Exclusive interview: Rob Van Dam discusses WWE return
This Sunday at Money in the Bank, Rob Van Dam will make his highly anticipated return to WWE following a six-year absence — save for a brief appearance in the 2009 Royal Rumble Match. Many fans are expecting Mr. Pay-Per-View to live up to his superlative nickname, stealing the show in the Money in the Bank All-Stars Ladder Match.
A 24-year veteran of the squared circle, RVD has long been considered one of the most innovative and dynamic stars in the history of sports-entertainment. He made his name in ECW, debuting on Jan. 5, 1996, at the ECW Arena in Philadelphia, the organization’s home base and the same city of his upcoming return. Over the next 10 years, he held the ECW Television Championship for an astounding 700 days, and made a spectacular rise from hardcore cult hero to WWE Champion.
But for all of Van Dam’s accomplishments, the Battle Creek, Mich., native is not without his controversies. After a brief stay in the WWE spotlight in 1997, RVD was labeled as a having an attitude problem. And very soon after accomplishing the biggest milestone of his career in 2006 – pinning John Cena to win the WWE Championship – Van Dam was suspended from the active roster and abruptly lost the title. Speaking to WWE.com from his home in Los Angeles, RVD opened up about his past transgressions, what his upcoming return means to him, his one-of-a-kind style and if he can still bring the goods in the ring.
WWE.COM: How did your return come about?
ROB VAN DAM: I called WWE.
WWE.COM: Did you know you were going to come back to WWE when you appeared at the Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony at Madison Square Garden?
VAN DAM: I wasn’t there to try to get a job. I was there to see my brother Booker T. But Booker did plant a seed by telling me to come back. It was the right move to come to the top and I’m very excited that this is happening.
WWE.COM: How long before the video package aired on the Payback pay-per-view did you know for sure you’d be coming back to WWE?
VAN DAM: I’d say it was about a week or two.
WWE.COM: Who knew about it other than you and your wife?
VAN DAM: Triple H was the guy I was talking to. And I sent Booker a text. It wasn’t a definite deal until two weeks at the most before the videos started running. Once I got my starting date of Money in the Bank, that made it real.
WWE.COM: Did you expect the outpouring of support when it was announced that you’re coming back?
VAN DAM: No, I can’t say that I’ve had any specific expectations for the excitement prior to my return. WWE has been really pumping up my return. It’s great. As soon as that first video aired, my phone was blowing up. Whether people were sitting in their living room in Oklahoma or in a bar in Dublin, Ireland, everyone was chanting “RVD.” That’s a pretty awesome feeling.
WWE.COM: What does it mean to you to be returning in Philadelphia?
VAN DAM: Philadelphia’s awesome. It’s one of my top home away from homes. When I walk around on the streets there, people recognize me. They think I’m from Philadelphia, because I was there so much and because I’m so associated with Philadelphia through ECW. That was Paul’s genius. It wasn’t just a hardcore, extreme, rebellious, renegade wrestling company. It had the flavor and the pride of South Philly, which was very proud of ECW and me and my accomplishments. Because of that, people will always associate me with Philly.
WWE.COM: How did you arrive in WWE back in 2001?
VAN DAM: When I left ECW, it was a sinking ship. There were only two shows after I left. At that last pay-per-view [Guilty as Charged], I wrestled Jerry Lynn and had already left. I had just told Paul I’d come back to do that one show. During that time, there wasn’t really anywhere else to work. WCW had folded and there was just WWE if I wanted to continue my career. But I wasn’t in a hurry to go to WWE.
WWE.COM: Why was that?
VAN DAM: At the time, I looked at it as selling out artistically. I went to Thailand and made a movie called “Black Mask 2.” When I was ready, I called Paul Heyman. He said I had to meet with [Jim Ross], who was going to be in LA at the Marriott by the airport. [J.R.] needed to feel me out, because I had a reputation of having a little bit of an attitude. It was a good meeting. He told me I would have to slow down my style and stop doing the high impact moves like moonsaults to the floor, because I wouldn’t be able to keep up doing that every night on the WWE schedule. Which turned out not to be true, as J.R. admitted later.
WWE.COM: Why did you have a reputation of having a bad attitude?
VAN DAM: A lot of it was a misunderstanding. My previous experience in WWE was when ECW invaded WWE’s television in 1997. That’s when Jerry Lawler introduced me as Mr. Monday Night. That time was awesome, but it all blew up after a few weeks. Paul had told the ECW wrestlers that we were just in WWE for a short time to get the exposure that we could and get out. He had us prepped to be on high alert that whenever WWE did something to [disparage] ECW, we would just go. We had a meeting with [Mr. McMahon] in his office. He told me that I was there to stay, which was a completely new thought for me. It just blew my mind, because it was the opposite of what Paul had told me. So I left and went back to ECW. Thereby, it led to some thoughts in the WWE office that I wasn’t easy to work with.
WWE.COM: Why did you return to WWE in 2001?
VAN DAM: I would give the credit to Paul. We were all surprised, after ECW folded, to see Paul on WWE television. He swore the whole time that WWE was the mortal enemy of ECW. Looking back at it now with a more educated view, that couldn’t have ever been true. But since he was in WWE, whenever I was ready, I knew I would talk to him.
WWE.COM: What was it like for you to win the WWE Championship from John Cena at ECW One Night Stand 2006?
VAN DAM: Winning the match at the Hammerstein Ballroom and bringing home that championship to ECW meant so much to me. Not because I always wanted to be WWE Champion. In fact, I didn’t think that was ever going to happen if I hadn’t changed the entire playing field. When we brought ECW back as a third brand, I couldn’t have been happier. That was the way I wanted to be seen. When I’m in the ring, I’m showing off. That’s what I get out of my matches. Just like this upcoming Money in the Bank Ladder Match. It’s the perfect way to bring RVD back, because the rules that normally confine us and make us harder to stand out are thrown out the window. For me, [reviving ECW] was a resurgence of motivation. Doing the ECW style on WWE’s platform was a dream come true that I had never thought possible before. I was the happiest that I could have been.
WWE.COM: What went through your mind when you were suspended and lost both the WWE Title and ECW Title so quickly?
VAN DAM: I had dropped the ball and that was very disheartening. It was definitely a low point for me. It was in Philadelphia, just like this Sunday, and I wrestled Big Show for the ECW Championship. After the three-count, all the fans were chucking their litter into the ring. The disappointing vibration of that went straight to my heart. I rolled out of the ring down to the floor to avoid the debris and I felt so low.
WWE.COM: You mentioned that you didn’t think becoming WWE Champion was in the cards until you changed the playing field. Do you feel like you were being held back and you were forced to change the playing field to get to the top?
VAN DAM: You could say that if getting to the top was indeed my goal, which it never was. I was always happy with whatever cards life dealt me. I did feel like there was a glass ceiling above my head and I could only get so far because I stuck true to myself. I was okay with that. Several times, people like [WWE producer] Bruce Prichard and Shane McMahon pulled me aside and told me I needed to build a relationship with [Mr. McMahon] and tell him I was his man and to give me the ball. But I thought my work stood for itself. I thought they were telling me I wasn’t going to get much further. So I got the love, the connection with the crowd, the respect and the vibration that I feel when the fans are chanting, “RVD.” If I get that and I get paid then I accepted that as my position.
WWE.COM: What led to your departure from WWE in 2007 one year after your big moment against John Cena?
VAN DAM: I was burned out from the schedule. I never had any time off and I was always homesick. And once I knew for sure that ECW was going downhill, I was disheartened and unmotivated and the routine became monotonous. I needed to disengage myself from it in order to rebuild my inner self. When my contract expired, John Laurinaitis wanted me to re-sign, take a couple months off and come back. I couldn’t do it. At the time, I was so burned out that whenever I was home, I was literally counting the hours until I had to go back to the airport.
WWE.COM: Do you think there’s a misconception with certain fans about how you left the company?
VAN DAM: Absolutely. There’s more ignorance out there than there is knowledge. Many fans think I was fired. Other fans think I hurt my leg. Fans don’t always know, but they think they know.
WWE.COM: How have you changed in the last six years as a person and as a wrestler?
VAN DAM: We all get older and wiser. I’m at a different place in life and my career now then I was then. I could still be seen as up-and-coming, no matter how established I was at that time. That had a lot to do with a lot of wrestlers that were six to seven years older than me that were holding the top positions at the time. Shawn Michaels, Booker, there were a whole bunch guys and I wasn’t going to pierce through that. But they’re not around anymore. That’s one thing that’s different about my environment. And over the last six years, I’ve had a much better balance in my life. A lot more time at home and a lot more time to look inside of myself. And that’s what I wanted. A lot of people that knew me said I was leaving to take a sabbatical. It was like a spiritual journey. There was a lot of stuff I was interested in doing that didn’t have anything to do with wrestling — studying life and looking at my spiritual path. I’m not done with that, but I have a better understanding and I can apply it towards my everyday life now. That gives me a more worldly perspective on everything.
WWE.COM: When you see guys like Adrian Neville in NXT doing double moonsaults, do you think high-flying wrestling has innovated beyond you in the years you’ve been gone?
VAN DAM: No, I don’t think so. Innovating has always come organically. My moves are original. It’s funny to me that certain fans and critics think I always have to continue to outdo myself to still be original, but the fact is, my arsenal is still original. I look at a lot of wrestlers’ signature moves, and I can find footage of me doing those moves years and years before. My core signature moves that I hold onto are still original, because no one else does them. No one does the Rolling Thunder, no one jumps off the top rope, does a side kick and lands back on their feet, no one does a 360 off the apron and onto the guardrail. I’ve wrestled [Neville], and I’m very impressed with the moves that he does. Any new wrestler that’s able to raise the bar on certain moves, that’s good, but that’s only one aspect. They’re all going to learn it takes more than one aspect to win a championship.
WWE.COM: What sets you apart from most flyers?
VAN DAM: I don’t substitute wrestling to put in the extreme moves. I understand the competitive foundation, fundamentals and whole framework of a match, and I fit my flashy moves within that. A lot of younger wrestlers who have been inspired by me don’t get that. Just by watching me, they might not understand that when you replace fundamentals with extreme moves, it doesn’t fit. There are some wrestlers that can only do moves with certain opponents. My trainer, The Sheik, was all about fundamentals and never wanted to see me doing flashy moves. He was always about grabbing a guy, getting him down and trying to pin his with shoulders on the mat. Or do a headlock, go behind and do an armbar. That’s the way I got trained, so I had to put in an extra 360 here and there where it still fit.
WWE.COM: Where does your hybrid style of high-flying, martial arts and extreme come from?
VAN DAM: I think outside the box 24 hours a day. I’m not like regular people in so many ways, and that affects my approach towards pro wrestling. I was a kickboxer and took classes in several different martial arts to supplement that, which helped my abilities and my mental approach. As a kid, I used to watch chop-socky theater and run up trees and do backflips, because I saw it on TV. Because I think differently, I found a lot of ways to do original moves that I hadn’t even seen before.
WWE.COM: How are you able to routinely do so many athletic maneuvers that other Superstars can only do once in a while?
VAN DAM: I’m tougher than most of the other guys. I’ve always been tough my whole life. I’m able to take a lot of punishment, and that might be an even greater asset than my offense. I’m the guy that can take your best shot and I’m not going to go down. Besides that, I stretch a lot. I attribute my longevity to my extensive stretch routine that I do before every single match or any physical activity. I put myself thought a regimen that really puts my body to the test so I’m not cold, tight or ready to be injured when I start slamming my body around.
WWE.COM: How much do you have left in the tank for your career?
VAN DAM: The tank is fed from three different sources – physical, mental and spiritual. They all work together. If my spirit is down, then so are the physical and mental levels. That’s always been the case. When I’m motivated, my body feels great and I’m ready and excited to go. When I get burned out, I feel it in all three categories – mind, body and spirit. I’m aware and in touch with all three categories. Right now, I have an unlimited amount in the tank, and that will be the case until my spirit changes. I don’t have this “age thing” that other people seem to have. I still am at my best. All I can do is go out there and prove it.
WWE.COM: How often are we going to see RVD on TV?
VAN DAM: I guess you’ll have to watch TV and find out.