Monday Night Wars Documentary Review Part 7: The War Goes Extreme

In the late 90s, a small Philadelphia promotion took the wrestling world by storm with it ulta-violent hardcore style and rabid fan base. Extreme Championship Wrestling, although it did not air programming on Monday nights, served as a third party in the Monday Night Wars.

At first we get yet another recap of Turner investing in WCW, and how Raw’s Saturday morning style did not work with a prime time audience. We see Jeff Jarret’s cowboy gimmick along with the Bushwhackers.

Then we get to the good stuff. The early days of ECW are re-capped, how they broke away from the NWA, how the lower production values added to the content, and how the audience was as much a part of the show as the wrestlers and would even bring weapons to be used. The clip of the Foely/Funk tag match is shown where the audience literally showered the ring with chairs.

As well as this episode tells the story of ECW, unfortunately it still uses the narrative of WCW “stealing” ECW stars, saying “Eric Bischoff had a blank checkbook signed by Ted Turner.” What is not mentioned but is well documented elsewhere is that ECW often had trouble meeting it’s payroll, prompting talent to leave for more security and stability, not to mention a bigger platform. Eric Bischoff is at least given a chance to respond, saying “One man’s raid is another companies acquisition.” In fairness, ECW founder Paul Heymen is shown saying he didn’t like it personally but knew it was just business. He added “When you’re up against WWE and Vince McMahon in a Monday Night War what else are you supposed to do?”

Just before Monday Nitro began to air, WCW acquired Mexican Lucha Libre talents along with other cruiser weights such as Eddie Guerrero, Dean Malenko, La Parka, and Chris Jericho. As time went on, both WCW and WWF would recruit ECW stars like the Dudley Boys, Sandman, and Tazz. Heymen says “Our move was always to find new talent and develop them faster than they were pulling people out.”

ECW pulled off a small miracle on April 13th 1997, by having their own PPV Barely Legal. To help promote it, ECW stars actually appeared on the 3/17 episode of Raw. Paul Heymen was actually in the ring and on commentary with Vince, and announcer Jerry Lawler challenged the ECW locker room to come out the next week, which they did. They appeared on several Raws, and the ratings increased. Cable companies were hesitant to put the violent federation on PPV, (MMA events were not even allowed at the time) but fans picketed outside the cable companies demanding the PPV be aired.

Over the next few years ECW had enough momentum to get on television. TNN, The National Network, debuted a Friday Night ECW show on 8/27/99. This gave ECW more legitimacy, allowing other projects to be possible like a video game, magazines, and T-shirts deals. This episode doesn’t mention it, but the ECW video game was the first, and I believe only wrestling game to get a mature rating.

Unfortunately for them, write as ECW was going on TV, the Sandman and Mike Whipwreck signed with WCW, and Tazz and the Dudley Boys signed with WWF. Sandman in WCW was known as Hack. Mikey Whipwreck is interviewed in this episode, and says that he signed while he was taking time off for injury. Even though he agreed to a WCW deal, he feels WCW simply signed him so ECW wouldn’t have him.

The ECW show had 1 million views per week, but they hit another obstacle as their champ Mike Awesome jumped to WCW while still on contract with ECW. He is shown on the 4/10/2000 episode of Nitro attacking Kevin Nash. The announcers say he’s the champ but the belt is not shown on TV. This led to one of the more curious incidents of the Monday Night War. At an ECW show, Mike Awesome fought Tazz, who was on loan from the WWF. It was the first and only time during the Monday Night Wars that a contracted WWF wrestler fought a contracted WCW wrestler, and the match was in an ECW ring for the ECW title. Tazz won, and days later dropped the belt to ECW star Tommy Dreamer.

It is well documented elsewhere so it was a little disappointing this episode did not cover the censorship issues and other restrictions that TNN placed on ECW. It does cover how TNN was in negotiations with the WWF to move Raw to their network, which they eventually did. Paul Heymen often suspected TNN only aired ECW to test if they could get a wrestling audience, and also to lead into TNN’s Rollerjam show, which was an attempted revival or Roller Derby.

ECW was only on TNN for one year, and without their TV deal, the company folded. Paul Heymen envisioned ECW being a global promotion. What no one knew at the time, was the Vince McMahon was secretly subsidizing ECW, and used it as a developmental territory. In January of 2001, WWF purchased ECW, and just a few months later purchased WCW. ECW’s revival is covered, with the One Night Stand PPV on 6/12/05. What is also covered is the influence ECW had on WWF and the attitude era.

From the beer drinking Stone Cold Steve Austin to the advent of the WWF Hardcore title, ECW’s influence on the Monday Night Wars is unquestionable.

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ECW and the First Shot of the Monday Night Wars

Extreme Championship Wrestling, known amongst its fans as ECW, was a Philadelphia based promotion that had a rabid fan base throughout the 1990s. Known for its hardcore violent matches and adult themed angles, ECW is often cited as an influence on WWF’s Attitude Era. While never as large of an organization as WWF or WCW, the two combatants in the Monday Night Wars, they nevertheless served as a third party in the conflict. ECW took their own shots at WCW, and took shots at WWF that were just as aggressive, if not more so, than WCW did. In this series we will examine the role ECW played in the Monday Night War.

ECW was originally named Eastern Championship Wrestling, given that they were based out of Philadelphia. Originally it was part of the National Wrestling Alliance or NWA, which was an organization of regional promoters. WWF itself was originally a part of the NWA when they themselves were a regional promotion. Once the WWF grew to national prominence the NWA became largely irrelevant to the general public.

Eastern Championship Wrestling was owned by Todd Gordon. The booker, the person who decided what matches would be on the card, was Eddie Gilbert. Todd had a falling out with Eddie, who was soon replaced by Paul Heyman. Paul Heyman was a long time part of the wrestling business, largely from behind the scenes. In his youth he worked as a freelance photographer for the WWF, and had just come of a stint in WCW.

Heyman felt wrestling needed to change with the times. This was the early era of grunge music, Nirvana and other bands out of Seattle were popular, while both WWF and WCW were mostly putting out a more cartoonist product as they had in the 1980s. Heyman felt wrestling needed it’s own grunge movement. He also was inspired by a Newsweek article about the problems of young men in places like New York City and South Central Los Angeles. Heyman recalls the article said “today we live in an environment that for the first time ever, there are teenagers that are more afraid of living than dying.” (Loverro p.28)

ECW, under Paul Heyman’s guidance, established its new identity before the advent of the Monday Night Wars. On 8/27/94, a tournament was held to crown the a new NWA champion. Shane Douglas of ECW was booked to win. Upon winning, he got on the mic, and mentioned several wrestlers from previous generations (such has Harley Race, Barry Windham, Ric Flair, whom he personally disliked, and Ricky Steamboat), then said “They can all kiss my ass.” before throwing the belt down. He went on, “Tonight, before God and my father (who died the previous year) as witness, I declare myself, The Franchise, as the new Extreme Championship Wrestling Heavyweight Champion of the world. We have set out to change the face of professional wrestling. So tonight, let the new era begin, the era of the sport of professional wrestling, the era of the Franchise, the era of ECW.” Douglas would eventually go to the WWF, and was actually on the first RAW that went head to head with WCW. Apparently unhappy their he would return to ECW before moving on to WCW.

ECW did not have a regular network or cable television show in the early to mid 90s. They did have a show called ECW Hardcore TV, which was syndicated and often aired during late night hours. Any dates mentioned for specified matches and/or events in this series refer to when they originally aired on television (dates provided by WWE network) and do not reflect the dates they actually occurred.

It could be argued that the first shot in the Monday Night Wars was fired by ECW. On August 29th, 1996, just under a week before the Monday Night Wars officially began, ECW Hardcore TV aired the last ECW match between Eddie Guerrero and Dean Malenko. During the program ECW announcer Joey Styles was in the ring, and told the live audience that both participants would be leaving for WCW. In the audience, front and center for the camera to see was a large “Bischoff Sucks” banner. The crowd chanted “Bischoff sucks” followed by “dick.” (I watched this on the WWE Network and they had Malenko come out to the same music he had in WCW. Can anyone out there tell me if this was edited?) It was a 2/3 falls match. Eddie got the first fall, Malenko got the next, followed by a double pin and an apparent draw. Throughout the match the crowd chanted “Please don’t go.” and Joey Styles said this was “the last time they can take it to the extreme.” After the match both participants got on the mic and congratulated each other and thanked the fans for their support. Several wrestlers along with Paul Heyman came to the ring and hoisted them up on their shoulders. It was a very emotional night for the ECW crowd.

In the traditional history of the Monday Night Wars, WCW and Bischoff specifically take a lot of heat for “stealing” ECW talent. Eric Bischoff counters this by saying “one man’s raid is another company’s acquisition. We never raided anybody. We never raided the WWE, despite everybody’s opinion to the contrary. We never raided ECW. We never raided anybody….Did some talent leave ECW and come to WCW? Of course they did, because: A, they probably weren’t getting paid, and they had to in order to pay their bills and feed their families, and B, they recognized that WCW was a much stronger, much more secure, and much larger platform to ply their trade.” (Loverro p.102-103) Either way, throughout the 1990s there was a pattern of ECW developing new talent, only to lose them to both WCW and WWF. ECW would subsequently replace them with new talent, and the circle continued.

Sources

Loverro, Thom, with Paul Heyman, Tazz, and Tommy Dreamer, The Rise and Fall of ECW. Pocket Books. New York, London, Toronto, Sydney, 2006