Sunday, June 11, 2006

ECW One Night Stand

Okay, so we'll get to Freakonomics shortly. ECW One Night Stand is on in a few hours time, which means I'd better get the preview done.

This is a strange show, and intriguing for a number of reasons totally unrelated to the actual matches. Incidentally, it's not a pay-per-view in the UK, so the question of whether to buy it doesn't arise, although sheer curiosity value would probably have led me to make the purchase.

For those among you who may not be familiar with them, ECW ("Extreme Championship Wrestling") was the number three wrestling promotion during the late 1990s wrestling boom. Numbers 1 and 2 were the WWF and WCW, and as you can probably imagine, it was a pretty steep drop down to number 3. ECW effectively served as the indie alternative to the two corporate monoliths, with a much more violent, intentionally controversial and low-budget feel. The promotion has acquired a somewhat undeserved reputation for "hardcore" garbage wrestling, relying more on weapons than actual moves, which is a little unfair - there was plenty of normal wrestling in ECW. Then again, it's true to say that the hardcore angle was one of their unique selling points.

ECW went out of business several years ago, at which point the WWE picked up the rights to the name. Opinions vary as to quite why the company went under, given that its programming was undeniably very influential in wrestling circles. Broadly speaking, the company had expanded to a point where it was trying to compete on a national scale but didn't really have the resources to do so, in terms of production value or - increasingly - paying the wrestlers. It's also fair to argue that ECW was a niche product that needed to be watered down in order to have wider appeal.

After losing their TV show (they were dumped to make way for a WWE show), ECW just sort of petered out. The WWE brought them back last year for the first One Night Stand pay-per-view - more of a nostalgia show designed to pay tribute to the ECW brand and give it the send-off that it never really had. They already had Paul Heyman, ECW's owner and mastermind, on staff, and they hired back a load of former ECW wrestlers for the night. The show was generally considered a huge success, not so much because of the actual wrestling as the unique atmosphere.

This year is different. Rather belatedly, the WWE has decided that the time has come to revive the ECW brand permanently, setting up a third show in addition to Raw and Smackdown. This would have been a great idea - eleven months ago. In fact, One Night Stand more or less put the lingering ECW fans to bed, and for the most part, the build-up to ECW's return has played to confused and uninterested crowds in towns which never had much interest in ECW to start with. (It was more of a north-east regional promotion, so the idea of shooting major ECW angles at shows taped in California left something to be desired.)

Nonetheless, ECW will indeed return to the air next Tuesday with a weekly one-hour live show on, of all places, the Sci-Fi Network. Quite how this is going to work is a little unclear. The show will be recorded at the Smackdown tapings, which seems a terribly bad idea - ECW needs to look and feel different, and the Smackdown set is rather distinctive. The roster is a curious mix of old ECW wrestlers from the glory days and WWE wrestlers arbitrarily shoved into the group for star power. Apparently there will be new talent brought in as well, which is essential if the group is to have any chance of building its own identity. They need the old guard for purposes of continuity, but you can't realistically build a company around guys like the Sandman in 2006. His prime was a decade ago, and it's not as though his wrestling abilities were good enough to get him a job with any other company over the last few years. He's there because he legitimates the promotion as ECW, and that's about it. The same goes for people like Balls Mahoney, also under contract.

Of the ECW wrestlers who actually are decent, some already work for the WWE, the most obvious example being Rob Van Dam. Al Snow and Tommy Dreamer have also been dragged out of retirement for the purpose. Others are already under contract to TNA, and unavailable for the present show - so no Dudley Boyz this year, for example. The tricky balancing act is to make this promotion feel like a proper ECW continuation without filling the screen with has-beens or confusing the hell out of a mainstream audience. The trump card is the presence of Paul Heyman as the figurehead of the new show, since he pretty much was ECW. If he says it's ECW, that goes a long way to making it so.

While last year's show was pure nostalgia, this is the beginning of a new ECW season, and so the storylines are much more significant. They've only really pushed a few matches - presumably, more will be announced in the course of the show itself. (This in itself is very ECW - many of their PPVs didn't bother to announce the undercard in advance, since it really didn't make any difference.) But here's what we have so far.

1. WWE Title: John Cena -v- Rob Van Dam. Yes, John Cena is still the champion, and still dividing crowds. But he won't be dividing the audience on Sunday night, since he's arguably the single least ECW wrestler you could imagine. Crowd-pleasing catchphrase-chanting babyfaces never really went down well in ECW, and everyone is expecting Cena to be booed out of the building. Van Dam, on the other hand, was always a hero to the ECW crowd, partly because he was the star who stayed with the company to the dying day. Frankly, RVD isn't the wrestler he used to be, and his matches haven't been especially impressive since he returned from injury a couple of months back. But he's the closest they've got to a legitimate ECW star who's also popular with the mainstream viewers, and they've really got no choice but to push him as a leading figure in the new ECW, at least at first.

Van Dam got his title shot at Wrestlemania back in March, when he won the "Money in the Bank" ladder match, giving him the right to challenge Cena for the title whenever he wanted. Tonight he cashes in that title shot, dragging Cena to the ECW show to defend his championship before a hostile crowd under ECW rules (which, even by wrestling standards, were astonishingly relaxed). That's the storyline, and it's pretty much all we need as long as they can pull off the authentic ECW vibe. They managed it last year - complete with cheap graphics and tiny venue - so they'll probably pull it off tonight. Technically the match probably won't be that great, but the crowd will really lift it.

The general assumption is that this will be a disputed finish, leading to Van Dam and Cena both claiming the belt, and Van Dam becoming the first ECW Champion of the new era. An outright win for Van Dam, taking Raw's world title off to ECW, is a possibility if they're really prepared to go to town in pushing the new TV show. In the unlikely event of Cena retaining with a clean pin, brace yourself for a riot.

2. World Heavyweight Title: Rey Mysterio -v- Sabu. Shoved out there without much promotion, Smackdown's champion Rey Mysterio also defends his title against the veteran high-flier Sabu. Mysterio actually was an ECW wrestler back in the day, so his presence on the card makes a little more sense. On the other hand, he was on the show last year and got heavily booed for doing all his Smackdown signature moves instead of his ECW stuff. Presumably they're going for the same result tonight, with Sabu as the hero for the ECW crowd. Like Van Dam, Sabu is a veteran who, frankly, isn't what he used to be. Commentators often like to say that wrestlers act with a total disregard for their own safety; Sabu is one of the tiny minority where they might actually be right. Decades of this abuse have taken their toll. Still, Sabu still has good matches from time to time, and once again the crowd reaction should be enough to cover any shortfall in the match quality.

Mysterio is presumably retaining here - ECW doesn't need two titles, and it's something of a mystery why they're even putting Mysterio's title on the line. Normally it would be a bad move to pin Sabu on his first PPV match with the company, but frankly, his reputation is solid enough with ECW fans already. My bet would be that Mysterio wins with some sort of outside interference to set up a feud for Sabu on ECW's weekly show.

3. Kurt Angle v Randy Orton. Arguably the single least ECW match imaginable, and I wonder how the live crowd are going to react to this. Angle, one of the best technical wrestlers of his generation, has been reassigned to ECW to give them star power, and also to send the clear signal that it won't just be ultraviolent craziness. Fine so far as it goes. But they really need to establish him as an ECW guy, and the wisdom of putting him in the ring with Randy Orton on this particular show is questionable. Technically it'll be a good match - it usually is with these two - but it simply doesn't belong on this show. If the crowd have the same attitude as last year, then I think there's a real risk of them turning on this match because it isn't "real" ECW. Angle will presumably win, because Orton isn't coming to ECW, and therefore they can't continue the feud.

4. Mick Foley & Edge -v- Terry Funk & Tommy Dreamer. The other match that's been heavily pushed for this show. Foley and Edge fought one another in a hardcore match at Wrestlemania, and the story is that they're so pleased with it that they've declared themselves the living embodiment of hardcore wrestling. (That means Foley becomes a bad guy - a dangerous move for somebody generally seen as a loveable muppet - but they seem to have got away with it.) Funk and Dreamer are the ECW veterans representing the true hardcore tradition. This, at least, is the general idea of the feud - the actual plotting is so bizarre and incoherent that it's difficult to make sense of quite what they're fighting over. Somewhere along the line, Foley and Edge have declared themselves co-holders of the long-dormant WWE Hardcore Title, although the WWE doesn't actually seem to recognise it and there's been no suggestion that it's actually on the line in this match.

I have deep reservations about this match. Edge is the only one of these guys who's still in his prime. Foley retired several years ago and works sporadically as a special attraction - although his Wrestlemania match was indeed extremely good. Dreamer is also long retired, and perhaps embodies the sort of ECW wrestler who never achieved much in the larger promotions because frankly, he didn't have much going for him besides a willingness to take stupid amounts of punishment. Hardcore legend Terry Funk was billed as "middle aged and crazy" in ECW's heyday ten years ago, and by this stage really should be clinically dead. He turns 62 later in the month. Even more than Hulk Hogan, his matches are only really credible if viewed through a misty haze of nostalgia.

In practice, then, Edge and Dreamer will have to carry most of this match. And they had a match on the WWE/ECW special on Wednesday which, er, wasn't great. I'm braced for this to be a disappointment. As the climax of the feud, all logic says the ECW team should win.

5. Tazz v Jerry Lawler. When commentators collide! Lawler is the colour commentator on Raw and (in storyline, at least) has hated ECW for years. Tazz has just jumped from Smackdown to ECW to serve as their commentator. (If you're wondering who's going to do his job on Smackdown, by the way, the leading rumour is Simon Dean. Which might just work, actually.) Again, Tazz is a retired ECW wrestler who's been behind a commentary desk for years. Lawler, to be fair, still wrestles regularly down in Memphis. By most accounts this will be a short confrontation rather than a real match. And all the better for it.

6. Super Crazy & Tajiri v The FBI (Little Guido & Tony Mamaluke). Quietly announced on the WWE website without any mention on television, this is a card-filling tag team match, and there's not much else to be said about it. The wrestlers are decent and since the FBI are sticking around in the new ECW, while Tajiri is here for a guest shot and Super Crazy is getting pushed on Smackdown, logic says the FBI should win to give them momentum on the weekly show. And yes, Little Guido is the guy who spent the last few years wrestling as Nunzio, but he's going back to his original character in ECW. Should be okay.

7. Masato Tanaka v Balls Mahoney. A hardcore bloodbath for the ECW fans, in all probability. Tanaka had an excellent, if terrifying, brawl with Mike Awesome that stole last year's show, and this might actually be good fun in a "Jesus, he's going to die" kind of way. By the way, you may be wondering where this match was actually announced, since it isn't mentioned on the WWE website itself. The answer, believe it or not, is that it's listed on the card on the back of the commemorative T-shirt which you can buy from WWE Shopzone, although nobody seems to have thought to mention it anywhere else. That gives you a good indication of the effort they've put into promoting the undercard. The usual reliable news sites confirm that this match is indeed happening, despite the striking failure to actually tell anyone.

Overall, this should be a fun show - not all of the wrestling will be great, but it doesn't matter if they can capture a fraction of last year's atmosphere. Crucially, it has to feel different from the normal WWE shows, and they got it right last year. I'm looking forward to it.