The world of professional wrestling is grueling on the body and mind. Scripted but certainly not fake, the injuries incurred during a professional’s career are often immense. Typically, performers don’t have time to heal before the next set of matches and the miles of frequent travel that accompanies it. Even when performed correctly, falls, or “bumps” in industry-speak, on thinly padded rings leave performers with little to nothing to soften the blows.
Wrestling several times each week, many once reached for the bottle, be it alcohol and or pills, to dull the pain. The cycle of abuse led to scores of performers passing away at an early age, be it directly or indirectly from their addictions.
In recent years, however, pro wrestlers shifted to becoming more health-focused, with cannabis playing a part for many. This, however, isn’t the plant’s first foray into the world. Some would say cannabis played a role in killing kayfabe, or the portrayal of wrestling as an unscripted sport.
In 1987, “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan and the Iron Sheik were arrested after their car was pulled over by New Jersey police. During the stop, Duggan was found to have marijuana on him, while the Iron Sheik had cocaine. Two athletes caught with drugs in the ’80s would usually be a headline maker on its own. However, the revelation that Duggan and the Iron Sheik weren’t heated enemies as billed in the ring pulled back a significant portion of the curtain masking the long-assumed staged aspects of wrestling.
Neither Duggan nor the Iron Sheik provided comments for this article. However, High Times did speak with several pro wrestling veterans who spent years in various promotions, including the most notable name in the profession, World Wrestling Entertainment. In each case, they mentioned how the leader in the sport continues to hold much more conservative views towards marijuana than other promotions.
The Locker Room Outcast in WWE
Marijuana use never seemed to be a concern in wrestling, even finding its way into the characteristics of some performers. Current examples include the pot-smoking, high-flying trio of Impact Wrestling, The Rascalz. In and out of the ring, their actions can be traced back to the person that popularized cannabis in the squared circle, Rob Van Dam.
Best known as RVD, the wrestling legend continues to rack up numerous accolades, including 16 titles with WWE and promotions like Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW), Total Nonstop Action (TNA) and various others.
It was in ECW where Van Dam would establish a reputation for smoking with fans before events. Around 1997, at a show in Queens, he spotted an “RVD 420” sign and ran with the gimmick. “I just immediately identified with it,” said Van Dam, adding, “I thought, ‘I would love to be the poster boy for weed because I love weed that much.’”
Fans loved the gimmick, but it wouldn’t travel to the more corporate world of the World Wrestling Entertainment, known as the World Wrestling Federation when Van Dam signed in 2001.
Negative instances included a time around 2001 when current WWE Chair Brand Officer Stephanie McMahon gave him a heads up. “She said, ‘Look if you’re going to get high, at least be discreet about it.’” Van Dam said McMahon told him to at least change his shirt because of its pungent aroma.
Despite the not so subtle condemnation of cannabis, RVD continued consuming and discussing its use. Likening himself to a bible thumper, Van Dam said, “I used to advocate from the perspective of feeling like I knew something that everyone else needed to know.”
Like RVD, Paul London didn’t start using marijuana until he got into pro wrestling. In fact, it was RVD who offered him his first hit.
London recalls being 24 or 25 when wrestler Jamie Noble invited him to smoke with RVD. That night would cement London’s fondness for Van Dam. “It’s kind of like being taught how to sing by Elvis,” said London.
In time, he would become a regular consumer, often running off to smoke with veterans like Van Dam, Sabu and others, including tag team partner at the time Brian Kendrick. London told High Times that WWE management seemed to have issues with cannabis users due to their inability to fall in line with company rules. London described the group of smokers as “The guys that are going to see through [WWE’s] bullshit.”
A Momentum Killer for Many
London said that in the early days of his time in the company, $500 fines were given for positive cannabis tests. However, more severe punishments did occur.
In July 2006, the then-dual world championship holder RVD was arrested with 18 grams of marijuana and five Vicodin. As a result, Van Dam had to drop both his titles in quick succession on that Monday and Tuesday’s TV shows. From there, he was further reprimanded with a 30-day suspension.
“No trial, no nothing,” said RVD, noting his suspension coincided with the downfall of the WWE-revived ECW brand. “It was way better before I got busted. When I came back, it was going downhill fast to its ultimate destruction.”
A similar outcome would happen to London the following year. For over 300 days, he and Kendrick were holders of the WWE Tag Team Championship titles. London said management discussed allowing the team to hold the titles for one year, a milestone in the sport. However, on April 16, 2007, London’s birthday, he said then-Producer Fit Finlay spotted London, RVD and Sabu smoking outside by the production trailer after London’s match in Italy.
Sensing friction, London claims to have attempted to smooth things with Finlay, but the damage appeared done. The tag team would drop their titles a few nights later.
London recalled management telling him, “‘I think we’re going to have you guys drop the belts tonight because we haven’t done a title switch in this country and in this building in a long time.” However, on the night London claims to have been busted, Santino Marella would beat Umaga in the same Milan arena for the Intercontinental Title.
The Mental Effects of Testing and Failing
Around 2007, when Matt Sydal signed with WWE, the company faced immense backlash from the Chris Benoit murder-suicide. In turn, the company increased the scrutiny of all substances. Under the new rules, fines were $1,000 for each positive cannabis drug test. Sydal, who wrestled in WWE as Evan Bourne, said offenders would find themselves in monthly drug testing cycles as well.
Sydal, a self-medicating cannabis consumer since college, fell into the cycle soon after its implementation. “Right away in my developmental stage at wrestling [with WWE], it sort of became an issue of me having to play the game of, ‘Can I smoke today or am I worried about getting the test?’”
Sydal recalled feeling stressed over wanting to treat his ailments, both in-ring and pre-existing, while knowing that he could lose a dream job.
“The consequences were extremely steep, and the psychological consequences were even harder,” recalled Sydal. He stated his positive test made him feel condemned by the organization, almost like an outsider. “It hurt my self-confidence because a failure implied that I was a person with a bad moral character.”
Cannabis supposedly put people like Sydal and London on the outside, while drinking was the norm. “I felt like I was almost ostracized and persecuted for my personal choices.” Sydal said the cannabis tests, coupled with his smaller-than-WWE-average stature, created an uphill battle in winning the company’s favor.
All considered, Sydal said he never took the tests personally, noting the company’s ongoing shift into the billion-dollar, publicly-traded entity it is today. However, the feelings of being on the outside would only increase after a second failed test. Sydal remembered, “After each failed test, I felt more like a failure, and I had no clue how to handle that shame.”
Already sidelined with an injury, and nearing the end of his run with the company, Sydal sustained a severely broken foot in March 2012. Wanting not to exacerbate the matter, he abstained from marijuana or any other substances during recovery. That sobriety would continue for years—as too did his struggles with self-worth.
Sometime after his release in June 2014, Sydal found himself in Iquitos, Peru, where he embarked on a three-week sacred plant medicine treatment that he said restored his sense of self.
A Continued Practice with Cannabis
All three respondents continue to participate in both pro wrestling and cannabis use. London has stepped back towards acting, though wrestling remains an option for the right promotion and fit.
Sydal can be found on the independent scene, including prominent promotions around the world. He recently reopened his wrestling school in Florida after the COVID-19 pandemic halted operations. The ring veteran reported that he continues to feel pain from his foot injury, and has his medical cannabis card.
RVD can be seen weekly on Impact Wrestling. The longtime proponent is involved in the cannabis industry as well, with his RVDCBD line. Van Dam said he aims to offer a product geared towards treating severe injuries like his own. The company plans to expand into THC as well.
Van Dam believes that the wrestling industry’s shift to cannabis will undoubtedly improve its once-grim mortality rate. “It’s a lot more professional,” RVD said of the current locker room. “It’s more like a corporation instead of an outlaw indie show like it used to be.”