WWE ECW Relaunch | Where Did It All Go Wrong?

One of pro wrestling’s most beloved and unique promotions was taken off life support in April of 2001. Four years later, ECW was back, though not as fans endearingly remembered it. And behind the scenes, Vince McMahon was not helping matters one bit.

ECW Champion, Vince McMahon.
ECW Champion, Vince McMahon. [Photo: WWE.com]

The Death and Rebirth of ECW

The death of ECW in 2001 lingered long in the memories of those hardcore followers who dreamt of a revival, probably more in hope than expectation. However, in January 2003, having purchased its video library, WWE produced a film on DVD entitled The Rise and Fall of ECW, documenting ECW’s existence. It stirred an interest in a product that WWE didn’t envisage or plan for. There was life in the old dog yet.

ECW One Night Stand 2005

On June 12th, 2005, ECW One Night Stand emanated from a venue synonymous with the original company: The Hammerstein Ballroom in New York City. The smell of nostalgia was as sweet as it could be, or perhaps that was just the aroma of a burning table?

From the first moment of the broadcast, ECW’s incomparable atmosphere was encapsulated with a spine-tingling opening reaction from the 2,500 fans in attendance. The passion and fervor were palpable. Having lain dormant for four years – ECW was alive and kicking.

The event was a home run and expertly epitomized everything that the original ECW stood for. It had EVERYTHING: a balcony dive, crowd dives, broken tables, a plethora of high spots, a cheese grater, barbed wire, blood, Singapore canes, plenty of interference, ‘fecal chants,’ chair shots to the head (remember those), the Blue World Order, a catfight, a heartfelt Paul Heyman promo, and a seemingly never-ending beer-soaked entrance through the crowd by The Sandman. This was all crammed into 160 minutes of pay-per-view gold.

Okay, well, it didn’t actually have everything. Unfortunately, due to a torn meniscus, arguably the best talent to ever grace the company couldn’t wrestle on the night.

Rob Van Dam was able to be there, however, and he gave a deeply passionate in-ring speech.

Watch: Rob Van Dam Promo From ECW One Night Stand 2005

RVD was a driving force behind the return of ECW, and he opened about this time in his career to me and my co-host on an episode of the PWB Podcast in 2008.

“I went through different cycles of motivation (in my career); the biggest one was bringing ECW back,” Van Dam explained.

“When I mentioned the idea to Vince about doing the One Night Stand, a reunion show where the ECW alumni could be seen the way we want to be seen, just for one night, he went for it and thought it was a great idea. I was going around to all the old ECW wrestlers like Spike Dudley and Taz, saying, ‘If I talk Vince into doing this pay-per-view, you guys are down, right?’

“Everybody was like, ‘It’s not going to happen!’

“It did happen, and even though I was injured and sidelined because of my reconstructed knee, it was still one of my favorite nights up to that point of my career. It was awesome for ECW to be back and on WWE’s stage so everybody could see it.”

Lance Storm and Chris Jericho opened the show with a wrestling clinic, whilst Tajiri, Little Guido of the Full Blooded Italians, and Super Crazy tore the house down in a signature three-way dance.

An ‘ECW Remembers’ segment paid tribute to those alumni no longer with us, including Chris Candido and Terry Gordy.

Masato Tanaka and Mike Awesome earned a standing ovation in a brutal match replicating their epic and violent encounters during ECW’s first run.

In the main event, a bloodied ECW original and the heartbeat of ECW, Tommy Dreamer, was put through a flaming table by the Dudleys to close the in-ring action.

Superstars from Raw and Smackdown watched on and antagonized fans throughout the evening, drawing white-hot levels of heat. That hit a peak when Paul Heyman took to the ring to begin a verbal assault on the WWE brigade.

Watch: Paul Heyman Promo at ECW One Night Stand 2005

“You’re in our house now, bitch,” Heyman bellowed at Eric Bischoff. He embarrassed the former WCW head honcho by stating how he was at an ECW reunion show and not a WCW one. JBL and Edge also suffered a tongue-lashing from Heyman.

A Stone Cold Steve Austin incited beer bash brought even more chaos as the Raw and Smackdown superstars were lured to the ring for an all-out brawl. This is where things would get out of hand between JBL and The Blue Meanie.

The event was an adoring love-letter to those who cherished Extreme Championship Wrestling. As the pay-per-view ended and faded to black, we pondered if this was the final goodbye?

The pay-per-view reportedly garnered a buy rate of between 325,000 to 340,000, which was on par, if not better than, the bulk of WWE’s non-big four pay-per-view offerings around this time.

ECW One Night Stand 2006

By late 2005, it was claimed in WWE ‘Untold’ that Shane McMahon had begun to involve himself in the idea of WWE Potentially bringing ECW back once more.

The extreme uprising was rolling on, and the decision was ultimately made to bring ECW back as a third WWE brand with its own weekly television slot. A WWE vs. ECW head-to-head show preceded the second One Night Stand pay-per-view, which took place on June 11th, 2006.

Paul Heyman opened the show and declared that "the tribe of extreme has risen again."

The passion was back, and the atmosphere was crackling, largely in anticipation for the main event which the card was built around.

A sign from the crowd at ECW One Night Stand 2006 that reads: "If Cena wins, we riot."
A sign from the crowd at ECW One Night Stand 2006 that read: “If Cena wins, we riot.” [Photo: Cageside Seats]
Rob Van Dam cashed in his Money In The Bank briefcase won at WrestleMania 22 to claim a world title shot on his turf, in the house that RVD built. RVD vs. John Cena for the WWE Championship had been booked perfectly.

 

“It so felt like back home, it was great. That crowd, that night (laughs), was irreplaceable and unmatchable,” Van Dam shared with me.

“No time ever in the eighteen years or so that I’ve been wrestling had I ever had an experience like that. Not only did everyone in the Manhattan Ballroom all really, really get behind everything that I stood for — because they knew bringing ECW back was my idea — they knew back in the day that I brought ECW up to new heights. Not only were all the fans pro-RVD in the extreme, at the same time, they were all against everything that Cena stood for.”

The match felt HUGE, and seeing John Cena’s shirt thrown back to him by unimpressed fans over and over again showed what they thought of WWE’s poster boy. This was quickly becoming a memorable moment in the history of professional wrestling. A sign that hung within the Ballroom summed up the emotions of what the match meant to ECW fans. It read: “If Cena wins, we riot.”

Fortunately for everyone’s safety and those in charge of security at the venue, Rob Van Dam pinned John Cena to claim the WWE championship. Not only that, but it was Paul Heyman who counted to three. That just felt poetic.

RVD drops down to his knees after defeating John Cena as Paul Heyman awards him the WWE Championship at ECW One Night Stand 2006.
RVD drops to his knees after defeating John Cena as Paul Heyman awards him the WWE Championship at ECW One Night Stand 2006. [Photo: WWE.com]
Despite the acclaim for the main event, the feel and enjoyment of some of the undercard matches did not meet the standards of the previous year’s show and was a precursor of what the future held for ECW.

 

The outpouring of verbal vitriol when Rey Mysterio vs. Sabu for the World Heavyweight Championship ended in a no-contest was obvious.

Randy Orton was booed out of the building as he clashed with Kurt Angle. Angle had been drafted to the new brand and would likely have ended up being a cornerstone of the company had he not been about to leave WWE for TNA. The hard-to-please fans had clearly warmed to him in his victory over Orton.

Pay-per-view buys dropped, albeit to a still very respectable 300,000, which would still be viewed as a commercial success and reason to believe that ECW could flourish ahead of its full-time return to the pro wrestling calendar.

WWE ECW – The Extreme Promotion is Brought Back to Life

ECW on Sci-Fi debuted on June 13th, 2006. Even early on, it appeared that all was not as it should be. This wasn’t what those who clamored to buy ECW pay-per-views and merchandise had expected or wanted to see.

The product was becoming diluted. Matches began to have ‘normal’ rules resulting in disqualifications, something that couldn’t have been in starker contrast to what the original ECW was.

Talent like Kevin Thorn, Mike Knox, and a ridiculous ‘The Zombie’ character were brought in and didn’t really fit the moniker of being extreme.

“When I saw it all spiraling downhill, I was extremely disappointed,” Van Dam said. “And I was kicking and screaming and fighting it.

“I was talking to Vince at first, saying, ‘The ECW fans aren’t going to go for this,’ and I would hear such ridiculous things back like, ‘Rob, nobody remembers the original ECW.’

“You’ve got to be kidding me! Didn’t we bring this back based on the success of that pay-per-view and ECW DVD? And all I heard was, ‘For all I know, Rob, those 2,500 fans in New York City are the last of the ECW fans.’

“How do you argue with that? It’s like talking to a brick wall. You’ve got to be kidding me. At some point, you throw in the towel, and that’s what I did. I was looking for the exit.”

RVD summed up the situation accurately when surmising that “they turned ECW into a third brand, a lesser brand that’s no different than Raw or Smackdown. They alienated the old ECW crowd.”

One incident in particular that turned the tide involved Van Dam himself. Whilst he and Sabu were driving between shows on July 1st, 2006, they were caught speeding. Upon being pulled over by police, a substantial amount of cannabis and different types of pills were found inside the vehicle.

Understandably, WWE was suitably upset that the WWE and ECW World Champion would be caught in such a compromising situation.

Within a few days at the following Raw and ECW TV taping, RVD dropped both of his titles, and the push of a lifetime ended in an anti-climatic fashion.

You can read more about this situation in our article entitled Rob Van Dam – The Drug Charge That Changed His Career.

The Big Show became the unlikely superstar who would carry the ECW brand for the next five months as champion. On an August 1st, 2006, edition of ECW on Sci-Fi, he defended his title against Batista at the Hammerstein Ballroom.

A disillusioned live audience slaughtered both men with abusive chants and were effectively booed out of the building. Just how far the brand had fallen in a few months was shocking to see. However, it wasn’t Big Show or Batista’s fault; they just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and bit the verbal bullet that was aimed at WWE management.

December to Dismember

As the downward momentum continued, a slither of light glistened in the distance. A December to Dismember pay-per-view had been set for December 3rd, 2006, but as the event approached, it was noted that only the extreme elimination-chamber main-event and one other contest, a tag match between Raw and Smackdown talent (MNM vs. The Hardys), had been booked.

It was an ominous sign for an event that ended up selling only 90,000 pay-per-view buys – down over 200,000 from One Night Stand a few months before.

Paul Heyman twice tried to resign from his position as lead writer, but it wasn’t accepted. ECW had lost its identity and values; Heyman wanted to be as far away as possible from the slow and sad demise of the product he’d transformed all those years ago.

The chamber match was entertaining, and Lashley walked away as the new face of the brand by claiming the ECW world title. But, the rest of the card was met with disdain and fell flat on its face.

Paul Heyman covers his eyes in disgust at WWE December to Dismember.
Paul Heyman covers his eyes in disgust at WWE December to Dismember.

ECW wasn’t ECW anymore, and everyone knew it. Over the course of the next few years, the brand suffered from being a poor version of Raw and Smackdown and simply became the ‘developmental’ television show for new prospects. Such future stars as Sheamus, The Miz, and CM Punk made a name for themselves on ECW programming and have gone on to have wonderful careers, a positive to counter all the negatives.

A glance at some of the champions who held the ECW title from 2007-onwards clearly indicated how much things had changed: Kane, Mark Henry, Jack Swagger, Christian, and Ezekiel Jackson; rightly revered talents in the WWE realm, but not in the land of extreme. WWE CEO Vince McMahon even became ECW champion at Backlash 2007 after defeating Bobby Lashley in a famous 3-on-1 handicap match after going bald.

Watch Vince McMahon Become ECW Champion:

ECW was taken off life support for the final time and officially expired in February 2010. From its glorious heydays in the late 1990s and 2000, it was finally over. One of the key minds in bringing ECW back, Rob Van Dam, said it best. “The demise of ECW made me probably more disappointed than anything else related to wrestling in my entire career.”

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Ian Aldous
Ian Aldous is a boxing writer and contributor to Pro Wrestling Stories. He has covered boxing for BoxingNews24.com since 2011 and represents the International Boxing Organization as a publicist. He briefly covered pro wrestling in the late 2000s for WrestlingNewsWorld.com and the PWB Podcast. He can be reached on Twitter: @boxing_writer and by e-mail at ian_aldous@yahoo.co.uk.