Monday, February 8, 2010

Pushing new talent: the ECW way

As the new ECW draws to a close, one has to wonder about all the good things the brand did. Let's see, they downplayed Dreamer's Title, that's not good. They crapped on CHIKARA star Colin, that's not good, either. Hiring Mike Adamle? Removing Joey Styles? Firing ECW Originals? Allowing ECW originals to quit? Bringing us the Abraham Washington show? Abject failures like DJ Gabriel, Ricky Ortiz, and Tyler Reks? De-valuing Katie Lea and Paul Burchill even further? Vince McMahon as ECW champion? Ok, yes, the point is that there are more bad points on ECW than good ones. But, I will say this: the new ECW did something the original ECW did very well. For that, I have to commend this new version. What did both versions do? They pushed new talent, and the wrestling world has been thankful for ECW to this very day, even when some don't admit to it.

When ECW came into fruition about 15 years ago, the common conception about the wrestlers involved were that they were not quite good enough to be in WCW or the WWE. To quote Taz, ECW was the "Land of the misfit toys" (just like in the Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer animated film). It was a collection of stars past their prime, stars that never got a chance, stars that weren't even on the radar, and stars who never started wrestling until just recently. There was Raven, Taz, the Sandman, Public Enemy, the Pit Bulls, Stevie Richards, The Blue Meanie, the "Franchise" Shane Douglas,"Superstar" Steve Austin, Cactus Jack, Terry Funk, Chris Benoit, Eddie Guerrero, Dean Malenko, 2 Cold Scorpio, Ron Simmons, Al Snow, Rob Van Dam, Sabu, Axl Rotten, Mahoney, the Dudley Boys, the Gangstas, the Eliminators, Justin Credible, Lance Storm, Mike Awesome, Chris Candido, the Baldies, C.W. Anderson, Steve Corino, Rhino, Tajiri, Jack Victory, Cyrus, Joey Styles, Joel Gertner, Sid Vicious, Bam Bam Bigelow, the One Man Gang, Jason, Jazz, Nicole Bass, Chastity, Dawn Marie, Francine, Beulah McGuillicuty, Super Crazy, Little Guido, Big Guido, Tommy Rich, Tracey Smothers, Kid Kash, Louie Spiccoli, and, one of the most notable stars along with these people, Tommy Dreamer, just to name a few. You bring up any of these names circa 1993, and the common consensus would have been that either no one knows them, or no one cares to know or remember them. This is where ECW starts to flourish. Instead of treating them all like 2nd class citizens, or no-talent chumps, ECW took their positives, accentuated them, and exhibited them for all of us to see. Soon, the select few of us that marveled at them became a general mainstream. Thankfully, 85 to 95% of the people I mentioned ended up in WCW or WWE for at least longer than a cup of coffee and we were all taken by it: those of us who didn't know their talents, and those of us who knew all along. Now, did this version of ECW follow this mindset fully? In all likelihood, no, but they did a great job in sticking with the basics: find a new talent to utilize, give them a platform to get over, promote them to a better brand, and give the main show talent someone new to deal with, creating more opportunities, more matches, and more challengers for the top. So, with all of that said, I'd like to point out 7 key instances where ECW pushed new talent that got over on new brands, by a large or small margin, but big enough to leave an effect on us. Ironically, each of these instances fall into different categories when it comes to experience. 2 of these instances were from wrestlers who wrestled independently for the majority of their lives before being discovered by the WWE. 1 of these instances didn't enter a wrestling ring until after college, leaving his experience to be limited to the shortest amount. 2 of these instances found wrestling to be the ticket for them after seeing what the other forms of life have in store and jumped in with limited experience, but enough to get by before coming to the WWE. Lastly, 2 of these instances probably have the least amount of wrestling in their backgrounds as they received crash courses, but have excelled greatly due to their boundless passion. If you have any idea who I'm talking about, then you know who I think are the biggest success stories to come out of this version of ECW by what we've seen them do and what they've been through.

When talking about someone with little to no knowledge of the squared circle in his experience, be it independently or not, one has to imagine just how far a guy like that can go. Well, Brock Lesnar proved to us that you can go very far in a short amount of time with the right amount of determination, precision, and passion. Now the guy I'm talking about isn't Lesnar, but like Lesnar, has experience as an amateur wrestler and has proven to be a great commodity for the future if not the present. Yes, I'm talking about Jack Swagger. Love him or hate him, Swagger has all the tools needed to be a big name in the WWE, be it sooner or later. He's a two time ECW champion and has recently had two incredible outings with John Cena and Triple H. No, he hasn't won, but he is still making his play at being a big deal in wrestling. He has the wrestling chops to hang with virtually anyone in the ring, as did Lesnar and even Kurt Angle. He has a unique look that can or has garnered him attention to the point where he would go from tuesdays at 10 to Mondays at 9, on live television. If it seems like Swagger won't go anywhere as of right now, due to his win/loss record on Raw and who's he's lost to, I only have two estimations to give on that: 1) They are waiting for the right time to make him a big deal as a top heel, or 2) they've just about given up on him. Regardless, he's made an impact as a wrestler and as a character for the short amount of time he's been here. His skill on the mic has improved, his look has been exactly what the WWE needs, and his persona does speak volumes. All he needed was a place to get his feet wet, and ECW proved to be the best place for that.

This next wrestler actually got an office job first. Upon losing interest, he looked into wrestling, wrestled the indies for a bit, then joined up with the WWE. Now, he's on the cusp of becoming the next top star on Raw. He's Kofi Kingston, and boy, has he made an impact. He was given some vignettes on ECW, showcasing his need to scope out "trouble in paradise". That soon became the name of his amazing finisher, a 360-degree spin kick to the face. You'd say that just looks and sounds flashy, but that's what has been securing him victories left and right in the WWE, along with his very unorthodox, athletically sound wrestling style. Since coming to ECW, here are Kofi's accolades: a long-standing unbeaten streak, a tremendous outing in the 2009 Money in the Bank match, a U.S. title run, an I.C. title run, a World tag team title run, and just recently, a very noteworthy rivalry with Randy Orton that placed Kofi in the WWE title picture on Raw. He has also revealed his true roots as a Ghanaian wrestler with a profound respect for Jamaica after living there (hence the name, through kayfabe). His upbeat mentality, amazing athletics, and unorthodox style has the wrestling world on fire, and there's no reason to put it out anytime soon.

Kofi isn't the only superstar to have considered the life outside of wrestling before becoming a wrestler, nor is he the only wrestler to find instant success as well while doing this. Just ask Sheamus (for more in-depth info on Sheamus, check out my 8/2/09 blog). He went from children's television, some sports, some film, and even education to wrestle in Europe. Since being brought here to the U.S. by the WWE, he has practiced and toiled in the WWE's training camps looking to become a top star. How did he do? Well, after boasting an impressive win/loss record on ECW in a few short months, he was picked up by Raw, he ran through and retired Jamie Noble, and has antagonized both John Cena and Randy Orton in his quest to become the WWE champion and Raw's conqueror. In no more than a month, he became the current WWE champion, defeating John Cena in a tables match. Now, a lot of people have problems with this, let alone the personal relationships Sheamus has backstage (if you don't know by now, he's HHH's workout partner. Do the math). Quite honestly, I can look past all that and see a valuable commodity and prospect in Sheamus. He's an accomplished wrestler in Europe, blending power, technique, and a very unique look together to create the Celtic warrior we see today. Was he pushed too fast? Perhaps, but I feel it was all an eventuality, if not something that should have happened already. Plus, you'd be a fool to not see it as a veritable success on ECW's part in producing a future WWE champion. It would be a shame if you did.

But wait! Not all stars had the veritable look and feel that the WWE was looking for. Some guys had to try out for this role, via the WWE's reality show and competition, Tough Enough (2000-2004). During the inclusion of this, wrestling fans were given a chance to try out for the dream job of wrestling for the WWE. The verdict: a few minor successes, and some rather abject failures, with the exception of two. Only two have done the Tough Enough franchise justice. One man won the competition, while another was a runner-up, whose passion for wrestling gave him the chance to wrestle for the WWE on a trial basis until he reached his goal of making it to the main shows. Those two men, as you have probably heard of, are John Morrison and the Miz. What else can I possibly say by these two success stories that I haven't done before? Heck, I spent 3 blogs on these guys as a team. I could not have been any more impressed with their abilities.

Morrison wanted a chance to promote his athleticism to the WWE, and after failing to meet the challenge in TE2, he made it and won TE3. He then went on to do a plethora of things: learn his craft on the indies scene for a spell, train to perfection in the WWE farm system, act as Eric Bischoff's apprentice, team up with wrestler Joey Mercury to obtain tag team excellence, and went on to start a semi-successful singles career as Johnny Nitro, until the night he won the ECW title. Then, John Morrison was born, no longer a wanna-be movie star boy toy, but now a pseudo-rock star of a man. He would hold the ECW title a few times, then reclaim the I.C. title, along with win the WWE and World tag titles for lengthy amounts of time. How did he accomplish this? He did it by disparaging his opponents with a very obscure yet interesting point of view on life, showcasing his intellect, confidence, and charm. He also had help with the tag belts with the other TE success story: the Miz. With the Miz, he became a very proven commodity in the WWE, on the verge of becoming the next World champion, but after the breakup with the Miz, he is no longer on the verge. He might very well be on track to doing it before 2010 is through. Through tremendous fan support, a natural charisma, a chiseled body, and a knack for internet television (be it the Dirt Sheet with the Miz, or the Palace of Wisdom, by himself), Morrison has been quite the success story to say the least.

Let's not forget, however, the emergence of the Miz. He started out using his full name, Mike Mizanin, on reality shows, like the Real World, showcasing his love and interest in wrestling, emulating stars like the Rock. So, he took the plunge, jumped into Tough Enough, and was the runner-up. But, he was given two great consolation prizes: a chance to hone his craft in other federations, and a spot in the WWE farm system. Once brought up to the main show, he was the subject of everyone's ridicule, seen as a t.v. star trying to be a wrestler. Little did they know that Mike's passion would outlast the criticism. He formed an allegiance with John Morrison to create one of the most successful and entertaining tag teams in recent history. After winning tag team gold and starring in some very entertaining programming (the Dirt Sheet was the calling card the Miz needed), he decided to not be overlooked as his partner, John Morrison, was starting to come into his own as a star. So, the Miz bid his partner farewell, in a very violent way. After which, he broke out on his own to do the unthinkable: call out John Cena. It was a brave, but foolish move, but it did get him his notoriety as he went on to secure the U.S. title and have some of the most impressive outings in his short career. He is now currently taking Chris Jericho's place, if you would say, as one half of the Unified WWE tag champions along with the Big Show. On a final Miz note, he's been saying a whole new catchphrase: "I'm the Miz...and I'm awesome." He could not have been more correct as he, like Morrison, got his taste at a big break on ECW, after both of them tried and failed at making impacts on other shows initially.

But, what about the stars that have toiled long and hard on the indies scene or overseas before getting to the big dance, like Benoit, Guerrero and Malenko? Can they be pushed? Ask Evan Bourne and see for yourself. He went from wrestling in some of the most action-packed matches all over the U.S. and even in Japan before being discovered on national television. From the IWA to NWA, and from Dragon Gate to ROH, Bourne defied gravity with some of the most incredible aerial moves I've ever seen. Then, he was scooped up by MTV to wrestle for Wrestling Society X under his indies alias, Matt Sydal. The WWE found him, shipped him to the farm systems, brought him up to ECW and he became the most talked about high flier in the WWE this side of Rey Mysterio. In fact, it was because of this that the fans voted for his first ECW title match which involved Matt Hardy. Although on the losing end, Bourne found himself on a new brand, Raw, defying gravity and making highlights whenever he can, against many different stars. Now, he might not be doing very well at the moment, but you can't deny that his ability earned him a spot on the most prominent show in wrestling, Monday Night Raw. That's quite a feat.

Bourne isn't the only one to have done this, as the final instance is the most prominent ECW personality to make a wave in the WWE. He's innovative, ground-breaking, and at times, controversial. He's C.M. Punk. After toiling in the indies, he won his first major title in ROH before signing a contract with the WWE. Under the tutelage of Paul Heyman, Punk excelled in the farm systems of the WWE before being brought up to ECW. Upon doing so, he maintained an excellent win/loss record and a very diverse manifesto: Punk is one of the first ever straight-edge WWE wrestlers and is addicted to competition. He doesn't do drugs, drink, or smoke. He's 100% substance free, and bred to compete. This helped him garner much needed attention and victory, as he maintained some interesting rivalries in ECW, with old and new stars alike (including RVD, Elijah Burke, John Morrison, Hardcore Holly, Shannon Moore, and even Big Daddy V). It wasn't until 2008 that Punk made his play for excellence as he won the 2008 MITB (Money in the Bank) match at Wrestlemania 24. He cashed it in against Edge after Summerslam of that year to win the World title. This would mark his first of two consecutive MITB victories, and one of 3 World title wins. He also became the fastest to win the Triple Crown in the WWE, beating Diesel, as he won the I.C. and World tag titles within a given year. However, as time passed, his demeanor had changed upon using the second MITB briefcase on Jeff Hardy. As he cashed it in on a tired and virtually defenseless Jeff Hardy, the fans cried foul and he fell out of favor with the wrestling public. It was soon after this that Punk's true colors came to fruition as he started to use his straight-edge lifestyle as a ploy to discredit Hardy and his personal demons and troubles. He made it clear that straight-edge means he's better than all those who aren't. Now, he takes it upon himself to try and save those who aren't and make them converts to a straight-edge lifestyle, which is taking on a very cult mentality. He's not alone as he is employing the help of Luke Gallows (formerly Festus, who was in that state as Festus due to the medications he received over the years) and Serena, an obsessed fan of Punk, looking to follow him anywhere. Despite the turn, Punk has shown his ability to be a veritable success, and has played his part in helping to usher in a new generation of wrestlers looking to make their way to the top of the WWE. Thanks to Punk, the new and next generation can now rest easy in knowing that even they have a chance at greatness.

You might not agree with it, might very well hate it, and truly despise it, but ECW has done its best to push new talent and start a new generation and new wave of talent in the world of wrestling. Punk, Sheamus, Bourne, Miz, Morrison, Kingston, and Swagger are all key elements in the longevity of the WWE, as they will be talked about well into the next decade. For this to be true, you have to credit the new version of ECW. You might not like it, but it did exactly what the first and original did: it pushed new talent. It's too bad that they couldn't do everything else like the original. Well, it's coming to an end and opening the door for the new, so no big loss, right? Nope, not at all. In this blogger's opinion, as bad as ECW was, this was one positive I stood for. So, no regrets in watching, and no regrets in blogging. Thanks, WWECW. You've made the wrestling world brighter in seven new and different ways.

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