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I think a WWE.com article once said that Sabu "revolutionised wrestling" but everyone had forgotten he was the person who did it. Much in the same way that catalyst for the great ladder matches came from Shawn Michaels and Razor Ramon in 1994, but retrospective shows that to be quite pale in comparison to the battles that would come in the following two decades. Maybe it's something about 1994, but there's certainly nothing that should be forgotten about Sabu.
Sabu started life as this Hannibal Lecter style character. Coming out on a bodyboard, tethered and muzzled, with assistants and almost his handler in Paul E Dangerously. He’d be unleashed like a wild dog and would run a mock on his opponents. Not only was it a great gimmick, but Sabu’s desire to do some truly unbelievable stunts meant the character, as extreme as it was, felt very believable.
It was February 1994 when Sabu, and ECW, probably first made their mark on the wrestling map. As part of *the* three way dance with Terry Funk and Shane Douglas, Sabu went to an hour time limit draw in a match that probably become to be known as ECW’s earliest bookmark. As Shane Douglas wouldn’t tire of telling us, neither Funk (who entered 15 minutes into the match as per the stipulation) and Sabu, who left around the same time, completed the full hour. Sabu would return on the half hour to complete the rest of the match. The reason for his absence? He went for a springboard moonsault from the apron to Douglas laid on the table on the outside in the crowd. Douglas moved, and Sabu went crashing through the empty table.
Tables were becoming Sabu’s forte. It didn’t matter if there was another wrestler on the table (often it was a hindrance) if you left a table vacant for a short time chances are Sabu would go crashing through it. Sometimes it was after an opponent moved, other times it was Sabu celebrating a victory. Live the gimmick.
But Sabu absolutely never spoke. ECW, even so, was a company where you were either a great talker or you simply didn’t get the chance. Shane Douglas, Terry Funk, Cactus Jack and others set an extraordinarily high bar and not only was Sabu probably not up to these promos as it was, but it absolutely didn’t suit the character to be talking anyway. But that didn’t matter – he had someone for that.
That man was Paul E Dangerously. Heyman had a reason to talk people into the building as it was, but he was hitting home runs with Sabu. One of the reasons I liked ECW as a whole was its spectrum with building guys up. When Sabu was getting ready to face-off with Cactus Jack, he described Sabu as being a guy who “might go too far” and “might not get back up”. You had to see the show because it might be his last. Also, while he wouldn’t rule out Sabu facing Jack for a second time, there would only be “one first time”.
If one man embodied what ECW was all about, it was Sabu. There was no stench of the WWF or WCW to shake off; plus he was a guy even at the time you'd have expected either company to sign him (and they both tried) would've made a mess of. In the WWF, it was less of a problem about size - as a guy like The 123 Kid showed, but more a problem of character. 1995 WWF was rife for horrid lower card gimmicks. In WCW Sabu would've likely avoided that fate, but could've been swallowed whole given his lack of size. If we needed any evidence of all of this, Sabu would join WCW in 1995, briefly. They wouldn't know what to do with him.
But in ECW things were flying. Sabu was paired with another newcomer in Chris Benoit. Benoit came with a pedigree having wrestled in Mexico and like Sabu was a frequent traveller to Japan. Heyman knew he had something with Benoit, and wasted little time in establishing Benoit as an equal. Heyman spoke about the guys Sabu had challenged and prevailed against, but said that he'd never faced someone quite like Benoit.
The feud, itself, perhaps disappointed a bit. It didn't produce the classic it perhaps should, and became famous more for Sabu being dropped on his head by Benoit than it did any classic match. But the touch paper had been lit for a different kind of feud that involved the pair. It needed another ingredient, and that came in the form of Flyboy Rocco Rock of the Public Enemy.
Sabu and Rock was less of a feud and more of an undercurrent of tension. They built Rock as a guy who mimmicked/imitated some of Sabu's signature stuff, from moonsaults to crashing through tables. Rock was involved in a tag match that spilled up into the "Crows Nest" and setup for a move through a table below, Sabu came out on the ledge with 911 and Heyman, before shoving Rock off and through the table.
Perhaps the other interesting addition was that of The Tazmaniac, who would become informally known as "Taz" during this feud. Sabu, perhaps rightly, rallied against the idea of being formally given a tag team partner. The Sabu character didn't really make sense with a tag team partner, and his argument about the character "not being the kind of one that waited for tags" would've held more water had tag matches in ECW not already dissolved into automatic Tornado tag rules.
But for the "Three Way Dance" of tag teams to work, Sabu needed a partner. And The Tazmaniac gimmick (silent in the same kind of way but vicious in a very different kind of way) made a lot of sense. Benoit joined up with "The Shooter" Dean Malenko and along with The Public Enemy we had ourselves a six way. The only question was, when?
Getting all six men in the same place at the same time was easier said than done. The Enemy and Taz were local guys, but for those who travelled a lot more (and this applied to Benoit and Sabu mainly) dates with other promotions conflicted. Oddly enough, the match was delayed a first time due to Benoit and Malenko jumping their cue for a run in and forcing the story to take a slightly different path. But by mid-March we had a date, April 8th. All six confirmed they would be there.
But Sabu would never make it. I’ll save you chapter and verse (I wrote about it in full, here), but essentially Sabu after accepting the ECW date then was offered a date the same day with New Japan. New Japan were Sabu’s paymasters – over the months prior Sabu had talked with both the WWF and WCW but talks fell through (in part) because he wanted to keep up his Japan tours, and neither of America’s big two would allow that. New Japan paid Sabu big bucks, ECW considerably less. When it came to a choice, there was no choice (even if ECW asked first). But the problem was – Sabu thought he could do both shows.
As it turns out, he wouldn’t have been able to. He’d have arrived in Philadelphia the following morning. But once he committed to both he didn’t want to back out, and left for Japan with Paul Heyman still believing he’d be on the show. He wasn’t, and what follows is a significant chapter in ECW’s history. Again, read about it all here, but Heyman, Taz and 911 went out in street clothes and told the truth.
It would be an abrupt end to the first chapter in Sabu’s ECW career. He’d be back by the end of the year after a short stop in WCW (who agreed a part time deal – he still worked Japan). Sabu and ECW were made for each other, so it was an unfortunate end. But soon enough the parties would be reunited and Sabu would be tearing it up in the ECW Arena. Barring an interpromotional deal with the WWF, Sabu wouldn’t work for either of the big two until ECW folded in 2001. He would never have fit anywhere else.