Sandman still living the dream

By Jan Murphy

Tuck you in,
warm within
Keep you free from sin
Till the Sandman he comes

While those are certainly iconic lyrics to many a music fan, they’re perhaps as iconic, if not more, to wrestling fans around the world, particularly those who followed the career of Extreme Championship Wrestling megastar Sandman.

But long before he was smoking cigarettes and swilling beers while rocking out to Metallica on his way to the ring to deliver an ass whooping in ECW, Jim Fullington was a wild and carefree young wrestling fan with a fearlessness few could match and a dream.

That dream, he said during a telephone interview to promote his coming appearances at House of Hardcore 21 in Wisconsin, was to become a professional wrestler.

“Dude, I wanted to be a pro wrestler when I was like four and a half, five years old, watching it on Saturday afternoons, WWWF,” Sandman said referring to World Wide Wrestling Federation.

Mr. Wrestling himself, Bruno Sammartino, was the first pro wrestler to catch the attention of a young Fullington, but it was a couple of larger-than-life personalities who captured his imagination.

“Bruno Sammartino was like a living god back then,” Sandman said, “but he was never my favourite. My favourites were Superstar Billy Graham. And then after him was Dusty (Rhodes).”

Even as a kid, Sandman was drawn to a wrestling ring, even if it meant sneaking a closer look. A lifelong Philadelphian, by the time he was a teen, the daredevil inside Sandman was beginning to emerge.

“Me and one of my friends, who I’m still friends with today — known him since seventh grade baseball — we used to go the Philadelphia Spectrum, it seated like 19,000 people for wrestling. Man, we used to go there once a month when I was like 16, 17, 18.”

On more than one occasion, Sandman’s obsession with the business he would later help reshape got the best of him.

“Gorilla Monsoon threw me out of that place a couple of different times,” Sandman said, a hint of his former troublemaking self still evident in his voice even now at age 53.

On one such occasion, curiosity got the best of him, Sandman said, recalling how he jumped in with some security workers who were carrying pieces of a steel cage. “Back then, security wasn’t like it is now, dude, there were just guys in yellow freakin’ shirts that said SECURITY, maybe not even that,” he recalled. “And I saw them carrying the pieces of the cage, I got right in line with them, dude. I was carrying them. I was drunk.”

But carrying the cage wasn’t enough. Sandman had a question that had been in his head for a while that he needed answers to.

“I ended up climbing underneath the ring because I always wanted to know (if there was) a spring underneath the ring. I climbed under the ring and I’m under the ring for what seemed like I was under there for an hour — it was probably more like 30 seconds — but I saw the spring and everything and then here comes Gorilla Monsoon pulling on my ankle,” he said with a laugh, clearly still revelling in his defiant act. “And Gorilla’s like ‘Aw, Hack.’ I’ve had the nickname Hack ever since I was like five, six years old, as long as I’d wanted to be a wrestler and he knew me as Hack because he had thrown me out of the building a couple times before.”

It was while attending one of those old WWWF shows that fate came calling for the future ECW legend.

“Somebody put a little flyer on my car about a little independent show that was running in Philadelphia,” he recalled, admitting that to that point, wrestling had only been but a pipe dream in his mind.

“I’d always wanted to be a wrestler, but WWE, these guys were huge,” he said. “I was six-foot-three, maybe 160 pounds back then, but these guys were giants and I never really thought it was possible until I went to this independent show and there was dudes like me out there. Two days later, I gave the guy $3,000 and three months later, I had my first match.”

That school, Tri State Wrestling Alliance, was run by Joel Goodhart, and one of its stars was the late Larry Winters, who is credited with training Sandman.

“Larry Winters trained me, but I learned a lot from a guy named Rockin’ Rebel, too, Chuck Williams is his real name,” Sandman said. “Larry Winters was technically running the school, but I would say I probably learned more from guys like Johnny Hotbody and Tony Stetson. Larry taught me the holds, but there’s so much more than the holds.”

Goodhart eventually sold his company to Tod Gordon, who in turn named the promotion Eastern Championship Wrestling. Later, Gordon would partner up with Paul Heyman to create ECW, and the pieces were in place for the wrestling history books to be rewritten.

It was also Goodhart who came up with the iconic, and fitting, name for Fullington .

“Joel Goodhart got my name off of a big billboard on the side of (Interstate) 95,” Sandman said, laughing. “It was called Mr. Sandman Boxspring and Mattress. Is that a great freakin’ story or what? I started as Mr. Sandman and then I cut the Mr. out, but the name that I pretty much used my whole career came off of a freakin’ billboard.”

The Sandman who fans would come to idolize wasn’t coming to the ring to Metallica those days, nor was he swilling beers and rocking out with fans at first. No, far from it. His character was a surfer.

“I was coming out to, first, ‘Surfin’ U.S.A.’ and then I did Billy Joel’s ‘Big Shot,’” he recalled, adding that a youngster working for him during one of his side projects introduced him to the song he made famous in wrestling circles.

“I was working (on the side) for one of the newspapers, not delivering them but we were selling subscriptions, and I used to have all these kids work for me, they’d go up and knock on your door and sign up for a 13-week subscription or whatever. Great, easy money.”

One of those kids was playing the megahit Metallica song, “Enter Sandman.”

“That kid — and we still do a little business together, me and this kid from way back in the early ’90s — he played that song,” and suggested to Sandman that was the perfect tune for his entrance. “And I’m like ‘Oh, dude, you’re right, I should come out to this.’”

To that point, Sandman had been popular, but he hadn’t yet found that rock-star level of success that was still to come.

“Coming in to (the arena with) the cigarette smoking, the beer drinking, the cane — it all took time to get to that point,” Sandman said. “The first couple of years, I worked with guys like Jerry Lawler, Terry Funk, Jimmy (Superfly) Snuka, Ivan Koloff… guys that had 30 years in the business back then. It was a work in progress, but if you say I started in 1989, by ’96 I was rolling hard.”

It wasn’t until Sandman reinvented himself, channelling Jim Fullington’s inner self, that, combined with the grand entrance and iconic song, that Sandman reached new heights in popularity.

“Dude, that character is me,” he said when asked what the secret to the success of the character was. “I used to sit in the locker room, smoke cigarettes and drink beer and then go out and wrestle.”

Tommy Dreamer, Taz and Paul Heyman watched Sandman drinking and smoking and joking and carrying on backstage and it became evident that that was the man fans needed to see. The new Sandman resonated with fans of ECW in the same way Stone Cold Steve Austin resonated with fans in WWE: they could relate to him and live vicariously through him.

“Wrestlers are characters, but my character, everybody’s walked into a bar, seen a guy just like me playing a game of pool, wants to play it for money and when he loses, wants to begin a fight, you know what I mean? Everybody knows a Sandman.”

Swilling beer, smoking cigarettes and hard rock music — Sandman’s entrance was almost complete. The addition of an unique weapon completed the masterpiece, taking Sandman from icon to legend.

Throughout history, wrestling has always tapped into pop culture, politics and current events as part of its pomp and pageantry. One such world event involved American citizen Michael Fay, who was the subject of international attention in 1994 when he was sentenced to six strokes of a cane in Singapore for theft and vandalism at age 18. Although caning is a routine court sentence in Singapore, its unfamiliarity to Americans caused controversy, and Fay’s case was believed to be the first caning involving an American. The number of cane strokes in his sentence was eventually cut from six to four after U.S. officials asked for leniency.

The creative minds behind the scenes at ECW decided to use the publicity around Fay’s case to their own benefit, and Sandman was the lucky benefactor.

“I had happened to live by the studio,” Sandman said, adding that he still lives in fairly close proximity to it. “The studio where they edited all of the shows was literally like 20 minutes from the house. Tod Gordon calls me like Sunday afternoon and he goes, ‘Paul E. wants you at the studio. So I show up at the studio.’”

There, Heyman pitched the idea of Sandman incorporating the lashings into his character, with what would from then on be known as a Singapore cane.

“Paul knew I was a political guy. I knew what was going on in the world,” Sandman said. “He starts talking to me about the kid and he goes, ‘You’re going to start carrying a cane.’ I’m like, ‘Paul, what the f—k are you talking about?’ ”

Heyman explained his brainchild to Sandman, who’d by then moved outdoors to have a cigarette.

“I’m like ‘Paul, what are we going to use for a cane?’ He literally looks up in the air, walks over to a tree, rips a branch off this f—king cherry tree and starts pulling off all the little branches. He goes, ‘We’ll put some black electrical tape around that and that’ll be your cane.’ I’m like, ‘Alright dude.’ And then I’m kind of like, ‘Wow, this could turn into something.’”

Turn into something it did, as the cane enhanced his bad-ass image, meshing perfectly with his lengthy stroll to the ring, beer and cigarette in hand, listening as the fans sang along to Metallica.

A great entrance, theme music and a symbolic weapon all contributed to making Sandman the stuff of wrestling lore, but so too, he said, did his grasp on the psychology of wrestling, something he credits a longtime foe with helping him develop.

“Believe it or not, and I hate to do it, but I’ve got to give Raven a lot, a lot of credit. He taught me and Dreamer s–tloads when he came into our company. He helped me out a lot with the psychology. I could wrestle before and I could put together a match, but after he got done with me, I was like a master, I thought.”

The likes of Sandman, Raven, Dreamer, Sabu, Heyman and others built a modestly successful ECW company into something that revolutionized the industry. Only years after its demise and subsequent sale to rival World Wrestling Entertainment would ECW begin to be recognized for its innovation and place in wrestling history.

At the time, Sandman said, the ECW talent and brass had no way of knowing the history that they were making at a Philadelphia bingo hall that became known as the ECW Arena. But they did note that they were garnering some attention, at least internationally.

“To the point where Japanese magazines were coming into the United States and we’re on the back cover of the magazine,” Sandman answered when asked if he and others recognized the mark ECW was making on wrestling. “And then guys in ECW were starting to get ranked in Japanese magazines in their top 20 and stuff like that. We kind of knew it but we were all pretty young and just going along for the ride.”

If Heyman was the brains of ECW and Dreamer its heart and soul, perhaps no one character encapsulated what it stood for more than Sandman — bold, brash, tough and fearless. But Sandman said it was a team effort that made it ECW click.

“It was a bunch of us,” he said. “Sabu doing his crazy s–t, revolutionizing the business at the same time. I’d say you could put it on maybe eight to 10 guys. Your New Jacks and your RVDs, there were a lot of guys. Even Taz, too. A lot of guys doing some different s–t and some different kinds of characters.”

Crazy, life-threatening stunts were just a day at the office in ECW. Asked if he ever refused a bump, or had second thoughts about a planned one, Sandman shrugged off the suggestion, remembering one instance in which he took the bump instead of his opponent.

“One (bump) that I thought of for Sabu, he didn’t want to do it because it was so bad,” he said. “I’m in this ladder match with him and climbing up and I wanted him to climb up the ladder and we’d set two tables up on the outside and I wanted to push the ladder and I thought he was going to the top of this 10-foot ladder onto the tables on the floor. He wouldn’t take the bump so I said ‘Alright, I’ll do it.’ ”

Sandman took the bump, knocking himself out in the process.

“Fonzie’s (Bill Alfonso) out there smacking me in the face,” Sandman recalled. “He’s like, ‘Hey daddy, get up, daddy, daddy, come on, we’re in a match.’ I knocked myself out with that one. I forget exactly what match it was but we were at The Arena and I was on the top of a ladder in the middle of the ring (and fell) all the way to the floor through a couple tables.”

Sandman had epic feuds with many ECW legends, including long running ones with Dreamer, Raven and Sabu.

“Dreamer was a great opponent, (Raven) was a great opponent, Sabu, I probably had more matches against Sabu than maybe either one of them, but I would say those three would have to have been (my greatest feuds).”

While Sandman’s greatest feud is up for debate, his most controversial is most definitely not. That goes to his rivalry with Raven, which culminated with one of the most talked about angles in history. During a show, with free agent and future star Kurt Angle in attendance being courted by the company, Raven beat Sandman and proceeded to crucify him on a makeshift cross, complete with barbed wire around his head. The angle also incorporated one of Sandman’s sons.

The leadup to the crucifixion began when Heyman had the idea to incorporate one of Sandman’s ‘sons’ into his feud with Raven. But Heyman’s plans then didn’t include Sandman’s real-life son, but rather a popular young actor of the day and star of the Home Alone hit movies.

“I’m pretty sure we were in Allentown or Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania, and I come into the locker room and that Home Alone movie with that kid Macaulay Culkin was like super hot,” Sandman recalled. “Paul E. calls me over like he’s got some big secret for me. He goes, ‘Listen, I just talked to Macaulay Culkin, we’re going to get him to come in and play your son.’ Me and Tod Gordon just looked at each other and started cracking up.”

Sandman suggested his own son was up for the role. “I said, ‘Paul, we don’t need Macaulay Culkin, I got a kid who looks exactly like him in the car.’ He goes, ‘OK, we’ll use him.’ ”

Sandman’s son would eventually be the catalyst in the attack that led to his live crucifixion, and the fallout that quickly unfolded. Angle was incensed by the storyline, reportedly expressing his disgust and leaving the arena.

“That whole thing got blown out of proportion by Kurt f–king Angle,” Sandman fumed, bitterness still evident in his voice all these years later. “It wasn’t Kurt’s fault because Kurt didn’t know wrestling back then. He was a f–king gold medallist. Everything to him was a shoot, you know what I’m saying?”

Sandman also pointed out that WWE later used a similar angle, which saw The Undertaker place Stone Cold Steve Austin on a modified cross during one of its pay-per-views.

“I tell you what, later when Undertaker hung Austin on a thing that was almost exactly like a cross on WWE, I guarantee you (Angle) didn’t go into Vince’s office and complain that night.”

Heyman and co. quickly went into damage control following the crucifixion, sending Raven to the ring to apologize to anyone he offended.

“I was so mad that night when we got back there,” Sandman recalled. “First of all, I don’t give a f–k. I like Kurt, I’ve got a s–tload of respect for him. But back then, I was hot. I told Raven, ‘Do not go out there, do not apologize, you’re f–king crazy if you do.’ ”

In all, Sandman won a record five ECW World Championship titles, only one of which, he said, was planned.

“Only one time was I ever really supposed to get that belt. (When) Tod Gordon had it when it Eastern Championship Wrestling and I won it from Don Muraco, that was planned. All the other times, it was f—ed. Somebody’s leaving to go to WWE or WCW, we’ll put the belt on Sandman for a little bit. Shane (Douglas) is leaving, put it on Sandman. Cactus (Jack) is leaving, put it on Sandman. So maybe three of those times, I had no idea I was winning the belt.”

Still, it was a sign that the company knew it could count on him.

“And the crowd could accept it,” Sandman said. “I was always interim. I never had that belt for long. I might have had it for a month here, couple months there.”

Following his famous feud with Raven, a pay dispute prompted Sandman to leave the company he helped build for a shortlived run with rival World Championship Wrestling as Hak.

“I was pissed off at Paul E. because he told me I was always going to be his highest paid player and then I found out he paid Sabu like $15,000 and me $14,000 for a pay-per-view or something. So I quit on principle alone. I knew damn sure I was going to end up back in ECW because I knew WCW was a sinking ship. They were hemorrhaging money.”

Sure enough, a year later, he was back with ECW, which itself was by then having financial issues. In 2001, Heyman declared bankruptcy and the company folded, many of its talents owed money. ECW’s assets were purchased by WWE in 2003 and the franchise was relaunched under WWE’s banner in 2006, an experiment that Sandman said was destined to fail.

“It wasn’t supposed to work,” he said. “It was supposed to work as long as they wanted it to work. It had a shelf life. It was an angle with a shelf life. You work your way up to WrestleMania and then see what happens. And then they put Paul Heyman in charge of that ECW pay-per-view that they did in December that one year and they literally put like $5 of advertising into the pay-per-view and then Paul E. gets fired because the ratings were so low. It was set up. No matter how they did, whether it was our way or their way, it was only going to be there for so long. It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, this is another brand we’re going to branch off.’ It was never like that in any of their minds.”

Sandman spent the final year or so of his active career working for WWE, before having his final match with WWE in September 2007. In 2008, he announced on his Myspace page that he was retiring. Mostly, he’s stayed retired, scattering several appearances for various promotions in the years that have followed. He’s enjoyed something of a renaissance since Dreamer launched House of Hardcore five years ago and began using Sandman and his iconic entrance as a surprise appearance at HOH shows. Sandman is booked to appear at HOH 21 this weekend as the company makes its debut on FloSports’ FloSlam, which just signed HOH to a broadcast deal.

But because of his legendary hardcore career, Sandman’s broken body doesn’t allow him to take serious bumps any longer.

“I won’t get in the ring. I’m going to screw around with like a Raven or one of my friends if I go to an indy show, but now if you hire me, it’s strictly to do an autograph session and I’ll cane somebody, but I’m not taking a bump or anything. My body’s too f—ed up.”

Sandman is the first to admit he’s not the man he once was following a life of hard living, partying and pro wrestling. In many ways, he’s wrestling’s equivalent to legendary Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards. Surgery is in the offing for Sandman.

“I’m getting a new knee in a couple of months,” he said. “I’m just waiting on this guy who is one of the best guys in the eastern side of the country who does them. I need a new right hip, I need two shoulder surgeries. My body’s totalled. Again, there were some rock star years in there, 10 very hard living years. But hey, I got through and I’m on the other side now. The hard part’s over with that. what I do nowadays compared to what I used to do then, it was crazy stuff what we were doing.”

Sandman counts his lucky stars that he’s even still here to tell his story, many of his former ECW friends and foes having died as a result of years of similar hard living.

“I’m immune to it now,” he answered when asked how losing so many friends affected him. “There was like a five-year period where I like 20 of my friends, literally 20, 30 dudes that I knew who OD’d, so I’m kind of calloused to it now.” Remarried after divorcing Lori Fullington – who had her own role in ECW – he tries to keep things in perspective. “I’m going through a little thing with my wife right now. She just lost her 80-year-old mom and she thinks I should be more sad about it. I’m like, ‘Hun, you have no idea the loss that I’ve had in my life, in like a five-, 10-year period.’ You just accept that that’s the way it is. I choose to think about how good it was with guys that I really liked and really cared about and not what killed them.”

He’s in a different headspace personally at the moment, and has some perspective on the role that he played as a father for his four children – a daughter and three sons – his latest boy just eight years old. For the first time in his life, he’s getting to spend a lot time with one of his children.

“You thanked f—ing god that you had a good woman home taking care of them, because like you said, we were living like rock stars,” Sandman asked about how hard it was to be a father on the road during the prime of his career. His other children range in age from 18 to 30. “But now, with my eight-year-old, I’m pretty much retired — I play golf and mess around with my kids — but the eight-year-old, he’s gotten to spend the majority of his life with me every day. I’m making up for it now with this one.”

His daughter Kelly, 30, is a police officer and paramedic and member of a SWAT team. His 28-year-old son Ty is training to follow in dad’s footsteps and is a heavy machine operator, while his 18-year-old son Olliver is in trade school at the top trade school in the U.S.

Though the book long ago closed on his active wrestling career, Sandman speaks passionately when asked what he’s most proud of from his career.

“Just doing it, dude,” he said without hesitation, reiterating that wrestling was his lifelong dream. “Just having the balls to go for it. That’s what more people in life need. You’ve got to have the balls to go for it. And I’m proud of myself for attaining that.”

And while he might be retired from actively having matches (though he did say if WWE’s Vince McMahon called, the money would be too much to turn down), Sandman savours the opportunity to get out and be inside the ring again.

Thanks to his old friend Dreamer, that’s still a reality.

“I live for that,” he said of the HOH appearances, which always involve his involved, participatory entrance. “That’s why Dreamer uses me. Even if I’m not in there to cane somebody, even if nobody’s going to touch me, it’s a good feel-good moment for a lot of the fans.”

When the Sandman’s music hits, the question isn’t if someone is getting hurt, it’s when, but that almost always has to wait for him to finish swilling beers and mingling with fans on his way to the ring, “Enter Sandman” pumping through the arena. For those wondering, eight or nine beers are the most he’s had on his way to the ring.

“I was wearing these black cargo pants dude and I f—ing had them everywhere,” he said.

Sandman sees a lot of great things at HOH shows, including incredible work ethic and skills.

“Dreamer’s smart. I’ve worked with guys who weren’t the greatest technical wrestlers. We were hiding it with smoke and mirrors, but Dreamer has way better technical wrestling. Some of the matches these dudes have are f—king unbelievable. I’m not talking about a Dean Malenko-Eddie Guerrero match. I’m talking about two huge dudes, bigger than me, flying everywhere, killing each other. That’s what you see at a Dreamer show.”

Until his phone stops ringing and the opportunities to dust off his Singapore cane dry up, Sandman said he’ll continue to relish every opportunity to climb in the ring and do the only thing he’d ever wanted to do. And as far as his legacy goes, the man with arguably wrestling’s most iconic entrance borrows a quote from another icon.

“I think Frank Sinatra said it best: I did it my way. They can put that on my wrestling gravestone dude because I got to do it my f—ing way.”

House of Hardcore 21: Blizzard Brawl on FloSlam
Live streaming begins Dec. 3 at 8 p.m.
Live show is at Waukesha County Expo, Waukesha, WI.
How to watch: On TV, available on Roku and Apple TV 4.
Streaming: Available only on FloSlam, $20 monthly or $150 yearly.