Rob Van Dam’s surprise appearance at Raw’s 15th anniversary show last month – and the big pop that he received – sparked speculation that RVD would be returning fulltime to WWE. But as much as his fans would love to see him back, it appears that nothing is imminent.
For now, Van Dam is enjoying his time away from the ring as he works on other projects, including the recently launched RVD TV, an online reality series available exclusively to members of robvandam.com
I conducted a phone interview last week with Van Dam, who was calling from his Los Angeles home. He told me that no subject was off limits and we discussed a wide variety of topics. Since the interview is lengthy, it is broken up into two parts.
Were you surprised at the huge response from the crowd when you appeared on the Raw 15th anniversary show?
No, I couldn’t say that it was a surprise. I have for years counted on getting that reaction from the crowd. It’s an energy that I feed off of. I didn’t know for sure 100 percent that was going to happen, but I did expect it. Before I went through the curtain, I did start thinking: “OK, it’s Connecticut, it’s Raw. The last I remember, all the ECW guys were being portrayed as heels on Raw. [The heck with] it. I’m RVD. This will work. Let’s go.”
Was there any discussion of a fulltime return to WWE or was it always intended to be a one-shot deal?
It was more of a discussion of, “Are we ready or not to talk about a fulltime return,” and once the answer to that was no, I’m not ready to talk about that, than it just doesn’t go any further. There was no need to have any formal conversation about it. Same thing I told the boys down South recently, too. I’m simply just not ready to return. And honestly, I don’t know that I will ever be ready to return fulltime to living out of my suitcase. The return on Monday Night Raw was a win-win. It was a lot of fun, it was a happy reunion, and it was quick in and out. The other boys that were there that night that were getting dressed, they seemed to have a little more pressure on their shoulders than RVD.
Did it surprise you that WWE basically had you squash Santino Marella, who is one of their contracted performers?
Yes, in some ways. I knew that I was just going to come out, hit the frog splash and do the thumbs or whatever. I actually forgot that it was a match. For one, I don’t work for them, and in my mind I was thinking it was going to be like a run-in until like the last second. It was so quick, I forgot to pin him. I’m celebrating with the crowd, and I look over and Mike Chioda, the referee, is squatting and looking at me like, “Are you going to cover him?” I totally forgot. So, yeah, everybody’s a little shocked at that. They’re kind of shocked that I won the last match at One Night Stand with Randy Orton. I actually won the last three matches before that by DQ with someone different every week, between The New Breed and Snitsky and Randy. People were surprised that I won on WrestleMania. It was almost as if nobody was listening to me when I said I’m leaving.
I definitely was surprised when you beat Orton at One Night Stand. I read somewhere, I think it was in The Wrestling Observer, that Vince McMahon was upset that everybody knew you were leaving and therefore knew what the result of that match would be, so he changed it at the last minute. Is there any truth to that?
(laughs) I couldn’t tell you why decisions are made. I think that’s pretty funny even imagining Vince giving in to something like that for that reason. One thing that’s for sure is that WWE and I do have a good-faith understanding that if and when I’m ready to return that I’ll be talking to them. They look forward and hope that we’ll be doing business again. They hope it’s real soon. Honestly, I’m free as can be. I would also consider the lighter schedule from another company. But, honestly, giving up the prestige of the WWE would be something that I would look at as a downward move. I don’t fit with the formula – I never have. I’ve never tried to be like anybody else. I’m a non-conformist in every way, and when it comes to wrestling, that’s certainly true, too. If I won on my way out and you’re not supposed to do that, that’s just another example of how I’m one of a kind.
When I was leaving, the other wrestlers were telling me, “When you’re fresh off TV, you got so much time, you can still go out and make money,” because they’re used to the formula. That’s not me. They don’t understand that I don’t do that. I haven’t been taking any bookings. My value is still up as much as it ever was or even more. Nobody understands that, and they don’t understand why certain wrestlers get pushed and they don’t. When they put in enough time, they think that the formula will just work for them. And after they’ve put guys over for so long, then it’ll be their turn. And when that doesn’t happen, they become teachers at wrestling schools who are bitter. That’s all just a formula for guys who don’t sell tickets. Those are for the 80 percent of the guys on the card that are just there to fill a spot.
You referred to “another company” in your answer, which I’m presuming is TNA. They do have a lighter schedule, as you said, and I know that you have some friends there. Would you really consider going to TNA?
I definitely would consider them. I would weigh out everything and decide what really is the best thing to do. When I knew that I wasn’t going to re-sign with WWE, which was around WrestleMania time when I knew for sure that I was going to stick to that plan, my first thoughts were, “OK, well there’s this TNA. I could go there to continue my career, still on television, but with a much-lighter schedule.” Towards the end I was so burned out on wrestling that I didn’t even want to do that. So, I said, “Well, I’ll travel around and sign autographs,” because I’ve always enjoyed doing that. I do that at comic conventions, sporting conventions, gaming conventions, celebrity signing conventions, whatever. I can always keep busy doing that, but towards the end, I was so burned out on travel that I didn’t want to do that either. I just wanted to stay home in California and not fly, with the exception of a few dates. I went to England, Australia and New Zealand because they were good trips and I was able to bring my wife, and they were good financial deals.
Besides Raw, I also wrestled one time with Booker T. in Texas. He’s got a great thing going there with the PWA in Houston. It was an awesome show. It was a favor because Booker is my brother and it was his one-year anniversary show. He needed something big and special. I’ve got a few friends that I’d be willing to do that for. But outside of helping a friend out, there’s not a lot of interest in it for me. The money that people are talking about to work all these indie shots – no, no interest in that whatsoever. There’s got to be something else in it for me. Like, for instance, I hate to travel, but it’s nice to bring [my wife] Sonya overseas, especially when they’re taking care of us. There’s been a few things like that. But for the most part, I’m trying to stay in California, and I’m still recovering from all the years of travel when I didn’t want to.
I did an interview with Chris Jericho last summer and he talked about how he took a break from wrestling because he was mentally and physically burned out. Big Show apparently left WWE for similar reasons. Jericho was gone two years before he returned, and Big Show reportedly is coming back after being gone for a little over a year. Do you have a time frame for when you would consider coming back?
I don’t, and that’s something WWE wanted me to do on the way out, to commit and say, “OK, I’ll sign a contract that says I’ll come back in six months.” Why would I want to do that? What I needed was to seriously get disconnected from that for the spiritual rehabilitation that I needed, and I can’t put a time on that. I don’t know how long it’s going to take. I won’t know until life tells me. It’s like I’m crossing a bridge and I don’t see the end of it yet. Soon? No way. If you see me in the ring anytime soon it will be a big surprise to me, too.
Do you watch wrestling at all on TV?
I don’t. Honestly, even while I was wrestling I wasn’t keeping up with it. That’s something that I lost interest in probably like in 1999, 2000, somewhere around there. Normally what I would do is TiVo the show that I was on, and when I would get home I would fast-forward through the show to my match, and I would download my match to save it and I would critique it, because it was all just about business for me. I would say, “OK, I need to jump a little higher here” or “this was a little slow.” It’s been just business for me for a long time. The passion got burned out a long time ago. Keeping up with it, watching it on TV would be like you watching other people work in a cubicle. That’s really what it felt like. I started looking at the crowd and I would say, “What are these people doing here? They watch this every week on TV, the same guys, and most of them don’t even try to be creative. They just try to be like someone they liked growing up and they steal everyone else’s moves.” And I’d look at the crowd and I’d say, “Why? Why do these people leave their homes to come out and see this?” That’s how burned out I was, and that’s when I knew I needed a break.
What did you think of the new ECW before you left?
When it was brought back, that was like my last real serious run of inspiration. Really, I didn’t even want to go to WWE in 2001. I knew that it wasn’t my favorite style, my favorite showcasing of my abilities, but it was definitely the best business move. At the time, there was nowhere else to go anyway – ECW was gone, WCW was gone. So, when I first came in I was seriously frustrated trying to adapt. I wanted to leave so many times. I would call my wife and say, “That’s it. I’m getting on an airplane. I’m out of here.” And I managed to adapt, and I dare say I stuck to my guns a lot and they adapted as well to me. When I first came in, they wanted me to change in a lot of ways that I wouldn’t change and I can’t change. Because of that, I feel like [WWE] gave in because the audience pushed me. They didn’t expect the audience to take to me like they did, so eventually they started getting behind me a little bit. But, of course, there still were limitations on how far they’d get behind me. But, for the most part, the whole time that I was there, I didn’t enjoy traveling. It was every day going to another town that I didn’t want to be in.
And there were different cycles of this frustration, where I would get motivated. When Vince liked the idea of doing the ECW pay-per-view, ah, I was as high as a kite. I was so happy. We get to be seen the way we want to be seen again, but on WWE’s stage. The whole world gets to see what we can really do. I was injured – that [stunk] – but it was still a great night. And then we came back and did it again the next year, and I realized not only was it a huge success, but now it’s something that could be annual, that the fans are going to be counting on, and they talked about bringing it back fulltime. Once I wrapped my head around the idea that this could work as a third brand if we got the originals and if we recruit only the young guys that could handle the extreme style that Paul Heyman could showcase, because he was always so good at that – making superstars out of guys that were just tossed to the side by the other promotions – this could work. We had the one match, Smackdown vs. ECW, and I wrestled Rey Mysterio, and everybody was calling me, my friends and family, saying, “Man, you look happy again. You could tell that you were excited to be in the ring, you were having a good time.” And it was true.
A little while later when they started killing the spirit of ECW, my passion came down. I was telling them, “What you’re doing is going to destroy ECW. ECW fans won’t get behind this.” And I was hearing ridiculous things such as, “Rob, people don’t remember the old ECW.” I’d say, “What are you talking about, Vince? Why do you think they chant ‘E-C-W?’ ” “Well, because I trained them to do that over the last five years when they see something extreme.” How do you argue against something like that? I can’t say I know what’s better for global business, because WWE is like Coca-Cola, recognized around the world. But I knew that ECW was something special, it was something different. And I knew it was that spirit that was the thing not only that would interest me and keep my passion going, but would also draw like-minded fans. It would make wrestling cool again. [Vince] would say, “No, I never had any intentions of making this like the old ECW. People move on. They get married, they have kids. Nobody remembers that.” Well, then why did we bring back the originals? Why’d we do this off the success of that pay-per-view? And I heard this: “Rob, for all I know, those 2500 fans in New York at the Manhattan Ballroom are the last of the old ECW fans.” I mean, at some point, you tap. I tapped out. My passion tapped out. My desire to be there tapped out. And so how do I feel about the new ECW? It’s something that I wanted to be a part of so bad that I walked right out the exit.
You said that WWE wanted you to change in a lot of ways when you first got there. Could you give an example of something they wanted you to change that you refused to do?
Sure. When I first came in, Jim Ross would say things like not to dive out to the floor and do moonsaults and flips out to the floor because I was going to hurt myself. I’m like, “Uh, let’s see, at this point [in 2001], I’ve already been wrestling like 10-12 years. This is what I do, this is what I’m used to. You guys just aren’t used to it.” He said, “Trust me, you’re going to get hurt. Things are different here. You’re going every night. You can’t continue that reckless style.” It was stuff like that. Fans always ask: “Did they ask you to tone it down? How come you don’t do the Van Daminator?” Well, you can’t bring a chair into the ring. What do you think? A lot of the stuff doesn’t fit. It’s a different style, but, sticking to what I know, my ability and talent still is going to make me stand out and be an extremist in a room full of non-extreme people. Like I said, I’m a nonconformist. I can’t help it. I’m proud of my independence. And certainly from a business perspective, that’s always been a main agenda for me – to make my own position, don’t try and be like somebody else, because there already is that somebody else.
During the Invasion angle in 2001, it seemed like WWE listened to the fans and you were given a push, but the company never really went all the way with you. Why do you think that was the case?
I’ve always felt like my existence there made other wrestlers feel threatened. They were threatened because I was doing it my way. I don’t go with the formula. I don’t kiss [butt], I don’t play politics, and yet I’m connected to the fans in such a way that when I step through those curtains, you can’t stop me. Now it’s about me and the fans and whether I’m going to give them a show and whether they’re going to like it or not. No matter what happens before I go through the curtains, that’s what you got to deal with. Also, when I first got there, I was potatoing everybody. If you remember, when I came in with the Van Daminator in 2001, I busted everybody open every night – everyone from Steve Austin, Test, Raven, Booker T., Kurt Angle, everybody. And the Internet rumors were going crazy: “Oh my God, they’re so mad at RVD.” My whole career I’ve had a reputation for being snug. That’s the way that I learned from The Sheik in 1989, and then from having those really rough matches in All Japan, I learned how to put that all together. When you come in with a reputation like that, you have to be ready to back it up. Steve Richards would say things like, “That’s great. Usually they send JBL and Ron Simmons out and just have them powerbomb somebody when they got heat, but they can’t do that with you.” I was like, “Well, they can do it, but I’m not going to take it like everybody else, and I think everybody knows that about me. I don’t think anybody doubts that I’m not a pushover.” I stand behind what I say and what I do. I’m a man of integrity, and if nothing else, I hope I got a lot of people’s respect.
I told Jim Ross when I first came in that there were going to be a lot of fans bringing signs [for me] because I have a lot of fans. He said, “Well, this is different. These people don’t see ECW.” So I had my match with Jeff Hardy in Cleveland, that was the first WWE pay-per-view that I did, and all those fans had RVD signs, and I think WWE was completely surprised by it. And they told me things like, “When you go out there, don’t look at the crowd. We don’t do that here.” So, I’d look at the crowd – “R-V-D!” I’d come back and I’d get yelled at by someone like Shane McMahon, who would pull me aside. Even someone like Bubba Dudley, thinking he was helping me out, being a big brother, would say, “Bro, don’t look at the crowd, man. They don’t do that here. You’re going to get a lot of heat for that.” Have I ever minded getting heat? It’s about me and the fans at that point.
So, yeah, I was over. They had to get behind me, and I was on a pretty good run there. I beat The Rock, I beat “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, I beat The Undertaker for the belt and then I think [Eric] Bischoff came out and reversed it. That was a good moment. That they never totally got behind me was not a surprise. I never had goals of being the world champion. I never thought that would happen. As a lot of people notice, if WWE doesn’t create the character, they usually don’t get behind them. When you think about Triple H or “Stone Cold” Steve Austin or The Rock or John Cena, they’re all characters that they created, and I definitely wasn’t one of those.
You just mentioned Triple H. To me, the title program that you had with him in 2002 was sort of a turning point in your WWE career. He said in his promos that you weren’t in his league and the way the program was designed seemed to indicate that as well. What was working with Triple H like for you? Was it contentious at all in the back when you were going over your matches?
It was ingenuine. Just like when he pretends that he cares when he says, “Hey, how’s it going today? OK, good, good.” And he just has that smugness about him where you know when he’s walking away from you that he’s rolling his eyes or something. There’s something about that kind of guy that vibrates at such a different speed than me, that I don’t enjoy being around someone like that. I’m genuine. I don’t say anything about anybody that I won’t say to their face, and somebody that’s the opposite and puts up a big front – basically, that’s how they do it there. That is how you get to the top there. Traditionally, that seems to be the way to go – to stab people in the back, to hold them down after you can’t go up any higher yourself. I was never going to go that way, so I was always happy just making it as far as I could and just looking at it professionally. Going over a match – that’s professionalism, too. When you’re out there in the ring with somebody, you bring what you bring to the table and so do they, and it’s all business beforehand. Now, once you’re out there in the ring, then anything can go, and that’s when it helps to know that you can handle yourself and defend yourself.
To be honest, there’s a lot of matches where you’re so on the edge, you’re just hoping that they catch you really stiff so you can receipt them and nail them one back. I had a lot of matches with Chris Jericho like that. They were great matches, but those were some of the matches when I was adjusting coming in in 2001. Jericho, his politics frustrated me so much that when I’d be in the ring with him, I was pretty sure I was going be busting him open and it was going be a receipt. He was going to give it to me and I was going give it back to him. That’s one way to do business.
That’s surprising to me that you would mention Jericho as someone who played backstage politics. I figured the two of you were kind of in the same boat, especially when it came to Triple H.
When I talk about that, a lot of people are surprised about that, including him from what I understand. Someone said that he was like, “Really? Rob said that?” He was crazy in 2001. He felt like he was promised the world and they didn’t deliver. And then I came in and all of a sudden it’s like he felt that I grabbed his dinner plate off the table and walked off with it. When I came in and had to wrestle with him, you wouldn’t believe some of the conversations that were going on where he’s trying to protect himself as much as possible and treat me like an idiot at the same time. He was like, “No, they don’t like that stuff here. They like it simple.” No, I’m not simple. It was very, very frustrating.
That’s funny, because in his book, Jericho says that’s exactly what Vampiro did to him in Mexico.
Well, since you brought that up, it was actually a good friend of mine – and the only one who ever had my best interest at heart in the WWE office, Paul Heyman – who had a talk with Chris one time when this was going on, and he told me – and who knows if it was true or not since it came from Paul – that that’s exactly what he said to Chris when Chris was saying, “I don’t know, man, do you think Rob should be winning this because blah, blah, blah?” Paul told me that he said to Chris, “OK, so they promised you they were going to do this and that with you, and they screwed you. So, now do you think in return that you should screw Rob?” Maybe he grew from that, I don’t know. I like Chris, and when I saw him at the 15-year reunion, I actually talked to him and he was saying that he needed two years away from the business and he knew it was the right time to come back. I said, “OK, now that you’re back, are you glad that you’re back, because they just slammed the door on you. You’re locked in now.” And he said, “I knew when I came back that the time was right.” I enjoyed talking to him. Did I enjoy working with him in 2001? [Heck] no.
One last question about 2001, I was working as the editor of WCW Magazine at that time when it appeared that a group led by Eric Bischoff was going to buy the company. One of the rumors we were hearing was that Bischoff had made a deal with you to become part of the new WCW. Was that true?
Yeah, that’s funny, I forgot about that until just now. That’s when he was dealing with Fusient, and they had some money, so, yeah, that was discussed. I was on board, but it didn’t work out.
Check back tomorrow for the second part of the interview, in which RVD discusses drug testing, wrestlers dying young, whether marijuana should be legalized and how he feels about Shane McMahon using the Van Terminator.