Monday, April 20, 2015

Rob Van Dam: Wrestling's Stoner Superhero

Today is April 20, which if we're writing the date out with numerals is 4/20, which is a marijuana term 4:20, which is sort of an unofficial "meeting time" to partake.

With marijuana legalization happening in several states and medicinal marijuana becoming much more widespread, the negative stigma about this drug is slowly starting to disappear. 

One thing I've joked about from being a professional wrestling fan for so many years is the additional knowledge I've picked up. I know a lot about knee injuries; the difference between the ACL and PCL. I can tell you information about the disks in your back. I know where the solar plexus is located because of wrestling. And I know what your epidermis is because of "The Simpsons," but that's another story.

I haven't felt a stigma toward marijuana largely in part because of watching Rob Van Dam be one of the most innovative and amazing professional wrestlers for 18 years. Rob Van Dam is also one of the most outspoken and informative proponents of marijuana legalization.

I first heard the phrase "4:20" because of Rob Van Dam. The most popular catchphrase in wrestling history at the time (and likely forever) was "Austin 3:16," the words made popular by "Stone Cold" Steve Austin. At the time, Austin was involved in a program with Jake Roberts, who had revealed a religious element to his character. Austin, mocking Roberts, said "You talk about your psalms and John 3:16, well Austin 3:16 says I just whipped your ass!" And a pop culture moment was born. RVD put his own spin on it over at Extreme Championship Wrestling with "RVD 4:20 says I just smoked your ass."

Who is RVD? In the late 90's, the mainstream wrestling world was divided between the World Wrestling Federation (now WWE) and World Championship Wrestling (which went out of business in 2001). There was an upstart third promotion called Extreme Championship Wrestling that featured a cavalcade of characters that either developed their skill sets they would take to the "big show" (Chris Benoit, Eddie Guerrero, Steve Austin, etc) or niche stars who made ECW their home (The Sandman, Mikey Whipwreck, Raven, etc).

Rob Van Dam was the biggest homegrown star in the history of ECW. He personified what that promotion was more than anybody else. ECW was "extreme" in every way; hardcore weapon use, profanity, bleeding... and what RVD had above all else, extreme athleticism.

RVD was so acrobatic, so athletic, so flexible, but he was also so believable. He had the look, the style, the cockiness, the total package. He started as such an asshole character, but he always backed up what he did in the ring that his attitude caught on with the fans. His cocky character went from being mean-spirited to having a fun side and his charisma caught on with the fans.

The first - and so far, only - wrestler to be on the cover of "High Times" magazine was RVD. The 1999 article was so groundbreaking, because it took the "stoner, slacker" persona that RVD had and really turned it around. He talked about medicinal purposes for it. Hemp was something that wasn't really as popular 15 years ago as it is now, and RVD championed the increased use of hemp.

ECW went bankrupt in 2001 and RVD moved to the only show left in town - WWE. He was supposed to be a "bad guy," but the crowd wanted none of that and regularly cheered for RVD over the other top stars he was fighting against: Jeff Hardy, Kurt Angle, and The Rock, among the most notable.

WWE is not ECW and they really did not know what to do with RVD. They knew that they had an impressive physical specimen with a unique charisma, but other than that they seemed lost. He became a secondary, almost comical character. His interviews were peppered with "Cool" and "Whatever," and other stoner stereotypes. But he wasn't portrayed outwardly as a stoner; the "4:20" aspect of his character was no longer allowed in the corporate-PG environment of WWE.

A DVD of the rise and fall of ECW was released in 2004 and quickly became one of the biggest-selling documentaries in WWE history. This led to a lot of interest in the seemingly dead promotion. A 2005 reunion show titled "One Night Stand" was planned for the summer of 2005. There was only one small problem... Rob Van Dam had knee surgery earlier that year and wasn't medically cleared to compete.

In true ECW fashion, RVD showed up to the event wearing a knee brace, picked up a microphone, and proceeded to vent the frustrations of both he and his millions of fans. That WWE didn't know what to do with his character, that he was capable of being so much more than a comedy "stoner" and so forth. It generated a lot of buzz, yet RVD wasn't able to return for nearly 6 more months as an active performer.

The following year, the ECW nostalgia craze returned and the second "One Night Stand" reunion show featured Rob Van Dam challenging John Cena for the WWE Championship. This time, ECW was going to be more than a one-night deal, as WWE had brought the promotion back as a full-fledged brand with a one-hour weekly TV show.

In front of one of the most polarizing, anti-Cena crowds in WWE history, RVD won the WWE Championship and was then awarded the ECW Championship as well. His moment had finally arrived. He was the WWE Champion and the ECW Champion and was going to be one of the top stars in wrestling.

Oh wait...

Three weeks after the greatest moment of Rob Van Dam's career, he was leaving a show in West Virginia and traveling with fellow wrestler Sabu. After crossing into Ohio, Van Dam was pulled over for speeding. The officer smelled pot and did a search. He found a small amount of marijuana and a smoking device on RVD and a couple pills on Sabu that he didn't have a prescription for.

That happened on a Sunday. On Monday, RVD showed up on Monday Night Raw and lost the WWE Championship. The next day, RVD defended his ECW Championship on that brand's show and lost that title. Then he was suspended for 30 days.

Ultimately, nothing really came out of the charges. I believe he paid some fines. But, professionally, his main event run was over. He was suspended in the summer of 2006 and was gone from WWE by the next summer.

After leaving WWE, Van Dam did a lot of interviews about his life and career, and he never shied away from his arrest for possession. He used it to help paint a better picture of getting rid of the negative stigma. He was an athlete who excelled at the highest level and was more than just a lazy slacker.

After a few years of spending time on outside interests (movies, radio show, convention appearances) and a brief stint in the smaller "Total Nonstop Action" promotion, RVD made his long-awaited return to WWE in 2013.

At 44-years-old, Rob Van Dam is no longer a full-time performer. His contract is set up into 90 day increments. He appears for 3 months, then takes time off and does it again. He came back for an amazing run in 2013 where he was treated like a legend; performing in the main event and stealing the show. His 3-month stint in 2014 was a little lackluster, as WWE didn't really seem to have a direction for him. He hasn't been back since, but the relationship is still there.

He has gained the respect of wrestling fans by always being one of the best. It took the major wrestling promotions some time to come around, but they have realized the respect he deserves. He gets treated like a legend and still performs at a Hall-of-Fame level. He has done all of that while advocating a pro-marijuana agenda and defying every negative stereotype that lifestyle brings to it.

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