D2D Interview: Rob Van Dam
With Wrestlemania in town this weekend, did you really think this week's Drinking to Drink Interview wasn't going to be with a professional wrestler? Not just any professional wrestler, by the way—not Savio Vega, or the Repo Man—but a legitimate, bonafide superstar. A former WWE champion. The man who beat John Cena for the strap at the Hammerstein Ballroom back in 2006. We're talking about Mr. Monday Night. Mr. Pay Per View. RVD. Or, perhaps you know him by his ECW nickname: the whole fuckin' show. Even if you're one of the few people out there who doesn't know Rob Van Dam's body of work, I know you've watched an NFL game where one of the players scores a touchdown, turns to the camera, and does the double thumb point to the shoulder pads. He didn't just make that up. He's emulating the man in the photo above. Say it with me now:
Since high school, when I watched Rob infiltrate the ranks of the WWF's Monday Night Raw program, I've been a huge fan of RVD. I experienced his amazing 700 day run as television champion of the legendary Philadelphia-based promotion ECW, I've seen him invent new forms of high-flying acrobatics (including the debut of the "Van Terminator" in person), and sat in complete awe as Rob laid down his patented "Five Star Frog Splash" on many an opponent night after night. Rob isn't only still going strong at age 44, he's still a huge draw in the industry. This Saturday night, on Wrestlemania eve, I'll be heading down to Wrestlecon in San Jose to watch Rob team up with his old ECW partner Sabu and take on the one of the greatest tag teams in WWE history: the Hardy Boys. The show is sold out and the atmosphere should be electric because RVD is still the whole F'N show. But, before then, I wanted to pick Rob's brain about a few things, and I was lucky enough to speak with him before the craziness of Wrestlemania week overtook his hectic schedule. He was every bit as cool, mellow, and friendly as his on-screen persona suggests.
In this edition of Drinking to Drink, we talk about the emergence of the internet fan, who Rob's best ECW drinking buddies were, and how—much like with craft spirits—sometimes it's better to ride the independent circuit than grind out the corporate schedule. Previous editions of the D2D series can be found by clicking here, or by visiting the archive in the right hand margin of this page.
David: One of the reasons I’ve always wanted to interview a wrestler for the blog is because I've always felt there’s such a huge similarity between wrestling fans and whisky fans, and I really wanted to see if things were as similar as I suspected. There’s been a shift over the last few years since enthusiasts have used the internet to become more educated about both hobbies, and that’s lead to an entire community of online super fans sharing their information with one another. What’s interesting, however, is few of them have any access to the industry or any professional experience. It’s mostly just opinion based on enjoyment. Sometimes that perspective can be incredibly refreshing and at other times it’s painstakingly bad. As someone who has experienced this on the wrestling side, what’s your take on modern day internet fandom as it pertains to your industry?
RVD: For the sake of the analogy, I guess that makes me the whisky, right? With wrestling I’m the actual product, so I get a bit defensive about criticism when people want to analyze or breakdown what’s right or wrong about the art from their perspective. I believe that if art is really an expression of the artist, then it shouldn’t be compromised to meet the demands of the fan. If the fan is truly a fan of the art, then he needs to receive it as it is being delivered. Having said that, however, I appreciated that the fans in ECW were the highest possible standard of fan, the most educated and the most opinionated probably ever seen in the industry. I’m thankful that I got to learn to perfect my craft and cut my teeth in that kind of environment because it did make me that much better. As a perfectionist, I had to really sharpen and tweak my skills so that I didn’t mess up in front of a crowd that couldn’t wait to chant: “You fucked up! You fucked up!” (laughs)
David: Right! The fans in ECW always felt like they were in on the act, and that’s ultimately what made them so devoted.
RVD: Yeah, that put a lot of pressure on us. But when fans want to come out online with comments like: “I think the company is misusing this person because they should do this or that,” for me that’s just chatter amongst themselves.
David: What’s funny is that whisky companies feel the same way now. There’s an entire community of online whisky fans analyzing what these companies do and making comments about where they think the business should go. I don’t think these major corporations ever anticipated that type of fan involvement. I even get commentary like that about this blog, and I’m not even famous! I get emails all the time from people telling me when I’ve messed up or telling me what they think I should have written. How do you think wrestling has evolved since the invention of the internet and this type of fan?
RVD: Evolution is necessary. I was a big part of how the wrestling style evolved from the way it used to be, back when you had bigger, almost 300 pound guys who didn’t necessarily do as many athletic or acrobatic skills in the ring, but that wasn’t what they were marketing. I think I was one of the pioneers who thought outside the box, who dove over the top rope, or did back flips off the guard rail. Now the style is a hybrid of what I did, plus what guys who originally watched me as fans were thinking about when they were coming up. Now they’re grown up and they’re actually in the ring doing it. As the style has evolved, so have the fans. Their perspective and their understanding of what’s going on have also evolved, and that’s been necessary, too. When I was first touring the country as a young, green kid not even old enough to drink alcohol yet, I remember there was a newsletter—it’s still around—called the Wrestling Observer.
David: By Dave Meltzer.
RVD: Right, you know it.
David: Yes, I’ve read it and mimicked it.
RVD: That was the original behind-the-scenes look. It was like a double-edged sword though. On one hand you had a guy trying to expose business that was normally kept behind closed doors, but at the same time you wanted to get your name in it because you knew other people in the industry would be reading it. It exposed, whether true or not, what the wrestlers felt like when they left the arena, the fights that happened back stage, and contract disputes. Back then if you wanted to read the Observer, you had to go out of your way to subscribe or find someone else’s copy. Now everyone has access to the internet—on your phone, on your watch—it’s three seconds away. You don’t have to be the special private investigator to find this information; it’s everywhere and every fan has their own blog. Plus, the whole business is looked at more as entertainment now than as sports competition, and for that reason the fans feel like their opinions hold more weight. And maybe they do, I don’t know. They’re definitely more educated on what they’re talking about, which is good. Just like with mixed martial arts, I know that fans today understand it better than ever because there’s so much of it out there. You have guys like Joe Rogan explaining what’s going on in the competitor’s mind, what they’re trying to do, and how they’re going to have to shift their body in order to do it. And then you watch them do it! So even couch potatoes have a better understanding of MMA today and the same thing goes for wrestling.
David: I wish I could bring you to some of the meetings I have with brands so that they could understand what’s happening from a greater perspective. This is the exact same shift that is happening with boutique alcohol right now. Just take out the word “wrestling” and replace it with “whisky”. Do you feel like catering to the internet and its fans might be dangerous in terms of their actual potential to completely support business? I remember WCW crumbling at the end when they started changing their product to fit the demands of the online fans. I think they ultimately forgot about the silent majority of fans who weren’t vocally participating online.
RVD: That could be true. I’m not as familiar with what was going on with their creative department towards the end because I was in ECW then. But that’s the thing, you know? Sometimes now they’ll have these special nights where the fans can vote on things, and apparently it’s legitimate. They use the WWE phone app and they’ll let fans vote on who should wrestle who, or decisions like that, and they’ll have us standing by in the back waiting to see what happens. That gives the fans an awful lot of power, and in my opinion it’s enough. That’s enough power (laughs).
David: As much as I want to ask you more about wrestling, it would be weird if I did an interview about alcohol and didn’t ask you directly about that subject. You enjoy drinking, right?
RVD: I do. I’m not known for it so much because I’m known more as a marijuana advocate. A lot of people seem surprised when they see me with an alcoholic beverage in my hand. People who have known me for years will see me and say, “Rob, I didn’t think you drank!” But that’s not true at all.
David: What do you normally like?
RVD: I’m pretty limited with my knowledge. I like to drink beer, but I don’t know about all the different kinds out there. I like Japanese beer like Sapporo. That’s a big treat for me to go to a Japanese restaurant and have a Sapporo or an Asahi, or maybe even a Kirin. I like Yeungling, but I just found out the other day that it’s primarily an East Coast thing. I had no idea. When it comes to liquor, I have one drink that I’ve ordered for more than fifteen years—since I bounced at this country bar in Florida when I was like 21—and that’s the Kamikaze, which recently has been traded in for Fireball.
David: Fireball Cinnamon Whiskey is taking over the world. You like it, too?
RVD: Yes, it goes down so smoothly I don’t understand why everyone makes the face when we do a shot.
David: I’m definitely getting you a case of Fireball now. When you’re done wrestling a match, do you usually go out for a drink afterwards or do you go home?
RVD: Unfortunately, there’s no going home after work with a job like this because you’re on the road and home is a flight away. You’re probably not going home for several days because you’ve got several gigs. After the matches usually you’re going to look for some food, which means that you’re gonna hit something that’s open like Denny’s. You also might go for a bar/restaurant like an Applebee’s or something of that nature. Quite often it’s a social event. We’ll get invited by the owners or fans who want us to come to their place for a drink and it’s always a good time. It’s a spirit lifter. I like to order my drink and have it down before my food gets there.
David: You and my wife!
RVD: Yeah, you’ve gotta get the right mindset going!
David: When you were on the road with ECW, who were the best guys to go out and get a drink with?
RVD: With ECW you didn’t have to go out to get the alcohol. The Sandman would always have five beers in his pocket and he was usually dragging a cooler with him anyway. Sabu, Fonzi, Sandman and I hung out a lot. Sometimes Little Guido. Those were really good times. Sometimes you’d have a cooler brought into the locker room, but that was kind of rare. Overseas, though, that happens a lot. In Tokyo, or something like that, after the show there will be a cooler of beer in the dressing room, especially when there are certain guys working the main event who like that kind of thing. It’s always a part of celebrating. I’m actually in Las Vegas right now and I’ve been doing a great job of helping to promote the Fireball product here (laughs). I have a lot of friends who hook me up here. I get a lot of love in Vegas.
David: That’s what makes drinking fun, right? I associate my best drinking experiences with socializing and meeting up with friends. But I also work in the industry, so it can get dangerous when you can’t separate work from pleasure.
RVD: I’ll go long periods without drinking as well. I used to go months in between drinks and sometimes only have a beer if I was at a Japanese restaurant. When it’s been a long time and I have that first drink in however long, I catch myself thinking: “Man! They do not talk about the medicinal side of alcohol enough.” For someone who has a real physical job like me—after the matches when your back is all stiff and it’s causing you to vibrate at a negative frequency—you’ll notice that you’re exuding a rather grumpy attitude just because you’ve got pain in your body. I’ll take a sip of the beer and the effect always hits me quickly. I have durability and I have endurance when drinking, but it always hits my head real quick, and I’m amazed at how much better I feel. Then I get it. It’s a spirit lifter, and that’s what people look for. If that’s not medicinal, then neither is going to the pharmacy.
David: And those are the origins of alcohol, right? When you get all geeky and research the history of alcoholic beverages, you’ll find that a lot of it is health-related. Speaking of that, you’re easily one of the most talented wrestlers of all time, and you’re known for your physical ability—you can do the splits, and you do flips and martial arts-style kicks. You also put your body at risk with loads of high-flying maneuvers. Because of that you would think that your body in particular would have taken more of a beating than other wrestlers, but at the same time you’re still going strong more than 20 years later. You obviously take really good care of yourself, but what do you attribute your longevity to?
RVD: First off, I think there’s no denying genetics. My mom and dad must have blessed me with some really good genes. Even if people are impressed with my offensive set—I try to amaze people with my moves like you mentioned—one of my greatest strengths is the amount of punishment I can absorb. Besides genetics, I attribute it to stretching. A lot of other guys do not stretch, but it’s been a strong aspect of my regiment for my entire career since I learned about stretching in high school, and through martial arts I’ve always applied it. I can’t feel like I’m at my best unless I go through my entire stretching routine, at which point I’m ready to take on the world. These other guys, they spend two minutes rolling their shoulders around and then they get in the ring. To me, that’s asking for an injury.
David: I feel like there were a good amount of guys in the business who didn’t take the physicality as seriously as you do. They thought maybe because they were former NFL stars or had good physiques that they could hack it in the ring. Did you come across people in your career who didn’t take the athletic side of wrestling, as in the actual training, as seriously as they should?
RVD: Sure, but most of those guys are weeded out early on. The first day you go to a wrestling school they let you run the ropes—sometimes it can take several weeks before you’re even ready to do that—and just running the ropes really hurts. Usually after the first day you do it you have huge purple bruises underneath your arm and that’s not counting the other impact you get from hitting the mat. So usually the headaches and body aches you go home with after the first few days in the ring are enough to weed out the people who aren’t tough enough. It looks fun to a lot of people and they want to wrestle for that reason—they’re fans. Then there are people who tell me they want to get into wrestling just to get into shape.
David: You hear people who say that about the military, too. But then they get a dose of reality.
RVD: Right, you have to be a super human to get to that point. It’s crazy for someone to be incentivized to do professional wrestling just for fitness. I could pick them up and body slam them one time and they’d be in horrible condition after that (laughs).
David: Did you see other guys power through that learning curve and make it despite that?
RVD: The style has changed so much now, so you have to be at an even higher level these days just to have a job in the WWE. When I was there from 2001 to 2006, there was still room for guys who maybe weren’t all that great in the ring, but had good bodies. The office would try to push them and then have them plowing over all us other guys. But when the fans didn’t accept that wrestler, the office would give up after a few months, but only after they’d left a bunch of broken carnage in their pathway. Those of us who were abused trying to get this guy over, we were then trying to recover from the damage he had done to us. And then they’d bring in the next guy. That’s how they would traditionally do it. There were a lot of big guys—really big dudes—and they’ve always loved that for some reason in the WWE. Vince (McMahon) has always loved really big guys. That’s how the WWF boomed and exploded and took over the world back in the Andre the Giant days. People would pay to see the freaks, but now it’s different. The wrestlers have to be of a certain caliber or standard. That’s not to say they don’t still have guys who are a bit green, still coming up, but they’re at such a level that those guys I mentioned before would never have a job today. There’s no room. It’s too competitive.
David: When you were with the WWE, after ECW consolidated, who would you go get drinks with? Who were your buddies at that time?
RVD: I was really happy to see the ECW guys when I went back because I didn’t even know that the revival was going to happen. I made my return; I sold out and I was ready to cash in on the legacy (laughs) and my artistic substance. I was very happy to see Tommy Dreamer and then he threw me an ECW t-shirt and I realized we were actually there to represent ECW on WWE’s stage. That was awesome; that and the alliance with WCW. That was a fun time. I was happy to see Dreamer, to see Rhino, and all the old ECW guys. We were like family. That’s not to say that Dreamer drinks because he doesn’t. He’s a sober dude straight through, but he does eat hot dogs out of toilet bowls.
David: (laughs) Were you surprised when they actually gave you the belt during that run, or did you have lofty ambitions going in?
RVD: No, I never thought I would get the belt. I was not and had never been their guy, the person they would push forward. Me being my own man and a non-conformist, I thought that would always limit how far I would get, which was fine because that’s just who I am. They have their people that they can control like puppet masters and they make the best faces for the company. I understood that, and that I didn’t share necessarily all the same values as the office. I don’t even really like doing the storylines or the promos—that’s my least favorite part. I like to go out the ring and show off. I don’t like trying to convince the fans that I’m really angry at Booker T and that getting my hands on him is more important than anything else right now (laughs). That kind of stuff has always been something I can do without.
David: Despite that….
RVD: I thought there was no way that I was ever going to be the champion. The only reason that happened was because I changed the entire playing field by bringing ECW back. When we did the alliance, after Vince bought out WCW and ECW, I went to him sometime later about doing a pay-per-view and bringing ECW back. At this point all the energy from ECW had died down, and I think I was one of the only original guys still there. We didn’t do the ECW pay-per-view until 2006; the whole thing with ECW and WCW versus the WWE had already completely died out. Then when we brought it back at the event, we brought it back as its own brand with its own show on the Syfy network. That was super cool for me as an artist, and for the fans who really breathed with that ECW spirit. That was a great time for me in my career, and I was the right guy to be the ECW champion and move that forward.
David: Since the inception of the craft whisky scene, there’s been a lot of discussion in the industry about how best to market a product and often about the pros and cons of operating on a smaller scale. How do you compare working in the WWE versus the independent circuit? What are the drawbacks to working in a corporate environment as it pertains to wrestling? Is it mostly a monetary thing due to better marketing and exposure?
RVD: The money you earn in the WWE isn’t necessarily what people think it is. You would assume that being with the WWE means a bigger payday. Long term, big picture: you’re going to be better off. But for a single gig, on an indy show versus any single WWE show you could be surprised at how it actually ends up. With the WWE you get kicked in the balls a lot, on the road, day after day after day, and sometimes you’re looking at your cut—your piece of the pie—and you’re saying: “Wait a second, I had to pay for my hotel room, and my rental car, and this is what I made today?” But, that being said, at the end of the year after you’ve wrestled 250 times, then you add it up and you say: “OK, that’s a lot.” Also, you’ve got your merchandise deal, which is where a lot of money comes through. Then with the pay-per-views, you get a bonus based on the buy rate. So you get disappointed a lot, you get beat up a lot, but then sometimes you get pleasantly surprised. When it averages out you sometimes find yourself in a better position despite getting beat up so much.
David: The TV exposure must be the biggest advantage.
RVD: Yes, the real advantage is the TV. WWE is king. They have the best talent, the best product, the best marketing, the best merchandise, and to be associated and known as part of the WWE makes your value higher if you do eventually want to do indy shows. But with the indy shows there’s room for anybody. You can still see some of the wrestlers that you and I grew up watching. You can still see Greg “The Hammer” Valentine wrestling (laughs), so the standards are a little different. The level of organization can also be different. There are some events that are run by fans that don’t really know what they’re doing, and then there are other indy promotions that are well-known and respected for putting on the better shows. Basically, for me right now, it’s way better to do a few indy shows here and there, and do some autograph signings, because that allows me a lot more time off to do other things, whereas working with the WWE is so time consuming, there is no doing anything else.
David: Let’s talk about doing other things. You do a lot of different things. You’ve done action movies, and some martial arts stuff—everyone knows about that—but I just saw that you’re doing stand up comedy! And you’re performing on the Peninsula this week on Friday, right?
RVD: So Friday night, yes, I have the stand up and then I’m wrestling Saturday night at Wrestlecon. That’s gonna be a big one with myself and Sabu taking on the Hardy Boys. On Friday I’m headlining a stand-up event, just like I’m currently doing here in Vegas. It’s something that I’ve done since 2006, so I’ve done it for a little while, but I don’t do it that often. I’ve been getting a lot of dates lately, but I’m not really looking to get booked; it just kind of happens. Around LA, where I live, there’s a million comedy clubs. I’m not really looking to travel to Dallas to do comedy, you know? Then you’re talking about travel expenses, but as a hobby it’s fun for me. The inner artist enjoys the expression. I enjoy the writing and the delivery of it. It’s not something I’m switching my career path over to, but it’s fun. There’s something about engaging a room full of people in that manner that is mentally stimulating for me, whereas wrestling is not.
David: If you could have a drink with someone, or maybe in your case smoke a joint, who would you want to hang out with?
RVD: One guy who comes to mind is Jack Herer. He was a friend of mine and a mentor in the marijuana legalization movement, and he was the strongest force in educating the world about hemp and the 25,000 uses there are in legalizing it, versus the zero reasons for prohibiting it. That would be cool. Then there’s the Sheik. The Sheik is my hero, the original Sheik who trained me in professional wrestling. I don’t think he really got to see the level I made it to before he passed on, so let’s bring both of those guys back for a round of shots.
David: And I have to ask, because both of you are individually and separately heroes of mine, but have you ever actually met Jean Claude Van Damme? Seeing that you got your stage name from him?
RVD: Yeah, just briefly and recently actually at the gym.
David: No way, really?
RVD: Yeah, it was real funny. He was in a deflective mood, and I get like that where I try not to look people in their eyes because I know everyone’s looking at me. He was in that kind of mood. I tried dropping a name of someone we both worked for on a movie and I said, “Do you remember so-and-so?” and he said, “Oh yeah, I remember your face.” He thought we had worked together before and that I looked familiar (laughs). Then he shook my hand and walked off.