Hardcore Flashbacks with ECW’s Sandman and Raven
- Sandman and Raven spoke with SI.com about the glory days of ECW.
PAWTUCKET, RI — Two hours after finishing his match at a New England independent show, a smoky, cherry-scented fragrance filled the air as the Sandman unwound, smoking and advocating for the use of medical marijuana.
“Pot was given to us by the Queen of Sheba,” Sandman noted, stressing the importance of medical marijuana to help the body heal after a wrestling match—an argument also made by recently retired NFL lineman Eugene Monroe. “She gave us this for medicine. After the match, to wind down, this is much better than painkillers.”
Fully relaxed, Sandman proceeded to argue with Raven over the reason Paul Heyman’s Extreme Championship Wrestling was successful.
“Our shows were a big spectacle,” the Sandman said in between puffs. “Paul E. was talented enough to allow us to use our own talents. With Vince, he has a place in the card for everything. In ECW, every match was a semi-main event.”
Raven flashed a devious smile as he interjected to battle his longtime rival.
“ECW worked because a lot of the guys sucked,” explained Raven, who was involved in a memorable storyline that included Sandman’s six-year-old son, Tyler, in 1996. “Some of the matches weren’t that good because the guys weren’t that good, but I don’t agree with going ballistic every match because that doesn’t go anywhere.”
The search for hardcore appeared organic for both Raven and the Sandman, but the pursuit was long and arduous. Two ECW stalwarts, both Raven (Scott Levy) and Sandman (Jim Fullington) found their success by tapping into their inner-demons.
“The character became more personal than I ever thought possible,” explained Raven. “I felt like I created art with it, and art imitated life. Then my life started to imitate my art, and that is when it grew dangerous. That’s when the snowball effect came in, and you became Sisyphus pushing a boulder back up the hill.”
Raven suffered from both alcohol and drug abuse, which sent his personal life into a tailspin while allowing him to creatively tap into the world of darkness.
While Edgar Allan Poe, who wrote “The Raven,” romanticized death in his short stories, Raven caused destruction in an almost lyrical stanza in the wrestling ring.
“If I had to start all over again in wrestling, after my years in therapy, my work would be deeper, darker, and more personal,” said Raven.
Long before he was a hardcore icon, the Sandman grew up as the prototypical son of Philadelphia, and was often found looking for a drink, a smoke, or a fight.
“I was thrown out of WWF shows at the Spectrum in Philly so many times,” said the Sandman as he relaxed by lying on the cool pavement after his six-man tag match. “I didn’t want to be a cop, I didn’t want to be a fireman, didn’t want to be a doctor. There was only one finish for me—I wanted to be a professional wrestler.”
Sandman’s journey began in earnest, paying his dues on a tattered wrestling mat. The desire to join the ring occurred after he was tossed, literally, by Gorilla Monsoon at a WWF show.
“I leaned over the guardrail and smacked Jimmy Snuka so hard that he chased me,” recalled Sandman. “I found myself in the back, which was a place where I shouldn’t have been, and Gorilla Monsoon threw me on my ass and kicked me out.”
Embarrassed and sore, fate intervened as the future five-time ECW world champion exited the Spectrum.
“When I walked out, I saw a flyer for an independent school,” said Sandman. “The next day, which was February 6, 1989, I paid $3,500 to train four days a week, three hours a night, and had my first match on June 9. The next thing you know, I’m wrestling icons in the business.
“I lived my life’s dream. How f------ fortunate am I to do that? I was paid to go out there and have fun. The whole world is going to a job they f------ hate, a boss they can’t f------ stand, and waking up to an alarm clock that they hate. I lived my dream. It’s f------ unbelievable.”
Both Sandman and Raven agreed that Paul Heyman had the gift of cultivating talent, despite whatever limitations other companies had placed on them.
“Paul Heyman was more than a huge influence, he was the influence,” said Raven. “Personally, it’s not that he found this part of me, but he allowed me to express it. In the beginning, as I was still finding it, he saw what it could be. After a while, it all came from me—it was coming from inside me, my personal life. But I’m not at all surprised by Paul’s current success with WWE. I’d have only been surprised had he not been successful there.”
Ever the promoter, Sandman remarked that Heyman was extremely astute to work with a talent as extraordinary as Brock Lesnar.
“Paul E. is smart as s---,” said Sandman. “He’s locked in there with Brock now, and you know how much heat Brock generates. I would have said ten years ago that you’d never, ever see Paul E. again on a WWE show, but he’s with Brock now, he’s a genius motherf-----.”
“There is nobody better than Paul E. has a heel manager,” added Raven. “Jim Cornette, who used to be considered one of the greatest, isn’t even in Paul E.’s league.”
Sandman not only found the footlights of success, but also reached the sky with runs in WCW and WWE. The success, he admitted, altered his personality and changed his values.
“I was living, eating, sleeping, breathing wrestling,” said Sandman. “I’d go to sleep thinking about spots with Mikey Whipwreck. I had my family, I had my kids, but they were almost a distraction. I was blowing up. Fame f---s people up, and it f----- me up.”
“Fame doesn’t allow you to stay grounded. You float. When WWE fired me in 2007, I realized that it had f---ed my brain up. You don’t realize when it happens, but it changes you. It changes everything about you. This wasn’t a job, it was my life. I lived for that rush. Once you get that rush, you’re always looking for it. Unfortunately, it ends up being drugs most of the time.”
Raven also hit great heights of fame. His peaked in WCW when he guided Perry Saturn to victory over Chris Benoit in a “Raven’s Rules” match at Starrcade ‘97. Frustrations over the direction of his character built up to a climax.
“Starrcade was not an opportunity,” said Raven, noting he did not even wrestle. “There was no opportunity. The irony is I walked out. Bischoff held a meeting and said, ‘Raven, if you’re not happy, there is the door.’ He knew I wasn’t happy. Somebody interviewed me, and I expressed my displeasure about the way I was being used.
“I don’t blame Bischoff for being upset—what company allows their guys to talk sh-- about them? I was following what the top guys were doing, but if I would have thought about it more—which is the story of my life—I would have just kept quiet and expressed my feelings internally to Bischoff.”
After a couple of choice comments, Raven exited the locker room and waved farewell to WCW.
“Yes, I walked out,” said Raven. “If I hadn’t quit, I would have ended working on top. They ended up bringing in guys like Vampiro to work on top, and Jeff Jarrett, to work with Sting, and all of the jacked up guys making the bigger money weren’t being used as the main eventers any more. So the opportunities would have expanded, and they wouldn’t have needed Vampiro because they had Raven.”
Raven believes his original WWF role as cocky, loudmouth manager Johnny Polo—and backstage work as a producer—did nothing to advance his career in any meaningful manner.
“I didn’t feel like they were pushing my character and nope, producing at WWE did not help me at all,” shared Raven. “I would basically get up at 9 a.m. and call the studio to tell them I’d be in the office, then I’d call the office and tell them I’d be in the studio, and then I’d go back to bed until 2 p.m.”
But as Raven, Levy captured Edgar Allan Poe’s deep darkness. Poe’s “Raven,” which is lyrical in its darkness, harmonized “his eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming.” Raven could relate.
“I caught the cultural zeitgeist, and it coincided with me becoming introspective,” said Raven. “The two merged, and that allowed me to create Raven.”
Antagonists need protagonists, which was Tommy Dreamer in ECW for Raven.
“Dreamer’s character wouldn’t have worked without me, but mine would have certainly worked without him,” said Raven. “If you think about it, he’s always associated with me – he’s the ‘good guy’ version of me, but he is still a version of me. That’s why Dreamer has only brought me in once to his House of Hardcore promotion. He wants to have his own name, without my name involved.”
Sandman then tagged into the conversation as the topic of rivals were discussed.
“It was like poetry working with Cactus Jack [Mick Foley],” said Sandman. “We didn’t get along, but he was just so easy to work with. We wouldn’t have to set anything up, we’d just go out there.
“Vince has that thing on the internet where you can watch all the matches for like ten bucks [the WWE Network], and I have fathers and sons, spanning generations, watching my matches, and that’s pretty f------ cool.”
Sandman also reminisced about memories during his time in WWE working for Vince McMahon.
“Vince pulled me aside once after I had an interview with Carlito,” recalled Sandman. “This was the only time we were alone together, and he said, ‘Stop yelling into the microphone when you do a f------ interview. You don’t have to yell, they’ll listen.’
“I also own the ‘Sandman’ name but WCW didn’t want to use it because they were too scared of being sued. I proved to them that I owned it and they still didn’t want to use it. So Kevin Nash, who just got the book, came up to me and said, ‘What do you want to use for a name?’ I said ‘Hak,’ which is the nickname I’ve had since I was five years old, and he said OK.”
Raven expressed frustration with Sandman’s storytelling.
“No one cares,” chided Raven. “Tell a story that is interesting.”
Sandman embraced the challenge to reinvigorate the conversation.
“OK, I signed a WCW contract with a $10,000 signing bonus,” answered Sandman. “And now I’ll answer, once and for all, if Steve Austin ripped off my character.”
“Stone Cold” Steve Austin shared a proclivity, like the Sandman, for beer-drinking, but the characters—who actually faced off during one of Austin’s greatest ECW promos—were vastly different.
“Tojo Yamamoto was coming to the ring with a cane in 1972,” said Sandman. “I’m not the first one to bring a f------ cane to the ring. I’m the first one to do the beer and cigarettes, but Austin had a different character. He wasn’t smashing beer on his f------ head, he was having a beer toast after his match. I love Austin and I love everything he’s done, and I have no problem whatsoever with that guy. No matter what you’ve done, someone has done it before. He was so easy to work with, and he appreciated what we were doing after he was held back in opening matches at WCW.”
Raven and Sandman then both went their separate ways. As Raven sauntered away, he extended his gratitude to fans for decades of support before lamenting the current product.
“I’m so grateful for people’s support,” said Raven. “The fact I can command as much money as I do for personal appearances is a testament to their loyalty.
“The product has turned into crap. There is no competition, and it’s not what I love any more.”