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Sandman was an awful wrestler. I mean, really, really bad. He had little co-ordination, few moves and, when he started his run in ECW in 1992, a sketchy surfer character complete with a horrid wrestling singlet. But within the space of three years, with no discernible in-ring improvement, Sandman became the most popular act in front of a group of fans who valued and knew how to spot talent. How?
"Island of mis-fit toys" is the line you'll hear peddled around when talking about the ECW roster. They accepted guys deemed unfit for purpose within the WWF or WCW, and it shaped a very fluid base of talent that included guys on their way up (Chris Benoit, Eddie Guerrero, Dean Malenko), guys spat out by one of the two (Cactus Jack, Steve Austin, Matt Borne, Raven) and a bunch of guys just from the local area hoping to have their star burn brightly for their 15 minutes of fame (see The Public Enemy, Tommy Dreamer and many others).
Sandman, perhaps more than any others, fit the final category. Playing a generic surfer gimmick that was forgettable even with the benefit of hindsight, he seemed destined just to be a forgettable under-card act as the likes of Sabu, Shane Douglas and Terry Funk started stealing the headlines within ECW. On the night of the fabled three way dance in February 1994, Sandman teamed with Tommy Cairo against Rockin' Rebel and the Pitbull (this was before there was a second one) in a five minute match.
Around this time it had been suggested to Sandman that he move away from the surfer gimmick into, well, less of a gimmick. Sandman was a smoker and beer drinker backstage, so why not just do that out in the open too? Out went the wetsuit, in came the loose tee and pajama bottoms. Sandman, critically, had taken a step to become more like the people he was performing in front of. ECW's almost entirely male audience could live vicariously through someone who, in all honestly, probably couldn't wrestle any better than they did.
It was Cairo that represented Sandman's first memorable feud within ECW. Cairo had aligned himself with Miss Peaches (the real life wife of Sandman), and defeated Sandman during a match in April 1994. During the post match angle, Sandman DDT'd Cairo before getting hold of Peaches, out came Woman (aka Nancy Sullivan) and whipped Peaches. After the match aired on TV, we got a promo from outside Sandman's house with Miss Peaches and Cairo, Cairo said he had been drinking Sandman's beer. They previewed the next step in the program – a "Singapore caning" mixed tag match, where the loser would be on the receiving ends of several lashes of the now-"Singapore" cane.
It wasn't quite the caning angle between Sandman and Tommy Dreamer that would happen a few months later, but this was one of the first feuds that represented a significant change in direction for the promotion. For the time being, they were still "NWA Eastern Championship Wrestling", but the elements of Extreme were starting to become more and more frequent on television – with the Public Enemy now making tables and arena wide brawls part of their everyday arsenal.
It was the Cairo feud that spawned one of Sandman and ECW's most famous hours, as Cairo and Tommy Dreamer found an neutral enemy, giving Sandman a new person to feud with. The feud lead to another Singapore Caning match, this time a singles between Sandman and Dreamer. Despite Dreamer being screwed out of the finish thanks to interference (a finish that Tod Gordon even offered him an out on), Dreamer opted to take defeat like a man.
Woman offered Dreamer a way out, a way of salvaging his safety – Dreamer declined. Much like a lot of the feuds in ECW this was one designed to get both men more over as a result. Sandman, as this maniacal prick, Dreamer as this gutsy/never-give-up hero wanting to prove he was more than just a pretty boy to the regulars in Philadelphia by taking a beating. It was, and still is, one of the strongest segments ECW had ever pulled off with Sandman's lack of remorse really came across. The pairing between he and Woman – with Woman as the driving force in the post match angle, really worked well nicely. The angle, paired with the Shane Douglas NWA title angle on the August 30th 1994 Hardcore TV made the entire thing one of the most memorable the promotion ever pulled off.
Of course, what followed is well known in ECW folklore – the pair re-matched a few weeks later, Dreamer stubbed a cigarette into the eye of the Sandman, bringing the bout to a sudden halt and causing battle lines within the ECW roster to temporarily cease as good guys and bad tended to the fallen man. When Sandman retured a few weeks later with bandages over his eyes (having not been seen around Philadelphia in the meantime), he ripped the bandages off and took advantage of Dreamer who was distracted by Woman – striking him with a vicious cane shot across the head to an explosion of noise from the ECW fans in attendance. It was this moment, quite possibly, where the man of the people anti-hero Sandman was first born. In spite of all his despicable acts, there was something quite relatable about the beer drinking, chain smoking, cane swinging Sandman that ECW fans could really latch on to.
Read More: The Sandman vs Tommy Dreamer
After this we really were at the races. Sandman, with reactions growing ever stronger, quickly found himself as one of the most in demand acts in the company, feuding with relative-major names like Cactus Jack before getting involved in the World Title picture with Shane Douglas. With four major ECW singles acts in Sabu, Taz, Chris Benoit and Dean Malenko tied up in a three way tag team feud (the one that ended up with Sabu being fired), Sandman went from an unthinkable World champion option to being probably the one that made the most sense. With Shane Douglas in negotiations with the WWF for what felt like about four months, Sandman won the ECW title in April 1995. ECW's worst in ring performer (by some margin, and widening) was now its top title holder.
That really, was always the story of the ECW World Title. ECW's roster was too fluid to have any kind of hierarchy, especially once the Monday Night Wars began ECW had to be content with the fact they were quite regularly going to lose talent. Douglas, in that sense, had been an excellent foil throughout 1994 – a name guy from WCW who could hold up his end of the deal and hold credible headlining matches at shows against guys like Ron Simmons and Tully Blanchard. Douglas was all over Hardcore TV as a World Champion, but largely just cutting promos. He was being used as the main focal point while Paul Heyman could build up ECW's fledgling undercard.
When the time came to move the title on Sandman had one thing going for him – he was over. Boy, was he over. He came out to the ring with Woman, underscored by "Enter Sandman" by Metallica with entrances that could often last four or five minutes. He'd get to ringside then just soak up the atmosphere ("atmosphere", in this case, a can of beer), while Woman posed with his title belt.
The match quality was often bad. Usually matches quickly broke down into arena wide brawls that involved all manner of weapons. In a world where unco-ordinated was normal Sandman's irregular in ring work was often downright scary to watch. His top rope leg flop put both his opponent and him in a lot of danger – he would often land with his "other" leg tucked in a hurdling position.
But while he had his Singapore cane, everything was right with the world. As 9-1-1 was moved into a more ordinary program, Sandman became to the go to guy when a ring needed clearing following a sub-par opening match (there's even a suggestion, one not too farfetched, that people were told to go out and have a bad opening match, as the crowd would inevitable call for Sandman to run out and clean house). This set piece became a frequent feature of the opening 15 minutes of shows, and often generated some of the biggest pops of the night.
Perhaps one of the biggest disappointments is that Sandman was ECW Champ around the time that both Eddie Guerrero, Dean Malenko and Chris Benoit were around. There was never any impetus on Sandman to have great matches, but it would have been a lot of fun to see the likes of those three, who were having world class matches by any standard or any era, could've got out of him. Sandman was left with a feud with Cactus Jack and then, perhaps improbably, one with Mikey Whipwreck.
Whipwreck's rise was almost as improbable. Starting out as this incredibly limited worker, fans were able to watch this underdog rise through ranks, initially alongside Cactus Jack in a tag team, but later as a scrappy, battling, never-say-die babyface. He would often win in flukey fashion having taken one hell of a pummeling, it was a strategy that would take him to the ECW Tag Titles and the ECW Television title, could it take him to the world title too?
After a memorable six man cage match, where Mikey became an honorary member of the Public Enemy facing the team of Sandman, New Jack and Too Cold Scorpio (standing in for Mustapha). Mikey finished the match with a splash from the top of the cage (a brave spot given the build quality of the cage!) and pinned Sandman. A month later, after Steve Austin basically railed over the entire ECW operation, Mikey was champion defeating Sandman in a ladder match.
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It was the end of Sandman's second title run (having previously held it in 1992), by the end of his ECW run Sandman had held the title five times (only Shane Douglas, 4, had more than two) and a combined length of 446 days (Second only to Douglas – 874). For someone so incredibly limited in front of an audience that appreciated good wrestling more than most (and shat on bad wrestling WAY more than most), it's a testimony to how often ludicrously popular the character was, and because (barring a short run in WCW as Hardcore Hak in 1999) his character and ability wasn't really wanted by anyone else. If the ECW Arena was anyone's home, it was probably Jim Fullington's.