James Fullington, better known as The Sandman in the world of professional wrestling, had a face that was bleeding profusely and, unlike the old days, he wasn’t getting paid a goddamn dime.
That dirty bartender at this generic Italian restaurant was running some sort of deranged biological experiment and kept sliding over drink after drink after drink, even after the nice lady who organized this celebratory event politely asked him to stop serving. Listening to a now inebriated Fullington loudly curse was no way to celebrate the 75th birthday of her uncle! Unfortunately, cursing was just the First Seal in Fullington’s burgeoning drunken apocalypse. The Second Seal was to call the son of the birthday boy a “bitch,” challenge him to a fight, and punch a light fixture just to signal his seriousness. Happy birthday!
De-escalation techniques are law enforcement’s holy grails to resolving conflicts peacefully. Among those studied and researched methodologies, it would be hard to find a section recommending subduing the drunken man at your restaurant by throwing a beer mug at his face. Unfortunately, the owner of this nondescript restaurant, one Ralph “T.J.” Tarone, felt this was a wise course of action to take with the drunken, lumbering 6’4” 280 pound Fullington.
If only the mug had missed! Maybe it could’ve harmlessly crashed into the faux brick walls, at worst harpooning one of the replaceable black and white photographs of the rat pack boozily conquering Vegas. Maybe the music would’ve stopped, the yelling would’ve paused, and in that moment of silence, maybe Fullington could’ve soberly collected himself enough to see where the night was headed. The cockroaches scurry when the lights are thrown on. The drunken moment of clarity. It would’ve been better for all.
Instead, Tarone’s aim was true, a fastball into the strike zone, a direct shot right into Fullington’s well-scarred mug. The mug exploded into lacerating glass shards and Fullington’s face immediately began spewing concerning amounts of blood, according to onlookers. It was a serious injury and he needed medical attention. Any normal person would have been incapacitated, at least cowed by concerning volumes of blood pouring from their face, but Fullington isn’t normal. As you’ll soon see, this wasn’t his first dance with a crimson mask. A drunken juggernaut, it just made him more enraged.
He needed vengeance! He needed those who hurt him to pay! He needed to do something drastic! Think quick: what do restaurants have in abundance that can be used as dangerous projectiles? Beer glasses! Fullington, a q-tip dipped in red paint, began grabbing and heaving beer glasses at every employee of the restaurant he could see. Broken glass rained.
Imagine being a police officer in Yonkers, New York, the “City of Gracious Living.” You’re an hour north of the heart of the Big Apple, average crime rate, decent enough place to raise kiddos, life’s a little slower. You hear a call, you pull your squad car into the Italian restaurant’s full parking lot, cross a street, go up a few stairs, and stand on the outside of the door to the restaurant’s main entrance. Usually, on the other side of that door would be a room of families getting together and enjoying each other’s company over vino and pasta. Maybe the kids get a little bored hearing the same family jokes, maybe Uncle Tony overdoes it on the tiramisu but in general a pleasant, peaceful time.
Tonight, you don’t need to cup your ear to hear what’s going on inside. You stand at the door and listen. Muffled shouting, glass breaking, complete anarchy. Blood, glass, and the howls of blind rage.
Now put yourself in the mind of James Fullington. You’re drunk, bleeding, and in pain, and you want to get that no-good-son-of-a-bitch that cowardly threw the beer mug in your face. All these damn people keep getting in the way! And then the cops rush in! Don’t they understand, Fullington is the victim here? Can’t they just let him get his tiny slice of retribution? If he can just get his hands on that rat bastard, everything would be okay. Just punch the guy out, get some stitches, find some comfy spot to sober up, and mosey on back to normal life.
The police tried to reason with Fullington, calm him down, get him to stop throwing glasses, but he just wasn’t listening. They were just a new obstruction impeding his lust for vengeance. They were only making his situation worse, Fullington more indignant. If the police were going to step into the line of fire, then god damn it, Fullington was going to throw beer mugs at them too!
The police report notes the ensuing damage: two police officers suffered cuts on their hands and arms from broken glasses fired directly at them by Fullington. Who would throw beer mugs at the police? Who would respond in such a way? Only a madman beyond reason. The situation was out of control. After this attack, the police were left with no choice.
Back in 1989, the whole Yonkers department were issued 9-mm semi-automatic pistols. It was a literal arms race. Criminals were more heavily armed than ever before, and the department needed to keep up, cat-and-mouse. A fully loaded 9-mm can fire off 19 bullets without a need to reload, 19 reassuring chances.
They drew their weapons on Fullington.
And that’s the scene: we pan back and see Fullington standing in a room of broken glass, soaking in his own blood, mad with an unquenchable thirst to do something violent, staring down the barrels of police guns.
And if you knew Fullington, you might even be amused. You would think: of course, James Fullington would find himself in a mess like this.
Who is he?
Is he a career criminal? The village idiot? A drunken psychopath? Maybe a little bit from each pool. Put together, he’s the most decorated heavyweight pro wrestler from Extreme Championship Wrestling. He is The Sandman.
The Sandman – Art Imitates Life Imitates Art
The Sandman spent the better part of a decade spraying blood inside wrestling rings all over the East. Actually, I’m not doing him justice: blood was spilled in the rings, outside the rings, up the aisles, and even splattered on the fans. The Sandman made a career out of violence, violence so extreme it made you forget it was real.
Were you around during the mid-1990s? If so, do you remember how it was back then, right before the omnipresence of the internet? There was this malaise, this omnipresent boredom that’s hard to describe unless you lived through it and experienced it yourself. It was part of the atmosphere. And it carried with it this extreme antsiness born of hoping for something, anything to happen in your particular, small orbit.
Gimmicks are of a specific time and a specific place, a gimmick that worked in the mid-’80s won’t work in the mid-’90s. This rule might be the most appealing aspect about pro wrestling because it shows you what ideas held the weight of cultural currency. It helps you understand America’s collective psyche; a good gimmick defines a world you lived through.
So we return to that lumbering, drunken madman, and we know his gimmick name is The Sandman and his real name James Fullington. He’s a bleach blonde Philly guy, rough-around-the-edges in a blue-collar/construction worker type of way. Burly, rugged, a physical presence. His eyes are always one of two extremes: either bugged out in rage or half-open in drunkenness. He has a perma-scowl, and uses it to decorate every pregnant pause—he was a master of the pregnant pause.
And his gimmick is ingenious. What if that alcoholic loser staggering around at your local shithole dive bar was actually a force of nature, capable of kicking the shit out of all mankind? Wouldn’t that be an entertaining fantasy to ponder? It was. That wisp of smoke was The Sandman.
“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,” Fullington told Jan Murphy of The Kingston Whig Standard.
Just like in TV shows/books/any fiction, characters need to be developed and fleshed out. When James Fullington was initially christened “Mr. Sandman” in Philly-based Eastern Championship Wrestling (later repackaged as Extreme Championship Wrestling, but more on that later), his gimmick was to be a carefree surfer dude good guy. The gimmick was vanilla and hackneyed, a poor man’s version of early 1990s mega-babyface Sting, the good-natured All-American Superman who never cheats in a match, is buoyed by his fans cheering for him, and who cheekily overcomes all obstacles. Yay! Fullington wore a wetsuit and cut lukewarm promos while holding a surfboard (a surfboard incidentally obtained in true-to-form fashion: by fellow wrestlers drunkenly tearing it off the wall of local Philly Bar The Rock Lobster). Gimmicks have always been rehashed/imitated/stolen in professional wrestling; the happy-go-lucky do-gooder surfer dude was something we had all seen before in the era of mass boredom. It worked as well as it could, but it was unoriginal and Fullington was still unformed clay.
The early 1990s was a transitional era; politically, the United States was trying to extend the family values rule of Reagan by electing his former running mate, George H.W. Bush, as President. The culture was looking at years 9 through 12 of socially conservative morality, garnished with a patriotism-boosting war in the middle east. These macro events establish a collective psyche we call culture, and the culture filters into entertainment, and, for our purposes, specifically into wrestling. The gimmicks were black and white, good guys versus bad guys morality angles, with a tired extension of good guys being extremely patriotic, down home Americans, and bad guys being either monsters or foreigners, sometimes foreign monsters.
Red, white, and blue gimmicks worked fantastically in the 1980s, buoyed by the Cold War that boosted patriotism to a fever pitch. That same Cold War featured a frustrating lack of action that seemed to create this aura of pent up energy, maybe frustration? We were righteous Americans fighting a war where we didn’t do anything; if only we could start fighting, we would obviously win. We are the world power! Might is right! We wanted to see strong Americans win! See the burst of action movies brandishing ‘roided out patriots single-handedly flexing their way into winning wars against all comers and find an antidote to the Cold War’s inertia. And, how different was pro wrestling booking in the 1980s from action movie tropes? Let’s take ‘roided up patriotic good guys and pit them against various, typically foreign ne’er-do-wells. Am I describing Rambo: First Blood Part II or Hogan v. Iron Sheik? Who is that ‘roided up man, clutching an American flag, running down the aisle?
Jump forward. As the 1990s progressed, all entertainment displayed higher and more frequent waves of edginess: gangsta rap, nu metal, South Park, Tarantino, Mortal Kombat, etc. The pendulum rebelliously swung away from the facile family value wholesomeness of the 1980s and monochrome morality gave way to shades of grey. People began rooting for the anti-hero, characters whose complexity did not adhere to simple good versus evil tropes. Culturally, the country had run up the national deficit from the boom years of the 1980s and was stumbling around like a remorseful buyer deep in credit card debt. The United States was perilously thin on foreign boogeymen like the CCCP and Saddam Hussein. A permeating distrust born of the Wacos, the lies about no new taxes, and the ethical indiscretions of impeached elected leaders continued the trend of distrusting the government. The pendulum had swung from gullibility toward collective cynicism. People began to understand life was more complicated than good versus evil. Maybe we were getting smarter, maybe there were more media outlets? In any event, good guy versus bad guy gimmicks just weren’t going to work anymore.
It was that rechristened Extreme Championship Wrestling who first perceived the cultural shift and innovatively rode the wave. ECW spearheaded edgy gimmicks that took parts of real life and transmogrified them to deranged extremes. A funhouse mirror bizarrely reflecting normal life back at us. The Sandman is the embodiment of this cultural shift.
Right around 1994, The Sandman character mutated from bland surfer dude to indestructible alcoholic. The surfboard eventually gave way to Budweisers, a kendo stick, and a lit cigarette. The wetsuit became Zubaz, basketball sneakers, a knockoff Budweiser shirt, and, sometimes, an ample beer gut, the accoutrement of the everyman. The exclamation point of the character was the entrance, one of the best in the squared circle.
We all know entrances in pro wrestling are extremely important. The walk from the locker room to the ring is the most naked way for a wrestler to establish the character of his gimmick. Every detail of an entrance underlines character development: the way the wrestler walks, how much he or she interacts with the crowd on the way to the ring, the gestures or dances the wrestler does, the clothing the wrestling is wearing, and, fundamentally important, what music is playing during the entrance. The Sandman’s music and entrance was pitch perfect.
The lights would go out, which, in itself, is always disorienting when you are in a sea of humanity. After the anticipation built, we would hear the opening riff to Metallica’s “Enter Sandman”, a song whose intro is basically a thunderous minute-long crescendo. A single spotlight would appear on The Sandman. He wouldn’t come from backstage or the locker room; he would appear in the crowd: “he is one of us!”—again, perfect packaging for the drunken everyman. All eyes would be one him as he would start to pull beers out of the pockets of his Zubaz. The beer in the Zubaz, nothing more mid-’90s than that. Then, right when the first power chord hits with that cymbal splash, Sandman would start to slam beers and crush the cans on his head. Many beers.
“I’m drunk going to the fucking ring,” once explained James Fullington to The Hannibal TV.
Blood would ooze out of his forehead from headbutting the beers. The Sandman would stand, glowering, blood dripping in between his widened eyes; he had transformed into his character. And the fans went bananas, and fan response is everything in pro wrestling. The logic is direct: if fans are excited, they’ll buy tickets. If fans cheer wildly for a wrestler, they will pay good money to see him or her wrestler. Fan response makes or breaks careers. Fans perform just as much as the wrestlers; fans know the louder they support certain wrestlers, the more central those wrestlers will become to all the storylines, the more successful those wrestlers will become.
And why did the fans love The Sandman so much? He wasn’t a good guy, or any type of ideal, but that was the point. The Sandman was the celebration of the informal. He embodied Joe six-pack, drinking beer and listening to metal in his basement. But, the inversion was The Sandman was a dominant wrestler. He wasn’t bigger than life like the stars of yesteryear, rather, he took a piece of normal life and made it big. The proof that the fans loved this gimmick? The Sandman would be crowned ECW heavyweight champion on 5 separate occasions. The character was, as they say in the wrestling business, over.
After defeating his first opponent—sobriety—The Sandman would eventually get into the ring. Immediately he would burst into chaotic action, swinging that kendo stick at anyone unfortunately closeby. The spot was generally the same, usually, one or two wrestlers would bear the brunt of the brutal kendo stick attack while any other wrestlers would hightail it out of the ring, panicked. The loud thwacks from the kendo stick exemplified the real punishment caused by this weapon, the gimmick appropriated from the news about Michael Fay’s public caning punishment for vandalizing cars in Singapore, a news story that was somewhat nonsensically omnipresent (shock news from a foreign land) in the mid-1990s.
Gone were the days of preternatural steroid guys slowly doing power moves on each other like cartoon action figures. The culture shift demanded realism, and there is nothing more realistic than blood gushing from an open wound, and the thwacks of a kendo stick damaging a man’s back. Real violence was an integral piece of the packaging.
“We frickin’ just knew that violence was gonna sell,” says Fullington. “We just knew if we were gonna do it, we were gonna do it hard. And we’re gonna do it good.”
Crushing jagged, aluminum beer cans on his forehead guaranteed the Sandman was awash in blood before he even got to the ring. The style of the matches themselves would guarantee blood would continue to amply flow. ECW employed more “strong-style” wrestling, a term originally used to describe Japanese wrestling’s shift towards realism in the actual moves. The wrestling was still scripted but strong-style means a majority of the moves are actually performed: strikes, punches and kicks make real, painful, audible contact, and cause real, unscripted damage. Realism is blurred, and fans respond; fans are able to recognize when real punches are thrown. Certain power moves are impactfully and painfully carried out. ECW eschewed the cartoonish and obviously fake in-ring wrestling of WWF and WCW. Long-term health consequences be damned.
ECW further distanced itself with its “hardcore” rules and use of weapons and shocking violence. The weapons, in particular, are totems to help the audience see how realistic the product is. The common fan is well acquainted with the sturdiness of a folding table; seeing a body get thrown through one (that may or may not be on fire) underscores the idea that the violence occurring in the ring was real. Weapons were a central component of ECW, and The Sandman’s matches in particular were punctuated by unprotected chair shots, broken tables, fire, barbwire, and the omnipresent kendo stick. Fans would even bring weapons with them to ECW events, in hope of having their heroes later brandish them in various matches. One of my friends recounts a time when he saw a group of guys try to smuggle in a car’s entire front bumper. They were turned away, the exception and not the rule.
Hardcore rules for matches basically meant there were no rules, just that matches ended by pin and submission. Combatants wouldn’t be disqualified for using weapons or moves that are commonly deemed illegal (choking, eye-gouging, etc). There were no count-outs, meaning the wrestlers spent as much time out of the ring, and in the loving caresses of their fans, as they did in the squared circle. The matches were bloodbaths, the violence extreme and surreal.
But, the human body isn’t built to take real, savage violence. Violence shortens the shelf life and increases the need for self-medication. Strong-style and hardcore require sacrifice. The wrestlers who perform in these styles have short careers punctuated by chronic injury, brain damage, substance abuse, and frequently an early death. What we now know about the damage makes it inconceivable this existed. We were ignorant of the true cost of these performances, at the time.
After the card, the ECW aftershow would star brutalized men congregating in dingy hotels, washing down their pain with alcohol, cocaine, prescription painkillers, anything they could get their bandaged, bloodied hands on. James Fullington refers to this as living like a rock star, glamorizing the actual costs incurring inside the ring and succumbing more and more to the empty promises of the gimmick.
There comes a point in being “extreme” where a line is crossed. Hardcore matches, strong style, high spots, eventually too much violence occurs to be exhilarating, and people get horribly injured. And, the real danger comes when the wrestlers continue to push the limits of the extreme. The spots get higher, the weapons get more damaging, the pain more brutal. The crowd has fun up to a point; when it seems like wrestlers could actually die in the ring, the insanity loses its luster. When New Jack has brain fluid leaking out of his nose from a botched spot, the party’s over. This was the danger of the ECW promotion, as a whole. There is a dangerous limit to how extreme you can get in the ring. It’s exciting to approach that limit, to see more and more danger in the ring. But finding the limit means you inevitably have to go over it and witness something horrible. And then, afterward, where do you go once the limits have been established? Wrestling is fun when we are all buying into it while knowing it isn’t real, when we suspend our disbelief. The audience needs to suspend its disbelief rather than be confronted with something horribly real.
But, suspension of disbelief doesn’t just occur with the audience. To track the careers of ECW wrestlers was to witness the fog of fame. The real danger of wrestling is when a wrestler forgets he or she is playing a character, and instead becomes the character. The character is impervious to pain. The character is beloved by the fans. The character is unsaddled with the responsibilities of normal life. The deeper into the character a wrestler becomes, the greater the costs both in-ring—Mick Foley forgets he is a human and jumps off a 20-foot tall steel cage—and out-of-ring—Axl Rotten overdosing on heroin and dying on the floor of a McDonald’s bathroom.
Scott Levy, better known as fellow ECW wrestler Raven, explained the situation to Sports Illustrated’s Justin Barrasso: “The character became more personal than I ever thought possible. I felt like I created art with it, and art imitated life. Then my life started to imitate my art, and that is when it grew dangerous.”
Raven admits to compensating by getting deeper into the world of drugs and alcohol, a common response to the surreal world of professional wrestling. The line blurred between where the real person ended and the professional wrestling persona began. The Sandman was not above this hubris: though his gimmick transported him to the top of the circus, he was mortgaging his future well-being for the present. The psychological trap was snaring individual wrestlers, future victims of present fame. But, Sandman and Raven were not isolated cases: the entire pro wrestling business was too inebriated by its own success to recognize its fastly approaching fall.
Exit Light: The End of the Business
ECW was running a string of successful pay-per-views that established them as a viable third option in pro wrestling behind WCW and WWF. The professional wrestling business as a whole was streaking through the sky, in a boom period of epic, never-seen-before proportions. Life was great for all involved, and life was revolving more and more around the illusory promises of professional wrestling: never-ending money, never-ending popularity. All involved fooled themselves into thinking a temporary boom period was going to be permanent; they were letting themselves get fooled by a mirage while forces far beyond control were shifting like tectonic plates. They were inhaling the smoke.
“I was living, eating, sleeping, breathing wrestling,” said Sandman. “I’d go to sleep thinking about spots with Mikey Whipwreck. I had my family, I had my kids, but they were almost a distraction. I was blowing up. Fame fucks people up, and it fucked me up.”
The high water mark came in late 1998. What particular day was it? Hard to say. Did anyone on the inside realize the wave was cresting? No way. Looking back, after the gold rush, you can put a narrative together, maybe blame the parties involved for hubris and building the ghost towns, but nothing is ever that clear when you are living it day-by-day.
In 1998, benefitting from the arms race occurring between WCW and WWF, James Fullington signed a contract with WCW that would pay him $200,000 a year for 3 years. Real, legitimate money; a real, legitimate spot on cable television; all for a guy whose job was to drunkenly hit people with sticks. Of course, the rabid fans of ECW would accuse Fullington of selling out—the same response they had had for much of the other talent that had jumped ship from ECW to the big leagues; they always saw these moves as a betrayal. They built these men up, they built ECW up only to watch the wrestlers go on to better-paying jobs! But, what they didn’t know at the time was that it was getting harder and harder for the talent to get paid by ECW’s mercurial boss Paul Heyman, a brilliantly creative man with an absolutely atrocious business acumen. When real money presented itself, Fullington would’ve been a fool not to swing his kendo stick at it with all the force of a home run cut. Six figures! $200,000!
Pro Wrestling historian/knower-of-all-he-surveys Dave Meltzer was stupified by the contract at the time, noting Sandman’s entire gimmick revolved around things he wouldn’t be able to do on WCW’s cable television show: drink beers, smoke cigarettes, listen to Metallica, and even be called Sandman. Meltzer’s predictions turned out to be deadly accurate..
Trying to mimic the success of ECW, WCW saw The Sandman—rechristened as “Hardcore Hak”—as the bell cow to lead its new hardcore division. He was booked to be the division’s inaugural champion, by winning the 1999 Bash at the Beach’s Junkyard Hardcore Invitational. Taking place in a poorly lit junkyard and featuring actual weaponry but no audience, this particular match lives in utter infamy due to the litany of serious injuries most of its 14 participants suffered. Allegedly, Hak drew the ire of management when he showed up to the pre-match booking meeting late and drunk. Rather than be crowned hardcore champion that night, Hak ended up in the hospital with a separated shoulder and a neck injury. He would never be seen on WCW television again.
The golden ticket that was Sandman’s contract with WCW would only end up lasting one solitary year, during which he only worked around 10 matches—$200,000 for 10 matches, not bad work if you can get it but also emblematic of the profligate spending that eventually crippled WCW. WCW had viewed itself as in a spending-war with WWF and that it was a zero-sum game; secure talent before the opposition can. They were inside the snowglobe and didn’t realize larger forces were going to cause the whole world to shake.
By 1999, the wave had already crested for WCW. Hot-shotted angles, poor booking, personnel turnover, and the stranglehold higher-paid talent had on all aspects of the business were certainly contributing to a poorer and poorer on-screen product. And, it would be easy to blame the bumbling incompetency of those responsible for the product for WCW’s death, but cable television is a comically bizarre business. Frankly, the executives running WCW had historically always been morons. The booking was always mired in political nonsense, talent was always underutilized, the business always lost oodles of money, and the fact that it got hot in spite of all these obstacles is honestly flabbergasting. Rather than being caused by a new level of executive incompetence the real death of WCW was due to titanically sized forces mobilizing on Wall Street. Namely, the pending AOL-Time Warner merger meant that CEO and cable budget decider Ted Turner couldn’t wantonly shovel money into WCW anymore; his company’s books were under scrutiny from actual accountants due to the impending merger. So, WCW was unjustifiably losing money like it always had, but what had changed was now people were noticing.
WCW had been born out of ego. It was never meant to make money. To judge it by how much money it lost is to view it as a business run by a normal-person; the genesis of WCW was a grudge match between uber rich psychopaths Ted Turner and WWF CEO Vince McMahon. WCW wasn’t a normal business. Ted had so much money, he didn’t care if he lost a few million here and there to compete with Vince McMahon out of businessman-fueled spite. There is a backstory involving television rights and broken contracts, but WCW really only existed because one billionaire didn’t personally like another billionaire.
The promised rewards of the AOL merger led to Ted Turner to close his purse-strings on funding televised vendettas. Something much bigger and much shinier than beating Vince McMahon came along, and Ted lost interest in fighting a plebian. Media dominance on both cable and the internet was a much more compelling prize.
In 2001, WCW would cease operations.
The wave crested for ECW as well. The company, where The Sandman had been molded into a star, officially filed for bankruptcy in 2001. The death knell was ECW’s lack of weekly television show, but financial mismanagement was a perpetual problem. A common refrain among the ECW wrestlers is that they didn’t get paid. The company’s bankruptcy filings confirm this, showing numerous wrestlers with unpaid 5 or 6 figure claims against their former employer. After the WCW experience, The Sandman staggered back into ECW until it folded in 2001, a cowboy returning to his herd.
The two last indignancies occurred when Vince McMahon purchased the remaining assets of WCW and ECW for dirt cheap. As all other media was becoming more striated, Vince McMahon had built a wrestling monopoly. McMahon’s WWE was now the only game in town at the national level. Fueled by inter-federation competition, pro wrestling’s hot streak was completely over. The high contracts and bidding wars that enriched pro wrestler’s coffers were now effectively a thing of the past. The circus had left town.
Enter Night: The Hangover
As the old adage goes, an athlete dies twice. In professional wrestling, the athlete’s death is called “working in the independent circuit.” Check a professional wrestler’s career in Wikipedia, and the ending paragraph is always “working in the independent circuit.” James Fullington’s Wikipedia entry is no different. He had a brief dalliance with WWE in 2007 but the last twenty years has been a slow crawl towards irrelevancy, after sipping, albeit briefly, from the holy grail that miraculously appeared, filled, in the late ’90s.
“Fame doesn’t allow you to stay grounded,” Fullington admits. “You float. When WWE fired me in 2007, I realized that it had fucked my brain up. You don’t realize when it happens, but it changes you. It changes everything about you. This wasn’t a job, it was my life. I lived for that rush. Once you get that rush, you’re always looking for it. Unfortunately, it ends up being drugs most of the time.”
The rush of fame is an addiction, an American malady. And the crushing detox is usually always publically endured. Entire industries are built upon gleefully observing the failures of former idols. Why are the falls to obscurity so notable and entertaining to so many? My own opinion is America has a collective narcissism, and with it, a collective chip on the shoulder. Fame is pixie dust, randomly sprinkled out, as unlikely as the lottery. But, so many intrinsically believe fame is a meritocracy. When you truly believe that, then not being famous is a personal failing, a private insecurity, something indefinably wrong about only you. Therefore, there is a pleasure in seeing fame ripped away from people we subconsciously feel were always undeserving, an existential tribalism.
Twenty years pass in the blink of an eye and you find yourself in a foreign world, knowing you never really understood the worlds you already lived through. But there is a headline, in some sleazy media like a TMZ or New York Post, and there is an aged face from some other time that you hazily recognize. Of course, it’s James Fullington. And of course, he’s been arrested. And of course, it’s for something violent and weird and so Sandman-like that you wonder if the line between character and person is permanently blurred. Art imitates life imitates art.
After the cops pulled their guns, Fullington had a choice: either end it all here in a nondescript house of chicken parms and paisano, or comply with police orders. In his drunken, wounded state, he finally had the sense to submit to authority and was placed under arrest. His blood loss was so severe, though, that instead of driving straight to county jail, the police called for an ambulance.
Imagine that restaurant at that precise moment. Fullington has finally been carted away, and you are left with bleeding police and bleeding employees standing in a room of broken glass and blood. All for what? Fullington’s bruised, drunken pride? The latest wrestling angle for The Sandman?
The greatest danger to the well-being of old wrestlers is when they forget they are not their gimmick. When the gimmick overtakes their humanity. James Fullington is just a man, he is not The Sandman. While The Sandman’s drunkenness and violence was the source of his character’s power, in civilized society these are Fullington’s source of weakness. Look at all these dalliances with the law. DUI in Delaware County, Pennsylvania on 11/26/2000. DUI in Delaware County, Pennsylvania on 9/9/2003. Simple assault, harassment and taunting of a police animal in Delaware County, Pennsylvania on the day after Christmas, 2011. Featured in the Delaware County Daily Times section covering deadbeat dads for being $8,017.84 behind in child support in 2013. Public announcements of personal failings; the public shaming of American jurisprudence.
And what happens to Fullington’s cashflow after the pro wrestling goldrush? Bankruptcy. In 2003, James Fullington filed for bankruptcy for the first time, but the documents for this bankruptcy are archived and not easily available. In 2005, James Fullington filed for bankruptcy again. His financial situation was especially grim. For assets, he listed $1,000 cash on hand, $1,000 worth of clothes, $2,000 worth of furniture, owned 2 vans and a 20-year-old Mercedes. He owed the IRS nearly $200,000, had $40,000 in credit card debt, and nearly $30,000 in annual child support. For annual income, he stated his occupation was “actor,” and he made an estimated $50,000 per year. In 2003, he reported making $30,000, and in 2004, he reported having made only $11,000.
The Sandman was impervious to pain, a drunken juggernaut lumbering around the ring taking chair shots to the head while doling out punishing swings of his kendo stick. Now Fullington awaits an artificial knee, an artificial hip, and two shoulders. And who knows what state his brain is in after all those devastating shots to the head.
“My body’s totaled. Again, there were some rock star years in there, 10 very hard living years,” says Fullington. “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 the stuff that we were doing.”
James Fullington, of all people, had the balls to think he was immortal. And his story is the story of pro wrestling writ large: a shotgun blast towards prominence in a cash-rich, drug-fuelled, incredibly violent boom era followed by years of staggering around searching for ways to pay all those accumulated tabs and for reasons why it ended so fast. The gimmicks are always larger-than-life, while the solitary man gets taken apart—job, money, health, family, law—piece-by-piece. And that’s the beauty of the whole enterprise. We all know what we are witnessing is untrue, the characters are unreal, and the sport scripted, but the beauty of the whole sordid, carny business is that there are courageous madmen out there willing to at least try to defy the laws of nature and live kayfabe. And the charismatic ones enable us to pick up the gold nuggets dropped on the path toward their delusions of immortality. For that tiny second, we get to believe in their lie instead of what has always been true in our universe: no one defeats time, no one defeats life, no defeats the universe. But it’s beautiful to watch people try.
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