Sabu lay facedown on the cement floor as a mob of medical officials buzzed around him.
The fans in Augusta, Georgia, started booing before the scene was half over. They could see what WWE was planning, that the December to Dismember pay-per-view was already veering off the rails.
As ECW headman Paul Heyman angrily demanded answers, a man slipped a neck brace on Sabu. The popular daredevil wrestler remained still. Fluorescent lights shone on the scars dotting his body.
The medical team loaded Sabu onto a stretcher.
And with that, the Extreme Elimination Chamber match that headlined the Dec. 3, 2006, ECW-branded show was down one madman.
Sabu would have been a perfect fit for that chaotic steel structure and been right at home in a match with an assortment of savage toys to play with, but WWE owner Vince McMahon decided to pull him in dramatic fashion.
Seeing that bait-and-switch unfold, fans cursed in unison. "Bulls--t! Bulls--t!"
WWE yanked the heart out of December to Dismember in that moment. The show would never recover.
The PPV marked the last brand-exclusive show for ECW. It signaled the end of Heyman's run with the company. It became a running joke, a laughingstock of an event.
December to Dismember's failings began well before Sabu's exit and before announcers Joey Styles and Tazz kicked things off.
A Poor Imitation
Despite the letters printed on the ring apron, this wasn't ECW.
Extreme Championship Wrestling died in 2003. McMahon bought out the rival company that year. In 2006, he relaunched it as a brand under the WWE umbrella.
What aired on SyFy was a counterfeit version of the foot-on-the-pedal, envelope-pushing cult hit that was ECW. It was less violent and not nearly as edgy.
ECW trotted out a zombie character to please SyFy.
It infused a number of WWE-made stars into a world that had previously been the home of unconventional and unexpected stars like the tattooed, long-haired, soft-around-the-middle bruiser Balls Mahoney.
As Vaughn Johnson of Philly.com wrote: "It was a watered-down, overproduced version that fit well within WWE's standards, but not of those that had followed the underdog promotion during its heyday."
In name, Heyman was the captain of this ship. But where he had complete control when he ran the ECW company, he had to fight to have the product fit his vision while working with McMahon.
The antithetical views both men had about ECW's direction caused conflict backstage.
On the Stone Cold Podcast with Steve Austin, Heyman said about ECW at the time: "I didn't like the way it was going. It was a very personal fight between me and Vince."
Those fights drained him. They zapped his creativity.
"I was burned out. I was tired. I had lost my life for it, and I couldn't find my way anymore," Heyman told Austin.
The apex of that burnout happened at December to Dismember. His pride and joy had become unrecognizable.
Perhaps a harbinger of what was to come, the PPV began with a slip-up.
As the camera panned on the Elimination Chamber hanging over the ring, Styles announced, "Tonight, a new ECW world's champion will be crowned." There was no guarantee of that. Big Show was set to defend the title against five other men.
But Styles had spoiled the ending; someone would dethrone Big Show.
There was little buzz about matches outside of the opener and the main event. WWE had not announced anything else on the card beforehand. Fans were asked to purchase a PPV on good faith, hopeful the company would fill the night with quality undercard action.
The first match between The Hardy Boyz and MNM was a fun, energized opener. After that, the show's momentum slowed.
Matt Striker took on Mahoney in a Striker's Rules match. Essentially, the brawler had to conform to Striker's more technical-based style.
Mahoney did fine considering he was asked to be something he's not, but the decision to handcuff him stylewise was baffling. The action was sluggish and threatened to drain the crowd's energy.
The match was not only boring, but it was miles from what ECW fans were used to.
Elsewhere on the card, there was nothing noteworthy.
WWE product Daivari defeated ECW favorite Tommy Dreamer in an uninspired affair. Elijah Burke and Sylvester Terkay knocked off ECW veterans The Full Blooded Italians. Vampire couple Kevin Thorn and Ariel bested Mike Knox and Kelly Kelly.
Past PPVs have had ho-hum matches like these in the past, but the continued drubbing of ECW's talent gutted the show's energy. Dreamer and F.B.I.'s losses and Sabu dropping out of the event diffused an explosive fanbase over time.
The main event continued that theme.
The Main Event
Hardcore Holly, a WWE guy through and through, replaced Sabu in the Extreme Elimination Chamber match.
Fans could still root for Rob Van Dam, a former ECW champ who represented the defunct promotion's wild side.
CM Punk was in the bout as well. At the time, the straight-edge star was an up-and-comer in the ECW brand. He was just the kind of outsider and underdog that ECW fans clung to. This night could be his crowning moment.
Punk would take on Holly, Van Dam, Bobby Lashley, Big Show and Test. There was decidedly little ECW flavor to that mix.
Big Show was a WWE vet. Test was a product of WWE's Attitude Era. And the sculpted, handsome Lashley was the prototypical star that McMahon has historically preferred.
Before the bout, a power struggle broke out over who should emerge as ECW world champion.
Heyman preferred to make a star out of Punk that night. McMahon wanted to elevate Lashley.
Former WWE writer Andrew Goldstein detailed the exchange on the PWTorch Livecast:
Paul was adamant. We have to have Punk go over the Big Show and put the ECW Title on this guy and let's ride him. And, Vince, whether it was a good idea (or not), because it came from Paul, he said, 'Oh no. Big Show. Big Show. Big Show. (Bobby) Lashley. I'm going to make this my own. Paul, shut up.'
Big Show was on Heyman's side. He saw an opportunity to cash in on Punk's momentum.
Scott E. Williams, George Tahinos and Shane Douglas offered a peek at the backstage divide in Hardcore History: The Extremely Unauthorized Story of ECW. On Big Show's reluctance to lose to Lashley, the authors wrote: "His complaint was that he was going soon; he wanted to put over Punk on the way out, and this was his only chance."
Meanwhile, Sabu's forced exit bothered him. "Sabu was reportedly as distraught about it as fans would be," per Hardcore History.
McMahon won the battle of wills. After RVD, Punk and Holly had all departed the bout, Lashley speared Big Show and claimed the ECW crown.
Fans chanted, "Where's our refund?" They chanted for rival promotion TNA.
They had roared for Punk and Van Dam earlier in the night, only to see their heroes fall. They had hoped for an ECW-style showcase of barbarity, but even with weapons like a baseball bat wrapped in barbed wire involved, the action was tame.
To top it all off, the PPV ran short.
What was supposed to be a three-hour event clocked in at just two hours and 17 minutes.
That would not be a major deal in today's era with the WWE Network. But fans has shelled out over 40 bucks to see this. And WWE short-changed them.
Critics weren't kind to December to Dismember.
Matt Mackinder of Slam Wrestling wrote: "Did Vince and Heyman draw names out of a hat to make these matches? Nothing really made sense to me." PWTorch columnist Wade Keller wrote: "The event was such a letdown overall, that it really dampened the mood and thus the occasion of Lashley winning the title."
When Dave Meltzer handed out star ratings for the event in the Wrestling Observer Newsletter, only two matches avoided atrocious scores.
|December to Dismember Star Ratings|
|Match||Match Time||Star Rating (out of 5)|
|The Hardy Boyz vs. MNM||22:33||3.25|
|Balls Mahoney vs. Matt Striker||7:12||.5|
|Elijah Burke and Sylvester Terkay vs. F.B.I.||6:41||1.25|
|Daivari vs. Tommy Dreamer||7:22||DUD|
|Kevin Thorn and Ariel vs. Mike Knox and Kelly Kelly||7:43||-1|
|Extreme Elimination Chamber||24:42||2.5|
|Wrestling Observer Newletter via the Internet Wrestling Database|
The Wrestling Observer Newsletter (h/t Indeed Wrestling) named the PPV the Worst Major Show of the Year.
Even Heyman himself trashed December to Dismember. In his podcast interview with Austin, he called it "an indescribably bad show."
It didn't do well financially, either. As Luke Winkie of Sports Illustrated's Extra Mustard pointed out: "The numbers confirm that the show picked up a mere 90,000 buys, the lowest in WWE history."
It's no surprise then that ECW didn't get another shot at a brand-exclusive show. It's no surprise that Heyman and McMahon's issues came to a head and the former left the company.
Heyman's vision of ECW was not McMahon's. He saw the holes in December to Dismember before it began to take on water, but his warnings went unheeded.
The show has since become a punchline among fans. Whereas WrestleMania XVII may be the PPV fans recommend to get hooked on the product, December to Dismember is mentioned as the event to watch when one wants to self-punish.
The stink of the show has yet to leave. Heyman likely gets asked about it more than he would like.
Its failings are a reminder of what happens when WWE misreads its fans. The audience wanted a revival of ECW, not a knockoff of the brand. Fans wanted to see Punk rise, but McMahon stubbornly led Lashley onto the pedestal.
As frustrated as Sabu had to be when WWE pulled him from the card, he couldn't have known that the company was saving him from a sinking ship.