Extreme invasion: ECW takes over Raw in 1997
On Feb. 24, 1997, a group of misfits from Philadelphia showed up in the WWE locker room before that night’s Raw taping. Tommy Dreamer, Sabu and nearly a dozen more competitors from Extreme Championship Wrestling had been invited by Mr. McMahon to compete in sanctioned matches on that evening’s broadcast. It was a historic night for sports-entertainment, but the mood backstage was tense to say the least.
“We all showed up in matching tracksuits that said ECW on them,” Tommy Dreamer told WWEClassics.com. “We looked like a team and I remember Vince was really impressed with that, but the locker room wasn’t very welcoming to us. We were taking away from their television time and I’m sure guys weren’t happy with it.”
The tenuous relationship between the two companies began in June 1995, when WWE came to Philadelphia with the King of the Ring pay-per-view. At that time, ECW had built up a fiercely loyal following in their hardcore home of Philadelphia. During the tournament final between Mabel and Savio Vega, a distinct chant of “E-C-Dub!” echoed throughout the famed Spectrum arena. It was then that Mr. McMahon began to take notice of the small promotion that would revolutionize sports-entertainment.
“Paul [Heyman] said we were working on a deal with WWE to get us national exposure, but not a lot of people know about it,” Dreamer revealed. “I think it was Paul, Vince and Bruce Prichard — the head of talent relations at the time. That was it.”
More than one year later at In Your House: Mind Games, Savio Vega was once again the victim of an ECW involvement. During the event’s opening contest, Heyman, Dreamer and The Sandman appeared at ringside, all with the ECW logo emblazoned on their clothing. As Vega brawled with a young Texan called Justin “Hawk” Bradshaw, Sandman spat beer in the face of Savio. ( WATCH)
“We didn't know what we were getting into,” The Innovator of Violence explained. “We all met up in the parking lot. We had The Eliminators in the crowd as backup in case we got into a fight. I found out later that Savio Vega was the only one who knew. Bradshaw didn’t even know about it. He was ready to fight and Savio cut him off.”
After a brief scuffle and mass confusion, the hardcore renegades were escorted from the premises.
“I remember Jerry Brisco, he was mad as can be, daring us to hop over the rail. He had rage in his eyes,” Dreamer recalled. “Supposedly there was a lot of chaos and commotion with the WWE guys who wanted to fight. We were really escorted out by police. Once we got thrown out, we were gone.”
The following night on Raw, Tazz jumped the guardrail with a bright orange sign that read “SABU FEARS TAZZ” and injured a photographer who got in his way.
The back-to-back incidents generated tremendous buzz throughout the wrestling industry for both companies. In an unprecedented accord between Mr. McMahon and Paul Heyman, ECW was formally invited back to WWE several months later. In February 1997, the groundbreaking organization competed in sanctioned matches during Raw at the Manhattan Center in the ECW hotbed of New York City. The company’s first pay-per-view, Barely Legal, was only two months away. ( MORE ON ECW BARELY LEGAL)
“They needed a boost and we definitely needed a boost,” Dreamer said. “WWE was getting their butt kicked by WCW and they needed something that said you have to tune in to Monday Night Raw because anything could happen.”
But this time, ECW needed an antagonist from within to facilitate the invasion, and it was presented in the form of Jerry “The King” Lawler.
“I had heard about ECW before and honestly, what I had heard was not necessarily fact,” Lawler told WWE Classics. “I spent most of my career in the Mid-South area, and we had a little world of our own. The only thing we heard about other promotions was stuff you’d see in wrestling magazines. So honestly, at first glance, I thought this was a group of misfits. I thought these were guys who couldn’t catch on with the major organizations. Cast-offs. I found out later on that wasn’t necessarily the case.”
To make matters more interesting, Heyman and “The King” had a history that wasn’t widely known to most WWE fans.
“Paul Heyman had worked for my promotion down in Memphis [Tenn.] that Jerry Jarrett and I owned from 1977 up to 1997,” the WWE Hall of Famer explained. “We made him the manager of Austin Idol and Tommy Rich, which, at the time, were two of our top guys in the territory. It was a great spot for Paul to be in. I thought at the time, Paul had a lot of charisma and got a great villainous reaction from the fans.
“We had a Scaffold Match in Louisville, Ky.,” Lawler recalled. “I remember telling Paul before the match, ‘When you’re up there on that scaffold …’ And he said, ‘Oh no, I can’t go up on the scaffold.’ ‘What do you mean? We’ve built up this match for weeks.’ He said, ‘I’ve got a fear of heights.’ He just flat refused and it ruined the plans we had for the match.”
Things got so tense between Lawler and Heyman that “The King” hit the controversial New Yorker. The ECW mastermind had resented Lawler ever since, so it made perfect sense for “The King” to be the guy to invite ECW back to Raw for a fight. Even if the majority of sports-entertainment fans didn’t know the pair’s history, many in the locker room did, adding a layer of genuine intrigue.
“The wrestlers knew there was legitimate dislike between us,” Lawler recalled. “When [ECW] came into WWE, Vince and I were doing commentary, so we had the opportunity to be the most vocal about the guys. I literally lambasted them. When I said that ECW stood for Extremely Crappy Wrestling, it stood forever. It still lives to this day. That struck a nerve and really got under the skin of the ECW talent. I heard through the grapevine that they really thought I was a jerk because that’s something you just don’t say.”
The extreme contingent arrived to the Manhattan Center following Raw’s opening contest. The Eliminators delivered Total Elimination to a ring attendant and Heyman declared ECW’s arrival to a rousing ovation from the New York crowd.
Throughout the evening, ECW stalwarts like The bWo, Little Guido, The Sandman and The Dudley Boyz all made appearances and competed in officially sanctioned contests with Heyman on commentary. During Tazz’s match against Mikey Whipwreck, Sabu infamously took an awkward leap off the Raw set. ( WATCH)
“Paul wanted his best representatives out there because we were getting ready for the pay-per-view,” Dreamer said. “We were using it as a platform to get national exposure. We wanted to show that extreme style and take over the show.”
As the ECW roster pulled out all the stops to impress the television audience, “The King” did his best to offend the unwelcome guests.
“I remember one particular thing got under Tazz’s skin,” Lawler recalled. “I was just trying to be comical when Tazz came out to the ring and I said, ‘Y’know, he looked a lot bigger on the Lucky Charms box.’ That really got his goat. I think there was legitimate animosity there with Tazz.”
Conspicuous by his absence, though, was one of ECW’s most impressive talents. Rob Van Dam had sided with Lawler in what became a bitter rivalry between the two organizations, but was nowhere to be seen on the broadcast.
“Rob was seriously thinking of leaving and going to WWE,” Dreamer revealed.
After the big invasion show in February, ECW competitors made several more appearances in ECW rings, most notably with a televised debate between Heyman and Lawler. On Raw, “The King” even became a manager of sorts for RVD, who had begun going by the name “Mr. Monday Night.” But at a Raw taping in June, the arrangement between the two companies began to fall apart. ( WATCH)
“We had some problems in Detroit, Mich.,” Dreamer admitted. “It was Sabu vs. Flash Funk and they also wanted to do Rob Van Dam vs. Road Dogg.” ( WATCH)
The Road Dogg match didn’t happen due to backstage disagreements and a proposed match with Dreamer & Sandman battling Van Dam & Sabu at that year’s SummerSlam at the Meadowlands in the New York/New Jersey area didn’t take place.
“We were told the match was a go, but we were scrapped the week before,” Dreamer said.
Regardless, Lawler made an invasion of his own to the ECW Arena, confronting the hardcore competitors and fans on their own turf.
“It was the devil walking into heaven,” Dreamer recalled. “He feared for his life. It was bad. In ECW, we used to have riots. That was very close to a riot. Fans never expected him to show up there.”
Perhaps because Lawler never had kind words for the ECW Arena.
“I’ve made some comments about the place,” Lawler admitted. “I’ve said, ‘This building should be built out of toilet paper.’ The Philadelphia fans are tough. And the ECW Philadelphia fans were even tougher. And that atmosphere, in the ECW building was just … it was scary.”
Lawler participated in marquee matches alongside Rob Van Dam and Sabu at ECW’s Heat Wave and Hardcore Heaven events that year.
“Jerry Lawler is one of my favorite opponents,” Dreamer said. “But I don’t think he gets along with Paul Heyman. I have never had personal animosity toward Jerry. I was always a huge fan of his.”
“The King” had similar words for his former foe.
“I love Tommy Dreamer. He and I have had great matches,” Lawler said. “And I would welcome the opportunity to rekindle something with Paul and I, even to this day. I think he would be the perfect foil for me in a comeback match. It just wouldn’t be a Scaffold Match [laughs].”
Still, despite tensions in the locker room and in the ring, both Dreamer and “The King” agree the invasion was an enormous success.
“You cannot debate the power of WWE television,” Dreamer declared “We had the cult following of ECW, but there were people who couldn’t get ECW [on TV]. So that opened to the doors for people to ask, ‘Who are these crazy people from Philadelphia? I want to see more of them.’”
Looking back on the entire ordeal, even Jerry Lawler has come around on his opinions on ECW.
“Certainly our memories of ECW will probably live forever thanks in large part to WWE,” “The King” said. “But even if that had never happened, those guys did enough to stand on their own. They did things that got attention. They got the wrestling world’s attention. I was happy to be part of it.”
To this day, Lawler still gets asked about his feelings about ECW.
“I still have a lot of people who will say, ‘Why do you really hate ECW so much?’ But you have to understand, if I really hated it so much, why was I the only guy from WWE who went and worked with them?” Lawler said. “When you look back on something that worked, you’re proud of it. And I don’t think it could have worked out any better than it did.”