Is this a tool, a weapon, or an entire medium?
The elect know the answer. With the race and gender wars settled, only wrestle war remains. I’m unearthing Sandman vs. Sabu at November to Remember, final proof that stimulants are healthier than hallucinogens. Even in wrestling, where sobriety makes you a generational genius.
As a writer, this cause is close to my heart. Coffee and nostril Stevia dominate workshops, yet mushrooms and LSD get all the mass media representation. Granted, I abstained from everything out of lingering Baptist fear of joy. But the insult matters.
I should specify pro wrestling. Wrestling also refers to a real martial art without side flips. I’m told Hercules invented it to make Zeus appreciate his only consensual son, a legend worthy of a pro wrestling storyline. The kind ECW founder Paul Heyman would hear out, reject, and steal on primetime television next week.
Today’s wrestling duopolists, Vince McMahon and Tony Khan, are respectively accused of treating wrestlers like old racehorses and new action figures. This is progress. Paul Heyman treated wrestlers like fireworks: objects burned for crowds and then forgotten.
Paul Heyman saw the myth holding wrestling back: paying people. Cutting out that excess let him bring underground wrestling styles to a national audience. ECW stood for Extreme Championship Wrestling, and it’s the only product to live up to nineties marketing.
It had everything. Fire. Staple guns. Models that loved awkward loners. Fire again. Attempted murder by a former bounty hunter before a live crowd.
Boldness earned ECW a following. It wasn’t cult-like: cults were ECW-like. Wrestling that delivered on blood and sleaze was like a banner ad sending real widows to your dorm room: an illegal miracle. That’s harder to televise today, when Roman only inhales with FCC approval.
ECW opened November to Remember by celebrating their biggest crowd yet, which is how you tempt the Fates. The winged sisters cursed the pay-per-view with three generations of CTE, an audience sweatier than the athletes, and a match six percent crazier than intended.
Said match begins with chaos from another match. Transitions anchor every medium, and post-match brawls are wrestling’s shot-reverse shot. In this tortured metaphor, Paul Heyman is Robert Rodriguez, The Rock is The Rock, and Vince McMahon is simultaneously James Cameron and Tommy Wiseau.
That’s a double nutshot, on referees, because ECW is this blessed world’s highest art. But let he who strikes first also weather the lash:
Nothing’s gone off the rails yet–this is ECW on clockwork time. The revenge killing of Beulah McGillicutty (the testicle assassin above) goes off without a hitch. Beaulah’s a woman in ECW, putting her somewhere between a Greek Chorus, stripper, and stuntwoman.
More the latter, today.
The testicle avenger’s called Sabu. His own match is in moments, but he makes time to torment the weak with his friends. A display of the brotherhood and esprit de corps missing from the judgemental masses. So who really clotheslined an unarmed woman? We did.
Player 2, a junkyard boxer named Sandman, comes to the rescue. He uses the power of evil stepfathers for good. Our hero’s ready to drink, bash cans against his forehead, and probably wrestle too.
Sandman is one of the most distinct, popular, and beloved wrestlers of the era. He’s mostly bad at it.
You see, Sandman’s not into clean moves or unslurred sentences. But he comes out to “Enter Sandman,” will die for a stunt, and looks like your favorite uncle before AA ruined Thanksgiving. Sandman simply stands out in his environment. After spending Princeton’s “breathing black human” scholarship, I can confirm that it’s a superpower.
His opponent’s an omega mutant as well: Sabu reinvented acrobatic self-harm. He didn’t come out to pop-era Metallica, but agility and redneck-agitating headwear made him a fan favorite anyway. For example, here’s Sabu doing a basic chair strike:
That’s years after his prime, for an audience of “the guy holding the camera.” Today’s match is peak Sabu, who’s much more concerned with killing you than surviving the match. He wielded the rare threat of going to the hospital with you.
It looks tough for our hero. But Sabu attacked a bottle blonde during the Attitude Era, a debt to be paid in blood and ruined furniture. Seeing red, Sandman rushes in to dispense justice.
Give him a sec.
…It’s been three minutes. Something’s off.
Here, we move into the world of myth and conjecture, which I normally embrace like a WSJ editor. But searching “Hotdog Lawyer” only returns a gripping Nickelodeon pilot, so I’ll tone down the libel.
The widely circulated story is that Sandman allegedly took acid before the match. It isn’t necessarily true: he method acted an addict, and enjoyed a range of exciting chemicals. Sandman was an icon to everyone that produced, purchased, or confiscated gas station drugs. What matters is that today, he’s not entirely there.
Okay, he’s on acid.
It’s a tables and ladders match, which lets both competitors wield half a construction site. While Sandman poses on a ladder and contemplates infinity, Sabu decides to start the match. A flashy mistake.
At first, it looks like a normal match for both. Sabu does premium flips, and Sandman flails. I’d call it a metaphor for immigrant and domestic work ethic, but Sabu’s from Michigan.
A few minutes in, things break down. Sandman slows down (more), and the objects hitting Sabu in the face look less and less intentional. Sandman’s face is stuck in the blank, stupefied wonder of an adult paying for a palm reading. It’s debatable when the mescaline overtook the adrenaline, but I’m fond of this moment:
The crowd reviews the new tempo with the chant “Sandman sucks dick.” I disagree. Even as he converses with his ancestors, Sandman makes a compelling target for ladders to the skull. Or so a pissed Sabu decides.
At least some part of Sandman remembers the match. He successfully gets in place for an air-mailed ladder to the stomach:
A few other stunts kinda-sorta-almost work. They’re just eclipsed by Mr. Bean pratfalls like this:
That’s when I fell in love with this match. None of the near-obituaries can compete with an adult tripping over a stationary ladder. It’s a visual metaphor for every lockdown relationship. Sabu passing it off as his nefarious plan only makes it better.
Then again, there are some excellent near-obituaries. Here’s Sandman unleashing the ultimate attack:
Some trivia about me: I used to breakdance, because hip kids hung out at the hospital. There’s a genre of flip called a “suicide” where you fake a crash landing for effect, only to resume spinning unharmed. This isn’t a b-boy suicide. It’s a normal one.
By now, it’s clear Sandman’s mind is out exploring new planets. But Sabu finishes the match anyway, stunts and all. For my money, that puts at least a third of the blame on him.
Half. Sabu gets half.
Here’s the issue: behind all the exploding barbed wire and vascular ghosts, wrestling is driven by rigid professionalism. Wrestlers jump from ballroom balconies because they trust the tack-covered man below can and will catch them.
If you pulled this on Jackass Forever, Johnny Knoxville would jam his hand into your chest and absorb your youth. Stunts aren’t just about attaching a car battery to your loins. They’re about doing it safely enough to shoot four sequels with bigger cars. I guarantee Steve-O knows what voltage ignites pubic hair.
Alright, so catching’s hard on acid. At least Sandman’s not jumping from–
The crowd couldn’t love it more. It’s a Barrabas situation: given the choice between fake blood and a real addict falling off a ladder, the hospital wins every time. Nineties wrestling could be simulated grappling or authentic Bumfights.
Alternatively, Street Fighter. Sabu nails Sandman in the face with a fireball. It’s not pitched as magic (that’s Lucha Underground’s beautiful contribution to human culture), but the rule of the streets. Clearly I missed out on Gun Hill Road, where they just threw boring bricks.
The match ends with another ladder spot, or as commentary calls it, an “atomic Arabian facebuster with a lateral press.” I’ll accept “jumping with a ladder” on tomorrow’s test. Here’s the last shot before insurance premiums went up.
At this point, I’ve circled back around to admiring the match. Consider Sandman’s distorted point of view. He’s trapped in South Mordor, and the only thing more terrifying than a beheading is a beheading on a bad trip. We don’t have words for that courage in the square world.
Luckily, we don’t need to stretch our dying imaginations. Feeding AI art generators the sentence “Sabu jumping from the top rope with a ladder” provides a convenient window into wrestling-themed hell. I’ve taken the liberty of naming the results.
I prefer reality. No watercolors of a dying universe, just simple, grounded, and familiar pain. Give Sandman some credit for navigating The Ladder Over Innsmouth on Pay-Per-View.
Sidebar: If you’re wondering why NFTs died, generating these took three minutes.
This is my favorite installment of Paul Heyman’s Wonderland. It’s not representative—for all the manic vision and rebel posturing, wrestlers usually saved acid for the afterparty. But it couldn’t have happened anywhere else.
As humiliarious as this incident was, it didn’t define the competitors. Today Sandman’s sober, and Sabu probably can’t enter Singapore. They had a few (better) rematches, and both occupy the long list of people underpaid for WWE’s sugar-free version of ECW:
You’re not on acid: nobody’s bleeding and Sandman’s touched a gym. If you told me that in 1998, I’d say “Are you the new babysitter? I put a frog in the microwave.” I didn’t watch any of this until lockdown, long after I’d run out of frogs. Time flows on.
“Drugs make great art” is the two-time world champion of creative cliches, and it’s nonsense. My best writing on drugs is the word “Ascend” 200 times in red ink. I maintain that drugs simply steal credit for glorious ignorance of consequences. With the right mindset, you can do moonsaults and blow up frogs far, far longer than you should.
This article was brought to you by our fine sponsor and Hot Dog Supreme: Hambone, who first taught wrestling to the AIs and is responsible for the upcoming Flying Elbow Robot Apocalypse.