AN OPEN LETTER TO PAUL
Extreme Championship Wrestling is at a crossroads. They have a loyal fanbase, but that fanbase is apparently not enough to keep them on TNN or in the black. They are sticking to the superficial elements of the formula that put them on the map in 1996, but that simply doesn't cut it any more. Their once compelling, deep and intriguing angles are left in limbo. The WWF and WCW have taken these same superficial elements that once made ECW so great--violence, women, and reality-based storylines--and now, at least in the WWF's case, does them much better. What ECW must do to succeed and to become once again the revolutionary promotion in the business, they have to change their product completely.
Many people have proposed solutions for the seemingly stagnant ECW product. It seems that no angles are advancing, no new stories are starting, no titles are changing hands and no characters are turning in the last year or so of ECW. On tonight's ECW on TNN, the "New Era" hyped on ecwwrestling.com lead to a Steve Corino and Scotty Anton face turn, the elevation of Kid Kash, and the beginning of an Anderson/Dreamer feud. These, along with the upcoming tag team title tournament, are all good things. However, they are only a temporary solution. If we take WCW in recent months as an example, it is clear that just because your promotion has different wrestlers in different storylines than another promotion doesn't mean that people will tune in.
Speaking of proposed solutions, I recently read Denny Burkholder's July 26 edition of ECW Ringside on Wrestleline. Burkholder creates some short and long term fantasy booking meant to shake things up. Admittedly, the ideas aren't bad at all, but they are only a band-aid for the problem. The author misses the bigger picture: ECW simply can't change a few characters and add a few angles. As I said, the WWF and WCW (in some cases at least) are doing the storytelling better. They're no longer an alternative; now they're an also-ran. Barbed-wire, tables and chairs are no longer "extreme". So what can ECW do? My answer is to change the very nature of their product and consequently shake up the industry once again. I offer three possible solutions.
The first would be to make ECW more violent than it has ever been. ECW could, for the first time, bring the sort of insane deathmatch violence carried out in Big Japan Pro Wrestling, FMW, and other Japanese independents to a mainstream U.S. audience. I say for the first time because although there has been the occasional match of this kind, and more often very violent matches in general, they involve conventional (even predictable) devices.
The WWF's hardcore division uses all kinds of weapons, but nothing that hasn't been used in ECW before. The same can be said for WCW. Occasionally new spots are created--Al Snow's bowling ball spot and Big Vito's traffic-cone spot come to mind immediately--but aren't these more comedy than hardcore? In both the WWF and WCW, gimmick matches not fought for in the hardcore division are usually fought with tables and chairs. Perhaps it happens in an overused cage, and occasionally someone like Mick Foley brings out some barbed wire or thumbtacks. The bottom line is that there's nothing comparable to the Japanese death matches.
Imagine an ECW where a bed of nails, florescent bulbs, barbed wire nets, broken glass, a flamethrower and explosives became more commonplace than tables and chairs? You'd see Rob Van Dam kicking a board of nails into someone's head. You would see Justin Credible doing his "leap out of the ring for no reason" spot a lot less often--he'd probably end up landing on a web of barbed wire instead of the less bloodletting floor! This level of violence has never appeared stateside on a regular basis, and it would truly be an alternative to the WWF and WCW. The Big Two would be transported back to 1996, where both seemed like "hardcore" lightweights compared to the ultra-hardcore, revolutionary ECW.
This option has its downside, obviously. Some of the wrestlers in ECW (and they do exist) wouldn't want or couldn't fit into this style; Jerry Lynn, Justin Credible, Little Guido, Spike Dudley, Scotty Anton, Chetti and Nova, etc. I think they wouldn't fit because they aren't ultra-violent by nature; they simply seem to fit into taking bumps via stiff moves, tables, and chairs only. Sure, Credible and Dreamer have had ladder matches and barbed wire matches, but could they or would they take these bumps on every card? Also, how would the light-heavyweights and luchadors adapt to this style? This leads me to my second, perhaps even more radical idea.
ECW could create the first AJPW-style American promotion. At first glance, this idea seems ridiculous. AJPW doesn't have tables or chairs, and they've only had one run-in in the last 12 years (according to new WCW booker and former AJPW mainstay Johnny Ace). They have wrestled a very straightforward, stiff style of wrestling with virtually no nonsense--a stark contrast to everything ECW has ever symbolized. Some would dismiss the idea because AJPW is on the verge of collapse as its biggest star of the past decade, Mitsuharu Misawa, has created his own promotion and taken most of the talent with him. Some would say that proves that AJPW can't work. However, I think it could.
Misawa left because he wanted to do more interpromotional matches, push younger talent, and so forth. Pro Wrestling NOAH, his new promotion, isn't going to start doing run-ins, hardcore matches and force cop out endings. It will be similar to AJPW in all but a few areas. In America, a hybrid of this no-nonsense style would be a welcome alternative to WCW's so-called "crash TV" and the WWF's increasing abuse of cop out endings.
What would ECW have to do? First, get rid of the now commonplace tables and chairs. As much as I disagree with Sean Shannon on many points, I agree that ECW overuses these all-too-familiar weapons (as I concluded above). That may seem to alienate certain performers but I'll address that in a moment. Secondly, eliminate run-ins from matches. ECW's new revolution would be clean matches with clean finishes... no matter what.
Then, we get to the hybrid part of the change. We would keep the in-ring interviews, angles created outside of the ring, and even retain prototypical beatdowns and saves during said interviews. We would keep the "hardcore" wrestling that made ECW famous, but relegate it to a small handful of performers that excel at it. ECW would change drastically, as the most talented wrestler would have be pushed to the title. This actually isn't impossible in ECW.
ECW was once very similar to this vision (save the no interference part): Malenko vs. Guerrero and Rey Mysterio Jr. vs. Psicosis in classic wrestling matches while Dreamer gave Raven the chairshot heard 'round the world and Rocco Rock did a moonsault off the top of a cage onto Stevie Richards (who happened to be laying on top of a few tables). Today, Tajiri, Jerry Lynn, Little Guido and Kid Kash could put on the classic matches while New Jack, Ballz Mahoney, and Da Baldies could continue the hardcore tradition. What people often forget is that ECW was a great alternative in 1996 because along with their hardcore matches they had some of the best workers and pure wrestling matches on the planet. They can do it again.
The final option is... something no one has ever thought of yet. They can introduce a new style of wrestling never seen before. In any case, they're left with the same answer to their problems: reinvent the wheel, or get run over by it. I cannot stress this enough: ECW became famous because they were an alternative. Remember their slogan "Join the Revolution"? It doesn't apply anymore, because after 1996 there wasn't anything ECW was doing that the other two major US promotions weren't doing. They weren't a revolution at all--simply an outlet to see some different workers in different storylines. They still can forge a revolution, but it'll take a complete overhaul to do so. Good luck, ECW. I'm pulling for you.