An extreme revolutionary: How Sabu changed wrestling and everyone forgot

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May 01, 2014

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It’s Aug. 9, 1997, and Sabu is yelling for a roll of athletic tape. Seconds earlier, he attempted “Air Sabu,” a flying attack in which he leapt off a chair and launched himself toward ECW Champion Terry Funk in the corner. Only, Funk moved. 

It was going to be an ugly landing either way, but the ring they’re wrestling in has no ropes — just taut strands of flesh-tearing barbed wire.

When Sabu hit, one of the metallic points ripped open his bicep, thus the need for the tape, which Sabu proceeds to fashion into a makeshift tourniquet. He wraps his arm over and over again, even while Funk is preparing to give him a neckbreaker onto two steel chairs. The match continues for another 15 minutes.

This sort of scene isn’t exactly atypical when talking about Sabu, a modestly sized but unusually brave maniac who blew enough minds to fundamentally alter the DNA of sports-entertainment. Way before terms like “hardcore” or “extreme” entered the vernacular to any great degree, Sabu routinely busted through plywood and moonsaulted into audiences. In the process, he collected accolades like “Wrestling’s Coolest Daredevil” and spawned a revolution that’s still visible today.

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“The biggest thing you think when you see Sabu for the first time is he's dangerous — he looks like a danger to himself and to others,” Dean Ambrose told WWE.com. “You figure, is this guy human? Is he crazy? He's absolutely fearless. A guy who doesn't have any regard for his own health and safety isn't likely to have any regard for his opponent's.”

Since Sabu laid the foundation, countless wrestlers have tweaked, appropriated and deconstructed his style, maybe even upped the ante. One man invented it.

“To this day, the innovator is still the master of his craft,” said Paul Heyman, who, as the promoter of Extreme Championship Wrestling, gave Sabu his first major platform in the U.S. “When Sabu was at his best, no one could touch him.”

So why don’t we talk about him anymore? How is it that a man who inconceivably combined the grace of Rey Mysterio with the devil-may-care attitude of Mick Foley doesn’t receive his just due?

Innovation, it turns out, isn’t without its drawbacks. One downside to becoming a dial-up Internet darling is that memories fade, and sometimes credit that belongs to off-brand originators ends up going to high-gloss early adopters. But that’s only part of the problem.

“Whether Sabu gets the credit in history he deserves, the answer is no,” Heyman said. “But who do you blame for that? Do you blame the curator of the industry, WWE, for not acknowledging the contributions that Sabu made? Do you blame Sabu for not staying healthy enough to force history to acknowledge his contributions? Do you blame the audience who only sings the praises of Sabu crashing through tables, and not all the many other ways Sabu was so unique at his height?”

Head to toe, everything about Sabu was unique. The trailblazing nephew of The Original Sheik wore genie pants and a headdress and was billed from Bombay, India (and later, Bombay, Michigan). A piece of athletic tape — this one ornamental, with “SABU” scrawled on it in Sharpie — wrapped his left bicep, doing a lousy job of concealing scars that existed well before his ill-fated “Air Sabu” against Funk. His movement in the ring was frenetic. Sabu fiercely protected his mysterious aura. He didn’t speak, but he pointed to the sky a lot, almost as if to lay claim.

“On a scale of one to 10 for unpredictability, he was like a 36, a 112,” Seth Rollins said. “He was out of his mind. I don’t even think he knew what he was going to do, second to second. Watching him was like watching a crazy fireworks show that had just gone haywire.”

Watch Sabu's ECW debut on WWE Network | Sabu tables Alex Wright on WCW Monday Nitro

Sabu’s buzz as a revolutionary germinated in the early ’90s in the periphery of a bright-colored, kid-friendly sports-entertainment landscape. It took root in ECW, back when the “E” still stood for “Eastern,” and before that, in Japan’s nascent hardcore wrestling movement. It was there that he teamed with his uncle in a famously sadistic match where the ropes were replaced with barbed wire, which were then covered in towels soaked in kerosene and set ablaze.

He never had another gear to shift into.Even to those who couldn’t see him wrestle, the mythology of Sabu was pervasive. His innovations were fodder for the early rec.sport.pro.wrestling newsgroups online, and Sabu soon found himself on the covers of wrestling magazines, a scarred visage wedged between Big Two luminaries like Vader, Diesel and Hulk Hogan. And it wasn’t just chairs and tables and barbed wire that were drawing attention to Sabu. His highflying matches against the likes of The Lightning Kid and Chris Candido in an era that predated WCW’s cruiserweight division were ahead of their time in the U.S.

“Who else has ever jumped from a chair in the middle of the ring, up to the top rope — in the middle, not in the corner — and then dove out onto the fourth row?” said Rob Van Dam, who trained with Sabu under The Original Sheik. “The moves were original, the style was original. It drew people in.”

Tape-traders began eagerly exchanging VHS cassettes bearing shoddily labeled titles like “Smashing Tables” and “Moonsault Mayhem.” “Pro Wrestling Illustrated” named him the fifth best wrestler in the world in 1995.

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Before long, everybody and their brother knew about the time Sabu broke his jaw mid-match, only to wrap his head in tape and forge ahead. Or about his penchant for breaking empty tables after matches, a bizarre ritual done for the benefit of those in attendance. Sabu’s sacrifices, including the match in which he broke his neck, were used to sell VHS tapes during every commercial break on ECW’s “Hardcore TV.” Sabu’s legend spread throughout locker rooms, too.

Mick Foley wasn’t so much entertained as perhaps threatened by Sabu when he first caught wind of him. The Hardcore Legend was still in WCW, carving out a niche as the organization’s resident extremist. He hadn’t yet become a fixture of the Japanese wrestling scene, where he’d eventually be ordained “King of the Death Match.”

“I started hearing about Sabu and the amazing, death-defying feats that he was capable of, and I felt a little nervous because it sounded like my territory, except he was doing it with a much greater degree of athleticism,” Foley said. “I began seeing photos of this guy just tearing his body apart in horrific matches in Japan a few years before I started doing the same.”

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