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The true story of the ECW relaunch
In spring 2006, devoted fans of ECW were shocked by the news: The promotion that went bankrupt in 2001 was making its return. They were more surprised by the brand name attached to the announcement: WWE. To say hardcore fans were cynical about the introduction of ECW as WWE’s third brand would be an understatement.
There were plenty of questions being bandied about ahead of ECW’s official relaunch at One Night Stand 2006. How extreme would the brawlers be allowed to get in a WWE ring? Would it be the counter-culture, envelope-pushing wrestling they had come to know and love passionately? At first, it seemed that way. But as 2006 continued, it became more and more evident that as much as the three letters appeared on TV every Tuesday night, the ECW of old was gone.
To get the real story behind the relaunch of ECW and find out whether it was “doomed from the start,” WWE Classics reached out to the people who lived it. Most were more than happy to speak at length about the new ECW. However, one person was not.
When we initially approached Paul Heyman about the subject, the ECW architect went on a lengthy tirade, accusing WWE.com’s reporters of engaging in yellow journalism and trying to ruin his current relationship with WWE.
Heyman tweeted his outrage at the topic, suggesting our time would be better served focusing on WWE Champion CM Punk’s record-breaking reign.
Paul Heyman: Mr. McMahon first came to me right after Thanksgiving 2005 and said he had a concept of Shane [McMahon] running the business end of a relaunched ECW, with me heading the creative end, where the model would be digital distribution.
Mick Foley: I heard it was because of the success of the first ECW pay-per-view. The fact WWE had put together a successful ECW show gave an indication there was some interest in the product.
Tommy Dreamer: The two biggest proponents that put it together, and I don’t think a lot of people know this, were Shane McMahon and John Laurinaitis. From the corporate side, they were pushing hard for it and fought a lot to make it happen, due to the success of the [“Rise and Fall of ECW”] DVD and the first One Night Stand.
Stevie Richards: I was training with Shane McMahon for his match against Shawn Michaels on Saturday Night’s Main Event. Tommy Dreamer was there for a few of the sessions. That’s when I first heard about the relaunch of ECW, or at least the One Night Stand heading into the relaunch. The idea sounded great when we talked about it.
Matt Striker: WWE realized the popularity of ECW. Just because ECW went away doesn’t mean the fanbase did.
Joey Styles: I was told they were bringing Jim Ross back to Raw and that I was going to be hosting the relaunch of ECW, which would be happening following One Night Stand 2006. I knew it was a possibility, because when the company signed me to call One Night Stand 2005, they made it clear there would be one in 2006. That’s why it wasn’t called One Last Stand, but One Night Stand.
As work went into bringing the hardcore company back from the ashes, mixed feelings permeated among the ECW Originals who were going to be instrumental in the new brand. They were given signs of reassurance as the relaunch date of June 16, 2006, quickly approached.
Heyman: Mr. McMahon had a meeting with the heads of every department and announced that WWE was going for three brands: Raw, SmackDown and ECW. He made his intentions known that he fully expected every department to offer its resources and create a third global brand for WWE. He got up, announced that Shane was going to run the division and that I was not just the on-air, but the behind-the-scenes brand manager, then he left the room.
I never saw Mr. McMahon delegate authority that way, ever. Ever.
Foley: I’m one of those guys who thinks if anyone can do it, Mr. McMahon can. I just didn’t know if you could recreate the grassroots magic of ECW with anything but a grassroots company. I was skeptical.
Styles: I had no doubt that it was a bad idea.
Dreamer: I was told from day one it was going to be different, they wanted it to be different. They wanted smaller venues and a place to groom talent, what [the original] ECW essentially was.
Heyman: The moment Syfy was willing to pay a license fee for this program, I knew we had to adhere to certain philosophies that would negate the effectiveness of telling people that we are the alternative to WWE.
Styles: ECW was meant to be a throwback to pro wrestling. A Philadelphia newspaper once described coming to an ECW show as “feeling that you were witnessing something illegal” and that it was an “underground, secret event.”
Heyman: WWE had the obligation to present to the public a certain level of production value, shot a certain way, with a style that was identifiable as WWE’s. We were dead before we were ever born.
Still, the crew of ECW Originals plugged on toward One Night Stand, with the hope of putting on a show that was unique enough to appeal to the faithful devotees of the original ECW that were sure to tune in, while attracting a new generation of fans. Before the show even hit the air, it was apparent that was going to be a challenge.
Heyman: I thought, if left to carve its own niche, we could create a new style, using some unseen new talent rubbing up against the few handpicked WWE Superstars we’d move over to the new ECW. We had a legitimate chance to create an authentic style that had a fighting chance.
Dreamer: That night, I thought it was great. Behind the scenes, I could see the signs that this was going to become more of a WWE project. We were starting to get a little “Hey, don’t do this, don’t do that,” when in the original ECW, we had freedom.
Styles: One Night Stand 2005, to me, felt like I was with the original ECW. Fast forward a year, we’re back in the Hammerstein Ballroom and I’m watching [producers] run through The Sandman’s entrance. I don’t know what else I could say to drive home the point that this was a bad marriage. The Sandman’s entrance couldn’t be more anti-WWE. It was never rehearsed. It was a real life barroom brawler, who happened to become a wrestler, walking through the fans because he was one of them.
Richards: One Night Stand  captured the feeling that made all the guys who were part of it or even watching think that they were going to make this an alternative-type product under the WWE umbrella. Obviously, we couldn’t go as far as we did in the original ECW, but it seemed like that feel and environment was going to be reinstated.
Styles: What really stood out was the World Heavyweight Championship Match between Rey Mysterio and Sabu. It ended in a No Contest when both of them went through a table. That’s not ECW. That would never happen in ECW, unless you fell off the top of the Hammerstein Ballroom, through the table, on the concrete. ( WATCH)
Heyman: My gut feeling was always that it should have ended with the 2005 One Night Stand, although Rob Van Dam beating John Cena for the WWE Title ( WATCH) made all the sense for the second One Night Stand, but because the original crew was so much older and the business itself had moved on from what the legend of ECW had become, it was doomed to fail.
Just two days after One Night Stand, the relaunched ECW kicked into full gear with the first edition of ECW on Syfy. The first episode was almost a mashup of WWE and ECW styles featuring characters like The Zombie interacting with hardcore originals like The Sandman. The main event saw Sabu defeat a mix of new and original ECW Superstars, including Big Show, in an Extreme Battle Royal. The show got mixed reactions from those involved and those who watched.
Dreamer: There were little glimmers of hope for the ECW fan. I felt like the fans knew what we were going through, because it wasn’t what we were told it was going to be.
Foley: I really enjoyed [the first shows]. I understood it couldn’t be what the original ECW once was, but I liked the spirit of the show. Kevin Thorn and Ariel stood out as an entertaining duo. It was quite different from SmackDown and Raw, which was probably the goal.
Heyman: I tried to find a way to save [the fans’] image of that brand for them. I kept thinking that by anointing Rob Van Dam as the World Champion and building a new generation around CM Punk, with Kurt Angle implementing an MMA hybrid style, we had a 1-2-3 punch that could get the audience hooked without alienating the original audience.
Striker: The thing that stands out to me the most is The Sandman hitting The Zombie with the Singapore cane and all the dust coming off his jacket. ( WATCH) It was very interesting. It wasn’t the ECW I remember, but it was also something new. I was excited that something new was out there.
Styles: [The first show] in Trenton, N.J. was awful. Original ECW fans were so disappointed with One Night Stand 2006 and the fact that it was so different from the original. I got in the car and drove home realizing this wasn’t ECW. This was WWE’s ECW.
Dreamer: The biggest case in point was the last time WWE’s ECW went to the Hammerstein Ballroom, one of the original ECW’s home venues. They said the show needed more star power, so they gave them Big Show vs. Batista. Audibly, you could not even hear the announcers at the time. The fans just tuned out because it wasn’t what they signed on for.
Styles: I think that audience specifically bought tickets to boo us out of the building.
Richards: [The early episodes] sucked. We knew it wasn’t going to be what we saw at One Night Stand. However, I think [the fans’ treatment of Big Show vs. Batista] was overreaction. That kind of strong reaction can lead to a lot of interest.
Heyman: It looked like a show that was undergoing a struggle. You could see the square peg of where we wanted to take it and you could also see the round hole of it being the third WWE brand. It was a terrible fit.
Though the new ECW was struggling to figure out its place, a crop of new Superstars was emerging. Somewhere latching on to a straight-edge, tattooed grappler from Chicago who unleashed a flurry of martial arts strikes on unlucky foes. (WATCH CM PUNK'S ECW DEBUT) They were enamored with a pretty blonde so nice, they named her twice. Plus, they had throwbacks like Dreamer, Sandman, Sabu and Van Dam to remind them there was still a spark of the original ECW.
The brand would get another chance to shine on pay-per-view in December 2006. December to Dismember, for better or worse, marked a major turning point in the future of ECW as a WWE brand.
Richards: [December to Dismember] was set up to fail. It was in between two other pay-per-views, there was only 10 to 14 days from the previous one.
Heyman: The pay-per-view was scheduled right after Survivor Series in Philadelphia, where the audience reacted to CM Punk as such a huge Superstar that Triple H and Shawn Michaels let him do the “Are you ready?” portion of the D-Generation X routine.
There was no doubt in my mind that CM Punk was ready to explode and carry ECW. But because the headbutting had gotten so out of control between me and Mr. McMahon, I couldn’t get him on board.
Styles: On the show, every ECW Original lost. Bobby Lashley leapfrogged over Rob Van Dam and CM Punk [by winning the ECW Championship] ( WATCH EXTREME ELIMINATION CHAMBER), which I believe was Paul’s breaking point and led to the confrontation between him and Vince. December to Dismember confirmed that this was a bad idea.
Richards: I know it’s popular to say you’re a Paul Heyman guy. I’m not a Paul Heyman guy, but he was right to walk out.
Heyman: The struggle over the course of the brand had turned personal between us. One of us had to go. I dare suggest that [Mr. McMahon] needed to stay, which left the other person in the equation, Paul Heyman, on a course back home for a much needed break.
Richards: Tommy Dreamer and I asked for our releases after the show. John Laurinaitis said no. I’m glad he did.
Dreamer: It was the worst pay-per-view ever. I had a long meeting with Mr. McMahon. I went to quit and he told me no. I told him how fed up I was with everything and we had a great talk. He told me not to quit. That was that.
Striker: What stands out most to me is seeing Paul Heyman cry. The show went off air, I believe a half-hour or 45 minutes earlier than any other pay-per-view does and Paul Heyman is crying. It told me that Paul knew something I didn’t, as usual.
Heyman: You can’t put a price on happiness and I was no longer happy in an industry that always fulfilled me. It was time for me to go.
After the controversy at December to Dismember, Paul Heyman left to focus on other opportunities outside sports-entertainment. It was nearly six years before he would be seen in a WWE ring again, at the side of his chosen one, CM Punk.
ECW soldiered on as a brand without him until February 2010, when it ended with the birth of WWE NXT. The whimper it went out with left everyone wondering what could have been done differently.
Dreamer: Everything should have been done differently. It should have been left alone and been autonomous. It would have been one hell of a show.
Heyman: I would have never called the brand ECW. Anything else, I had a million ideas. Every week, I pitched ways to change the name. But WWE’s investment was in the ECW brand and they had the right to exploit that.
Foley: I just don’t think [original ECW fans] thought it had the right to bear those three initials. I think if it had been called anything but ECW, it would have been OK. I think they saw the first two One Night Stands as an authentic tribute and that everything after that couldn’t measure up.
Richards: The opposite of everything they did [should have been done]. It’s not coming from a bitter place, but from the place of someone who cares about putting the best product out there. I cared deeply about my job and wanted everybody to [succeed], especially with the relaunch of ECW.
Styles: I don’t think anything could have been done differently, except not doing it to begin with. I really think WWE had all the best intentions and really thought they could make it a success.
Despite the negative feelings the relaunched ECW might drum up in its most fervent supporters, many of those who were part of it look back on it with fond memories of what it meant to them, as well as the future of sports-entertainment.
Heyman: I don’t regret that [the relaunch] happened. Closure is painful for a lot of people. There was no way to get ECW out of the conversation without it happening.
Styles: It gave career validation to Tommy Dreamer, Sabu and The Sandman, who got to team with Rob Van Dam and win at WrestleMania 23, with Tazz and I calling the match in front of 80,000 fans at Ford Field.
Dreamer: The same people who rip WWE’s version of ECW come up to me and say, “The night you won the title was great.” That happened in WWE. It was a great victory because it proved to me, mentally and physically, that I could still hang and have good matches. That’s what it’s all about.
Striker: It was an opportunity for a lot of guys in our locker room that weren’t getting one. It was an opportunity for me to go and out and wrestle every night and learn every single night. I learned from Tommy Dreamer. I learned from my friend Test. I learned from Sabu.
Styles: And me constantly giving Mr. McMahon suggestions to improve WWE.com led to him moving me into digital media, where I’m much, much happier than announcing.
Heyman: We did get to launch a lot of new talent, one of whom is your current, reigning, defending WWE Champion. If for no other reason, because it provided the launching pad for CM Punk, the new ECW, as miserable as it was, left behind something in its legacy that’s a major positive for WWE.