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ECW: How a small promotion changed Pro Wrestling and WWE FOREVER

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You think you know extreme. You’ve seen stunts on TV, people crashing through tables and throwing each other off cages. You’ve watched wrestlers bloody each other with barbed wire and set each other on fire. But before the late 1990s, you’d never seen anything like Extreme Championship Wrestling. ECW was a small Philadelphia promotion that revolutionized pro wrestling.

ECW tore up the rulebook and blurred the lines between reality and fiction. They turned wrestling into a grindhouse spectacle, a wild underground fight club for the masses. The stars were misfits and madmen, guys like Tommy Dreamer, The Sandman, and Sabu, who put their bodies through hell to thrill us. They were extreme before extreme was cool.

ECW was anti-establishment, rebellious, and ahead of its time. It was a cult for wrestling fans who wanted something raw, real, and on the edge. ECW didn’t just change wrestling – it defined an entire generation of fandom. Though its time was brief, its impact will last forever. ECW was extreme and influenced mainstream wrestling for years to come.

Read More: The 11 Best WWE Documentaries (Ranked): ECW, Beyond The Mat and more

The Birth of Extreme Championship Wrestling

Extreme Championship Wrestling started as a small independent promotion in Philadelphia in 1992, founded by Tod Gordon. Known originally as Eastern Championship Wrestling, it showcased a grittier, more hardcore style that emphasized extreme matches with weapons.

The promotion gathered a cult following and started to build momentum. In 1993, Paul Heyman took over as booker and rebranded the promotion as Extreme Championship Wrestling. Heyman focused on pushing younger stars and an edgier product. ECW started airing a weekly show on SportsChannel Philadelphia. They built rivalries and storylines that blended wrestling and reality. Stars like Tommy Dreamer, The Sandman, and Sabu became popular, performing in violent matches with tables, ladders, chairs and anything else they could get their hands on.

In 1996, the promotion landed a deal with PPV provider Viewer’s Choice. Their first PPV, Barely Legal, was a success and introduced ECW to a wider audience. More PPVs and a TV deal with TNN followed. ECW’s popularity grew through the late 90s. They toured nationwide and gained more exposure. But financial troubles mounted and ECW folded in 2001.

ECW revolutionized wrestling with an abrasive style aimed at mature audiences. They pushed boundaries, gave talent creative freedom, and built a rebellious, counter-culture image that shaped modern wrestling. Though short-lived, ECW created a lasting impact and influence that still inspires wrestling today.

ECW’s Revolutionary Style and Attitude

ECW threw out the rulebook and gave fans an alternative to the flashy, family-friendly wrestling of WWF and WCW. They featured a hardcore style with weapons, blood, and high-impact moves that pushed the envelope. The violence was over the top, but it matched the attitude – anti-authority and in-your-face.

ECW’s roster of misfits and outcasts bonded over their passion for wrestling and disdain for the mainstream. Stars like Tommy Dreamer, The Sandman, and Sabu put their bodies on the line in brutal matches that earned ECW a cult following. The rabid fans, known as “ECW Extremists,” packed into small venues and became part of the show with their chants of “ECW! ECW!”

The promotion also introduced a number of innovative styles that influenced major promotions, like the Tables, Ladders and Chairs match. They popularized moves like the 3D, the flaming table spot, and the Singapore cane. ECW brought a grittier realism to storylines too, with feuds that felt authentic and blurred the lines between work and shoot.

Though small, ECW garnered a lot of buzz and notoriety for its groundbreaking product. They secured a TV deal, exposing new audiences to their revolution. ECW’s influence spread as talent and styles were eventually incorporated into WWF and WCW. Though its run was cut short, ECW changed wrestling and inspired future generations with its spirit of rebellion and innovation. The “little promotion that could” made a huge impact that still lives on today.

Top ECW Wrestlers That Became Megastars

ECW was known for pushing the envelope and breaking new ground in pro wrestling. They helped launch the careers of many wrestlers who went on to become huge stars. Here are three of the biggest:

The Sandman

The Sandman embodied the rebellious spirit of ECW. He would enter the arena to Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” and pound beers while staggering to the ring. His matches were ultraviolent, with lots of weaponry like kendo sticks, chairs, and barbed wire. After ECW, The Sandman had stints in WCW and TNA. He’ll always be remembered as an ECW original and legend.

Tommy Dreamer

Tommy Dreamer was the heart and soul of ECW. He lived and breathed the company, holding multiple titles over the years. Dreamer was known for taking huge risks and bumps to put on a good show. His dedication and passion for the business earned him the nickname “The Innovator of Violence.” Dreamer still makes appearances at indie shows today, showing his lifelong commitment to pro wrestling.

Rob Van Dam

Known as “Mr. Monday Night,” Rob Van Dam brought his innovative moveset and laid-back California attitude to ECW. His matches popularized moves like the Van Daminator and Five Star Frog Splash. RVD was a star in ECW, holding both the World Television Championship and World Heavyweight Championship at the same time.

After the company folded, RVD went on to success in WWE, winning multiple titles including the WWE Championship. He helped bring ECW’s edgy style to a mainstream audience.

ECW helped launch the careers of these megastars and shaped pro wrestling with its counterculture vibe and rule-breaking style. Though the Extreme promotion only lasted a few short years, its influence on pro wrestling will last forever.

The Influence of ECW on WWE and WCW

ECW’s hardcore style and edgy content influenced both WWF and WCW. By the late 1990s, both major promotions incorporated elements of ECW’s style into their shows.

Adopting a Hardcore Style

WCW and WWF started featuring more extreme matches with weapons and higher risks after seeing ECW’s success. They began promoting “hardcore matches” and “extreme rules matches” on their shows.

Wrestlers in WCW like Raven brought an Extreme-esque feel. In WWF, stars such as Mick Foley, The Dudley Boyz, and Tazz were given more creative freedom to perform a hardcore style.

Pushing Content Boundaries

ECW’s edgy and gritty tone caused controversy but also attracted attention. WWF and WCW took notice, pushing their own content in more risque directions.

WWF’s “Attitude Era” featured more profanity, violence, and sexual content. WCW also ramped up the raunchiness, at one point promoting a match between two porn stars.

Inspiring Fans

ECW built a fiercely loyal fanbase that valued rebelliousness. WWF and WCW sought to capture that same spirit. They began promoting themselves as edgy alternatives to the stale “old guard”.

Stars like Stone Cold Steve Austin and D-Generation X projected anti-authority images that resonated with the type of fans ECW attracted.

Forcing Competition

The major companies likely felt pressure to keep up with ECW’s momentum. By distinguishing themselves, ECW gained more exposure and credibility as an innovative alternative. WWF and WCW were essentially forced to follow suit, or risk appearing dated and losing ground.

The competition ultimately improved all three promotions by pushing new innovations.

ECW demonstrated that there was an audience for something different. By taking more risks, using controversy as promotion, and cultivating a rebellious image, the small Philadelphia company ended up shaping the direction of mainstream pro wrestling in America.

Their influence introduced an edgier era and revitalized interest during a pivotal time for the industry.

The Legacy of ECW and Its Impact on Wrestling

Extreme Championship Wrestling revolutionized professional wrestling and introduced an edgier product that appealed to mature audiences. Paul Heyman, the mastermind behind Extreme Championship Wrestling, pushed the envelope and introduced a grittier style that influenced mainstream promotions like WWF and WCW.

Violence and Hardcore Matches

ECW was the pioneer of hardcore, violent matches that incorporated weapons and extreme spots. Barbed wire, tables, ladders, chairs and other objects were frequently used, and wrestlers bled and put their bodies on the line. These dangerous matches and the risk-taking style of the ECW stars earned the promotion a cult following and notoriety for its extreme violence.

Mature Content

ECW pushed boundaries with profanity, lewd gestures and sexually suggestive content. The raunchy and irreverent product targeted adult fans and college students, embracing an anti-authority counterculture movement.

Spotlight on Younger, Independent Talent

ECW gave exposure to up-and-coming stars who didn’t fit the mould of the muscle-bound giants of the big two promotions. Wrestlers like Tommy Dreamer, The Sandman, Sabu and Rob Van Dam became fan favourites, and ECW served as a launching pad for their careers.

The influence of ECW on modern pro wrestling cannot be overstated. Its edgy style, physicality and focus on high-risk moves shaped the “Attitude Era” of the late 90s in WWE and set the template for extreme matches that are common today. Although ECW went out of business in 2001, its legacy lives on through the hardcore matches and mature content that are an integral part of sports entertainment. ECW was a pivotal promotion that transformed pro wrestling with its gritty, rebellious spirit.

Conclusion

You’ve just read about how ECW revolutionized pro wrestling and influenced the biggest promotions in the world. Though ECW only lasted for a few years, its impact will live on forever.

Paul Heyman and his renegade crew took the industry by storm and gave fans a product unlike anything they’d seen before. ECW brought a raw, gritty feel to pro wrestling and pushed the envelope in ways WWE and WCW never would.

Though ECW is gone, its influence lives on through every table broken, every ladder climbed, and every chair shot heard around the wrestling world. ECW proved that a small promotion with limited resources could shake up the biggest companies.

The next time you see a wrestler crash through a table or bleed buckets in the ring, think of ECW. They changed everything.

Jake Skudder
Written by
Jake Skudder
Jake is an SEO-minded Combat Sports, Gaming and Pro Wrestling writer and successful Editor in Chief. He has more than ten years of experience covering mixed martial arts, pro wrestling and gaming across a number of publications, starting at SEScoops in 2012 under the name Jake Jeremy.