Subscribe to the podcast via: iTunes | RSS Feed | Email Newsletter
In August of 1994 the company introduced three names to the attention of their audience. Omari Nishimura would be a name that was quickly forgotten, but the other two might have a bit of sticking power. Paul Heyman had bought in Dean Malenko and Chris Benoit into ECW for the NWA World Title Tournament. Neither man progressed to the final, in which Shane Douglas defeated Too Cold Scorpio before famously throwing down the belt.
Both were early indications of what would become one of ECW’s calling cards. Malenko and to an even greater degree Benoit were two of the best technical workers in the world at that stage. Both had a pedigree formed all over the world but neither had really made a break into the United States. Neither, either, had been greatly tested as a promo, and both came along as very wooden talkers. For Benoit, it became a project for Paul Heyman. For Malenko, after an incredibly awkward opening pre-tape promo, he was turned into “The Shooter” - a mute killer.
Watching most ECW live events from around this era these were two the names (later including Guerrero and Too Cold Scorpio) who would often carry the wrestling part of the shows. In amongst cards that would include violent encounters that included The Public Enemy, The Rotten Brothers, Sabu, Cactus Jack and others putting on increasingly wild brawls these technical talents stood out by not standing out.
Benoit spent his early ECW run developing the character side of his game. Malenko, for want of a better phrase, slotted into ECW’s mid card alongside heel manager Jason. Guerrero was a later arrival, coming in during April 1995. It’s said that Heyman had his eyes on both Guerrero and tag team partner Art Barr, before Barr tragically passed away in late 1994. Guerrero arrived as a singles act, and quickly looked like a genuine star.
This whole thing came against the backdrop of WCW and WWF in 1995. Both companies, on screen at least, were struggling to create a compelling product, as work rate was cast aside in favour of size (WWF) and Hulk Hogan’s phonebook. Great, compelling matches were few and far between. Both major companies had regressed so far from the centre that ECW presented good wrestling and it felt great.
But that would also be to undercut the talents that ECW were bringing in. Benoit was a star, WWF massively missed out on bringing him in and the Benoit/Michaels, Benoit/Hart matches that could’ve created. Guerrero was equally as talented, but seemed to wrestle a fractionally slower, fractionally less intense style than Benoit – but he made up for that with a style that oozed creativity and unpredictability.
The first Guerrero match was against Too Cold Scorpio in April 1995. Scorpio had been around a while and held (not for the first time) ECW’s television title – what was quickly becoming the “workers title” in the same way the WWF’s Intercontinental Title was the title for the talents. Scorpio faced Guerrero on debut, and despite a logic defying amount of kick outs following top rope moves, Guerrero picked up the victory on opening night. It was an excellent showcase, Guerrero had landed in more ways than one.
Next up was Malenko – who up until this stage had been a fairly unimportant member of the roster. Capable of good matches, but in a promotion dominated by talkers his silent but deadly approach wasn’t massively memorable. But while Malenko wouldn’t talk – he was certainly capable of bringing it in the ring. Him vs Guerrero was set for mid-April.
The match was an epic, 30 minute contest. The two went blow for blow, minute for minute without ever really conceding ground. The entire feud was built on the idea that we just didn’t know who the better man was, and neither was allowed to get out in front. The match went the full 30 minutes, conking out as a time limit draw. It earned a standing ovation from the ECW crowd – both during and after the match.
The promotion started touring this match, somewhat preposterously drawing three matches in the first five, the other two won with very indecisive clean victories. Both were putting on matches that wowed crowds and provided the perfect mid-show medicine for some undeniably brutal bouts later in the evening. The first Guerrero/Malenko match came hot on the heels of Shane Douglas dropping the ECW’s main World Title to the technical masterman – Sandman. In Hogan, Diesel and Sandman (if we, for a second, entertain ECW at the same level as the two national companies) all three had chosen World Champions who were not even close to the best wrestlers on their respective rosters.
After branching out into some tag team matches, Guerrero and Malenko came back for one more go. Guerrero regained the TV title, but wanted one more match to prove once and for all who was the best wrestler – they decided that the match would be two out of three falls. This all came the backdrop of WCW attempting to hoover up talent ahead of the debut of WCW Monday Nitro. While about 50% of ECW’s roster seemed to be linked with moves to Atlanta, the company were making waves towards Guerrero, Scorpio, Benoit and Malenko (along with Sabu).
Joey Styles opened the 2 out of 3 falls match calling it not only the last time that Guerrero and Malenko would wrestle in ECW, but also the last time the pair would wrestle without the shackles that come with being with a big promotion. The match that followed probably didn’t objectively match the standard of their prior bouts, but the backdrop of the match (including “Bischoff Sucks – DICK!” chants and “Please don’t go” chants) fed the farewell atmosphere.
The match was still excellent, following the same formula that saw their prior matches stick so well. It should come as no surprise that the third fall ended in a double pin. If we’re being picky, we’ll say that ECW lacked the bottle to really make either guy – the matches were so even you could admire them but rarely get into a great story as neither guy was able to look dominant. But this was a revolutionary match, in the States anyway.
Guerrero went on the microphone to address the fans. He said he respected a man chanting “You Sold Out”, but wanted to thank the ECW fans for giving him the chance. Then Malenko mentioned towards Guerrero – he wanted the microphone. The crowd popped in awe – ECW’s ability to go all the way with type-casting certain guys meant Malenko taking the mic meant something. He had the crowd in the palm of his hand, thanking them for allowing him to work his style in the States. Guerrero and Malenko hugged, and the Pitbulls, Paul E Dangerously and a few other roster members came out to see them off. ECW didn’t make either man, but they gave them a platform. And given what the WWF and WCW were putting out at the time, we should be eternally thankful!