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In some ways it was the milestone that showed that ECW had truly arrived. A small promotion based out of Philadelphia, PA had grown itself thanks to some cutting edge booking and smart talent acquisitions to being a promotion that, by 1997, could frequently tour across the North East of America and even do regular stops in Florida. Pay-per-view, however it came about, was a sign that their hard work had been recognised beyond the average penetration of any non-WWF or WCW promotions in the mid-1990s, and an ambitious jump to becoming even somewhat nationally recognised.
While the next step of having a national pay per view was a big move, it wasn’t actually unprecedented on a similar scale that ECW were attempting. The rise of the UFC, and other similar (if somewhat less successful and certainly less memorable) fighting promotions had shown that a product with almost no mainstream attention, if presented correctly could be seriously competitive on pay per view in a relatively short time frame. There was a reason Ken Shamrock earned a $1m salary from the WWF in 1997, and a huge factor in that was him headlining three UFC pay per view in 1995 that all drew in the 175,000 – 260,000 range, which was comparable to most WWF pay per views at the time. Given the notoriety of the WWF at the time (even in a big downswing) compared to UFC that, on the rare occasions it did receive mainstream attention, was almost overwhelmingly negative, was a big indicator of what could be done if the pitch was right and word of mouth took over.
ECW’s standing was somewhat similar and more intertwined than many might think. See, people who worked in the media, television or pay per view providers all had an image of what pro-wrestling looked like, and it wouldn’t be a stretch to say most of those people would have images of the WWF from ten years prior running around in their minds. A wholesome family product with larger than life characters in front of big crowds. ECW was none of those things, so much so that when presented with ECW, most people not only didn’t recognise it, they actually didn’t recognise it as wrestling. ECW’s presentation with scantily clad women, wrestlers who swore, 18+ storylines and even stories that involved children meant that their perception was not grouped with the likes of the WWF or WCW. In a lot of cases, many people who’s opinion mattered thought ECW was real, they thought it was another version of UFC. Although, it should be said, this opinion speaks as much to how legit fighting was misunderstood in the mid-90s than it was inherently anything related to ECW. Although ECW did hold “shootfights” occasionally!
What it all meant for ECW headed into the final part of 1996 was interesting. In the final quarter of 1996 they signed around a dozen wrestlers to short term contracts ensuring that they would stay around for the first show. Without knowing the full list of names, I would take a good guess these would be the following: Raven, Stevie Richards, Tommy Dreamer, Shane Douglas, The Eliminators (Saturn & Kronus), The Sandman, Taz, Sabu, Rob Van Dam and likely one or both of the Pitbulls.
(Based on the eventual card, the only other people missing would be Terry Funk, who I imagine wouldn’t have needed one – he also worked for the WWF a couple of months prior to the show and The Dudley Boys – who didn’t exist as a team up until about two months before).
Which, in itself, was actually a slightly weird position for ECW to be in. Part of the aura and the appeal of ECW was the wide variety of acts that came in on often times no notice. How Paul Heyman would dig into his contacts book and continue to bring in the best that the world had to offer – the best that the WWF and WCW didn't want or (more likely) didn't know they wanted. First came Benoit, then Guerrero and Malenko. When all three were swept up by WCW Heyman bought in Mysterio, Psicosis, Juventud. They followed suit. The point being – when you never had anything big picture to build towards – you didn't need to build at all. You created a match fans wanted to see, waited for the next available live event and you booked the match. When Paul Heyman setup Chris Benoit vs Sabu in 1994 – he just booked it. One of ECW's biggest strengths was being adaptable (both good and sometimes bad) and able to quickly move on their feet.
But once plans were penciled in for a pay per view, and short term contracts were signed, the game completely changed. The whole thing was a strange opposite to what was happening in the WWF and WCW, both of whom in the previous 3-4 years had switched from semi-regular pay per views (where building forward and long term was required) to a monthly format where you didn't need to wait to put on a match. ECW then started heading in the other direction - defrosting the sleeper feud between Sabu and Taz and putting in place other longer term plans for matches including Shane Douglas vs one or both of the Pitbulls.
Sabu and Taz was a strange one – a lot is made about the prolonged build, but little is made of how little sense it made. Sabu was a babyface by circumstance, wrestling a daredevil style that earned him as many scars at it did fans – but the "feud" for a better part of six months consisted of Taz calling Sabu out for a fight and Sabu (who in most cases was in the building) not answering the challenge. The implication, it seemed, was that Sabu was scared of Taz... fortunately, for the sake of ECW documentaries, they can jump forward to November to Remember with the huge pop after the lights went out and Sabu finally stepped into the ring with Taz. Although the lights going back out right after it looked like they were going to start fighting was as frustrating as it was clever.
The other big program going on was Shane Douglas vs The Pitbulls. They'd been feuding ever since former Pitbull manager Francine took here skirt off to reveal a pair of knickers with "FRANCHISE" emblazoned on the back, it escalated further during a barmy tag team match that saw Douglas break Pitbull 1s neck with a double arm DDT and Francine get superbombed through a table. This all culminated with a super match in October (super for the heat it generated and a fantastic finish) between Douglas and Pitbull 2 that ended with Douglas throwing Pitbull 1 to the mat by his neck halo before being escorted away from a ECW fanbase baying for blood in a torrent of ECW undercard wrestlers.
But if plans on screen were moving nicely into place, plans off screen were anything but. At a house show at the tail-end of November in Revere, Massachusetts a 17-year-old named Erick Kulas lied about his age and wrestling ability to blag his way onto ECW's card alongside D'Von Dudley against the Gangstas. Looking to "prove himself" to the boys, Kulas agreed to be cut but didn't want to do it himself – so he entrusted New Jack. Who essentially took a blade and hacked away at his forehead, causing a cut so deep it took numerous towels to clean up the mess. For ECW, at a time when they were trying to get in the good books of the pay per view providers, it wasn't the kind of story that would help their transition to pay per view.
The story caused the already skeptical pay per view providers to recoil a bit more, particularly at how the story got out – with stories about how Paul Heyman was telling people the story and copies of the tape had been sent to PPV providers only for this to turn out to be false. It was something that nearly caused the pay per view not to go ahead, and almost certainly caused delays. But in the end, with a limited clearance, ECW were able to get a date agreed for the show. As for their coverage on PPV, it ended up being a mixed bag – they were at least live, but their lack of availability (particularly in ECW strongholds like Long Island and Boston along with parts of Philadelphia) meant that going in the show was almost a guaranteed money loser.
What the show ended up being for was a proof of concept. Part of what ECW had to go through to get the show onto pay per view was agreeing to a list of demands from the providers (most, it should be said, were very reasonable). Request TV wanted medical people at ringside, they wanted a pre-approved list of talent who would be appearing on the show and an assurance that the show wouldn't be too violent or feature excessive use of weaponry. ECW were now being tasked with threading the needle: go "too far" and piss off the PPV provider, go too soft and present a show that wasn't authentically ECW.
The lack of availability also meant that ECW didn't really bother to promote the show from a marketing stand-point. There was a base of fans who would absolutely buy the show, but investing serious money trying to market the show was likely to be futile given the issues people would have accessing it. Fortunately for ECW, they had a helping hand, from an unlikely source.
ECW have been no strangers with working with one of the "big two", in 1994 they executed a series of mostly enforced talent trades with WCW as Paul Heyman twice failed to bring in "Stunning" Steve Austin. As the next couple of years rolled on the official deals swapped but plenty of ECW talent, both homegrown and "imports" would end up in WCW. Biggest of all was probably Kevin Sullivan, who by the end of 1995 was the head booker in Atlanta. While Sullivan no longer had anything to do with ECW, there was the lingering feeling that Sullivan was keen to keep his ties with ECW alive in case he needed somewhere to work which, given the political situation in WCW, never felt that farfetched as a possibility.
But colour me a little surprised that, as it turns out, it wasn't WCW ECW ending up forging a close relationship with, it was the WWF. I mean, less from the stand-point of ECW being at loggerheads with WCW, Heyman clearly had a problem with Bischoff amongst others – but more that "re-living" this story, the ties between ECW and the WWF seem far smaller in number. While there is no real correlation between WCW signing ECW guys (in the sense that Bischoff didn't really watch ECW – he found out about Sabu and others after seeing them in Japan) the flow of talent into WCW was pretty big: Benoit, Guerrero, Malenko, Mysterio, Psicosis, Sabu, The Public Enemy and, within the months following the pay-per-view Raven and Stevie Richards.
As for ECW's links with the WWF, those were harder to decipher. The WWF had Chris Benoit in for a try-out match in 1995, and famously covered ECW's sponsorship money when they signed Too Cold Scorpio, but deals between the two sides seemed much more limited. If anything, ECW was starting to become a home for WWF talent spat out of their system – guys like Chris Candido and Louis Spicolli were finding a second wind in Philadelphia.
But talks were clearly happening. At the September 1996 In Your House show, the opening match included Paul Heyman, Sandman and Tommy Dreamer at ringside. With the Bradshaw/Savio Vega match essentially a backdrop for Sandman spitting beer all over Savio – it seemed like ECW and the WWF were building to some sort of angle or invasion that never really came of anything.
Until it did... we'd have to wait nearly six months but when the WWF moved Raw to two hours in February 1997, their taping schedule was firmly out of whack. New taping dates had to be created out of thin air and previous house show bookings were being crowbarred into TV events – something that came across poorly on television when two hour shows clearly not lit for television were being put out. One week at the end of February, however, they faced the prospect of needing a show but having most of their crew in Germany for a tour.
Which lead to Jerry Lawler laying down the challenge on air to bring his ECW "stars" to Raw at the Manhatten Center for Raw the following week. It was a weird show, crow-barred in alongside the debut of former UFC fighter Ken Shamrock, it was less of an "invasion" and more of an ECW show – with ECW-only matches just randomly thrown out on Raw. While it was bizarre, and there was minor evidence that ECW had helped Raw's ratings, it otherwise never really went anywhere – beyond a verbal spat between Heyman and Lawler at ringside that set the scene for some kind of follow up. In amongst all of this, ECW were given the scope for promoting their pay per view, something that Jerry Lawler quite rightly questioned – what exactly was the WWF getting out of this?
A question of which the answer still isn't immediately clear. Sure, it's since come out that the WWF was developing a financial interest in ECW, but if their aim was to try and give ECW some exposure to help them sell pay per views they didn't even do that good a job... there were many better ideas they could've used to properly put some focus on ECW if that was their primary aim. The idea I had was to give the Eliminators the WWF tag titles to defend on the pay per view – something that would've made genuine waves.
As it was both the February show, and the re-run two weeks later, were more bizarre than they really were productive. The second show involved a debate between Lawler and Heyman that largely flew over the heads of most people watching before Heyman suggested they started shooting (which is never a good sign). Heyman got a shot in about Lawler's past legal troubles, Lawler got a shot in about Heyman living with this parents – and the whole thing was largely a backdrop for Lawler to call out for backup (as about 5-6 ECW guys were flanking Heyman) only for nobody to come out. And if you're disputing whether this was a bad idea for WWF at the time, the second run did nothing for the ratings and the Wrestlemania 13 days later did the lowest buyrate of any pre-Network Wrestlemania ever.
But still, for ECW exposure was exposure, they can have no complaints even if it's hard to see how much they gained from the whole thing. Appearances twice on Monday Night Raw put them and their brand in front of millions of viewers, most of which knew very little if nothing about them. If it compelled even 1,000 people to check out the product and buy the pay per view who otherwise wouldn't have, then it was a massive success.
You might be wondering where the actual "build" to this pay per view is in terms of this piece. The honest answer is there wasn't really that much of note in the lead up to it. One of the concequences of getting things sorted with the pay per view providers was a show happening later than Paul Heyman would've liked (reports suggested that he wanted the show to be on the anninversary of 20 years since Terry Funk won the NWA title, which would've been February). The April date put it slap bang in the middle of a slew of pay-per-views, and one day after a bout between Pernell Whitaker and Oscar De La Hoya.
What it meant for the storyline product was basically a process that just dragged out the feuds – the problem being many of them had been going for so long it was hard not to burn them out. The feud between Douglas and the Pitbulls had been going nearly nine months by this stage and really had nowhere to go. Bizarelly, the match that made most sense (Douglas vs Pitbull 1) was done at a show in March, leaving Douglas vs Pitbull 2 to attempt to regain the heat they created over six months previously.
Sabu and Taz had the biggest build on the card, but given that Sabu never talked and the programme had largely been built on trying to keep the two apart, there was only so many promos Taz could cut. In the end they did a series of Taz and Sabu pull apart brawls at house show events in the month or so prior. Still, unlike Douglas/Pitbull, their match felt "ready" when April rolled around.
As for Raven vs Funk... sorry, Raven vs the winner of Terry Funk, Sandman and Stevie Richards – it was a quartet that probably provided the most intrigue. The big problem ECW had was getting people to believe that anyone other than Funk had a hope in hell of winning the qualifier. Stevie Richards presented an intriguing alternative, but as head of the BWO he'd probably been a comedy character for too long to be seriously taken in such a prominent role. As for the potential of Sandman vs Raven, as over as both characters were, their pairing throughout much of 1996 had frequently proven to be an absolute disaster when it came to match quality.
As for Raven and Funk, it was a potential match that felt fitting of the occasion. Funk had been bought back as this legend, with the story that Funk had one more shot at getting the gold. Could the old man do it? The problem was... people started to believe it. In an attempt to create a story with depth and intrigue ECW presented an angle where Funk essentially lost his marbles during a match (something which, in itself, isn't all that rare), only for Tommy Dreamer to effectively save Funk from himself before Sandman entered the match and ended the fall (because fuck it, why not?). The problem with the "compelling" storyline surrounding Funk's final shot was that people were starting to buy into the idea that Funk, at 52, was past it. Not the impression you want for the likely headliner of your first show.
But after all of that, April 13th rolled around and ECW was ready. By hook or by crook, a small promotion based out of Philadelphia running on a whim and a prayer had made it to pay per view. With a lick of paint, a fresh lighting rig and a new entrance way – they'd given themselves an chance of creating the right first impression. This was a show for the fans who'd been with them for the start, but also the new ones trying for the first time. This was a show for the pay per view providers, both the ones carrying the show and, perhaps more importantly, the ones that weren't. And this was a show for the talent: guys like Sabu, Tommy Dreamer, Terry Funk, Stevie Richards, The Sandman and many others, guys who killed themselves twice a week in front of a few hundred fans in the name of a sport. The time for waiting was over, all anyone could do now was hope it was, in some way shape or form, a success.