One of the most mystifying things I’ve ever come across as a wrestling fan is the fact that ECW just won’t die.
The company closed its doors over two decades ago yet it somehow still lives on. Anytime someone brings out a table it’s basically guaranteed that large swaths of fans will start chanting ‘E-C-Dub’. People go nuts over wrestlers being smashed through tables, even though that stuff has been done to death since ECW closed its doors.
But perhaps most bizarre out of all this love and nostalgia for ECW is that no one actually talks about famous ECW matches. Moments, yes, but not matches. And since the whole point of attending or watching a wrestling show is to see wrestlers compete in matches, I couldn’t help but wonder what the best ECW matches of all time were. So I did some digging to see what fans across the internet have said, which brings us to this match. Now, after over 25 years, let’s see how well it holds up.
As a reminder, I am reviewing Five Star and almost-Five Star wrestling matches as rated by Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. It goes back to the 1980s and I’m going to pick different matches from different eras to see how they look today. Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here.
The feud between Sabu and the Sandman had been going on for quite a while come January 1998. Sabu had been a part of an invasion angle with the then-WWF and Sandman was an ECW loyalist that felt Sabu was betraying his home company. Sabu wage war with Sandman for months and got help from RVD and Jerry Lawler on his side while Sandman got help from Tommy Dreamer.
This was one of ECW’s most important feuds as in many ways it was a battle for the heart and soul of the company. To call ECW’s fans ‘hardcore’ wasn’t just a cliché that had double meaning. They were so passionate about the promotion they followed and wanted it to succeed so badly. So much so that the idea that the bigger companies would poach their biggest stars was seen as a sacrilegious betrayal. Fans wanted to see Sandman punished for supposedly turning his back on ECW. But grudge matches like this weren’t settled in the ring in any traditional sort of match; in true ECW fashion, Sandman and Sabu would have an ECW-style match. And what better way to sum up ECW succinctly than by having a ladder match with barbed wire hanging overhead?
This match originally took place on January 10, 1998. It was never given a formal rating by Dave Meltzer, but many fans have called it one of the best matches in ECW history, whatever that means.
This is a Stairway to Hell (ladder) match with a coil of barbed wire hanging above the ring, because of course there is. The referee takes away Sandman’s Singapore cane and then he and Sabu tussle for control over the ladder. Sabu wins that battle and smashes the ladder into Sandman’s head several times. Sabu’s manager Bill Alfonso holds Sandman in place against the ladder with a chair places on the back of his head. Sabu jumps to the apron and springboards with a leg drop onto the chair, Sandman’s head, and the ladder. Sandman gets sandwiched between metal objects and Sabu covers but only gets a two-count. Sandman hits a chair-assisted diving Arabian Facebuster and gets another two-count. Sabu baseball slide dropkicks Sandman to ringside and opens the chair for a dive. He runs, jumps, and hits Air Sabu onto Sandman into the crowd.
Sabu chairs Sandman between the eyes as the crowd chants “ECW”. The two brawl over the venue until Sabu smashes Sandman into a wall and starts setting up a table. Sabu places Sandman on the table, climbs up to the next level of seats, and lands a diving legdrop onto the table but not through it because it doesn’t break.
The crowd brawling continues with Sandman staggering around until he makes a sudden comeback out of nowhere with a few elbows. Sandman slams Sabu onto the stage and drops an elbow. The two brawl back to the ringside area, which has been filled with setup tables courtesy of Bill Alfonso. Sandman grabs the ladder and launches it from the apron onto Sabu below. Then he uses it as a teeter-totter to drive one end up into Sabu’s face. Sandman continues his onslaught with a suplex over the barricade and through two tables followed by a leg drop through the same.
Sabu fights back as Sandman sets up even more tables and then sets up the ladder to make a bridge or platform between the ring and the barricade. Sandman flapjacks Sabu onto the ladder and then hits a signboard leg drop onto it from the ring.
Back in the ring, Sabu makes a miraculous recovery as Sandman sets up the ladder to obtain the barbed wire. Sandman gets up to the top of the ladder and grabs the prize faster than anyone in any WWE ladder match ever, but his celebration is cut short when Sabu knocks the ladder over, sending Dandman falling through several tables. Sabu picks up some speed, grabs the barbed wire, and goes for a chair-assisted dive to the floor. But Sabu misses! Sabu hits the guardrail and breaks his jaw for real.
Blood pours out of Sabu’s mouth as Sandman unravels the barbed wire and wraps it up in a corner. Sabu fires up and punches Sandman into the barbed wire. He cracks Sandman with another chair-shot to the head and then stabs Sandman with a pair of scissors. Sabu lacerates Sandman’s head with the barbed wire and then hangs him upside down in a corner with barbed wire wrapped around his head like some perverse Crown of Thorns. Then Sabu places a chair in front of Sandman’s head, sets up another one to step on, and hits a running, jumping dropkick to Sandman’s face. Sandman goes for another chair-assisted dive but this time Sandman sidesteps and Sabu ends up trapped in the barbed wire. Sandman cracks Sabu with his Singapore cane as Sabu writhes in pain on the mat. But being hardcore, Sabu accepts closing his jaw with duct tape and decides to keep wrestling.
Sabu reverses a corner whip and sends Sandman into the barbed wire. He hits a triple jump moonsault followed by two more Arabian Facebuster springboard leg drops. But Sandman fights to his feet and lands one more cane shot. One, two, and three! There’s the match!
Winner after 17:48: The Sandman
Stuff like this is why I’m generally not a fan of hardcore nonsense. I know that was ECW’s niche and it fit with the grunge and metal aesthetic that were growing at the time, but still, this was average at best. Sandman nearly killed himself falling off a ladder through tables onto the concrete floor and Sabu literally broke his jaw doing a springboard dive. And while Sabu’s dedication to wrestling and intense grit were certainly praise-worthy, his accident here would’ve meant more if he hadn’t already done the same move more than once in the same match.
So aside from garbage blood and gore, Sandman staggering around like a drunk, and Sabu spamming the same dive over and over like a kid who only knows how to land a single move with a video game controller, this match doesn’t offer anything unique.
In many ways this was the polar opposite of Terry Funk’s explosive barbed wire deathmatch with Atsushi Onita in 1993. That match, like this one, featured little wrestling and a heavy emphasis on spectacle and extreme violence. But that’s where the similarities between these two matches end. Funk/Onita was a tense and dramatic struggle while this was just a loosely-defined collection of spots. Funk and Onita kept things simple while Sandman and Sabu setup overly complicated spots that wasted plenty of time and yielded weak payoffs. Funk and Onita told their story through their actions and selling while this match came off as a performance, and a relatively poor one at that. Funk and Onita had a major sense of drama, tension, and outright fear, especially since there was going to be an explosion and at the time no one knew exactly how big and devastating it would be. Here, the action was listless and Sabu’s injury cast a pall on the match while Sandman staggering around bloody with barbed wire wrapped around his head looking like a low-rent version of Pinhead from Hellraiser got a much more subdued reaction than I was expecting. With all of these flaws and inferiorities, this match comes across as a disappointing main-event for a company that has been praised so much and so consistently in the decades following its closure.
Final rating: **3/4
Unless you want to see Sabu bleeding from the mouth and trying to wrestle with tape around it, there’s not much worth seeing here. This might’ve been a passable match back in 1998 but by today’s standards it’s relatively meaningless. The world would be treated to a MUCH greater spectacle of shock less than six months later when The Undertaker and Mankind had their iconic moment atop the Cell. The past quarter century has seen even crazier stunts involving ladders courtesy of TLC I and II, Money In The Bank ladder matches, and so much more. And for those that just want to see blood and guts, there’s plenty of that on the independent scene – particularly in CZW, XPW and other ultra-hardore promotions – and even on AEW as that company is much more lax when it comes to blood.
So while this match might’ve been intriguing for its time, it doesn’t offer much of anything in 2023, especially with there being so many copycats that’ve taken it upon themselves to keep the spirit of ECW alive for whatever reason.