June 19, 2006
One step forward, one step back
By NICK TYLWALK -- SLAM! Wrestling Columnist
It's hard to imagine a bigger roller coaster ride than the first week -- the first three days, really -- of the new incarnation of ECW. Two Sundays ago at One Night Stand, the reborn promotion got off to the best possible start it could have imagined.
There was a One Night Stand a year ago, but this year's version was better in almost every way. The matches ranged from good to great. The WWE presence, while significant, was still less goofy than the "invasion" of Raw and Smackdown from 2005. Paul Heyman got a chance to do his thing on the microphone, and the show was capped off by a very popular title victory by Rob Van Dam.
A few segments did drag. JBL's promo running down ECW definitely fit his character, but since its ultimate purpose was to reveal that he is the new color guy on Smackdown, it could have been done elsewhere. Sandman's lengthy ring entrance wasn't nearly as effective without the music of Metallica to back it, and with the group's asking price rumored to be astronomical, it's something fans will probably have to grin and bear. And The Big Show turning on the WWE and jumping ship could be good or bad, depending on one's feelings about Mr. Wight.
All in all, though, June 11 couldn't have been classified as anything but an unqualified success for the new ECW. If Vince McMahon had any doubts that the hunger for the product was there -- and he probably wouldn't have agreed to travel this road if he did -- he only needed to soak in the reaction of the fans at the Hammerstein Ballroom to erase them. The crowd popped big for their favorites, got more chants going in one night than the WWE fans come up with in an entire year, and stayed hot for the entire show. If there's been a group of wrestling fans with more energy in the last five years, I can't remember it.
With the jumpstart provided by One Night Stand, there was every reason for optimism heading into last Tuesday's debut on the Sci Fi Channel. One hour later, much of that optimism was replaced by a feeling of dread. If the pay-per-view got nearly everything right, the free show got a whole lot wrong, or at least hinted of things to come that fly in the face of what the "New Breed Unleashed" is supposed to be.
For starters, the WWE cast a large shadow over the show beginning with the very first segment. It was inevitable that John Cena would be on hand after he dropped the WWE championship to RVD and promised he'd be looking for payback on Raw. That's understandable. What was troublesome was Cena and Edge getting the upper hand on Van Dam -- apparently the WWE and ECW champion now -- and Heyman on their way out. Follow that with Heyman's pledge to continue the feud on this week's Raw and it's already pretty clear that McMahon and his team don't trust their new venture to stand on its own without WWE superstars to prop it up.
Maybe that will change over time, and it's never a good idea to jump to conclusions based on one show. It's entirely possible Vince will let Heyman take the training wheels off, so to speak, if the ratings continue to be good. But maybe more can be read into this quote from McMahon when the new ECW show was officially announced than it first appeared:
"RAW, Smackdown and ECW now represent a portfolio of WWE brands for fans of all ages and interests to enjoy."
Taken as a simple announcement of a new product, that's a perfectly harmless sentence. If taken literally instead, it becomes an example of the kind of thinking that will ensure that the new ECW is doomed to failure. ECW has to be more than a WWE "brand" with a slightly more hardcore twist. It needs to be a real alternative to the other shows, because there's already four hours of the WWE's style of sports entertainment on TV every week. It can't be, as the fans at the Ballroom chanted at Cena, the "same old sh--." Anything less than attempting to remain true to the spirit of the original is gambling that those loyal, cult-like fans believe a McMahon-ized version of ECW is better than none at all. And if I were in charge, I'm not sure that's a gamble I'd be willing to take.
Of course, the new show is intended to draw new fans too, and the initial broadcast scored low in that regard as well. I'm not sure what to make of the zombie that received a beating from the Sandman or the vampire outside the building, but the buzz is that we could be seeing a faction built around horror and sci-fi staples. Let's hope that isn't the case, or that the WWE isn't trying to make some sort of cute joke about where their new show ended up.
There is a crossover audience between sci-fi, comics and the like and wrestling -- I just wrote about it in my last column. There's also a fine line between giving the audience what they want and patronizing them, and people are usually smart enough to distinguish one from the other. If the WWE chooses to ignore that truth, it does so at its own risk.
It may be trite, but in the case of the new ECW, it's also true: what a difference one show makes. From celebrating everything good about the old ECW and giving hope for the future of the name, it only took one more outing to make the long-time fans grumpy and run the risk of alienating new ones. Now the people in charge of the new show have the rest of the summer to prove whether or not the first Sci-Fi broadcast was a simple misstep or the first sign of a depressing trend.
I know I'll be watching at least a few more weeks to find out. The rest
of the wrestling world will be too.
Nick Tylwalk has been a SLAM! Wrestling contributor since 1998, and his column, Walkin' That Aisle with Nick Tylwalk, appears most Mondays. Comments, compliments and complaints can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org. If you’d like to see a response to your question or comment in a future column, please include your full name and hometown in your e-mail.