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1994 won't be remembered as the year ECW peaked, that would be to come, but it's hard to argue it was the year the company made the most progress. Watching it evolve on TV from a promotion with some exciting moments in the early part of the year to a promotion that on TV was un-missable from the end of August onwards.
The two peaks for the company in 1994 both involved Shane Douglas, a man too easily overlooked in the early history of ECW (the WWE version of it anyway). The first involved "The Night The Line Was Crossed" in February. Douglas, Sabu and Terry Funk would play out a sixty minute time limit draw, a triangle match that was supposed to be elimination rules, except nobody got pinned.
The match involved interference from a whole myriad of people, and featured some unique spots including a double sleeper hold. The match ended in a draw and was lauded by those in attendance. What followed is the lesser publicised "press conference" that was in theory taped just after the match. Douglas and Funk would exchange in a promo segment that was arguably as good as the match. Douglas claimed he should be champion having been the only member of the match to have competed in the entirety of the sixty minutes. Funk offers to give him the title so he can beat him for hit next time. The pair brawl in easily the best TV segment in company history thus far.
What's worth noting about the time limit draw match is that it never aired on TV at the time in it's entirety. Analysing ECW from a TV perspective often overlooks the fact that ECW was a live event first, TV second promotion, with the priority being getting people into the arenas. It was a fact that would counter-intuitively see many of the companies biggest matches promoted on TV before not ever featuring on the show. It's a situation, as I spoke about in the November 1994 podcast (once I published it) that created this odd dynamic of Shane Douglas being the World Champion and the biggest act in the company, but on TV at least appear to have very little to do. Douglas main evented the majority of live events, often against guys like Ron Simmons who were bought in specifically for it, but on TV his role was a relatively minor one, cutting some at times astonishing promos but without a real angle or story to sink his teeth into once the program with Funk concluded.
That all being said, the zenith of 1994 was probably the famous Douglas promo on the night of the double cross which aired at the end of August. Douglas won the NWA World Title tournament before throwing the belt down, denouncing the NWA ("a company that died RIP seven years ago") before proclaiming himself the new "Extreme" Championship Wrestling World Heavyweight Champion. It was a moment that created waves, and probably put the final nail in the NWA coffin, having been dropped from WCW in 1993.
But perhaps a sign of the times that Douglas' promo, while arguably the most significant moment of 1994 in ECW, wasn't even the most significant moment on the August 30th edition of ECW Hardcore TV. That can be saved the Singapore cane segment between Dreamer and The Sandman. Nobody embodies the evolution and progression of ECW in 1994 than the Sandman. Who started in the promotion in late 1993 as a generic babyface wearing surfer gear and wrestling in some proper ugly matches. The matches barely improved, his trademark top rope elbow flop was a regular feature in 1994. But the character evolved into a chain smoking bad guy, who was taken under the wing of then valet "Woman" (aka Nancy Benoit) who was a big part in allowing the act to pivot.
None more evident than the match that aired on August 30th. Sandman and Dreamer faced off in a match, with the winner able to strike his opponent with ten shots of the "Singapore" cane. Dreamer lost after interference, but would turn down the opportunity for the match to be restarted. In a segment that embodies what the company was all about, Sandman would mercilessly strike Dreamer, the angle that started out as a segment where the strikes were being cheered, but the mood soon turned as the violence took over. Woman, who's role in this segment has almost been lost, played her part perfectly as the antagonist to Dreamer, inviting him to kiss his feet if he wanted the pain to stop. It was Dreamer's determination to take his punishment like a man that truly cemented this segment.
The Dreamer/Sandman segment would go on to be ECW's best feud in 1994, stretching the boundaries of what many would've thought possible. It's hard to be surprised when you know the moment is coming, but that segment where Sandman whips off his glasses and bandages (after being "blinded" the month before) is arguably a kayfabe double-cross akin to the NWA title one a few months earlier.
The company stepped up into a higher gear after that August 30th show. An influx of talent for the title tournament including Chris Benoit and Dean Malenko - who would both become regular features on the show, lifted the wrestling talent on the roster up hugely. That alongside the likes of Too Cold Scorpio, Sabu, Matt Bourne (Doink the Clown playing a reforming version of the character called "Borne Again") ensured that the wrestling talent on the show was top drawer, add to that characters that were over like the Public Enemy, 911, Mikey Whipreck and established big names like Cactus Jack and Ron Simmons and the company was in great shape.
Two things that are very overlooked when talking about ECW are these. Firstly, the lack of true babyfaces or heels. Ok, the Dreamer/Sandman feud was often the exception (although Sandman did get a big pop for his reveal) but feuds like the Douglas/Funk/Sabu one didn't include a traditional babyface. Characters were depicted as rivals but often without an obvious good guy or a bad guy. The second, and perhaps one that is overlooked in more modern day wrestling, is that nobody ever talked their opponents down.
We've heard it to death in modern day WWE - Daniel Bryan was "too short", "a B+ player" - it seems the way for people to get over is to belittle their opponents. In ECW everyone's job was to build up their foes. No better example than this of how Chris Benoit was treated on his arrival, both Paul E Dangerously and Shane Douglas (easily the two best promos in the company) built up Benoit as a massive deal. Benoit didn't speak because he didn't have to, he was “the great” Chris Benoit and to beat him would be an impressive feat.
Then there's just the things that you need to see – The Public Enemy, 911, The Tazmaniac. All of those ingredients combined to make ECW must see. Great promos, a selection of very good matches and compelling story telling. That's not to say 1994 ECW was without fault, but it's not hard to see why ECW made so many waves. At a time when both the WWF and WCW were moving towards a less violent, more family friendly orientated product. ECW might have still been a drop in the ocean at this stage, but it made a lot of ground in 1994.