The Second Golden Age of Tag Team Wrestling. Part Two of Three.
Alexander Dumas once said, “Nothing makes success like success”. This maxim can definitely be applied to the wrestling industry where one a successful wrestler leads to a copy of said wrestler, sometimes subtle, sometimes blatant. Likewise with tag teams where successful tag teams lead to copycat teams. Last week we discussed one of the teams that helped launch the Second Golden Age of Tag Team Wrestling during the 1980’s, that team being the Fabulous Ones (Steve Keirn and Stan Lane). The Fabulous Ones were an amazing team whose success directly led to the creation of the Rock-n-Roll Express and Fantastics, and indirectly led to the creation of the (Midnight) Rockers (as well as several lesser known tag teams). Unfortunately the Fabs did not find the same success as the teams they inspired. However their impact on tag team wrestling is significant.
A second team was also instrumental in the explosion of tag team wrestling in the 1980’s. This innovative team has been celebrated by many as the greatest tag team in the history of professional wrestling. Their success inspired other teams to copy their look, some of them successful but none as successful as they were. More importantly, they became such big stars that they main evented shows as a tag team, something which while not unheard of, was exceptional. If you haven’t figured it out by now, I’m talking of course about Demolition. No, fooled you. I’m talking about the Road Warriors, Animal and Hawk.
Joseph Lauriniatis and Michael Hegstrand were childhood friends in Chicago before their families moved to Minneapolis, Minnesota. The two friends stayed in touch but went to separate schools. They would meet up later at a gym, reuniting and beginning a journey that would take them to the top of the professional wrestling world in every promotion they worked in. The journey did not start in the ring but as bouncers as some of the toughest bars in town. Both men had grown up watching Verne Gagne’s American Wrestling Association (AWA) which was based out of Minneapolis. Unfortunately getting into Gagne’s training program was difficult because Gagne looked for second generation wrestlers or athletes, particularly those with wrestling backgrounds. However wrestler Jesse “The Body” Ventura clued Hegstrand to the fact that former pro wrestler Eddie Sharkey would train anyone for a price. Both Hegstrand and Laurinaitis decided to check things out and began training with Sharkey.
Meanwhile, Georgia Championship Wrestling (GCW) booker Ole Anderson was looking for a new team. After watching the Mel Gibson film The Road Warrior, Anderson got the idea of building a team that looked like some of the film’s characters (The film would also inspire the hockey mask wearing wrestler Lord Humongous). Initially he brought Laurinaitis in as the Road Warrior, dressed in biker attire. Anderson had to discipline him after Laurinaitis either flipped off a fan or swore on TV, and Laurinaitis was sent to Jim Crockett Promotions (JCP). In the meantime, Hegstrand tried his hand at wrestling but didn’t like the travel and low pay and returned to bouncing. Shortly after, Laurinaitis returned to bouncing as well.
GCW’s tag team ranks were thin and the promotion had gone six months without a tag team titleholder. Anderson decided to run a fictitious tournament and put the belts on Matt Borne and Arn Anderson. However when Borne got into trouble outside the ring, Anderson had to move fast and he decided to go with his original idea from The Road Warrior. Ole remembered Laurinaitis’ previous work and brought him back, recruiting Mike Hegstrand from Sharkey’s school after Hegstrand impressed him with his no-nonsense attitude. Anderson paired the two, dressed them in leather biker gear and the Road Warriors were born (although like many creations, they would take some time to develop before they reached the image we think of today). The Road Warriors were introduced as the promotion’s National Tag Team champions, having won them in a phantom tournament. Anderson knew that Animal and Hawk were green in the ring but he also knew that they looked like monsters. Thus they were booked into short brutal matches where their opponents got next to no offense and the Roadies destroyed them. This hid the Warriors’ weaknesses in the ring and helped them get over. Ole Anderson didn’t have a problem with this style of match because his cards featured a variety of styles. Anderson added former wrestler “Precious” Paul Ellering as their manager and waited to see how the fans would react.
The Road Warriors became an instant hit and the top team in GCW. Thanks to GCW’s national clearance on cable channel Superstation TBS, wrestling fans from across the country got to see them (if they had cable with WTBS). \ The Warriors’ devastating matches quickly won the fans over. In his autobiography Inside Out: How Corporate America Destroyed Professional Wrestling, Anderson recalls how he booked the Warriors to hide their vulnerabilities (mainly their lack of wrestling skills). However the Road Warriors’ success also stemmed from their intensity and attitude. The Warriors’ reputation quickly grew through word of mouth and wrestling magazines. I remember hearing about the Road Warriors from wrestling fans who had access to WTBS (back in the 1980’s there were a variety of local cable providers around town so people in one suburb often had different cable providers than those in another suburb). My friends talked about what powerhouses the Road Warriors were and how no one could stop them. The promoters fed some of their top teams to the Road Warriors, adding to the Roadies’ mystique. At the same time, the Road Warriors’ look evolved. Bill Watts suggested that the Road Warriors wear face paint. According to Animal, he and Hawk came up with the specifics of the make-up as well as the idea of shaving their heads with their Mohawk and reverse Mohawk. Their invincibility in the ring along with their credibility as badasses meant that they sold a lot of tickets. They were quickly becoming superstars.
It didn’t take long for the Road Warriors to become a hot commodity in wrestling. After losing a number of top stars to the World Wrestling Federation (WWF), American Wrestling Association (AWA) promoter Verne Gagne scored a coup by signing the Warriors to his company. Working as heels, the Road Warriors quickly captured the AWA Tag Team Championship from Baron Von Raschke and the Crusher.
The Road Warriors took the AWA by storm. Not since Hulkamania had run wild in the AWA had the promotion had such a sensational team. The only problem was that the Warriors’ dominant offense made the AWA’s stars look weak. Many of the AWA’s top stars were long in the tooth veterans who sold tickets but who suddenly looked their age when they were pitted against two monstrous looking youngsters who refused to sell for them. However not all of the AWA’s stars took kindly to the Road Warriors’ stiff work and no-selling of their opponents’ offense. Legend has it that AWA veterans Larry “The Ax” Hennig and Jerry “Crusher” Blackwell gave the Roadies a taste of their own medicine during a match in the AWA.
Wise promoters know to give the fans what they want. It may not always be right away but eventually, smart promoters know when it is time to follow the fans’ feelings. When the Road Warriors began winning fans over with their explosive matches, Verne Gagne decided it was time to book them as babyfaces. While Gagne had a somewhat deserved reputation for being behind the times, he knew not to tinker with the Road Warriors’ look or attitude. Rather than running an angle to turn them babyface, he simply started booking them against heels. The Road Warriors squared off the superstar trio known as the Fabulous Freebirds (Terry “Bam Bam” Gordy, Michael “P.S.” Hayes, and Buddy Roberts). While the program was successful, it wasn’t the box office sensation that Gagne had hoped for.
Despite being AWA Tag Team Champions, the Road Warriors wrestled not only around the country but around the world. The Road Warriors’ were professional wrestling’s top free agents. With WWF kingpin Vince McMahon looking to dominate wrestling in North America, promoters from the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) and AWA tried to work together against McMahon. This led to interpromotional cards as well as the short-lived Pro Wrestling USA TV show. The Road Warriors ended up working all over the country. Then there was Japan. The Road Warriors’ fame earned them an invitation to work in Japan. According to Dave Meltzer’s book Tributes II, the Road Warriors received $10,000 a week in Japan, a salary on par with legends like Andre the Giant and the Funk Brothers. While some wrestlers might have scoffed that the Road Warriors hadn’t paid their dues, they were a huge draw and commanded such a salary because of this and manager Paul Ellering’s shrewd negotiating skills (Ellering served not only as the Warriors’ kayfabe manager but also as their real-world business manager).
Conflicts with promoter Verne Gagne and a lack of new opponents led to the Road Warriors eventually leaving the AWA. When Verne Gagne told the Roadies to drop the belts to the Fabulous Ones (as discussed last time around), the Roadies simply refused. According to Animal on the DVD, Road Warriors: The Life and Death of the Most Dominant Tag Team in Professional Wrestling, the writing was on the wall and they looked for greener pastures. The Road Warriors dropped the belts to the unlikely team of Jimmy Garvin and Steve “Mr. Electricity” Regal (not to be confused with British star Steven Regal/William Regal) after the Freebirds helped Garvin and Regal out.
After three years in the business, the Road Warriors were the top tag team in the world. While their in-ring skills were limited, they made up for this with a great look, intensely brutal matches, and memorable interviews thanks to the mic skills of Hawk. The question now became, could the Road Warriors continue their success in a new promotion? And which of wrestling’s biggest promotions would they join- the WWF or JCP?