By Mike Mooneyham

June 11, 2006

The new era of Extreme Championship Wrestling begins in earnest with tonight’s ECW One Night Stand pay-per-view.

One major questions looms.

Is this Paul Heyman’s ECW, or is it Vince McMahon’s ECW?

Although Heyman was the mastermind and creative genius behind the original ECW’s success (and its ultimate financial failure), McMahon now controls the purse strings and is the final word for all things WWE. And that includes ECW.

In other words, as the WWE chairman recently stated, “At the end of the day, Mr. McMahon is in charge.” McMahon already has publicly stated that he has a new vision for ECW and, while some of ECW’s old hardcore favorites will play a part in at least the initial stage of the promotion, newer, WWE-influenced wrestlers will be brought in to implement that vision.

That’s not to say Heyman won’t wield considerable influence as he charts ECW’s future course.

Paul Heyman

Paul Heyman

“The only person who has power is Vince McMahon. He is single-handedly the majority stockholder and can do any damn thing he wants,” says Heyman. “How much influence will I have? As long as corporately they’re open to making this an alternative product with a different vision, a different look and a different theme, I think I’ll have significant influence.”

Heyman was heartened by Wednesday night’s live “WWE-ECW Head-to-Head” special on the USA Network. The show featured a number of WWE performers doing battle with their ECW counterparts, and even included verbal sparring between announcers from both sides.

“I have no complaints at the moment because they’ve already done things that are so against the grain for that company,” says Heyman. “But it’s been the right thing to do. To put John Cena in the ring against Sabu would have been unheard of six months ago. And they aired that type of match on live television. Even now some people in the company were screaming that you can’t do this, yet we were given the opportunity to do it. But I think that’s going to be the theme here. We’re going to have to earn our way at every step.”

There’s no one more optimistic about the relaunch of WWE’s newest brand than Paul Heyman. He’s been in the underdog role before, and this time is no different.

“Our backs are against the wall. This is an uphill battle. This is an overwhelming undertaking. The odds are clearly against us. And that’s when you’re the most motivated. I haven’t felt this exhilarated in this business in a long, long time, and I want to prove all the cynics wrong. More than that, I want to prove all of the supporters right. And I intend on doing so.”

Heyman quickly dispels the notion that the new ECW will become a watered-down, “ECW Lite” version of its blood-and-guts predecessor. He, more than anyone, knows that ECW’s old guard is closely watching and would come out in full force against a more sanitized version of ECW.

Heyman, the self-proclaimed “Guru of Extreme,” vows it will be the old ECW in spirit. He realizes that a “new concept” ECW that only served as an extension of Raw and Smackdown would be doomed for failure, and that the fans are too smart to be fooled by smoke and mirrors.

“The mindset of the old ECW always was to think progressively, to not live off the past but to thrive into the future, and that’s what this will be. This will not be a nostalgia show. We’re not going to pretend it’s 1999. We’re not going to try to turn back the clock because you can’t do that. We’re going to try to be the most progressively and forwardly thinking, cutting-edge company with the most compelling, riveting characters and the most up-to-date and trendsetting storylines.”

Heyman agrees with McMahon’s assessment that this ECW can never be the old ECW.

“It can’t be the same. That’s pretty much impossible,” McMahon recently said. “It’s now five years later. A lot of the performers now have five more years under their belt, and the ECW style has taken a great deal out of them. This is something that the ECW audience already realizes. They know that if ECW was still in business today, they would be very different from what they were five years ago.”

Heyman also doesn’t believe ECW will suffer the same fate as WWE’s version of WCW several years ago and end up as the company’s redheaded stepchild.

“I don’t think that will happen for many reasons. As long as you put on a compelling product, you can’t be denied. I’ll say something very politically incorrect here. When I was named the lead writer of Smackdown, we weren’t supposed to be better than Raw, and we became better than Raw. In terms of ratings growth and interest, we were whipping Raw’s (behind). It couldn’t be denied. This is the same thing. Even if the design were – and it’s not – that this was going to be the redheaded stepchild, the redheaded stepchild is going to be the prom king.”

Heyman points out that the brand has the full and unbridled support of the one individual that counts – Vince McMahon.

“Everything is discussed with Vince, and so far he’s been very supportive of this. And he needs to be. This is what the public wants. He knows that if we put out a bad product, it’s going to fail and the public will rebel against it very quickly. If you give them a mediocre ECW, the public will throw this thing right in the river. This is a much different vision than the WWE way of doing things. I still want to see ECW sell out Yankee Stadium, but it’s not in the same type of presentation that Raw and Smackdown are giving.”

He also doesn’t see Stephanie McMahon, who removed him from the Smackdown writing team in 2003, as a potential stumbling block in the development of the company.

“Stephanie is the point person in charge of all writing for corporate WWE, so of course she’s going to be involved in some capacity. But I cannot sit here and say that Stephanie and I have butted heads on this go-round. Stephanie has an obligation to Vince, and her obligation is to answer his charge. His charge right now, and this is very serious and he means it, is that ECW cannot fail. And it won’t. They’re going to make sure they offer all the support they can. There are people in the company who don’t want this, yet they’re going to stick their chin up in the air and they’re going to do what’s best for business because that’s what Vince wants, and if you don’t do what Vince wants, you’re gone.”

Despite hitting 40 and having two small children, a 3-year-old daughter and a 2-year-old son, Heyman claims he still has the passion that marked his tenure at ECW.

“I like working with talented people. And I really enjoy getting something out of them that they can’t get out themselves. That’s really a producer’s and a director’s job – to see something in these people that they need you to help extrapolate. That’s really such a high for me. It’s such a great experience to work with a guy like Steve Austin back in the day or one of the young guys coming up from developmental now and tell them to just feel it in their soul and teach them how to tap into that part of their personality. And then when you watch it coming to fruition, it’s your imagination coming to life. What a wonderful way to make a living.”

ECW represented a revolution, a new approach to wrestling, that took the business by storm in the ’90s. It’s been a long time since WWE had a revolution of its own. The closest it came was during its “Attitude” era in the late ’90s, but even that was based in large part on copying ECW.

Heyman hopes the new ECW will do justice to the memory of that ECW revolution. The new ECW, says Heyman, will have something for everyone.

“It’s everything. It’s going to be the MMA (mixed martial arts)-influenced Kurt Angle, it’s going to be the largest athlete on the planet (Big Show) and marketing him as such, it’s going to be originals like The Sandman, it’s going to be high-flyers like Rob Van Dam, it’s going to be guys out of the developmental system with a whole new take and youth with contemporary culture involved. It’s going to be just like it was before – a mix of a whole lot of different people and styles – something for everyone.”

The one “old” ECW personality Heyman says he would like to bring back is Jenna Jameson. The porn actress made an appearance on a 1997 ECW pay-per-view as the valet for the Dudley Boyz, followed by a few months where she was an ECW interviewer.

“I really need an executive assistant, and I think she fits the bill. I’d love to have her on our TV show,” says Heyman. “If Vince McMahon can make out on the couch with Candice Michelle, just think what I could do with Jenna Jameson in ECW.”

Heyman is realistic enough to know that the ECW project could blow up in his face. His eternal optimism and dogged determination to make it succeed, however, tells him otherwise. “I don’t spend my life afraid. The things that you fear are the worst-case scenarios, and you have to fight against those worst-case scenarios. You have to understand that your back’s up against the wall and that your chances of failure are great. And you have to risk failure in order to achieve success. I’m not afraid of failing. If you fear failing, you’ll never take the chances that make you really successful.”

The new weekly ECW TV show will debut at 10 p.m. Tuesday on the Sci-Fi Channel. Heyman likes the unusual pairing of ECW and Sci-Fi.

“Number one, it’s unusual programming, and number two, I used to be on sports networks at 3 a.m. and drawing a rating. Just think what we could do with a prime-time cable network.”

“The short-term plan for this is to put up or shut up,” he adds. “NBC Universal just doesn’t have the shelf space for a new product yet alone an original show with live programming. We said give us a shot and a trial run and watch us over-perform. And we’re going to exceed expectations. I dare say we’re not only going to get a renewal, but we’re going to get a long-term deal because we’re not just looking to live up to expectations. We’re looking to crash through those expectations. That’s always been our motto. We’re going to set a table on fire, throw a bunch of barbed wire and thumb tacks on there, and power-bomb expectations right through it.”

– WWE last week fired Road Warrior Animal (Joe Laurinaitis). Guess that’s one even Johnny Ace (WWE talent relations chief John Laurinaitis) couldn’t save.

The move should be considered more of a mercy release, since Animal’s better days as half of one of wrestling’s greatest teams with the late Mike Hegstrand (Road Warrior Hawk) are now only a distant memory. His role with the company had been minimal since the release of partner John Heidenreich several months ago.

The character resurfaced in WWE last year, shortly after the release of the DVD, “Road Warriors: The Life & Death of Wrestling’s Most Dominant Tag Team.”

– George’s Sports Bar, 1300 Savannah Highway, will air the ECW One Night Stand pay-per-view at 8 p.m. tonight. Cover charge is $7.