal that serves as his in-ring name, which was fitting in the time he held the title. Mainstays like Credible, Lynn, and Corino had held the title before him, so for an athlete such as Rhino to bolster through the roster at a young age and win the title which mattered most in such devastating fashion was an accolade in itself.
One of the most underappreciated competitors in pro wrestling history, Sabu was a humungous star. He was a high-flying innovative force that caught your attention the moment he stormed down the aisle, putting his body on the line for the fans’ entertainment.
Or, sheer pleasure.
Unfortunately, Sabu will not be remembered mostly for his two short ECW World Heavyweight Championship title runs more so than his legacy in the promotion. He won it by beating Shane Douglas at NWA: Bloodfest Part 2 in 1993, yet most fans will likely remember his second run with the belt, winning it from Terry Funk at Born To Be Wired 1997, in a match so gruesome, it is widely perceived as the most violent ECW match of all-time. The two competitors tore apart each other’s flesh with the barbed wire serving as the ring ropes.
He lost the title eight days later to Shane Douglas in a Three Way Dance, also involving Funk, at Hardcore Heaven 1997. Both reigns combined were just shy of three months.
6. Mike Awesome
Mike Awesome was impactful in ECW because of his gifted ability to look like one of the juggernauts who headlined WWE and WCW events, since his tall stature and built frame was made for the more grandiose wrestling promotions. For a big man, his agility was extremely impressive (no pun intended).
It turned Awesome into a truly great heel.
Long before he was subject to Vince Russo’s genius tactics which turned him into That 70’s Guy, Awesome had scintillating match ups against Japanese standout and former champion, Masato Tanaka, in which both heavyweights took turns beating each other for the gold in the latter stages of 1999. With that being said, who could forget Awesome destroying Spike Dudley at Guilty As Charged 2000, sending the lightweight crashing down onto a table from a top-rope “Awesome Bomb?”
Also, you have to credit Awesome for having the cojones for appearing on WCW television while still ECW champion, attacking a hurt Kevin Nash to make a statement.
In an era shy of realistic gimmicks, which included notables such as The Goon, Mantaur and Phantasio, Raven was superb at channeling angst through his character, appealing to the neglected youth who had just witnessed the grunge movement in the early 1990s.
After working as Johnny Polo, who could blame him?
Despite gaining popularity in WCW and WWE, Raven was a superstar under ECW. He was tremendously hated by the fans and he always won his matches by the skin of his teeth. His real-life attitude would transcend into his character, treating the observers with stellar promos and dark segments.
The Philly-born wrestler won his first championship against bitter rival, The Sandman, as both would engage in a surreal feud involving The Sandman’s family and a televised crucifixion ceremony. Raven held the title for the majority of 1996, before coughing it up to Terry Funk at ECW’s first pay-per-view extravaganza, Barely Legal 1997.
Raven would tease Tommy Dreamer for the course of their feud, as well as beating Dreamer 99% of the time. Dreamer never got a win over Raven until Wrestlepalooza 1997, partaking in arguably the greatest feud in ECW history.
His two reigns were good enough to earn him a slot, but had Raven never won the ECW title, he would still be one of the promotion’s most memorable wrestlers ever.
4. Terry Funk
Funk is known for the complete opposite.
The Texan not only put his body on the line during countless matches in North America and Japan, but also did a lot for the younger generation and had no problem putting guys over, doing whatever he needed to do to make sure it was best for business.
But his time would come, too.
The 69-year-old legend stole the hearts of wrestling fans worldwide when he pinned Raven at Barely Legal 1997, winning the ECW World Heavyweight Championship when in reality, he had no business doing so at 53-years-old. Funk beat The Sandman and Stevie Richards in a Three-Way Dance prior to the main event to earn his shot against the champion.
The iconic sequence closing out the show had Funk’s protégé at ringside, Tommy Dreamer, join his mentor in the crowd while ECW commentator Joey Styles tried to hold back the tears as the promotion’s big pay-per-view risk paid off.
As we noted in Sabu’s section, Funk lost the title at Born To Be Wired 1997, but it just goes to show how much Funk was willing to sacrifice in his early-fifties in order to build ECW into the phenomenon it was.
Who else could carry around a strap titled the FTW Championship?
Google the terminology, please.
After Shane Douglas’ nagging injuries and excuses, Taz had grown tired of the champion and created his own belt (much like what Jay Briscoe is doing right now in Ring of Honor). The suplex machine rose to prominence in Heyman’s promotion because of his unorthodox build — being a short, stocky and powerful submission machine capable of putting anyone in a coma courtesy of his fantastic modified suplexes and his patented, “Tazmission” finisher.
His battles against Shane Douglas, Sabu and Bam Bam Bigelow will be remembered as his most popular title matches, and he brought a unique appeal to ECW as the brash New Yorker who wasn’t going to stand for any “B.S.” He was extremely powerful in the booking aspect, too, not because he forced fellow wrestlers to do the job when facing him, but because he more or less crushed low and mid-card talent because he was such a powerful force.
There’s a reason as to why everyone knew who Taz was once he stepped foot in WWE against Kurt Angle at Royal Rumble 2000 — he was arguable the king of ECW, mercilessly crushing his opposition and engaged in feuds against the upper echelon of the roster. Also, having Bill Alfonso in your corner to get you over did wonders back in those days, too.
Taz only held the official championship twice, losing it to Mike Awesome at Guilty As Charged 1999 — only to defeat Awesome a year later, thanks to a business deal arranged by Vince McMahon and Heyman to rule out Taz’s signing with WCW.
2. Shane Douglas
Shane Douglas was to ECW exactly what his moniker would suggest — “The Franchise.”
Exiled from the major wrestling promotions, due to him being misused by McMahon and a deep hatred for Ric Flair, Douglas cemented the title by throwing NWA’s coveted prize on the ground and established the ECW World Heavyweight Championship accordingly.
He holds the record for the longest reign dating from 1995 to 1997, where he was just days short of holding onto the belt for two years. With Francine in his corner for the brighter days as a champion, Douglas was the most technical out of all the champions, bringing in a skill-set that wasn’t exactly required in the organization. He feuded against Funk, Sabu, The Sandman, Bigelow and Taz, proving he was the main event player that WWE, NWA and WCW failed to capitalize on.
The thing about Douglas was he didn’t need to be hardcore or split his face open with barbed wire. He was a natural heel, generating heat like no other when he stepped into the few arenas ECW would visit, but because of his ties to Pennsylvania, he was still loved in Philadelphia.
He was the perfect wrestler you would love to hate, really.
He held six titles as a singles competitor in ECW and he really had the work ethic to bring the best out in his opponents night after night.
You could say guys like The Sandman, Taz, Sabu and Rob Van Dam were the major players of ECW, yet “The Franchise” was the sole reason it all happened to begin with.
1. The Sandman
Talk about a dude who personified exactly what the Philadelphia-based upstart promotion was all about. There is no other wrestler who would march to the ring with a Singapore cane while smoking a cigarette and hit himself in the forehead with the empty beer can he just finished. That was The Sandman.
Ever since ECW existed, The Sandman existed. He’s had five title reigns, the most out of anyone in the company, winning the title for the first time in 1992. He even beat out Steve Austin (and the lovable Mikey Whipwreck) in a Three-Way Dance at December to Dismember 1995.
“The Hardcore Icon” was definitely no master in the ring. His move set was not very generous, in terms of his ability to perform aerial or technical maneuvers, but it’s what made him so original. For someone like The Sandman, whose highest record at holding the belt clocks in at 196 days, it made him a great champion. He had the charisma, the attitude and the backing from all the crazed fans in attendance that supported his every move.
He achieved the most reigns by beating Justin Credible and Steve Corino for the belt at Guilty As Charged 2001 in Three-Way Dance, and despite losing it to Rhino directly after his bout, it showed that the company wanted The Sandman to go out as their most prized wrestler, since it was the final broadcast ever before filing for bankruptcy.
When the story ended, he was the imperfect protagonist who everyone felt obliged to cheer for, because he showed the world of wrestling that it was not just a great physique or mesmerizing moves which could lead you to the top; being a brash, antihero was more than enough in the setting he was in.