Dream a little dream

Battered and broken pro wrestler Tommy Dreamer helped found the roughest wrestling league around. Now he's taking a beating.

Published November 16, 2000 8:00PM (EST)

Tommy Dreamer, the Innovator of Violence, wipes a stream of blood from his eyes and sees that his opponent has given him an opening. Leaping forward, he kicks his foe squarely between the legs, doubling him over and sending him to the mat. Dreamer looks around for a weapon and finds a cheese grater, ramming it, blade first, into the forehead of his opponent. Blood gushes, and the man screams in pain. You can't hear him, though -- the fans surrounding the wrestling ring are deafening, shouting in school-cheer cadence, "Fuck 'em up, Tommy! Fuck 'em up!"

The Extreme Championship Wrestling, which urges fans not to bring their children to matches, isn't following the glitz-and-glamour leagues that dominate televised pro wrestling. It's leading them. ECW wrestlers practice what is called "hardcore" wrestling, an ultraviolent, anything-goes brand of mayhem that includes battles with baseball bats, steel chairs, wooden tables and other weapons. Indeed, the chaos -- staged or not -- is so potentially dangerous that outsiders have to wonder: What kind of maniac willingly participates in such violent blitzkriegs? Enter Tommy Dreamer.

Dreamer is the alter ego of Thomas Laughlin, a 29-year-old from Yonkers, N.Y., with thick, muscular arms and brooding, movie-star good looks. Dreamer is big and broad-shouldered -- he's 6-foot-3 and 245 pounds -- but not huge by pro-wrestling standards. He wears long black pants in the ring, and his short, black hair is complemented by a pointed goatee.

Dreamer has no gimmick, no exploding fireworks or signature song. He just comes out and fights. Sometimes -- in fact, most times -- he gets beaten but perseveres, winning over fans with his dogged determination. He is the working-class hero, the quiet guy who would rather go his own way but is forced, by fate of the plotting of villains, into a valiant but doomed defense of himself or his friends.

At a moment that should be the pinnacle of a decade-long career in professional wrestling, Tommy Dreamer is in pain.

He and several friends formed the ECW in 1993, and now it's floundering. In September the fledgling wrestling federation lost its contract with the Nashville Network (TNN), after just a year. (TNN, now renamed the National Network, is part of the CBS/Viacom family, and it dropped ECW for a much larger wrestling federation.) Now, without a major TV contract, ECW has an uncertain future.

Dreamer is one of ECW's most popular stars, and the loss of the TNN contract comes especially hard considering the sacrifices he's made. Just a few months before ECW signed the TNN deal in summer 1999, Dreamer's doctor warned him to give up wrestling. The doctor had diagnosed two herniated discs -- the cumulative results of dangerous stunts involving ladders, wooden tables and scaffolds that Dreamer had been hurled from or through. Without surgery, which likely would put him out of wrestling for good, the pain in his back would only increase, as would the occasional numbness in his feet and legs. Another severe blow to the already injured area of his spine could leave Dreamer in a wheelchair for life. But without pro wrestling, Dreamer wondered what life he would have anyway.

Professional wrestling has become, for better or worse, a fixture in America's sports and entertainment culture. Its easy-to-grasp stories, fabricated cartoonish violence and heroes and villains have emerged as part of our cultural landscape. Who cares if it's all fake, or "staged" as the wrestlers themselves say? Professional wrestling, fans say, is a "soap opera" for the guys. Critics -- and there are many -- argue that the choreographed stunts result in copycat injuries among impressionable younger viewers. In recent years, pro wrestling has moved toward raunchy sexism and ever more dangerous stunts, including one that resulted in the death of a wrestler last year.

The overflow crowd has been frothing all night, erupting into sporadic bouts of hollering and shoving that threaten to escalate into the kind of violence they had paid to see. Thousands of hardcore-wrestling fans, packed into the O'Neill Center on the campus of West Connecticut University in Danbury one crisp night in March, leap to their feet, screaming as Dreamer charges the ring, oblivious to the knifing pain in his back.

He slides under the bottom ring rope and enters the six-man melee. Immediately he seeks out Raven, a grunge/slacker-styled wrestler, and floors him with a DDT. The DDT, a move Dreamer does exceptionally well, is performed by grabbing a bent-over victim under the chin in a front headlock, then flopping on your back and driving your opponent's head into the mat.

After pounding on Raven, Dreamer jumps outside the ring. He hauls an 8-foot-long wooden table into the ring with the intention of slamming Raven through it. As Dreamer stands the table in the center of the ring, Raven catches him off guard and throws him into the ropes. When Dreamer bounces back, Raven ducks and grabs his opponent's ankle. The move, which takes less than two seconds, sends Dreamer face-first into the table. Wood chips and splinters shower the mat.

"Ho-ly shit! Ho-ly shit!" the crowd chants in appreciation of the feat, or "bump" in wrestling lingo. For a long time, Dreamer lies on the mat, covering his head with his hands. Finally, he rises, his face a river of scarlet from an open wound on his forehead. Two other opponents -- Justin Credible and Lance Storm -- pummel Dreamer with their fists, pushing him into the corner. Dreamer responds by waving his arms and yelling, "Is that all you got?"

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Dreamer has been wrestling on the independent pro circuit since he was 18, but has won the ECW championship belt only once, in April, at ECW's home arena in Philadelphia. Afterward, he wept openly in the ring, thanking the fans and clutching the belt. The celebration was interrupted by a sudden (but planned) challenge from another wrestler. Dreamer accepted and lost the match. His title reign lasted about seven minutes. "No one takes an ass-kicking like me," he joked afterward.

Dreamer says he developed his persona out of his lifetime desire to be a pro wrestler. "I was the kid who dreamed of being a champion -- that's where it came from," he explains. He grew up the son of well-educated professionals -- his father is superintendent of a school for emotionally disturbed children, his mother is vice president of a local company. Laughlin's only sibling, a sister, is also a corporate type. "We're kind of like yin and yang," Laughlin says of his sister. "She's a yuppie, and I don't take orders well."

Dreamer earned a college degree in international business at Iona College in New Rochelle, N.Y., and played football there until he was a sophomore. All that time, he says, he knew he wanted to be a pro wrestler. He started a five-days-a-week gym regimen -- one he continues to this day -- and began fighting on the local wrestling circuit. His mother wasn't entirely happy with his decision, he says.

"With the success I've seen recently, she's a little happier," Dreamer says. Part of that success allowed Dreamer to buy a house, valued at close to $1 million, in Greenwich, Conn., and move his parents in with him. "But overall, she's not happy with the kind of pain I put myself through." That pain has included several concussions, broken ribs and fingers and a repeatedly broken nose. He's fallen from ladders and through barbed wire, and has been set on fire. None of it, he says, compares to the agony in his back.

While the back pain isn't ever far from his mind, the pain of watching everything he worked for in ECW fall apart in September was devastating. Dreamer had decided to forgo the needed back surgery, certain that a year in the spotlight would help ECW gain the credibility it deserved. The deal with TNN allowed ECW to take a step up from the 2 a.m. local cable slots where its shows had wallowed. More important, it put ECW on the map to compete with World Championship Wrestling (WCW), owned by Time Warner, and the World Wrestling Federation (WWF), overseen by wrestling impresario Vince McMahon.

Dreamer fought mightily throughout the last year. As ECW suffered through defections of its top stars to the deeper-pocketed WWF -- including the wrestler Taz, the ECW champion and Dreamer's best friend -- Dreamer notched up his performance schedule, often "jobbing" (agreeing to lose) to younger wrestlers to increase their popularity. Even when it looked bleakest for ECW in late summer, Dreamer was able to help put together a two-day wrestling pay-per-view in New York -- the first time ECW wrestlers ever fought in Manhattan -- which was a huge success. It was just a week after that show that Dreamer suffered a severely separated shoulder during another match, an injury that has kept him out of action ever since.

"Tommy Dreamer is the original organization man," says Al Isaacs, operator of ScoopsWrestling.com, the most popular Web site of the thousands devoted to pro wrestling. "He always puts the organization ahead of himself -- he's been with ECW since the beginning and is very loyal."

ECW was started by Paul Heyman, an independent wrestling promoter living with his mother in Westchester County, N.Y. Rounding up local wrestlers, including Dreamer and Dreamer's best friend, Peter Senercha (who would become the wrestler Taz), Heyman formed ECW. From the beginning, Dreamer was Heyman's right-hand man and ECW's top booker. The two decided which wrestlers would win and who would get the championship belts. They also developed story lines and feuds and friendships between numerous wrestling personas, many of which the pair created themselves. Dreamer now spends the time between weekend matches shuttling between ECW's arena in Philadelphia and its offices in Westchester.

With the emerging ECW threatening to transform the dominance of the two big wrestling promotions into a three-way dance, the WWF took notice. McMahon offered a joint arrangement early last year in which some ECW and WWF wrestlers would do spots on each other's TV shows. ECW jumped at the chance and sent Dreamer, Heyman and another wrestler, Sabu -- described at "homicidal, genocidal and suicidal" -- to "crash" a WWF show in Philadelphia and cause a melee.

The stunt worked well, but the WWF sent angry word shortly thereafter that Dreamer and Sabu were too violent, and hadn't softened their punches and kicks. The ECW, and Dreamer in particular, were said to be amused that the WWF wrestlers had complained of being roughed up. Not long after, the WWF pulled out of the deal and concentrated instead on stealing top ECW talent and deriding the smaller federation every chance it got. Both the WWF and WCW have tried to lure Dreamer away from ECW with a big pay package, but he has refused the offers.

Despite the third-place status, crowds at ECW matches started to grow over the past two years, and marketers have come calling. "It seems not that long ago ECW was giving fans free pretzels just to fill seats during the shows," Dreamer remembers. "Now we're turning away hundreds of people at the door." Indeed, the federation received the ultimate proof it had reached the big time last year when it contracted to sell a series of action figures based on the wrestlers, as well as a video game, "ECW: Hardcore Revolution." Dreamer's action figure holds a garbage can lid in one hand, and when a lever on the figure's back is pressed, the five-inch fighter swings punches into the air.

Dreamer was pleased with his inclusion in the video game. The pixelated likeness sported all of his trademark moves, including the Dreamer Driver, his finishing move (the move a wrestler uses to win a match), as well as his catchphrase, "Is that all you got?"

The day the video game hit stores earlier this year, Dreamer and another ECW wrestler, Rob Van Dam, were scheduled to sign autographs at the Virgin Mega-Store in Times Square. Heyman and other ECW officials weren't happy with the scheduling of the event, which was to start at 1 p.m. on a school day. Dreamer told them not to worry, fans would come.

He was right. Fans -- many too old to be in school anyway -- lined the block to wait for autographs and buy the new video game. Dreamer and Van Dam were to sign autographs for an hour. Seeing the huge crowd, both wrestlers offered to stay until everyone had a chance to get an autograph, a promise that took five hours to fulfill. As the day wore on, Dreamer kept smiling for his fans, taking an occasional pause between handshakes to wince and stretch his cramping back.

Dreamer keeps his newfound fame as a role model in perspective. "I think I have a bond with the fans," he says, adding that he knows they respect the pain hardcore wrestlers endure to put on a good show. "ECW fans are the smartest in the world, and we don't try to fool them."

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Days after the Danbury match in March, Dreamer and a wrestler named New Jack fly to Chicago to break new ground for ECW. They are to appear in an episode of "Early Edition," a prime-time CBS TV drama whose main character mysteriously receives an edition of the newspaper that foretells the future. In this episode, Dreamer and New Jack play two biker thugs who start a barroom brawl. Despite the stereotypical characterizations, Dreamer confides to friends that he is thrilled to be acting.

At the Hideout, a dive bar in one of Chicago's seedier East Side neighborhoods where the shoot takes place, Dreamer and New Jack are the center of attention. The other participants -- a mixture of acting extras and real bikers from the neighborhood -- have heard actual pro wrestlers are going to be on the set, but they do not recognize Dreamer and New Jack, nor have they even heard of ECW. The bikers, many much larger than both wrestlers, are scowling, "So, these guys think they're tough?" Meanwhile, the actors are snorting, "Humph, these guys think they're actors?"

Before the shoot begins, a wiry, balding stunt coordinator approaches the two wrestlers. "So, here's what we'd like you to do," the man says to Dreamer. "First, you push him against the bar, then he'll push you. Then you throw a punch at him, but don't worry if you miss because TV lets you cheat. Of course, let's get you two into some padding first."

Dreamer looks at New Jack and smiles. "How 'bout this instead?" he asks the man. "No padding, and I'll punch him for real, then he can hit me with a chair and then I'll hit him with a bottle and then he'll put my face through the table."

The man's face drops. "You're kidding, right?"

But Dreamer isn't kidding, and the scene goes off exactly, flawlessly and unflinchingly as he described it.

After the melee, the cameras stop, and there is a moment of silence. Then, the room erupts in cheers and applause. Dreamer smiles.

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Unfortunately, the loss of the TNN contract ended any more CBS crossover appearances for the wrestlers as well. ECW officials, including Dreamer, are scrambling to find some sort of replacement for the canceled contract, but time is not on their side.

"Without a national TV show, I don't know how long ECW can last," Dreamer says.

Many top ECW wrestlers have defected to one of the two other leagues, and many others are suffering from injuries. ECW recently canceled shows in some cities, something it never had to do before.

As for Dreamer -- the pain in his shoulder eclipsing the pain in his back -- he may be ready to return to the ring within the next few weeks. But privately, he relishes that moment on the CBS set six months ago when, albeit briefly, it appeared there was life after pro wrestling after all.

By Gregg Wirth

Gregg Wirth is a writer living in New York.

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