We often talk about the greats of professional wrestling with such majesty. Deservingly so. They captivate us for a lifetime in some respects, offering us escapes and leaving us smiling more times than we could possibly ever count. We remember the matches and never forget the moments draped in unimaginable magic. Sometimes we find it as difficult, or even more so, to accept the end of a career as the person whose career is actually ending!
“One more match! One more match! One more match!”
We’re insufferable. But we love this shit. See, that’s the trick right there for me. When I think about the greats – not necessarily the Mount Rushmore greats but the greats none the less – I remember the way they looked standing across from an opponent. I think about their eyes after a victory – the crowd erupting and the moment almost infinite. I see their smiles in my dreams, forever etched in stone. More than anything though, I appreciate their heart. It’s not something seen, not something one can touch. It’s only felt. That feeling though; it’s everything.
When I close my eyes and imagine those who have led with their heart in a business where that love can be so easily jaded and stomped, I picture one man before the others. I see his intense stance, bulging biceps with arms outstretched, and a face that overflows with emotion unmatched. I see a man who looks through the screen and into the hearts of fans everywhere because he’s not just a wrestler, he’s one of us. The man I see is Tommy Dreamer.
I can’t imagine a name more fitting of any wrestler that has ever laced up a pair of boots than his. That’s what Tommy is – a dreamer. Just a kid from New York who wanted to bask in the bright lights in the middle of a wrestling ring, feel the goosebumps on his skin as the crowd roared in glee, and maybe – just maybe – bleed a little on his way. He exuded heart and emotion. One look at his face before, during, or after a match and one could not deny that Tommy was home.
We tend to get caught up in stories and the like when we immerse ourselves in this thing of ours, so we sometimes forget to appreciate something truly special until it’s too late. I wish I had known what I know now when I was growing up. I had this expert storyteller and madman to watch every week and I took him for granted. It’s one of those childhood feelings like you’ll have what you love forever. But that’s not how the world works, especially in wrestling! Sometimes a career lasts thirty years; sometimes it lasts thirty minutes.
Lucky for me, and for all of us, Tommy’s career largely lives on through the WWE Network. Not only that, by some miracle I can’t fathom or begin to understand, he’s still going strong at fifty years old in Impact Wrestling! This would be a feat for any wrestler to be sure, but after what Tommy has put his body through, first in ECW and then as a way to keep a part of ECW alive all these years later, it’s a medical miracle he’s still able to climb in and out of those ropes every week. Perhaps the wrestling Gods forgot about ole Tommy. Or, as I like to believe, they’re not ready to stop feeling either. Because that’s what Tommy brings – true feeling.
I didn’t get to watch ECW live as a little girl. In fact, I wasn’t even fully aware of it until a few years AFTER they had closed. My Grandad, who introduced me to wrestling, was almost purely a WCW supporter, so other companies took a backseat. ECW was different still, as he deemed their brand of wrestling to severe for my young developing mind. Wild, I know. For fun though, Rob Van Dam and Tommy Dreamer were too much, but “Viagra on a pole” matches and Vince Russo promos were A-OK. Right. (Miss you, Grandad)
So, I had to get creative as I grew up. I learned how to find the shows I wanted to see, through expert searching and trading. I was hooked. The violence. The stories. The feeling. The heart! These guys – these psychotic ridiculous guys – had more heart than I had ever seen. There was no other reason to do what they did in the ways they did it other than pure unabashed love for this very same thing I loved so much! As much as I had loved WCW, and as much as I had grown to love WWE, ECW was a different animal all together. A big part of why it impacted me as greatly as it did was the man who existed as its heart and soul. Once again, Tommy Dreamer.
I appreciated the sacrifices he made. I related to the storied struggles he portrayed on screen. I fawned over Beulah McGillicutty as much as he did (I’m only human). Some may think of ECW and picture Rob Van Dam or Shane Douglas. Maybe Raven or Taz. Most probably think of Paul Heyman, and deservingly so. But as I remember back to the big moments – those days watching matches and shows I had worked so hard to find – they’re all filled with Tommy.
He had this knack to pull you into his madness with one look. His eyes would gloss over with emotion fitting the moment and the game was on. He had you. What happened next was always the craziest and most unexpected of roller coaster rides, even though you knew exactly what was coming!
Violence! Rage! Blood!
In what could have become a trivial and needless match accommodation, Tommy’s heart allowed for so many layers to be placed into these storied blood feuds. I ate each one of them up as fast as I could and eagerly awaited the next. It broke my heart when I reached the end of my little ECW journey, even though I knew full well, all the while, that it was coming. I watched Tommy later in his WWE run, and though he remained a favorite, his smile never quite hit the same for young me as it had in ECW. As I matured more though, I realized that it wasn’t Tommy who had changed, it was his environment and the business around him to an extent. He didn’t love it less, but by evolving like it had, perhaps it had begun to love him less instead.
Once upon a time, Tommy claimed he didn’t want titles. He wasn’t interested. He legitimately cared only about his dream of making a living sacrificing his body in the ring he coveted so much. He was a rare guy who never needed gold around his waste to be elevated. It just wasn’t necessary. When someone leads with their heart, they’ve already won all there is to win. Fans feed off of those individuals. We can talk all day about those larger-than-life superstars who rose above the business altogether and their place in wrestling history. But the industry doesn’t survive because of them. Day to day, town to town, and grueling match to grueling match, the industry survives on heart. It survives and thrives on the backs on wrestlers like Tommy Dreamer.
I have much I could thank Tommy for if I am ever blessed enough to meet him one day, but perhaps more than anything, the moment that endeared him to me most is recent and has little to do with his in-ring career. In 2019, Tommy went public with his battles with depression and made a plea for transparency on the subject. That hit home in a very real way for me.
When I was young, after some battles of my own, I fought depression. I lived consumed by darkness for years. At my lowest, while I did my best to act as normal as I could, I knew that I didn’t want to see any more tomorrows. Lucky for me, I made it through those days, though I nearly did not. It’s a feeling that I would never wish on any living person, because once there it never completely fades. While these events remain in my past, the memories of that time are easily felt and still sting as much as they once did.
It is not easy to admit these battles we wage within our own brains. We’ve been conditioned over many generations as a society to keep things like this inside and that it’s better to suffer in silence. By telling his story – exposing himself to judgment and mockery – Tommy showed his heart in a brand-new way. He showed that it beats as fiercely out of the ring for his fellow man as it does inside of it for a dream he’s spent a lifetime living. The lives he touched by simply speaking his own truth are incalculable.
I don’t think heart is something one can learn. You have it or you don’t. Even then, the choice is yours in how you use that gift. Tommy chose to allow his heart to lead him. Sometimes it worked for him and sometimes it didn’t but looking back on a career that has spanned over thirty years and isn’t over yet, I don’t know how many regrets the heart and soul of ECW really has.
I always loved that nickname – the heart and soul. I thought it such a shame that it virtually died when ECW did. Then again, examining a unique legacy like his filled with more smiles and as much excitement as any, the nickname never died. His old company may have, the one in which he first found his footing, but one run doesn’t define a wrestler. A career does. A heart does. And Tommy has an original.
Tommy Dreamer, the heart and soul of professional wrestling. Yeah, now that’s something I can feel.