Joe Laurinaitis, who spent most of his wrestling career under thick face paint as “Animal” of the Road Warriors, died this week at the age of 60. Animal served as the immovable object of the tandem, as opposed to his speedier and more agile partner Hawk, who died 17 years earlier. Together this pair of musclebound Minnesotans had once represented a bold path forward for the sport—away from the beer-bellied hometown heroes of the 1960s and 1970s and toward a 1980s landscape that would be dominated by their sculpted Mohawks, tight leather jackets, spiked football pads, and even the Zubaz powerlifting pants the Warriors helped design and popularize. Yet that future evanesced right before the eyes of kids who grew up collecting the wrestling magazines whose covers the Road Warriors adorned, their indelible prime period compressed into an eternal seven-year span from 1983 to 1990.
Those were their glory years, a time when they slowly added classic Road Warrior trappings that many of us seem to remember them having always and forever—the wild haircuts, shoulder pads with spikes, and even the “Doomsday Device” finisher for which Hawk leaps off the top rope to clothesline a hapless wrestler on Animal’s broad shoulders were developed piecemeal during that time, parts that came to define the whole package. But once upon a time, way back in 1981, Joe Laurinaitis wasn’t an animal at all. He was just a burly, good-but-not-great Minnesota high school athlete, much like the prior generation of Minnesotan pro wrestlers, which included Ole Anderson, Lars Anderson, and Larry Hennig.
Laurinaitis, in fact, was good enough to catch on as a 6-foot-1, 225-pound offensive lineman at Golden Valley Lutheran College, where he distinguished himself playing alongside Scott Simpson, another well-built young athlete who achieved both fame and infamy as the villainous (and later virtuous) Russian wrestler Nikita Koloff after Animal helped him land a wrestling gig in Jim Crockett Promotions’ NWA territory in the 1980s.
But that’s getting ahead of the story slightly, even if it speaks to how a disproportionate number of young Minnesotans, most into either powerlifting or arm wrestling or both, were funneled into pro wrestling. Animal, who pumped iron at a place called simply “The Gym,” was one such hearty son of the St. Paul soil. And it was there, at The Gym, that he met his longtime partner Mike “Hawk” Hegstrand, in a kind of “meathead-cute” scene right out of a movie. “He looked great,” Animal wrote of Hawk in his 2011 autobiography The Road Warriors: Danger, Death, and the Rush of Wrestling. “He had these traps practically growing out of his ears, these big, ripped arms, and that orange hair. After talking for a while, we exchanged numbers and agreed to get together soon for a workout. The next time we met in the gym, we talked about getting even bigger and stronger and decided to see what a regular steroid regimen could do for us.”
Steroids, Animal has admitted, were a key to the kind of physiques the pair were going to develop. He noted that Dianabol—a heavy-duty steroid taken orally, and a favorite with powerlifters because of the quick mass gains it provided in spite of side effects ranging from water retention to liver damage—was essential to accelerating the growth of their beefy builds, as it did for many other wrestlers during this time. “Dbol,” which had already swept the powerlifting and pro football ranks in the 1960s and 1970s, was also the reason that so many powerhouse stars of that era, despite their massively muscled torsos, carried a lot of bloating in their face, leading to an excessive number of grapplers dealing with incongruous chubby cheeks and double chins, which were in turn often hidden behind beards or goatees.
These aesthetic details, the aesthetic Animal and Hawk pioneered at The Gym between 500-pound bench presses and 600-pound back squats and alongside future colleagues Richard Rood (“Ravishing” Rick Rude) and Barry Darsow (who starred in the 1980s both as ersatz Russian baddie “Krusher Kruschev” and Road Warrior knock-off “Demolition Smash”), would become clear in retrospect. For now, it was sufficient that something was coming together, something brand new, something quite different than the look of beer-barrel-shaped tough-guy wrestlers such as Ole Anderson and Bruno Sammartino, and tough-guy wrestlers such as Dick the Bruiser and the Crusher, who drank out of actual beer barrels carried to the ring.
Hawk, Animal, Rude, and Darsow all watched the door at a Minneapolis bar called Grandma B’s alongside other future wrestling notables such as super heavyweight arm wrestling champion Scott Norton and “Berserker” John Nord, where they put the strong arm on unruly drunks and caught the attention of bartender Eddie Sharkey, a retired wrestler and trainer who had competed against the likes of Harley Race two decades earlier and all comers at carnival athletic shows before that. At a time when most of the top stars in Minneapolis promoter Verne Gagne’s territory were mostly smooth-bodied young jocks like Greg Gagne, morbidly obese monsters like Jerry “Crusher” Blackwell, or buff-by-1960s standards legends like the declining Dick the Bruiser, these young men struck him as a passel of future grappling greats. The way forward was clear; their prototypes had already made an impact during shots in Gagne’s American Wrestling Association promotion, with steroid-fueled, tie-dye-clad motormouths “Superstar” Billy Graham, Jesse “the Body” Ventura, and Hulk Hogan all attracting fan attention even if amateur great Verne wasn’t about to put his AWA world title on any of them.
During the ’70s, Sharkey had trained Ventura—a talented Minnesota high school swimmer turned Navy Underwater Demolition Team member turned bodybuilder—and “Precious” Paul Ellering, a promising Minnesota light heavyweight powerlifter whose bleached-blond wrestling persona was like a miniature version of “Superstar” Graham. Grizzled the veteran Sharkey might have been, but he had seen the future: It was filled with musclemen who could perform gorilla presses and powerslams, flex for the fans while their opponents convulsed on the mat, and shout menacingly into the microphone. Hawk, Animal, Rude, Nord, and Darsow all fit the mold to varying degrees, so Sharkey did what any good talent coach would do and lured them into what Animal described as a “dank, cold basement of a church … [with] an old, broken-down boxing ring with stuffing coming out of the pads, nothing more than four posts with railroad ties lying across a metal framework with a sheet of plywood and canvas covering the top of it. The ring also pretty much sat right on the floor with maybe only a foot of space between the mat and the ground, giving it almost zero flexion.”
There, these beefy men, blessed with the powerlifter/bodybuilder (“powerbuilder” is the quasi-technical term) bigness that would define the 1980s style, bounced off taut ropes set inches away from concrete walls, fell flat on their backs on a mat with no give, and launched each other into ring posts all but set into the corners of the room, damaging their elbows in the process. Sharkey taught them his one bump-taking flourish, having them kick their legs up as they took the bump to cushion the fall and provide a nice visual for the fans, as well a hip toss that remained the only move Animal said he and Rude could execute with any degree of precision early in their careers.
Curt Hennig, the future AWA champion and—even further in the future—“Mr. Perfect” of WWF fame, showed up to teach Animal and friends how to throw and take working punches, explaining the nature of “kayfabe” in the process. Animal, like other trainees well into the early 1980s, hadn’t been “smartened up” to wrestling being a predetermined, or “worked,” affair. Hennig was the son of the Larry “the Axe” Hennig, another of those barrel-shaped, long-in-the-tooth tough guys Animal and Hawk were to supplant as main event attractions.
It was veteran Ole Anderson, whose Minnesota adolescence wasn’t all that different from “Axe” Hennig’s or even Animal’s, who punched Animal’s ticket to the big time. Anderson had made a name for himself in the business as a vicious tag team specialist with story line relatives Lars Anderson and Gene Anderson, and now booked and even owned a piece of Georgia Championship Wrestling, a territory operated by legendary promoter Jim Barnett that had prospered due to having nationwide coverage of its World Championship Wrestling show on Ted Turner’s Atlanta-based TBS network. Ole needed some more bodies for his territory, and he showed up at Sharkey’s bar to find some.
In Animal’s retelling, Ole, “a mountain of a man who reminded me of a rugged old lumberjack,” thought he and Rick Rude had good physiques and might be worth giving a trial run in Georgia. Ole had seen the second Mad Max film, which was released in the U.S. as The Road Warrior, and become enamored of the idea of the “Road Warrior” as a wrestling character—a vicious, take-no-prisoners, leather-clad biker from parts unknown. When Animal assumed the mantle, in the process becoming wrestling’s original Road Warrior, he outfitted himself in a manner reminiscent of a biker in any number of Tom of Finland illustrations: “little jean jacket vest, black leather gloves, sunglasses, jean shorts, and to top it all off, a Village People–style black police cap.” He whipped his first opponent, enhancement talent Randy Barber, in a matter of minutes, only to find himself shipped to Jim Crockett’s Charlotte territory shortly thereafter.
There, he tagged briefly with Rick Rude before Rude injured himself and returned to Minnesota, then hung around taking matches for $150 a week. He lost to many of those beer-bellied veteran grapplers he would eventually supplant, including 50-something local favorite Johnny Weaver, a noted “bleeder” with a forehead full of scar tissue. Weaver beat Animal with his famed sleeper hold finisher, which struck the larger, younger man as improbable at best. Times were tough during this stint in the South, with Animal living off gallons of milk and bags of pretzels, and watching his weight dwindle back to the 225 pounds he weighed as a college freshman from a high of 275 when he arrived in Georgia. He walked away, as so many do, and wound up back in Minnesota, loading boxes onto UPS trucks.
But Ole Anderson wasn’t about to abandon the Road Warrior gimmick. He intended to revive the concept, this time as a tag team, and so he again called Eddie Sharkey and asked him to line up 15 wrestling trainees for him to inspect. “They were good high school athletes … football, wrestling, whatever,” he recalled. “When I shook their hands in the line, they all told me how great I was, and when I got to the 10th guy [who was Hawk] he told me I didn’t look that tough. So when I got back, I called Eddie and asked him to send me that guy who told me off, and I had to take another guy too … and I’d already used him, Joe Laurinaitis. I also told them they had to have a manager, and I had Paul Ellering in Georgia, who was on the bottom matches, I had nothing to do with him. I told Paul either you do what I say or you’re fired, and I said ‘I need you to be the manager of the Road Warriors.’”
Hawk, who had worked briefly in the Vancouver wrestling territory as the bald-headed “Crusher Von Haig,” was also displeased with the wrestling business, but the offer to return to Georgia alongside his friend Animal struck him as the sensible thing to do. Animal was reluctant to do so, and told Ole as much, but he also relented. Hawk was the raw talent who had impressed Ole—he would prove to be the wild man and wild card who ended up taking most of the in-ring bumps, as well as the guy who delivered the top-rope clothesline—and Animal and Ellering were Minnesota powerlifters on their last legs, literally in Ellering’s case as knee injuries were the reason the excellent talker and once-promising grappler had sunk to the bottom of the card in the Georgia territory.
All of this serendipity proved the stuff 1980s wrestling dreams were made of: Ole handed Animal his moniker on account of the animalistic way he had demolished jobber Randy Barber a year earlier, and Hawk got his because he boasted he could “fly around like a hawk.” The early Georgia interviews were simple enough: Ellering stood in the center and talked, while Hawk and Animal flanked him, looking menacing. And so was the road to the Warriors’ first championship: “Maniac” Matt Borne, one half of the reigning Georgia tag champs with Arn Anderson, left the promotion due to legal issues, and so the Warriors debuted on TBS with the belts, having allegedly won their straps the same way Pat Patterson became the first WWF Intercontinental champion, having prevailed in a tournament that never occurred.
Ole Anderson gave the Road Warriors a blueprint for their enhancement matches, from which they rarely deviated. For two to three minutes, Animal and Hawk landed stiff punches, kicks, and windpipe-collapsing clotheslines on jobbers who had been prepared in advance by Ole for the extra abuse. And Paul Ellering, for as long as he managed the Warriors, also followed a blueprint from which he rarely deviated, actually managing Hawk and Animal on the road by making their travel arrangements and arranging any special appearances they had to make.
But the Road Warriors were a work in progress. Look back at their earliest matches and you’ll see, for example, two guys who look like escapees from the aforementioned Tom of Finland illustrations, sans face paint and signature Mohawks. “We looked like hulking versions of the leather guy from the Village People,” Animal admitted in his autobiography. Hawk provided the inspiration for the new hairstyles, giving himself a kind of monk’s tonsure with strips of hair on the side and a bald patch in the middle and Animal a Mohawk, to provide the effect that the latter could “plug into” the former. And the idea for face paint—a trend the late James “Kamala” Harris claimed to have pioneered, with his Ugandan Giant gimmick—came from another old-school heavyweight badass, Mid-South Wrestling owner “Cowboy” Bill Watts. Watts, like Ole, was the sort of roughneck gradually fading into extinction, yet, also like Ole, managed to maintain some awareness of trends in popular culture, and thought that the face paint could help them sink into character. Animal agreed, and it became the crucial piece of his transformation from Joe Laurinaitis into the larger-than-life monster who wrecked jobbers in squash matches.
Even “The Legion of Doom,” the name for the stable that Paul Ellering assembled in Georgia Championship Wrestling, was pulled from the pop culture ether, having caught the attention of Hawk after he heard it used to describe Lex Luthor’s rogue’s gallery on Challenge of the Super Friends. The Road Warriors looked more like the mutant bad guys from Frank Miller’s gritty 1986 Batman graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns, but the name, pilfered from a heavily sanitized Saturday-morning cartoon depiction of the DC Universe, proved to be a keeper, even becoming their official nickname when they joined the WWF in the early 1990s. Wrestling gimmickry is the work of bricolage, but the Road Warriors took things to the next level: everything came from somewhere else, and everything meant something different.
And the Road Warriors, in turn, went everywhere, because that was how wrestlers stayed on top and made money if they didn’t want to work for the WWF. Ellering was his usual punctilious self, as one might expect from a man capable of reinventing himself as an Iditarod sled dog racer later in life, and Animal, though by his own admission “no angel,” was a family man trying to provide for his ex-bodybuilder wife and growing brood. But Hawk, the more creative and less mentally “solid” of these two huge and otherwise solid men, stirred the drink wherever they went, partly by stirring lots of alcoholic drinks along with various other substances. Animal attributed some of this to the early influence of Jake “The Snake” Roberts in Georgia, writing that “in retrospect, I should’ve persuaded Hawk to avoid Jake because of his self-destructive tendencies.” Hard liver or not, Hawk kept it together during this period, and the Road Warriors remained in peak physical form from 1983 to 1987, their signature “powerbuilder” frames still tight, dry, and hard. “I hate to say it, but ’80s professional wrestling wasn’t the era of ‘the body,’” Animal wrote when describing the aesthetic of that time. “It was the golden era of steroid use. With the wrestling industry heating up as it was, there was no time to waste in making a level playing field. That was why I’d discovered them in the first place back in my powerlifting days. Who wants to get run over by someone with an edge? Not me. Not anyone. When livelihoods and millions of dollars are at stake, that decision pretty much makes itself.”
As far as that steroid-infused muscle went, the Road Warriors were the preeminent muscle team of their era, and for those four years arguably the best muscle team in the history of the wrestling business. Sure, there were other, derivative muscle teams with painted faces and leatherman stylings, such as the somewhat larger but softer Powers of Pain in the Charlotte territory (Warlord and the Barbarian), the smaller yet more technical Demolition (Bill “Ax” Eadie and fellow Minnesotan Barry “Smash” Darsow, two men of many gimmicks) in the WWF, and even the new wave-inspired Blade Runners in Bill Watts’s Mid-South territory (future superstars Sting and the Ultimate Warrior, as “Blade Runner Sting” and “Blade Runner Rock,” respectively). But even Demolition was a one-promotion team, their lengthy WWF tag title run notwithstanding. The Road Warriors, by contrast, took the “road” part of their name seriously, traveling through all the remaining territories, not only enjoying runs on top and the ear-shattering “Road Warrior pop” that marked their entrance into the arena, but vanquishing all the old, double-tough, and beer-bellied relics who protected their old fiefdoms and attempted to bar the way.
The story of the Road Warriors during their glory years, in other words, is the story of them beating the tar out of the previous generation’s tough men. Ole Anderson, who liked it stiff and hard, used the Warriors to help him become a fan favorite in Georgia Championship Wrestling by repeatedly beating the tar out of him. “It was awesome,” Animal wrote. “You should’ve seen Ole when he came back to the dressing room. He looked as if a bus had hit him.” In Watts’s Mid-South territory, they refused to sell multiple clotheslines from two other up-and-coming musclebound 1980s prospects in “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan and Magnum T.A., telling booker and ex-NFL star Ernie “Big Cat” Ladd that they’d take two at most. Against legitimate shooters Brett and Buzz Sawyer, Hawk and Animal engaged in in a bloody brawl, with Buzz failing to suplex Hawk and Hawk improbably suplexing him during a match in which an inebriated Buzz had tried to tape multiple razor blades to his hands to punish the Warriors but ended up with a blood-soaked hand for his trouble.
Jerry “The King” Lawler and Austin Idol took their lumps in a feud that saw Lawler, the people’s champion of Memphis, absorbing vast amounts of punishment to fire up the crowd and Idol, the Memphis territory’s bleached-blond version of Hulk Hogan or Superstar Graham, coming in to even the odds, however briefly, before the Warriors reasserted dominance. And when the Warriors’ first base of operations, Georgia Championship Wrestling, collapsed after Vince McMahon bought a controlling interest in the promotion in an effort to seize their TBS time slot, they simply reached out to Verne Gagne, who was reeling from talent raids conducted by WWF, which had cost his company Hulk Hogan and announcer Gene Okerlund, among many others. In the AWA, back on their home soil, the Road Warriors defeated the Crusher (who was approaching 60 at that point) and Baron Von Raschke, two more links to wrestling’s past, to seize the tag championships, in the process taking these elder statesmen off their feet for the first time in ages.
Even as the WWF rolled out its first WrestleMania, the Road Warriors’ road show continued to prosper, pushing through matches out in Don Owen’s Portland against the likes of Sgt. Slaughter, “Crusher” Blackwell, and the father-son Hennig team. Blackwell and Larry Hennig, like many other old-timers, apparently spread rumors that they had “roughed up” the Warriors to teach them to sell and work with a less stiff style, but Animal remembered the matches as physical and nothing more, noting that “we were dealing with resentments for our relentless style,” which was simply a side effect of “Ole Anderson’s master plan” to get and keep them over. They also started their partnership with All Japan Pro Wrestling, working brutal matches against the likes of Olympic wrestling stalwart Jumbo Tsuruta and former professional sumo wrestler Genichiro Tenryu, that involved the Warriors pressing the local favorites and dropping them on their heads. (This was no accident: Both of these hard-hitting Japanese heavyweights were instrumental, along with Mitsuharu Misawa, in AJPW becoming a promotion that specialized in finishers wherein wrestlers were dumped unceremoniously on their heads, leading to an arms race of sort to see who could deliver and take the biggest head bump). And they ended their reign as AWA tag champions with a memorable, disputed no-contest match at 1985’s SuperClash against longtime rivals Freebirds Michael Hayes and Terry Gordy, then a loss shortly thereafter to Jimmy Garvin and Steve Regal (the U.S. wrestler, not the English one) in which Michael Hayes knocked out Animal with brass knuckles before placing Garvin on top for the cover. Once again, the Warriors had lost, but were kept strong in the process.
When Animal and Hawk noted that the AWA was falling behind the times, with Verne Gagne refusing to modernize his promotion over son Greg’s protests, they came to an agreement with Charlotte-based Jim Crockett Promotions, which now produced the World Championship Wrestling Programming for TBS. But this wasn’t before an aborted attempt at securing a guaranteed contract from WWF’s Vince McMahon, a promoter noted for his refusal to offer them. Part of the negotiations occurred at McMahon’s mansion, where Animal recalled an amusing, steroid-related joke at the pumped-up owner’s expense as they toured his house. “In the main sitting room, a large, hokey painting of Vince himself in a green suit hung above a grand stone fireplace,” Animal remembered. “What struck me about the portrait was that the Vince on the canvas looked way too thin to be the guy standing next to me. I couldn’t resist commenting. ‘That was pre-Deca [a brand name for the highly effective steroid nandrolone], right, Vince?’”
Animal and Hawk didn’t get what they wanted from the WWF, but Charlotte was doing strong business at the time, again led by top wrestlers from the previous generation like “Nature Boy” Ric Flair and the doughy “American Dream” Dusty Rhodes, who as booker would be charged with finding creative new ways to utilize the Warriors. But those plans, which revolved around a big build-up to a match held atop a scaffold against Jim Cornette and his Midnight Express pairing of Bobby Eaton and Stan Lane at the 1986 Starrcade pay-per-view, hit a snag when Hawk broke his leg after taking a routine backdrop in a match against All Japan owner Giant Baba and Genichiro Tenryu.
In spite of Hawk’s injury, which he rushed to rehabilitate, and the strange limitations of the scaffold match itself—fighting atop a narrow ramp suspended high above the ground is no easy feat—kids like me, who watched the event on a VHS tape rented from a local video store, remained spellbound by the match, awestruck even, as when Jim Cornette took the final bump off the scaffold, landed flat-footed, and blew out his knee. This was no joke; this was real. And so were Hawk and Animal; they were really over. So over, in fact, that they were invited back to All Japan in 1987 and did something that few gaijin ever did in either All Japan or rival New Japan: They beat Jumbo Tsuruta and Genichiro Tenryu to win the company’s NWA International tag titles.
The Road Warriors’ golden run, their last truly great run in the business, carried them through the first War Games match at the 1987 Great American Bash, during which Hawk clotheslined Four Horsemen manager J.J. Dillon, who had been hoisted atop Animal’s shoulders, inadvertently separating Dillon’s shoulder and forcing a quick end to the match. This finisher, which the pair settled upon earlier that year and christened the “Doomsday Device,” was something I seemingly recalled the team doing throughout their careers, but, as with the misremembered spelling and pronunciation of “Berenstain” in the Berenstain Bears series of books, that was not the case. They based the move on a similar sort of “electric chair drop” done solo by “Dynamite Kid” Tom Billington, which involved Dynamite hoisting the hapless opponent atop his shoulders and then falling backward with him. The “spider web” face painting style that Animal used, also something I thought was of much older provenance, was developed during that time, as were the spiked football shoulder pads (replacing their earlier spiked leather vests, which were stolen from the back of their van while they were working some dates in Texas). The Warriors, then, were finally complete—but now that they were complete, they were also about to be “over,” in yet another sense of the word: over as in a thing of the past. The team of the future that had crushed all the hardmen of yore was now giving way to other upstarts who looked to shape the 1990s in their image.
But they weren’t going out quietly, moving into a feud against Road Warriors knockoffs the Powers of Pain. The matches were as hard-hitting as expected, given the strength and at times carelessness of opponents Barbarian and Warlord, and Animal sustained the first of many major injuries of his career. Warlord botched a Samoan Drop, and instead of a safe back bump smashed Animal’s face into the mat, breaking several bones in his face and causing his eyeball to pop out of the socket. They managed to build an angle out of the injury, with a kayfabe “$10,000 bench press contest” featuring the Warriors against the Powers of Pain—a staple of the muscle wrestler genre that has fallen out of favor in recent decades—that ended with an aborted 600-pound press (using some fake and some real weight plates) backfiring and the barbell being used to “injure” Animal’s face, allowing him to take some time off to get reconstructive surgery and recover. When Animal returned in March 1988, he and Hawk were booked in a “barbed wire” match against the Powers of Pain as part of aggressive, blood-filled free counterprogramming for the WWF’s WrestleMania event. Animal, no fan of the match type, was glad to see the match and the feud wrapped up in three minutes.
Animal also found time in 1988, amid all this pain and suffering, to work with a pair of businessmen interested in producing and distributing a signature line of wide-legged workout pants he had helped develop in part to accommodate his own tree-trunk thighs. These zebra-striped “Zubaz” (“gym lingo for ‘in your face,’” according to Animal) pants quickly became a staple of the pro football and bodybuilding worlds and just as quickly became one of the most derided fashion items of a decade. They specialized in garish hot pink tights, wraparound shades worn at nighttime, and other campy, regrettable “cool” looks. Here was another aesthetic high point for the Road Warriors, who invested $150,000 of their own money in the venture: They were now no longer appropriating pop culture to buttress their gimmick, they were creating it.
After doing everything that could be done as babyfaces, the Road Warriors were offered the chance to turn heel by attacking Dusty Rhodes and bloodying him with their spikes. This, like their earlier beatdown of Georgia Championship Wrestling booking Ole Anderson, was the quickest way to get some cheap heat. But it would also cost Dusty Rhodes his job because he scheduled this attack during a taping of World Championship Wrestling on TBS, a network that was trying to reduce the blood and gore that had long characterized Southern wrestling. The Warriors expressed their disdain for Dusty Rhodes and other WCW stalwarts in a promo, Rhodes hit the ring to challenge them, and in true heel style, the Warriors attacked Rhodes. Hawk peppered him with punches while Animal unscrewed a spike from the pads and pretended to jam it into Dusty’s eye, while Dusty poked at the huge mass of scar tissue on his forehead to get the blood flowing. The fallout spelled the end of Dusty’s run as WCW booker (his son Dustin would later be fired by WCW for an unauthorized blade job, too), and, after Animal and Hawk lost to Sting and Dusty by disqualification at Starrcade ’88, Dusty was unceremoniously canned, thereby set on a collision course with Vince McMahon’s WWF and the “American Dream’s” infamous yellow polka-dotted tights.
The last true hurrah for the Road Warriors in their muscle heyday came first with a feud against the Varsity Club—accomplished collegiate wrestlers and all-around tough guys Mike Rotunda and Steve Williams—to whom they dropped the NWA world tag team titles in April 1989. Then, at the “Ironman Tag Tournament” at Starrcade ’89: Future Shock, they competed against rising stars in the Samoan SWAT Team (the Samoan Savage and Fatu, later the WWE’s booty-shaking “Rikishi Phatu”), Doom (Butch Reed and future WCW World champion Ron Simmons), and the red-hot Steiner Brothers (Scott and Rick Steiner, both accomplished wrestlers at the University of Michigan). Although the Steiners went over clean against Hawk and Animal, the latter won the tournament on points. But the writing was on the wall, even if they managed to score one last WCW pay-per-view win in 1990 against the Skyscrapers (future Undertaker “Mean” Mark Callous and future Beverly Brother Mike Enos under a mask). “I can barely remember a thing about our matches,” Animal wrote of this period. “It’s all a blur.”
A contract dispute led Hawk and Animal into the waiting arms of Vince McMahon, who dangled the promise of a profitable feud against Demolition, the most successful and capable of the Road Warrior knockoff teams. Bill “Ax” Eadie, whom the Warriors had worked with when he was the Masked Superstar, was winding his career down, but Demolition had added “Crush” (Brian Adams) to replace him. Only the Road Warriors wouldn’t be entering the company under that name, since the Ultimate Warrior was the only Warrior that McMahon wanted on the roster. Instead, the “Legion of Doom,” that secondary name of Paul Ellering’s old stable, which had trailed them for decades, became the name of their WWF team. But this was a different team than I remembered, certainly smaller and softer in the case of Animal (who wrote he discontinued steroid use in 1990), more hesitant in the case of Hawk, whose fast-paced lifestyle was starting to catch up with him, and almost superfluous in the case of Ellering, who was paired with a ventriloquist dummy named “Rocco.” The “LOD,” as the WWF called them, had an eight-month run with the tag team straps, but these were not the monster men who had graced the covers of all those Bill Apter–edited wrestling magazines throughout the prior decade.
Hawk left the WWF after SummerSlam 1992, chased out by failed drug tests and an obvious pattern of bad behavior. Animal hung in there for the money, trying to make it as a singles wrestler or in tag matches with ex-Demolition member Crush, before injuring his back in a match against the Beverly Brothers (fellow Minnesotans Mike Enos and Wayne Bloom) in Japan. The LOD flitted in and out of view during this period—they still seemed like a possible future for wrestling, and could still draw that “Road Warrior pop” if they came out unexpectedly, but they were already becoming wrestlers of the past. The future, in a world soon to be marked by a federal steroid investigation that rocked the WWF, looked much more like Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels, and the Undertaker than Animal, Hawk, and all of their other Minnesota powerlifter friends.
The remaining decade for the Road Warriors, which stretched from Hawk’s stint in New Japan, where he spent two years helping raise the profile of “Power Warrior” Kensuke Sasaki, to his death in 2003, were marked by the fragmentation of this group. Whenever the Road Warriors would reappear, some tragedy followed; sometimes it was just tragic watching promoters trying to re-create or rebrand them; sometimes it was just tragic watching them. Animal, ever the straight man but not exactly the burly force of nature he once was, kept trying to collect checks, supporting a family that included two promising athletes in daughter Jessica (a future collegiate hockey player) and son James (who achieved the football success that had eluded his father, enjoying a respectable career in the NFL as a starting linebacker for the St. Louis Rams).
The most successful reboot of the Road Warriors was arguably the first one, that of the New Japan Pro-Wrestling “Hell Raisers” team, given the outcome of Hawk’s three years of work with Sasaki, then a stocky midcarder but eventually an ace who would become one of only two Japanese wrestlers to hold IWGP Heavyweight Championship (New Japan), the Triple Crown Heavyweight Championship (All Japan), and the GHC Heavyweight Championship (Pro Wrestling Noah). Animal, who was laid out and recovering from his back injury during that period, was none too happy with his partner’s move, but he did eventually compete in some six-man matches with Sasaki and Hawk.
Animal wasn’t really in the mix for most of that time, though, and his 1996 return to WCW with Hawk failed to recapture any earlier magic. They feuded again with the Steiner Brothers, who were also starting to experience the wear and tear of their hard-hitting style, and couldn’t take the world tag team titles from Lex Luger and Sting, who were fixtures in the company’s main event picture. Their end in WCW was accelerated by the success of the nWo—a powerhouse stable for which the independent streak and declining abilities of Animal and Hawk suited them poorly.
Animal and Hawk then took their talents to the WWF in 1997, winning back the titles as the Legion of Doom in October of that year, but less than a month later dropped them to the New Age Outlaws, who would prove to be one of the defining acts of the company’s Attitude Era. After that loss, the hunt was on to “rebrand” the LOD to fit them into the new WWF: Vince first saddled them with strange new shoulder pads with accompanying helmets and a new manager in Sunny (another great star, once one of the most “downloaded people” of the early internet era, also on a downward spiral). This was the so-called “LOD 2000,” an iteration of the team that became embroiled in a feud with the members of the Disciples of Apocalypse and former LOD manager Paul Ellering (“Tekno Team 2000,” comprised of erstwhile Louisville Cardinals football teammates Erik Watts and Chad Fortune, was an earlier, even weirder attempt to squeeze some value of the futuristic-sounding “2000” designation). The LOD also took on another member, ex-NFL player Darren “Puke” Drozdov, a supposed “replacement” for Hawk that led into the famous 1998 “dark angle” that played on Hawk’s various addiction issues and even included Hawk taking a feigned “suicide dive” off the TitanTron (the angle was killed after strong objections were raised by all involved).
By 1999, Animal and Hawk were gone, and tracing their movements thereafter devolves into tracking a series of “shots” in various promotions. In May 1999, Hawk and Animal appeared alongside All Japan star Johnny Ace (John Laurinaitis, Animal’s younger brother; both he and fellow sibling Marcus “Terminator” Laurinaitis enjoyed decade-long runs in the business) in a winning effort against Jun Akiyama, Kenta Kobashi, and Hakushi at the Giant Baba Memorial Show. Hawk, still struggling with his own demons, wasn’t able to return to the ailing WCW in 2001 when Animal returned to the company as a bodyguard and enforcer for Scott Steiner, who was now a top heel in the mold of “Superstar” Billy Graham.
Hawk and Animal got another shot in WWE in May 2003, losing a Raw match to tag titleholders Kane and Rob Van Dam five months prior to Hawk’s death in October. Animal reappeared as an active wrestler two years later, hunting for a new partner in one last attempt to reproduce the old Road Warriors magic—a tall order for any tag partner now deprived of his primary bump-taker, but even harder for a 46-year-old slowed by various nagging injuries. Attempts to pair him with Jon Heidenreich and Matt Hardy came to naught, as repackaging the musclebound Heidenreich with that now-dated Road Warrior aesthetic of a Mohawk and shoulder pads failed to stave off his January 2006 release and the ever-evolving Matt Hardy couldn’t be paired with yesterday’s “next big thing.” Toward the end of his WWE run, Animal went full circle, donning the Tom of Finland biker attire and again wrestling solo, simply as the “Road Warrior.” “I even had the jean shorts, chaps, and leather vest,” Animal wrote. “When I looked in the mirror I almost passed out. What have I gone and done?”
When the time came for the WWE to make its unkindest cut, Vince McMahon did it in style. “Vince made sure to have my brother John, who was now head of talent relations, call and do the honors of firing me,” Animal reminisced. “Nice touch. How ironic is it that once upon a time I did everything in my power to get my baby bro into the wrestling business only to have him announce the end of my career years later?”
John Laurinaitis, in fact, would enjoy a substantial on-camera role as the WWE’s main authority figure from 2011 to 2012, primarily working in angles with John Cena and CM Punk, but Animal was long gone by then, and the relationship between the two siblings was never remarked upon. In fact, but for Animal’s brief return to the spotlight with a recent Vice docuseries about the Road Warriors, he had more or less reverted to being plain old Joe Laurinaitis. Animal had retired from wrestling; his son James had even retired from the NFL, having last played in 2016. Sure, Animal and Hawk had done much to construct the actual wrestling bodies of the 1980s, but all Joe Laurinaitis had ever wanted to build was a home for his wife and kids. He did that, and now he was done.