Legendary Hall of Famer Road Warrior Animal prepares for Great North Wrestling in Brockville, Ontario

During the lead-up to WWE Raw’s 1000th episode back in 2012, Heath Slater was taking on a series of legendary former WWE stars in (with the exception of Doink) a series of squash matches.

After the likes of Vader, Rikishi, Bob Backlund and DDP pounded some respect into the upstart, the final surprise star came out on an episode of Smackdown just before the anniversary show. As soon as the familiar growl of ‘AAAAA What Ruuuush’ blasted through the arena, viewers experienced what has simply become known as the ‘Road Warrior Pop’ – as the imposing figure of Animal strode out through the curtain to a rapturous welcome.

One half of the legendary Road Warriors – or Legion of Doom – as they were billed in the WWF/E Animal, aka Joe Laurinaitis, proceeded to dismantle Slater and remind fans of all ages as to the impact, the charisma and swath of devastation that he and his partner Hawk (the late Michael Hegstrand, who died in 2003) wrought throughout the entire wrestling industry from their inception in the early 1980s.

On Aug. 14, fans in Brockville, Ontario will have a chance to experience that same Road Warrior Pop as Road Warrior Animal makes a special appearance at the Great North Wrestling show at the Brockville Memorial Centre, acting as the guest referee for the main event. That match will see GNW Heavyweight Champion Hannibal ‘The Death Dealer’ take on his hated rival, ‘The Giant’ Darko.

“I’m really excited to be coming there. Fans in Canada have been great to the Road Warriors. I will be bringing my spiked shoulder pads that I wore for Summerslam at Wembley Stadium (in 1992) – the bright gold ones – and fans can put them on for a picture. It’s great fun for the kids especially. I would love for there to be a Road Warrior Animal contest and have the fans in Brockville dress up the Road Warriors,” said Laurinaitis in a recent interview.

“The fans and the wrestlers up there were brought up appreciating more wrestling and less talking. And I remember when the Road Warriors were in the AWA and we did a show on TSN and it was filmed in Winnipeg and distributed all over the place. It was a lot of fun, and the Canadian fans are phenomenal. I have had great times in Ottawa, Vancouver, Toronto, Calgary, Winnipeg, Saskatoon – I even remember going all the way up to Val D’Or in northern Quebec. I think Hawk and I have performed in every province in Canada. Some of the greatest fans in wrestling are up there.”Hero-Envy-Road+Warriors-Legion+of+Doom5.jpg

Although billed from Chicago throughout his career, Laurinaitis was actually born in Philadelphia in 1960, moving to Chicago briefly as a child (where met Hegstrand) and then both families moved to Minneapolis. As a young man obsessed with power lifting, Laurinaitis cut a big, intimidating figure and was subsequently hired as a bouncer. He, Hegstrand and two others – Richard Rood (Ravishing Rick Rude) and Barry Darsow (Krusher Kruschev, Repo Man, Smash of Demolition) were all recruited together and trained as wrestlers by Eddie Sharkey.

Making his debut in 1982, Laurinaitis was actually billed as a singles wrestler for the first few months, until Hegstrand and Rude were brought into that same territory in 1983.

“Ole Anderson and Bill Watts brought us down to Georgia and put us together with [long-time manager] Paul Ellering. Ole had this idea after watching the Mel Gibson Road Warrior movie and said, “I want to call you the Road Warriors.’ That made sense in a lot of ways because we were always on the road. We were always travelling working about 300 days a year. And we already had that persona and personality in and out of the ring,” he explained.

“We developed our style on our own. Nobody told us what to say in an interview, nobody told us how to get our gimmick over, we were just like that. And it wasn’t long after that we were in Columbus, Ohio at a Red Roof hotel and we were getting ready to head out and the Superfriends cartoon was on. And I heard the guy say, ‘meanwhile, back at the Legion of Doom,’ and I looked at Hawk and Ellering and I said, ‘we have got to call ourselves the Legion of Doom.’ So that’s how it happened.”

The Road Warriors style was ferocious, aggressive, high-impact and thrilling. The duo would storm the ring, even before the bell rang, raining heavy blows down up their opponents in a manner that had not really been seen before. First with a biker look, and then with the face paint, Mohawks and more apocalyptic attire – including the ubiquitous spiked shoulder pads – Hawk and Animal were revolutionary in their approach, their gimmick and for their unrivalled popularity.

“The bookers just told us to go out there and they told the guys that we were wrestling that we were going to be a little rough with them. We were told to take control of the match and that’s what we did. We didn’t hit anyone in the mouth or in the privates so we kept it above board, while still being aggressive. I think deep down inside wrestling fans have always wanted to see that style,” Laurinaitis said, explaining that much like Steve Austin in the late 1990s, they were too cool to hate, even when they were booked as heels.

“We started as heels but as soon as we started wrestling Ivan and Nikita Koloff in the NWA at the end of the Cold War, we were red, white and blue babyfaces, but we never changed a thing. We kept our interviews the same. We still told people we were going to kick your teeth down your throat. Very seldom do you have two guys that were built like Hawk and I who could move around like we could. We were so far ahead of our time in that sense. And the NWA, AWA and WCW thrived on tag teams. Back in those days Hawk and I were in main events and selling out everywhere in tag team action. You never see that any more.

“I think being so raw when we first started helped us. And we just kept that particular style with power slams and press slams, flying tackles and clotheslines – even the Doomsday Device wasn’t that complicated, but it had impact. You didn’t see us doing hip tosses very much, or arm drags or sunset flips, even though we could do them because we had to do that over in Japan.”

One of the reasons the Road Warriors maintained their elevated status as bona fide superstars and top draws in professional wrestling was that they never allowed themselves to get stale in any promotion. Besides various territories in the former NWA, as well as the AWA, WCW and WWF/E, the LOD has worked for All Japan, New Japan, TNA and more.

Even though the team moved around a lot, they still managed a good haul of championships along the way, including the AWA tag team title, NWA Mid-Atlantic tag team title, three time WWF/E tag team champions and various regional titles, as well as the inaugural Jim Crockett Sr. Memorial Cup in 1986.

“We knew not to get burned out in areas. And there were a lot more places to go at the time. You could go wrestle in Canada for June, July and August let’s say, and then 20 weeks out of the year we could go to Japan and disappear for a while. When we came back we may have a little different look. We started with the spiked vests and then we changed to spiked shoulder pads in black. When we went to the WWF [in 1990] we went with red spiked shoulder pads and red boots. We even went to black and blue colours for a while. Then we would leave again and go somewhere else,” Laurinaitis explained, adding that he and Hawk were committed to ensuring fans got their money’s worth from every LOD match

“When Hawk’s voice and that music played, it was like a total eruption fans knew, holy s*** there’s going to be some ass kicking right now. We always thrived on giving the fans what they paid for. That was our goal. Hawk and Animal were a product of the streets; we know how hard the fans have to work for those tickets. Mom and dad are taking their three kids to a wrestling match and its $150 or more, so knew how stressful that was on their pocketbook so Hawk and I always made it our motto to give the fans what they paid to see.”

A list of favourite tag team adversaries for Laurinaitis reads like a who’s who of grappling history.

“When we wrestled the Midnight Express [the Condrey and Eaton version] we always knew it was going to be a good match. Ivan and Nikita were easy to work with, as were Kruschev and Nikita. And the Four Horsemen, in whatever configuration were phenomenal. We did many six-mans with Tully Blanchard, Arn Anderson and Ric Flair with Dusty Rhodes on our team they were always great matches,” he said.

“When we first started out we were often matched up with Wildfire Tommy Rich and Ronnie Garvin and they were the hot team at the time. And up in Canada it was always great to wrestle with Dino Bravo and Rick Martel as well as the Rougeaus.”

The LODs time in the WWE was successful and brought the team to a much bigger audience then they had been exposed to before, but there were some parts of their various runs in that federation which still make Laurinaitis wince … with their ventriloquist dummy mascot, Rocco, which was imposed upon them in a little over a year into their first WWF run at the time of the list.

The Legion of Doom finds their "mascot" Rocco

The Legion of Doom finds their “mascot” Rocco

“I hated it. It was the dumbest thing ever. They were trying to soften us up somehow, make us look like we might be vulnerable. You’ve got to understand, we had been in the wrestling business for almost 12 years and nobody could have believed that anybody could beat us. You could have put us against Hulk Hogan and the Ultimate Warrior and, with our reputation, there was no way anyone could believe they could beat us,” he said.

“So they were looking for an Achilles heel, what makes these guys tick, what would soften our image? How about a doll mascot? And I think they also figured since we had sold so many action figures and t-shirts and foam rubber shoulder pads, if we had a wrestling buddy type Rocco figure, maybe the kids would buy it too. It turned out that it got over like a fart in church, you know what I mean? People hated that doll more than we did.

“We did go with it, but you know after that freakin’ SummerSlam in Wembley in 1992 {which saw Hawk and Animal defeat Ted Dibiase and IRS] that friggin’ doll disappeared. It got ‘lost’ purposefully by the airline. We didn’t want that doll. Ellering’s got Rocco by the way, but we still tell everybody that he got lost.”

When prodded, Laurinaitis wonders of it wasn’t simply a case of McMahon wanting to knock the Road Warriors down a peg or two. It has been both covertly and overtly said over the years that the Genetic Jackhammer felt threatened by wrestlers or teams that were not of his creation, and that even though he knew they were ‘money’ and brought them in, always tried to diffuse or even sabotage their previous reputations.

“I do think there was some kind of animosity there for guys who are already established and who had their own entity built up before they go into the WWF/WWE. Rocco might have been part of that for us and I think Ric Flair went through a similar thing in the early 1990s. You just saw what they did to Sting at Wrestlemania, which is a total atrocity as far as I am concerned. But hey, that’s the way it is. I called that before it happened, because I just know how they operate,” he said, adding that he had already known of McMahon’s vindictiveness when he, Hawk and Ellering first spurned the WWE chairman back in 1988.

“We get called up to Vince’s house in Greenwich and talked about it. But we had guaranteed contracts with the NWA at the time and Vince wouldn’t guarantee any money, he said he would guarantee the opportunity. And I said, ‘well opportunity doesn’t pay the bills. I have guaranteed money here so I am going to stay with the NWA.’ And we did, and Crockett treated us well. And it wasn’t a month or two later that Demolition was born – obviously a copycat. Here’s the thing, Barry and Bill are good friends of mine, but there is a big difference between Demolition and the Road Warriors. With Demolition you have two wrestlers portraying tough guys whereas with the Road Warriors you had two tough guys – bouncers essentially – trying to wrestle.”

Hawk/Hegstrand had issues with substance abuse throughout the 1990s, but he was clean and sober when the LOD returned to the WWE as surprise challengers to Kane and X-Pac, but did on Oct. 19 in the same manner as Rowdy Roddy Piper, from a sudden heart attack during his sleep.

Laurinaitis said that he and Hegstrand were also not happy with the way Vince McMahon used a ‘Hawk battling his demons’ angle in 1998, which the two got so fed up with, it hastened yet another departure from the promotion.

“With the Rocco thing, we did it because we were trying to be good businessmen and do it for the business and because that’s what we were told to do. You do stuff like Hawk’s big drunk angle, with him falling off the top of the Titantron, because you want to be a good businessman. And it was the same when I came back in 2005 and worked with Heidenreich and reformed the Legion of Doom. But I am glad it didn’t work out because the way the WWE played it was a total annihilation of what Hawk and I were about. I was glad they fired him because he didn’t have any respect for the gimmick or the business. Here’s a guy who grew up a fan of the Road Warriors and you give him the golden spoon. But when that happened it put a lot of pressure on him and he couldn’t handle it. When you operate under the name the Legion of Doom there’s a lot of pressure on you to draw big money for tag teams. The WWE tried and I tried but it didn’t work out, and that’s one of the reasons I stopped. Plus it never felt right without my brother Hawk, God rest his soul,” he said.dusty_rhodes

This interview was conducted before the sudden death of Roddy Piper, but after that of Dusty Rhodes, a long-time friend and former tag-team partner.

“Ah man, when Dusty passed away it broke my heart. Dusty was very instrumental in our success and helped the Road Warriors become the Road Warriors. He was the booker at the time in the NWA and he knew to put us against the Four Horsemen and that we would succeed and become hugely popular. It’s all about putting butts into seats and that’s one thing Hawk and I could do no matter where we would go, whether it was up in Oregon or for Dusty or working for Stu Hart in Calgary,” he said.

“And Dusty knew that. I saw Dusty during the last Wrestlemania and he looked great. He had dumped a bunch of weight so it was a real shock when he passed. He was a hell of a guy and he will be sorely missed. This business doesn’t realize what it just lost because you need to have guys like that around to pass on their wisdom and to train the next generation.”

Besides sporadic wrestling-related appearances, Laurinaitis is involved in the new Las Vegas-based Classic Wrestling Revolution as a coach and member of the creative team – the same organization had also signed Piper to a deal to work in a similar capacity. Other legends involved include Terry Funk, Vader, Magnum TA, and Hacksaw Jim Duggan.

“They are going back to the late 1970s and early 1980s style of wrestling and let the guys build their own brand and not so much build the company brand. With the WWE, it’s all about the brand and they really don’t care about the guy within the band. And that’s understandable because it’s a publically traded company. But this new company is the first that gives guys not only guaranteed contracts, but health, medical, dental and vision coverage, profit sharing, pension plan – the whole works,” he explained.

“So it’s a revolutionary thing and it’s a great thing for the business and it’s about time something like this happened. It’s exciting that there’s a new place, not only for us as coaches and part of the creative, but as a place for guys to go perform. It seems if you don’t go through Tough Enough or you don’t get invited to WWEs camp, you won’t get a chance to make it in wrestling. We’re giving guys and girls a chance to do something they love. It’s a cool deal, man.”

While he said he would love to still compete but wouldn’t be the same without Hawk, although he did float the idea that doing a six-man tag match with Demolition (Darsow and Bill Eadie) for some indie shows might be fun.

He also said he is a little disappointed (although he is not losing any sleep over it) that he has not been approached to participate in some of the activities at the WWEs new Performance Centre or as a coach or judge on Tough Enough, or even a guest GM on Raw or Smackdown.

“I have never burnt a bridge there. I have always got along good with Vince, Stephanie and Hunter. I would have loved to have run that training centre or been a coach. But it’s obvious to everyone that unless you are a former member of DX or a friend of Hunter’s you’re not getting in the company. I don’t really know why. I can’t put my finger on it and I don’t think anybody really knows why,” he said.

“I didn’t do embarrassing things like Hogan just did. I have never done anything like that in my career. I have always been respectful of the guys I worked with. I get along good with everyone I have ever worked with. I have a reputation in this business as being a quality, stand-up guy. Who knows, man. I can’t answer that question; you’d have to ask them.”

Laurinaitis said of the current crop of top WWE personalities, Brock Lesner is the one who he thinks the promotion should really be hitching its wagon to.paul-heyman-brock-lesnar

“The guy looks the part, acts the part and has the personality for the part. He’s the only Road Warrior-style babyface they have right now. They need to ride him and take advantage of what he’s got to offer, especially with Paul Heyman by his side. Heyman is one of the best-ever talkers and sellers of a product. Paul Heyman sells it and Brock just stands there and looks like a badass while Heyman tells you how much of a badass he is. He’s doing some real cool old-school stuff,” he said.

“Brock is not only strong lifting-wise but he is strong in lifting and throwing bodies around. And you know what, I think it’s a mistake that he goes against Undertaker at SummerSlam. I don’t think Taker can go with Brock; Brock is like a machine and Taker’s got such bad hips and a bad back. You’re basically bringing Undertaker out of retirement, which tells me that maybe your ratings are in the toilet. It doesn’t make any sense to me and it sends the message that there’s something wrong with your product when you’ve got to do that.”

And returning to the topic of Sting, Laurinaitis feels that by allowing Sting to be defeated, even if the loss was tainted, took the wind out of the Icon’s sails as far as being a viable top draw.

“I think Sting’s dead. When you get beat by a guy that wrestles once a year like Hunter and after he beats you he makes comments like you’re the last of the Mohicans, the last man standing from the WCW – it killed his momentum. To me their mindset was that we’ve got to beat the last WCW guy around. At least they could have done something to set up for the next pay-per-view. Or hurt him so bad that he’s out and comes back for revenge at SummerSlam. I think they missed the boat on that one, and really hurt Sting’s brand,” he said.

Besides his wrestling involvement, Laurinaitis is also a principal in a diamond exploration and mining firm that is working primarily in the West African nation of Liberia.

“I love doing wrestling appearances and doing speaking engagements. I love speaking to high school athletic teams, or locker room talks and assemblies. I also like speaking at churches {Laurinaitis is a born-again Christian]. If I wanted to I could be busy every weekend. But I usually spend half the year in Africa. We’re a mining company and we also to a lot of road construction, installing culverts and things like that. I haven’t been there for more than a year because of the Ebola scare, but I will soon be heading back over,” he said.

“[This venture] just kind of happened. I met a guy who works out at my gym and he also goes to my church. He was from Liberia and he said his country was rich in minerals but that it was kind of unspoiled as far as that goes. We had a company out of Toronto do our geological surveys and they said what they found was incredible. They said it could be compared to the Gold Rush in Canada. It’s a lot of work and a lot of hard times, but a pretty cool endeavour and it will pay off in the long run.”

Besides the Canadian Heavyweight Championship match at the GNW event in Brockville on Aug. 14, the co-main event sees another WWE legend, the Honky Tonk Man, team with The Grapecrusher and Bryan Briggs (along with valet Jinxie) to take on The Hart Throbs with valet Asana and Paul ‘High Roller’ Rosenburg.

A Mighty Minis little people wresting bout sees Pepper Jack, managed by CKWS news anchor Bill Welychka, take in Kid Canuck, managed by Kingston Whig Standard news editor Jan Murphy.

In an amateur wrestling showcase Canadian 2015 Pam Am gold medalist Dori Yeats will take on Aniko Potoczky. A Femme Fatale match will pit Jessika Black against Stacy Thibault, while the longest-tenured GNW champion, Jeremy Prophet faces ‘The Prodigy’ Nathan Banner.

Other participants on the card include Soa Amin, Sexy Eddy, Preston Perry, Majic Marino, Sideshow Jack, Madman Taylor, Myzery the Barbarian and Harley Davison.

For more information visit www.greatnorthwrestling.ca.

Tickets are available at Trophies Plus in the Memorial Centre or by calling 1-888-222-6608.

–          Jim Barber is a veteran journalist, author and communications specialist based in Greater Napanee. Contact him at [email protected]