By BOB KAPUR — For SLAM! Wrestling

Now I’ll be the first to admit that ECW has had its problems recently. Injuries have plagued the locker room, other promotions have raided the talent pool, conflicts with their national TV network carrier have diverted Paul Heyman’s attention, and therefore the visionary direction of the booking. However, despite these problems, and contrary to what Eric Benner said in his column last week [ECW is hardly the big leagues], ECW remains a viable promotion, and a legitimate contender in the wrestling industry.

Eric brings up five reasons why he feels ECW is not a big league player, all of which I would like to address.

1) A Horrible Champion

Eric feels that Justin Credible is not a worthy champion, and that Rob Van Dam should be the man with the gold. While it may be true that Van Dam is a better wrestler, I don’t think that as a champion he would be nearly as interesting as Credible is. As Eric pointed out, Shane Douglas’ excellent title reign “was filled with matches in which (Eric) thought he would lose, and wanted him to lose (causing Eric) to tune in the following week or pay-per-view to see him defend it again.”

When RVD was the TV champion, his title defenses meant very little. Nobody was a legitimate contender, because nobody could conceivably beat him. It was predictable that RVD would walk out with the title after every match, week after week, month after month. Sure, there were a couple of matches against Jerry Lynn where there was some doubt, but they were sporadic over his nearly two-year reign. For the most part, at the end of the day, his title defenses were merely a vehicle to see him showcase his talents at the expense of the opponent’s credibility.

With Credible, however, you get back some of the doubt, and therefore the drama. Who could say with certainty that he would walk out of Heatwave with the belt? Who knows if he will be able to beat any future contenders? Tajiri, for example, or even lower-ranked guys like New Jack or Mikey Whipwreck. Any one of them seem like legitimate threats to Credible’s championship.

Does this opening of contendership lead to a devaluation of the belt? Maybe a little. But at least the championship race is now interesting, as opposed to another RVD stranglehold on the belt with no opposition on the horizon. And as the focal point of the federation, that should be compelling enough to keep viewers interested.

2) Awful Production Values

I can’t argue too much with Eric’s views in this regard. It’s true that the TNN show is frequently lacking in the areas of production values, editing, and overall pacing of the show. While this may be a legitimate complaint, there may also be a logical reason for this.

As TNN has already made the decision to cancel the show, it doesn’t serve ECW any benefit to sink any money in it for the time being. Cutting down on special lighting for TV tapings, for example, helps reduce the expense of putting on the show. Why pay money to bring ratings to an already-cancelled show on a network who did nothing to promote it? True, ECW may be shooting itself in the foot, as it won’t likely generate new viewership. But that’s just temporary until a new TV deal can be found. And as for long-term die-hards, they’ll probably still watch the show despite its inadequacies.

However, Eric is correct in saying that this will have to be improved should the show be picked up by another network in the future.

3) Roster Problems

Yes, ECW’s locker room has had some major upheavals recently, with more to come (eg: Raven’s impending departure). However, ECW’s strength has always been in developing new stars and keeping youthful talent on their roster.

ECW’s current midcard may very well contain the future of wrestling already. Kid Kash, for example, has the potential to be the next Shawn Michaels. Similarly, the tag teams of Nova & Chetti and Doring & Roadkill are capable of putting on excellent matches, as has been demonstrated in the past, including the most recent PPV.

While it’s true that the bottomless pockets of the WWF and WCW have stolen some of the talent away (literally, as in the case of Mike Awesome), this doesn’t mean that ECW is necessarily doomed. With a solid core of familiar faces (Tommy Dreamer, the Sandman, Van Dam), combined with the up-and-coming younger talent, the company has the potential to rebuild itself to higher levels than ever in the future.

4) No More Fresh Ideas

Eric complained that there has been a lack of plotlines recently, and that angles and storylines have not been interesting nor compelling.

For the past few months, the major angle in ECW has been its war against the oppressive TNN network. However, there have also been other angles thrown into the mix to keep things moving, such as the New Jack-Baldies “King of the Streets” feud, the Sinister Minister’s brainwashing of Mikey Whipwreck, and the tag team championship vacancy. Prior to those, we saw the Spike Dudley “giant-killer” storyline, the Raven-Tommy Dreamer saga, and the Corino-Rhodes “old-school” battle. Naturally, there have been hits and misses, as not all storylines and angles can be winners. But for the most part, every wrestler has had some direction and involvement in some aspect or another.

Eric further points out that the WWF and WCW have taken over ECW’s booking style and improved upon it, thereby making ECW’s appeal obsolete. He notes that the ECW of three or four years ago is not the same product as is being presented today.

Well, that can be said about all of wrestling. Three or four years ago, Steve “Mongo” McMichael was a main-eventer, and nobody had ever heard of the Smackdown Hotel. In the ever-evolving world of pro wrestling, every company is bound to hit a few weak months. Look at WCW pre-“New Blood” for example. Even the WWF has been changing the pace of its programming recently, slightly increasing the focus on in-ring action vs. the plot and character development.

ECW’s slump, if you even want to call it that, is temporary at worst. Given Paul Heyman’s proven writing creativity and talented booking, it will only be a time before they catch up yet again. As fans’ tastes change, so will the direction of their product — it’s happened before, it will again.

5) The Death of Hardcore

Eric’s final criticism of ECW is that its gratuitous use of “hardcore” wrestling has interfered with the actual wrestling in the matches.

Since its inception, ECW has advertised itself as the extreme alternative to the WWF and WCW. They carved their own niche as a choice for those who want something with a little edge — a “Hardcore Revolution” with a “Blood & Guts” attitude. So like it or not, don’t expect them to change that style — it’s up to the individual viewer to determine if they want to watch it or not.

Personally, I like the combination of excellent wrestling and the violent table or chair spot that ECW provides. To me, a well-executed crutch-to-the-groin is just as entertaining as the W-O-R-M, the Van Daminator as graceful as a Swanton Bomb. That’s just a matter of personal taste, of course. But for ECW fans, gratuitous violence is not a turnoff or a reason to change the channel; in fact, it’s likely just the opposite.

While I agree that ECW has some room for major strides, I think it’s a little unfair to dismiss the promotion as second-rate. It has clearly demonstrated that it has surpassed the field of smaller independent promotions, and is worthy of consideration as a major league player. And, who knows, in time could even be one of the Big Two.