"Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary, Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore..." Edgar Allen Poe's "The Raven"
At its core, professional wrestling is about characters. The best wrestlers are well-defined, larger-than-life personalities who know how to toy with the emotions of the fans. These performers blur the line between what's real and what's fake. Between life and art. For some, that line doesn't even exist.
20-plus years later, it's still impossible to tell where Scott Levy begins, and Raven ends.
Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter, In there stepped a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore
In 1994, Scott Levy, who would later evolve into the brooding, sociopathic Raven, worked for Vince McMahon and WWE as an arrogant pretty boy known as Johnny Polo. Although he hated the character, Levy wasn't about to voice his grievances to one of the most powerful figures in the history of professional wrestling after just five years in the business. Levy was not only an in-ring performer, but doubled as the Associate Producer of Monday Night Raw.
"It's so boring. So incredibly boring," Levy said of his behind-the-scenes duties. "I'd call the office at about 10 AM and say I'm going out to the studio and then I'd call the studio and say I'm going to the office. And then I'd go to bed and sleep until about 2 o'clock and then I'd finally go to the office for an hour, go to the studio for an hour and then I would go get drunk."
Levy was forced to hide his true self to satisfy the corporate WWE.
"WWE made me Johnny Polo, which I never wanted to be," Levy said. "I never felt like I fit the character just because the way my vocal patterns are -- sounds nothing like an upper Greenwich, Connecticut-type person. It sounds like a Philadelphia, south Philly kind of guy. It's funny, Vince McMahon said to me when he let me go he goes, 'you really aren't Johnny Polo. It's kind of a disconnect because you dress one way and when you leave the office, you dress a completely different way. You talk differently. You're really not Johnny Polo.' And I'm like, 'I know, I never thought I was.'"
Levy needed a character overhaul with the times quickly changing in the mid-to-late 90s. Fans were no longer into clean-cut, morally-shaped characters. Some advice from a close friend steered him in the right direction.
"I didn't want to necessarily be a badass because there's so many badasses in the business, but [Diamond Dallas Page] talked me into it," Levy said. "[He] said, 'if you want to be a chickensh** heel, you're not gonna be booked. Nobody's buying that character anymore. You gotta be something different. You gotta be tougher.' And I'm like, 'alright, I'll be the character that I actually am inside. The tortured soul."
Presently my soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer
Levy's "tortured soul" spawned the character that defined him, Raven -- a narcissistic loner dressed in concert t-shirts, ripped jeans, and a leather jacket. He used the experiences from his damaged childhood as bullets against his opponents while begging for sympathy from fans. The Raven character identified with the ever-changing culture of the 90s.
"Raven was a tortured, poetic soul. I patterned him after Robert Plant if Robert Plant had childhood baggage," Raven said. "I patterned him after Jim Morrison. These are timely characters.
"He was something the fans could identify with. Whether they approved of it or not is a whole other matter. I caught the wave of the grunge era. I tapped into a part of America that people either love or they hate. When I was being a villain, I always made sure that people understood my motives. I made sure that it got a visceral reaction. My outfit was a whole new look nobody had really done before. My style of promo was unique in that no one had done before. The whole misfit culture was starting to become part of mainstream. So I caught the zeitgeist."
Raven's rage-against-the-machine mantra and cool vibe made him a natural fit with the upstart ECW and its creative mastermind Paul Heyman. The two innovative thinkers immediately hit it off.
"I loved the Raven character," Paul Heyman said in 2004's "The Rise and Fall of ECW'. "The Raven character motivated me. It inspired me to be more creative. He could do anything that I imagined and I had a performer that would grasp it and embrace it and have a passion for it the likes of which I'd never seen before and may never see again."
"Paul E. was such an amazing creator," Raven said. "He was so creative. He was so brilliant. His psychology was unparalleled. He was also smart enough to know if someone has a better idea I'll take my ego out of it and I'll let their idea play out. He was always willing to do that."
There was nothing Raven wouldn't do to build heat with the notoriously tough ECW fans. Raven's psychology towards his angles was unheard of at the time. Although ECW was known for its hardcore wrestling and physical violence, the only weapon Raven needed was a microphone.
"I was able to be in angles where I used psychological warfare, which is always more intriguing than physical warfare," Raven said. "If I wanted to make you mad, I could beat you up. You'd be in pain, but you'd get over it. But if I took your girlfriend, that's an emotional pain and that is so much harder to deal with. I always caused emotional pain and emotional damage to my opponents and most people didn't do that."
Raven was the catalyst of some of the most controversial angles in ECW's history, none more so than during his rivalry with The Sandman in 1996. The Sandman, an over-the-top caricature of the everyman persona who came out to Metallica's "Enter Sandman" while violently pounding down beers, was one of ECW's most beloved stars. And Raven was the perfect foil. In a storyline more fit for a soap opera than a wrestling ring, Raven turned The Sandman's ex-wife and seven-year old son against him in an emotional blood feud. The angle went as far as Sandman's son claiming he "worships" Raven.
"The angle where I stole Sandman's son was one of my all-time favorite angles," Raven said. "When I took the Sandman's kid, everybody could identify with the estranged wife using a kid as leverage to get back at the husband. It's despicable. Nobody should ever use a kid in that way, but we did."
As if the feud hadn't already gone far enough, Raven took it a step further when he crucified The Sandman using a wooden cross tied to the ring ropes. Many of the fans in attendance and performers backstage -- including Kurt Angle, who was considering joining ECW at the time -- took offense to Raven's actions. Heyman forced Raven to apologize, something no one had ever done before or after at ECW.
Raven and The Sandman were too extreme, even for ECW.
"The best thing I ever did was my feud with Sandman," Raven said. "Paul E. gave me all the leeway I needed. I just touched a nerve in society that they'd rather disavow. I also understand how my behavior would garner a reaction, which is psychology. I don't think most people had the level of psychology that I did. I was able to garner the right reaction at the right time as opposed to just a reaction for reaction's sake."
Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing, Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before
Raven used his success as a two-time ECW world champion to strike a deal with WCW in 1997 -- a time when Eric Bischoff's company was winning the ratings war against rival WWE. Though he experienced some success at WCW as the leader of the Raven's Flock, Raven quickly realized that Bischoff didn't know how to utilize his character as effectively as Heyman had at ECW. Raven's frustrations towards Bischoff culminated in an infamous locker room meeting in 1999.
"So [Bischoff] starts the meeting and the first words out of his mouth are, 'Scott,' and I thought, 'oh, well he's directing this comment at me because my real name's Scott Levy," Raven said. "He goes, 'Scott Cunningham,' who's our attorney. So I'm like, 'oh, I guess he's not talking about me.' So he goes, 'Scott Cunningham is our attorney and he's authorized me to say Raven, if you're unhappy with the company there's the door.' I'm like, 'he was talking about me'. I go, 'alright, I guess I'm gone then.'"
Raven met with Bischoff at a bar later that night to clear the air. Raven was hoping to sign with WWE, but Bischoff pointed out that a non-compete clause in his contract prevented him from doing so. Bischoff tried to convince Raven to stay, but the wrestler's mind was already made up. Shortly afterwards, he signed on to return to ECW.
"I really wish I would've stayed. That's one of my regrets," Raven said. "I didn't stay because the idea he told me did nothing for me. I was gonna lose stock as a character, so I didn't but I wish I would've [stayed] because the way things worked out with [Vince] Russo coming in six months later and Russo being a huge fan of mine, I probably would've been in the world title mix. I know I would've got way, way more money on my contract on my next deal because it was a year from being up, so I would've probably doubled what I was already making. So it really was a stupid idea of me to go, but I wasn't having fun. It's still a huge regret."
By the time Raven returned to ECW, the company was on its last legs. ECW would close its doors a year later, giving Raven the opportunity to return to WWE for the first time since his days as Johnny Polo.
Raven's three-year run at WWE was full of many of the same frustrations he experienced during his brief stint at WCW. Although Raven is recognized as the most decorated champion in WWE history, his title runs were inflated by a record 27-reigns as the Hardcore champion (his longest run was 31 days, with the majority of his reigns lasting only a matter of minutes).
Raven failed to have the longevity of many of his ECW peers, like Rob Van Dam, the Dudley Boyz, and Rhyno. While these and other "ECW Originals" have made sporadic appearances for WWE at events such as ECW One Night Stand or Royal Rumble, Raven hasn't returned to WWE since his departure in 2003. Although his keen mind for the business makes him a viable candidate for a behind-the-scenes role with WWE, Raven has turned down such opportunities "at least three or four times" in the past -- and would do it again if offered a position today.
"No, I wouldn't take it," Raven said. "Here's the problem-- creative you're just a cog. The problem is you create great ideas and then you don't get to see them come to fruition. That's so taxing to me emotionally because you get so involved in the characters. So that would suck. As far as being a backstage agent, I don't have any interest in that because I'm not using my creativity in any really strong way. You're just an agent, so that wouldn't interest me. It's a whole different world now. The old days I would've definitely been a booker somewhere, but now it's a 24-hour, 7-day a week job. I have no interest in being on the road that much because after 30 years of being on the road I'm happy at home."
Quoth the Raven "Nevermore"
Raven now spends his time doing what the Raven character did best: talking. He is the host of "the Raven Effect" podcast on Chris Jericho's Podcast One network. Raven's jovial personality on the show is drastically different from the cerebral persona that popularized the character during his in-ring days. He's discovered a side of himself he never knew existed.
Still, the Raven character will always be inside Scott Levy.
"The person you hear in the podcast, the frivolous, nonchalant, nonsensical, ridiculous, bantering goofy bastard, that's me too," Raven said. "But that's also a wall I put up to protect the internal me, the part I created Raven from-- the 5-year old in me who never felt like he got enough love or attention. That's where Raven comes from and part of me-- 4 1/2 decades later-- is still trying to protect my fragile 5-year old self."