On October 26th, 1996, Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW, a wrestling promotion out of Philadelphia known for its violence) went too far.
This night, an angle involving The Sandman was so distasteful and confusing that the usually exuberant ECW arena crowd fell silent.
One future WWE superstar even threatened legal action if the company associated him in any way with this very controversial incident.
Paul Heyman and Joey Styles on the Incident That Went Too Far
Paul Heyman: "It’s probably the only night in ECW history where we ever had to apologize for what we did."
Joey Styles: "This is the most horrifying thing I have ever seen in my life."
Sandman and the Time Things Went A Little Too Far in ECW
Unlike in companies such as WWE, performers in ECW had a lot of freedom in developing their characters and storylines. ECW wasn’t a "paint-by-numbers" promotion. They considered themselves innovators and artists. This led to many unforgettable but controversial moments.
However, by giving the talent leeway, there was always a risk of something going wrong. The crucifixion of The Sandman at ECW’s High Incident on October 26th, 1996, is probably the most famous example of this.
Raven was a depressed, nihilistic sociopath in grunge-inspired clothing who delivered eloquent, philosophical promos containing literary allusions – often punctuating them with, "Quoth the Raven, ‘Nevermore.’"
He also struck a pose in the ring as if he were being crucified, regularly doing this while standing over his defeated opponents.
Raven had already toyed with the crucifixion idea when placing Tommy Dreamer in handcuffs or in crucifix fashion (arms outstretched) at least three times. He’d later humiliate and savagely beat him with a chair.
But Raven wanted to take this concept a step further.
Taking Things Further with The Sandman
For Raven, an imminent collision course with The Sandman, who’d just become a three-time winner of the ECW Championship, was set into motion.
In 1995, Raven formed a cult-like faction called Raven’s Nest. And thanks to interference from Nest members Stevie Richards and The Blue Meanie, he soon dethroned The Sandman to become ECW Champion, retaining it on several occasions thanks to their constant outside help.
The intense rivalry between the beer-guzzling, chain-smoking Sandman and the deviously manipulative Raven and his Nest members came to a head when The Sandman’s ex-wife’s (Lori Fullington) real-life son Tyler, got thrown into the mix.
On June 22nd, 1996, at the ECW pay-per-view Hardcore Heaven, Lori declared herself Raven’s disciple. In ECW fashion, and to the delight of the crowd, Lori even teased like she would "go down" on Raven inside the ring.
The Sandman, who’d retained the services of the sultry Missy Hyatt as his manager, was rather unbothered by his ex-wife’s actions.
He stated, "I don’t care how much you [sleep with your] ex-wife. It didn’t bother me before, and it doesn’t bother me now. Try it with her heels on, she likes it better that way."
Using A Child To Psychologically Manipulate
Yet in the weeks thereafter, Raven "brainwashed" Tyler and turned him against his father. Tyler, who was now also in grunge-inspired clothing, leather jacket, and all, shockingly announced, "Daddy, you’re a drunk. Now I worship Raven!"
A stunned Sandman stood in horror. The crowd roared at the announcement, and, once again, ECW made headlines, but this time for using a child in such a bitter angle.
Tyler was now part of Raven’s Nest too. He saw the head of the faction as a father figure and brazenly blamed The Sandman for his parents’ divorce.
A distraught Sandman walked down the aisle and went back to the dressing room, crying, "God, don’t do this to me!"
This was wrestling trying to be a compelling soap opera.
The Sandman’s Despair
Continuous dark, dingy vignettes of his ex-wife, and especially his son, seemingly took a toll on The Sandman’s psyche and threw him down a pit of despair.
Raven asked Tyler, "Hey, kid. You know the divorce was your Daddy’s fault, don’t you?"
"I know," responded Tyler, who’d then do Raven’s pose, which imitated a crucifix.
Raven then proceeded to cackle maniacally.
"Now I know what a father is really supposed to be like," confessed Tyler in another infamous vignette where Raven kisses Tyler on the cheek. Raven seemed to revel in the love the child felt for him instead of his real father.
Raven’s Nest even had a birthday party for Tyler, something his real father supposedly never did. They constantly played mind games with The Sandman and seemed to be winning the battle.
ECW High Incident
On October 26th, 1996, the ECW Arena (now officially called the 2300 Arena) in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, played host to one of the most infamous angles in ECW and possibly wrestling history.
Although the event was called High Incident because that evening’s main event was a scaffold match between Tommy Dreamer and Brian Lee, the crucifixion of The Sandman is what truly stole the show.
That evening, The Sandman successfully retained his ECW Championship after defeating 2 Cold Scorpio. Following the match, Sandman’s son appeared, not wearing grunge clothing but dressed instead in clothes similar to his real father’s. His T-shirt even had "Enter The Sandman" printed on the back.
After moments of uncertainty, they finally embraced. It seemed like a heartwarming moment in the ECW Arena. The Sandman’s nightmare was at its end. Raven was nowhere to be found. The Sandman and his son would live happily ever after…
But alas, it was fleeting. After all, this was ECW!
Raven quickly stormed the ring and hit The Sandman from behind with a Kendo stick. He then performed a vicious DDT on The Sandman outside the ring and piledrove him through several tables. The people in attendance were already satiated with the violence they’d witnessed. But then Raven and his faction did the unthinkable: They crucified their foe.
"This is the most horrifying thing I have ever seen in my life," a genuinely disgusted-sounding Joey Styles exclaimed to the TV audience.
"When I came back, I knew I had to come back with some sort of impact," explained Raven in a 2014 interview with Title Match Wrestling.
"And I thought, ‘Why don’t I crucify The Sandman? That’ll be great.’ I’ve always said that Raven is a martyr for society’s dysfunction. So, I wanted to make The Sandman feel what I feel, and make him a martyr for society’s dysfunction, and let him feel my pain.
"Of course, a few people being Taz, Kurt Angle, and Joey Styles, took offense and thought I was denigrating Christianity or some nonsense. Just asinine! One has nothing to do with the other."
Raven continued, "Religious iconography has been used symbolically throughout history, and I made a very intelligent and creative use of it. But they didn’t see it that way. They only saw it as me knocking religion."
Although born of Jewish parents, Raven doesn’t follow the faith and doesn’t consider himself Jewish. Still, some asked, "Why didn’t you use the Star of David instead?"
Raven’s reason for not using the Jewish symbol was because it wouldn’t have had the same effect, saying, "It’s not identifiable. You don’t put someone up on a Jewish star. You hang them up on a cross. It’s their cross to bear."
He claims using a cross was in no way an insult to Jesus Christ or religion.
Raven on Offending the Powers that Be at ECW
At first, Raven refused to apologize for his actions, believing that this killed his credibility as one of the promotion’s premier heels. But he finally seemed to come around and did so by breaking the fourth wall.
In the middle of the ring, Raven, with his matted, long curly hair, leather jacket, and grunge stylings, detached himself from his wrestling persona and reverted to Scott Levy, a normal person with a microphone saying he was sorry.
"Apparently Tod Gordon and Paul Heyman, by acting without their knowledge, are offended by my use of religious iconography," said Raven.
"And apparently, I’ve offended quite a few people in the audience. Well, you people chose to respect Scott Levy’s privacy when I needed personal time. And so, I choose to respect your privacy and your religious beliefs. For the people I deeply offended, I apologize."
Raven believed that the audience understood what he had tried to accomplish and thought that their apology was unnecessary. The Sandman deemed it unnecessary as well. The issue was with other people backstage.
And according to a photographer that reached out to Pro Wrestling Stories, ECW management asked them not to release pictures of the polemic angle.
Tommy Dreamer Reacts to Raven’s Apology
On the surface, Raven’s apology seemed to mend fences. However, Tommy Dreamer said that it was one of the most disingenuous apologies he’d ever heard, stating, "It was the least heartfelt apology ever, like ‘I did it, sorry, bye.’"
Raven readily admits that he begrudgingly cooperated when recounting the evening’s contentious events and doesn’t act remorsefully.
"They made me go out and apologize, which was so horribly stupid because we were the company that pushed the boundaries," he reflects.
"But I understood because they were trying to seduce Kurt Angle to work for the company, but he didn’t know enough about the business. He just saw this guy ‘stomping on Christianity,’ which I wasn’t, but to his defense, he didn’t know the storyline or my character."
He’s positive WWE’s deep pockets would’ve prevented ECW from signing Kurt Angle anyway, and can’t imagine that Paul Heyman was unaware of that fact.
He adds, "If Kurt Angle hadn’t been there, nobody would’ve said a thing," and there wouldn’t have been any need for him to give his "insincere, sincere apology."
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The Sandman’s Stance
Never at a loss for words, The Sandman believes backstage reception of the event was an overreaction.
When asked in a Hannibal TV interview if he ever thought the crucifixion angle would blow up as big as it did, Sandman answered, "No, the only reason why it blew up, was because Kurt Angle was in the back."
Sandman continued, "I loved it, dude. I thought it was great! I made that cross (and the scaffold for the night’s main event)! The silence was deafening in that crowd. So, I’m starting to realize that if they’re not reacting at all, then it’s heavy. So, I’m feeling the heaviness of it.
"I get in the back and loving it, and I’m like, ‘Yes!’ And everybody’s like this [all serious, looking down and not saying anything]. Funny thing is, six months later, Kurt [Angle] is in the WWE, and Austin’s getting hung on a cross just like we did! You think he went to Vince and complained? No."
Sandman adds, "I did not want Raven to go out there and apologize, which was part of their kooky answer. I was like, ‘F this!’ and just walked away.
"I told Scotty [Raven], ‘Do not go do that,’ he goes and does it anyway.
"I wasn’t mad at him for doing it, and he didn’t want to do it either, but that was a [bad] out.
"If you really think about it, it just [messed] up the whole thing we did."
Shaking his head while adjusting himself in the seat, Sandman added, "I don’t know, I really disagreed with that one bad. I let every single one of them know too, ‘F that, and f all of you. He should not be doing that!’ Kurt was there, but I didn’t even know who he was. I didn’t care!"
The Dubious ECW Debut of Kurt Angle
Kurt Angle was less than ten months removed from his triumph at the 1996 Summer Olympics and trying to capitalize on his stardom. Through a connection with Shane Douglas, Heyman persuaded him to arrive at ECW and check out the show.
The book The Rise & Fall of ECW explains that Angle was told that ECW was "professional wrestling on a whole different level," and that they had an Olympic/UFC-style wrestler in Taz.
So, the young, impressionable Angle, unsure about entering pro wrestling after his amateur career, was surprised when attending High Incident.
In an in-ring interview with Joey Styles at the ECW Arena in Philadelphia, Taz confronted Angle and gave him a backhanded compliment, "Kurt, congratulations. You’re a great amateur, but I’m a great professional."
Once backstage, and after serving as a guest commentator for the Taz versus Little Guido "shoot rules" fight, the Olympic Gold Medallist could not hide his anger when witnessing Raven’s use of religious iconography during the evening’s sixth match.
A livid Kurt Angle watched in horror during The Sandman’s crucifixion, an event which even saw Raven’s Nest put a barbed-wire crown over The Sandman’s head.
He plainly told Paul Heyman, "I want you to send me my check, and if I am on TV with that crucifixion, if my name or face is seen on TV with that same program, you will be hearing from my attorney."
Did Paul Heyman Know?
"It’s probably the only night in ECW history, where we ever had to apologize for what we did," admits Paul Heyman. "I didn’t just want to do a wrestling show. I wanted to do great television."
But when the inmates run the asylum, disaster usually strikes.
Heyman not knowing about the incident in advance is something that former ECW and WWE announcer Joey Styles doubts are true, as explained in an interview with Justin Barrasso of Sports Illustrated’s Extra Mustard.
"I’m speechless, but Kurt Angle turns to me, assuming maybe because I’m wearing a suit and tie that I know what’s going on, and he starts screaming at me," recounts Joey Styles.
"‘I can’t be a part of this, this is disgraceful, this is awful, I don’t ever want footage of me being here to even air!’ I look to my left to get help from Paul, and Paul is gone."
"Paul left me alone with this angry, Olympic Gold Medallist heavyweight wrestler. I am just getting dressed down by Kurt Angle, nose to nose, right in my face. Paul left, he claimed, to ‘go fix the situation.’ He [very] well also wanted to avoid a screaming Kurt Angle. Paul, to this day, says he knew nothing about it, which I don’t believe for a second."
"It’s the only time I believe ECW crossed the line," Styles said.
“The Rise & Fall of ECW” later revealed that Heyman was aware that Raven and Sandman wanted to take the crucifixion of an opponent to the next level but "really didn’t understand what they were talking about," and allowed them the creative freedom that ECW thrived on.
Imitation Is The Sincerest Form Of Flattery
In the summer of 1995, one year before the crucifixion of The Sandman, IWA Japan staged its biggest show called Kawasaki Dream. It is better known now as King of the Deathmatch.
Here, Cactus Jack dragged a crucifix wrapped in barbed wire to the ring. Mick Foley flew home after the match with his arm burned so badly that the stench upset a nearby passenger! (Learn more about that here.)
Because Shinto and Buddhism are Japan’s main religions, the fans were probably not offended and simply liked the spectacle.
Violent and non-PC promotions like IWA and FMW in Japan, and later ECW and CZW in the U.S., appeared to influence the ‘big two’ (WWF and WCW), exploring edgier angles and more dangerous spots. Indeed, during WWF’s Attitude Era, the company didn’t seem to care who they offended.
WWE Mimics ECW Two Years Later
It is said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Two years after The Sandman’s crucifixion at High Incident, the WWF followed suit.
On December 13th, 1998, The Undertaker raised a knocked-out "Stone Cold" Steve Austin onto something called "The Undertaker’s symbol." This was a week before their scheduled Buried Alive match at the Rock Bottom: In Your House pay-per-view.
The announcers did not refer to it as a cross, and Austin was certainly not being crucified.
Before this, in a chilling separate incident, The Undertaker, and his manager Paul Bearer, abducted and attempted to embalm an unconscious Austin at a funeral home.
Once Austin was on the slab, Paul Bearer cut off his "nasty beer-smelling clothes," and then ‘Taker readied himself to insert a long, hollow needle called a trocar into one of Austin’s carotid arteries.
While chanting in another language, ‘Taker prepared to do some major damage, but a meddling Kane spoiled their plans, allowing Austin to flee.
Austin eventually raised the Undertaker onto his own symbol on an episode of Raw is War on May 17th, 1999.
Pro Wrestling Incidents that Shocked the Crowd
On March 28th, 1999, at WrestleMania XV, The Big Bossman did not accept the Lord of Darkness as his savior, and The Undertaker hung him by a noose from a raised cage that surrounded the ring.
The Bossman first struggled and panicked, then hung limp and lifeless in front of 20,276 people at the First Union Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
The lights darkened, and the fans cheered. The announcers exclaimed, "Could this be symbolic? Is the Undertaker hanging the corporation in effigy?"
One month after this, The Undertaker and his Ministry of Darkness also tied Stephanie McMahon to the ‘The Undertaker’s symbol.’ Ken Shamrock and later The Big Show tried to stop the ceremony but were quickly disposed of. Steve Austin, a steel chair and many "Stone Cold" stunners later, saved Stephanie.
In 2011 in Mexico’s AAA, La Parka was crucified in the middle of the ring by the Los Bizarros faction.
Wrestling Gone Too Far?
Can something that is scripted ever go too far, or should different standards apply? Would the act of crucifying an opponent fly in today’s wrestling?
And was the Raven and Sandman angle really that wrong? Let us know your thoughts!
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