The Intellectual Savior: Damien Sandow on his post-WWE plans
Damien Sandow is ready, once again, to embrace the unknown.
“I wrote the map to ‘Parts Unknown,’” said the man born Aaron Stevens. “It’s familiar territory to me. I’ve gone into the unknown so many times that it is familiar territory, and I operate best when I don’t know what’s next.”
A Shakespeare production company immediately reached out to Stevens–who has already received interest for roles in film, television, and voiceovers–after he was released by the WWE.
“I studied Shakespearean acting to become a better actor in film, which I equate to learning wrestling holds that I never used on TV but they were there if I needed them,” said Stevens. “You never know, I could end up in a Shakespearean play.”
Though the world of Shakespeare is tempting, especially for the uniquely built 6'4" and 240-pound Stevens, he is not ready to walk away entirely from wrestling.“By no means am I going to burn my boots,” promised Stevens, who created a “Thank You Tour” with multiple dates on the independent wrestling scene to express his gratitude for those who have supported him. “WWE taught me the performance element, and what I would put into characters in WWE is similar to what you’d do in television show. I’ve been working with an acting coach for almost a year now, and I’m really digging the idea of playing different characters. The WWE was great, it was awesome, and that will always be part of who I am as a performer. But again, I’m also focused on the future.”
In the interim, the intellectual savior of the masses has returned to his roots... on the farm.
“I get up in the morning and feed the chickens,” said Stevens. “We have a duck that just showed up one day and bosses all of the other animals around, too. It’s kind of like Noah’s Ark.”
Sandow lives with his girlfriend on a 35-acre farm in Scottsburgh, Indiana, and begins each day with his customary routine of feeding all the chickens, his rabbit, the bloodhound and the duck.
“My day starts after that,” said Sandow. “It’s a very interesting contrast to life on the road.”
Stevens admitted that the piece of wrestling he will miss most is the camaraderie among the talent.
“It’s a competitive environment, but at the same time, you need each other,” explained Stevens. “There were a lot of good, good people in that locker room. I’m going to miss seeing the same people I saw for years.”
Stevens was a leader and voice of reason in the locker room, and his traveling circle included the Wyatt Family, Santino Marella, Curtis Axel and Heath Slater.
“I was a glue guy who traveled a little bit with everybody,” said Stevens, “and had a great time doing it.”
“I don’t think he enjoyed doing it,” said Sandow. “I felt bad for him, and I was saying, ‘I have other things lined up, I’ll be OK.’ I knew him well and still think highly of him. That’s business. Not everything in life is a bowl of cherries.”
Wrestling ran through Stevens’ blood as a child in North Oxford, Massachusetts (“As a kid, I saw wrestling on television and said, ‘That’s what I am going to do,’” he said.). He learned the business from WWE Hall of Famer Walter “Killer” Kowalski, whose school also produced such talents as Triple H and Chyna.
“I talked my way into being trained at 16,” said Stevens. “You were supposed to be 18, but I found a way to talk my way into the ‘Harvard of Pro Wrestling.’ I was one of the last ones to actually be trained by him. He’d actually get in the ring and show me things. I was a junior in high school at the time, so that was pretty cool.”
Stevens made the two-hour commute to Kowalski’s school while he attended high school during the day at Holy Name in Worcester, MA. Unbeknownst at the time, his English teacher played a major role in the early development of Damien Sandow’s “verbose intellectual” character.“I used to sit in home room and think about the ‘Attitude Era,’” said Stevens. “Out of all the subjects, English class with Mr. [Edward] Reynolds ended up being the most beneficial for me. I used those ‘Five Dollar Words’ when I was ‘Intellectual Savior.’ I attribute much of my early success in the WWE to Mr. Reynolds. He increased my vocabulary tremendously, and to this day, I still joke with him that room 203 was where it all started.”
Stevens played basketball and football in high school, then graduated from Worcester State University with a degree in urban studies, but his heart never strayed from his true love. He wrestled dark matches every weekend and hustled to succeed in the business of pro wrestling.
“My friends would be going to a party when I was in high school, and I’d have to say, ‘Thanks, but I’m wrestling in Lynn, MA at the armory,’” said Stevens. “But to me, I never viewed that as a sacrifice. It was a choice I made and I wouldn’t take it back. I would not do anything differently in my career. I wanted to go wrestle. I never viewed it as sacrifice–I wanted to be a wrestler.”
The first big break for Stevens came at the age of 20 when he was signed by WWE in 2002.
“I was at a tryout camp with WWE scout Tom Pritchard,” said Stevens. “He ended up seeing me and it led to a couple dark matches and me getting signed with Ohio Valley Wrestling, which was WWE’s developmental territory at the time. I got to learn from Rip Rogers, who is one of the best trainers out there in terms of the psychology, fundamentals and how to incorporate the two of them. I went to the main roster for a little bit, but they weren’t creatively using me like I wanted to be used. I ended up leaving, going to Puerto Rico, and it was a little bit different of a road than I thought I would take.”
Puerto Rico represented the turning point in Stevens’ development as a professional, and the move was recommended to him by one of his closest friends in Mark Henry.“When I first got to OVW, Mark Henry was there and we just became fast friends,” said Stevens. “He is one of the true friends that I have, not just in the wrestling business, but in life. I really can’t say enough good things about him as a human being. He suggested I go to Puerto Rico, and it worked out great.”
Stevens wrestled in Puerto Rico during 2009 and 2010 for WWE Hall of Famer Carlos Colon’s World Wrestling Council.
“I needed a break from WWE,” said Stevens, who will be returning to wrestle in Puerto Rico this summer. “I needed to go and create my own self, and be free to explore me as a performer. Puerto Rico allowed me to do that.
“Steve Corino was there, and Tama Tonga from New Japan and I became good buddies. The wrestling fans in Puerto Rico are some of the loudest I’ve ever met, and I absolutely loved performing in front of them. I got the opportunity with WWE to go back there, and it was a privilege for me to perform on that island. There is an energy that is awesome.”
Stevens returned to the WWE in 2010, and immediately made an impact as Damien Sandow. Out of respect to “The Genius” Lanny Poffo, Stevens reached out and asked if he could use some of the Genius’ signature trademarks in his Sandow character.“I asked Lanny about doing the cartwheel,” said Stevens. “He said, ‘If you can do it, do it.’ The ‘Intellectual Savior’ part of the character was part Genius, part Rip Rogers, and part Gorgeous George. There were so many different elements to it, and I created a really distinct identity for myself. I’m very blessed to have been able to have done that, because in this day and age, not many guys have that kind of success that fast.”
Success came quick in Stevens’ second run with the WWE, as his eleven years of hard work paid off with an immediate connection to the crowd–and he also credited a substantial assist to Dusty Rhodes.
“I’d worked for years at how to present something in the ring,” explained Stevens. “I will also be grateful to Dusty forever. Dusty gave me the idea to wear a bathrobe to the ring. That was a huge piece of the character when he told me, ‘Get a bathrobe like Lou Thesz.’ I remember we were on the computer in his office watching tapes of Lou Thesz, and that’s when he came up with the idea.
“Dusty had a way where, when he would talk to you, he was very fatherly. You felt like you knew him your whole life, yet there was that other part of me saying, ‘This is Dusty Rhodes helping me!’ He was very unique, and there will never be another ‘American Dream.’ I don’t think there is another person who touched as many careers as Dusty.”
Stevens has more history with the Rhodes family, as he teamed with Cody Rhodes to form Team Rhodes Scholars in 2012. Cody was just granted his release from WWE as well, and Stevens wishes nothing but success for his former partner.
“Everyone has their own unique story and unique path they took to get to the WWE,” said Stevens. “Cody is a grown man, and if Cody made the decision to leave WWE, then guess what? At this point in his journey, that’s best for Cody. I wish him nothing but success, and I have no doubt that he’ll find success wherever he goes. Anyone who is going to have Cody on their show will be better off for it. Cody is extremely passionate, he’s extremely dedicated, and he takes this very, very seriously. He puts thought and time into it, and if I was promoter, he’d be one of the first people I’d want.”
The peak of success for Stevens in the WWE occurred in July of 2013 when he won the Money in the Bank match, which seemingly all but assured a future run as WWE champion. Unfortunately for Stevens, WWE creative immediately regretted the decision and, instead of catapulting him to the world title, he suffered a momentum-killing losing streak. John Cena ultimately thwarted his attempt at becoming WWE champion.
“WWE was doing the unification of the titles at the time, so it may have been more to do with the timing than anything else,” explained Stevens. “But when you think your career is going one way and it doesn’t, you’ve got two choices. You can say, ‘I really wish this would have happened,’ or ‘How do I move on?’ I learned, over time, that’s the right and healthier choice.”
Influenced by veterans like Chris Jericho and Santino Marella, Stevens decided to make the most of whatever role he was given. He closely observed how Marella prolonged his career by fully embracing a comedy character.
“When they say, ‘You’re on TV tonight,’ that is very valuable,” said Stevens. “I always wanted to make my time good. WWE gave me a lot more freedom than most of their talent to go out and entertain people, and I am so grateful for that. Every house show, from Saudi Arabia to Moline, IL, I’d go out there and get that response. During my match, people were loud and making noise. I worked for the fans–plain and simple. My job was to entertain them in the best way possible.”
In a move that can only help him adapt to acting quicker, Stevens then appeared as a different character every week on Raw–including Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels, Abraham Lincoln, Bruce Springsteen and even Vince McMahon. He put together two more particularly memorable characters as “Macho Mandow,” which turned into a tribute of sorts to the “Macho Man” Randy Savage, and another popular run as The Miz’s stunt double, Damien Mizdow.
“I called [Randy’s brother] Lanny [Poffo] when I was doing ‘Macho Mandow,’” said Stevens. “When I was approached with that, I was surprised. My whole thing was, ‘Whatever I’m given, I am going to make the most of,’ but that was something where I felt the need to reach out to Lanny and let him know that I was not trying to be disrespectful. I wanted to pay tribute more than anything else. In life, there are things that are more important than to do things for a profit. I wouldn’t have felt right if I hadn’t reached out and asked, ‘Are you OK with this?’ At the end of the day, that is his brother, and that’s more important than anything.”
There were no long-term plans for Stevens as Mizdow until the act became overwhelmingly popular with the fans.
“When I was with The Miz, ninety-nine percent of what we did was ad-libbed,” said Stevens. “It was so much fun. Mike and I would look at each other and ask, ‘What are you doing?’ He’d said, ‘I don’t know,’ then I’d say, ‘I don’t know,’ and then I’d say,’ Well, let’s go and find out.’ A lot of the magic happened spur of the moment, and that was awesome. I’ll always look back on the chemistry we had as performers with very fond memories.”
Though Mizdow was not victorious in the match, his crowning achievement occurred during the Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal at WrestleMania 31. The crowd erupted when he was one of the final two participants with eventual winner, The Big Show.
“I didn’t win the battle royal at WrestleMania 31, but that reaction was one of the loudest ones of the night,” marveled Stevens. “It was genuine and real and not forced. Everyone was screaming because they genuinely felt something, and that’s a greater honor than any title I could have won.”
Sandow is content with his WWE career, and credits his supporters as the reason he was able to succeed for the past four years on the main roster.
“As a performer, I will always be grateful to the fans,” said Stevens. “The fans made me. All I did was go out there and put everything I had into it, and the fans made up their minds. But there are other guys who need to be given a chance.“All I can control is fan response, and the fans made up their minds very organically. That was based on my body of work over the years. I look at the WWE and professional wrestling a lot different than most people. If it’s an on-going TV show, what more could I have done as a character?”
Stevens knew to leave the party when everyone else was still having fun.
“I have accomplished everything I want to accomplish,” said Stevens. “In the entertainment business, we aspire to entertain people. We entertain by our performances. There is an absolutely an athletic element to the WWE and the performances in the WWE. But I look back at my career and feel the spectrum of emotions I have extracted from the audience in a fairly short time. I can say it was a job well done, and now is time to move onto the next thing.”
Stevens was released with wrestling fans still clamoring for the chance to see more of him on WWE television. He received an even louder ovation than Shaquille O’Neal when the two squared off in the WrestleMania 32 battle royal, which was only one indication that people genuinely missed having him on-screen.
As Stevens explores the world of film, television and voiceovers to find the second act of his professional career, he is open to one day returning to WWE.“You never, ever say never,” said Stevens. “Right now, there are so many opportunities that have presented themselves. I was in a voiceover studio recently getting things together for a possible project, and I’m starting to explore a couple film and television opportunities. I also have a very good management team that is guiding me through the unknown, and I’m learning that you need to take the right project as opposed to the first project.”
The world is not overflowing with 6’4”, 240-pound Shakespearean actors, but visions of a rowdy, wrestling-enthused crowd cheering on Stevens playing the role of Julius Caesar made him laugh.
“I may go into wrestling mode and go off-script,” said a laughing Stevens. “So I’ll have to train myself not to do that.”
Stevens is no stranger to being off-camera, nor is he frightened by the unknown. He thanked people for their genuine support, and promised that he will be heard from again very soon.
“I’ll continue to fight, even through the unknown,” promised Stevens. “But I’ll always make time to smell the roses.”
Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.