Last week, several superstars were released by WWE. Fans reacted to all the cuts – in one way or another – but one in particular had them howling: the company's decision to part ways with Damien Sandow.
That was undoubtedly a testament to his talents as both a wrestler and a performer, because over the span of his relatively brief WWE run, Sandow repeatedly showed that he could get just about anything over. He debuted in 2012 as the "Intellectual Savior of the Unwashed Masses," turned into a Rhodes Scholar and then became Mr. Money in the Bank in short order. But after an unsuccessful cash-in of the MITB briefcase, he fell by the wayside, only to eventually reemerge as the Miz's endlessly entertaining stunt double.
That winning turn earned Sandow plenty of accolades – and his lone WWE title, a Tag Team Championship with the Miz. Their dynamic was a staple of the company's programming through WrestleMania 31, yet for whatever reason, WWE never really capitalized on their chance to build a new face, and Sandow was seen only sporadically in recent months.
But whether he was a regular on Raw or merely a bit player, Sandow routinely received some of the biggest reactions of the night. It's part of the reason he plans on embarking on a wrestling "Thank You Tour" (while working under the name Aaron Stevens) before turning his eyes to other projects – one of which has the potential to truly amaze.
In his first interview since being released, Sandow opens up about his time in WWE, his relationship with the fans and what happens next.
Take me through what happened last week, when you received the phone call from WWE.
First of all, I know a lot of people within the wrestling community were a little surprised. With me, I was more grateful for my time there. Looking back, I had a great four years there. The truth of it is, as a performer, the goal is to get the audience to feel something, to evoke some kind of emotion. In the WWE, from the second I debuted, there was an extreme feeling of dislike towards me. They really did not like me from the second I came on. Which was huge. A lot of guys spend years and years trying to get that kind of a reaction. They gave me the platform to do that character. Then, as time went on, especially with the Mizdow thing, the fans went from hating me to loving me. The crowd invested as me as a person. I never thought that I'd get that level of popularity as far as being cheered. As a performer, in that genre, the only thing we can ask for is fan response, especially genuine fan response. It's the most satisfying thing. In reviewing my WWE career, which I did instantly when the call came, I was just grateful, and excited for the future.
Were you surprised they had decided to release you?
Not really. I had some conversations with them before, where I had said that I think, as a character, we had gone through the gamut. What more could I do with that character? Some people say, "This company should have done this, or that." No, the company gave me a platform, and I maximized my opportunity. That's all I can ask for. In maximizing it to the point that I did, as a character, sometimes all you can do is get a new coat of paint. As a television show, the WWE, they have so many talented performers there. There is so much talent in the WWE. I have no problem with them needing time to let the other guys show their craft. I am not selfish in that respect. When I was on TV, they knew they'd get a reaction. When you look at it, if you know you can plug me in any spot, and you don't have to invest the TV time, then it makes sense to give TV time to guys who need to build their reactions. Just look back at the Royal Rumble in January, when I was on the preshow. I was in the ring for the first time in months, and fans were chanting my name, when I was just standing on the apron. That, to me, means more than any title I could have won in WWE. That means the world to me.
After the news broke, what did you think of the fan reaction on social media?
The funny thing about that is, the first thing I did when I got off the phone was clean my shed out. I had been meaning to do that for years. With my schedule in WWE, I really hadn't been able to do that. My girlfriend was ecstatic. I hadn't been able to do anything around the house in years. So I thought I'd use the time positively. I cleaned the shed out, I played with the dogs and then just relaxed. That night, my phone was ringing a lot. I checked in with my family, who were wondering if I was OK. I was fine, I told them not to worry about it. Then I turned my Twitter on. I was amazed. I was shocked that people cared that much. In the entertainment world, it's always about, "What's the next big thing?" It meant the world to me that people cared. It meant more than winning titles, to see the outpouring of emotions. And the feeling is mutual. It's clichéd to say that without the fans, there's no WWE. But it's true. Without the fans, I wouldn't be the performer I am.
I have always listened to them, the fans. I viewed my boss as whoever paid for a ticket. They always dictated my performance, in whatever genre I'm in. There's a lot of opportunities that have been opening to me. Due to my commitments in WWE, I couldn't pursue them like I wanted to. As I go and pursue these opportunities, the fans will always dictate to me what's the best thing to do as a character. That's who I am. That's who Aaron Stevens is.
Did WWE say why they were releasing you?
No, not really, and they didn't need to. Parting ways is never a pleasant thing. It's funny, because we took some test one time, and my empathy was measured on some ridiculous level. When I was being called, I was thinking about the other guy – the guy who has to give a guy this news. I was just more like, "Oh, cool. Thank you for everything. It was awesome." It was somewhat mutual. I had expressed to them that maybe, if they didn't have anything for me, then yeah, there are other guys who need a chance. I had already run that spectrum with the fans. A lot of times, in pro sports, you have egos involved. My ego was solely about getting the fans to react one way or another.
When you say it was mutual, do you mean your release had come up before, or that you were OK with their decision?
Not so much my release, but all the options. I had asked about being a commentator if they weren't going to have me on as a wrestler. There were many different options I was exploring. It wasn't a doom or gloom situation. I just wanted to look into every route that was possible.
What were some of those routes? Over the past year, particularly after the 'Macho Mandow' experiment, were ideas pitched to get you back on TV?
I actually kind of wanted to cool off for a month or two. What more could I have done after that? There were talks about repackaging me. There were talks about me doing a parody of current events. There were several things that were on the table. For one reason or another, they didn't go through. There's so much that goes into getting characters on TV. The WWE is great at defining and presenting characters in the best possible way. You can pitch ideas, but there's so much that goes into the television shows, as far as where the character will fit in, or how it'll fit in, and sometimes it just doesn't fit. All I could do was hit a grand slam every time I got to go out there.
I don't have a bad thing to say about WWE. I wanted to be a wrestler since I was a kid, or I should say I wanted to be a "performer" or whatever you call us now. I got the opportunity to do that. I traveled the world. I had a bunch of fun. What more could I ask for? It was awesome. There's other opportunities out there. There's other avenues in life that I want to pursue. Now I can go into those other avenues. WWE gave me my first global platform, but it won't be my last. I will always be very proud of being associated with them.
You got a strong reaction from the moment you first appeared in WWE as the 'Intellectual Savior of the Unwashed Masses.' How did that character develop?
I had been in the developmental territory. I had been talking about different character ideas with people. At the time, NXT had just started to take shape. It was a very exciting time in developmental. As it started to take on a life of its own, there were a lot of people that were watching us down in Florida a lot closer. My one direction at that point was to do anything I could to stand out. It really was like freedom. So I took that freedom, and wondered, "OK, what if I stopped shaving? And then, what if I wore pink trunks?" It just kind of added upon itself. After the pink trunks got a reaction, it was Dusty Rhodes that suggested that I get a bathrobe like Lou Thesz used to wear, and wear it to the ring. And that robe was used to present the pink trunks. I would take the robe off, and people would see the pink trunks for the first time. They were aghast by it. It was so much fun.
It kind of just took on a life of its own. They gave me freedom to execute the character as I saw fit. I had my guidelines and stuff of course. And people were awesome in helping me. Triple H was awesome, Brian James was great. Mike Rotunda, he was very instrumental in helping me out. I'll always be grateful for his help in that. There were a lot of guys in WWE who helped me. I was also given a lot of freedom. And a lot of times, the way this business is, I needed that freedom to connect to the crowd.
You definitely connected, and about year into your run, you won the Money in the Bank briefcase. Did you think you were about to take that next big step then?
I absolutely did think I was going to take that big step. Of course, circumstances dictated otherwise and there's so much that goes into decisions, things that go way beyond what we as performers know about. When I had that match on Raw with Cena, I just went into it with the mindset that I was going to do the best I can. I'm going to give the performance of a lifetime. If you go back and you watch that cash-in, if you watch the "conversation" before and what we did in the ring, I did give that performance. I put everything I had into it. As a performer, I'm very proud of that.
As proud as you were of the moment, was there any disappointment that you didn't win the title?
You always ask "Why?" The one thing I learned, over time, is that there's a direction that you go, as a company. If the stream is moving one way, then you have to go in that direction. Whether that means you focus on certain characters, or a certain situation, then you have to follow it. If my future success wasn't foreseen – and I'm being completely honest here – and they had other things to focus on, then I understand it. It was up to me, as a performer, to capitalize on whatever time I had. Thus, the dressing up as someone new every week. Other guys said I should be doing something else. Well, you know what? I'm the only one that's dressing up as someone new every week, and getting attention. So let's go with it. I didn't know where or how it was going to end up, but I just wanted to hit a home run every week, and make them remember.
After several months of dressing up as different people, you finally found a consistent role as Miz's stunt double. What was your first thought when you were told about the idea?
Honestly, my first thought was, "Oh my god, I hope I don't have to pay for all the clothes that he buys." Luckily, we had the black coats, and that was the M.O. for a while [laughs]. No, really, I was wondering if this was going to be a one-time thing or if we were really going with this. After about two or three weeks, when they finally decided that we were going to be together, I really got to dig into it. From there, I remember we were on Raw, he fell down in the ring, and I had the notion, "Oh, what if I fell down." I did it, and then boom, off to the races.
So that part of the gimmick was all you, and improvised?
Yeah, that was completely on the whim. I would have never guessed that it would pick up the way it did. Kudos to Mike [Mizanin], because we worked together for a while. We looked at each other, and we didn't know what we had here, but we knew it was something. We would not rehearse at all. That was not a science. That was complete art. We would just go and see what would happen from week to week. We were just having a lot of fun.
At WrestleMania 31, the Andre the Giant Battle Royal was basically built around your character finally standing up to the Miz. What was that like for you to finally hit that crescendo of the storyline, and get the reception from a stadium full of people like that?
The way it was done, and the build to that, was awesome. The whole setup, him walking, me shaking my head, me shaking my head a second time, and then feeling the surge of 83,000 people chanting my name. In that moment, time stood still for me. When they were doing that for me, I really felt that my career was a success. There are guys that are in the main event that don't get cheers like that. That was a genuine, 100-percent real emotional response on a grand stage. To me, as a performer, there is no award you can win, no accolade, that can beat a genuine response from the fans. That moment is amongst my favorite memories in the WWE.
Having said that, with that crowd reaction, with what seemed like the company's support, what do you think about happened after?
The company was heading in a certain direction. With my success, even I didn't think it was going to take off like it did. From a writing standpoint, if the current is moving north, and I'm going east, then there's not much I can do. I just went in with the mindset of going out and executing the best I could with whatever was given to me.
Looking back, do you have any regrets about your time in WWE?
Look at the reaction I got this week, out of all the guys who were released. Look at the reaction I got from the crowd when I was there. It was because I put everything I had into my performance, and it always showed. I did in four years what it takes some people ten years to do. I took the audience through the whole spectrum of emotions in four years. If that's my legacy, as far as the WWE is concerned, I'm grateful, and I'm grateful for them for giving me the platform to do that. I had fun. I think the fans had a lot of fun.
WWE fans, they know their stuff. They know what's good. Do I have regrets? Absolutely not. I'm trying to think if there's one thing I would have done differently. Not really. I can't think of one. I maximized my time. I had a great time doing it. And it's presenting me with new opportunities that I'm going to look to take advantage of now.
So what are some of those opportunities?
After I got the call last week, I was actually looking forward to spending time at home for a while. But, as offers started coming in, I took select dates, because I wanted to say thank you to the fans. I want to meet them, and have a chance to talk to them. I wanted to go out and thank them, in my own way. My career is because of the fans. WWE gave me the platform, and I'm eternally grateful for the WWE, but I'm here because of the fans.
However, even as I was with WWE, I had questions come up of if I'd ever do anything on film or acting-wise. I was taken aback, because I'm a wrestler. It started coming from more than one person though. People started to talk to me about it, and I started asking questions about it. I started taking acting classes on my off-days, just to see what it would be all about. I found that acting, in terms of putting on the mask of a character, is different in a lot of ways then what I did, but it's also very similar. My passion started to be really character-based, figuring out what the details of playing different types of characters would be. It's definitely a craft, but it's a craft that I'm really committed to. Over the past year or so, I've been taking classes and reading and it's really interesting. I love it. There have been a couple of offers, however, I'm very lucky. I have a good team of people who know what they're doing. The first move is going to be crucial. It's all about sifting through and figuring out what works. I can promise you this though: I will put the same amount I put into my wrestling into whatever I do.
If you had a choice, would you be looking to do film, television, or even stage acting?
It's really funny you ask that. I was in town the other day, and ran into one of my friends, and he said, "I know people who are into Shakespeare." So on Monday, I'm going to start studying Shakespearean acting. Am I going to rule out doing Shakespeare? Absolutely not. It's about sharpening my sword as much as I can. As an actor, I want to be ready to do whatever comes my way. Right now, most of the offers have been in film. That is something that I've wanted to do. I'm kind of surprised at the offers I had. But it's all about making the smartest move. Right now the focus is film, but I want to learn as much as I can about acting.
Could you see yourself returning to wrestling on a full-time basis, whether that's in a company like TNA, ROH, Lucha Underground, or somewhere else?
When you say full-time, full-time in the WWE is very different than full-time elsewhere. I am not going to rule out anything. I don't want to limit myself. It's not like when I finish up my "Thank You Tour," I'm going to be burning my boots. It is an aspect of performance, and if I can use whatever avenue to perform. If the fans want it, and they're digging it, if it coincides with whatever project I decide to take, then I'm open to anything. It's a very exciting time, and I'm not opposed to performing in a wrestling ring. You never know.