One for the Road: Toasting the legacy of the Road Warriors
Like Jerry Lawler, most of my childhood interests were intertwined, with each indirectly leading to or affecting the other, and ultimately, guiding us both to professional wrestling. Comic books were my first love, The Amazing Spider-Man, in particular; I was mesmerized as Web-Head battled his colorful heels gallery, including the Green Goblin, the Lizard, Kraven the Hunter, Mysterio, Dr. Octopus and, yes, even the Hypno Hustler, who had the ability to hypnotize victims at discos with the the musical stylings of his guitar and backup band, The Mercy Killers. (This was the ’70s after all.) My fascination with larger-than-life superheroes led me to purchasing my first rock album: KISS’ “Destroyer.”
I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw that album cover at the Kmart on Summer Avenue in Memphis: here were superheroes who could sing and play electric guitar. No wonder Gene Simmons was my favorite, as he could also spit blood and blow fire, which should have made him a legit candidate for the X-Men. I recall that my mother wasn’t enthusiastic when she found the album as she was certain that the art depicted the band dancing in hell, the devil’s playground. Being a quick-thinking lad who had listened to the first track repeatedly, I assured her that it wasn’t hell but Detroit...as in Rock City. (Granted, most people who have visited Detroit would argue the differences are negligible.)
Given my different interests, I couldn’t have picked a better place to be a pro wrestling fan, as Spider-Man, The Kisser (Danny Davis dressed up as Gene Simmons) and Darth Vader all took time out of their busy schedules in the ’70s to wrestle in Memphis. Looking back, whenever these characters made an appearance, it was almost assuredly a sign that Jerry Lawler had taken the reins of the booking duties away from Jerry Jarrett. (The two Tennessee stars traded booking duties every six months to keep things fresh.) Lawler today claims the boys always knew when Jarrett was back in control when they saw their payoffs shrink, something the longtime Memphis promoter denies.
In that same vein, I was awestruck the first time I saw The Road Warriors on WTBS. By that time, the Roadies’ gimmick had already evolved from two guys appearing fresh from a leather bar to post-apocalyptic madmen complete with face paint and Mohawks.
Looking like KISS on Hulk Hogan vitamins (though not likely saying many prayers), Hawk (Michael Hegstrand) and Animal (Joe Laurinatis) pounded (some might say potatoed) their way into my imagination as wrestling’s most dominant tag team. Not surprisingly, Jerry Lawler (also a huge KISS fan) fell in love with the guys, building them up for months in the area wrestling programs, warning fans that the Road Warriors were indeed making their way to Memphis. (Lawler would eventually go as far as creating his own Memphis version of the gimmick in 1984, Road Warrior Humongous, who was Mike “the Mule” Stark under a hockey mask.)
I was so taken with the Warriors when I was 15 that I awarded Hawk the No. 1 slot in his “Top-10 Best Conditioned Wrestlers,” a list that was published in THE WRESTLER and PRO WRESTLING ILLUSTRATED. (The Apter mags had been encouraging fans to send in their unofficial rankings to publish along with their usual “Official Wrestler Ratings,” for which I believe they drew names out of a hat.) I also included my “Top-10 Worst Conditioned Wrestlers,” with Dusty Rhodes beating out Abdullah the Butcher, The One Man Gang and Kamala for top honors. (I have no idea how I arrived at those rankings, as Dusty at least wrestled dozens of one-hour Broadways.) Ironically enough, I believe that the Worst Conditioned list at this point has a better mortality rate than my Best Conditioned, with Uncle Elmer (Stan “Plowboy” Frazier) the only one expired on the Worst list. The late Rick Rude, a buddy of Hawk’s from Minnesota, was also on my Best list, along with the late Kerry Von Erich.
Meanwhile, The Roadies were devouring teams on the SuperStation and not just jobbers like Mike Jackson (a school teacher from Alabama and one of my all-time fave job guys) and Randy Barber (a classic jabroni name). Hawk and Animal (for a time referred to as “Road Warrior No. 1” and “Road Warrior No. 2” by announcer Gordon Solie) were dominating established area stars like Mr. Wrestling I and II (legendary figures), Jack and Jerry Brisco, and Tommy Rich and Pez Whatley. They were also hitting their stride as personalities. In a promo leading up to the clash with Wrestling I and II, Hawk threatened, “We’ll rip your masks off Warrior-style–with your heads still in them!”
In part, they were booked in short, one-sided matches out of desperation by Ole Anderson, who paired up the two muscle-bound students of Minnesota-based trainer Eddie Sharkey in hopes of creating two new stars to boost the promotion’s waning popularity. Anderson’s formula of instructing Hawk and Animal to pound their foes into submission without selling their opponents’ offense did indeed make them stars, and did so without exposing them for the sloppy greenhorns that they initially were.
The Warriors were also given a manager, “Precious” Paul Ellering, who was a nice contrast to the two, always carrying around a copy of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL at ringside. The Roadies fired him on cable TV before eventually realigning themselves with Ellering, also a Minnesota native, who legit took on a lot of their business and travel affairs, like a real manager would.
Ellering also managed King Kong Bundy, Jake Roberts and The Spoiler . The entire stable, which included the Warriors, was known as The Legion of Doom, a name taken from the crew of super villains on the ABC cartoon “CHALLENGE OF THE SUPERFRIENDS.”
Incidentally, for the record, no matter what a future Lawler DVD might claim, I only served an on-air role for the King. I never once made travel arrangements, scouted opponents, made runs to KFC, perused female personal ads or lined up tee times. More on that later.
The dastardly duo finally arrived in Memphis in December 1983 for a big card at the Mid-South Coliseum, which also included the first-ever bout between Jerry Lawler and longtime ICW-outlaw rival Randy “Macho Man” Savage. Aware of the Fabs’ amazing popularity in the area (and the potential for money-making rematches). the Roadies didn’t annihilate Stan and Steve, selling more than usual after initially dominating the bout with their usual repertoire of kicks, punches and overhead bench-press slams. The Fabs and the Roadies battled to a double countout and would later meet in a few more inconclusive matches at the Coliseum.
Hawk and Animal were less than understanding a year and a half later when Verne Gagne asked them to drop the AWA belts to the Fabs. Their response: “Hmmm, how about instead we just beat the hell out of them?” And that’s what they did, leading to a no-contest. It was probably the right call, as it’s my understanding the fans were booing the Fabs out of the building during their matches with the Roadies in Minnesota. Amazingly enough, Hawk and Animal did drop the belts to Jimmy Garvin and Steve Regal (no, not WWE’s Steven Regal) on their way out to Jim Crockett Promotions. Before that, they also dropped their National tag titles to Ron Garvin and Jerry Oates on their way to Verne, which is laughable. Can’t imagine the Georgia fans–or anyone for that matter–buying that. But I’m getting ahead of myself here.
Lawler had bigger plans for the Roadies in Memphis, namely a feud with the King and Austin Idol. Hawk later reportedly always thanked Lawler for the buildup they received in Memphis, especially the fact that Lawler set up the spot in which Hawk no-sold the piledriver in front of a stunned Coliseum crowd, which I detailed in my last post. Again, you have to understand how over the piledriver was in Memphis. It was the only hold “barred” in the state of Tennessee, so in the fans’ eyes it was nearly as lethal as a handgun. Thankfully, I didn’t break my buddy Robbie Jewell’s neck when I piledrove him in the 6th grade. Likewise, Animal and Hawk showed that same respect, selling Lawler’s punches like crazy after the King pulled down the strap in his comeback.
Lawler and Idol were even allowed a pinfall over the Roadies, albeit in bullshit fashion, with Lawler rolling up Animal on a restart and ref Jerry Calhoun counting a little fast, a Mid-South Coliseum match that later aired on the SuperStation to build up rematches in Atlanta and in parts of Ohio. Funny: In their bouts with Lawler and Idol, the Roadies would take turns pressing them over their heads, while the crowd chanted “De-Fense!” repeatedly, which was a popular chant at Memphis State University basketball games. The chant may have been started by MSU players, who were in attendance at one of the matches between the two teams in July 1984, along with future heel-manager great Scott Bowden.
Although other promoters (including Ole) would try to copy that formula by taking two oversized nobodies and pushing them to the moon despite their inexperience (Kevin Nash as part of the Master Blasters immediately comes to mind), the gimmicks rarely got over with fans. Hawk and Animal were innovators, the originals, and the fans believed in them because they worked the gimmick to perfection. The two evolved into capable workers, able to have great matches when booked with the right opponents. And their promos were always intense, with Animal barking vows of punishment, while Hawk added his own twisted brand of comedy, with the catchphrase “Ooooohhh, whattttaaa ruuushh!” becoming a staple of their gimmick, right along with their “Iron Man” theme by Black Sabbath. (Later, a knock-off theme had to be used to avoid a copyright grudge bout with Ozzy and the boys.)
Some even say Hawk hard-lived the gimmick, resigning himself to the fact that he was going to die young anyway from the years of substance abuse on his body–a self-fulfilling prophecy if there ever was one. Sadly, a couple of years after cleaning up his life, Hawk died in his sleep October 19, 2003, following a day of moving heavy furniture into his new house in Florida. He was 46.
The two longtime friends had one of the most (if not the most) celebrated tag-team careers in history, winning the World championships of the AWA, the NWA and WWE–the only duo to accomplish this feat. Their influence on the business cannot be disputed, though opinions differ on whether or not it was a positive one, what with the glut of untalented, over-pushed imitators who followed Hawk and Animal.
Their legacy lives on in today. The WWE’s DVD release in 2005, ROAD WARRIORS, THE LIFE AND DEATH OF THE MOST DOMINANT TAG TEAM IN WRESTLING HISTORY, chronicled the rise and fall of the two childhood friends. Hawk and Animal have been immortalized in the form of Jakks’ action figures as part of the Classic Superstars line, and they will be included in the first set of Legends figures from Mattel available this fall. (Interesting that despite being “WWE Legends,” the Mattel figures depict the team from their NWA days and their packaging reads “Road Warrior Animal” and “Road Warrior Hawk.” Only in death, Hawk receives billing as a Road Warrior by Vince McMahon’s machine, as for years the two were billed as the Legion of Doom in Titanland to avoid confusion with The Ultimate Warrior, one of McMahon’s knockoffs of their gimmick, along with Axe and Smash, a.k.a. Demolition.
Better late than never, I suppose, as Hawk and Animal are the only true Warriors in the business in the eyes of old marks like me.