Hindsight is 20/20
While yesterday was the 20th anniversary of ECW’s Barely Legal, the event that propelled the fledgling promotion onto the national scene, today offers a mark of a completely different sort. The wrestling boom of the 90s, very similar to the surge of the “Rock N Wrestling” era of the previous decade, had its share of casualties. As the demand for pro wrestling reached the main stream, a premium was placed on talent, an element that accelerated the industry in almost every aspect.
The contracts offered became further inflated and during the next few years, you really never knew who could show up on any given broadcast, which created even more popularity for the genre. Similar to the way Eric Bischoff bought Kevin Nash and Scott Hall by essentially offering them a deal that Vince McMahon couldn’t match, Paul Heyman struggled to compete with the salaries of his multi-million dollar competition.
Hindsight tells the story that the Philadelphia-based group simply wasn’t prepared, financially or otherwise, for a national expansion.
While the WWF and WCW had state-of-the-art studios at their disposal, the ECW TV show was produced in the basement of the editor’s home. The violent nature of the extreme product was distributed through syndication, often at 1 AM on local affiliates in each market, which helped the organization’s live attendance, but offered no major ad revenue. Without the major revenue streams, it became quite a challenge for the hardcore company to keep up with the burden of payroll and production costs. Because of the structure of pay-per-view at the time, ECW had to front all the production expenses for the live event, including the satellite truck to beam the broadcast to providers. After the buy rate was totaled and the distributors took their percentage, Paul Heyman then received the money from the show. The point being, even a successful PPV that generated profit for the company required that ECW had the funds to continue until that revenue was sent to them.
When salaries to keep talent under contract began to skyrocket, Heyman simply couldn’t keep up with the expenses required to run a national promotion. In a desperate attempt to secure more ad revenue, Heyman signed a deal with TNN, the channel that became Spike TV a few years later. The contract didn’t give ECW a rights fee to distribute the show, while increasing the cost to produce TV that could air on the national platform. Most fans don’t realize something as simple as lighting can become a major expense that is necessary for national TV.
Almost immediately after Extreme Championship Wrestling debuted on TNN in 1999, two of its most storied acts, The Dudley Boys and Taz signed deals with the WWF to start there soon. The Dudleys debuted the following month, while Taz worked for ECW until the end of the year, putting over other stars until he debuted at the Royal Rumble in 2000. The departure of “The Human Suplex Machine” was major for ECW, as Paul Heyman promoted an intense athlete under six-foot tall to the status of a believable monster. There was nearly a five-year building process for Taz, who played his role very well. After he returned from a broken neck in 1995, the Brooklyn native ditched the cartoonish attire he had previous, deciding to base his new persona on his legitimate background in Judo.
Despite the smaller venues and gritty presentation, Taz was one of the competitors in ECW that had a larger than life aura around him. That exit created an opportunity for Heyman to introduce a new main event monster to the audience. Mike Awesome, who worked extensively in Japan prior to his success in the United States, had appeared for ECW sporadically prior to the Anarchy Rulz pay-per-view in 1999. Awesome was a heavyweight that had remarkable agility for his size and could springboard from ropes to launch himself into the third row so he had a style that fit the promotion. When the competitor known as “The Gladiator” in FMW jumped the rail to appear unadvertised at the PPV, he won the ECW title in an impromptu three-way dance, which allowed Taz to pass the touch to the next champion.
There wasn’t much to celebrate for Mike Awesome after he signed a contract for a full-time job in the United States as he was owed a substantial amount of money within just a few months. At the start of 2000, Awesome continued his feud with longtime rival Masato Tanaka, a series of matches that Heyman imported from Japan after the two had successful bouts there. These were very physical and very dangerous matches, as both competitors took many risks to perform the violent spectacles. Awesome, who suffered a knee injury in 1998 that put him on the sidelines for several months, became concerned about the amount of money he was owed.
During his time in Japan, he worked with Horace Boulder, the nephew of Hulk Hogan. Upon hearing that Awesome wasn’t getting paid, Horace talked to Hulk, and eventually he was offered a Turner contract. On April 10, 2000, Mike Awesome, still the ECW heavyweight champion, jumped the rail and attacked Kevin Nash on Monday Nitro. At the time, Awesome was vilified as a “sell out” that tried to destroy ECW by jumping ship to WCW before he dropped the championship.
On April 14, 2000, just days after Awesome was on Nitro, he appeared at an ECW house show to drop the championship. Officially a WCW employee, Awesome showed up in the building for a very tense situation and dropped the belt to then-WWF employee Taz, who dropped the belt the following week to Tommy Dreamer at the ECW arena. So, yes, seventeen years ago, a WCW wrestler worked a match with a WWF wrestler at an ECW house show. As bizarre as situation was, it was one of the reasons that the “Attitude era” entertained millions of fans.
In reality, Mike Awesome made the right decision for himself, mostly because he received a major signing bonus just to show up on WCW TV before he dropped the title to go along with the Turner contract that paid him a few hundred thousand dollars. He went from risking his body for zero dollars to the possibility of financial security. Any fans that criticized him at the time certainly weren’t going to pay his bills if he stayed in ECW. Plus, Awesome did the right thing and dropped the belt in the ring. Why did he make the right decision to jump while still champion? Look at the laundry list of performers that were still owned money when ECW folded less than a year later. It’s doubtful that Awesome intended to damage the promotion, but rather try to land a job that provided financial security.
Hindsight is 20/20
As history showed, similar to many others on the roster, Awesome was misused in WCW, and when he worked in the WWF, he was minimized along with almost every star that was signed for the Invasion angle. Still, April 14, 2000 was a very unique event in pro wrestling history as it was the only time that all three companies, while still independently owned were involved in a specific match.
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Until next week