Ask a professional wrestler to name the hardest part about being in the sport, and most of them will say that it’s the time spent away from their families. Traveling from city to city for weeks on end, they spend more time with other professional wrestlers than they do their own spouses and children. And somewhere along the line, in the time spent rooming together, working together, eating, training, and driving together, the wrestlers themselves start to consider each other like a big family. And when one of those family members needs help, well, they do that too. That’s exactly what happened last Sunday night at the “Fan Appreciation Night” held in honour of one of the sport’s legends, Sabu.

Some of wrestling’s biggest names came together for a benefit show to raise money for the hardcore icon to help him pay medical bills he incurred while fighting a bout with a mysterious illness for the past few months. Held at the Diamondback Saloon in Belleville, Michigan, the night — also Sabu’s 41st birthday — was truly memorable for everyone who attended, wrestlers and fans alike.

The building was packed with nearly 700 fans who braved the freezing temperatures and horrible traffic conditions to be at the building when the doors opened at 4 p.m., two hours before bell-time; the fact that hundreds of others had to be refused entry in order to not exceed building capacity illustrates how much people wanted to come out and show their support. Anyone who watches a televised wrestling show from Detroit would immediately recognize the one fan who always dresses like Hulk Hogan seated in the front row, and superfan Adam Swallow, who WWE viewers may remember from his enthusiastic “I love the Wrestle Vessel!” proclamation in a commercial from a few years back. A busload of fans came from Buffalo, in a trip organized by Chris Hill, promoter of the “Ballpark Brawl” events, the most recent of which featured Sabu’s last match before he was stricken with the virus. Other fans traveled from as far away as Ottawa and Washington, D.C. and even the United Kingdom in order to be at the show. It’s safe to say that every one of them felt afterwards like the trip was time well spent.

And why not? The night offered plenty in terms of entertainment value from the time the doors opened until the final bell was rung. During the two hours before the 6 p.m. bell-time, Jimmy Hart entertained the crowd with stories about his career and played master of ceremonies as fans collected autographs and pictures with all of the wrestlers who would be appearing later that night. In classic Hart style, he talked non-stop, tireless in his efforts, to urge people to help the cause by buying programs and pictures that had been donated by NWA-TNA, and raffle tickets for lots of wrestling memorabilia, including a WCW shirt signed by Scott Hall and Kevin Nash, a signed 2×4 signed by Hacksaw Jim Duggan, Insane Clown Posse hockey jerseys, and various wrestling video games and DVDs. All of the items were donated by fans and other well-wishers, in order that every dime could go to help Sabu. Hart later explained the energy that drove his enthusiasm was simply the love and respect he had for Sabu. “He’s one of the nicest guys I know,” Hart told SLAM! Wrestling. “In the wrasslin’ business, when someone’s down, you got to do what you can. If what I did helped him out even a little bit, then I could keep going all night.”

Hart’s attitude was shared equally by all of the wrestlers backstage. Hugs, handshakes, and smiles filled the locker room, and the atmosphere was a combination of excitement and camaraderie. In one corner, veterans Shane Douglas, Raven, and Mick Foley reunited for the first time in a long time, and swapped nostalgic memories about their past in-ring wars. Elsewhere, NWA-TNA stars Sharkboy, D-Ray 3000, Petey Williams and Abyss compared notes about the company’s last pay-per-view event. Big men Monty Brown and Border City Wrestling’s A-1 shared body-building tips near Jeff Hardy who listened in while putting on his green smear makeup. And in the adjacent room, the Insane Clown Posse exchanged views with one-legged wonder Zack Gowan on some upcoming wrestling DVD releases. All of them were there to aid their friend and brother, and because of that, they were committed on putting on the best show they possibly could. Or, as Scott D’Amore, one of the event’s main organizers, put it, “Everyone here is going to go out there and do everything they can to make this a really special night.”

Judging from the loud crowd reactions, they certainly succeeded. Most of the matches contained a tribute of some sort to Sabu, either by means of a pre-match promo or using one of his patented moves. The first such instance took place in the opening contest, which saw Sharkboy and D-Ray 3000 team up against the heelish Conrad Kennedy III and Eddie Venom. Sharkboy encouraged D-Ray to attempt Sabu’s triple-jump moonsault. The perpetually laid-back D-Ray did, but took a huge comic pratfall while climbing onto the chair; despite this setback, the heroes went on to win the match. Then, the big A-1 shocked D-Lo Brown to capture his first BCW Heavyweight championship. “Alpha Male” Monty Brown overcame interference from his monstrous nemesis Abyss in defeating Dallas with the pooounce! AJ Styles left Christopher Daniels not only defeated but also bleeding from a nasty knot in his head after their furiously fast and exciting matchup. Team Canada members Petey Williams and Johnny Devine used Coach D’Amore’s help to steal a victory over the pairing of “Cowboy” James Storm and BCW’s Gutter. The crowd’s reaction to hometown favourites the Insane Clown Posse and RudeBoy was downright scary. The Detroit fans were rabid for the ICP, who followed up many of their moves with Sabu’s familiar gesture of pointing up and looking towards the ceiling. The trio dispatched their opponents, Zack Gowan, Corporal Robinson and Bryer Wellington with a trio of moves off the top, including a moonsault by Violent J. In what many considered to be an upset, Michael Shane defeated the popular Jeff Hardy, whose high-flying, daredevil wrestling style can be traced back quite easily to Sabu’s matches of the past. Despite nailing Shane with a Sabu-style Arabian facebuster in this match, Hardy wasn’t able to defeat the young up-and-comer.

Before the main event, Jimmy Hart came back out to address the crowd and introduce the guest of honour. Sabu, clad in a tuxedo, running shoes, and his customary Arabian headgear, was given a lengthy standing ovation by the appreciative crowd, all chanting “Thank you, Sabu.” Visibly choked by this outpouring of emotion, Sabu uncharacteristically took the mic, and addressed the audience with a heartfelt “Thank you.”

The main event pitted Shane Douglas against Raven with Mick Foley acting as the guest referee. The crowd was completely amped for this one, and all three were given huge ovations. They each spoke before the match, and explained their reason for attending.

Foley addressed the crowd first. “In this business, there’s a lot of people who’ve taken and taken and taken, and never given back. We’re here to honor a guy who’s given and given and given, and never got back what he should have. There are times when I’m happy to be a wrestler, and there are other times where I’m flat out proud to be a wrestler. And this is one of those nights. Sabu, thank you for everything.”

Douglas echoed his comments, noting that he was honored to be part of the evening to help out a friend and colleague who, along with Douglas, was one of the pillars of Extreme Championship Wrestling, the company where Sabu established himself as a North American household name. “(ECW) was a company built on one man’s shoulders,” said Douglas. “And that man’s name is Sabu.”

Raven went against the grain by cutting a heel promo before the match, noting that the only reason he showed up was to see if Sabu was well enough for Raven to beat up. “I don’t like (Sabu), I never have, I don’t like charity shows, I don’t like Christmas, and you people suck. Look at the man, he can’t get up, he’s an embarrassment, he’s pathetic.” After hurling further insults towards Douglas, Foley, and Sabu, Raven tried to leave the building, returning to the ring only when teased by Foley about the lame Johnny Polo persona he went by in the WWF before he came to be known as Raven in ECW.

The match was a hilarious affair, as Raven and Foley exchanged barbs during the entire contest. The end came shortly after Raven knocked down Foley. Sabu entered the ring, took out Mr. Socko, and stuffed his sock-clod fingers down Raven’s gullet. He and Shane double-teamed Raven and threw him through a table, leaving him prone for Douglas to cover. A three-count by Foley, and the match was over. After the match, Raven revealed a bit of a softer side, by admitting that he didn’t hate Sabu after all but that in his view the fans still sucked. This match was a definite highlight of the event, which is planned for commercial release on DVD at some point in the future with ECW commentators Joey Styles and Don “Cyrus” Callis, again with proceeds going towards helping Sabu.

After the show, Foley stayed ringside to sign more autographs and pose for more pictures with every fan that wanted one. As he told SLAM! Wrestling afterwards, taking the time to do this was, he felt, the least he could do. “Sabu is one of my favourite opponents,” Foley said. “Our relationship was based on a mutual trust and respect in the ring. When I heard he was in trouble and there was a way to help, I jumped at the opportunity. I wanted him to know that the guys care, and I care.”

Like he would, say, for a family member? “(The wrestling business is like) a family. A great big dysfunctional family,” he joked. “But we are a family.”