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.
Not long before, Anderson saw the movie Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior and was inspired to where he wanted to create a wrestling character based on the character. Meltzer said Anderson reportedly picked Laurinaitis because he was the strongest looking of the four guys he saw. Laurinaitis debuted for Georgia Championship Wrestling under the Road Warrior gimmick and was put over as a monster.
“The first thing I needed to do was get my image and outfit together – quickly,” Laurinaitis said. “For whatever reason, I decided my Road Warrior wardrobe would be a little jean vest, black leather gloves sunglasses, jean shorts and to top it all off, a Village People-style black police cap. It seemed right at the time, but looking back, man, was I off.”
When the Georgia territory wars began between Anderson and former majority owner/partner Jim Barnett, Anderson sent his new protege to Charlotte to protect him by working for Jim Crockett Promotions in Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling. During his time, Laurinaitis underwent a wrestling education by stepping in the ring with legends such as Ric Flair, Ricky Steamboat and Jerry Brisco.
However, Laurinaitis quit after working a few months as enhancement talent while wrestling nine times a week for $150 and a watered down version of the Road Warrior gimmick under the name Joe Laurin. Laurinaitis returned to Minneapolis and wasn’t shy about telling everyone about his bad experience and perception of how Anderson misled him. Word about Laurinaitis’ displeasure spread around the closely guarded wrestling community and a short time later Anderson called his home.
“I wanted to reach through the phone and wring his neck,” Laurinaitis said.
“You’ve got a lot of balls calling this house,” he told Anderson. “I want to break your neck man.”
Meanwhile, during Laurinaitis’ time in GCW and Mid-Atlantic, and after three months of training, Hegstrand made his pro wrestling debut for Al Tomko in the Vancouver territory with an evil German gimmick, Crusher Von Haig. This lasted two weeks, where Hegstrand wrestled three matches, and he said he threw up after every one of them. The low pay and being so far away from home led to him also returning to Minneapolis.
Laurinaitis, Hegstrand and Rood were reunited at Gramma B’s bouncing, trying to figure out which direction their wrestling careers were headed. Not much time passed when Anderson again called Sharkey. He was on another talent search.
“I got to thinking maybe there was something I could do to get a tag team, because I was thinking about a Road Warriors tag team,” Anderson said in the shoot interview. “I said, can you get a couple of guys up there? Pretty good size. Look good. Pretty fair athletes. And I want you to line some guys up for me if you will and I’ll pick two guys out.”
According to a shoot interview, Anderson said one guy stood out from the 15 guys Sharkey provided. After the first few prospects were over the top with praise and respect, the 10th guy, Mike Hegstrand was the opposite.
“He said, ‘You don’t look too damn tough to me,” Anderson recalled. “I got back to Sharkey and said I want one guy, and that’s the guy who gave me shit about not looking too tough, and that was Mike Hegstrand.”
Anderson said he needed another guy and paired him with Laurinaitis because he was familiar with him from using him before and they were buddies. So he put Laurinaitis and Hegstrand together and named them The Road Warriors.
Laurinaitis tells a different version of the story, saying Anderson was flipping through the photos during his return trip to meet Sharkey and one of them caught his eye. He says Anderson saw a photo of Hegstrand and thought it was Laurinaitis. He held the two photos side by side and asked, “Hey, where’d you get this picture of Joe?” When told of his mistake Anderson replied, “There’s two of them? Where was this guy the first time I was here?”
“Would the two of you be interested in coming down together?” Anderson asked Laurinaitis and Hegstrand. “We could make you into a team. I’ll make you my Road Warriors.”
Still bitter about his first experience with Anderson, Laurinaitis asked, “Are you going to take care of me this time?”
“You two come down here and I’m going to make you my champions.”
There were talks of a fictitious tournament where Ellering was being positioned to manage the tag team of Arn Anderson, and Matt Borne, who would be named National Tag Team Champions. However, not long before they were to become champions, Borne was arrested on an accusation of statutory rape and fired.
“When Borne was let go, Ole couldn’t see me in any other light,” Arn Anderson said. “That’s where the tunnel vision comes in. So he went up to The Gym and he found The Road Warriors in Minneapolis, which was the break of a lifetime for those guys.”
Needing a replacement team to wear the gold, Anderson made the return trip to Minneapolis. According to Meltzer, Sharkey suggested teaming Hegstrand with Rood but Anderson pointed to Laurinaitis and Hegstrand and said, “You and you, you start next week.” Then he pointed to Rood and Darsow and said, “You start in another week or two.”
Either way, the pair was put together, but there was one element missing. Anderson said he needed a manager for his new tag team.
“At the time I had a kid working for me named Paul Ellering,” Anderson said. “I wasn’t doing anything with him and he was working the bottom matches. So, I told Paul to do what I say or I was going have to let him go. I want him to be the manager of The Road Warriors.”
Laurinaitis knew Ellering, who was a former junior powerlifting champion and deadlifted 745 pounds. He had a decent in-ring career and cut a strong promo, aided by a genius IQ of 162, but suffered numerous knee injuries and wanted to transition to a career outside the ring.
Now it was time for names. Anderson recalled Laurinaitis’ physical debut match against Randy Barber and called him Animal. While figuring out a name for Hegstrand, he said, “Well, I fly around like a hawk.” The name stuck.
On June 11, 1983, Hegstrand and Laurinaitis arrived with their manager Paul Ellering for their Georgia Championship Wrestling debut at TBS Studios on Techwood Drive. When they arrived, The Road Warriors were under the impression a title run was a future plan, but as they were putting on gear for their debut, Anderson surprised them by handing them the NWA National Tag Team Championship belts.
“Having the NWA National Tag Team title was a huge deal,” Animal said. “It immediately established us with the fans as legitimate forces to be reckoned with, and the boys in the back realized we were going to be around awhile, too.”
The great Gordon Solie introduced The Road Warriors as the new National Tag Team champions, with the live studio crowd greeting the physical specimens with uncertainty. The Road Warriors looked like legitimate bad asses. Learning from his previous fashion faux pas, Laurinaitis bought matching black leather chaps with long, black wrestling tights, leather gloves, vests and hats for a biker gimmick. They hadn’t yet adopted Iron Man as their entrance music and wore crew cuts as they hadn’t yet shaved their heads – Hegstrand would come up with that idea soon after. They also didn’t wear face paint yet. Bill Watts would make that suggestion a short time later.
Their first opponents were Randy Barber, who worked against Animal in his Georgia Championship Wrestling singles debut, and Joe Young. During the match, Solie and Ellering worked the TV audience by talking about The Road Warriors path of destruction in the past and during the fictional tournament. Their commentary set the tone for the reputation of annihilation that was also unfolding in the ring while offering no hint this was their first match as a team.
The cameraman missed part of the finish as an unnamed Hawk dove through the ropes after a tag (which was off screen), and landed on a prone Young with a splash for the pinfall at 2:03, as counted by 23-year old referee Nick Patrick. In fact, neither member ofThe Road Warriors was named during their impressive, and short, debut.
“I told them to just work 2 or 3 minutes,” Anderson said of The Road Warriors debut match. “If they are going to throw a punch, just throw one punch and let the other guy sell the hell out of it and then you beat the guy. That’s what we did and they got over like a son of a gun.”
“Before the match, Ole tells us ‘Go out there and just kick the shit out of these guys because you don’t know how to work and if they’ve got a problem with it, they can go get a job somewhere else,’” Hawk said in a 2000 shoot interview. “So we did genuinely beat the shit out of them and afterwards we were gentlemen enough to say we were sorry.”
“I could see something in Hawk and Animal that comes along once a generation and personifies what this business is about,” Ellering said in a shoot interview. “They had the look and had the charisma at a time when the business was in transition. It took about a month and I knew this was something special.”
Wrestling fans had never seen anything like this in-your-face, brutal style of pure destruction. The new school of wrestling was launched with the expansion of wrestling on cable and The Road Warriors defined new school.
The pair were green to be sure but over time they, along with Ellering, earned plenty of green for an unprecedented in-ring style, promo ability and great depth of tag team talent to work with around the world.
Animal and Hawk worked together for 20 years, but it was this first match for The Road Warriors that unknowingly launched the tag team careers of two men, who went on to become recognized by many as the greatest team in wrestling history.
SOURCE: Tributes II: Remembering More of the World’s Greatest Professional Wrestlers by Dave Meltzer, The Road Warriors: Danger, Death and the Rush of Wrestling, by Joe “Animal” Laurinaitis & Andrew William Wright, Road Warrior Animal Full Shoot Interview (Hannibal TV YouTube channel), Paul Ellering shoot interview (Wrestling Shoots YouTube channel – The audio only clip may have come from a 2009 shoot interview with RF Video), Ole Anderson shoot interview, (Wrestling Shoots YouTube channel), Arn Anderson shoot interview (Wrestling Shoots YouTube channel), Road Warriors shoot interview, (Capta1n Krunch YouTube channel)