The world of Professional Wrestling has produced many legends of diverse human physicality and endurance that, bringing it together with martial arts mastery, are all the more incredibly exciting and entertaining to watch. In this arena, there can be no doubt that Rob Van Dam ranks as one of the all-time greats.
A veteran of ECW (Extreme Championship Wrestling), TNA and WWE, combined with his background in Taekwondo, Aikido, Karate and Kickboxing, he’s wowed countless spectators across the globe. His stunning, high-impact aerial manoeuvres and multi-dimensional hyper-flexible kicks, flips (which earned him the moniker of his Belgian-born namesake) and totally cool moves like ‘Rolling Thunder’ and the never less than wince-worthy ‘Five Star Frog Splash’ are his trademarks. Actually, we don’t think there’s even a move that this guy hasn’t been able to pull off!
Today Rob sits down with KFK to share the story of his career as a pro-wrestler, along with his subsequent transition into action films and the role that his vast experience in martial arts has played in each.
Hi Rob, it’s great to have you with us today! Hope you’re doing well?
Hi Brad, I’m doing great. Thanks, happy to speak with Kung Fu Kingdom!
Awesome! Well, let’s start off with some basics, like when and where you were born?
I was born in Battle Creek, Michigan (USA) on December 18th, 1970.
Your height and weight?
I am 6′ (1.80m) tall and weigh 16st 8lb (106.5kg).
Alright, so what can you tell us about your beginnings in martial arts. How old were you when you started and what different disciplines have you studied?
Well, I was always fascinated by martial arts as a kid, and I imitated a lot of moves that I saw in movies and on TV as a kid before I ever started training. I really started with martial arts when I wanted to wrestle in the only ring in Battle Creek. My friends and I knocked on the door of Kit Lykins who was a kickboxer and a promoter, and he let us use his ring, so he was where I first got started with kickboxing.
Very fitting that you’re from Battle Creek eh? OK, so who would you credit as having most influenced you in martial arts, a top 5 perhaps?
Well, definitely the guys who I trained under, Kit Lykins and Perry Jay, and a guy named James Williamson, who taught my friends and I a whole different level of being able to use your mind. Also Sifu Doug Katami who I studied Kajukenbo under, I learned a lot from him. Of course, I was also really into action movies as a kid, so guys like Jean-Claude Van Damme, Don “The Dragon” Wilson and Jeff Speakman really influenced me.
Definitely. So what first made you want to compete as a pro-wrestler?
Well, I first got hooked just as a fan, and then, when I went to my first live show at about 14 or 15-years-old, a guy on the inside who was connected to the WWF suggested that I should wrestle when I grew up. So that really planted the seed of it in my mind.
I see. Going off of that, pro-wrestlers are known for their signature moves, and a couple of yours are the ‘Rolling Thunder’ and ‘Five Star Frog Splash’. What can you tell us about how you implement those into a wrestling match; the latter always looks awfully painful crashing onto people with the core of your body like that. Have you ever had to do any conditioning or breathing exercises for the Five Star Frog Splash for example?
Well, I usually save the ‘Rolling Thunder’ for near the end of a match right before the Five Star Frog Splash, because it’s very flashy and something that the crowd goes wild for. As far as conditioning, I don’t really do anything physically for the Frog Splash specifically, but executing the move demands your full mental commitment. If I second-guess myself, I could miss the top rope, or the target. So, it’s a move that when you go for it, you just have to REALLY go for it!
Totally read you. On that note, you’ve have matches with some of the most renown pro-wrestlers in the world, like Kurt Angle, ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin, John Cena and Wade Barrett. What are some of your personal favorites in terms of matches or opponents you’ve faced in your pro-wrestling career?
Sabu is my guy, he trained me with his uncle, The Sheik, and he and Booker T. are the guys I’m closest to in the business, both in and out of the ring. My matches with Sabu were great because we’re so like-minded on what’s entertaining and what’s worth the risk. Also, my matches with Jerry Lynn in ECW I’m very proud of, as well. Every time we wrestled, I think we always managed to top the last match.
Indeed, those were some amazing matches! Speaking of other wrestlers, another one you faced in the ring was none other than Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. What can you share about having a wrestling match in the ring with The Rock?
The Rock was super cool, it was an honor to step in the ring with him, and I’m really proud we got to have a match in the ring with how big a star he is today. He was always really down to earth and approachable for everyone, whether they were another wrestler or the janitor.
Quite a stand-up guy! So, you’ve been in a lot of matches involving tables, ladders, and all kinds of props used as weapons. In your expert opinion, what is the most painful prop or weapon to be hit with in pro-wrestling?
I think the chair shots I used to take from Balls Mahoney on a nightly basis were among the most solid. Chairs hurt a lot more than they look like they do, and the ladders are pretty painful too.
I’ll bet! So, what would you classify as your top 3 toughest matches in your career?
The stretcher match I had with Sabu in ECW is definitely up there. Also, the matches that I had with Jerry Lynn in “Guilty as Charged” and “Living Dangerously”, those kind of blend together in my mind. The risks that I took on the chance that I would not screw it up were pretty high back then with all the flips and jumps on the top rope with no hands and things like that. I also had a crazy match with Abyss in TNA with barbed wire and he had that club with spikes that we called “Janice”. (Both laugh)
Well, on that note, what is your proudest accomplishment in your pro-wrestling career?
I would say bringing back ECW on WWE’s stage, putting that over to them to produce One Night Stand 2006. It was my idea to do a pay-per-view that was all ECW, and Vince McMahon really liked the idea. I feel that’s the most outstanding match of my career, because I beat John Cena for the WWE title, but on top of that, it was important to me, because I did that so that the ECW spirit wouldn’t die in the hearts of wrestlers and fans.
Excellent choice. Well, moving ahead to your work in movies, one of your early roles was in the movie “Bloodmoon” in 1997. What can you share about the experience of making the film and filming your fight scene with the late Darren Shahlavi?
Well, it actually ties into my first movie, “Super Fights”. I had responded to a magazine ad that had said “Do you have what it takes to be the next big action star?”, and it was for a weekend crash course in New York on action filmmaking.
We practiced everything from learning how to punch for the camera, shoot guns and do falls. Then, there was a contest at the end where they were going to choose people to put in “Super Fights”, and I ended up getting a call from the producer, Keith Strandberg, to come be in the film. Originally, my appearance was just meant to be a short fight scene to be done at the beginning of the day, but the fight director, Tony Leung, was so fascinated that I could do so many kicks and flips that he kept making the scene longer and longer. We ended up spending the entire day doing my fight scene in the ring while everyone else just sat around in their wardrobe and makeup! (Both laugh)
It was a great experience and after we finished, they called me up and said they were getting ready to make “Bloodmoon” and asked me to be in it. It was a big learning experience and working with Darren was awesome. What I remember most about that scene was how awkward it was making out with the girl. I had her up on a pinball machine and they wanted me to reach behind her and take her bra off, and, take after take, because of the position we were in, I just could not get it to come off, I guess I was just too much of a perfectionist to ask for help! (Both laugh)
Nice story! Speaking of Hong Kong filmmakers, you also appeared in 2001’s “Black Mask 2: City of Masks”. What interesting stories can you share about making the film alongside Andy On, Scott Adkins and the legendary Yuen Woo-ping?
To this day, I think that was the only job I got from an actual audition. It was probably a part that would’ve been suited better to someone who had acted more than I had by that point. The fight crew was Cantonese I think, while the rest of the crew were Mandarin speakers, then the script people on the set were all French. So, nobody was communicating with each other, and I really didn’t understand my part or any of the story. (Laughs)
But, as far as the action side of it went, I had a blast! I got to do a lot of my moves from the ring in the fight scenes, but now, I’ve got a cape and gloves on and my character had this giant brain that they glued to the top of my head. I also smashed my knee into the ground doing a backflip off of a wall and it caught up with me a few years later in the ring. I ended up having knee surgery on it in 2005.
Ouch! But way to go soldier on through that. Looking ahead now, another movie you appeared in more recently was “Wrong Side of Town”, alongside Dave Bautista and Marrese Crump. What can you tell us about making the film with them?
“Wrong Side of Town” was my first starring role. Even just driving from the hotel to the set, I just had the thought, “action star, coming through!” going through my head. The director, David DeFalco, is a big wrestling fan and a super-fan of Dave Bautista and he asked him to come work on the movie for a day or two. Then, when the movie came out, Bautista was on the front of the box and I was kind of in the background looking over his shoulder with Ja Rule like “Hey, we’re in this movie, too!” (Both laugh) It was a lot of fun to make, though. I really like doing action and it was the point where I started getting a little more focused on the acting side, as well.
I have nothing but respect for all of those guys. The first time I saw Tony Jaa in action, I was just blown away, and then later, I saw him on stage running over people’s heads live. The stuff that he can do is just amazing, and it’s great that he’s able to showcase his abilities in movies, because there’s a lot of talented people out there that don’t get to do that. He’s really shown how far action and martial arts movies have come since I was a kid watching Chuck Norris.
Well said! So, what would are some of Rob Van Dam’s personal favorites in terms of martial arts films?
“Bloodsport” was always a favorite of mine, it was what really inspired me to start doing the splits between chairs as a kid. And of course, “Enter the Dragon“, as well. I also really loved “Kickboxer” and “Rush Hour“, and I’d also put “The Avengers” in there – not martial arts, per se, but it has everything!
Agreed! Well, looking at training now, what does a typical workout for Rob Van Dam consist of? It is mostly martial arts, flexibility, weight training?
A lot of stretching. A lot of wrestlers don’t stretch, or they only stretch for a couple of minutes. My stretching routine has always been a very big part of training, and is its own work out. I always stretch for a full hour before matches.
I remember back in ’93, Diamond Dallas Page saw me taking so many hits in the ring, and he said, “You don’t hurt as easily as other wrestlers, there must be something to all your stretching”. Now with DDP Yoga, he’s got a multi-million-dollar business that’s helped so many people with arthritis or those walking with crutches and after going through the program he’s running, they become just a completely different human being.
I’ve also got a stretching program in the works, myself. I’ve had it on the table for a few years, really just trying to find the best way to articulate it to people because it’s very involved. I also do weights, conditioning, balance exercises, and of course, punching and kicking. I also like bike riding on the beach, that’s something I really love about California, the weather here is almost always perfect.
Stretching is such a great topic and practice with potentially far-reaching, effects on your ‘extended’ body, hence life. While we’re on the subject, what methods, techniques or tips can you share for developing your flexibility?
You have to work with the muscle and not against it. People strain and fight their muscles a lot when they stretch and they don’t realize that they’re forcing the muscle to protect itself by contracting. You need to be very calm and relaxed, so your muscle will give itself to you and let you pull it in an unnatural way. Breathing is also important and you’re always more relaxed exhaling than inhaling. It’s like with balloons, when there’s no air in it, it’s loose, you can pull it, shape it, and do whatever you want with it. When you blow it up, it doesn’t have the same flexibility, and your body is the same way. I also don’t just drop down into a split, I go through several different positions like I’m unlocking keys all the way down, so by the time I get to the split, I’ve already stretched every muscle and built up to the split in a systemic way.
That’s brilliant, simple and sounds so effective. With all that extra flexion then, what’s the most daring stunt you’ve ever done, either in wrestling or movies?
Well, when we were making “Wrong Side of Town”, they brought me to an alleyway where we wanted to shoot a scene where I’m being chased by some bad dudes on motorcycles, and I run into a dead end in the alleyway. I had to climb up a fire escape to get away from them, when we shot it, I jumped onto this dumpster and ‘Jackie Channed’ it up the fire escape so fast it looked like I was being pulled up by cables. Doing the action and the stunts is what I really love about making action movies, but that was a pretty daring stunt I had to pull off.
Indeed. So, what was the most serious injury in your wrestling career and how did you work around it?
I pride myself on not having many serious injuries in an almost thirty-year career. I did break my ankle once in the ring after the only time I went in without stretching first, and I had to hand over my ECW title at the time because I wasn’t able to wrestle for three months. The knee injury on “Black Mask 2” was the only injury I’ve ever had to have surgery for. There was also a match I had with Kurt Angle where he gave me a belly-to-back suplex, and just spur of the moment, I thought I would back flip over him when he was suplexing me, but the only thing that got over was my head and I landed with my head bent back towards my body. The whole right side of my body went numb and I thought I’d broken my back, but fortunately, the feeling came back a few minutes later.
Wo, talk about good in ring karma! So, what kind of diet do you follow, do you take supplements?
My diet is something that I’m constantly cleaning up and eating smarter the older I get. I focus a lot on protein, about 250 grams a day with about half the protein taken in the form of protein powder. I also try to incorporate a lot of vegetables these days, I’ve cut back on red meat a lot instead consuming more chicken in the last year or so. I’ve taken supplements my whole life, my mother had me on multi-vitamins when I was a kid. Creatine works great for recuperating from training, and the best thing I think I ever took for boosting energy was Spirodex. It made me feel like Superman all day! (Both laugh)
Great to know. Well, moving onto fun and leisure now, what’s one geeky thing about you that people don’t really know?
Most people who know me would say I’m the biggest mafia history buff they know. I’ve been fascinated by the mafia for years and reading so much about the history of the mafia, you just learn so much about how much is happening behind the scenes throughout the world.
So true. So, if you could be a superhero or have a particular superpower, what would it be?
I’d want to be able to teleport – that seems to be where we’re heading – one of these days, they’re going to have a teleportation app on everyone’s phone that’s going to kill the airline business. (Both laugh)
With the rapid rate of computer tech right now, it seems plausible! So, what are some of your hobbies outside of wrestling and martial arts?
I enjoy bike riding and watching TV, which I probably do a little too much of!
That changes all the time. I listen to a lot of Hip-Hop and I also like Reggae, especially whenever I’m going to the beach.
Favourite movies (non-martial arts?)
I really like a lot of Martin Scorsese’s movies, like “Casino” and “Goodfellas”. “Get Shorty” (Barry Sonnenfeld) is one of my favourites, too.
Interesting. So, what are some things in life you really like?
I really like synchronicities and bringing our spiritual vibration to its highest potential. I really see everything in life as energy. If you look under a microscope, you see that everything is moving particles, and we’re a mass of moving energy in a pool of moving energy. I can feel the heat of the sun, even though it’s not actually touching me, because we’re both in the same pool of energy. So I really see life as being about raising our spiritual vibration to its highest frequency.
Being interrupted. It makes conversation a real struggle.
So, what would you say is your proudest accomplishment in life so far?
I think my proudest accomplishment is just being able to become what I dreamed of becoming as a kid.
Right on! So, what are you really keen to accomplish in the next five years?
Right now, I have a few projects in the works, and once everything is set and the timing is right, I think they’ll make quite an impact.
Well, we definitely look forward to seeing that unfold. So, what special message would you like to share with Kung Fu Kingdom readers and your fans around the world?
Remember that what you learn from martial arts carries over into every aspect of life, it’s a tool to focus your energy. And see yourself as a drop of energy in a bucket of water, yet at the same time, see yourself as an individual on your own spiritual path.
That’s certainly something to think about. Well, as we prepare to sign off, where’s the best place for people for people to find out more about Rob Van Dam?
Fabulous. Well, thank you so much it’s been a real privilege speaking with you, Rob. Keep in touch.
It’s been my pleasure to speak with you and Kung Fu Kingdom!