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Following up what was a fantastic 1994 would never be easy for ECW. While there's very little argument to be made that the quality of output in 1995 was inferior to 1994, such was their improvements the year before being able to create that same vibe and same feel of up-lift was always likely to be a struggle. What we ended up with was a very satisfying if frantic year where, on-screen, at least, the promotion frantically struggled to stay upright while being torn apart by the heated rivalry between the WWF and WCW and the beginning of the Monday Night War.
Their star act from 1994, Shane Douglas, lost a lot of momentum in the first half of 1995. With a deteriorating relationship with booker Paul Heyman, along with the story that seemingly promised to never end with his departure to the WWF until it happened in June, the crowd that once saw him as a martyr of their frustrations with national wrestling in the United States turned their back on the Franchise. Douglas ended up being booed out of the building, the fans chanting "Shane Is Dead". Six months earlier they were following Douglas' anti-Ric Flair rhetoric with "Flair is Dead". How times had changed. He wouldn't fare much better in New York.
But if WWF and WCW were both slow moving juggernaughts, one thing ECW were able to do was act very quickly on their feet. Douglas' departure was anything but, however if there was one story about the promotion in 1995 it was moving quickly, oh so quickly. Al Snow and Chris Benoit had a brilliant match in February, ending with a stretcher job for Snow as he was leaving. Douglas formed the "Triple Threat" with Benoit and Dean Malenko (his own version of the Horseman), a group that promised the world but were never able to deliver thanks to Benoit's Japan commitments and Douglas' impending trip to Connecticut.
They spent six months building up The Public Enemy vs Benoit and Malenko vs Sabu and Taz in "The Three Way Dance", their biggest ever match on their biggest ever show. Sabu, having a conflict in dates, decided to fly to Japan but crucially not tell Heyman. The company found out too late to do anything about it on TV, but still conjured up Rick Steiner on a few days notice. Move fast, be agile. And if anything summed up the brewing attitude elicited by Heyman it was his response to Sabu – he, 911 and the quickly evolving Taz walked out at the start of the show and fronted up about what happened. Heyman said he'd fired Sabu, and it would be up to the fans when he would be able to return. The crowd spent the rest of the evening chanting "Fuck Sabu", but six months later he would be welcomed again with open arms. After a horridly mismanaged run in WCW, he was back. He may be prick, but he's our prick.
If Shane Douglas' run as Champion fizzled out into a nothingness, selecting The Sandman to take over the helm was a bizarre choice. Not that ECW's Heavyweight Championship was ever near the helm of the promotion, but 1995 represented a truly bizarre situation where the guy carrying the gold could make a decent claim to being the worst wrestler on the card. From Douglas to Sandman to Mikey Whipwreck, it was not a year to write home about on the title front.
Sandman, who's character had undergone a near 180 change the year before, was a beer swigging, cane swinging bar-brawler who could barely wrestle, managed by the beautiful Woman (Nancy Sullivan). He tried, but he lacked the physical attributes to ever be able to pull off anything like a decent match – find footage of his top rope leg flop, you'll see what I mean. As Champion he was popular, but his run with the belt was almost an irrelevance. The decision to give him the title back in the final month of 1995, more bizarre still.
The man that bridged the gap between Sandman's two reigns was Mikey Whipwreck. Here was a character that started out as almost nothing in the promotion, rising as an underdog on a journey that the fans were able to invest in. He slowly improved, adding high risk if not slightly clunky moves to his arsenal like a hurricanrana, and a gravity defying crossbody to the outside. He was easy to root for but, while his ascent to the top certainly we believable, him standing atop the ECW tree made very little sense. Him vs Sandman as a lead program seemed almost bizarre.
But ECW in 1995 also featured some fantastic wrestling. Each ECW live event seemed to be made up of an undercard, a violent brawl (see the run of matches between the Rottens), a dissapointing title match and a great, great wrestling match. Paul Heyman's contact books bought in future stars like Chris Benoit, Eddie Guerrero, Dean Malenko, Rey Mysterio Jr and Psicosis to the ECW Arena. It was wrestling the likes of which nobody in the United States had ever been.
Benoit himself had undergone a transformation, working with Paul Heyman on an emerging heel character – Heyman was reluctant to see Benoit go, feeling there was more time that could be put into him. Benoit would try out with the WWF before signing a deal with WCW along with Gurrero, Malenko and Sabu right in time for the debut of WCW Monday Nitro. Benoit's match against Al Snow from February would remain a stand-out even as the year came to a close.
Guerrero and Malenko was something else, mind. Guerrero arrived in ECW in April and made an immediate impression. Guerrero had the moves of Malenko and Benoit but he also had this charisma in ring that didn't quite come naturally to the others. He and Malenko wrestled a match in April that would spark a series of matches that became folklore for the company.
The Malenko/Guerrero classic – a series of matches on a house show loop that saw the pair exchange wins (if there were wins at all) in extremely even, unbelievably good matches. By the time it came for the pair to depart, they were drowning in "Please don't go" chants in the ECW Arena. Guerrero made a speech but it was Malenko who stole the night. Having been recast as a silent "shooter" following his debut, the crowd gasped in awe at the mere signal from Malenko that he wanted the microphone.
The promotion, by the stage, was already feeling the effects of the Monday night ratings battle – and it hadn't even begun yet. Ever since WCW announced their intention to create a Monday night show there was a remit to recruit new talent to cover the amount of television required. Fresh out of Hogan friends, Bischoff took advantage of his increasing knowledge of Japanese wrestling, going after four North American names that all made a name for themselves over there. While history will preposterously call this a "raid", it was little more than securing the services of four of the best free agents in 1995, something the WWF was unwilling or (in the case of Benoit) unable to do.
But those were the known candidates, each week in the Observer or the Pro Wrestling Torch seemed to bring a new wave of rumours surrounding the future of one of ECW's performers. Hell, Cactus Jack and Tommy Dreamer built an entire storyline around Dreamer turning down WCW – something that, while reported as rumour, seemed to be a storyline "inspired" by real life events, the same "inspiration" that Hollywood often use to create a mountain out of a mole-hill.
If ECW were good for anything, it was finding the next line on the conveyor belt. When Guerrero and Malenko jumped ship, Paul Heyman got on the phone to his contact Konnan, acting as a conduit to AAA in Mexico. In came Rey Misterio Jr (a 20-year-old kid, much skinnier than the person he would become later in WWE, who looked about fourteen) and Psicosis (hardly a veteran at 24). Lucha Libre just went extreme – and it was fantastic.
One thing that ECW struggled with was creating guys that fans could genuinely dislike. Sure, guys like Raven and later Cactus Jack played bad guys, but in front of such a "smart" crowd these were guys who many in the crowd could admire. There was one exception to that, one man who the crowd in Philadelphia grew to hate with a passion: Bill Alfonso.
Alfonso already had over a decade in his pocket as a referee in both WWF and WCW, but he was bought in as a representative of the Philadelphia State Athletic Commision by Shane Douglas (another reason people were happy to see the back of Douglas!). Alfonso quickly became a heel authority figure before heel authority figures actually became a thing, enforcing (often fairly) rule breaking and stipulation busting angles. At a time where ECW needed someone to reign in their product, Alfonso provide the perfect outlet.
But Alfonso got heat by pushing things just too far – stopping a match between the Rotten's due to a small amount of bloody "impairing the vision" of one of the pair. He quickly became the scourge of Paul Heyman (BILL MOTHERFUCKING ALFONSO), and whenever 9-1-1 tried to get hold of him Alfonso managed to escape him. It was very basic bad guy storytelling, but it was creating nuclear heat.
The issue, though, was that Alfonso was not a wrestler. Heat on Alfonso wasn't really going to draw money for ECW. We had to wait until November, where Taz (who'd undergone quite the transformation in 1995, from Tazmaniac, to hitter Peter Senerchia, to suplexing wielding babyface, to a broken neck and finally to pissed off heel) aligned himself creating a wrestler and manager that fans could finally hate.
Another story in ECW was the constant one-upmanship of their product. One that, over time, would probably precipitate their downfall. In an effort to top what they had done the previous month, everything seemed to be getting bigger. 911 went from chokeslamming people once, then twice, then three times, then about six times when Jungle Jim Steele wrote off his horrible act.
When the Rottens needed a continuation of their program it went from a weapons match, to a deathmatch, to a taped fist match, to a broken glass taped fist match. Bumps were getting bigger, weapons got more varied, matches mercilessly more brutal. All in the name of "Eee Cee Dub", all in the name of popping the crowd. Alfonso's role on TV reigned some of that in, but when a fire in the ECW arena after a show in October nearly caused something major, maybe signs should've been there for the company to reign it back in.
But if there's one thing to end on, it's that Paul Heyman at this stage was still absolutely creatively on the money. Creating compelling, entertaining acts like Stevie Richards and Buh Buh (Buh, Buh, Buh, Buh – THWACK) Ray Dudley that seemed to be way more over than their ability should've allowed. It was all part of the Heyman package – accentuate the strengths, hide the weaknesses. ECW was evolving quickly, but for now, it was still creatively well ahead of the pack.