Mirror, Mirror: What If WWE Didn’t Win? by Jerry Whitworth
About a week ago, I discussed in detail my history with pro wrestling. Therein, I spoke on 2001 being a terrible year for wrestling fans. AOL Time Warner had sold WCW to WWE as ECW, after losing its TV deal with TNN, would likewise sell out to WWE. What’s interesting about these events is that TV deals were at the root of both downfalls. For WCW, Eric Bischoff had secured funding to buy the company but wouldn’t sign the deal unless TNT and TBS agreed to continue airing Nitro and Thunder, respectively. Reportedly, that sticking point lead AOL Time Warner to sell WCW to WWE for a ridiculously low price (as several WCW personalities claimed they could have bought it themselves for the price sold). As for ECW, it was a company on the rise that was abandoned by TNN after airing the promotion for a year and that was troubled by its past use of adult content to find another network. Now, it’s important to note, neither WCW or ECW had bad ratings. At the height of Nitro, it was one of the highest rated shows on TV and even when it fell, it was still a huge draw for TNT. It just lost money because of poor management within the company (part of which stemmed from its parent company being unfamiliar with the industry it was invested into). All of these details considered, if some circumstances would have been amended, both companies could have easily survived and likely thrived. For example, if Bischoff won his battle to buy WCW, it either could have had the arrangement to remain on the AOL Time Warner channels or he could have moved to another station (like, perhaps, TNN which was looking to drop ECW when it saw how much wrestling could draw for the station). Also, what if ECW either remained on TNN or moved to another network (say, perhaps, MTV, which got into the wrestling game in 2001 with WWF Tough Enough and later Wrestling Society X). Lets take a look at what could have been.
Eric Bischoff has gone on record that significant changes were planned for WCW had he bought the company. For example, there would have been a three month break where storylines more-or-less would have been abandoned and the roster trimmed. Also, the company would’ve moved to Las Vegas where it would only leave for other venues for pay-per-views (reminiscent of its deal with the Disney-MGM Studios). Stars like Goldberg, Sting, Diamond Dallas Page, Scott Steiner, Kevin Nash, Rey Mysterio Jr., Booker T, Hulk Hogan, and Ric Flair were reportedly all signed to guaranteed contracts to AOL Time Warner which likely would’ve been included in the deal for the Bischoff transition (as, rumor had it, ECW stars Rob Van Dam, Jerry Lynn, and Steve Corino were either signed or soon would have been had WCW not shut down). WCW also had other talents like Lance Storm, Jeff Jarrett, Shane Douglas, Bam Bam Bigelow, Chris Candido, Vampiro, Billy Kidman, A.J. Styles, Mike Awesome, Rick Steiner, Gregory Helms, Shannon Moore, Jamie Noble, Kaz Hayashi, Kid Kash, KroniK, and the Natural Born Thrillers as WWE’s Road Dogg was suppose to negotiate a deal with the company at what turned out to be its final episode. Certainly a strong pool already, WWE would part ways with other talents by the following year that likely would have been snatched up by WCW in Sean Waltman, Eddie Guerrero, Curt Hennig, Brian Christopher, Devon Storm, and, perhaps the biggest name in the industry, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin. But, could Austin really have brought himself to come work for Bischoff?
It’s no secret animosity existed between Eric Bischoff and Steve Austin. Bischoff fired Austin and the latter made a point of sticking it to the former on ECW’s TV show. However, it should be considered how Austin and WWE parted ways. Since returning from injury in 2000, Austin was visibly frustrated with how the company changed internally. Be it his infamous 2002 phone interview on WWE Byte This! or his refusal to put over Brock Lesnar on an episode of Raw (feeling it was a waste giving it away for free) which lead to his walking out on the company. It’s likely moving to WCW could have accomplished two major points on Austin’s part: that if used effectively, Austin’s star power could continue to be a huge draw and that if given more creative freedom, talent could raise the product’s quality again like it had during the Monday Night Wars years. In a manner, it’s similar to the present day situation with CM Punk who was fired by WWE and decided to apply himself in UFC (arguably, the only real competition WWE has today despite being such a different form of entertainment). So, in a sense, Austin working for WCW would have less to do with Bischoff and more to do trying to get WWE back on track (arguably, the company being mostly creatively offtrack since 2000 continuing to today). There’s also another major star to consider who could have emerged in a new WCW.
Shawn Michaels more-or-less retired in 1998 following a back injury but would return to wrestle in 2002 for a resurrected New World Order. Consider, then, in a 2002 WCW, the landscape had changed where new, younger talent had essentially taken over the roost. When the nWo was formed, it paid homage to the UWF invasion of NJPW pitting young vs. old. WCW, in a manner, tried to return to that well later in the Millionaire’s Club vs. the New Blood to disastrous results. What if in this alternate version, the nWo reformed as they already had Hulk Hogan and Kevin Nash and could likely rehire Sean Waltman and Scott Hall. In a swerve, similar to what was done in WWE, Hogan could be ejected and Michaels brought in but rather than takeover, the move would be to help get over the new talent as well as provide an opponent for Austin had he come in. Another element to consider is Big Show, who rumor has it was close to being let go from WWE in 2001 having to work the indies for a while. If WCW was a viable option at that time, there’s a chance he could’ve emerged in WCW that by 2002 could’ve made for an nWo that was likely its most potent incarnation. Something else that should be considered is if there was a WCW in 2002, would there have been a TNA?
TNA was founded in 2002 by Jeff and Jerry Jarrett. While there’s no guarantee Jeff would have remained in WCW had it survived, chances are he wouldn’t have founded his own promotion considering it largely tried to help fill a vacuum caused by the loss of WCW and ECW. This is largely supported by the fact many former talent from both promotions were active parts of the early TNA. In this way, that means some of those early stars could have very well ended up in WCW. Performers like Brian Lee, James Storm, Bobby Roode, Abyss, Frankie Kazarian, Matt Sydal, Chris Hero, Ron Killings, Sonjay Dutt, Amazing Red, and Shark Boy could have very likely been new, young stars in WCW had it lived. Speaking of promotions whose existence would be questionably had WCW continued, Chikara is certainly up there. One of the biggest indie promotions in the US (following WWE, TNA, and ROH), Chikara was founded by Mike Quackenbush and Reckless Youth. Known as the King of the Indies, Reckless Youth had a very bright future ahead of him where wrestling magazines put his star power above many of the talents within WWE and WCW at the time. ECW would be the first company to try and hire Youth, however the wrestler would become turned off at the rampant drug use backstage for his tryout match leading to his turning the promotion down. WWE would next approach Youth signing him to a one year contract. During that year, Quackenbush (Youth’s tag partner and friend) was contacted by WCW to come in with Youth as a team for WCW’s burgeoning Cruiserweight tag division (rumor has it spearheaded creatively by Bischoff). Obviously, Youth was unavailable but worse, when WWE tried to get the wrestler to essentially abandon his entire signature style (high flying and chain wrestling), Youth refused and was largely paid to stay home for the remaining time in his contract. By the time his “run” in WWE ended, WCW and ECW were gone and Youth and Quackenbush formed a school that turned into Chikara. Of course, in our alternate scenario, there was a WCW to go to which likely would’ve meant the duo becoming stars in that company (which, sadly, would’ve possibly meant no Chikara, though who’s to say many of those future students wouldn’t have ended up in CZW). With an idea in mind what a WCW of 2001 to 2003 could have been, lets look at what an ECW of that time could have become.
The final years of ECW’s existence saw its roster consumed on two fronts. Stars like Tazz, Dudley Boyz, Raven, Mike Awesome, Lance Storm, Shane Douglas, and Chris Candido were the latest in a series of talent whom went to the WWE and WCW (as noted, Rob Van Dam, Jerry Lynn, and Steve Corino may have very well been next). However, ECW had a remarkable ability in putting a shine on its established talent while using them to make new stars. By the time it folded, its roster included Tommy Dreamer, Sandman, Justin Credible, Psicosis, Mikey Whipwreck, Balls Mahoney, Spike Dudley, Rhino, C.W. Anderson, Super Crazy, Yoshihiro Tajiri, Little Guido, Nova, Joey Matthews, Christian York, Danny Doring, Roadkill, Tony Mamaluke, and EZ Money. Of course, had ECW survived, its likely much of its roster would’ve been fed into the WWE and, perhaps more likely, WCW. WWE may have taken Rhino as WCW could have brought in Psicosis, C.W. Anderson, Super Crazy, Yoshihiro Tajiri, Little Guido, Joey Matthews, and Christian York. In a bid to revitalize its roster, ECW could have sought new stars from Mexico, Japan, and more. While likely WCW would have made arrangements with AAA and NJPW, promotions like CMLL, IWA Puerto Rico, FMW, IWA Japan, BJW, D2T, MPW, AJPW, Zero1, Noah, Dragon Gate, and on and on could have saw an opportunity for its talent to be showcased to a larger audience. However, the best indicator of what ECW’s future may have been is based on what the protege of company owner Paul Heyman went on to become.
Gabe Sapolsky is one of the biggest names in the independent wrestling scene in modern history. The protege of Paul Heyman during his time running ECW, Sapolsky would go on to co-found the third biggest wrestling promotion in the United States today in Ring of Honor (a mirror of ECW, the third biggest of its time behind WWE and WCW). Years later, Sapolsky would move on to co-found Evolve, a promotion that has today become something of a feeder system into NXT (originally a WWE developmental, under the guidance of Triple H, the sub-promotion is beginning to form into an emerging brand). Had ECW continued on, its probable Sapolsky could have stayed on with the company, thus seeing ROH never coming into being (or, at least delayed) and many of its emerging talent likely coming to ECW. Names like CM Punk, Bryan Danielson, Samoa Joe, Homicide, Christopher Daniels, Austin Aries, Nigel McGuinness, Roderick Strong, Low Ki, Briscoe Brothers, Paul London, Jay Lethal, Alex Shelley, Chris Sabin, Jimmy Jacobs, Dan Maff, Colt Cabana, and Trent Acid could have very well formed the new class of ECW instead. Further, in 2003, six wrestlers formed a new promotion in Southern California called PWG which today is one of the biggest indie promotions in the US (perhaps the West Coast equivalent of Chikara). In the beginning, many of the stars that made up ROH were fixtures in PWG (a relationship that in a manner continues today as the two companies recently announced an affiliation). Had ECW survived, it brings into question if PWG would have had the talent pool necessary to become what it is today which suggests perhaps its stars may have ended up in ECW (although, it also could have instead forced a relationship with formerly LA-based XPW which tried to fill a vacuum left by ECW’s demise). There’s also CZW, another top indie promotion formed in ECW’s image prior to its end. Stars from this promotion could have very well ended up in ECW and several Chikara performers could have instead emerged in CZW (Eddie Kingston, Jigsaw, and Blackjack Marciano having studied elsewhere before becoming students at Chikara’s school, for example).
It’s clear to see the impact a surviving WCW and ECW could have had on the landscape of wrestling outside WWE. Companies like TNA, ROH, Chikara, and PWG may have very well never came into being. Even moving ahead in time, if WCW had an arrangement with AAA and NJPW, promotions like Lucha Underground and Global Force Wrestling may not exist. If Gabe Sapolsky remained with a growing ECW, he could be running it today instead of Evolve which would leave NXT without its current feeder system (as those stars making waves in WWE and NXT over the last few years could be happy working in ECW right now). While we’ll never know what the wrestling industry would be like today if WCW and ECW survived, with little doubt the industry would be better today. The creative slump WWE fell into in 2000 and arguably has remained within since then likely developed from a lack of competition (as WCW was all but obsolete before finally closing). WCW would have had the name and prestige to at least have a shot to return to prominence (much more so than TNA did years later having to fight and claw to the relatively-speaking small audience it garnered compared to WWE). ECW, of course, was a creative force which arguably influenced the entire industry. Its stars and stories would have been a support for both WWE and WCW (more so than ROH which falls into the same situation as TNA of starting from the bottom). Today, WWE is battling to remain relevant. Largely living off merchandising, the company’s audience is abandoning the product. Having an alternative could at least keep viewers within the industry and provide a wider, visible platform for talent which would relieve WWE’s necessity to “create” virtually all of its stars as well as alleviate the glut of performers within WWE (consider, a casual viewer of the product could likely only identify perhaps a third of the company’s roster due to its sheer girth and limited on-air exposure). Further, it wouldn’t be WWE alone throwing ideas against the wall to see what sticks as WCW and ECW could experiment to see what the audience wants (where any gains for one company would be good for the industry which can measure the pulse of the public). Sadly, this is all a fantasy. But, sure would have been nice. What would you have liked to have seen if WCW and ECW survived?