With few exceptions, fans of ECW (that’s Extreme Championship Wrestling, for those of you who didn’t know and if you’re Canadian you probably don’t), chant the company’s three initials like a mantra. One would be hard pressed to find a wrestler’s name in the mix unless if was in conjunction with a “F–k him up! F–k him up!” chant or a “(insert name) is going to kill you” chorus. This has always been one of the endearing qualities of this up-start federation, which single-handily brought the hardcore style of wrestling to North America in the nineties. Whether it was Sabu leg dropping Terry Funk through a table while both were wrapped in barbwire or Tommy Dreamer splitting Raven’s head open with a VCR, the fans have always applauded the wrestlers by applauding the company and this is part of their current problem.

On a recent edition of Raw Is War Vince McMahon proclaimed that no one on his roster was bigger than the boss and subsequently the WWF. While this may have been just an angle (Austin is bigger than Christ is, right now), this statement is in fact the gospel when it comes to the ECW. As a matter of fact Raven in an interview conducted on this very site, stated that anyone in the ECW was expendable and that ECW would survive no matter who left. As long as ECW just kept being the sick hardcore league that almost everyone outside of Canada knows and loves. Of course that was before “HE” left.

“HE” is of course, The Sandman. The phenomenon of ECW, the beer drinking, cigarette smoking, hardcore icon who has had some of the most bloody, brutal matches anyone has ever seen. This latest defection along with that of Bam Bam Bigelow won’t be the first and it won’t be the last. However, the Sandman’s just might have been the most damaging. Throughout the five-year history of ECW, there have been few constants. Dreamer, Taz and the Sandman were the constant. While others came and went and eventually came back (Shane Douglas comes to mind), this Triple Threat carried ECW and all swore by the oath that they would never leave.

So why did the Sandman leave? Why did Raven? Why did Saturn? Why did The Public Enemy, Cactus Jack and a plethora of others? And what does any of this have to do with, hardcore killing ECW? Well, the common thread always seems to be more money and less abuse. In interviews with both Raven and Sandman, both said they were concerned about any sort of longevity in their careers if they were to stay with ECW. Raven did a three-year stint and the Sandman five. Both were barometers of hardcore at the time and their matches often degenerated into bloody contests of “Can you top this?”. Both initially turned down offers but eventually took them. Less abuse and more money equals another star leaving the ECW.

ECW is not like the Big Two, its fans have expectations that past wrestlers have created and current ones are trying to match. You can’t call yourselves “extreme” if you aren’t willing to prove it and even the most technical of matches in the ECW usually end-up being more violent than anything you’ll see on Monday night. But long time fans will and have noticed a sizable decline in the Extreme in ECW, there house shows feature less and less blood and their pay per views although excellent, are following that path as well. Now with the loss of the Sandman, it can only get worse.

SANDMAN Sandman at the NWA 50th Anniversary show with Tod Gordon (seated) and Pitbull #2 (left) and Pitbull #1 (right). — Greg Oliver, CANOE.Pauly and company aren’t stupid. They know their past is based on violence, violence and more violence. They know that their hardcore talent is being depleted and that fans who love ECW will catch on eventually. They’ve already taken steps to increase their roster. Just look at the summer acquisitions of Masato Tanaka and Mike Awesome (both of FMW fame) and the elevation of Justin Credible to main event status. Also, as long as Sabu, Tommy Dreamer, Rob Van Damn, Balls Mahoney, Axl Rotten and the Dudleys stay, they’ll have enough to satisfy the fans while they find new blood.

But the cycle will only perpetuate itself. How long till the hardcore style forces another star of ECW to seek greener pastures? How much longer can hardcore wrestlers like Tommy Dreamer or Sabu (of course Sabu is a nutter and will probably kill himself in the ring so that’s a poor example), stay with a league which could shorten their careers by years every match?

ECW has built a firm base on the “extreme” style of wrestling, but the question is how will they escape this vicious cycle? How long can they continue to deliver a product, which by its very nature lends itself to shortened careers? What happens if they lost all their hardcore wrestlers before establishing a new collective? It seems slightly ironic that in ECW’s most successful time, it also looks to be their most desperate. How will they break this cycle? Only time will tell.