Kayfabe. Like Masonic Rituals or Government secrets, kayfabe, the illusion of reality in a wrestling show, was a sacred matter of life and death, to be spoken of in hushed, fearful reverent tones, lest anyone rumble the truth. Wrestling wasn’t ‘real’ as such, but was pre-determined, written and planned out in a similar way that a soap opera might be; if only Coronation Street had big sweaty men hitting each other – maybe they save it for the staff Christmas party.
The concern in the wrestling business was that if people became wise to the illusion of kayfabe, they would dismiss wrestling as phony and would no longer buy tickets or tune into the TV shows and Pay-Per-Views. And so, the business did what it could to protect the bubble from popping. Heels wouldn’t travel to shows with baby faces in case a fan should ponder why mortal enemies should carpool. Interviews with the press would be undertaken completely in character. As far as the business of the fans was concerned, wrestling was real and must appear so at all times.
In truth, a lot of wrestling fans, especially at the height of child-friendly Hulkamania, must have known they were not watching men really engaged in active physical combat. As a school friend was wisely asked, at about aged nine, “Why do they not get bruises when they get punched?”
The difference between then and now of course is that the fans of yesteryear, if they were aware of the illusion, were more than happy to suspend their sense of disbelief. They wanted to enjoy the show, plain and simple. Nowadays there are a lot of people who want to see behind the curtain and the wrestling world gives them plenty of opportunities to do so. Twitter is not a wrestler’s best friend.
In hindsight, the current climate of and fascination with breaking kayfabe probably started with the publication in 1999 of Mick Foley’s massively successful first book, Have a Nice Day! Then the great legion of wrestling autobiographies that followed, and revealing documentaries like Beyond the Mat and Hitman Hart: Wrestling With Shadows —which is perhaps the greatest political drama outside of The West Wing or early House of Cards!
In 1994 however, in a landscape of clowns, fake undertakers and human Avalanches, kayfabe still ruled with an iron fist. And the business was tired after the boom of the mid-eighties, losing both money and fans. Until one stubborn, violent outcast of a company in Philadelphia took the first audience to be really smart to the workings of the wrestling business and played them like a cheap piano with kayfabe sheet music. This was not so much breaking kayfabe as manipulating it to surprise the audience and create unpredictable, exciting storytelling. It forever changed ideas of what and how much you could show the audience of the workings of the business and in what ways you can innovate and tell a story to the audience.
This is the story of Tommy Dreamer ‘blinding’ The Sandman.
Enter The Sandman
In 1994, the smartest fans in the wrestling audience presided in a small bingo hall in Philadelphia. These were fans who, from either a vast viewing experience or from communication on the burgeoning forums on the internet, had acquired an obsessional amount of wrestling knowledge and they were very much wise to kayfabe.
When Shane Douglas made various cackling references to Ric Flair holding younger wrestlers back, the audience cackled with him at the bravado of dropping the veil in public. Cactus Jack spat on the WCW title belt and the Philadelphia audience lost its collective mind. They were complicit, they understood the references. This was the reward for being a smart fan (or a ‘smark’ – smart mark – as they have come to be known).
The Philadelphia audience, as discussed previously, were also a notoriously bloodthirsty bunch. Headlocks and armdrags were all good and well, but blood and guts were far more exciting.
Enter the Sandman.
In 1994, The Sandman was making good on his transition from bland, bleached-blonde surfer dude to cigarette smoking, Metallica listening, beer drinking, blood vessel-bursting son of a bitch. His ring entrance to ‘Enter Sandman’, complete with the aforementioned beer and cigarette, was often as much a highlight of shows as the matches. So what if The Sandman was often too wasted by the time the match started to start wrestling? So what if he was bleeding from the forehead before the bell rang; thanks to a beer can or two being smashed into his skull by himself? The audience lapped it up. Philadelphia had no time for surfers.
There was just one little thing missing.
On May 5th 1994, Michael P. Fay, an American teenager who had moved to Singapore with his mother and stepfather, received four lashes of the cane to his buttocks as punishment for vandalism. He was the first American citizen to receive such a punishment and there was much media attention in the States. The original sentence was for six lashes but then-President, Bill Clinton, managed to negotiate down to four on a basis of leniency.
To ECW’s credit, they took an extreme, real world event and incorporated it into their storytelling, giving the company’s stories a violent, authentic feel that differed with the competition and sat more in line with the times.
During a feud with his former tag partner Tommy Cairo, in which the Sandman’s valet (and then-wife in real life) Peaches sided with Cairo, ECW booked a mixed tag Singapore Cane match between Cairo and Peaches and Sandman and his new valet, Woman. The cane, of course, was just a piece of bamboo cane and was not from Singapore. But the association was clear. The cane took things a step further, escalated them. Just look at Michael Fay. This was extreme.
In the course of events, Tommy Cairo became injured (both he and Peaches took a battering with the cane) and Tommy Dreamer, notorious ‘pretty boy’ derided by many in the ECW audience, and himself a victim of the cane, stepped up to put the dastardly Sandman in his place. What happened next would make wrestling history.
“Please Sir, Can I Have Another?”
The bad blood boiled. In a match between Sandman and Dreamer, where Woman tried to interfere on Sandman’s behalf, Dreamer countered and clobbered Woman with a large kiss, enraging Woman and driving a desire to see Dreamer not just defeated but humiliated. Consequently a return match was booked: the loser would ‘contractually’ have to take ten lashes of the cane.
Consequence or punishment matches were certainly nothing new in wrestling, even in 1994. Loser Leaves Town matches, 5 minutes alone with the hated manager, even foot and ass kissing matches have made an appearance over the years. What was different here was the threat of caning. The act of ten lashes was so violent, so extreme, that a wrestler would do anything he could to win so as to avoid such a flesh-tearing punishment.
Dreamer lost and assumed the position. What followed were a series of cane strokes that were sickening in their aggression. I assume Dreamer had agreed beforehand to be hit so hard, but Sandman swings the cane with such frightening force that you genuinely wonder if Sandy was overstepping his boundaries just a little. What makes it worse is the gap between each stroke, leaving the previous crack to linger in the air like electricity, Dreamer’s crumpling, bruised body stark in its genuine agony. Even the Philadelphia audience weren’t laughing at the ‘pretty boy’ Dreamer now. This wasn’t fun anymore.
Woman callously encouraged Sandman to hit Dreamer again again, gloating at the suffering caused and poking at Dreamer to submit and beg for mercy. She wanted him on his knees. She wanted Dreamer humiliated.
And he never gave in.
Even as the fans, this blood hungry crew, begged him to stay down, Dreamer would not. The visible effects of the cane shots – welts, burst blood vessels, ugly-looking bruises – only added to the drama as Dreamer took the mic and, looking deep in The Sandman’s eyes, demanded “Please sir, can I have another?” The look of astonishment on Sandman’s face and it’s a picture and only just kayfabe. You can believe James Fullington, the man behind The Sandman, was as equally astonished at Dreamer’s ability to withstand a very high, very real, level of punishment. This is where Tommy Dreamer, hardcore legend, was born.
But after such an incredible, spellbinding moment, where do you go from there? How do you take things even further?
By playing with kayfabe, of course.
Do You Quit?
The stage had been set for an “I Quit” match. This time someone would have to endure the shame of submission. What impact would the Singapore cane have on proceedings?
As it happened, quite a substantial one.
As the match progressed, Dreamer was asked by referee John Molineaux, microphone in hand, if he quit. Dreamer pushed the mic out of the way, knocking Sandman’s lit cigarette, dangling from his lips, up into his eye, burning him badly. Woman tried to intervene with the cane but Dreamer snatched it away from her and, sizing a stumbling Sandman up, swung the cane hard, accidently cracking Sandman in the other eye and sending him crashing to the mat in agony.
The usual giveaway of a kayfabe injury is that everyone around the ‘injured’ person stays in character. There is no dropping of the veil. Here, both Woman and John Molineaux played a masterstroke. Woman is stopped in her tracks, like she’s witnessed a car crash, all the air sucked out of her. Molineaux, meanwhile, looks from Dreamer to Sandman and back again, a picture of stunned disbelief. The message is clear: this was not meant to have happened.
While the groundwork laid in the ring was great, the real genius lay in what we allowed to see backstage. Back in 1994, there was very little in the way of backstage vignettes, as the risk of breaking kayfabe was great, and the development of behind the curtain angles, as ran into the ground by WWE, would only begin in the wake of what we are discussing now. WWE typically had a backstage interview area; you might get a glimpse into the locker room if you were lucky; but generally, action would take place in or around the ring, and in front of the audience.
What ECW did with The Sandman was bring you into the heart of backstage, as chaos unfolded in the wake of what was presented as a legitimate serious injury. It felt…wrong somehow; watching the faces and heels drop any pretence of kayfabe conflict as they gathered with concern over the fallen Sandman, lying on the floor in agony with bloody bandages over his eyes, and standing united in aggressively driving away an anguished, defensive Tommy Dreamer who tried to help amongst pleas that he “didn’t mean” to hurt the Sandman.
Meanwhile, a panicking Woman screams at Dreamer and calls him a son of a bitch, at the same time trying to comfort The Sandman, who just wants an ambulance. Commissioner Tod Gordon assures him its on the way, whilst screaming at the camera man to get the hell away and to stop filming. It all feels real and it all feels like we are trespassing on a very personal, private scene. It still feels completely riveting now. It must have been outright shocking in 1994. They even sent Joey Styles to report from outside the hospital.
“I’m Doing It For The Sandman!”
In the aftermath, the story was kept on the boil with various vignettes. With the benefit of hindsight and knowledge of wrestling storylines since, seemed quite blatantly ‘worked’. Woman on a phone call with Joey Styles, running The Sandman down and revealing that she will announce her new protégé at the November to Remember Supercard, for example. A video chat with the injured Tommy Cairo also comes across ‘worked,’ insulting The Sandman as he does and revelling in The Sandman’s injury (“I’ve got nothing to do but eat peaches all day,” Cairo laments with an ironic grin at the thought of The Sandman’s wife. Cairo’s promo is a joy and should be more widely known.)
Yet there are other moments that keep the audience guessing. Tommy Dreamer cuts a great promo where he talks of his guilt over what happened and declares stoically that he’s “wrestling for The Sandman.” He also gets furious at Cairo’s comments, setting up a feud on behalf of The Sandman’s honour. Joey Styles reveals that fans can leave personal voice messages for The Sandman on the ECW hotline, and in fact plays them on air the next week (how many of these were real and how many were backstage talent? I’d love to know). And the most convincing element; The Sandman’s retirement is announced solemnly and his farewell to the fans is advertised quite respectfully in video packages for November to Remember.
All of this without a single word or appearance from The Sandman himself.
One of the cleverest things about the whole scenario is that ECW understood it was playing to its fans, and at this stage its fans were mainly still local to Philadelphia. The Sandman was a regular fixture in the city’s bars and was well known to the local community. So to preserve the illusion of reality —a paradox if ever there was one—The Sandman hid away from the public. As Paul Heyman said:
“We tore down the dressing room wall, and you saw both the good guys and the bad guys co-mingling over this hurt wrestler. And Tommy Dreamer saying “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt him.” Which was *really* taboo back then. And then the Sandman, to his credit, stayed at home for a month. So that nobody saw him around town. So that you didn’t say “Yeah, they’re doing this thing, with the Sandman blind.” He stayed at home. He never left his house, he never answered his door. His wife answered the door. It was unheard of back then for somebody to-to stick to the storyline to this degree.”
The fans, smart as they were, had been reeled in, hook, line and sinker. Now they were in the right place for ECW to provide a truly shocking conclusion.
A November To Remember
On November 4th 1994 ECW presented its November to Remember supercard from the ECW arena. During the event Tommy Dreamer battled Tommy Cairo in a brutal brawl which saw a determined Dreamer fight with righteous fury for The Sandman, resulting in Cairo being brutally caned into a bloody mess. While this was a step towards the redemption of Tommy Dreamer, there would be further consequences to this result. Bear this in mind.
It was time for The Sandman’s farewell speech, and they played out the illusion to the end. Sandy came out, led by Tod Gordon, wearing a suit that looked strangely inappropriate hanging off The Sandman. While his eyes were bandaged, with sunglasses over them, the sunglasses were perhaps a touch too far but it certainly added to the effect. To his credit, The Sandman played things as realistically as possible. He allowed himself to be gently led and helped into the ring by Tod Gordon, and his hesitant, uncertain movements were played for real rather than laughs.
Both Tod and The Sandman play up the realness of the event, Tod hugging Sandman and declaring him his best friend, Sandman confessing that he never expected to be retiring at 31 and that, even with injury, he wouldn’t change a thing. The one thing he regrets, says Sandy, is that he messed up his relationship with his wife. Right on cue, Peaches marches into the ring, determined and feisty.
“I don’t know whether to smack you on the mouth or kiss you on the lips,” says Peaches, deciding upon the latter to a huge pop from the crowd. The reconciliation is short lived, however, Woman is here. “EXCUUUUUSE ME!” comes the war cry, as she tries to rush everyone out of the ring, cane in hand. Guess how she responds to Peaches asking “What are you doing here, you little bitch?” Yep. The cane strikes again and it’s a nasty little strike, to be fair, straight to the head.
Tod Gordon sells it well, furiously demanding to know “what’s wrong with” Woman. The Sandman, backed into the corner and panicking, knocks Gordon to the mat. Woman brandishes the cane – she wouldn’t hit a blind man, would she? The tension is ramped up brilliantly. By this point you forget about what’s real and what’s kayfabe anymore. The drama is engrossing enough in itself. Woman approaches but Tommy Dreamer hits the ring to make the save. He backs Woman into the opposite corner, arguing with her about her actions.
And then it happens.
Unbeknownst to Dreamer, The Sandman stands upright in the corner behind him. Off come the bandages. Then the sunglasses.
To use Joey Styles’ catchphrase, Oh My God! He could see all along.
The audience explodes. While likely there was always a section of the crowd who didn’t buy into the Sandman’s blindness, the intricate and realistic manner in which the swerve had been pulled earned much love and respect from the wrestling community. Never had a swerve been so well executed before. It’s revealed later that the Sandman and Woman duped Dreamer so that he could deal with a vengeful Tommy Cairo for them. Ultimately, the ‘why’ doesn’t matter. The ‘what’ is so full of intent in itself.
The Sandman picks up the cane that Woman dropped on the mat during her confrontation with Dreamer. A pause as the penny drops with the audience. And then CRACK! The cane connects with Dreamer’s skull in hideous fashion. Woman and Sandman embrace and the arena is riotous. The biggest ruse that wrestling had ever seen up to that point had been completed. Woman announces her new protégé, of course, is The Sandman, and Tommy Dreamer is subjected to a hideous caning, one that would set a precedent for violence in the ECW Arena for years to come.
The feud between Tommy Dreamer and The Sandman would rumble on, at least until Raven came to take up all of Tommy’s time. That’s another story for another time. But it is clear looking at everything that came afterwards; the NWO; Austin Vs. McMahon; the Pipe Bomb, Mick Foley’s behind the curtain interviews with Jim Ross in 1997; and most certainly the Montreal screw job and its televised fall out. Without The Sandman tricking Tommy Dreamer and by extension the audience, wrestling storytelling may not have evolved in the way that it did. Enter the Sandman. Exit kayfabe.