In a move that was widely telegraphed by industry analysts and doomsday naysayers the world over, Vince McMahon elected this week to put the woefully inadequate WWE interpretation of ECW out to pasture. It will be replaced by a new “next generation” brand identity that more accurately ties the stated aims of the old show with its intended fanbase. Said announcement represents the first substantial meeting of the minds between this writer and the WWE hierarchy in months. The death of ?ECW? was long overdue and, in the end, represented something of a mercy killing.
The notion of creating a third television brand ? with a developmental focus – to supplement Raw and Smackdown was one of the determining factors behind the resurrection of ECW. Vince McMahon had long retained the peculiar urge to recreate Paul Heyman’s ECW as a WWE product; evidently feeling a lick of WWE sheen would have served ECW well in its original form. Also, Vince was keen to dispel the myth that the original hardcore expression informed much of what would subsequently become ?WWF Attitude?; which it did. The merging of the hardcore veterans and a fresh new crop of WWE youngsters would surely lend the new ECW an edge the original lacked. History will show this idea to be a fallacy.
Problem was, the recklessness and ant-establishment ethos that defined ECW had no place in the PG-13, corporate sponsorship domain of World Wrestling Entertainment. Thanks to a stellar documentary and book combo, Vince was able to milk the second coming of extreme, which led to two nostalgia shows (the first being vastly superior to the second) and the hiring of several extreme practitioners as a prelude to restarting the league as a permanent entity. It soon became clear though that the party was not going to last. The likes of Sabu, Sandman and Dreamer were quickly buried beneath a sea of dumb gimmicks and ill-prepared miscreants e.g. Kevin Thorn and Matt Striker, and unceremoniously discarded. The heavyweight championship passed to the WWE-reared likes of Big Show and the useless Bobby Lashley. When Rob Van Dam declined an offer to extend his working relationship with WWE and Paul Heyman quit/was fired over the December To Dismember fiasco, the dream of the newborn Cult of Extreme was already dead in the water.
ECW wasn?t supposed to receive a second chance at life. Vince most certainly harboured a curiosity with regards to ECW, but the idea of re-establishing the brand was not on the agenda until the record-setting success of Rise and Fall of ECW: An unflinchingly candid look at the creative successes and ambitious excesses that defined the original ECW. Featuring interviews with numerous key players, the feature stands as one of the finest, most objective WWE productions ever. A rebel with a cause, Paul Heyman pulled no punches regarding his enemies, including Eric Bischoff, who gladly passed his own comments for the presentation and the enmity that exists between the two men remains clear (and uncensored) for all to see. It is a testament to his passion that Paul Heyman refused a request from WWE Management not to discuss Scott ?Raven? Levy, a major part of the legacy of ECW. Indignant at such a suggestion, Heyman made sure Levy received considerable focus and credit in full. This was not to be a pro-WWE hatchet job (ala Rise and Fall of WCW).
The surprise success of the documentary convinced Vince McMahon to ally his ambitions for a third WWE brand with the nostalgia gravy train he?d inadvertently unearthed. ECW and the SyFy channel ostensibly made for compatible bedfellows, but as Sabu spoke and men dressed in Halloween costumes danced around to the general bemusement of all, the omens were not good. Sure enough, Vince indulged the ECW Originals for approximately six months before fazing them out, one by one. He then rendered the ECW title secondary to his personal feud with Bobby Lashley before committing the ultimate act of sacrilege by making himself champion. When Rob Van Dam looked into a camera and yelled: ?Vince killed ECW?, he wasn?t kidding.
In less than a year, the optimism and curiosity that fuelled the ECW revival was dead. WWE went from considering entirely separate ECW tours to cancelling all house shows and taping television alongside Smackdown. As destruction jobs go, this was positively first rate. Lashley tanked horribly as champion and when mid-carder John Morrison was installed as long-term successor, the message was resoundingly clear. Admittedly, Morrison’s title feud with CM Punk was well worth the time, but it was only a temporary boon. Both Morrison and the super-talented Punk went on to greater things elsewhere and ECW continued to flounder. As no-accounts like Chavo Guerrero and Kane reigned as champion for ten minutes at a time, a belt that at one time stood as one of the world’s most prestigious championships became utterly meaningless. It was a tragedy to behold.
Save for a misguided few, no one believed Christian’s association with ECW represented anything other than a message to him that he was mid-card material. The hugely talented and reliable veteran had evolved into a true champion during his three years in TNA and should have immediately been placed in the upper tier. Instead, he was tasked with keeping the redundant ECW crown above water against a veritable bevy of opponents, ranging from veterans (William Regal) to failed pet projects (Vladimir Koslov) to ill-equipped greenhorns (Jack Swagger). Christian has made them all look like worthy contenders and whilst the title he holds is as worthless as tin, his personal stock has been raised by the panache with which he has set about his task. He should immediately be placed on Raw or Smackdown and pushed as the star he so obviously is.
The future of the third brand is now open to conjecture. WWE wisely used the last full year of the existence of ECW to set in motion its plans for a youth-based television show. In theory, this is a superb ? and necessary – idea that will improve all aspects of WWE if afforded respect and restraint; commodities not in abundance in WWE. It is this writer’s conviction that nothing in WWE will be allowed to flourish if it threatens to overshadow the status quo. Triple H refers to this notion as ?mid-card etiquette? i.e. knowing your place. Even an identikit, lower-rent pure WWE style show has potential if allowed to breathe and grow and establish an identity. It could be a vital proving ground for the stars of the future.
Certain of you will doubtless sight current WWE Champion (shudder) Sheamus as an example of the concept in action. Pertinent though this may be, Sheamus ultimately provides a limited example. He was elevated ahead of time, and though his stint on ECW with Dustin ?Goldust? Runnels was informative and useful, its all for naught if Sheamus continues to fail as champion. With WWE-NXT, Vince McMahon must exercise patience. I?m not convinced he knows how to do this as impatience, politics and arrogance have thus far sabotaged all attempts by WWE to foster its new generation. Credit where credit is due though: In bowing to the absurdist SyFy channel and eradicating ECW, WWE has perpetrated an absolute good that I wholeheartedly applaud. I only hope the good name of extreme recovers from a period in history that can only be labelled a debacle. Good riddance to bad rubbish.
Daniel R. Browne.