Essential Viewings: Sabu vs. Rob Van Dam — Hardcore Heaven ’96

Some wrestling matches are great because they feature talented athletes showing off what they can do in the ring. Others are unforgettable because of their theatrics and high-level storytelling. Still more are memorable because of the crowd’s investment in the match. Some matches are all these things. Those are the ones that are truly essential viewings.

It’s Harley Race’s reluctantly agreeing to give up being “the man” and make way for Ric Flair. It’s the real story of Wrestlemania III, when Andre helped Hulk Hogan make as big as he could get by letting him do the impossible. It’s also what Hogan tried to do with the Ultimate Warrior, and would refuse to do for Bret Hart, Lex Luger and even the Undertaker. Whichever popular example you choose, one wrestler “passing the torch” successfully to another rising star boils down to three equally important parts:

  1. Identifying “the next big star,”

  2. Working closely with him, and

  3. Dedicating all possible effort into making him a star.

If you’re looking for a well-executed example of all these steps, consider the following match from ECW Harcore Heaven 1996. Herein you will see an example of the elusive “make job” match, an ECW classic between Sabu and Rob Van Dam.

In the early minutes of the match, commentator Joey Styles refers to Sabu as “wrestling’s human highlight reel,” an apt description of a man who has innovated some of the most spectacularly athletic and acrobatic spots of the last twenty years. However, Styles’ words ring almost too true, as Sabu, while legendary, is a wrestler so many fans know through short clips, “top ten” videos on YouTube, and, of course, Botchamania. The top five spots ever executed by Sabu are among wrestling’s most impressive moments, but he gave his all to a suicidal level, attempting his signature flips and bumps in seemingly every match. Sabu gave every single thing he was a part of “big match” feel, but his body simply couldn’t keep up with being Sabu every night. And that’s why when Sabu, the most innovative performer of an era, was good he was very, very good and when he was bad he was horrid.

Van Dam was famously trained by Sabu and his uncle The Sheik Ed Farhat, so this match represents a fascinating moment in a mentor-student relationship. When his jobber run in Bill Watts’ WCW ended, Van Dam found himself connected to a major player in Paul Heyman’s ECW. Six months before this match, RVD debuted in the territory, and after establishing himself with a few matches, moved right into a hot feud with his teacher Sabu. What resulted was one of the most successful angles of all time, in that Van Dam’s performances against Sabu instantly made him a huge babyface and a made star relevant more than fifteen years later. This match is a testament to both men, but above all, it speaks to Sabu’s immense pride in the brand of his uncle, The Sheik. Sabu trusted that Van Dam could be a top wrestler and had belief in his skills because he had helped trained him. This enabled Sabu to put a degree of energy and thought into his series of matches with RVD that went above and beyond even his own high standards. Sabu helped create Rob Van Dam, who eventually eclipsed the teacher himself, out of old school pride: it was the right thing to do.

Just three months after this match, these two competitors went on to form an extremely successful tag team. RVD and Sabu could have been the biggest babyfaces anywhere because of their athleticism in the ring, but they instead took on the task of playing the heel sell-outs to the invading Jerry Lawler. The teaming worked in that it ensured that both men always had something to do in ECW, even with Sabu’s frequent extended absences from the fed. It also helped build RVD into a bigger and bigger star as he was featured heavily on ECW TV and received the rub of being on WWF Monday Night Raw.

Of course, Sabu was right all along: Van Dam, with his help, Paul Heyman’s help, and Vince McMahon’s help, ultimately became a huge star in the world of professional wrestling. So, here it is, Sabu at the height of his powers trying to get someone over, and Rob Van Dam at the beginning of his big-time run: Hardcore Heaven 1996.