When it comes down to it, professional wrestling, like any other sport, is a business. Back when there were choices in who superstars wanted to work for, money was the primary focus. With the changing of companies, that company would have rights to a character’s specific name. A prime example of this was when Kevin Nash and Scott Hall quickly hopped to WCW. The characters Diesel and Razor Ramon would still air on WWE, but played by other people. The point here is that money is what drives professional wrestlers to different locations. In today’s day and age, there is only the WWE if superstars truly want to get paid.
Because of the issues with money and contract negotiations, plenty of successful wrestlers would see time in the different major professional wrestling promotions. Quite a few would actually go all the way to Japan to compete in New Japan Pro Wrestling. It was worth the time due to the money and the exposure overseas. However, the three main competitors in the United States during the 1990s were World Championship Wrestling, the WWE, and Extreme Championship Wrestling. There were a fair amount of wrestlers who dipped their toes into all three. Money talks when you have mouths to feed at home.
This list takes a look at the top 15 wrestlers who competed in WCW, WWE, and ECW. Some of these guys might have only have joined ECW for a minute. Others were successful in one promotion, but ultimately failed in the others. Some might have revitalized their career, or just earned a paycheck due to being in-between contract negotiations. ECW would be a place for talent to develop and veterans to make a quick payday, while WCW offered favoritism and guaranteed contracts that would result in a lack of a push. All of this while the WWE was re-inventing itself on non-guaranteed contracts. This all adds up to these guys moving around.
15 Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart
“The Anvil” is most known for being part of The Hart Foundation alongside Bret Hart in WWE in the early '90s. Neidhart also saw time in WCW, but was not nearly as successful as he was with the WWE. He beat a few jobbers and teamed with The Junkyard Dog. He did not last long in WCW. However, in 1992 and in 1995, Neidhart saw brief stints with ECW. He would feud with the likes of The Sandman, Marty Jannetty, and Ron Simmons. He would never capture a belt in ECW, but did have some great matches with Salvatore Bellomo.
14 The Steiner Brothers
The Steiner Brothers were the elite tag team in wrestling during the early 1990s. While most notably being famous for dominating WCW, the duo saw stints in both WWE and ECW, as well. From 1992 to 1994, The Steiners managed to win two WWE Tag Team Titles. In between contracts, the two also saw time in New Japan Pro Wrestling, as well as ECW. They did not have many matches in ECW, but Paul Heyman made sure to make the most of their stay. They would compete against the top talent in ECW including Dean Malenko, 2 Cold Scorpio, Mick Foley, Raven, Stevie Richards, and The Eliminators (Perry Saturn and John Kronus).
13 Jake “The Snake” Roberts
Having feuded with many of the top superstars in WCW and WWE during the late 1980s and early 1990s, Jake “The Snake” Roberts would dip his toes into the ECW realm in 1993. Roberts would be involved in a heated rivalry with Jerry “The King” Lawler in 1996 while with WWE. When the two companies had their tie-ins that lead into the Attitude Era, Lawler would fight Tommy Dreamer during the summer of 1997. During the match, the lights went out and came back on with an excited Roberts in the ring. He would go on to take out both Lawler and Dreamer. He would later have a tag match with The Headhunters against Hayabusa, Tanaka, and Jensei Shinzaki.
12 Arn Anderson
For being as about as old fashioned as it gets, Arn Anderson does not really fit the mold of Extreme Championship Wrestling. It is also hard to imagine that Arn actually saw a stint in the WWE in the late 1980s. Arn has always been hardcore WCW and arguably the face of the Four Horseman. In 1988, Arn left Jim Crockett Promotions and formed the Brain Busters tag team with Tully Blanchard. Bobby “The Brain” Heenan would be their manager and they would go on to beat Demolition for the Tag Team Titles. In ECW, Arn would have a few matches thanks to his tie-ins with Paul Heyman.
11 Shane Douglas
Douglas was the face of ECW prior to the rise of Rob Van Dam in the late 1990s. He was the clean cut, babyface that everyone could get behind. His heel turn changed everything about ECW, and should be considered to be up there with Hogan’s heel turn when joining the nWo. The direction of ECW would not have taken off to the “extreme” side had he not tossed away the NWA Title. He has been involved in both the WWE and WCW, but never reached the same level with either company. WWE never gave him much to work with while WCW did provide better success. Douglas has at least had some major part in all the big companies out there.
10 Bam Bam Bigelow
“The Beast of the East” made his mark across all three companies. Starting with the WWE in 1987, he was sought out by many heel managers in what was called “The Battle for Bam Bam”. Eventually turning face, he denounced all the heel managers. He participated on Hulk Hogan’s team during the first Survivor Series. In 1992, he would go heel and be involved in a plethora of storylines for the next few years. One of these included a widely publicized feud with then New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor. Bigelow would go on to ECW after rumors of problems backstage with The Kliq. His rise to dominance would occur during 1997 as he would notably feud with Taz. He would eventually be snagged by WCW in 1998 as he would feud with Goldberg. He remained with WCW until it was purchased.
9 Dean Malenko
“The Iceman” was a workhorse when it came to professional wrestling. Being involved with feuds in ECW with Eddie Guerrero would amount to some of the greatest wrestling matches in the history of the sport. It would also be a changing of the guard as WCW would eventually bring in these guys and create the Cruiserweight division. With WCW, he would feud early on with Chris Jericho and eventually was recruited for the rebranded Four Horseman. In one of the more memorable moments in television, he would join his ECW and WCW colleagues Guerrero, Benoit, and Perry Saturn in the WWE as The Radicalz. They were brought in as “spectators” at ringside during Monday Night RAW. Malenko would not achieve what Benoit and Guerrero did in the company, however Malenko is still employed by WWE to this day.
8 Chris Benoit
Benoit actually premiered in WCW in tag team competition prior to joining ECW. During his ECW tenure is where he began to get noticed. He worked for ECW between his tours for New Japan Pro Wrestling. Benoit would be known as the Crippler in Japan, and backed up that name by accidentally breaking Sabu’s neck in the opening seconds of a match. Heyman wanted Benoit to be the face of the company as a heel. However, Benoit’s VISA expired and he had to leave ECW. He would go back to Japan until WCW called and it got renewed. Benoit would get his national notoriety in WCW as he impressed higher-ups with his work ethic. Benoit would jump to the WWE with The Radicalz where he would get the eventual push to a World Championship. Benoit would actually close out in WWE’s version of ECW.
7 Terry Funk
Terry Funk is older than dirt and still wrestles on the independent circuits today. What’s strange is when he got older, that is when he hit the extreme and shock levels of wrestling. This would be perfect for ECW. Funk premiered in the WWE back in 1985 and would end up having some WWE Title matches with Hulk Hogan. He also would feud with the Junkyard Dog. Funk would enter WCW in 1994 in a stable with Arn Anderson, Bunkhouse Buck, and Meng. Known as Colonel Robert Parker’s Stud Stable, they would feud with Dusty and Dustin Rhodes, and also the Nasty Boys. ECW would be where he changed his style. He would actually win the ECW Championship during his time there. With the WWE creating a Hardcore division to rival ECW, Funk would make the jump over in 1998. He would spend the next few years bouncing around the three companies putting his old body on the line.
6 Rob Van Dam
Before becoming “The Whole Damn Show”, Van Dam was dubbed as Robbie V in WCW as Bill Watts did not like the RVD name. He literally did nothing in WCW, however was signed with the company. When joining ECW, his persona and different style of wrestling made him a fan favorite as he was pushed to the top. Van Dam would would end up feuding and eventually teaming with Sabu as he eventually became the face of the company at the turn of the century. Once ECW went under, he debuted in WWE and would contend for the Intercontinental Championship. He would eventually win the WWE Championship by beating John Cena at One Night Stand in 2006.
5 Chris Jericho
One of the most underrated and charismatic wrestlers of all time, Chris Jericho received his start in ECW thanks to a bunch of pushing on Paul Heyman. Benoit, Perry Saturn, and even Mick Foley, brought Jericho to the attention of Paul Heyman. Jericho’s ability in the ring and on the mic pushed him as far as he could go in ECW. This drew attention from WCW, as did many others. Helping to perfect the Cruiserweight division, he never really received the push he deserved in WCW. After making himself noticed thanks to his mic skills, the WWE took noticed. Jericho jumped ship and never looked back as he would feud with Benoit and push for a WWE Heavyweight Championship early. He won the belt over Triple H, but circumstances made it not stand. Eventually, however, Jericho would certainly get his fair share of championships in what will inevitably be a Hall of Fame career.
4 Eddie Guerrero
Eddie basically has the same story as his other colleagues from ECW. Start in New Japan Pro Wrestling, jump to ECW, get paid by WCW, and then get properly utilized in WWE. However, Eddie would be a jobber in WCW back in 1989. He would form the Latino World Order, a knock off the now faction that took in all the Luchidores competing in the Cruiserweight division in WCW. He of course joined The Radicalz in WWE and would actually get released for personal issues in 2001. Returning in 2002, he would work his way back up and eventually work with Benoit to get to a top card position. Guerrero would win some titles in the WWE and eventually get his WWE Championship.
3 Mick Foley
Seriously, what hasn’t Mick Foley accomplished in his career? Nobody laid it on the line like Mick did. Starting in WCW as Cactus Jack and attacking Sting in 1991, he did things that the old school audience of wrestling was not accustomed to. He went out of his way to be crazy. WCW would go along with this and book some of the most violent matches ever between him and Vader. Foley actually premiered on ECW while with WCW in a cross promotion: He spit on his Tag Team title and threw it to the ground. In ECW, he helped create, set, and raise the standard on extreme wrestling. Foley would also develop a heel gimmick that made him feel threatened for his life. However, in his last match, fans were chanting “please don’t go”. Finally, Mick made it over to WWE as Mankind. Eventually, Vince would incorporate two other personas. One being Dude Love, and the other being Cactus Jack. Jim Ross did an excellent job of putting over how crazy the Cactus Jack persona was. I could spend hours and hours on what Mick accomplished, but honestly you get the point.
2 Stone Cold Steve Austin
Mick Foley might have laid his body on the line, but nobody fought adversity like Stone Cold Steve Austin. Austin had all the talent in the world, and he did everything he could to expose that. However, he was held back a ton early in his career. Thanks to Paul Heyman, he had the right man to help where it was needed. Austin joined WCW in 1991 and won his first belt in only a few weeks. He later joined Paul E. Dangerously’s Dangerous Alliance and was the face of that faction. He would also team with the late Brian Pillman as The Hollywood Blondes. Austin would eventually be fired due to an injury and was told by Eric Bischoff that he was not marketable. Thankfully, Paul Heyman had created his own promotion in ECW and brought Austin over to cut promos talking trash about Bischoff and WCW. After injury, Austin had a few matches as Heyman wanted to put the belt on him. However, Austin refused.
Austin came to WWE after Kevin Nash and Jim Ross helped convince Vince to hire him. He was given a bad gimmick as The Ringmaster, but was managed by Ted DiBiase. Austin would go on to win the King of the Ring in 1996 and cut a promo that pushed him to the ceiling while trademarking Austin 3:16. Famous battles with Bret Hart would lead to more television time and the eventual match with Shawn Michaels to make him the face of the company in a difficult time. Feuding with McMahon would only push him higher and eventually culminate with legendary matches with The Rock. Austin was known well in all three companies, but could never find the right gimmick until Stone Cold was born.
1 Paul Heyman
Now I understand Heyman was not a wrestler, but he has been the one person to have the biggest impact across WCW, ECW, and WWE. His persona back in WCW was Paul E. Dangerously, which was an extension of his actual personality. His management skills helped pushed Bam Bam Bigelow, “Mean” Mark Callous (The Undertaker), and the Original Midnight Express. He ended up becoming an announcer alongside Jim Ross. He returned to managing the heel faction Dangerous Alliance with Rick Rude, Steve Austin, Arn Anderson, and Bobby Eaton. Heyman would be terminated once Bill Watts got involved in WCW, but already left his mark on the company.
Heyman wanted to change wrestling as he thought it was getting dull. Attempting to partner up with Jim Crockett, Jr. for a new promotion in Texas, their visions collided. Heyman would go on to be head of creative in NWA Eastern Championship Wrestling out of Philadelphia. After being handed the keys to creative, he conspired with Shane Douglas and Tod Gordon to have Douglas publicly trash the NWA Championship. From that moment, Extreme Championship Wrestling was born. Say what you will about WWE’s Attitude Era, but it all stemmed from what Paul E. created in ECW. The talent would be taken from him by the bigger two companies as he was unable to match pay or even pay at all. The guys worked for him because they wanted to work for Paul.
As much as you see Heyman on television promoting Brock Lesnar, his involvement in the WWE has only grown since ECW went under. He actually was a commentator replacing Jerry Lawler in 2001. He also was the lead writer for the split Smackdown! Promotion in 2002 and 2003, arguably the best period for that show. Heyman also previously managed Brock Lesnar in his first stint in WWE. As for today, Heyman is heavily involved backstage in helping talent again almost as an advisor. His contribution across all three brands over the past 20 years is unrivaled.