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Photo Credit: World Wrestling Entertainment

#TBT- John Cena vs. Rob Van Dam- WWE Championship, ECW One Night Stand 2006

The Challenger: Rob Van Dam

The Champion: John Cena

When and Where: 11 June 2006, ECW One Night Stand

WWE thrives and– if the recent returns of Edge and Goldberg are anything to go by– survives on nostalgia. Nostalgia pops are easy to pull off and require nothing in the way of build-up, which is perhaps why so many nostalgia grabs are considered cheap and are generally get forgotten about within a few weeks (see: Hulk Hogan’s multiple appearances, the bizarre RAW 25 Anniversary show, the hundreds of DX reunions, and many more). 

But once in a while, WWE does nostalgia right. In 2003, WWE acquired the video library of Extreme Championship Wrestling, which had closed its doors due to bankruptcy two years before. By 2005, interest in the defunct hardcore promotion had rejuvenated thanks to WWE’s purchasing of their entire catalog. There was an ECW reunion special in 2005 which featured matches made up entirely of ECW originals, and a second installment of the series in 2006. Additionally, the 2006 event featured performers who weren’t part of the original promotion.

For those who may not be aware of the history of ECW, here’s a quick recap: it started as Eastern Championship Wrestling in 1992, then Paul Heyman took over in 1993 and renamed it Extreme Championship Wrestling. Storylines were edgy and adult-oriented. All matches were no disqualification. Referees served no purpose other than to count the three. Some of the craziest and most brutal spots in the history of pro wrestling have taken place under the ECW banner. Chris Jericho, Rey Mysterio, Eddie Guerrero, Chris Benoit, Mick Foley, and even Steve Austin were just some of the wrestlers that made their names via ECW. 

Perhaps the most compelling thing about ECW, however, was the atmosphere. Most of the shows took place at ‘the ECW Arena,’ a small, grungy warehouse along Interstate 95 in Philadelphia. Crowds were rowdy, hostile and vocal of their like or dislike of someone. Production of the show was low quality, so TV tapings boasted a constant sense of grittiness – perfect for the type of wrestling which took place. 

WWE did their best to recapture this charm with their One Night Stand shows, and with all due to respect to them, they did a good job. Although the shows didn’t take place in the original arena, they managed to capture the intimate vibe by utilizing a smaller, unique-looking set (at the Hammerstein Ballroom in Manhattan) and having a smaller audience on hand. 

Now, let’s look at the match in question for this week’s installment of TBT. Rob Van Dam vs. John Cena for the WWE Championship. Rob Van Dam is of course part of the original ECW clique and is no doubt one of the most successful stars to ever come out of the promotion. If RVD won his match with Cena, Heyman was going to christen the belt the ECW Championship. 

First, a little backstory on how this match came to be. 

At WrestleMania 22, RVD won the Money In The Bank ladder match to give him the option of facing the whichever champion he wanted. He chose the reigning WWE Champion John Cena. 

On Raw, the two brawled going into their match at One Night Stand, with RVD calling upon his old ECW comrades for backup. Although this move was meant to establish RVD as the heel, it didn’t work out that way in reality (classic Vince McMahon).  

John Cena obviously needs no introduction, and one of the best things about him is that he’s barely changed since he first debuted in 2002. He’s the all-American, marine-looking hero in 2020, and he was pretty much the same back in 2006 too. While Cena hadn’t quite reached peak hatred levels, the ECW show was the beginning of the WWE audience’s negative reaction to Cena. 

Now, let’s go into the match itself. 

In a segment that highlights just how much society has progressed over the past fourteen years, Sandman arrives smoking a cigarette before beating up a mentally handicapped man with a cane. I’m not sure why, but it transitioned nicely into RVD’s entrance. He arrives to a raucous applause as expected by an audience of mostly original ECW fans. 

ECW crowds weren’t known for their sensitivity. These are the same people who bought cheese graters to events so that wrestlers could use them as weapons and covered Public Enemy underneath a mountain of chairs, thus giving a new meaning to the term burial. The 2006 crowd was unruly throughout the whole show, but they really kicked things to the next level during the main event. 

“Fuck you Cena.”

“You can’t wrestle.” 

“Cena swallows.”

“Same old shit.”

These were just some of the chants bombarded at Cena upon his entrance. The boos were deafening. It was obvious whose side the crowd were on. 

In a particularly brutal segment before the match kicks off, Cena throws his t-shirt into the crowd like he always does. But the ECW fans, being the smarkiest of smarks, throw the t-shirt back to him. This happens several times before Cena gives up and the fans cheer his defeat and throw up a sea of middle fingers in his direction. 

Wrestling-wise, the match was classic Cena and classic RVD. Both men got their signature moves in, several of which were accentuated by the use of a steel chair. Every time RVD hit a move, the crowd exploded. Every time Cena took the advantage, the boos were noticeable. 

But despite the wrestling itself being run-of-the-mill, Cena’s character work was unlike anything he’d done before (and done since). This match is the closest you’ll see to a true heel Cena. He fed off the crowd’s negative energy and continually taunted them whenever he had the upper hand. His mannerisms and facial expressions told the crowd that he wasn’t phased by their jeers and enjoyed every second of it. It was no doubt the toughest crowd of his life, but Cena managed to play them like a cheap fiddle.  

Near the end of the match, RVD slides a table into the ring and sets it up in the corner. Cena gets even further heat by taking out the referee (ECW original John Finnegan). Cena throws RVD out of the ring, then suddenly, someone in a black leather coat and motorcycle helmet appears out of nowhere. The mysterious figure spears Cena right through the corner table. 

The unknown assailant unmasks and it’s… Edge! 

The crowd began to chant ‘thank you Edge’ as he takes his leave, then RVD hits the Five-Star Frog Splash on a lifeless Cena. As there’s no referee, Paul Heyman runs to the ring to count the three, crowning RVD the new WWE (now ECW) Champion.

ECW One Night Stand 2005 had been a stellar show the previous year, and it was the event that gave birth to the line “the only reason [JBL] has been champion for a year is because Triple H didn’t wanna work Tuesdays,” by Paul Heyman. One Night Stand 2006 managed to top this with an even more iconic quote which came in the form of a fan sign – “IF CENA WINS WE RIOT.”

We’ve seen variations of this over the past few years (*cough* Roman Reigns *cough*), and luckily, we haven’t seen a riot yet. But the ECW crowd on that night probably would have made good on their promise had Cena won. 

If you want to see a unique match with one of the hottest crowds on record, check this one out. While the One Night Stand series went on to have two more instalments in 2007 and 2008, none of them captured that original ECW essence like the 2006 entry did.