Thursday, June 08, 2006

ECW: Déjà Vu All Over Again

Of all the various phases, obsessions, and hobbies I’ve taken up and torn through over the years, there have been few that remained constant. Star Wars is one of them, comic books another. Professional Wrestling has also held a spot in my heart as long as I can remember, with varying degrees of ferocity. The flame burned brightest right around 1996-1997, culminating at Wrestlemania XII, when, as my friends and I gathered around the in retrospect not-so-big screen TV for my ninth birthday party, the Heartbreak Kid Shawn Michaels triumphed over Bret Hart after sixty grueling minutes in the legendary Iron Man match. It was one of the greatest moments of my young life, and by far the apex of my interest in wrestling.

As the Attitude era dawned, my fervor began to fade, igniting one last time as the new millennium came around. I found myself captivated by Mick Foley’s struggle for one last run at the top before his impending retirement. After February 2000’s No Way Out, I left wrestling for good. Still, like a scorned lover, I couldn’t keep myself completely away. I checked in from time to time, just out of curiosity. I read the websites and scouted for news, never watching the shows but maintaining an awareness of them. It wasn’t the “sport” I lost interest in, just was the way it was being run.

When Vince McMahon’s WWF, now know as the WWE, purchased their floundering competitor, WCW, wrestling fans (including myself) were foaming at the mouth merely pondering the possibilities. Goldberg vs. Steve Austin… Sting vs. the Rock… The possibilities were endless. Unfortunately, all the dreams of the wrestling community went tits-up the second that Vince got his greedy paws on the company that had been such a bothersome thorn in his side for over ten years. Refusing to buy out the contracts on WCW’s larger stars, the much-vaunted “InVasion” amounted to little more than the WCW midcarders making fools out of themselves jobbing to the WWE guys. The opposition was portrayed as inferior, bumbling losers who didn’t belong in the same ring as the “WWE Superstars.” The only way that Vince could milk a pay-per-view main event out of the situation was by having several of WWE’s biggest stars “defect” to the WCW side. Eventually, one of these turncoats, Kurt Angle, was made the de facto leader of the team, a man who had never wrestled for any federation other than the WWE, especially not WCW.

This entire sordid little tale has already been told, to a much greater (and funnier) extent in R.D. Reynolds and Bryan Alvarez’s book The Death of WCW, so I’ll end my summary with a recommendation of the highest order for this book, an essential read for any wrestling fan.

Now, why did I just waste time recapping the death of WCW if it’s been done before? Why, to segue into my next point, of course! What is my point, you ask? Simple:

It’s happening all over again.

So as anyone who's ever worn an Austin 3:16 shirt is by now aware, ECW is making its triumphant return after five long years in wrestling purgatory. Extreme Championship Wrestling, as led by the genuinely maniacal genius Paul Heyman, was arguably the most groundbreaking and innovative wrestling federation of the 1990s. The vanguard of wrestling's maturity, ECW walked, crossed, and destroyed the lines of good taste and political correctness. Even with paltry production values, crude, obscene and borderline blasphemous storylines, and rabid, often brutal fans, ECW still managed to lead the new wave of wrestling away from the orange, steroid-addled showboats of the 80s and into the new millennium. For all of his brilliance when it came to booking a wrestling promotion, Heyman lacked the business and financial savvy necessary to keep afloat in a harsh and cutthroat business. Much to the dismay of wrestling fans all over the country, ECW declared bankruptcy and folded in 2001, with all of its assets and rights purchased by the WWE.

In a rare moment of lucidity, Vince McMahon realized just exactly what he was holding on to. Even after going went out of business, the ECW brand name still sparked an intense and positive response from the WWE fanbase, many of whom had migrated over after the demise of their favorite federation. The passion and dedication of thousands of frenzied followers chanting "ECW...ECW..." as they would catch a glimpse of the company's former glory was undeniable. In 2005, Vince gave the fans what they wanted. ECW: One Night Stand drew a sold out crowd and a phenomenal 2.0 buyrate (higher than 131 of the up to that point total 158 PPVs in WWF/E history), it was a no-brainer to assume that a full-blown resurrection of the cutting-edge federation was not far off. Another PPV was announced, once again titled One Night Stand. An oxymoron, to be sure, but the fans sure as Hell weren't complaining. Even if the entire extent of ECW's grand comeback was nothing more than a lone PPV every once in a while, the wrestling community would have been perfectly satisfied. As long as the matches and shows maintained their exceptional quality, the reputation and legend of the ECW name would live on, untarnished and perhaps made even more mythical for its scarcity and distinctiveness.

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Chief among Vince McMahon's (many) foibles is his tendency to take something that works and just run it into the ground, not knowing when to quit. This has proven an effective tactic in the past, with the incredible success of Degeneration-X and the rise to fame of Steve Austin and the Rock owing a great deal to Vince's overzealous promotion tactics. Even more often, however, the hype machine will blow up in his face, as was the case with Olympic strongman Mark Henry's WWE debut, the Rock's original "blue-chipper" gimmick, or even the original WCW "InVasion." The fans grew sick of the constant, overwhelming attempts to put these men and angles over before they had proven themselves in the ring, and responded with apathy bordering on anger. It would stand to reason, then, that Vince was not going to leave the incredibly lucrative ECW with one measly pay-per-view a year. He took the ball and ran with it. ECW was getting a weekly TV show once more.

In order to bring awareness to the new show, ECW wrestlers began to appear on the WWE shows. It soon became apparent that ECW was not going to be treated as its own separate entity. It was to become another brand in the WWE hierarchy, albeit one being run exclusively by Paul Heyman and his protégé, one of ECW's brightest stars in its heyday, the "Innovator of Violence," Tommy Dreamer. It was obvious that Vince still had his fingers in the pot. When the card for the 2006 One Night Stand PPV was announced, WWE wrestlers were to be in two of the main events, with ECW wrestlers Rob Van Dam and Sabu competing for the WWE Championship and the World Heavyweight Championship, respectively. The focus of ECW's big night was not to be the wrestlers who sacrificed, struggled and starved to stay afloat in the last five years. The spotlight was to shine on the WWE belts and the WWE wrestlers, leaving ECW and its rabid fans to sulk in the darkness. As if this indignation wasn't enough, Vince still had one more all-too-familiar trick up his sleeve.

Allow me to indulge in a bit of backstage wrestling history. In 1996, Olympic gold medalist (not yet professional) wrestler Kurt Angle was convinced to attend an ECW show, High Incident. Amicably enough, he provided commentary for a match before settling back to take in the rest of the program. Unfortunately, High Incident was also the night of the infamous "crucifixion angle," in which the deranged mastermind Raven used barbed wire to string hardcore hero the Sandman up onto a wooden cross.

Angle flipped out. As he recounted on the WWE produced video The Rise and Fall of ECW, he confronted owner/booker Paul Heyman and threatened him with legal action if his name was even mentioned on the same show as the crucifixion. His actions, though perhaps a tad extreme, were nonetheless understandable. Still, with all this in mind, would you consider Kurt Angle to be ECW caliber? Do you think he would be a good choice to lead the pack and uphold the hardcore, rule-breaking, innovative mentality that ECW pioneered?

Vince McMahon does.

In an almost eerie parallel of the WCW InVasion, Kurt Angle, the man who wussed out when the fledgling promotion gave him a chance 10 years earlier, was drafted to the ECW brand and soon became the most prominent member in the faction. Once again, the man who had been with WWE for his entire professional career was to be the face of an outside, invading force. This was never more blatant than during the June 7th TV special WWE vs. ECW, an event in which 10 wrestlers from each side battled in a Royal Rumble styled match. After starting out rather evenly, with both WWE and ECW stars being eliminated at a fairly even rate, the WWE soon began to build an advantage. Within minutes, all but one of the ECW wrestlers had been eliminated. Who was left? Which warrior would remain to battle for the honor and pride of the company for which he had fought and bled?

Kurt Angle, that's who.

After eliminating the leftover WWE superstars, Angle stood in the ring victorious, though not alone. He was accompanied by another wrestler who had just seconds earlier turned his back on the WWE to become another member of the ECW faithful, none other than the Big Show, Paul Wight.

Yes, that's right. In yet another bafflingly unprecedented (and unneccesary) move, the Big Show, maybe the only wrestler with fewer ties to ECW than Kurt Angle, was going to represent the brand in its rebirth. This made even less sense. At least Angle is a popular, charismatic and talented worker. Wight is just... large, and has never really caught fire with the fans. Only time will tell how they will take him as part of the second coming of ECW.

When I began this entry, One Night Stand 2006 had not happened yet. It is now 3:00 AM, Monday and the PPV has come and gone. I haven't actually seen it, but I have read the results and learned that Rob Van Dam has won the WWE Heavyweight Championship. Some might see this as a validation of ECW's return, that it gives the brand some weight and credibility. I beg to differ. Giving RVD the title is a calculated, pandering move. The ECW of old didn't need the boost from an established belt. In the days before the revolution, when it was still called Eastern Championship Wrestling, Shane Douglas was awarded the NWA World's Heavyweight Championship, maybe the second most important belt in the country. He did not revere it or cherish it. He didn't hang onto it. He didn't defend it. Shane Douglas threw it on the ground and proceeded to cut one of the best promos the industry has ever known. Those 10 pounds of gold represented the old way, the dead way. The second the belt hit the bloody, sweat stained mat, ECW was born, and with it an entire new perspective on the art of professional wrestling. Extreme Championship Wrestling may have returned in name, but its spirit, which shined brightly and briefly, can never be rekindled.


At 9:43 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your are Nice. And so is your site! Maybe you need some more pictures. Will return in the near future.


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