The original house of hardcore, Extreme Championship Wrestling, existed for a mere nine years, and yet it managed to completely revolutionize pro wrestling forever. Many fans don’t even count the company’s first two years, when it was known as Eastern Championship Wrestling, although the hardcore ethos was firmly in play from the second Tod Gordon decided to step into the promoting business. On the other hand, the WWE revival of ECW lacked many of the qualities that made the original great, largely due to Vince McMahon not getting the point, which almost always happens when he tries to recreate other people’s ideas.
Before the McMahon family was able to destroy extreme in more ways than one, 19 men reached the peak of the genre as ECW World Champion. Like with any promotion, some champions were more deserving than others, and many of factors go into why some wrestlers succeeded and others failed. The length of a title reign is relevant, albeit not necessarily in a direct manner. Raw skill, both in the ring and on the microphone, is also a huge part of the deal, but technical prowess alone can’t save bad booking, which more than one of these superstars suffered. To separate the hardcore wannabes from the true kings of extreme, keep reading to see the original 19 ECW World Champions ranked from worst to best.
19 Johnny Hotbody
One could be a diehard ECW fan who watched virtually every episode of Hardcore TV the company ever produced, and they still might need a minute to remember who the heck Johnny Hotbody was. Back when the company retained its original Eastern name, Hotbody was actually one of its biggest stars, winning the company’s biggest prize the day after defeating Jimmy Snuka the day after Superfly became the inaugural champ. He held the title for 78 days before losing it back to Snuka, later going on to continuing defining Easter Championship Wrestling as the first TV Champion and Triple Crown Champion when he won the Tag Team belts with Chris Candido. Big a deal as he was, Hotbody disappeared before Paul Heyman took over and the company went extreme, basically getting him erased from history. He briefly showed up again as a member of Raven’s Nest, essentially a comedy character based on his lack of success since losing his belts.
18 Tito Santana
As if Johnny Hotbody wasn’t indication enough, the early days of Eastern Championship Wrestling were pretty dire, and an over-the-hill Tito Santana suddenly appearing and becoming World Champion didn’t help things. Santana won the belt from Don Muraco in his first match with the promotion, only a few months after making his final appearing in the WWE Universe…as El Matador. To say he wasn’t main event championship material at the time was an understatement, especially in the already progressive and hardcore ECW. Santana didn’t exactly earn his spot with time, either, only appearing in a handful of untelevised matches before disappearing from the company and relinquishing the belt to Shane Douglas. Santana was a great wrestler in his day, but by this point he was a relic of his former self, without anything left to endear himself with the ECW faithful.
17 Justin Credible
With over five consecutive months as ECW Champion, ruling the land of hardcore throughout the summer of 2000, one might expect Justin Credible to rank significantly higher on this list. The catch is, throughout those five months, more so than any other individual wrestler, Credible is responsible for driving ECW into the ground. WCW and WWE had stolen virtually every true star Paul Heyman had left, forcing him to rely on a mediocre worker best confined to the tag division as his primary main event villain. The real biggest star in ECW at the time was Rob Van Dam, who himself was distracted feuding with newbie Scotty Anton, leaving Credible with opponents even weaker than he was. Fans could never latch on to him as a result, and by the time he finally lost the title, too many had given up on the company for newer, better champs to make any difference.
Alternatively titled “The Rookie Monster” and “The Man Beast,” part of Rhino’s very gimmick was that he was a destructive and unbeatable monster powerful beyond his age. Basically ECW’s answer to Goldberg, Rhino plowed through competition without hesitation, with only a small number of fluke losses to his name. He won the ECW Championship from The Sandman at the company’s final Pay-Per-View, Guilty As Charged, technically reigning for several months until Paul Heyman ran out of money and closed ECW for good. While there’s a solid chance Rhino could have reigned as a dominant champion, without any television to promote him, his title reign was ultimately meaningless. With absolutely nothing to judge him on, Rhino naturally ranks ahead of the champions who actively hurt the company, but we can’t place him ahead of anyone who actually did something positive with the belt.
15 Jimmy Snuka
Typically speaking, the first champion a wrestling promotion crowns sets the tone for the caliber of athlete than can be expected to hold the title from then on. That kind of flies out the window when the champion only reigns for a single day, as was the case with “Superfly” Jimmy Snuka and Eastern Championship Wrestling. He won the title back several months later, although his second reign wouldn’t be much more memorable than the first. It’s not entirely Snuka’s fault—the ECW ethos hadn’t established, and Hardcore TV wasn’t on the air yet, so he didn’t have particularly much to work with. Even so, his star power was still strong enough that he helped establish the ECW Championship as a title worth fighting for, and he did the same thing for the ECW TV title when Hardcore TV actually started airing.
14 Don Muraco
Truth be told, not much of Don Muraco’s first ECW Championship reign is available for viewing. The second reign is, however, occurring throughout the early months of ECW Hardcore TV, using the time honored technique of having an old pro legitimize a growing company by reigning as their top star. Unfortunately, much like Santana, Muraco was pretty much past his prime, although his mic skills were still strong enough to justify his position. Muraco’s co-managers “Hot Stuff” Eddie Gilbert and Paul E. Dangerously aided him, as well, setting the dangerous tone of ECW that would gradually overtake the promotion entirely. That said, Muraco himself would completely disappear by the time that happened, making him merely the brightest star to shine during ECW’s Eastern origins. Quite frankly, had he shown up so much as a single year later, he probably never would have even had a chance.
13 Tommy Dreamer
Considering he only held the title for a manner of minutes, it would probably be fair to place Tommy Dreamer at the very bottom of this list and not think much about it. Those who know the full story are aware Tommy never wanted to be on his list to begin with, only agreeing to win the belt because there were literally no other babyfaces left to serve as the transitional champ between Taz and Justin Credible. All that said, no one wrestler better represented everything ECW stood for than Tommy Dreamer. Standing true and proud as an extreme superstar even as his friends all jumped to WCW or WWE, Dreamer was in many ways the true franchise player of the company, willing to do anything it took to please his fans. His few minutes with the top title were more than deserved, and had he been willing for a lengthier reign, ECW could have been saved…at least from Justin Credible’s awfulness.
12 Jerry Lynn
Despite having nowhere near the charisma as the original, the New F’n Show Jerry Lynn still managed to beat Rob Van Dam to the punch at winning the ECW Championship. Lynn’s first great accomplishment as champion was finally ending Justin Credible’s reign of terror, although that would pretty much be it when it comes to memorable moments while he was champion. Though Lynn was a huge improvement over Credible in the ring, and more or less equal to RVD in technical prowess, he nonetheless majorly lacked in the charisma department. It was most likely for that reason he dropped the belt only 35 days after winning it, making him one of the more listless and unimpressive champions the company had ever seen. On the other hand, he didn’t actively hurt anything, and in the very least the extreme ethos was present in his work, keeping Lynn respectable enough to rank near the middle of our list.
11 Masato Tanaka
Not too different from Tommy Dreamer, the only foreigner to hold the ECW Championship, Masato Tanaka, held the title for a grand total of one week. He defeated Mike Awesome for the belt during a December 1999 episode of ECW on TNN, and lost it back to him on the very next episode. Despite the short length of his reign, Tanaka’s title win was an integral part of his landmark feud against Mike Awesome, one of the most incredible in-ring wars ever seen, even in ECW. On top of that, few wrestlers were better able to endear themselves to hardcore fans than “Dangan” Tanaka, who absorbed countless chair shots to the head with a loud, empowering scream. While that would appear outrageously dangerous in the modern era, in ECW, it made Tanaka a hero upon arrival, more than worthy of a compulsory reign on top of the promotion.
10 The Sandman
Generally speaking, there are two camps when it comes to the so-called “Hardcore Icon,” the man who held the ECW Championship more times than any other athlete, The Sandman. On the plus side, few superstars better defined what ECW was all about, with his swashbuckling drunkenness and undying spirit, able to appear like he was having the time of his life as he whacked the crap out of his opponents with various weapons. On the negative side, for that same reason, he was one of the least talented and most dangerous wrestlers ever to headline a major promotion. For every hardcore ECW enthusiast out there who felt like The Sandman was the perfect person to represent them, there was a wrestling traditionalist who used him as a reason to avoid the company altogether. Especially given the high caliber of opponents he took the title away from, the best we can do is split the difference and leave Sandman smack dab in the middle of our list.
9 Bam Bam Bigelow
From the moment they met in the mid 1980s, Paul Heyman knew Bam Bam Bigelow was going to be a star. Bigelow’s hulking body, unique cranial tattoo, and unmatched agility for his size made him a sight to behold wherever he went. Somehow, though, Bigelow was unable to find main event success in WWE, NWA, or NJPW, even as he put on incredible matches for each promotion. With his old friend Paul E. in charge, Bigelow finally reached that peak in ECW, squashing Shane Douglas for the World Championship in October of 1997. On the downside, Bigelow was never particularly charismatic, and he lost the belt back to Douglas a mere 45 days later. Bigelow still managed to impress as champion by defending against all comers. More importantly, he proved Paul Heyman would give second chances to wrestlers who never got a real shot in the major leagues.
8 Mikey Whipwreck
Eat your heart out, Rey Mysterio—wrestling’s true ultimate underdog is and always was Mikey Whipwreck. 5’9 and 187 pounds smoking wet, Whipwreck spent most of his first year as a wrestler jobbing to virtually every wrestler that stepped foot in the company. His fortunes suddenly turned around when he won the ECW TV Championship from the Pitbull, then shot into the main event by teaming with Cactus Jack later in the year. By late 1995, he was earning shots at the top prize in the promotion, eventually defeating The Sandman for the belt. At 22 years old, Whipwreck was the youngest World Champion in wrestling history, a major feat in and of itself. That he successfully defended the belt against Steve Austin was icing on the cake. Dragging things down a bit, Whipwreck lost the title back to Sandman shortly after that, and his career was mostly a downslide from there.
In many respects, Sabu is yet another wrestler who lived and breathed everything ECW stood for. He was hardcore to an almost reckless extent, often hurting himself as much than his opponents with his dangerous antics. Because of this, he didn’t hold on to the ECW Championship for long, at least in the extreme days—Sabu lost the belt to Shane Douglas only eight days after winning it from Terry Funk. On the other hand, Sabu is living proof that the Eastern Championship Wrestling days were already plenty hardcore, holding the belt for three months in late 1993 before the genre switch was made official. Sabu’s true downside was his unreliability, coming and going from ECW more or less when he pleased, and yet the fact he was a star every time he came back speaks for itself in terms of how ECW accepted his talents.
6 Steve Corino
If anyone had a chance of saving ECW in late 2000, it just may have been “The King of Old School,” Steve Corino. Naturally skilled on the microphone and in the ring, Corino was one of the last true stars Paul Heyman created, or at least attempted to create, because let’s face it, Corino didn’t pan out as well as he could have. His first issue was The Sandman stealing the physical belt from him and making him look like a paper champion. Even worse, Corino only held the belt for two months before ECW’s television was cancelled, losing it at the company’s final Pay-Per-View. That said, given Corino remains in the upper tier of champions because of his potential to turn things around if he had more time to do so, and the fact he actually felt like a worthy main eventer after almost seven months of lame duck duds.
5 Terry Funk
Moments before ECW made its Pay-Per-View debut in April of 1997 with Barely Legal, Paul Heyman famously asked his employees to thank Terry Funk for everything he’s done for the industry. That same show, Funk won the ECW Championship for the second time, aged 52. In all fairness, Funk’s advanced age had yet to entirely take away his wrestling skills, especially in the hardcore environment provided by ECW. His legendary status also helped legitimize ECW once again now that they had mainstream exposure. Funk’s first reign some three years earlier (when he was a spry 49) was arguably even better than the second, his initial feud with Shane Douglas defining how the promotion could be hardcore both in and out of the ring. All that said, having a 52-year-old reign supreme over what is supposed to be the promotion of the future kind of defeats the purpose, so Funk being champion was slightly flawed, to say the least.
4 Mike Awesome
Largely due to how his final ECW Championship reign ended, Mike Awesome will forever go down in history as one of wrestling’s saddest cases of wasted potential. He popped in and out of ECW throughout the early ‘90s before finally deciding to stick with the company on a long-term basis in late 1999. More than a full year after his most recent appearance for the promotion, Awesome returned at Anarchy Rulz and won the ECW Championship from Taz in his return match. His legendary feud against Masato Tanaka followed, with Raven and Tommy Dreamer getting mixed in to make nonstop classic matches. Awesome also defended his belt against names like New Jack, Mikey Whipwreck, Too Cold Scorpio, and Spike Dudley, looking to continue ECW’s trend of dominant heel champions. It all blew to pieces when Awesome jumped ship to WCW while still holding the title, making him a pariah and leaving his incredibly reign unfairly ignored in retrospect.
If there’s any flaw to Taz’s path of destruction in ECW throughout the late 1990s, it’s that it took him too long to win the ECW Championship. On the plus side, once he finally defeated Shane Douglas for the title at Guilty As Charged 1999, there’s no denying he was the most popular star in the company. Despite his somewhat small stature, Taz personified the hardcore ECW mindset the same way several others on this list have, tearing his victims to bits like a Human Suplex Machine. Unfortunately for Paul Heyman and the continued success of ECW, Taz claimed that being on top for some reason made him lose his passion, and he decided to sign with WWE in the middle of his reign. Taz dropped the belt to Mike Awesome and slowly faded away from ECW, still respected enough by fans to win it back in April of 2000 and become the only wrestler to defend an ECW title in WWE on and episode of SmackDown.
2 Shane Douglas
They say the first person to hold a championship defines that belt forever, and that has never been more literal than when Shane Douglas threw down the NWA Championship to create Extreme Championship Wrestling. He was already reigning as the Eastern Championship Wrestling Championship at the time, bridging the gap between two eras, both of which he dominated as Paul Heyman’s top talent and star. The self-proclaimed Franchise of ECW held the belt four times, two of those reigns lasting over a full year, meaning the gold was around his waist nearly twice as long as his closest competitors. For some reason few people understand, however, Shane’s final reign as champion was spent on the injured list without him ever getting stripped of the title, something that almost killed the belt outright when it was defended a grand total of twice in six months. Bad as that was, Douglas’s second reign as champion was very near the best, with only one wrestler wily enough to outsmart and surpass him…
Immediately upon arrival in late 1994, Raven stood out in ECW as the voice of his generation. Dark, verbose, mysterious, and manipulative, Raven embodied the ‘90s counterculture in his look and during his speeches, simultaneously destroying his enemies in classic matches that proved his genius was hardly confined to words. It took Raven over a year to win the ECW Championship, and he went on to hold it for 9 months when he did. Defending the belt against top contenders like Chris Jericho, Too Cold Scorpio, and Shane Douglas, Raven solidified himself as the best ECW had to offer again and again. When that wasn’t enough, he brainwashed The Sandman’s son Tyler and made it clear he could take any prize he wanted. He never actually lost the title himself, going to rehab and leaving Stevie Richards to unsuccessfully defend it against The Sandman. He instantly won it back upon his return, reigning for another four months and enthralling fans with the best stories he and Paul Heyman ever told.