Published on June 13th, 2017 | by Ron Matejko0
June 11 marked the 34th anniversary of the TV debut of The Road Warriors. Little did anyone know this was the beginning of a historic run that would result in The Road Warriors eventually becoming largely recognized as the greatest tag team in pro wrestling history.
Read below for an oral history leading up to that landmark debut match.
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The Road Warriors: The Back Story Behind Their Formation and TV Debut
The duo of Hawk (Michael Hegstrand) and Animal (Joe Laurinaitis) first worked together in the ring for their debut as The Road Warriors but their friendship started a few years earlier in an auspicious way.
The eventual lifelong friends knew of each other from their reputations as bouncers in Minneapolis, but officially met in a local gym when Hegstrand walked up to Laurinaitis and surprised the big guy by slapping his future tag team partner in the chest during an incline bench-press rep of 365 pounds.
“I started laughing,” Laurinaitis said in his bio, The Road Warriors: Danger, Death and the Rush of Wrestling. “I knew this guy. It was Mike Hegstrand, the future Road Warrior Hawk. Even though we didn’t really know each other that well, we were both bouncers on the local scene with reputations of not taking any crap. Back then, guys like us were aware of each other.”
The pair began working out together, albeit with different goals as Laurinaitis aimed to add mass and strength while Hegstrand aimed for a quick workout while getting ripped. This difference in philosophy was evident by their in-ring physiques, as both were huge but with distinctly different body types.
At the time, Hegstrand was bouncing at a dumpy local strip joint called Roaring ‘20s and was known for a short temper. Laurinaitis bounced at a place called Thumpers. Eventually, both would work together at a Downtown Minneapolis bar called Gramma B’s, a job that changed the course of their lives.
Gramma B’s was huge – a two-story building that held between 3,000 and 4,000 a night. The bar also featured other bouncers who went on to successful wrestling careers including Rick Rood (Rude), Scott Norton, Barry Darsow (a.k.a. Smash of Demolition among other gimmicks), John Nord (Nord the Barbarian/Berzerker) and Scott Simpson (Nikita Koloff). There was no shortage of action for the burly bouncers, including a regular clientele of bikers who were told they couldn’t wear their colors inside, much to the dismay of some.
“Once, a guy didn’t want to take his colors off, so we took his ass upstairs and proceeded to grab him by his ankles, turn him upside down, and shake him up and down until he agreed,” Laurinaitis said. “You had to see it.”
Former junior heavyweight wrestler Eddie Sharkey was a bartender at Gramma B’s. He had a decent in-ring career, including a feud with Danny Hodge, but was better known at this time for training Jesse Ventura and Bob Backlund. Sharkey himself was trained by Boris Malenko, Bob Geigel and Joe Scarpello and eventually trained more than 60 wrestlers who had careers in the business. Sharkey also had a reputation as a hustler, who made money selling items door-to-door under a long trench coat.
He was also known for committing career suicide by shooting up the office of Verne Gagne after the influential AWA owner/promoter hit on his wife, who wrestled as Princess Little Cloud.
“We laughed our asses off when he’d tell us that one,” Laurinaitis said.
The AWA, which was based out of Minneapolis, impacted the group in another way. In 1982, the territory was hot, with the original version of Hulkamania running wild. The Hulk Hogan vs Nick Bockwinkle series of matches sparked big business for the AWA. Laurinaitis had a chance meeting with Hogan at a local gym and decided to check out one of their matches at the St. Paul Civic Center. He was greeted by a rabid crowd of 20,000, which left a lasting impression.
Also, the group of bouncers looked at guys like Greg Gagne, Jim Brunzell and Crusher Blackwell and knew they were bigger and stronger than these wrestlers who were positioned as stars. Wrestling seemed like easy money.
According to Dave Meltzer in his book “Tributes II, Remembering More of the World’s Greatest Professional Wrestlers,” Hegstrand took an interest in becoming a wrestler and approached Jesse Ventura, who owned a local gym. Ventura turned him down but mentioned Sharkey, who initially turned down Hegstrand until a cash offer changed his mind.
Laurinaitis had a different version saying Sharkey was impressed by the nightly displays of physical dominance by the group of bouncers and approached them about starting a wrestling camp and wanting to train them to become pro wrestlers. Animal initially declined as he needed a good job to support a new child, and was preparing for a tryout with the USFL New Jersey Generals. He changed his mind after talking with the other guys, figuring at the least, the wrestling camp would be good cardio training for the football tryout. Hegstrand was among the group that agreed to let Sharkey train them.
After a few months of training, Sharkey sent photos of his prized students to his friend Ole Anderson, who was a minority owner and booker of Georgia Championship Wrestling. Anderson’s parents lived nearby and Sharkey hoped he would like what he saw in the photos and pay a visit the next time he was in town to see his parents.
Anderson did that, stopping by Gramma B’s and saw the crew display their physical dominance over rowdy patrons on a particularly busy night. He had a brief meeting with Laurinaitis and Rood and invited them to Georgia for a future tryout. Anderson called a few weeks later and invited the pair to Atlanta in late 1982, which resulted in both being hired.