Hulkamania had run its course and Vince McMahon was on the hunt for a new hero who could defy all odds. Cue: Lex Luger and the Lex Express.
Oh, how it all went wrong…
Lex Express – The Lex Luger Experiment
In the 1980s, the onscreen charisma of Hulk Hogan and the behind-the-camera creative genius of Vince McMahon dominated the world of professional wrestling. The hype of “Hulkamania” from the original WrestleMania in 1984 running into Hogan’s “Last Match” (I know) at WrestleMania VIII was like nothing the business had ever seen before, making both men as well as McMahon’s WWF promotion very wealthy indeed.
However, as the early ’90s came upon us, things started to change. The superhero persona of “The Hulkster” began to wear thin. Seeing Hogan defy all odds and inevitably beat the latest super-villain again (and again) grew very tired. Hogan himself was more interested in trying his hand in Hollywood and disappeared after his “farewell” match with Sid Justice at WrestleMania VIII in ’92, leaving a big hole in the WWF main event picture. The Ultimate Warrior was put back in this role again yet did not live up to expectations. Randy Savage also had a run with the title. Still, despite his high standards of work rate and intensity, Savage could not deliver the same hysteria Hogan had supplied several years previously. Eventually, after a mediocre attempt at movies, Hogan was brought back in early 1993.
However, this was a different Hulkster. Due in part to the early ’90s steroid scandal, gone was his superhero physique. More importantly, also missing was the electric crowd responses to anything the red and yellow-clad star put forward. When Hogan controversially won the WWF title at WrestleMania IX and later dropped it back to the vast 565-pound Yokozuna in the summer of 1993, he disappeared again. Seemingly, the “Hulkamania” bubble and format of one massive star carrying the company had finally burst.
Meanwhile, down south in WCW, an upper-mid-card/semi-main event talent known for his great look was seeking new inspiration. A decorated champion for the NWA and Jim Crockett Promotions, Lex Luger worked to get his release from WCW in early 1992 with a view of joining Vince McMahon in Connecticut. However, Luger was not moving north to Titan Towers to wrestle, but rather be a part of McMahon’s new venture: a bodybuilding promotion, the WBF (World Bodybuilding Federation). Vince McMahon was putting out a regular TV show as well as building towards the first WBF pay-per-view event. Lex, as one of the hosts of the show, was looking to be a significant part of this. That was until he suffered an unfortunate injury in a motorcycle crash. By the time Luger was ready to return, the WBF had already closed its doors, making huge losses and going out of business.
While still under contract to Titan Sports, Lex Luger debuted as a wrestler at the 1993 Royal Rumble. With manager Bobby “The Brain” Heenan, Luger posed in front of mirrors as Heenan proclaimed the arrival of “The Narcissist.” Luger, here playing an arrogant, conceited bad-guy, looked incredible. He started upon a run of squash matches on WWF television, winning with a running forearm smash that knocked his opponents out clean. Weaving the real-life motorcycle accident into the story, the WWF explained that Luger had needed metal plates inserted into his forearm after the crash, thus making this mundane and straightforward move a deadly finisher.
Despite the Narcissist gimmick being close to Luger’s real-life personality, the character failed to resonate with the fans. With crowds (and wrestler physiques) shrinking in 1993, McMahon was looking for the next Golden Goose to sit atop of his promotional empire in the way Hogan did in the ’80s. Always favoring a large muscular fan-favorite as his champion, McMahon turned to Lex Luger and embarked on one of the biggest talent pushes his company would ever undertake.
With Yokozuna still as his champion, McMahon, along with his creative team, looked for ways to turn this unlikeable and arrogant Lex Luger into someone that would captivate the crowds and bring big attendance back to the WWF. What followed was a moment of genius, memorable to all those old enough to have witnessed it.
Yokozuna Bodyslam Challenge on the USS Intrepid
On July 4th, 1993, America’s birthday (as fans were regularly reminded), the “Japanese” monster Yokozuna issued a body slam challenge. The American-Samoan born Rodney Anoa’i would, through his evil manager Mr. Fuji, declare that no-one could body slam the 560-plus-pound Yokozuna. If anyone could, they would no doubt be in line for a title shot.
Filmed on the deck of the battleship USS Intrepid in searing heat, several WWF superstars would attempt to raise the giant champion off the floor and send him crashing onto the mat. Numerous names tried, from Crush, Macho Man Randy Savage, Jim Duggan, and more, all attempted this feat but were unsuccessful. A selection of American athletes also tried their hand, including stars from the NFL, but Yokozuna stood tall and steadfast. That was until the over-excitable Todd Pettengill pointed to the sky and an incoming helicopter. In a moment of pure early-’90s brilliance, our hero Lex Luger stepped from the copter and strode towards the ring. Gone were the sparkly Narcissist robes. In their place, Luger wore jeans and an American flag shirt. Stepping into the ring, he “felt the power of the thousands of fans who turned up on America’s birthday,” nailed Yokozuna with the six-inch plate in his forearm followed by scooping up the big man and slamming him straight to the mat. The crowd in attendance went crazy, as did Pettengill (ever the hyperbole).
WATCH: Many WWF superstars fail to bodyslam Yokozuna on the USS Intrepid on July 5, 1993. Cue The Lex Express hype machine.
Luger’s turn was complete. Now with Lex acting humble and citing his love for the good ol’ US of A, the McMahon promotional machine went into overdrive. This is where our tale takes a downturn.
The Lex Express
Lex Luger, in theory, had it all: an incredible look, an evil foreign monster to defeat, and, most importantly, Vince McMahon pulling out all the stops to get his hand-picked successor to Hulk Hogan over as the new hero. The match was set for the main event of SummerSlam ’93, and in the build-up, Luger would participate in a coach tour of America. Dubbed the Lex Expres” and covered in red, white, and blue, Lex’s coach was visually striking. Traveling from one town to the next, Luger met with fans outside his Lex Express in a bid to drum up support for his upcoming title match. A very novel concept, and one that would require the centerpiece to throw themselves into the role of hero entirely.
However, Lex struggled with this. Now carrying the moniker “Born in the USA,” Lex Luger, the new hope for the WWF, did not want to travel or sleep on the Lex Express coach all the time. Luger was expected to fly to some cities to meet the bus, and stay in hotels where possible. To add to this, the initial crowd reaction to Luger on the USS Intrepid almost seemed like a one-off. Crowds cheered for Luger, of course, he was decked out in the country’s colors and came to the ring waving a flag after all. But as McMahon would go into full crazed Vince mode on commentary, yelling about how incredible Luger is, the cheers and crowd reactions seemed a little lukewarm, at best.
Fans Show Support For A Rising Hero Not Named Lex Luger
Meanwhile, elsewhere on the card, Bret “Hitman” Hart was gaining real, pure emotion from the fans. Hart, pushed aside from the main event picture by Yokozuna’s title run and Hogan’s return in 1993, was viewed with sympathy by some fans. Others admired his genuine wrestling ability. His rivalry with the vicious Jerry Lawler during this period only seemed to elicit more cheers for The Hitman.
Whether it was one of the above or a combination of these reasons, Luger’s apparent coronation as “the guy” at SummerSlam ’93 got stalled. Entering into the hugely pushed main event with flags and patriotic music, Luger wrestled a slow and, at times, dull match with the immobile Yokozuna. He won the match, but via countout as he hit the giant WWF champion with his patented forearm sending him out of the ring and unable to return. What followed was surreal. As titles cannot change hands in the WWF via countout, Yokozuna remained champion. Yet Luger was made to rejoice with many other wrestlers, waving his flags as streamers and confetti filled the arena. A real party celebration for a guy who had just failed to do what he declared he would: dethrone the evil foreign champion.
This hurt Lex Luger just as much as not being as charismatic as the former champion he was attempting to replace. A reasonably bland challenger, in a somewhat dull match, without even having the saving grace of a significant and anticipated title change. As the months wore on from this, momentum slowed for Lex Express even further.
The organic cheers Bret Hart received grew louder, as the crowd reactions for the manufactured “American Hero” Luger grew smaller. While still being cheered, the responses for Luger were nowhere near the thunderous roars Hogan would receive in the previous decade, nor were they anywhere close to resembling the illicit pops Steve Austin would garner just four short years later. Vince McMahon had maybe one more chance with Lex, at the company’s biggest show of the year, WrestleMania.
WrestleMania X was the first WrestleMania not to feature Hulk Hogan since its inception. Perhaps concerned by this, Vince McMahon seemed to hedge his bets. At 1994’s Royal Rumble, with a WrestleMania title shot up for grabs to the winner, the WWF had a surprise conclusion planned. The two final competitors, Lex Luger and Bret Hart, tussled towards the ropes, and both spilled over onto the floor at the same time. Several referees argued over who had touched the ground first. One ref raised Luger’s hand, declaring him the winner as another official raised Bret’s hand, stating he was the victor. The difference in the crowd reactions told their own story, as when Hart’s hand got lifted in the air, the fans in attendance cheered loudly. When the other official argued Luger’s case, the response was far more subdued.
Eventually, the match was declared a draw with both Luger and Hart receiving separate title matches at the Madison Square Garden WrestleMania show. As with SummerSlam five months earlier, another opportunity to solidify Luger as the top star in the company got passed over.
WrestleMania X itself will always get remembered for two matches. The opener between Bret Hart and younger brother Owen Hart was a wrestling masterclass. Fueled by Owen’s treacherous turn on his brother a few months prior, Bret seemed to drag even more audience positivity towards him. Later in the event, Shawn Michaels and Razor Ramon put on one of the greatest ladder matches of all time. In the middle of these all-time classics, many other performers plied their trade in the undercard, and the first of the WWF Title matches took place. Another slow, plodding affair between Luger and Yokozuna ended with Lex getting disqualified by guest referee Mr. Perfect. In an attempt to gain Luger some sympathy, the decision was a very odd one. Luger followed Mr. Perfect to the back where cameras captured an exchange.
Now out of the title picture, Luger needed a reliable performance showcasing emotion and fury at being robbed of his title dream to regain momentum to his ailing character. Lex could not muster this as the backstage argument that ensued was dominated by the more charismatic Mr. Perfect.
Later in the show, in the main event, Bret “Hitman” Hart dragged a passable match out of Yokozuna on his way to winning the WWF title. As the ecstatic New York crowd celebrated, the final nail in the coffin of the Lex Express experiment struck home.
Aftermath – The Lex Express Experiment is Finished
With the failed attempt at SummerSlam ’93, the “draw” of the Royal Rumble in ’94, and the WWF Champion now being a hugely popular crowd favorite, Luger’s WWF main event days were over. Despite his major push, Lex Luger never won a singles title in the WWF.
Was it down to Luger’s lack of charisma? Or was it his unwillingness to throw himself into the role? Perhaps it was McMahon’s hesitance to pull the trigger after all of the promotion he gave Luger. Not to mention, Bret Hart was simply more popular. Whatever the case may be, Luger’s WWF run was very anticlimactic. Lasting only another year with the company, Luger returned to WCW in a big surprise on the first-ever episode of Monday Nitro, taking a hefty pay cut in the process.
Speaking with WWE.com twenty years later, Lex Luger opened up about his feelings about the Lex Express and this time of his career.
“It was a great opportunity,” Luger admits. “Obviously, you don’t look forward to being on the road for six weeks away from your family, but it was handled in a great way.”
“I was called into the office to meet with Mr. McMahon, which he doesn’t do very often. I walked in as The Narcissist and I walked out 20 minutes later as the red, white and blue good guy. How does that happen? I looked at Vince and said, ‘Vince, I know you’re really good at this, but how does a guy that’s been posing in mirrors as The Narcissist turn into an all-American good guy in one clean swoop?’ He said, ‘Lex, trust me. The people are going to love it.'”
When the day had come and it was time for Luger to transform from the Narcissist into an American hero, Luger was feeling trepidatious. “I was supposed to fly in on a helicopter in my red, white and blue shirt and blue jeans and cowboy boots and save the day. They had us standby down the Hudson River at this helicopter pad with this guy that was a Vietnam helicopter pilot. We just jumped in the helicopter. I wasn’t even strapped in. The helicopter pilot kind of wanted to show off to me. I was afraid I was going to fall into the Hudson River. I was holding on for dear life.
“It was kind of nerve-wracking to think this was live. We didn’t have a do-over. I was trying to focus on that when I slid in the ring, but the cowboy boots I had on were worn on the bottoms and I felt like I was on roller skates on the mat. I had no footing! I was scared to death. You ever see those cartoons with The Road Runner where the refrigerator lands on top of Wile E. Coyote and he’s flattened like an ink spot? That’s what I pictured as Yokozuna came staggering out of the corner. I looked so excited after he got slammed because I was so relieved! That was a combination of relief and excitement.
After signing autographs all over the country on his Lex Express bus and getting some interesting reactions on the road (“there was honking, waving and some even gave me the one-finger salute!”), there was one instance that stood out for Luger the most.
“They wanted to get a photo of me posing with my shirt off in front of Mount Rushmore, but all these biker guys were out there. They surrounded the bus. We couldn’t get me outside, because all we had was the bus driver and my tour guy. We didn’t have security on the bus. So they had me climb out of the fire escape hatch and they got a picture of me standing on top of the bus in front of Mount Rushmore hitting a double bicep shot. It was very cool.”
Lex spent a great amount of time away from family during this time. While there were some fun moments, Luger admits, “There were times I’d rather have been at home, sitting poolside, getting a tan or hanging out with my family for a barbeque. But they kept me busy, which was actually good. We all knew the big picture — it was six weeks to SummerSlam and then I’d have plenty of time off. Vince told me I could take a couple of weeks to be back home, so I kind of had the carrot dangling at the end of those six weeks.”
As for not winning the championship after the long buildup to a WWE Title match against Yokozuna at SummerSlam, was Luger let down? He admits, “I wasn’t made any promises. I really wasn’t thinking about that at all. I was thrilled to be a part of it. I will tell you this: I think that Yokozuna was one of the greatest champions ever. When he walked into the building and came down the aisle, we used to call him the showstopper. For me, personally, I was honored to be in the main event against him at SummerSlam.”
He continued, “To this day, people constantly bring it up. The youngsters from then are now in their late twenties and early thirties and they act like little kids when they talk to me. ‘Man, I saw you at a shopping mall on your Lex Express tour!’ It definitely has an impact to this day and it was great to be a part of it.”
It’s hard not to wonder what would have happened if Luger won the WWF title in 1994. Maybe we would not have had Bret Hart’s main event run, which in turn means we would not have had one of the matches that made Stone Cold Steve Austin with the double-turn three years later at WrestleMania XIII. Perhaps too, we wouldn’t have had Lex jumping ship and walking out on the first Nitro with the first shot of the “Monday Night War” being delivered. Maybe the title win is what Luger needed all along, the missing cog in his wheel that would have got the fans behind him as McMahon so desired. We will never really know.
Lex Luger was brilliant to watch in his early days in the NWA, Jim Crockett Promotions, and WCW. His later WCW run is also filled with great moments with the nWo and beating Hogan on Nitro for their version of the World Title. However, with the WWF, it was just not meant to be.
All aboard the Lex Express! If you’re looking for a hero, look no further than Lex Luger!
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