In Defense Of… Mike Awesome Leaving ECW
A version of this article originally appeared on 411mania.com and was updated for the book IN DEFENSE OF… EXONERATING PROFESSIONAL WRESTLING’S MOST HATED. Learn more at https://www.jpprag.com
Certain people, events, organizations, and storylines in wrestling history have gotten a bum rap. Some writers have presented overtly critical comments and outright lies as fact, and others have followed suit. Well no more! “In Defense of…” has one reason: to bring the truth to the wrestling fan!
Some dame walked into my office and said…
First up is the man of 1004 Column Ideas, Rick Cobos, who said:
Mike Awesome practically stabbing ECW in the back in 2000.
But before that was the man who hates my column more than anyone MATTHEW Roberts:
Mike Awesome… he sucks for screwing over ECW while holding their strap.
I’m not sure if he feels that way or it is a suggestion. Either way, I’ll take the case!
Mike Awesome is considered one of the better “big man” performers of our time. Unlike the Undertaker, Kevin Nash, Lex Luger, and Sid Vicious, Awesome hardly needs a defense of his wrestling style. He worked incredible hard to win over the FMW crowd in Japan, a fanbase known for being even more rabid than ECW in its lust for violence and action.
No, Awesome does not need a defense there. It’s what he became most remembered for; not for his hardcore style, and not even for his endless string of bad gimmicks in WCW (fat chick thriller, anyone?). There is one defining moment in history for Mike Awesome: when he jumped to WCW while still ECW champion. And for that, he has been cast into IWC hell forever.
What’s the story here?
It was April 10, 2000 and the event was WCW Monday Nitro. After a week off, Nitro was returning under the new direction that would be termed the Russo-Bischoff era. This was to be a new direction in WCW, with the New Blood taking on the old Millionaires Club, and all the belts were confiscated for good measure. Exciting and crazy to say the least, but would it pay off? Well, hindsight is 20/20, and we know that in the end Bischoff and Russo could not get along since neither of them was really in charge and the direction kept getting changed every week when ratings did not react quickly enough.
But on that night, Mike Awesome made his WCW debut by attacking Kevin Nash (on crutches) from behind, declaring his loyalty to Bischoff and Russo, and flipping off the camera. The one problem? Awesome was ECW Champion (as the announcers mentioned). That was a bit of a mess. How could the ECW Champion appear on WCW TV? What was ECW going to do? How much did this destroy their credibility? Why would Awesome do this?
To those watching at home it was either (a) a shock because they did not expect the ECW champion to show up on Nitro, (b) a bewildering moment because they had no idea what ECW or who Mike Awesome was, or © expected because this was known about for days.
Awesome had no-showed the April 8, 2000 ECW on TNN television tapings in Buffalo, NY and had sent word to Paul Hayman that he was going to WCW. This was after a long string of negotiations that we will get to below. Heyman reacted swiftly to keep up morale and to keep the show going. Mike Awesome, though, was already gone. What was going to happen?
Who really trashed the title?
The rumors started flying right away. People said that Bischoff was planning to throw the ECW Heavyweight Championship in the trash, a la Madusa and the WWF Women’s Championship years earlier. Actually, SLAM! Wrestling’s John Powell on April 9, 2000 said it exactly like this:
Sources say that WCW booker Vince Russo and WCW Vice-President Eric Bischoff want Awesome to throw the ECW World Title belt in the trash as part of their mega-hyped revamping of Monday Nitro which could also spotlight the WCW debuts of Tammy Lynn Sytch (formerly Sunny in the WWF) and Sabu, a tournament to decide a new WCW World Champion and the destruction of the old Nitro set.
Wow, that’s a lot of rumors for one sentence, none of which came true (at least that night). Still, there is no actual proof to substantiate the rumor other than “sources”. And who do you think those “sources” may be? Perhaps they were started by Paul Heyman and passed on by his cronies to try to discredit WCW and Awesome?
Actually, no. Troy Robinson had this to say:
I attended the WCW show in Denver the night that Mike Awesome debuted. Anyone that knows anything about ECW knows the background of Awesome jumping ship while holding the ECW belt. After the show I ran into a large group of the wrestlers at the hotel bar, and began talking to Awesome. He had a few beers in him when I spoke to him, but he said something interesting…
He said that during that day’s legal negotiations, the talks were breaking down for Awesome to debut that night on Nitro. Awesome told me that at one point when Paul and the lawyers were trying to stop him from appearing on TV he got mad and told Paul that the only way to get the belt back would be to fish it out of the river. Apparently Awesome had planned to bring his own TV crew (not WCW or ECW) and throw the belt off of some bridge in Philly, and that Paul had begged him not to do it. Awesome had stated that he had the belt up in his room, and it was 50–50 even minutes after the show hit the air whether he would cave in and appear with the belt. He said Bischoff was pushing for another belt in the trash can angle that night on TV that would involve Madusa.
Did Awesome consider throwing the belt in the trash or the river? You sure bet he did. It would be shocking. But did he actually do it? NO! Honestly, what could stop him? If he did drop the belt and ECW sued him and/or WCW, what could possible happen? WCW had the power of TimeWarner behind it and dozens of lawyers. ECW had a couple of Jersey lawyers working part time. Any court case would take years and years, and it was obvious at that point that Awesome did not believe ECW had a future. And it’s not like Heyman had not pulled a similar stunt himself. John Powell of SLAM! Wrestling had this to say:
On August 27th, 1994, Shane Douglas beat 2 Cold Scorpio in the finals of a tournament to determine the undisputed NWA World Heavyweight Champion. In a move that shocked the wrestling community, Douglas vacated the title declaring himself ECW’s first World Heavyweight Champion. Renaming itself Extreme Championship Wrestling, ECW followed WCW’s lead and opted out of the NWA alliance to strike out on its own.
The rest is history.
Six years later, it may be payback time for Paul Heyman and the boys. What goes around, comes around. Universal karma, if you will. ECW embarrassed the NWA and now it looks like their competitor for the Number Two spot is about to shame them on national television. If Mike Awesome does appear on Monday Night Nitro tonight, whether he symbolically dumps the ECW World Heavyweight Title belt in the trash is insignificant. The damage is done. The fact that WCW has snatched away ECW’s World Champion right from under their noses is a powerful statement in itself.
You see, Heyman was being a hypocrite about the situation. He had done the exact same thing before, and would have done it again given the opportunity. It’s only bad when it happens to him, not anyone else. When he does it, it’s controversy that is good for business. When someone else does it, it is a cowardly attack.
Even still, Paul Heyman felt he had recourse against both Awesome and WCW, and it was in the form of a contract.
What about the contract?
If you watched The Rise and Fall of ECW, you would have heard Tommy Dreamer say that Mike Awesome was under contract to ECW. No offense to Tommy Dreamer, but he did not run ECW’s business end and was not privy to the negotiated agreements people signed. And when it comes to Paul Heyman, well, he had let others slip through the cracks. The Dudley Boyz said they only wanted one more dollar to stay with ECW but Paul would have none of it. Why wouldn’t he work out that contract? What was Paul Heyman thinking?
And how often did we hear about one person or another jumping to WCW or the WWF from ECW at any time. Whether it was Dean Malenko, Chris Jericho, Steve Austin, or the Sandman, these guys left when they wanted to leave. It does not seem like there were many iron clad contracts to me.
There were reports that Mike Awesome was being held up due to legal documents and that WCW bought out his contract in the end. Not true at all. From TheSmartMarks.com recap of Mike Awesome’s 2003 Shoot Interview:
Jumping to WCW with the title- He was not under contract with ECW. He was driving to the show one night and realized he wasn’t getting paid, so he was wondering how much trouble the company was in and questioning why he’d left Japan. He wasn’t even going to be able to pay his mortgage since Paul wasn’t paying him. He ended up talking to Horace Hogan [JP the EDITOR’S NOTE: Horace and Awesome are cousins. Horace is a blood relation to Hulk while Awesome is not], who put Hulk Hogan on the phone. Hulk then told him to take his ass home if he wasn’t getting paid, so he went home and started to talk to Eric Bischoff and Vince Russo. They signed him, he showed up on WCW TV while still ECW champion, and then the lawsuits started flying. If he had signed the contract Paul wanted him to, he could never have done it.
Did you read that? Mike Awesome was not under contract. Paul gave him the contract and probably had a verbal commitment from Awesome, but Awesome was hesitant and did not sign. Why was he hesitant? Because he was not getting paid! And even if there was a contract, it was in complete violation on Paul Heyman’s part. If Paul Heyman was not paying his champion the money he was owed for the dates he worked, then the contract was null and void. If this ever went to court, Awesome would win because he fulfilled his part of the contract (wrestling) while Heyman did not fulfill his part (paying).
But like I said, that’s only an “if” since there was no contract to speak of. The legal holdups had more to do with ECW property (the title), signed dates, and trademarks, not individual contracts. Besides, there was only one thing on Mike Awesome’s mind. From the same interview as above:
What was the solution to the problem? He just wanted to give the belt back to them because making money to support his family meant more than the belt. He felt he’d made a bad career move by leaving Japan. He thinks that people saying he “sold out” don’t realize that he couldn’t afford to support his family while working in ECW. All of Paul’s promises went unfulfilled as well.
Mike Awesome had a family to support. He needed to feed his family and live his life. Paul Heyman and ECW were making that impossible for him. As you’ll see below, those sums were ridiculous and getting worse. So, it had nothing to do with him being champion, but everything to with his loved ones. And since he wanted to give the belt back, there was only one thing to do: the right thing.
Doing the right thing
Like I said before, Awesome could have dropped the title in the trash and called it a day. The repercussions would have been so far off that they might as well have been non-existent. But he didn’t do that. Not only did he not do that, but he went back to ECW and lost the title to a WWF wrestler in Tazz. That’s right, in one of the most surreal moments in wrestling history, a WWF wrestler defeated a WCW wrestler for the ECW Championship.
Still, people lambasted Awesome for this. They said he just came in and escaped through the crowd, that he hid like a coward, that he would not face the locker room because he was so ashamed or afraid. Again, this was all conjecture, and here is what Awesome had to say (from the same TheSmartMarks.com recap of Mike Awesome’s 2003 Shoot Interview):
Coming back to lose the belt to Tazz- The stories about him sitting out in front of the ECW locker room are true… “I wasn’t ALLOWED in the locker room.” He also had a piece of paper faxed to him from Paul’s attorney spelling out where he was to stay, what would go on in the match, where he was supposed to be until they called for him, etc. They spelled out everything legally so that all would go right. Since Paul built the whole thing up on TV for a week, it was a packed house that night and they all chanted “You sold out!” at him. He loved every minute of it when they were chanting that because he knew what was really going on. The only thing that disappointed him was that he wasn’t allowed to go out there with Rhyno and put together a match that would put him over the top. He didn’t trust Tazz in the match and had his hand up while Tazz had the Tazzmission on him in order to keep him from hurting him. He says Rhyno was about the only guy he trusted enough to work comfortably against at that time.
You see there. All of that, the security, the entrance, the exit, the match, the not going into the locker room — that was all Paul Heyman and ECW. And Awesome also noted that he wanted to put over a current ECW talent, and it was a deal between Paul Heyman and Vince McMahon that brought Tazz in. What ECW got for that, we’ll never know (although it was discovered later that Paul Heyman was being paid as a consultant to the WWF while his own organization was falling apart). All we do know is that Tazz and Tommy Dreamer then proceeded to get embarrassed on SmackDown! when Triple H took them both out. And that was the moment that truly devalued the title, not Mike Awesome’s jump.
But the boys still hate him
Yet, because Mike Awesome did not go to the locker room, and because Paul Heyman rallied the troops in Buffalo, people assume that the Mike Awesome was on everyone bad list for his actions. This, though, is completely untrue.
First up is Kid Kash from Mike Johnson’s review of Kid Kash’s Shoot Interview with BBrownVideo:
[Kid] Kash defends Mike Awesome for jumping to WCW while he was ECW champion, saying that it’s a business and the bottom line is making the money. He brings up his injuries, saying that he has to stretch and take a hot shower at the start of every day before he can even walk out to get his mail. Kash discusses breaking his tibia, a broken jaw, breaking his hand 15 times, a broken orbital socket, and breaking both ankles. Kash noted that he has a tube in his nose permanently since he has broken his sinus so many times, which makes it always look like he has a cold since he’s always sniffing. Kash says that he doesn’t understand why everyone realizes that this is a business, but the second one of the boys treat it like a business, the others get up in arms, and puts over Awesome for helping to make Kash a star in ECW.
What Kash was saying was that he, Awesome, and everyone else were breaking their bodies and minds for ECW and were getting nothing for it. At the end of the day, it’s still a business, and a man needs to get paid. Even the man Mike Awesome was afraid of did not really hold it against him. Tazz said:
“I have no problem with Mike Awesome. I had a problem with the way he did business. And Mike knew I felt that way, a lot of guys felt that way about Mike. I think if Mike had to do it all over again, he’d do it different. People make mistakes in life, make wrong moves, and it’s fine. But I personally never had heat with Mike. If the fans want to think that, that’s fine, that’s good for business. But there was never heat.”
Tazz probably wishes that Mike Awesome could have left like him, with three-months’ notice. But that was not to be. Unlike Tazz — who was getting paid — Mike Awesome was in a bad situation that was getting worse. Awesome also wanted to make an immediate impact on Nitro to secure his spot in the bold new direction the company was taking. If he did not act then, he might miss that brief window. Though it did not turn out as planned, he still needed to take that risk.
And Mike Awesome met others in his situation when he got to WCW. From TheSmartMarks.com recap of Mike Awesome’s 2003 Shoot Interview:
Meeting up with people in WCW who used to work for ECW- They sympathized with him all right. “Almost everyone who worked for ECW ended up burned from what I hear.”
And that is what happened. Awesome was burned, but was not about to get it as bad as some (RVD for instance, who was owed so much money that there was no way he was ever going to get it). They understood that Awesome had to make the move for his and his family’s own good. Yet there is one man who especially cannot see that.
What about Paul E.?
The night that Mike Awesome no-showed the television tapings in Buffalo, NY, Paul Heyman gathered the troops in back. He told them to all sign exclusive contracts or they would not be on TV.
This tells me one thing: a lot of people were not under contract. Going back to our earlier discussion, it would seem that Heyman had a tendency to let people work without real contracts. Not only that, you have to remember the timing of all this. TNN was about to sign a deal with the WWF that would kick ECW off of national TV and leave them without a home. Paul knew he had to sew up all his talent or they, too, would start jumping ship.
Tommy Dreamer and this to say following his championship win:
“Paul [Heyman] put the belt on me because he knew I wasn’t going anywhere. The only reason I won the title is because guys left.”
Of course, it would have helped if he were paying the existing talent; they may have wanted to stick around longer. It seems as if Paul were paying some people regularly and never missed a check (see: The Rise and Fall of ECW). Others, though, were not as lucky. Spike Dudley had this to say:
“And we had a choice. Look for work elsewhere or try and stick with this guy who’s been bouncing checks to us for two years.”
Tommy Dreamer adds:
“It was a horrible time. We were… sometimes we weren’t making payroll. Guys checks were bouncing. And, you know, that gets out there, too. And a company looks like it’s starting to sink… I don’t think a lot of TV companies are gonna pick us up. And they didn’t.”
Want to go a step further? During ECW’s bankruptcy hearing, several names came out with how much they were owed. This is a partial list:
With money like that owed to them, can you believe any of those guys stuck around at all?
So anytime Paul Heyman tries to feed you a BS line about anyone leaving or betraying him or ECW, remember this: Paul Heyman betrayed them first by withholding large amounts of money that these people needed to feed their families. That, folks, is a true betrayal.
For Mike Awesome, that choice was still a hard one, but a necessary one. He was not being paid even though he was the champion. He was owed money from years ago that he still had not seen. Paul Heyman continually lied and manipulated him, and ECW was quickly sinking. Awesome knew the choices and risks he had, and he only saw one way out: go to WCW.
Mike Awesome has been called a betrayer and sell-out. Some claim he did business the wrong way and wanted to hurt ECW in many ways. This is not the true story of what happened to Mike Awesome. Here was a man who literally broke his body for Paul Heyman and ECW yet was continually being stiffed. He was carrying the company’s championship on his shoulder yet was not even being paid the money for gas to drive to the arena. It was never about the championship when he left; it was about the once in a lifetime opportunity to be a part of WCW’s reboot. It was about making a solid paycheck to support his family. It was about being given the proper compensation for his work and not being fed more lies to feed his empty stomach for another month.
The defense rests.
After the Trial
IN THE CASE OF THE IWC VERSUS MIKE AWESOME LEAVING ECW, MIKE AWESOME HAS BEEN ACCUSED OF BEING A SELLOUT TRAITOR WHO SET OUT TO DEVALUE ECW AND ITS CHAMPIONSHIP FOR HIS OWN SELFISH VENDETTA. MIKE AWESOME BETRAYED THE FANS, HIS CO-WORKERS, AND HIS EMPLOYER BY JUMPING TO WCW.
Maybe I should have called it THE WAY Mike Awesome left ECW. Either way, I still made my case. With 86.2% of the vote, Mike Awesome Leaving ECW was found:
First off, holy mackerel were there a lot of votes! Second off, holy mackerel, I can’t believe I won that case with that high a percentage. Some people question whether people reading my cases are just marks of the people and would vote “Not Guilty” no matter what. Well, I would say that at least half of the people writing in said they wanted desperately to vote guilty, and that I had really changed their mind. Most common response: I had never looked at it that way before. Well, that’s what I’m here for.
Despite the large win margin, there was some criticism to address:
Sure, Mike Awesome wasn’t under any contractual obligation to stay with ECW, sure he wasn’t getting paid for all the bumps and bruises he was taking, sure he was struggling to make ends meet, but so was everyone else in the roster yet they still stayed or at least did business properly before leaving. Mike Awesome was the champion and holding that position means that Paul trusted him to help carry the company in especially trying times in more ways than most of the roster. Sure, anyone such as Mickey Whipwreck or Don Callis could have no showed and leave for WCW or WWE in a heartbeat if they wanted to because they weren’t champions. If he wanted to jump ship and move to WCW then no problem, he could have told Heyman, lose the belt and show up on WCW without being a complete ass about it. The fact that he left with the belt was really unprofessional on his part….
There are things more important than fulfilling contracts such as maintaining a level of professionalism and ethics in your work and keeping the trust and respect of your peers. I’m sick of people using their family and hiding behind them as an excuse for unprofessional and unethical behavior. There’s always the right way, which may not be the easiest path but at least whoever chooses that path can look at their family without a hint of shame.
My issue with this response is the question of “When is enough, enough?” How long do you get to be screwed over before leaving would be considered “ethical”? Is there a point scale or a standard questionnaire that you can fill out to determine if you are making the most ethical decision? This is the point I tried to make in my response:
Well, I will have to disagree with you there. Spike Dudley on The Rise and Fall of ECW said that most of the guys who weren’t being paid continued on the road because they had nowhere else to go. A lot of them wanted to jump but the opportunity was not there. Mike Awesome was made the offer, and had to strike while the iron was hot, otherwise he might be trapped on the road destroying his body for no money (see: New Jack). The most unprofessional thing was that he was not being paid and they actually expected him to show up for work. If you had not been paid in a month, would you go to work, even if you were the safety engineer of a nuclear reactor? As important as he was to the company, they did not treat him in a professional manner and therefore did not deserve to be treated professionally back. Mike had done “the right thing” and played by their rules for a long time before he jumped. Who knows, maybe he told Paul E that he was thinking of leaving and Paul stopped paying him at all. Maybe it was just a game of chicken that Heyman lost.
Still, others tried to poke similar and different holes:
If he was not getting paid, then give them the belt and leave. There was no reason for him to try to escalate the situation.
Your article did not address whether ECW had to get an injunction from a judge to protect their belt, as Joey Styles claimed on ONS.
Also other articles claim WCW had to have their head of security accompany him to Indy.
Thomas F. Glassman
For this I noted:
As far as dropping the belt, it was a timing issue more than anything else. The ECW show that was being taped in Buffalo would not play until after Nitro. He HAD to jump to WCW that week to kick off the “revolution”, and WCW did not want one of their wrestlers losing to somebody later in the week on ECW TV. It’s what happened anyway, but it would have been a deal breaker the week before. WCW did send security with him, but so what? It just added to the hype and Heyman loved it. They got an injunction that the belt was ECW property and that it could not be shown on WCW TV, which it never was. But the injunction had nothing to do with Awesome being champion or having to drop the belt. That was deal worked out between WCW and Heyman.
In an aside, in a response to a question about Joey Styles saying Mike Awesome was a “sellout” on One Night Stand, I sent this response:
I’m still not sure if Styles was schilling to the fans, he actually believes that, was brainwashed by Heyman, or just saying what Heyman wanted him to say. From what I understand they did not end on the best terms, but if the past few months have taught me anything is that Styles has no problem being a complete hypocrite. Listen, I have no problem with a guy selling out, just admit that you are selling out! The guy is re-writing his own origin! “I’ve always wanted to be a WWE announcer!” Since when?!
While these particular criticisms were fairly easy to counter, this one has some legitimacy:
The fact that Mike Awesome said something in a shoot interview does not make it gospel. It makes it [testimony] at best, and even that’s a stretch. History has repeatedly shown that when a public figure is under heavy scrutiny, they may wish to bend the truth a bit toward restoring their dwindling reputation. Does the phrase “I did not have sexual relations with that woman” ring a bell?
While reading this column I noticed some internet rumors being presented as just that — rumors. Other rumors, however, were presented as [incontrovertible] fact. Inferences were made, which were then presented as fact. Speculation seems to be the theme here, rather than the dispassionate presentation of cold facts. Which, granted, does make for a very entertaining read. Just not a very convincing case.
I was forced to concede here:
I will admit that this case was lighter on evidence than normal, but that is because much of it is just not available. Instead, I used the opportunity to present a different perspective of Mike Awesome’s jump then is normally given and at the very least get people to think outside themselves.
However, the justification for these tactics being reasonable is because of responses like this:
I never saw it that way. I really hated [M]ike [A]wesome. I was at [O]ne [N]ight [S]tand, I sat in the fourth row. When [M]ike [A]wesome came out to wrestle [T]anaka, I continuously shouted “FUCK YOU AWESOME” and I sat down and watched the floor throughout the match in protest. I’ve been told that I missed a hell of a match but from what I knew before, I thought it was a disgrace to have him there. Now, that I know this, I think it’s a disgrace to not pay wrestlers. Like that wrestler [T]ony… said in [B]eyond the [M]at “[T]here’s no reason why you should never pay a wrestler.” [S]o thanks for the new insight, I forgive him.
There was no greater compliment than to know how I was able to break Paul Heyman’s brainwashing and open someone up to a new and different perspective.