Rob Van Dam is just your average, long-haired, pot-smoking hippie who’s always at peace with himself—especially when he’s kicking somebody in the face!
By John Holmstrom
Photos By Andre Grossmann
Rob Van Dam struts towards the wrestling ring. As usual, he’s wearing his trademark psychedelic t-shirt with “420” stenciled on the back, and his long hair is tied into a ponytail. While the ring announcer tells everyone Van Dam “weighs 235 pounds” and is “from Battle Creek, Michigan,” hundreds of Rob’s fans chant: “Let’s Smoke Pot! Let’s Smoke Pot!” Rob’s tag team partner Sabu (“from Bombay, Michigan”), is dressed in an Arabian headdress and removes the safety mats from around the ring. This way, when someone is thrown out or jumps out of the ring, there will be nothing to break their fall against the hard concrete.
As the match proceeds, Rob Van Dam and Sabu wear down their opponents, “bad guys” the Dudley Boys (Buh Buh Ray and D-von, dressed in matching tie-dyed t-shirts but definitely not your typical peace-loving hippies), with several high-flying acrobatic maneuvers that have the packed crowd “ooohing” and “aaahing” in disbelief—usually because Sabu and Van Dam are jumping off the top ropes, flying 15 feet in the air and landing three rows into the audience! Finally, with their two opponents dizzily sprawling on a long wooden table, Sabu and Van Dam climb up to the top ropes, and leaping high in the air, execute simultaneous aerial flips, and crash-land on the Dudley Boys with a loud “CRUNCH!,” breaking the table into several pieces and scattering bodies across the ring. As all four wrestlers recover from the mayhem, the crowd chants, “ECW! ECW! ECW!”
‘Politically Incorrect... And Proud Of It!
This is not your typical World Wrestling Federation (WWF) or World Championship Wrestling (WCW) event (both of which are so popular that they dominate the cable-TV ratings every week and are eating away at Monday Night Football). No, I’m hanging out at an Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW) event. And everything they do is hardcore—from staging bizarro events like Barbed Wire Death Matches and Texas Chair Matches, to wearing HIGH TIMES t-shirts during their promos.
Although ECW is a smaller wrestling promotion compared to Vince McMahon’s WWF and Ted Turner’s WCW, their anything-goes attitude has completely changed the sport/artform of pro wrestling. For instance, their pay-per-view broadcasts are expanding from four to six next year, and according to owner Paul Heyman (a.k.a. Paul E. Dangerously), they’ve signed a deal with Fox Sports Channel to broadcast their weekly programs in selected markets.
Their success has not gone unnoticed. Just a few years ago wrestling was solely designed to sell wrestling toys to preteen boys. But when ECW initiated their politically-incorrect, adult-oriented TV programming in 1995, they changed the rules. The WWF and WCW have been imitating ECW by running more adult story lines to appeal to 18-to-35-year-old fans (a more valuable demographic than preteen boys that attracts better advertising and tripled their ratings). The Big Two also compete against each other by stealing ECW’s most talented wrestlers. Some of the biggest names in WWF and WCW created or re-created their image in ECW: The WWF’s Stone Cold Steve Austin, Mick Foley, Terry Funk and Al Snow, and WCW’s Chris Benoit, Dean Malenko, Raven, Saturn and even the ECW’s “Extreme Icon,” The Sandman.
When I saw that one of ECW’s top stars, Rob Van Dam, was using “4:20” in his interviews, I tracked down his Web site and sent an e-mail asking if he’d be interested in doing an interview. He replied:
“I am very familiar with HIGH TIMES Magazine, and furthermore was proud when I was mentioned in the Hemp 100! I look forward to talking to you in the future. As for now, my clocks are all frozen. It’s 4:20 here, time to work on one of my amazing skills… sssssmmmmmoooookkkkkiiiiinnnnn!”
420 at Route 420
A few weeks later, I meet up with Rob at his motel room right before an ECW Arena show in Philadelphia (which just happens to be at the intersection of Route 420 in a nearby suburb). While his tag-team partner and roommate, Sabu, sleeps through the entire interview, Rob rolls and lights one after another after another while munching on a turkey sandwich and peppers me with questions about being a judge at the Cannabis Cup and the possibility of a pot-smoking contest with the editorial staff of HIGH TIMES. But I want to know what it’s like to land on a concrete floor. “It feels exactly like what it looks like,” he tells me, as if I just asked a really stupid question. “When I jump over the top rope and land ten feet down on my head on the cement, it feels like I just landed on my head on cement.”
At various times Van Dam’s been a kickboxer, toughman-contest winner, weightlifter and action-movie actor. He set a USAWA world weightlifting record for a lift he invented called the Van Dam Lift, which involved straddling two chairs in a leg split and lifting a 166-1/2-pound dumbbell off the ground. He also appeared in two movies, Blood Moon and Superfights, and begins filming his third in a few months. But he has spent most of his career as a pro wrestler. He’s made many appearances in the WWF and WCW, but chooses to stay with ECW because he has more creative control over his character, and he’s given more time to do what he enjoys the most—wrestling and fighting.
He explains how Extreme Championship Wrestling’s ring action, unlike the WWF and WCW, involves real fighting and an even higher tolerance for enduring pain—like getting hit in the head with a chair. “I’ve been really hit hard, where they just crack the chair and it wraps around your head and it makes this loud noise,” he explains. “While that is ringing my bell and I’m seeing stars for a couple minutes—at the same time I like it because I’m hearing the crowd say, “OOOOH!” and my job is being an entertainer. I’m trying to please the crowd at the expense of my body. And trying to win.”
Van Dam then gives me the lowdown on his slogan, “Rob Van Dam 420.” Being a big-time burner, he always wore 420 t-shirts to the arena, and explained the 420 thing (in short, “It’s smokin’ time!”) to the other ECW athletes who were always asking him “What does 4:20 mean, anyway?” So when ECW’s t-shirt designers came up with a new Van Dam t-shirt, they put a few of Rob’s favorite things on: “420” and some yin-yang symbols. When TV commercials started plugging the t-shirt, ECW’s pot-smoking fans put 4 + 20 together, and the “Rob smokes pot!” chant began. A few months later, he took it a step further when he announced during a TV interview that “Rob Van Dam 420 means ‘I just smoked your ass!’” (This is Rob’s takeoff on the WWF’s most popular wrestler, Stone Cold Steve Austin, whose slogan is “Austin 3:16 means I just whupped your ass!”)
‘Hey, Rob! Wanna smoke some herb?’
Now everywhere Rob goes fans offer him free weed. He explains, “While I’m walking from my car to the building, the fans say, ‘Rob! I got some herb! Wanna smoke some herb?’ And definitely I hear it when I walk into the ring—the fans hold up signs ‘RVD 420’ and they’ll chant ‘Rob smokes pot!’ or ‘Let’s smoke pot!’”
But Van Dam is not about to carry a bong with him into the ring and toke up on TV, since he sincerely doesn’t want to send the wrong message to any kids who might be watching. “ECW isn’t aimed at kids,” he says, “so it doesn’t send a bad message to kids.” Since ECW usually airs at 2:00 AM on weekends, he has a good point. And he has this warning for anyone underage in the audience: “Kids can’t look at Rob Van Dam in HIGH TIMES magazine and think it’s cool to go ahead and smoke pot. It’s not cool for kids to smoke pot.”
Rob didn’t start smoking until he was 21 years old, and thinks people should wait until they are adults to drink or smoke. “When I was a kid I thought pot-smoking was for skinny, long-haired hippies who don’t want to do nothing but sit on the couch all day. I would stay away from any drug when I was a kid. For any kid, pot-smoking is going to get in their way and be an obstruction.”
When I mention to Van Dam why he’s taking a risk in announcing to the world that he’s a cannabis consumer, he says, “People say, ‘Hey, you can buy pot right down the street, pick up a bag on the corner, why do you care if it’s legal? It’s not hard to find.’ But who wants the threat of cops bustin’ down your door takin’ all your shit, your house and your cars, just because you’re smokin’ a little herb?”
A Visit from the FBI
Just as Rob finishes giving me his opinion on the police—and munching on the sandwich—the door bursts open and the FBI storm into the room. No, not the police agency, the professional wrestling tag team known as “The FBI” (The Full-Blooded Italians). I recognize Tracy Smothers, the bigger half of the tag team, from his days with the WWF, when he played a good ol’ country boy. His partner, Guido, is the comic relief of the group, since he’s only about five feet tall. Their manager, Tommy Rich, is a jovial, beefy guy who resembles Mussolini, was once a world champion and now waves an Italian flag with his face on it during the FBI’s matches, which usually inspires the crowd to chant, “Where’s my pizza!?!”
Pro wrestlers and their fans are definitely a weird subculture. It’s reminiscent of the beatniks in the 1950s, the early hippie movement or punk-rock. Wrestling is a lot like rock’n’roll without guitars. Like a lot of rock musicians, wrestlers don’t resemble “normal” people. They perform their art in front of enthusiastic, mostly young crowds and their popularity depends on how successfully they can project their rebellious image. “We have our own set of rules,” Van Dam says. “We travel like gypsies. Sometimes we’re on the road for four weeks at a time together, and we stick together because that’s the one place we do fit in. No matter where I go people stare at me, and come up and ask, ‘Are you a wrestler?’ So I’m used to being a freak.”
Peace, Love and Zen
Van Dam is a bit different from your average wrestler—a bit more intelligent, a bit more ambitious. Where some professional wrestlers can come off as loud, belligerent and indifferent about whether they accidentally kill you or not, Van Dam is soft-spoken, polite, calm, cool and professional. He seems like your typical peace-loving hippie, even though he kicks people in the head for a living. “People who know me will tell you I’m mellow,” he explains. “I’m peaceful. I’m very Zen.”
“I have a the symbol of the Yin and the Yang on me at all times. I wear it in my earring, I have it airbrushed on my wrestling outfit. Part of achieving inner peace is solving all your problems. I look at each problem as a stick that’s stuck in my stream of yin and yang. Like, if I get in a car accident, and I’m OK, I can just look at it and be Zenful and say, ‘Like wow, that kind of sucked.’ I realize that it sucked, so I’m going to say that the car accident is a negative thing. OK, then there’s no reason to get all emotional about it. There’s no reason to beat up the other driver, there’s no need to scream, there’s no reason to pound my fist. This comes from my comfort with Zen.”
I ask him if he’s calm even when he’s in the ring, in front of thousands of screaming fans and fighting someone who wants to wrap a metal chair around his head. “Anyone who really knows me knows I don’t get angry,” he says calmly. “I’ll be completely Zenful and peaceful during the time I’m kicking his ass, and afterwards, I’ll still be peaceful then.”
Hemp For Victory
Van Dam has one topic he wants to be sure we cover—hemp. He remembers an article HIGH TIMES he read a few years ago about using hemp for fiber-board production. “The arguments were just so overwhelming,” he says, “I was so impressed I did more reading. I read The Emperor Wears No Clothes, and I’ve learned there are so many uses for marijuana and for hemp, from clothes to rope to food. I can wash my hair with it, there are even protein bars made out of hemp! I’m learning every day about new stuff we can do with it.” Rob then tells me about how he tries to check out the local hemp stores when he’s on the road.
“Not to mention the medical uses,” he adds, “which is one of the strongest arguments for legalization.” He then mentions how he’s known people who needed cannabis to fight the nausea caused by chemotherapy sessions, and how crazy it is that the government keeps cannabis from sick people who need it for medicinal use. “I really just can’t believe that the government wants this plant to be extinct,” he says.
“I’m not one to fight the government but in this interview, I’d just like to say if it came to a vote you know which way I’d vote.”
As we wrap up the interview Sabu (who up until now had snoozed through the whole interview, the run-in with the FBI, and the turkey sandwich), begins to stir, and pokes his head out from under a blanket. Although he has never spoken one word in the ring, Sabu needs to make one thing clear before I leave. He motions to Van Dam, then whispers in his ear. Van Dam says to me, “Right, Sabu. He says that he was smoking pot before I was.”
I leave the motel and drive to the arena, thinking about the amount of physical abuse that wrestlers take in the ring, and about some of the health problems they suffer. It’s brutal. Recently, Louis Spiccoli and Brian Pillman died from prescription-painkiller reactions.
It seems like a no-brainer: pro wrestlers’ use of cannabis should be classified as medical use. Marijuana’s ability to help people deal with pain is well documented, and who needs this more than a wrestler who spends his evening getting a chair bashed on his head and jumping 20 feet onto concrete floors?
This might also explain Jesse “The Body” Ventura’s unabashed support of marijuana legalization. Rob Van Dam is obviously not the first pro wrestler to light up—just the first one with the guts to talk about it, as anyone who remembers the infamous Iron Sheik/Hacksaw Jim Duggan incident from the 1980s. (Shortly after the Iranian hostage incident, these two were in a blood feud, but were busted when they were caught sharing a joint together before an arena show.)
Meanwhile, Back at the Ring...
A few hours later, I’m at the world-famous ECW Arena, a converted bingo hall that holds about 1,500 people. It seems to have about 2,000 people crowded into it tonight. During one match, tie-dyed acid casualty Spike Dudley, who’s about as big as the FBI’s little Guido, struts out to the ring (unlike his much bigger Dudley “brothers,” Spike is a “good guy”). He is up against the biggest person I have ever seen in real life: Big Sally Graziano, who weighs 600 pounds and looks like he eats people Spike’s size when he gets the munchies. As Spike runs around the ring getting revved up to fight, the crowd chants, “LSD! LSD! LSD!” Spike perks up as he hears the crowd’s chant, and opens his mouth and points inside, waiting for the crowd to deliver on their promise. When they don’t, he waves them away in disgust and turns his attention to the much weightier matter at hand.
Big Sally lunges forward, trying to put Spike away quickly, but the smallest Dudley brother runs up the ropes, grabs the big guy by the neck and slams his head into the canvas (Spike’s patented move—the “Acid Drop”). After he pins the man-mountain for the three-count, Spike jumps up and down on his defeated enemy and marches all over Sally’s big belly to the sound of AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell.”
Did Spike Dudley really beat Sally Graziano? Was it planned? Scripted? Fake? Real? Who cares. There is no other entertainment form that blurs fantasy and reality like this.
Those who charge that wrestling is “fake” miss the point. It’s exactly that Twilight Zone edge that keeps people entertained. Whether Spike would win the match in real life is beside the point. True wrestling fans understand that there’s a fine line between madness and reality, that beauty and reality are in the eye of the beholder, that the whole world is completely insane. Sometimes things go according to the script and sometimes you improvise. Our greatest philosophers have often debated predestination vs. free will. Wrestling is the only art form to have sharpened the debate to a physical matchup.
Besides, as we all know, “Reality is for those who can’t handle drugs.”