An extreme revolutionary: How Sabu changed wrestling and everyone forgot
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, upon delivery, 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.
Watching Sabu was like watching a crazy fireworks show that had just gone haywire.
“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 maniacal, 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.”
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.
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 Randy Savage. 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.
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 television show. Sabu’s legend spread throughout locker rooms.
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 think he would've seen it as a sellout to use anything but his body and his bravery and his athleticism to connect with the audience.
“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.”
He saw Sabu’s toughness up close when the two finally met in a handful of extreme dream matches years later. During one such bout in Hamburg, Pennsylvania, Sabu overshot an Asai moonsault and slammed stomach-first on the guardrail.
“All the air went out of his body,” Foley recalled. “Most people would’ve called it a day, just like most people would’ve called it a day when their leg was opened up from a barbed wire wound that would require an enormous amount of stitches, and he literally wrapped his own leg with adhesive tape and continued.”
Sensational though it was, the sustainability of Sabu’s crash-and-burn approach was questioned almost from the outset. By June 1996, the magazine “The Wrestler” was already warning that Sabu’s influence would be felt “years after he is sidelined.” He emulated The Sheik, a pioneer who threw fireballs and brought snakes to the ring, and according to Van Dam, Sabu’s way of following in his uncle’s footsteps, given Sabu’s 220-pound frame, was by taking higher risks.
“I think his kamikaze style is based on what he and I and likeminded people like Jeff Hardy, for instance, find entertaining, as fans,” RVD added. “We want to see wrestlers do these flying, crazy moves and we do that to entertain ourselves and to set the standards so that the crowd watching will also be entertained.”
Sabu’s closely shrouded mystique was another factor that forced him to push the bar as far as he possibly could inside the ring, Foley pointed out. Unlike most of his peers, Sabu didn’t have the benefit of being able to express himself over the microphone.
“He never had another gear to shift into,” Foley said. “Most guys with longevity find another way, often through humor, to connect with the fans. I think he would’ve seen that as a sellout to use anything but his body and his bravery and his athletic skills to connect with the audience.”
Just like Tony Hawk hasn’t landed every skateboard trick that he’s tried, Sabu’s high-risk offense didn’t always find its mark. When your arsenal relies on moves like leaping from a chair in the middle of the ring to the top rope and then moonsaulting back, things are bound to go awry from time to time. The misses were almost as spectacular as the hits. Sabu wouldn’t be deterred.
“Even if stuff got messed up, he would not hesitate to try it again,” Cesaro commented. “If he jumped onto the top rope and fell back, he wouldn’t miss a beat; he’d just jump back up and do it again. It’s awesome because he was so hyped and into his craft.”
Those who’ve been across the ring from Sabu note that the madman has a truly unique quality. John Cena, who wrestled Sabu during ECW’s WWE-backed resurgence in 2006, described him “as dedicated to the business as you can be” and said you had to be “ready for anything,” with Sabu.
“I think he’s underrated because I think his best work was before he got with us,” Cena said. “In the height of The Attitude Era, he established quite a reputation for himself in ECW. It would’ve been fun to see what he would’ve done over here.”
Indeed, by the time Sabu found his way to WWE and the greatest exposure of his career, much of what made him special to begin with had already been coopted by others. No great innovator, Sabu included, should ever be surprised when everyone else copies his style, Heyman said.
“The reality of history is that others will take snippets of the style, incorporate it into another groundbreaking presentation and then get credit for implementing a new way to bring sports-entertainment to the masses,” he said.
Though he conceded that nobody’s quite captured Sabu’s essence, Rollins admitted that the scarred maniac was an inspiration, to some degree, for his own aerial-based ring style. Sabu had the aura of a physical giant, even if his build’s closer to a Royce Gracie or Bruce Lee.
“I don't know if that's good for my body, my longevity, but it's sure as hell exciting,” Rollins said of Sabu’s influence. “I think what that’s done for our generation and especially guys for our stature, guys who aren’t these herculean men but smaller type wrestlers, was really open the door in terms of how we were going to entertain and approach matches.”
Terry Funk sounded another alarm about Sabu’s marginalized legacy in his 2005 autobiography, “Terry Funk: More Than Just Hardcore.” While “The Hardcore Icon” praised Sabu’s innovation — “Hell, 80 percent of his matches were things that have never been seen before” — the Funker couldn’t help but invoke the “f” word: forgotten.
“Over the years, Sabu’s contributions to wrestling have been forgotten by a lot of people, it seems, and his historical importance is undervalued by many so-called wrestling ‘experts,’” Funk wrote.
Sabu still wrestles today, carrying on a tradition that’s three decades in the making. He’s a precedent-setting revolutionary, but unlike contemporaries Mysterio and Foley, Sabu never was a World Champion in a national organization, and he never completely broke through from cult-hero status to universal icon.
It’s possible that the line of imitators who followed in Sabu’s wake contributed to the obscuring of his legacy. However, there are other reasons Sabu isn’t celebrated the way he should be. It’s because his brilliant peak was too fleeting, and it occurred in the fringe. It’s because YouTube highlight reels don’t do his legacy justice, unfairly distilling it down to broken tables, barbed wire, and blood and guts. Perhaps Sabu was a victim of his own daredevil ways, too, a martyr of the hardcore wrestling movement that was never designed for long-term membership in the first place.
Or maybe the sports-entertainment world just wasn’t ready for Sabu, and we’re just realizing that now.