Paul Orndorff, known to wrestling fans around the world as “Mr. Wonderful,” died this week at age 71. After dealing with a severe spinal cord injury that hampered his career during the mid-1980s and then surviving a bout with cancer in 2011, Orndorff finally succumbed to an array of health issues that had plagued him in recent years. But before injuries weighed him down, Orndorff carved his physique out of marble while carving a place for himself as one of the premier main event performers in the business, winning regional championships during the later years of the sport’s territorial era and then sharing top billing in the WWF alongside Hulk Hogan as that promotion expanded nationally in the mid-1980s.
Born in 1949, the future “Mr. Wonderful’’ was raised amid considerable poverty in Brandon, Florida—now a sprawling strip mall suburb of Tampa but then a sparsely populated area consisting of cow pastures and trailer parks (a “country” past memorialized by the community’s Cracker Country museum). Paul and his family resided in a tiny trailer that had once served as a chicken coop. Athletics provided Paul an outlet for his aggression and a reason to avoid home as much as possible. A desire to maximize his athletic potential, in turn, drove the 13-year-old Orndorff to Smith Health Club, a Tampa bodybuilding institution run by area high school football legend and former Junior Mr. America Harry Smith.
Smith, who served in the Navy and later wrestled for promoter “Cowboy” Luttrell in his Florida territory, taught Orndorff the fundamentals of the powerlifting and bodybuilding exercises he performed throughout his career. Orndorff, dubbed the “Brandon Bull” by local press on account of his prodigious strength, became a decorated high school football player who earned college scholarship offers from around the country as well as a track-and-field star who broke Tampa-area records with a shot put of 54-9 and won the Florida state championship in the discus with a throw of 165-7. Orndorff chose to stay close to home, attending the University of Tampa during its golden age of football.
Playing fullback and later tight end for a trio of notable head coaches—future Kentucky coach Fran Curci, future Georgia Tech coach Bill Fulcher, and future Ohio State coach Earle Bruce—Orndorff racked up 2,254 all-purpose yards and 21 touchdowns as Tampa posted two 10-win seasons and a victory over the Kent State Golden Flashes in the 1972 Tangerine Bowl. That particular small-college clash now stands as a game for the ages, with Tampa fielding a roster that included future no. 1 draft pick John Matuszak and fellow draft picks Orndorff, wide receiver Freddie Solomon, and defensive end Wilbur Grooms. Orndorff hauled in a pair of long touchdown receptions in a 21-18 victory against the talent-laden Golden Flashes, who were coached by College Football Hall of Fame inductee Don James and featured the talents of NFL Hall of Fame linebacker Jack Lambert as well future college football coaching legends Nick Saban and Gary Pinkel.
“I was 13 years old, selling sodas in Tampa Stadium when Paul was wearing no. 40 and running through opposing defenses,” remembers longtime pro wrestler B. Brian Blair, who, like Orndorff, would become a Tampa-area high school football star and sign a letter of intent to play at the University of Tampa, though he ended up playing at Louisville after Tampa discontinued its program in 1975. Blair was a lifelong friend of Orndorff and spoke to me at length about his career. “I had no idea how our careers would later overlap and certainly didn’t realize he’d become my best friend in the wrestling business.”
Like teammates Matuszak, Solomon, and Grooms, Orndorff sought a future in pro football. He was drafted in the 12th round of the 1973 NFL draft by the New Orleans Saints, and he seemed, at least on paper, like a long shot to make the final roster. But a 1973 Tampa Tribune blurb noted that his draft stock had been arbitrarily lowered because of “the drawback of a new position (tight end) his senior year,” a move which Orndorff, who at 5-foot-11 and 220 pounds lacked the size for the position, later attributed to a personality clash with coach Earle Bruce. Another Tampa Tribune article from later that year reported that the fullback, despite having been on the cusp of making the New Orleans roster, “left the Saints’ camp on good terms, just telling them goodbye because at that point he’d had too much football” and was currently selling insurance with a local firm.
In the years thereafter, the paper continued to update local fans like B. Brian Blair about the football goings-on of hometown hero Paul Orndorff. In 1974, he went to training camp with the Chicago Bears, only to walk out and tell the Tampa Tribune he had decided against pursuing a pro football career. A year later, he signed with the Jacksonville Express of the short-lived World Football League, but spent the 1975 season sidelined with various injuries. And a year after that, bored and recovering from a bout of pneumonia, Orndorff entered the Florida state arm wrestling championship and won it.
Around this time, Orndorff—who never watched pro wrestling in his youth and didn’t think much of it until a chance viewing of Championship Wrestling from Florida with his in-laws convinced him to give it a shot—began training with Florida promoter Eddie Graham and his core group of “hookers,” skilled amateur and submission wrestlers such as Olympian Bob Roop, NCAA Division II wrestling champion Bob Backlund, and Hiro Matsuda. In tryout and practice sessions under the lights of the humid, empty, and non–air conditioned Tampa Sportatorium, Graham’s hookers would squeeze, twist, pull, and otherwise torture unwary trainees, both reaffirming the authenticity of the business and delighting Graham, who enjoyed watching the sessions. Video footage exists of these brutal encounters, and even casual fans may know the story of Matsuda breaking young Terry “Hulk Hogan” Bollea’s leg to test his resolve to enter the sport.
“The wrestlers in Tampa called it the Dungeon, owing to the heat and humidity of the place,” remembers Blair. “You’d get there and Hiro Matsuda would put you through 500 Hindu squats and 500 pushups—in sets of 100—with 20 seconds to rest between each set. Then you’d get down on the mat and engage in amateur wrestling for 10 minutes, which is crazy when you consider that no amateur wrestling match ever lasts that long, or takes place after all those calisthenics. Paul [Orndorff] showed up to train with Eddie Graham during my second summer at the Dungeon, which blew my mind because I never thought I’d get to train or wrestle with my hero.”
Orndorff experienced the same torturous “hooking” treatment that Hulk Hogan did, and, lacking the amateur pedigree of someone like college champion Backlund or even a decorated high school wrestler like Blair, found himself relying on brute strength to resist the depredations of Graham’s veterans. Matsuda, who took some liberties with an exhausted Orndorff early in his training despite being unable to do to the football player what he had done to Hogan, eventually experienced a measure of payback after Orndorff had learned the basics. “I got Hiro back and I mauled his ass,” Orndorff told Greg Oliver and Steven Johnson in The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: The Heels. A tape of Orndorff wrestling Backlund in a 15-minute amateur-style match impressed Eddie Graham so much that the promoter, who supported amateur wrestling programs through the area, sent copies to local high schools.
Blair confirmed that the former football player was a quick study. “No one was tougher than Paul, and once he figured out what he was doing on the mat, no one was going to hook him, either. … He could handle himself better than anybody, especially in a street fight,” he says.
One memorable street fight in which Orndoff participated, Blair recalls, impressed Graham to no end. Early in Orndorff’s association with the Florida promotion, he and his brother Terry had gotten in a fight at a bar in Brandon. Terry had been hassled by some other patrons, and called in Paul for backup, whereupon they proceeded to batter Terry’s harassers as well as seven police officers who arrived to break up the fight. Like many stories of Orndorff’s toughness, it sounds apocryphal, yet is somehow completely true. A 1976 article from the Tampa Tribune reported the details of the altercation, which line up precisely with Blair’s recollection, right down to the seven police officers. For their trouble, each Orndorff had bail set at $5,004—a significant sum at the time.
Orndorff’s career began to gain significant momentum after he left Florida for a run in “Cowboy” Bill Watts’s Mid-South territory. Watts, a former football player and amateur wrestler who had a well-earned reputation as a tough guy, found ways to push fellow hard-nosed college jocks such as Steve “Dr. Death” Williams and “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan. Orndorff, who by 1980 had packed 20 or 30 more pounds of pure muscle onto what was then arguably the most well-defined physique in the business, flourished under Watts’s tutelage, holding the territory’s North American championship three times before Orndorff’s refusal to lose to scorching-hot Junkyard Dog, another football player turned main-event sensation, led to his departure from Mid-South.
“Paul Orndorff was upset with me all the time, but he never did not do his absolute best in the ring,” Watts told Greg Oliver and Steven Johnson. “I still respect Paul completely and tremendously. He was a great athlete.”
From Mid-South, Orndorff took his talents to Georgia Championship Wrestling, where he began putting together a solid run in 1982 until he missed a show in Augusta, Georgia, while nursing an injury, and booker Ole Anderson—yet another hard-nosed, old-school authority figure in the mold of Watts and Graham—fired Orndorff to make a point to the rest of the roster.
But prior to leaving Georgia, Orndorff had his toughness tested yet again. While driving with Blair—with whom he drove and roomed regularly in Mid-South as well, despite the possibility of a fine from Watts for consorting openly with babyface Blair as a heel—Orndorff raised the ire of enormous bodybuilder and powerlifter Tony Atlas, leading to another take-no-prisoners altercation.
“I was driving at the time, with Tony Atlas in the passenger seat, [former NWA world champion] Tommy Rich behind me, and Orndorff behind Atlas,” recalls Blair. “Atlas was hot because he’d been told he was going to have to lose to someone he didn’t want to put over, and also because he was nursing a big, infected welt on his rear end from some injections. He put his seat back to get comfortable, bumping Paul in the process, and Paul proceeded to call him ‘Murdoch,’ because Dick Murdoch and Killer Karl Kox both did that sort of thing to me and Paul when we used to drive with them. Atlas, who disliked Murdoch, started getting hot and spoiling for a fight.”
Since he was behind the wheel, Blair—who enjoyed a good scrap himself and admittedly wanted to see the fight—looked for a safe spot to pull over so Orndorff and Atlas could have it out. He settled on an area with a basketball court that was partially lit by headlamps from parked tractor trailers. After pulling over, Orndorff and Atlas disembarked. Orndorff, a few inches shorter and 20 or 30 pounds lighter than Atlas, seemed at a disadvantage against the larger man, who possessed one of the most massive, muscled physiques in the business as well as world-class powerlifting skills, which he demonstrated in exhibitions that, unlike some others of the era, were on the up-and-up.
Here the eyewitness stories diverge. Atlas claims that he drew on his high school wrestling know-how after Orndorff tried to punch him, taking the smaller man down and cradling him until the trapped Orndorff had no choice but to bite off a chunk of Atlas’s ear. Blair, who watched the event unfold, recalls Orndorff slipping behind Atlas and suplexing him to the ground, whereupon the pair rolled around until Orndorff bit Atlas’s ear. Tommy Rich’s version of events cuts to the fracas on the ground and, like the other versions, notes that Orndoff tore off a piece of Atlas’s ear. All the stories end with Atlas being taken to the hospital to receive treatment for the bite wound. Atlas stated in 2019 that he and Orndorff were now friends, adding that “a story worth telling is worth embellishing.”
After a brief detour in Bob Geigel and Harley Race’s Central States wrestling promotion and a tour of New Japan Pro-Wrestling, Paul Orndorff arrived in the WWF just as fellow bodybuilding aficionado Vince McMahon Jr.’s company commenced its national expansion. Orndorff understood that he presented a contrast to lumbering main event monsters such as Andre the Giant and Big John Studd. “I could just go, go, go,” Orndorff told Greg Oliver and Steven Johnson. “I never got tired, I was aggressive, and [the WWF fans] had never seen a heel like that.”
Though Orndorff shifted from heel to face and back again during his tenure with the WWF, Blair believes Orndorff was at his best as a bad guy: “He was a natural heel, with that cocky, matter-of-fact way of talking of his, and with how he made you believe everything he said and did. I had one of my best matches with Paul in the WWF, a singles match between us that ended with Vince in his office hugging us, then stepping away quickly because he’s a germaphobe, before telling us that was the best match he’d ever seen, though I’m sure he’s seen more since then. The match worked because Paul had such great heel psychology.”
McMahon’s promotional videos for Orndorff, which saw him doing things like insulting trainees during a segment in which he’s supposed to train them, perfectly suited the character of a man whose maturing interview style consisted of him explaining how he was superior to the sports heroes of wherever he happened to be performing that month.
Paul with me on the Bad Boys your in Japan,they said we would never be asked back again,oh well ,wasn’t the first ,wasn’t the last! RIP my brother love you HH pic.twitter.com/KGRO01fwID— Hulk Hogan (@HulkHogan) July 13, 2021
And in the WWF, Orndorff found the perfect foil: fellow Tampa native and Sportatorium Dungeon graduate Hulk Hogan. After defeating the Iron Sheik to claim the WWF World Title in early 1984, Hogan embarked on one of the all-time-great good-guy runs in wrestling history, transforming into a 6-foot-6, 300-pound cartoon character who extolled the benefits of prayers and vitamins. Orndorff, by contrast, growled his insults and boasts in a deep voice that recalled nothing so much as a sadistic Southern gym teacher, in the process developing the template for the “cocky jock,” a role later played by the likes of slick-wrestling Curt Hennig and hip-gyrating “Ravishing” Rick Rude.
Hogan and Orndorff would clash several times as the WWF and Hulkamania entered their mid-1980s golden age, first in a main event at Madison Square Garden a month after the Hulkster won the title. The two worked a compelling 15-minute match in which Orndorff hit his signature jumping pile driver, only to lose valuable time as he posed for the crowd while Hogan recovered. Hogan, of course, would “Hulk up,” throwing Orndorff out of the ring and recording a count-out victory while Orndorff sold a back injury.
“Usually Hogan wrestled monsters, big guys who were very safe,” says Blair. “Paul was technically sound and safe, so Hogan liked working with him, but he was also as wide as Hogan and much more ‘ripped,’ which meant that he didn’t look out of place across from Hogan despite being shorter. They had a lot of chemistry.”
Orndorff headlined the first WrestleMania, taking on Hogan and Mr. T alongside tag-team partner Roddy Piper and “bodyguard” Bob Orton. Piper, Orton, and Orndorff were star talents in their primes, already masters of ring psychology, and they along with Hogan and referee Pat Patterson could hide the limitations of Mr. T and ringside “enforcer” Muhammad Ali. The trio of heels not only got the show’s most important match across the finish line, but the ending—Bob Orton accidentally knocking out Orndorff with the cast on his arm, enabling Hogan to pin him—also set up Orndorff’s good-guy turn on the inaugural edition of NBC’s Saturday Night’s Main Event. There, Piper and Orton, angry at Orndorff for the WrestleMania loss, turned on “Mr. Wonderful,” kicking off a feud with his two former allies that carried Orndorff through 1985 and into 1986.
Orndorff also fired then-manager Bobby Heenan, which led him to ally with Hulk Hogan in advance of 1986’s WrestleMania 2 as the pair (occasionally aided by Bruno Sammartino) found themselves opposed by Piper, Orton, Heenan and his new charge King Kong Bundy, Don Muraco and his manager Mr. Fuji, and seemingly every other notable bad guy on the WWF roster. Hogan bloodied and battered Bundy inside a steel cage at WrestleMania 2 while Orndorff and his opponent, Muraco, fought to a double count-out.
After that pay-per-view, relations between Hogan and Orndorff became increasingly tense, with Hogan ignoring and alienating Orndorff in a first draft of the way the Hulkster would upset “Macho Man” Randy Savage a few years later. In a tag match against King Kong Bundy and Big John Studd, Hogan accidentally bumped Orndorff off the apron, and Orndorff shockingly left Hogan to the not-so-tender mercies of the heels. Eventually Orndorff reentered the ring to fend off Bundy and Studd, raise the beaten-up Hogan’s hand, and then unceremoniously clothesline and pile-drive his now-erstwhile partner. It was a pitch-perfect pro wrestling betrayal, and for many of the new, young fans of early WWF, the first taste of the emotional stakes in the ring.
Box-office gold resulted from Orndorff’s dramatic betrayal, as he “rehired” Bobby Heenan and reverted to his natural heel persona. Orndorff found truly creative ways to get under the Hulkster’s skin—for example, entering the ring to Hogan’s iconic “Real American” theme music.
In August 1986, the feud drew 64,100 fans to Toronto’s CNE Stadium for a supercard that the WWF dubbed “The Big Event.” The pace of their main event was frenetic, with loads of “hulking up” and the usual referee chicanery and Heenan-driven cheating, but ended in a disqualification win for Hogan. More inconclusive results followed, both in singles bouts as well as tag matches featuring Roddy Piper teaming with Hogan and Adrian Adonis with Orndorff.
The feud, which raged into December 1986, enriched both Hogan and Orndorff but took a significant toll on the latter’s health and well-being. According to different sources, Orndorff was nursing a nerve injury either sustained while weightlifting and exacerbated in the ring or caused by a bad bump and allowed to worsen from there. Perhaps earlier memories of his peremptory firing by Ole Anderson for taking time off due to injury lingered in the back of his mind.
“What happened to cause the initial injury was Paul failing to tuck his chin before Hogan clotheslined him in a corner during one of their matches,” Blair recalls. “He sustained some damage to the vertebrae, and that damage never healed because he wouldn’t take any time off. I told him his spot was going to be secure—he had been main-eventing with Hogan almost since he came to the WWF—but he was making $25,000 to $30,000 a week during this feud and that’s where his mind was.”
In December, Hogan and Orndorff met in a steel cage match on Saturday Night’s Main Event. The match featured a “photo finish,” or perhaps more accurately a “photo false finish,” in which Orndorff and Hogan somehow escaped the ground and touched the cage at the same time, which led to the match being restarted and a “Hulked-up” Hogan mowing down Orndorff, dropping the big leg, and then exiting the cage. Orndorff would work some additional dates from January through March of 1987, but injuries finally forced him to miss the extremely lucrative WrestleMania III—disappointing given that Vince McMahon’s decision to try to fill the Pontiac Silverdome with 93,000 fans partially grew out of Orndorff and Hogan’s success drawing 64,000 to the Big Event in Toronto.
Still slowed by injuries after his return in June 1987, Orndorff found himself on the losing end of a feud with “Ravishing” Rick Rude, who had replaced him as the “cocky jock” in the Heenan Family and would inherit Orndorff’s status as the best worker among wrestlers with bodybuilder-caliber physiques. The feud led to Orndorff’s partnering with Hogan and several other top good guys against Rude, Andre the Giant, One Man Gang, and Butch Reed at the first Survivor Series in November 1987, only to have Rude eliminate him early in the match with a simple roll-up.
By 1988, Orndorff was 39 and had been involved in high-level athletics since his teenage years. Had he played in the NFL, he would’ve retired years earlier. So he chose, at the end of a four-year run in the main event of the most profitable wrestling organization in the world, to step away from the sport and operate a bowling alley he owned in Fayetteville, Georgia.
Of course, wrestling retirements are rarely permanent. Orndorff, always a fanatic in the gym, had rebuilt his physique aside from his atrophied right biceps, and began taking independent bookings before signing on with WCW in 1990. There, the 41-year-old officially began the journeyman phase of his career. He ended up within the large main-event face stable “Dudes With Attitudes,” a loose alliance of Sting, Lex Luger, the Steiners, and a considerably worse-for-wear Junkyard Dog. He wrestled solid matches against the likes of Arn Anderson and “Mean” Mark Callous—the future Undertaker—before embarking on stints in Herb Abrams’s colorful, albeit doomed, Universal Wrestling Federation, Jim Cornette’s Smoky Mountain Wrestling, and other independent promotions, in some cases working alongside or tagging with longtime friend B. Brain Blair.
WCW, the day-to-day operations of which were now overseen by Orndorff’s longtime admirer Bill Watts, brought “Mr. Wonderful” back in 1993, whereupon he engaged in a feud with Cactus Jack prior to winning a 16-man tournament to claim the vacant WCW World Television title. He then teamed with Rude, scoring a tag victory over Dustin Rhodes and Kensuke Sasaki at Slamboree 1993: A Legends’ Reunion.
From there, Orndorff found himself in a tag team with Paul Roma after Roma, perhaps the least-remembered member of the Four Horsemen faction, had turned heel and left the group. Their team, Pretty Wonderful, brought veteran heel Jody “Assassin No. 1” Hamilton out of a backstage training and advisory role to serve as their manager. Between late 1993 and early 1995, Pretty Wonderful had a pair of runs with the tag titles, trading the belts back and forth with Stars & Stripes (Del “the Patriot” Wilkes and Marcus Alexander Bagwell).
Orndorff’s final WCW story line consisted of him experiencing a crisis of confidence after losing a string of matches. Real-life psychic Gary Spivey “treated” him, in the process making him more vain and arrogant than ever before. By this point, however, no psychic treatment could keep Orndorff in the ring. Wracked by the continuing atrophy of the right side of his body, Orndorff was “retired” by Brian Pillman and the other Horsemen after he confronted them on a December 1995 episode of Nitro. Orndorff raised the ire of Pillman and his stablemates by reminding them he could’ve been a Horseman had he wanted to, perhaps a reference to how Orndorff might have enjoyed an extended run with the NWA World Championship had he never joined the WWF. Ric Flair and Arn Anderson ended Orndorff’s career with the spiked piledriver, his signature move, and Orndorff transitioned to a full-time role as a backstage agent and a trainer at the WCW Power Plant.
During his time as backstage agent, Mr. Wonderful retained his much-vaunted toughness. This time, Orndorff wasn’t fighting a horde of people in a bar alongside his brother or rolling around on the ground with a piece of Tony Atlas’s ear in his mouth. No, now he faced Leon “Vader” White, a 400-pound former NFL lineman and one of the most highly paid wrestlers on WCW’s roster.
The facts regarding this story have long been disputed, primarily by Vader. A few basic points, however, seem undeniable, confirmed by witnesses such as Terry Taylor and Bob Armstrong. Vader, whose tremendous in-ring abilities were offset by moodiness and unpredictability, arrived late to an event, explaining that he had spent the majority of the day at a photoshoot that WCW executive Eric Bischoff had asked him to attend. Orndorff, not wanting to hear about any of that, told Vader to get ready to do an interview. Vader didn’t take kindly to Orndorff’s tone and slapped the agent across the face, knocking him to the ground and nearly causing his head to collide with the side of a sharp steel tool shed.
“The thing you have to know about Paul is that he didn’t ever start fights, but he never passed one up and he always finished them,” says Blair. “If Paul had to fight, it was like a switch flipped in his brain and he went to work. He saved me once in a bar when I was playing a pinball game and some huge redneck was walking up on me, ready to fight, and laid the guy out with a single punch. I heard he did the same thing to [6-foot-8, 280-pound] Tampa teammate John Matuszak during a pick-up basketball game when Matuszak kept bumping into a friend of Paul’s.”
In the case of the Vader fight, Terry Taylor recalled that “Vader hit Paul first, and it turned into a brawl from there once Orndorff miraculously got Vader onto the ground.”
At this point, the stories diverge. Vader claims he refrained from striking Orndorff and allowed the older man to punch him in the face several times on the ground because he feared that retaliating might cost him his job, and also says that Orndorff kicked him wearing heavy boots. Other witnesses state that Orndorff was in either flip-flops or cheap shower shoes—which conforms with Blair’s description of Orndorff as someone so lazy about clothing that he refused to wear underwear and insisted on removing his pants with his shoes still on. In any case, Vader emerged from the incident a bloody mess and Orndorff received even more tough-guy credibility from the locker room.
“The only thing that I am thankful for is that if my body wasn’t hurt and I didn’t have all of that nerve damage on my right,” Orndorff remembered, “God knows I might be in jail for killing him.”
With this last legendary feud in the rearview mirror, “Mr. Wonderful” faded from view. He would return to the ring sporadically until Fall Brawl 2000, when he hurt his neck while delivering a piledriver during an elimination match that was stopped due to his injuries and resumed the next night on Nitro. After that, he appeared occasionally on WWF programming to discuss the good old days, accept induction into various Halls of Fame, and pique the memories of fans who recalled when he was the hottest heel in the business.
I asked Blair how “Mr. Wonderful” regarded his legacy.
“It’s simple,” Blair says. “He would want us to remember him as the toughest guy and the best-built guy.” The pro wrestling world is built on dreams and fantasy, but the real-life dreams of the athletes seldom come true. By Orndorff’s own metric, he was an undeniable success—he was the toughest guy in every locker room he walked into, and the best-built guy in an era of supernatural bodies. He might not have been perfect, but he was undeniably wonderful.
Oliver Lee Bateman is a journalist and sports historian who lives in Pittsburgh. You can follow him on Twitter @MoustacheClubUS and read more of his work at www.oliverbateman.com.