Tommy Dreamer started wrestling for ECW back in 1993, at age 22, and he was there all the way to the bitter end, at 30 years old, on the very last show in 2001. There are a handful of guys known for making the rogue organization famous in its best and worst times, but the "Hardcore Legend" was, truly, the heart and soul of that company.
Through multiple runs with the WWE, both in WWE proper, as well as a pair of one-off reunion ECW One Stand shows and a WWE-branded relaunch that quickly went sour, Dreamer carried on the spirit of a company that he truly dedicated his life to, through performing, writing and producing, among many other roles.
With the exception of a brief WWE run in late 2015 and early 2016, Dreamer's WWE story essentially came to an end in 2009. As someone who was nearing his 40s, it could've made sense for Dreamer to hang up his boots and call it a career, but he couldn't. His love of the business kept driving him forward, and carries on until today; Dreamer claims that even this year, at 46 years old, he'll work 180 dates by the time 2017 comes to a close.
Here's how the hardcore legend got here: https://t.co/e2tIiPxLub
- Tim Fiorvanti (@tim00) November 18, 2017
But it goes beyond just stepping into the ring at this point. In 2012, with the bug that started when he took more control of ECW's behind-the-scenes operation in its later days still digging at him, Dreamer decided to go for it by running shows of his own. He started slowly and ran a few shows in Poughkeepsie, New York, and Philadelphia, a city clearly near and dear to his heart.
"I just said, 'You know what? I just wanna do one show and see if it's a hit,'" Dreamer recalled, during a recent interview with ESPN.com. "I did one show, and it was a hit. Then I said, 'Let me try doing another.' Then I did two shows the next year, and they were both successful."
Dreamer brought in a mix of talent, ranging from former WWE stars, current and former TNA wrestlers, and a solid cross-section of indie stars. They did well enough with the show to carry Dreamer's promotion, which he named House of Hardcore, appropriately enough, through their first few shows.
"Any championship team has the amazing rookie, has the established guy in his prime and they also have that veteran leadership," Dreamer said. "To me, that's how championships are won."
Then serendipity hit, in the form of an old, familiar building to Dreamer becoming available as House of Hardcore's defacto home base.
"When they say right time, right place... the ECW Arena (now the 2300 Arena), which had stopped running events, kind of opened back up," Dreamer said. "I said, 'Let me go back there.' And it hit, and then we just keep on rolling with shows.'"
Thirty-four shows in (and counting) as of Friday night, House of Hardcore was built on the seemingly contradictory ideas of steady expansion and occasional big risk-taking. The latter became especially pertinent over the past few weeks, as Dreamer announced an agreement with Twitch to stream House of Hardcore content for free on their platform.
After putting out programming on their channel over the past few weeks, Saturday marks a major milestone and moment for Dreamer and House of Hardcore, as they broadcast live on Twitch from the 2300 Arena.
"Twitch and myself are a perfect marriage," Dreamer said. "Their format is amazing -- it's exactly what I wanted. I watch the Super Bowl every year. It's one of the biggest television events and people get to watch it for free. Advertisers pay big bucks for us to watch it [that way]. It's kind of like how Twitch's model is."
There's an inherent risk in putting himself and the brand he built out there, providing content that otherwise could be available on DVD or paid streaming platforms. But he didn't get to this point in his life and career by not putting everything on the line or not believing in himself. Even with House of Hardcore, taking chances on shows and tours in Australia and Toronto, as well as nationwide in the States, has paid off to this point.
Between advertising revenue and subscriptions, which Twitch offers as a premium experience that removes commercials and provides other unique benefits to the most "hardcore" fans. Fans who watch the shows live also get to instantly react to the content they're seeing through Twitch's chat feature.
Dreamer believes he's on the precipice of a unique and potentially fruitful opportunity, and he's once again ready to do whatever it takes.
"I'm not a publicly traded company. This is the money I made from my years of wrestling. I broke my neck. I broke my back," Dreamer said. "I now let wrestling fans watch, for free, my product. Hopefully more revenue, in the sense of commercials, will pay to get people to watch the show. I think that's an amazing, amazing thing, how it's no longer about just television because I watch stuff on my phone. I watch stuff on my laptop. I watch stuff on my TV. That's where Twitch is available."
So what drives Dreamer to pour everything he has into the wrestling business, after all of these years -- to plan, produce and perform at every single House of Hardcore event?
"I'm a huge wrestling fan. Always have been, always will be," Dreamer said. "I'm 46 years old, I grew up in the '70s and in the '80s with the boom of professional wrestling and I saw the territories. I got to see different wrestlers from different places. That's what I love. I could watch World Championship Wrestling. I could watch Mid-South Championship Wrestling, Georgia Championship Wrestling, Florida Championship Wrestling, WWF, AWA, Mid-Atlantic, NWA. I had all these choices.
"The business bubble burst after ECW and WCW went away, you know, WWE became the only game in town. I just kind of wanted to show the world my vision, and just offer variety."
Dreamer wrestles for companies of all shapes, sizes and locations because he still loves to perform, but he's also doing it to keep as many eyes on him and on House of Hardcore as possible. That passion drives him in any direction he thinks could be beneficial, and that includes an occasional spot on his buddies' new podcast -- his buddies being Adam "Edge" Copeland and Jay "Christian" Reso, and the podcast the increasingly popular "E&C's Pod of Awesomeness."
"We're the same age as Tommy," said Copeland, of the unlikely relationship that formed between the trio during their time in WWE. "We just have similar mentalities and similar senses of humor. We're all very self-deprecating and I think, I don't know, we just have a blast when we're together. Just turn into what we would have been if we had known each other when we were teenagers. Just a bunch of morons making fun of each other, and then the common bond of we all followed our absolute passion and were able to succeed at it."
That also carries into Ring of Honor, where Dreamer has recently partnered back up with an ECW-era buddy in Bully (a.k.a Bubba) Ray to take on the Briscoes.
"My company's motto is, 'No Politics, No BS, Just Wrestling,'" Dreamer said. "If what I'm gonna do helps Ring of Honor, it's gonna help House of Hardcore. If what I'm gonna do helps any company, I will continue to do that as long as it makes sense for both of us."
That program also comes with the added benefit of a match at Manhattan's Hammerstein Ballroom, at one of ROH's biggest shows of the year. Dreamer gets to live out the best of all worlds -- the visibility of working on live pay-per-view for the second-largest promotion in the United States, and a chance to revisit another of ECW's most iconic venues.
But none of this comes easy, as Dreamer has to take on about a dozen different roles to keep the House of Hardcore ship moving forward.
"I just got in from Lakeland. I probably sat on my computer, answered about 23 emails, I forget about how many texts, and then when I came home, I started, doing the travel for my Dec. 2 show for all the talent. I finalized all the hotels for the guys. I have a girl who's helping me who's been just a fan. I've relied a lot on people just paying it forward."
This dogged, do as many things yourself as you're capable of ideal may not be an accident. Despite being outside of the WWE, Dreamer tries to maintain as healthy a relationship with the company as possible. He utilizes a lot of former WWE talent, and many have passed through his doors over the past few years on their way to NXT, Raw and SmackDown.
From everything he was able to learn, and for everything that he's done for the wrestling business in general, Dreamer views WWE's patriarch in the highest of regards.
"Vince McMahon, besides my own father, is probably the most influential man in my life," Dreamer said.
The "all hands on deck" approach was ingrained in Dreamer back in the ECW days, but investing in and believing in people has paid off in ways even he couldn't have expected -- including the unlikely origins of how the House of Hardcore/Twitch deal came together.
"How I got the Twitch deal was amazing," Dreamer said. "An ECW fan who didn't have money for an event told me, 'I really want to come in. I don't have money,' and I said, 'Cool, come here.' He helped me carry T-shirts from my car because that's what I used to do in ECW too, wearing many hats. He carried T-shirts to the car and helped set up the merchandise stand. I said, 'Enjoy the show, and come back and help me with the T-shirts later.'
"He loaded the van and I gave him a T-shirt and I said, 'I'll see you next time.' That was it. Years later, he became an executive with Twitch. Then he came to me and said, 'Hey. I think this is a perfect fit.'"
On Saturday night, Dreamer and House of Hardcore will find out just how good a fit it'll be.