What if ECW didn't close? Insiders tell all
On March 5, 2001, Paul Heyman showed up at the Raw broadcast table alongside Jim Ross. It was a shocking moment. What was the brash visionary behind Extreme Championship Wrestling doing on WWE programming? ECW had been on hiatus for two months following the Guilty as Charged pay-per-view, but the assumption by many fans and ECW employees was that the company would eventually return. Heyman’s emergence as a WWE color commentator put the nail in ECW’s proverbial coffin (which, no doubt, would have been on fire).
But what would have happened if ECW hadn’t closed its doors? What could have kept it alive? What matches would have been presented at ECW’s next pay-per-view, Living Dangerously? Who would have been the organization’s next stars? How would ECW have evolved? WWEClassics.com talked to Heyman and others who were there at the company’s end to get the untold story behind the ECW that almost was.
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- PAUL HEYMAN — owner and mastermind behind ECW, always capable of opening his mouth and delivering a Scarsdale surprise
- TOMMY DREAMER — The Innovator of Violence and beloved longtime hero who still hears chants of “E-C-Dub!” at independent shows around the country
- JOEY STYLES — The Extreme Announcer, widely respected as the voice of ECW for the duration of the entire company
- RHYNO — The last-ever ECW World Champion and ECW Television Champion, which he held simultaneously at the company’s closing
- STEVE CORINO — The King of Old School, who often put his body on the line and entered the company’s final pay-per-view as the ECW World Champion
- JERRY LYNN — the recently retired former ECW World Champion, regarded as one of the best ring technicians of his generation
- JOEY MERCURY — current trainer in WWE’s developmental system and formerly known as Joey Matthews, one half of a bright young ECW tag team with Christian York
WWECLASSICS.COM: When Guilty as Charged happened in 2001, were you aware that it was the end of the company?
JOEY STYLES: Everyone who was in the inner circle knew that Paul was scratching and clawing for that last lifeline, be it an investment, be it getting on USA Network — and there were discussions. We were close to getting that last lifeline. Knowing that there wasn’t going to be another Hardcore TV after Guilty as Charged, I knew it was the end.
TOMMY DREAMER: We were hoping and praying. Paul was telling us all that he was doing everything in his power to keep us afloat. We had good signs. That show was sold out and it was a really good show. Paul was telling us that there were talks of us going to USA Network.
STEVE CORINO: I went down there that day thinking, “Ah, man. This could be it.” I remember one of the pay-per-view guys asking Paul if he should run an ad for the March pay-per-view. Paul told him to run it. People can say what they want about Paul — that he lied or manipulated. But to me, Paul was always the ultimate optimist. He believed he was going to save it.
JERRY LYNN: Yeah, I had a feeling. It wasn’t for sure, but the rumors were floating around and we were a couple months behind in pay. I had heard the night before that we were only getting half our paychecks for that pay-per-view. Things were looking bleak. They had been for a while.
JOEY MERCURY: I remember the second to last show in Poplar Bluff, Mo., we all went out after the show. I remember Sandman telling me, “I don’t care what anybody tells you, kid. This is it. It’s all over.” I was in disbelief. Minutes after he told me that, Dreamer walked in the door and sat down at the table. That clued me in, because Dreamer never came out with us. The next night in Arkansas, I went outside the building to look at the stars and Tommy came out and saw me. I asked, “Is this it?” And he said, “Yeah. This is it.” Tommy apologized and said, “I’m so sorry. I did what I could.” I got emotional. I still have the empty Budweiser can from the beer bash we had in the ring at the end of the night.
PAUL HEYMAN:I don’t think this is any secret. Universal Music was coming in to purchase a minority share of ECW. Which is why, after we were off TNN, our videos started appearing on “Doug & Jimmy’s Farm Club” on USA Network. Doug & Jimmy were Doug Morris and Jimmy Iovine, the co-chairmen of Universal Music. The concept was: one, exploit the massive financing available from Universal Music; two, use Universal’s distribution for our DVDs and CDs; three, utilize their web development teams as we expanded into the ever-growing Internet platforms that were becoming available in 2001.
WWECLASSICS.COM: What stalled the discussions with USA Network?
HEYMAN: The president of USA Network at the time was Stephen Chao. We were in daily conversations about content, calendar and budget with Stephen Chao. As a matter of fact, here’s a story that’s never been told. Stephen Chao reported directly to Barry Diller, who was the chairman. WWE had won the right to pursue their programming options with Viacom and move to TNN in fall 2000. Vince McMahon, unbeknownst to anyone, called Stephen Chao and told him that he would be doing his network a great service if they picked up the ECW brand and did business with Paul Heyman.
WWECLASSICS.COM: Why do you think Mr. McMahon would say that?
HEYMAN: There was a lot happening as WCW was collapsing, and Vince was realizing his dream of becoming THE most dominant promoter on a global basis. But Vince was also facing the hard reality that he was about to become the curator of the industry as well. Vince held a personal fondness for the concept of the independently owned company that built its way up from scratch. Vince never had an affinity for WCW because they were owned by a billionaire and funded by a multi-national corporation that didn’t have to ever worry about profits and loss and surviving another day. For Vince to see someone come along with such a passion for the industry that they would dedicate their lives to the pursuit of building a brand with their own money and their own independent efforts, that’s something Vince could not only relate to, but also identify with.
WWECLASSICS.COM: And what did USA Network do after Mr. McMahon made that recommendation?
HEYMAN: We had discussions of a one-hour, a two-hour and a 90-minute program. Here’s something else that has never been discussed publicly. One of the assets that we were going to be able to exploit was a relationship with [production company] Bunim/Murray, who were on top as producers of “The Real World.” Through a relationship with [talent agency] William Morris and Bunim/Murray’s development deal with USA Network, we were going to be able to use them to produce reality-style vignettes to introduce our stars to the far greater national audience. A 90-minute show would have been perfect for us.
WWECLASSICS.COM: Why didn’t it happen?
HEYMAN: At the end of the day, Barry Diller changed his mind and was going to take USA Network in a different direction. Also, the feeling was that they had the No. 1 brand on their network in WWE and if they went with anything but the No. 1 brand, it would be perceived by their viewers as a step back. Barry Diller did not want to have greater programming rights with a smaller brand like ECW and fill the niche. If he couldn’t have the A-list top brand, he’d rather promote something completely different.
WWECLASSICS.COM: What would fans have seen in the ring if that show on USA had happened?
STYLES: The biggest story was always going to be Rob Van Dam finally winning the ECW World Heavyweight Championship. When Guilty as Charged 2001 went off the air, Rhyno, our new monster, was the ECW Champion. So Rob Van Dam versus Rhyno was going to lead us into the next chapter of ECW if there was a next chapter on another television network.
RHYNO: I was ECW Television Champion and the ECW Heavyweight Champion at the same time and Van Dam never held the Heavyweight Title. There were a lot of Detroit Red Wings players that were ECW fans. I think there was going to be a big show in Detroit with some of the Wings players involved, because Van Dam was from Battle Creek, Mich. It probably would have been a good six months before the Detroit show.
HEYMAN: We always held off RVD’s chase and pursuit of the World Title as the “holy grail” for us to offer the widest possible audience that we could. The main [focus] of 2001 would have been RVD’s first pursuit of the ECW World Title and the obstacles that would be placed in his way en route to the one-on-one Rob Van Dam versus Rhyno match for the ECW World Heavyweight Championship.
DREAMER: I wanted to create this T-shirt that always kept getting put on the back burner. It was when Absolut Vodka was doing all of those cool ads. I wanted to do Absolute Extreme and have an aerial picture of the ECW ring with fire, tables, chairs — all that stuff. That T-shirt probably would’ve been a really cool seller.
CORINO: Justin Credible and I were going to start a new Impact Players with Jack Victory and Francine by our side. It’s 12 years later, so who knows, but the last interview you see on the last ECW show was me, Justin, Francine and Jack Victory forming a new Impact Players.
LYNN: I was going to move forward as a villain with Cyrus. It was fun. We were starting to build some steam. Cyrus and I had some good chemistry and it had always been one of my goals to be the villain with such a strong reaction that I needed security going to and from the ring.
HEYMAN: There were a lot of different concepts that we were considering, but the sword of Damocles hanging over the existence of the company was something that we had to address before we got into Rob Van Dam winning the championship.
DREAMER: I know eventually I would have become a villain in ECW.
RHYNO: That would’ve made all the sense in the world.
HEYMAN: Never. If Tommy feels otherwise, I vehemently and publicly disagree with that assessment. The allure of Tommy Dreamer’s persona was that he was a martyr. The charm of his martyrdom was that his righteousness was challenged by his bitterness. The moment Tommy became more bitter than righteous, it would immediately lose its appeal. That’s why the audience could accept and worship a hero who rarely ever won a match.
WWECLASSICS.COM: Who were some of the stars in ECW at that time who were destined for greater things?
STYLES: I think York & Matthews would have broken through. Joey Matthews did get his breakthrough as Joey Mercury and Christian York recently got his big break so many years later. It should have happened much sooner.
DREAMER: Joey Matthews & Christian York would’ve probably been the next Hardy Boyz.
RHYNO: They were so talented. ECW had such a solid tag team roster. York & Matthews, The FBI, even Danny Doring & Roadkill. They were creating magic, too. It was fun to watch. They were such an important part of ECW.
MERCURY: Christian York and I were with WCW in 1999 and at the beginning of 2000, we were let go and had a tryout with WWE. We were awfully young, Christian might have been 21 and I was 19. So WWE recommended us to go work for Paul. We had a tryout up in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. They liked us and the next night we started at the ECW Arena. Paul came up to us afterward and hired us full-time. We were there every show thereafter until it closed. I’m the youngest ECW Original and I will hold on to that title forever.
HEYMAN: Joey Matthews & Christian York were going to be given a real opportunity. Michael Shane, who was a protégé of Shawn Michaels, would have been given a huge opportunity.
RHYNO: I honestly believe a wrestler named Chilly Willy would have been a star. He’s a Purple Heart hero from the war in Iraq. I worked with him a little bit toward the end of ECW and we were having really good matches. He had a lot of charisma, dyed his hair blond and had great athletic ability. He just needed a little bit of dusting off and then he would have been golden. There were talks of me wrestling him in between wrestling Rob.
DREAMER: I know CW Anderson would’ve become a star. EZ Money was another guy that Paul was so high on. That kid could do anything. He would have become a bigger star.
CORINO: CW was about to become a huge deal. Paul loved him. Rhyno was going to vacate the ECW TV Title. One of the last interviews was going to be Rhyno saying, “We’re not on TV!” and throw down the TV Title. The belt itself had been stolen out of the locker room, so he didn’t even have it to vacate. [I believe] CW would’ve won the tournament to become the TV Champion. Especially coming off that amazing “I Quit” Match he had against Dreamer [at Guilty as Charged]. If there was a guy that should’ve gotten bigger and timing wasn’t on his side, it was definitely CW.
HEYMAN: CW Anderson, Kid Kash and EZ Money were clearly going to be moved up the roster. But after them, it was going to have to be the influx of new talent. An overhaul of the roster would have been implemented. My mindset was to find new talent. I felt we were going to have to present the next generation of stars for the entire industry. While Rhyno and Van Dam were certainly going to be the focal points of the promotion, it would have been the introduction of the new stars that would have created a vibrant atmosphere for the product.
STYLES: WCW ceased operation two months later and WWE brought very few of those talents over. So there were a lot of good hands who Paul could have given a persona to and coached to have more charisma or paired with a manager that would’ve kept ECW looking fresh. I think Rick Steiner working the lighter ECW schedule would have worked out very well.
DREAMER: Rey Mysterio could’ve come back. Mike Awesome probably would’ve come back and been the biggest villain in the company. You never know the limitless possibilities if we had actually hung on.
WWECLASSICS.COM: Who were some of the young stars that could have emerged in the original ECW?
CORINO: Paul really liked to use guys that didn’t fit the mold. I would definitely say that Christopher Daniels and Low-Ki would have been the first two that Paul would have got.
HEYMAN: I held off on bringing in Low-Ki, because I was not convinced of the liability of the company and didn’t want to debut someone in our dying days. But Low-Ki would have been a major player.
STYLES: So all of those top stars from Ring of Honor — CM Punk, Daniel Bryan, Samoa Joe — would have found their way to ECW.
LYNN: I wrestled CM Punk around that time on an IWA Mid-South show that Ian Rotten was running. He was great.
CORINO: Of course, CM Punk and Colt Cabana. But I would be totally surprised if Punk didn’t become the star that he became. The letters of ECW are gone, but the guys that would’ve shined in ECW are still shining now.
HEYMAN: If you look at who emerged on the horizon 12 to 18 months after ECW stopped running shows, I think it’s very reasonable to believe that we would have picked up CM Punk and several of the other young stars that emerged in the independent scene in the early part of that decade. Punk obviously is the one that I would hope I would have noticed.
MERCURY: I think Charlie and Russ Haas would’ve been great fits. I think Steve Bradley would have been great. He was an extraordinary talent. I could see [R-Truth] doing very well in ECW. He has it all. He’s talented in the ring, he’s a hell of athlete and he can talk, he has a great look. Dean Ambrose, Seth Rollins, Daniel Bryan, Antonio Cesaro — I could see those guys fitting in.
LYNN: In 2001, John Cena was down in developmental at Ohio Valley Wrestling in Louisville, Ky., and they sent Molly Holly, Dean Malenko and I out there to take a look at the guys. I wrestled a bit with Cena in the ring. He asked, “Do you have any constructive criticism for me?” And I said, “No, not really. You can wrestle.” On that same trip, I wrestled Randy Orton on their TV taping. Both of those guys could have ended up in ECW.
WWECLASSICS.COM: Would ECW’s extreme content have changed if the company had continued?
CORINO: I think, at first, the network would’ve told Paul, “We want the real ECW.” But it’s corporate America. As much as you want to put on scandalous product, at the end of the day you’ve gotta answer to sponsors that are actually going to pay for the show.
RHYNO: I think content would’ve had to change a little bit, but you couldn’t have strayed too far from it. I think they would’ve had to tone a few things down.
LYNN: If ECW didn’t go out of business, I think it would have had no problem overtaking WCW. The one thing that set ECW apart from all the others was that it was a more adult-oriented product. Some people wanted that.
HEYMAN: The content of the company was set to change anyway. The hardcore era was over.
WWECLASSICS.COM: What would that new style have been?
HEYMAN: We certainly would have gone toward incorporating more of a progressive, submission-based style, rather than relying on what had been hot from ’94 to ’99. We would have accepted the influence of mixed martial arts quicker than the others, but never lost sight of it still being pro wrestling. That’s where we were headed. The flaming tables and the barbed wire would’ve been saved for the big-time moments. Things were moving toward more of a hybrid style that nobody had found the niche for yet.
WWECLASSICS.COM: Was the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York City the pinnacle for ECW, or could the company have moved into bigger arenas?
STYLES: ECW put 5,000 people in the Hershey Arena in Mississauga, Ontario, Canada, so we were able to draw more. And you can have great production without looking polished and still make the product look gritty and look like “Fight Club,” which was the point. We could have continued. And there’s nothing wrong with having 3,000 people at a show and making it look bigger.
RHYNO: I don’t think Paul ever would’ve left the ECW Arena. But I think Paul would only run the Arena once every six weeks. I think they would have run the 5,000-seaters. Eventually they would have continued to grow and gone into small arenas that would seat like 7,000 or 8,000.
LYNN: It needed to go to larger arenas. It was growing. The problem was, some of the guys were getting better offers elsewhere.
CORINO: I definitely think the small arena approach would have been the better business model. If you think about it, ECW was trying to be the alternative, grunge and rock ‘n’ roll type of genre. We had that crazy crowd that worked in the dingier places as opposed to Madison Square Garden. When we talk about WWE, you’re talking about a fine wine — the name brand. But when it comes to ECW, it was the garage band that made good. It would have been better to sell out 3,000-seat buildings.
HEYMAN: We charged a much higher ticket price at the Hammerstein, so the gross gate at the Hammerstein with 2,400 people was as big as the 6,000 people we drew in Los Angeles at the Olympic Auditorium for Heat Wave 2000. Or the 5,000 people we drew in Mississauga. Packing those venues without the albatross of the production costs to do the TNN show hanging around our neck would’ve made us highly profitable.
WWECLASSICS.COM: How would the business structure of ECW have changed if the company had continued?
STYLES: Steve Karel, who had been brought in on the business side, said that at the end of ECW, if everybody affiliated with the company had been willing to work for half of what they were making, that the company could have kept going.
DREAMER: Paul would have had to give up control on the business side of things.
HEYMAN: I was just going to run the Hammerstein until we had a network deal. We were going to base ourselves in New York City.
WWECLASSICS.COM: Were there ever plans to open up new ECW offices?
HEYMAN: Jay-Z and Beyonce just bought a house five minutes from where I live. What’s the first thing Jay-Z put into the house? His own studio where he makes his music now. Everybody always likes to point out that the ECW television show was produced in Ron Buffone’s parents’ basement. And yet, the most dominant players in film and music today are doing the very same thing. I never envisioned multimillion-dollar offices for ECW. But I’m sure we would have found something in between the basement and the penthouse to carry us into the next decade.
WWECLASSICS.COM: What would the overall landscape of professional wrestling look like today if ECW didn’t close?
STYLES: Would ECW still be in business today, 12 years later? I don’t know. But I do think there could’ve been a few more years had ECW hung on until after WCW went out of business. In a way, Ring of Honor really did fill the niche for ECW in terms of the scientific wrestling and the high-flying wrestling.
DREAMER: Ring of Honor would have never happened. The original owners of Ring of Honor came from ECW.
MERCURY: I really don’t think ECW would’ve stuck around. That’s not a knock against Paul. If anybody could’ve made it work, he could. But it’s a niche kind of audience. ECW was a star that was only going to shine for a certain amount of time and then burn out. I don’t think it could sustain itself. I don’t think any wrestling company is going to last except for WWE.
HEYMAN: The color scheme of this website would be far more dramatic. Brock Lesnar and CM Punk would still be recognized as the greatest Superstars in the industry. And I would be a most appreciative and generous boss for Vincent Kennedy McMahon.